Excerpt #1 - THE PRINCE'S SON
Nessa froze. Her heart stopped beating, and then thudded so loudly she was certain whoever was there must hear it. Surely it had to be one of their party slipping away to relieve themselves? It could not be either Rustam or Sala unless they had circled around beyond the horses, and why would they?
She stumbled an involuntary step back, gave a little cry as metal dug into her back, then realised she was pressed up against one of the ribs of the wagon.
The shadowy figure stopped, appeared to be sniffing the air.
That made up her mind. No human scented like that. She did not know what it was, but it wasn’t one of them.
The horses began to move restlessly, tossing their heads and tugging at their tethers. Clamping her teeth shut against the scream that bubbled at the back of her throat, Nessa dropped to her knees and scuttled crab-wise underneath the body of the wagon. Silently she cursed her bulky gown, wishing for the first time for a sensible split skirt such as Princess Annasala wore for riding.
The wretched fabric caught on something and she fumbled in the dark, finally grasping a handful and giving it a hefty wrench until it parted with a frighteningly loud rip.
Nessa fell forward. She curled up and rolled like a child tumbling down a grassy slope, fetching up against a pile of tack and saddle blankets. Spitting goddess only knew what from her mouth, she struggled to her feet and in ten steps was at the side of the startled guard commander.
“There’s something out there,” she whispered urgently, “near the horses.”
The commander, an older man named Gresham, opened his mouth to answer and Nessa could already hear the soothing words ready to placate the highly strung young noblewoman. Fool! They would be too late!
But her warning was backed up by the scream of a horse.
“Arms!” yelled Gresham and jabbed his finger at six men. “Guard the ladies!” he ordered and took off running after the rest of his men as they sprinted towards the picket lines.
Nessa watched them disappear beyond the circle of firelight before glancing around for her sister. Julin and Enya huddled near the fire with their arms around each other. Sala’s maid and the cook hovered anxiously near them. Screams and yells sounded from behind the wagons.
An officious young guardsman intercepted Nessa before she had taken more than four steps. “Please stay where we can see you, my lady. It would be better if you moved nearer the fire.”
She knew he was only trying to protect her, but Nessa wanted to see what was going on. Disgruntled, she went to stand with the other women, wondering what Princess Annasala was doing at that moment. Certainly not cowering by the fire with a guard of six men to protect her.
“Whatever were you doing out there alone?” demanded her sister. “You might have been killed!”
“And just look at your gown, Lady Nessa,” cried Enya, letting go of Julin and kneeling down beside Nessa. The girl lifted two layers of rent fabric to show Julin, and then squealed suddenly as the shadow of a guardsman fell across them.
“Be gone,” she scolded. “Lady Nessa is not fit for the likes of you to see.”
“Oh really, Enya. It’s just a tear,” Nessa protested, but her sister stepped closer to protect her modesty.
“Nessa, I don’t think you should go outside there again without an escort. I certainly won’t be, and nor will Enya. What were you thinking of?”
The ruckus beyond the wagons had subsided, and a tense hush fell in its place. Nessa peered out into the dark. Rustam, where are you, my love?
Excerpt #2 - THE PRINCE'S SON
When Rustam gave a small whistle, the bay stallion ghosted out of the early morning shadows.
Rustam ran a hand along the stallion’s muscular crest, his fingers sliding through the cascade of black mane to the warm sleekness of the silky hair beneath. “I really hate to do this, boy, but you’ll have to stay behind this time.”
A pair of huge, dark eyes regarded Rustam with reproach before Fleetfoot shook his head vigorously, long strands of mane whipping from side to side to slap Rustam sharply across the face. “Ouch! I’m sorry, really I am, but even you can’t climb a goat trail; I need you here, to keep the others safe. They can’t look after themselves the way you can.”
Fleetfoot heaved a large sigh and rubbed his forehead against Rustam’s shoulder. Leaning into the equine embrace, Rustam caught sight of one of the grooms rolling his eyes to the sky. Crazy, that’s what they thought he was. He smiled privately and kept his silence. It wasn’t their fault they couldn’t see the tiny bit of magic flowing between him and the magnificent animal. When the lads talked to their charges they communicated with tone of voice and a few easy words, achieving a level of trust and affection any human might gain with a horse. But for Rustam’s entire life it had been so much more than that. The ease with which, even as a child, he’d been able to catch the naughtiest ponies; the calmness he’d instilled in the wild black mare no one else could handle, and the way that over the years of their service together Nightstalker had always sensed where he was, and when she was needed.
It wasn’t until they journeyed into Shiva that Rustam understood it to be an attribute of his elven blood; he was a Horsemaster in more than mere words. Now, with a Shivan bred steed, that link was even closer.
“You know they think I’m soft in the head for talking to you, don’t you?” Fleetfoot snorted; horsey laughter if ever Rustam had heard it. He slapped the hard-muscled red shoulder. “It’s not funny!” He shook his head, drawing the dark thread of his thoughts back together. “No, nothing about this is funny.”
He stared into the liquid depths of eyes turned wary. “I need you to keep this lot safe, hear me? I don’t know how long we’ll be gone, or if you’ll be secure here. Watch over them, for me, yes?”
Fleetfoot snorted again, head nodding up and down. Rustam draped an arm over the stallion’s withers and bent forward to bury his face in the abundant mane. With his eyes shut, he inhaled the glorious scent of horse, and felt his muscles relax. He was leaving the caravan with the best possible guard he could arrange, in the absence of a small army.