The chosen, p.1
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       The Chosen, p.1

         Part #9.70 of Elder Races series by Thea Harrison
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The Chosen

  From New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Thea Harrison...

  A Wolf on the hunt... Wulfgar Hahn, better known as the Wolf of Braugne, is a man on a mission. Determined to avenge the murder of his brother, he stops at Camaeline Abbey to meet with the Chosen of Camael, goddess of the Hearth. Unfortunately, it appears the Chosen wants nothing to do with him.

  A leader in disguise... Captivated by the Wolf of Braugne despite herself, Lily poses as an unassuming priestess in order to learn more about this ruthless man. But things are not as they seem, and after foiling an assassination attempt, Lily must decide if Wulf is the destroyer from her visions, or the hero of her dreams.

  A choice to be made... As war looms on the horizon, passion sparks between them, but an enduring relationship between a soldier on the march and a leader who reveres hearth and home is impossible—or is it? Among the swirling snows of the winter Masque, the gods and goddesses of the Elder Races dance, and love will find a way..

  The Chosen


  Thea Harrison

  The Chosen

  Copyright © 2017 by Teddy Harrison LLC

  ISBN 13: 978-1-947046-93-1

  EPUB Edition

  Cover Design by Frauke Spanuth

  This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the writer’s imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locale or organizations is entirely coincidental.

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced, scanned or distributed in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

  ~ 1 ~

  Magic blew in on the winter wind.

  As Lily stepped through great iron-bound doors and onto the slippery dock outside, the wind tugged at a lock of her hair. She breathed in deeply. The air was cold and damp, and the briny scent of the sea filled her nostrils.

  Margot and the rest of the group followed her, instinctively clustering together for warmth.

  Inside Camaeline Abbey, a rotation of priestesses kept a constant web of protections cast over the people who had taken shelter within, as well as the entire island. Camael was the goddess of the Hearth, and the abbey was full of brightness, warmth, companionship, and comfort.

  Inside, the magic seemed little more than a nuisance.

  Beyond the abbey walls was a different story. Here in the open, the atmosphere felt edgier, more perilous, as if imbued with malice.

  Margot paused by Lily’s elbow, glancing at the sky.

  Damned weather magic, Margot said telepathically. The caster has a hell of a range. It feels diffuse, lacking a central direction. I can’t get a clear read on where it’s originating from—can you?

  Over the past six months, she and Margot had developed the habit of carrying on telepathic conversations. As long as they stood within twenty or so feet of each other, they could share insights and compare opinions in complete privacy. It was a useful trait, especially when they were around other people.

  Frowning, Lily spoke slowly, feeling her way through the problem. I would need to travel some distance to be sure, but I think it’s likely several weather mages are working together. If they’re scattered across the countryside, we wouldn’t be able to track the magic back to a single source.

  Several weather mages working to cast banned magic? Margot’s jaw tightened. Sometimes I hate it when you make sense.

  Lily smiled at her ruefully. You only hate it when you don’t like my conclusions.

  True enough. Margot made a face. Who do you think is behind it, Guerlan or Braugne?

  Tension pinched the back of Lily’s neck, threatening to turn into a stress headache. I truly have no idea. It could be coming from either one—or perhaps even another kingdom is behind it.

  Margot gave her a brief, grim glance. Curtly she gestured to the group, and everyone settled into their assigned positions.

  Shivering, Lily tucked the errant strand of hair behind her ear with a gloved hand as she stepped into place. Along with the rest, she turned her attention to the large, squat barge that had launched from the docks of the coastal town of Calles.

  The barge’s blunt prow crunched through the thin sheets of ice floating on the shallow sea around the island of Camaeline Abbey.

  Winter solstice was still a week and a half away. Usually it was a season of celebration, culminating in the Masque of the Gods. This year the weather had turned unseasonably bitter, fueled over the past month by the bouts of magic cast by the unknown mages, and nobody felt like celebrating anything.

  Within the next moon, the water between the island and the mainland would be frozen solid for the first time in generations. According to reports, the harvest in all the six kingdoms of Ys had been sparse, and now they faced lethal temperatures.

  Lily thought of the small farmsteads dotting the countryside. If the weather mages weren’t stopped, many of them would lose much-needed livestock this winter. Probably family members as well.

  There was a reason why weather magic was banned. According to international treaty, weather mages were supposed to cast only under royal decree to avert natural disaster.

  With Braugne and Guerlan at the brink of war, the implications behind the current weather spells were frightening. Had the king of Guerlan broken treaties and brought a cursed winter to Ys, or had Braugne?

  Whoever was behind the weather casting, they had to realize they would be killing people. And if that wasn’t bad enough, now the barge that plowed so inexorably toward them carried the infamous Wolf of Braugne himself to the abbey’s doorstep, along with a company of his armored soldiers.

  They had ridden over the snow-covered horizon just after midday. If they had arrived a little later, they could have walked across the narrow strait. Instead, the soldiers manning the oars had to work to force the barge through the floating sheets of ice.

  Lily glanced at her companions. Margot stood at the forefront of the group, watching as the barge drew closer. The young redheaded prime minister of the Camaeline Council was a striking sight in her fur-lined ivory cloak and matching gloves.

  Six priestesses stood with Margot, three on either side, the women flanked by armed Defenders of the Hearth. Lily was the middle priestess on the left, just another woman among others.

  Unlike Margot, nothing about her stood out. Her cloak was a humble brown, although thank the gods, it was lined and warm enough, and underneath it she wore sturdy winter boots, black trousers, and a thigh-length quilted winter jacket over a plain white tunic.

  She was shorter than Margot, and darker, with olive skin, brown eyes, and fine brown hair that refused to grow past her shoulder blades or remain respectably confined by pins. In the summer, she spent as much time as she could outside, often barefoot, and the sun had tanned her to a deep nut brown.

  There were a thousand women like her—a hundred thousand—working in farmers’ fields, minding shops, and tending to the highborn in their manors and castles.

  Pleased with her anonymity, she tucked both hands inside her cloak. She was also pleased to see the other priestesses standing with the same straight-backed pride as Margot, as did the armed Defenders who flanked them.

  In direct contrast to their composed appearance, the air churned around the group, filled with images only Lily could see.

  What she called the psyches of each individual hovered above and behind their heads, like shadows thrown on a wall.

  When she and Margot had been children in the abbey school, Margot’s psyche had been that of a gaunt, starving figure, and it had overshadowed her youthful beauty, at least in Lily’s eyes. No one else had been awa
re of it, and as Margot came from a wealthy, noble family, they would have been hard-pressed to believe Lily if she had told them.

  Things had changed once Margot accepted the newly created position of prime minister of the abbey council. As soon as she had a place and a function where she was loved and needed, her psyche had filled out. No longer starving, it had turned fierce and protective.

  The psyches of the other priestesses and the Defenders were restless with banked aggression, nerves, and outright fear, but none of it showed in their set faces.

  Behind them, the gates to the abbey had been closed and barred in compliance with the Chosen’s orders. The gates were set into ancient stone walls that bordered the cliffs at the island’s edge.

  In the nearest watchtower, members of the abbey council, other priestesses, workers, and townsfolk watched the impending confrontation through tall windows.

  The stage for the meeting was set and the audience assembled. If nothing else, this should make interesting theater.

  Within a few moments, the barge had neared enough that Lily could make out the features of various soldiers. They stood at parade rest.

  The man at their head captured her attention.

  The Wolf of Braugne was younger than she had expected, perhaps not yet thirty. He stood with his broadsword drawn, the tip planted in the planks between his feet, both gauntleted hands wrapped around the hilt. His dark hair was windswept, his hard face weathered from the elements.

  Stories of him had tumbled across the six kingdoms. They had grown more horrific with each retelling. At midsummer, the Wolf’s brother, the ruler and lord of Braugne, had died in a catastrophic avalanche that collapsed a salt mine as well as destroying a portion of the nearby town.

  Then the first whispers about the event had reached the abbey, followed by other voices that grew stronger and louder. People started saying the tragic avalanche had been no accident. In an act of pure, calculated evil, the Wolf had murdered his brother, the lord of Braugne, and even now he marched across Ys in a bid for power, executing those who would oppose him, including their children and babies, and burning their homes to the ground.

  At first glance, he didn’t appear to live up to his legend. He didn’t have glowing red eyes, nor did he tower head and shoulders above his men. Lily was a little disappointed, to be honest. She’d been fascinated by the idea of a forked tongue, cloven hooves, and tail.

  But no, this was an entirely human-looking man. While he had the strong figure and erect carriage of an experienced soldier, he wasn’t exactly handsome either. In fact, he could blend into a crowd on market day and she might brush past without ever giving him a second glance.

  Then, as the barge drew close enough to dock, she looked at the Wolf’s dark, glittering gaze and thought no.

  She would never brush past this man without a second glance. His still figure housed an immensely forceful presence, as if a blazing meteor had been lightly cloaked in flesh. He was a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a juggernaut wearing a mild expression as he paused to turn his attention to a tiny principality on his crusade for total domination of Ys.

  If the rumors were to be believed.

  She drew in a deep breath, and almost without realizing it, she pushed back her hood as she stared at him and his men.

  The psyches of the soldiers on the barge roiled and heaved with as much restlessness as the abbey’s group on the narrow dock. The images were ghostly and transparent, making it impossible to tell them apart when the physical men stood so close together.

  Collectively, they shimmered with fierce, eager energy, as if they were a pack of hunting hounds held on a tight leash, but she couldn’t get a specific reading on the Wolf. She would need to see him separate from the others before she could tell anything for sure.

  Folding her lips tight, she ran her gaze along the edges of the group, trying at least to glean some information that might be useful.

  In direct contrast to Other lands she had read about, most of the populations in Ys were human. Vampyres, the Light and Dark Fae, the Djinn, and others of the Demonkind such as medusae, ghouls, and trolls, were mostly entertaining tales from far distant places. But Lily did see the stern visage and sleek, pointed ears of an Elf among the Braugne soldiers, along with another male who looked as if he might be part Wyr.

  As she picked up random details, she narrowed her eyes. Like the waiting group from the abbey, the troops on the barge presented a united front, but not all was well among the Wolf’s men.

  Lily, put your hood up! Margot exclaimed telepathically. I don’t want him to see your face!

  Lily’s reply was distracted. Hiding under a hood won’t offer any protection from what is coming.

  You don’t know that! Margot snapped.

  Lily glanced at her friend. With all the visions the goddess has seen fit to send me, actually, I do.

  As Margot’s mouth tightened, a rough, powerful voice rolled easily over the water and announced, “Wulfgar Hahn, Protector of Braugne, sends his regards to the Chosen of Camaeline Abbey.”

  The voice startled her. She had been so intent on trying to sort through the confusing melee of visions and arguing telepathically with Margot, she hadn’t noticed that the older, brawny solder had stepped forward until he had spoken.

  The soldier bowed to Margot.

  Wulfgar Hahn did not bow. He watched with an impassive expression.

  “You are mistaken,” Margot replied, all ice and hauteur. She was more than just a beautiful face and fiery temperament. She was also an accomplished sorceress, and she held her Power poised to retaliate against any sign of physical aggression. “I am not Camael’s Chosen. I am Margot Givegny, prime minister of the Camaeline Council, and if your commander has anything to say to me, he can address me himself.”

  Scowling, the soldier had opened his mouth to reply when the Wolf moved to lay one gauntleted hand on the other man’s shoulder.

  In a deep, pleasant baritone, he said, “I sent word yesterday that I would speak with your Chosen.”

  Margot looked down her nose at him, and Lily had to bite her lip to suppress a sudden smile. Nobody did supercilious better than Margot when she put her mind to it.

  Coldly, Margot replied, “Our Chosen does not respond to tersely worded imperatives from foreigners.”

  The Wolf dropped his eyelids, shuttering his sharp, dark gaze. It turned his blank, hard expression even more unpredictable.

  “Your response is unfortunate.” His pleasant baritone acquired bite. “I brought gifts of ancient manuscripts for her, and gold for your abbey. We could have made our business as pleasant as possible.”

  When he said, “ancient manuscripts,” Lily derailed momentarily from her mission to consider them with a pang. But no matter how alluring they might sound, it would have been entirely inappropriate for the Chosen to accept them.

  “It is not our duty to make your business as pleasant as possible for you,” Margot replied. “The abbey has no desire for your gifts.”

  The Wolf raised one dark eyebrow, and suddenly his unremarkable face became arresting with silken menace. “I have approached you with courtesy—far more courtesy, in fact, than I have shown to any other principality I have met with thus far. You would be wise to take note.”

  “There is nothing courteous about arriving on our doorstep with an army,” Margot said between her teeth.

  Wulfgar gestured back to the empty shore. Even the town was silent, as most of the townsfolk had evacuated to the island. “Do you see an army?”

  “You may have kept it out of sight, but we still know it’s there. Did you think we wouldn’t? It’s camped on the other side of the woods.”

  Now it was Wulfgar’s turn to speak between his teeth. “I left it behind, again, out of courtesy. I did not arrive on your doorstep with it.”

  “All the farmlands that surround the town are part of Calles,” Margot snapped. “You are on our doorstep. You cut down the Chosen’s trees and burn it for your firewood.
You camp in her fields, hunt her creatures, and drink from her streams without permission. You trespass where you do not belong. If you had meant to be courteous, you would have sent word asking permission before you and your army set foot on our land.”

  They both looked magnificent as they flared with temper. If they had been on stage, they could have made a grand romance out of it, but Lily got the impression the Wolf was only pretending to be angry as his restless gaze roamed over every detail of the scene.

  She had no doubt he noticed everything, including the fact that the landing carved from rock upon which the priestesses and Defenders stood was too narrow for any invading force to make effective use of a battering ram on the massive, iron-bound gates.

  The two-mile island was bordered by cliffs. It had no beach, only treacherous black rocks, many of which were submerged underwater when the tide rode high. Several generations of stonemasons had worked to build the ancient walls that towered along the cliff’s edge. Camaeline Abbey was known for being impregnable and had, on occasion, provided sanctuary to famous figures at different points throughout its long history.

  The Wolf and Margot continued to snipe at each other. Their argument faded into the background as Lily angled her head and sidled a small step sideways. Then another. When she bumped shoulders with the priestess on her left, it earned her an uncertain glance.

  She’d hoped a shift in perspective might help her gain a clearer vision, but it didn’t, and she sighed in frustration. Assessing people’s psyches gave her vital clues about a person, but she couldn’t get a decent reading on the Wolf, not with the layout of the scene the way it was, especially since she had no other vantage point from which to observe him, and he and his men were limited in their movements as long as they remained on the barge.

  Margot would not allow the Wolf of Braugne to step onto the narrow dock, so Lily would need to do something else to get the information she wanted.

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