Publisher: Hailey Edwards
ISBN: 978-1-61922-451-3 (ebook)
ISBN: 978-1619232457 (print)
eBook release date: December 30, 2014
Print release date: December 1, 2015
Araneae Nation, Book Five
Available in all digital formats!
A Veil of Secrets
Some secrets are best forgotten.
Fresh from the battlefields of Erania, Marne rides south with Edan, headed for the city of Beltania. Among the Mimetidae guards accompanying them is Asher, who’s been a thorn in her side since the day they met. He’s rude and abrasive…yet he was the first to volunteer as escort.
Marne dreams of a fresh start where no one knows who—or what—she is. But first, they must cross the veil. Rumor has it spirits haunt that grim stretch of road, and unwary travelers who enter are never heard from again.
Veil or no veil, Asher is honor bound to see Marne safely to her new home. Though truth be told, Marne leaving Erania is the last thing he wants. This journey is his final chance to convince her distance will only make his heart grow fonder.
When Edan is lost to the mists, Marne is trapped in a strange land with no allies—with a man who draws her closer every day. Closer to her heart, and her secrets. Secrets she must reveal if they are to save the one man bent on tearing them apart.
Warning: This book contains one heroine willing to fly into the face of danger and the hero who gives her heart wings. This adventure is BYOM, Bring Your Own Meal. Trust me, where we’re going, takeout is to die for. Literally.
Titles available in this series include:
A Veil of Secrets Excerpt
Winter was the maw of a ravenous beast who raged against those foolish enough to venture into the frigid northland forests. It gulped them down through thin patches of ice or devoured them with a frostbitten sickness that spread through their limbs, blackening them until the cold sank teeth in their hearts and they expired. The northlands were a harsh, miserable territory I could not wait to escape.
After penning those words, I snapped my journal closed and stuffed it into my saddlebag.
For the first time in months, my heart was light and the city of Erania lay behind me.
“I have another blanket if you require it.”
I reined in my ursus and glanced over my shoulder. “Then what will keep you warm?”
The male who rode straight for me shifted in his saddle to free the thick fur wrapped around his waist. He wore black leather pants, a white silk shirt and a heavy overcoat trimmed in fur. He was as pale as the snow banked around us, and even the thick ridges of scars crisscrossing his face failed to dull his beauty in my eyes. His sow bumped noses with mine when he pulled even with me. Our mounts were twin sisters, both as black as pitch. Both unimpressed to be a part of our frozen caravan bound for the southlands.
He wiggled his eyebrows at me. “The love of a good female?”
I wrinkled my nose. “I do love you, Edan, but I fail to see how that will warm you.”
“I said a female.” He grinned and tossed the fur to me. “Not a spoiled little girl.”
I rolled my eyes. “And who, dear brother—”
He clamped a hand over my mouth. “Hush.”
I startled then gave him a slow nod. He released his grip after a quick glance around us.
We shared dangerous secrets now. Leave it to me to be the one who spilled them.
If we were to play at being husband and wife, I would do well to act my part.
“I’m sorry.” My exhale left a plume of white fog between us. “I forget.”
Edan took my hand and kissed the top of my glove. “You weren’t designed for treachery.”
“And you were?” I regretted the words the instant they left my mouth.
Our former master had trained Edan in the art of duplicity, to be a pawn for his machinations.
That we were no longer slaves did little to alter the parts of our pasts still chained to our hearts.
“We are what we are, Marne.” His smile faltered. “Nothing can change that.”
“What are we then? Slaves to our pasts or masters of our own fates? I no longer know.”
A shrill whistle sounded behind us. I twisted in my saddle to see who had raised the alarm. Asher.
Of all the males who could have volunteered for this detail, why had he lifted his hand?
Asher ran his boar hard. From here I spied the white foam rimming its jaws. He barreled past his fellow guards while barking sharp orders over his shoulder. He sped for us, yanking on the reins and spraying snow across my face when his ursus slid over the ice in front of ours. His mount blocked the road.
Asher’s eyes were chips of black ice, bleak and frigid when he inclined his head toward me.
The heat that flash of his regard ignited in my belly made me shift miserably on my mount.
Dismissing me in the next instant, he addressed Edan. “The risers have spotted us.”
Edan set his jaw. “Are you not as concerned for my wife’s safety as I am?”
I flinched at the word. How the title of wife grated on my nerves. Lies beget more lies…
“If I weren’t concerned for Marne,” Asher said, “I would have let the risers catch us and—”
The steady rumble in Edan’s chest made Asher bristle.
“Do not take such reckless action again.” Edan’s gaze slid over me, over the snow I had swiped from my face. Fine powder dusted the blankets covering my lap. “Marne has a delicate constitution.”
Working his jaw over what he might have said, Asher spared me a sharp glance. “I apologize.”
“I understand your urgency.” I dared smile at him. I could not help myself. “Please, continue.”
“Report,” Edan snarled.
Asher glared daggers at him. “The risers are a quarter day’s walk behind us and gaining.”
“How is it we are just now learning of this?” Edan’s fists tightened on the reins. “Well?”
“I first noticed them as we left Erania. You saw yourself the dozens of risers scattered after their harbinger was killed. I thought they would disperse. Even when they began following us, I thought it was the act of a simple mind taking the path of least resistance. I heard risers originated in the south, harbingers too. I figured they were following the road to the warmer climate.” He shook his head. “I was wrong.
They are set on our trail. They stop now to scent the air. They are tracking us in earnest.”
I worried my bottom lip with my teeth. “Can we outrun them?”
Asher’s gaze riveted to my mouth, until he caught me staring and resumed his darkest glower.
“Not before we reach the veil,” he said. “Gods know I don’t want to cross it with them.”
“He’s right.” Edan grimaced. “From what I saw at the battle for Erania, they are capable of great speed when given an incentive.” His head fell back as he scanned the skies. “Are they under orders?”
Asher’s gaze shot right to me. “Can’t you tell?”
Edan’s sword was drawn and the naked blade braced at Asher’s throat before I formed a reply.
It was true that I could sense harbingers. After all, I was one. A fledgling, not fully transformed, but I was a harbinger all the same. I was not a mindless, bloodthirsty monster like others of my kind.
Though I knew few would accept my word for it before separating my head from my neck.
Voicing such pointed questions where others might overhear Asher put my life at risk.
“It’s almost as if you want to die.” Edan tilted his head. “If I hold my blade at your gut, will you impale yourself upon the tip? Would you like me to leave you here, bleeding out on the ice as bait?”
“Edan,” I warned. “Our patron would not take kindly to us returning his guard full of holes.”
Henri of the Araneidae had graciously gifted us guards and provisions to ensure our treacherous journey was swift and that our reception in Beltania was warmer than it might have been otherwise. Though Edan and I were not of the Araneidae, we were under the protection of Henri’s sister, Maven Lourdes, and her husband, Paladin Rhys. Their hospitality alone spared us from the jaws of winter.
“Perhaps you have the right of it.” Edan’s grin turned sharp. “Perhaps I ought to cut the insolent parts out and leave those here for the risers to eat. Though if I did, not much of him would remain.”
Asher’s deadpan response was as empty as air. “I would like to see you try.”
“I would succeed.” Edan’s lip curled.
“Edan.” I said his name softly. “Please.”
“Take care.” He sighed in my direction. “My wife is far more forgiving than I am.”
That title again. Its sound was nails raking across stone. My stomach churned to hear my brother call me his wife. Months into our ruse, the lie still sickened me. If I had claim to a weak constitution, that was the sole cause. Though Edan believed I was safer as a married female in a strange land than as an unwed one, I felt we could take care of any complications that arose if we would tell the truth.
But truth was as two-pronged as a serpent’s tongue these days, and I had worse secrets to guard.
Gods forgive us for shaming your most honorable institution with our falsehoods.
I placed a hand on Edan’s arm. “I for one have no interest in being eaten by risers.”
They were the mindless corpses of those who had died from the plague, and they answered only to their maker or to their own base urges.
Hunger for flesh had driven them mad, and we six were the best meal they were likely to see for days. Not to mention our ursus, which were fattened and furred from winter.
Edan lowered his sword. “Since we can’t outrun them, what do you propose we do?”
“Running is all we can do.” Asher shrugged. “There are two score of them and six of us.”
Heart pounding, I glanced behind us. “Perhaps I could—”
My brother grasped my wrist. “No.”
Asher studied me, considering what I might have offered. “If she can slow them down…”
“If I flung your corpse under their noses,” Edan snapped, “that would slow them down as well.”
Aware that Edan would throw himself into the fray if I attempted to confront the risers, I knew the best solution was simplest. “We will run, as far and as fast as we can. We must reach the veil first.”
Asher gave me a grudging nod. “If we reach Beltania, there are Mimetidae guards posted there.”
“With reinforcements,” Edan agreed, “we can cut down the risers before they reach the city.”
“It’s settled then.” I tightened my grip on the reins. “We run.”
“I’ll take point.” Edan sheathed his weapon. “Asher, you will bring up the rear. Marne, keep as close to me as you can. If we see risers, don’t engage them. It’s too dangerous for you, understand?”
“Perfectly.” To him, I was one of the fragile hothouse flowers our master had doted on. Perhaps I had been that once, but I was so much more now than he knew, more than he ever wanted to know.
With a grunt, Asher yanked the reins, and his ursus set off at a gallop toward the rear of our tiny procession. After taking one last look at me, Edan kicked his mount in the side and spurred her on at breakneck speed. My sow huffed then dashed after her sister as though risers nipped at her heels.
Hours passed with naught but the ragged panting of our winded mounts and the crackling of ice under their paws to break the silence. As if we had set some terrible race into motion, the first sounds of risers reached my ears. Their snarls were vicious, their howls pitiful. Like any predator, they were unable to resist prey on the run. Unused to sustaining periods of great speed, our ursus grew winded.
Ahead of me, Edan half-turned in his saddle to survey the road behind us and said, “He was too generous with his estimation.”
“Can you see them?” I dared not turn and glimpse their approach. The sight of them never failed to stir something dark and hungry in me that I felt was best not roused.
I was already not the same person I had been a year ago. I did not want to change again, become unrecognizable to me or to my brother as the person I was born, the person he thought worth saving.
“No.” His eyes narrowed. “I hear them, though. They’re close and moving fast.”
He was right. The risers were so close my skin prickled and my shoulders itched.
A soft voice intruded on my thoughts, her plea a persuasive whisper in my head.
“Kill the males. They are inferior to us. Join me, daughter. Take your army and rise to rule.”
Your army, she said. Rule, she said. As if I could ascend without her sinking her hooks into me, as though I wanted to be the commander of a corpse legion bound to me through sickness and death.
“You will not seduce me so easily, Idra,” I thought back at her. “I will not kill again for you.”
“The more you fight…” she purred, “…the more I want you.”
Bile rose in my throat. Too slowly I tamped down her voice and hushed her sickly sweet desires.
“You will never command me.” I hurled the words. “I will not serve you or any other master.”
Idra was the reason I was no longer Araneaean. I was something else, something worse. She and her harbinger daughters had spread the plague throughout the southlands, wiping out entire clans and cities. The vile nature of the plague meant those who died from it rose from their graves and became risers, the walking dead. But there were worse things plaguing the Araneae Nation, and I was half of one. Idra herself had tried to transform me into a harbinger. She had ripped a sigil from her neck and let it burrow into my throat, into my soul, until we were bound together in blood and in our thoughts.
She was insane, bloodthirsty and cruel. If she had her way, I would become those things too.
Thank the two gods for Edan, who kept me whole and sane and guarded me against myself.
On the tail of that thought, the same bitter guilt that always simmered beneath my skin set fire to my temper. My poor brother was wasting his life on me. He should be finding a mate, settling down, making his own family and living his own dreams. Not being forced to care for his half-breed sister, or trapped in an incestuous marriage, no matter how false it was. At least in Beltania, that ruse would end. It must. I had had my fill of the charade. I was done with us pretending to be what we were not.
That one lie corroded a soul already rusting and left my chest aching as my heart ground to dust.
Tensing when Edan pointed up, I dragged my gaze skyward.
I squinted against the brilliant reflection of sun on the falling snow. “I don’t see anything.”
A heartbeat later, a shadow fell across my face. I swallowed the scream rising in my throat when I spotted the harbinger. She was a slight girl, or had been once, as pale as winter’s breast with massive wings that would have been more at home on a dragonfly than on a person, let alone one so young. I lifted my hands over my head to fend off her attack. I would die rather than return to Idra.
I would never suffer enslavement again.
The harbinger’s cackles raised the hairs on my arms. A heartbeat later, she dove.
But I wasn’t her target.
She swooped down and sank her elbow between Edan’s shoulder blades. He grunted and shifted in his saddle, grasping for his sword. Before he drew it, she clutched the hilt and flung it at me. I bent down as it sailed over my head. I reached for the daggers I kept on my belt and palmed one. She was too near Edan, and my aim was too rusty from the cushy months I’d spent in the lavish Araneidae nest while Henri examined me in search of a cure for harbingerism. Add to that my mount’s jostling pace, and I dared not risk the throw. I stood a greater chance of skewering Edan than our airborne enemy.
“It’s me you want,” I yelled. “Leave him alone.”
The harbinger bared her jagged teeth at me. “Idra wants him, so Idra will have him.”
“Idra will never have him.” My back spasmed. “I would kill him first.”
“You lie.” She jutted out her chin. “You would never harm this one.”
To spare him greater pain, I would. Then I would kill her for driving me to it.
Fear galvanized me. I tossed the blankets from my lap into the snow. The jacket I used to shield myself from prying eyes came next. I flung it onto the road while kicking my mount’s sides until she roared her anger at me, startling the harbinger, who relented her attack on Edan to glance back at me.
While I had the chance, I grasped the dagger and threw it with all my strength.
It lodged under her collarbone, but she was quick to yank it free.
Yellow blood poured from the wound and stained the grungy fabric wrapping across her breasts and over her hips to a short, flared skirt. She kicked her sandaled feet in the air, almost clobbering my brother during her tantrum. Once she’d composed herself, she dropped onto the saddle behind Edan.
On the wind, I scented his blood as mine heated to a furious boil.
I had warned her.
I tore the confining shirt from my back, leaving me in a sleeveless silk chemise and pants.
Cold air shocked my skin, sending chills shivering through my body to quiver in my wing joints. With a short prayer our guards wouldn’t shoot me down, I flexed my cramped wings and leapt from the back of my ursus into the air. The other harbinger’s eyes widened to see me zooming toward her.
Using Edan’s shoulders for a brace, she shoved up until she stood on the sow’s back and leaned against him for support. He was shrugging to dislodge her, but his ursus began roaring and thrashing its head. Harbingers smelled of unnatural death, and the ursus wanted no part of her rancid stench.
Taking my other dagger in hand, I slashed at the harbinger’s back as she turned to launch herself into the sky. I cut through one of her bottom wings, and she shrieked in fury as the membrane tore.
“Kill her,” the same voice coaxed. “She is unworthy to complete the kills I have set before you.”
“If I kill her, it is to save myself or those under my protection. It’s not a glory I do for you.”
“Your existence glorifies me.” Idra’s laughter made my head ache. “Finish her. Then find me.”
“Find you? That implies desire to see you again.” I scoffed. “Of which I have none. Goodbye.”
I sailed over the other harbinger and slid my blade through another wing, and then another.
The harder she flew, the greater her damage became until she was barely hovering over the road.
“We are sisters.” Her golden eyes pleaded with me. “Do not do this.”
The flash of weakness, the knowledge she was injured beyond repair, was an aphrodisiac to me.
My voice was husky when I said, “I have no sisters.”
“Don’t.” Edan waved his arms in my periphery. “Marne, no. This is not who you are.”
“I have a brother.” I raised my dagger. “And you tried to take him from me.”
“No.” The harbinger brought her hands up to shield her face. “I had to. Idra—”
I sank the blade in her stomach and used her waning altitude to cut her from gut to breast. I rode her corpse to the ground, watching as the light died in her eyes and the spark of her life extinguished.
While her entrails warmed the snow, I fought the urge to sink my hands inside her and bring that hot, fresh meat to my lips. My mouth watered for a taste. The scent overpowered me, so rich, and I…
Metal pressed into the side of my throat. Edan stood beside me with his sword drawn while I crouched over the harbinger’s carcass, ready to claw out his eyes for standing so near my kill. Cramps shuddered through me. Everything hurt. Everything burned. I was so hungry.
“Don’t make me kill you.” He stroked my hair. “I couldn’t live with myself if I did.”
Instead of sinking my claws into the corpse, I sank them into the snow, threw back my head and screamed until my voice broke and the worst of the pain had passed. Exhaustion toppled me onto my side. My wings curled protectively around me, and I rocked on the ice until Edan lowered his sword, assured I was in possession of my faculties again. He scooped me up in his arms and cradled me like he still loved me, like he still believed his little sister wasn’t a monster, though I wasn’t quite as sure.
Copyright © 2014 Hailey Edwards
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication