Symphony of War
The Aegean Immortals Series Book Eight
The East Riding Forests, Yorkshire, England 1600
Ayla Sørensen’s white mare picked her way carefully through streams of afternoon sunlight. Her ears swiveled at the slightest sound, and the black circles of her eyes showed their whites like crescent moons.
The rider touched her fingers to the mare’s neck, whispering her encouragement.
They were rewarded with the sight of a great black stallion. He stood beneath the shade of a large oak tree, his enormous head lifting to turn an eye toward the females. Evil-tempered though the mount was, Saltan only swished his tail and closed his eyes again; even if an ear remained turned toward the mare.
Ayla tied Signa close.
Under Saltan’s great shadow, the mare seemed to relax.
She spared both horses a brush of her fingers against their snouts as she passed them — though Saltan bit at her and stamped a warning.
Ayla called him a beast and moved nearer to the massive oak. Her palm brushed against its bark as she rounded it, before the softness of buckskin shifted beneath her fingers where it was anchored to the tree.
“Nicholas,” the Queen said.
“Ayla,” came the answer from behind the barrier.
The shelter in the tree’s hollow might have been all too easy to miss were it not for the horse and the gentler sound of pipes singing through Ayla’s blood that had led her to the lord’s retreat.
She ducked carefully beneath the skin, keeping it sealed so as not to let the sunlight stream inside. She had only just grown into the age that she could tolerate it. Nicholas, hardly past the bounds of his mortal lifetime, could not.
There was little room within the shelter. There was only a bed of furs where Nicholas sat and a fire pit in the center that smoldered and wisped smoke into the height of the tree’s interior. It was not meant to be a permanent home so much as a place for the fledgling Immortal to rest safely in the day.
Nicholas, as tall and well-built as any of the trees in the forest — as well built as Ayla, for all that she likewise had the stature of an oak — only stared at her as she settled.
“Did he take your finger?” he asked.
She lifted her left hand, short by one knuckle-length at the pinky. “Only a little. Saltan is in a foul mood. I could not imagine why.”
“I can,” Nicholas said, and leaned back onto his furs with his arms crossed behind his head. His eyes, a deep, forest-green, pinned some pattern in the bark, and he did not look her way.
She could hear the question he did not ask piping beneath the lower notes of his darker mood.
Why was she here?
Ayla answered him anyway. “If I did not catch you now, you would be gone with the sunset.”
“You’ve caught me.”
The notes of Nicholas’s pan flute were long and sharp in her blood. They wavered at the brush of her gemshorn as her own song reached out for him.
She tossed a dried leaf into the remnants of the fire. “Will you come home with me?”
“You have a husband, don’t you?” Though he made little effort to disguise the jab, his brows pinched almost immediately with the twinge of regret she felt in his song.
Still, Nicholas did not apologize or take the words back.
“It is only a game,” Ayla said. “If it mattered so, you might have asked me.”
“It is not as if I need a wife, my lady. That is for my betters.”
“Faen,” she breathed. “You are acting a hearthfire fool. Come home. Lian will be back from Delresus tonight, and I have no doubt we will leave. The forest stinks of blood and death.”
He did not answer her, but she felt him relent — if not in the tension in his form, then by the sound of his pipes. Her song relaxed, and she breathed a sigh, leaning back against the wall of the tree.
“Are you staying?” Nicholas asked.
“Yes. Unless you wish for me to leave.”
“No,” he said. “Stay.”
They were silent for a while and the music danced between them; almost a harmony.
Ayla closed her eyes to listen to it and to feel the touch of his notes against her own. Eventually, he settled, and the irritation he would not admit to aloud became the gentler weave of his song that she was fond of.
She opened her eyes again, tracing the defined lines of Nicholas’s profile and the graying wisps of hair that framed his features. There was more silver in his hair than darkness; he might have been some ten years older than her when his mortal time stopped.
Ayla’s expression softened. “Will you ask me?”
“To marry you.”
Nicholas turned his head to stare at her, the intensity of his eyes glowing emerald in the shadows of the shelter. She saw his smile, and heard the breath of laughter that pushed its way free of his chest, but held no humor.
“You will be married to Dorian for twenty years yet. I’ll not steal his wife and ruin your game.”
The sharpness found its way back into his music before he attempted to level it.
With an exhale, Ayla shifted and moved on all fours to round the fire. Her back was inches closer to the pit, and she had to tuck the material of the dress she wore beneath her before she settled.
When she had dragged the length of her braid to safety over her shoulder, she turned to nest into a fit against Nicholas’s side; her head by his and her arms curled into the space between them.
Finally, Nicholas shifted, an arm escaping from under his head so his fingers could brush her own.
“I would have come home,” he offered.
“Of course. You are the most reliable man I know.”
He would have come home, or he would have followed the sound of their caravan in the night when they packed to leave. Nicholas was as reliable as the wind.
But perhaps, if she had not sought him out, he would have been in the safety of the forests when death arrived at the doors of their home.
Anowen Castle, East Yorkshire England, July 1812
It had been but a few hours since the family and their servants had opened their veins for their fallen — hours since an attack on one of their youngest members and the wife of Anowen’s Heir had left her dead.
And yet, in the adjoining guest room of the suite where the Elders gathered, Joanna was alive again. Alive and breathing, if not awake and not fully healed.
Her mate, Dorian, stood by the open doorway, distracted by watching her sleeping form while listening to the quiet conversation among his siblings.
Their Arch Lord and Sovereign of England’s Immortals had already left for the continent — for the Council that would determine if they went to war.
It was for Dorian and for Lian’s bond and the Arch Queen of Anowen, Celia, to see to the affairs he left behind.
No one had moved much yet. No one had cleaned the blood from their clothes, and beyond checking on the younger members of the coven who waited below, they had remained clustered in the suite until Celia had returned.
Hers had been a darker duty: returning the body of the Queen of Eromerde’s slain son to his House.
Joanna’s was not the only life that had been lost that day; but she was the only one to live again.
“Miriam,” Celia said, finally. “We will need your allies sooner than later. The more elders you can bring to our cause, the better.” There was a thread of resolve in the Queen’s words that Ayla had never had cause to hear.
As if aware of the fact, the Arch Queen’s tone was gentler when she spoke again.
“Anowen has enough space to house those who would stand with us in the event of a war, and while they are beneath our roof, they may join us on our hunts. We will afford them the same protection they will our own.”
Miriam Walters, leader of the Freeborn Immortals who had allied themselves with the Crown, was the only elder in their midst unbound to the family’s weave. She inclined her head in acknowledgement.
“There are few elders among the Freeborn, and they are more often set in their ways than not,” the queen began a shade dryly. “But I am not without an audience among them. I will do my best — and with those younger who might have the skills to be useful.”
“We are not without the skills to be useful in a war.” It was Shar, Ayla’s curly-haired Russian sister who spoke. “It is only the youngest of Anowen’s children who will not be capable of fighting. The ages have softened mortals, and this life has given them little cause to know the ways of battle.”
“That may be true of the children of the Housed,” Miriam interjected carefully, but the queen did not complete the thought.
For the Freeborn, survival was a battle
“John will disagree,” a baritone voice added quietly. Mathias was the only other Elder Lord in their family, and spoke through the haze of his pipe smoke of one of the coven’s newest sons, and a former soldier, fresh from the battlefields of Napoleon’s war.
“He will wish to stand with Anowen,” Ayla noted quietly in agreement
It was unlikely that the fledgling would be allowed to.
In the face of the family’s distress, the silence echoing through Ayla’s veins was almost welcome. In the emptiness was a clarity of focus that she could not trust she would have had, otherwise.
It was what she told herself.
As if her awareness of her muted world had called attention to it, the Queen felt a sharper, burning sensation in her heart where a sliver of silver remained.
“Alexander will want to fight as well,” she continued. “It is their right to stand with their House, but I believe we would suffer more losses to have them here than to send them away with those who cannot raise arms.”
A battle among Immortals was a terrible, bloody affair. There were not only blades and guns to defend against, but claws and teeth and the ferality of beasts that brokered no mercy when the blood flowed.
“But it is their right.” Mathias clicked his teeth against the bit of his pipe. “I’m in no greater hurry to live through murder than the next, but the bonds in this family are too intertwined. John’s not leaving Cora. Alex won’t leave John unless Raewyn can convince him. And the rest will stay for one reason or another. If we’re going to ask the Free to stand with Anowen, we can’t send our children away if they’re willing to fight.”
“Well said, brother.” The smoky tones of their Egyptian High Queen lifted into the silence that fell. “We are one. It is in our union that strength will lay.” Zehira’s smile curved. “Perhaps the children will surprise.”
“Would that it were unnecessary,” Dorian said grimly, watching the quietness of his wife’s body. “We have lost enough. But we are well past the hour of choices. We must make ready.”
The High Lord’s gaze swept over the room, pausing to rest on the Freeborn queen. “Celia is right. We have no time to lose. Your companions are welcome to remain if you would travel alone.”
“No.” Miriam Walter’s answer was almost too sharp for deference before her voice quieted. “We will ride together. I would not wish them upon an enemy away from my side for temperance, anyway.” Her lips twisted into a quirk of a smile. “We will leave immediately and send word ahead of us for our numbers upon return.”
Anowen’s Heir took a step away from the doorway he had adopted for his vigil. “Then I will escort you to your horses.”
Ayla watched him lead the way with a faint measure of surprise and a greater sense of pride than she thought herself capable of feeling. Dorian, always so reluctant to take on his role as Heir since the massacre of their family so many centuries ago, had grown into the leader she knew he would.
The Queen turned away from him and her siblings, moving instead to take his place in a vigil at their fallen queen’s bedside until the High Lord’s return.