The riches of Broadfields, the largest estate in Garalandia, prove an irresistible bauble to the usurper, Mordacai. The lands could be claimed by force, or more simply acquired by marrying his son to the female heir, Gemma.
Fleeing a match she considers to be a fate worse than death, Gemma has a choice: seek anonymity in the guise of a mercenary warrior, or to fight back.
Her Serenian upbringing ensured training in deadly combat from birth. Gemma can survive where others would die. She has no intention of becoming a trophy bride and any man hoping to subdue her had better know the consequences.
Gemma has a plan. Even if she has to bathe in blood, consort with magic and face the impossible, her secret alliance with Merrilina, witch of the Wizard Council means the head wearing the crown should rest uneasily.
Let battle commence …
Gemma wiped away her tears with the back of her hand. What the hell did Frona and her mother expect? Whenever she won, they told her she was too cruel. If she lost, they mocked her as too soft.
The bitter wind dried her cheeks. She tugged her woollen cloak tight, burrowing into the fur collar. Behind her, silver moonlight glinted off the slate roofs of the town. Resting her elbows on the granite crenellations of the city wall, she stared out.
A single road of hard-packed earth carved across the pastures. Far out of sight, the track would rise, winding through the mountains, dipping through the only viable land route out of Serenia, The Gap. It was the only way home, but home was the last place she wanted to be. She corrected herself, the place she couldn’t be.
Too maudlin! A sprinkle of Baran stardust would sort her out. Her stomach churned. She glanced around, instantly feeling guilty and hoping nobody had witnessed how easily she’d given in to the craving.
She’d promised to stop using the drug. Since stardust had crept onto the scene, too many had been lost to its snare. She still had a stash, a small number of the pouches Torrin had slipped to her. She flushed at how she’d paid for them. A ring of her mother’s and … the memories of that night remained chopped up; a tangle of limbs, giggling, kissing and caressing in darkness.
He was nice. If only Torrin had the power to help her.
She scurried down the steps, slowing to marvel at how quiet the streets were. If she hadn’t paused, the scuffle in the alleyway would have gone unnoticed. Under pain of death visitors to Serenia weren’t allowed edged weapons, but not all weapons are edged. Reaching into her waistband she slid on her knuckleduster.
“At least you’re alert,” Frona’s blocky figure emerged from the shadows. “You dusted?” Her mentor stared into Gemma’s eyes, obviously trying to see if she’d already indulged.
“No!” Hoping to hide her blush, Gemma forced Frona back into the alleyway. She wrapped the older woman in a fierce hug, tracing her tongue up her neck before sealing her mouth with a kiss.
Resting her head on Frona’s shoulder, she inhaled the scent of leather, perfume and the unique musk that combined to create Frona’s exquisite aroma. “I’m such a fool,” Gemma admitted.
“Passionate, maybe stubborn, but not a fool.” Frona drew Gemma back into the kiss. Her other hand loosened Gemma’s cloak, allowing their bodies to mould against each other.
Gemma’s voice became a husky whisper. “A fumble in an alleyway?”
“I’ve done worse.”
“We’ve done worse.”
Grabbing handfuls of Frona’s hair, Gemma surrendered. Frona was her life. For the last two years, their friendship had evolved from guardian, to teacher, to … there was heat in the kiss. Gemma hooked her leg around Frona’s, drawing her friend’s thigh against her. Lust flooded her senses. At this moment, nothing else existed.
Frona broke the kiss. “We can’t. Not before the match.”
“No!” Gemma’s pounding heart threatened to break through her ribs, she clung on, desperate to entice Frona back into the embrace.
“You’re not going into the arena with a head full of mush. Wait for the last bout.” The older woman eased out of Gemma’s grasp.
“And then …”
The changing rooms for visiting competitors lay deep beneath the Serenian arena. The walls of the ancient chambers were scarred. Centuries of warriors, pumped up for combat, had carved their mark on them. Gemma stared at the graffiti as she meditated.
The walls rumbled with the noise of the crowds above. Even though the Serenian autumn games were the place for visiting nobles to be seen, the stands were always cold and the pre-bout interval gave people an opportunity to ease their frozen joints.
“You’re going to fight clean, aren’t you?” Standing squarely in front of her, Frona pressed her hands on Gemma’s shoulders forcing her to meet her gaze. Frona’s shaggy maroon fringe almost covered her dark brown eyes. She pouted, purple lipstick jarring against the orange lightning bolts painted on her cheeks.
Unable to return the stare, Gemma squirmed and searched for her leather mask.
Frona gripped Gemma’s jaw, forcing her head up. “You heard me. You’re facing his brother today, so no accidents.”
“It wasn’t my fault. I didn’t think he meant to ‘offer up’ when he did.”
“When a warrior drops to one knee and throws their arms wide, what do you think they’re doing?”
“He’ll recover.” Gemma ran her hand over the stubble of her cropped hair, before lifting the mask to her face. After a week of combat, the leather stank of her sweat. Using both hands, she smoothed it into place. She hated it, but couldn’t risk being recognised.
“He’ll never use that arm again. You almost took it off.”
The raucous bellow of brass horns cut Frona’s lecture short. Gemma stood up. In her right hand, she wielded an over-sized Serenian-style blade. On her forearm, she wore a small buckler shield. Her short skirt and moulded leather breastplate emphasised her feminine curves. She stomped her feet to force her toes into the bindings of her sandals before heading for the Tunnel of Heroes, the entrance to the arena killing floor.
Even though her features were hidden behind the leather mask, she grinned. “We have to win this one to get to the Palace celebrations. I’ll do what it takes and Thrippas help the warrior who gets in my way!”
Bright sunlight carved a harsh line of shadow across the arena floor. Standing just beneath the Royal Box, today’s opponent already waited. Wielding a hammer as long as his arm in one hand and a curved knife in the other, he was a giant of a man. Long hair tied back, his massive beard mingled with the covering of hair on his arms and chest. What did Walsholm women do, lie down with bears?
They turned to face the Queen. Serenia was a strange land where anybody who proved themselves worthy could be raised to royalty. The scar-faced woman in the Royal Box had once been known as Asti the Red, one of the greatest champions Serenia had ever produced. Famously exiled for inciting a rebellion, she now sat on the throne. Black as night, she glared down at them. Her twisted features and puckered eye socket made her look like a gargoyle hanging from the ancient stonework.
Even though it was the smallest blot on the map, the nation of Serenia was renowned for producing fierce warriors. The games attracted the best from all corners of Shudalandia. Excitement rumbled around the arena as the Queen’s single nod commanded them to fight.
“You’re never going to breed another bitch like you,” the giant growled. “I’m going to rip out your womb for what you did yesterday.” He waved his curved blade to emphasise his intent.
Gemma remained silent. Speeches are for sagas and men.
Powered by his bunched muscles, the giant’s hammer whirled. She’d not wake up if it caught her. Using the hammer’s momentum, he spun, slashing his knife at throat height. His boot lashed out, its sole covered in studs. He became a spinning nightmare of deadly steel forcing her to retreat.
No matter how she tried to break through his defence, the giant easily held her away. He chased her across the arena. One mistake and she’d be dead. His crazy antics made her look foolish and murmurs of discontent rumbled from the crowd. The Queen was whispering to her advisors. She was going to call a halt. Instead of acclaim, they’d heap scorn on her. She had to do something.
Gemma held out her sword. The swishing hammer brushed it aside. The buckler met his knife. He grinned and strengthened his attack. Each time the hammer passed, it clattered against her blade. He fell into a rhythm, swish and clatter.
A steady tempo was exactly what she needed. His most vulnerable position was as his leg swept past. She ducked under the flailing limb and ran up his body. Flipping over his shoulder, she caught her blade beneath his chin and locked it in the buckler. Her entire weight hauled on his throat, leaving him no choice but to topple over. She landed in a crouch, the blade touching the back of her neck. His head bounced free as the gush of blood pumped over her and the arena floor.
The noise of the crowd shifted from stunned silence to hysterical screaming. Deaths did occur in the arena, but it was rare. Formalised competition had sanitised the combat.
She shrugged off the weight of his torso before doing the only thing a girl could do. She pretended to faint. Remaining motionless, with her eyes closed, she listened as the attendants ran onto the killing floor to carry her apparently unconscious body to the training rooms.
“Lay her on the slab and try to keep her airways open,” Frona said. Hands gently lifted her onto the cold marble, she moaned to prove she was still alive.
“Will you require the healers to attend?” one of the helpers asked.
“I doubt it. She’s done this before,” Frona said. “Thank you for your help.” The attendants retreated, their footsteps echoing from the stone walls.
“Thrippas, G, that was a stunt. What were you thinking?” She slapped Gemma’s butt. “Don’t try to claim you fainted, I know it’s complete dragon shit.”
Risking a peek through her lashes, Gemma checked they were alone before sitting up on the edge of the massage table. She tugged at the laces of her mask, desperate to take it off. “I wasn’t thinking of anything other than staying alive. He was trying to kill me. It was him or me.”
The tanned boles of Frona’s shoulders, bulged from her short leather vest as she concentrated on loosening Gemma’s breastplate. “Can you blame him?” She jabbed her finger at Gemma. “I thought yesterday was too much, but today? One warrior maimed and now one dead. All you needed to do was reach the semi-finals. What did we say? Low-key, but impressive.”
“So, I made the finals. I had no choice.”
“Get stripped,” Frona said. She delved in her bag, for a bottle of oil. “Lie on your face. Let’s get those muscles relaxed.”
Frona’s fingers dug into her shoulders. Gemma rocked her head to one side. “I thought this was supposed to be relaxing.”
“It’s working for me. I feel better already,” Frona hissed. She forced Gemma’s face into the pillow, making it impossible for her to breathe.
Panic rose as the bone-crushing pressure increased. Frona was trying to kill her. Gemma squirmed, the marble table became slick with sweat. Her naked backside slapped on the stone floor as she finally managed to wriggle free. “Maniac! What are you playing at?”
“When you have somebody at your mercy, you don’t have to follow through with a death blow. It’s about winning, not killing.” Frona spun and stalked out of the room.
Gemma hauled herself back onto the marble-topped table and sat with her legs swinging. She rubbed her cropped hair dry before flinging her towel into the corner. What more did they want? She’d beaten the Walsholm giant.
It didn’t matter what Frona thought. She was through to the final and the promise of an invitation to dinner at the palace. Phase two was achieved, she was going to be in the same room as Leon, the Garalandian prince in exile. After so many failed assassination attempts he was impossible to find, but she knew he’d be there.