Saturday, September 24, 2011

An Official Facebook Page

You can now connect to the Romany Epistles on Facebook. Talk to the writers (some of them) and see what they have been doing over the years. You can encourage those who are still finishing their stories. Also, you can discuss your favorite characters or fun bits from different siblings' stories. Come, stop by, and join in.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Hey Everyone!!

Wow, it feel like it has been forever since I've posted on here. It was only November--but that feels like at least a year ago. :) I just wanted to let you all know that I am starting a new blog that will be chronicling my real life adventures. For those of you who may not know, God has called me to be a full-time missionary over in North Africa after college. I'm eagerly anticipating the day when I live there and wake up to see the sun rise over a foreign horizon!

I have enjoyed corresponding with all of my lovely readers on this blog and would like to keep up our relationships. If you're interested, check out my new blog. I will not be posting on there very regularly--only when there's a new update on my missions status--but I would welcome your prayers, friendship, and support! Here's the link:

Thank you all!


Monday, September 29, 2008

Epilogue - Home


We made it.

Here is the end.

I hope you've enjoyed this journey with me. It has been a time of learning and growing for me--in my writing, my faith, and my maturity. Zoe has grown right along with me and it has been a pleasure to bring her adventure to you all. The editing process will begin anytime now and I will begin readying the story to come to you guys in a properly bound book form. :) I can't wait! It'll be so cool but surreal to see my work as a published book.

Thank you again. Blessings on you all.

Au revoir-
Not-so-Little Firebrand



The sun filtered down through the trees in Braedoch Forest, creating soft patterns of light and shadow on the forest floor. Leaves, decomposed from their long sabbatical beneath winter snow, provided rich nutrients for the eager spring foliage that had sprung up in recent weeks and was making its presence known. Birds twittered in the trees, breaking the monastic, almost reverent hush in the air of the ancient forest.

Brac’s stride never faltered as he wove his way through the trees a half-length ahead of Chale. Zoe did not guide him; the stallion sensed the familiarity of the place they were in and he now traveled eagerly onward without her needing to command or direct him. Silence had fallen between her and Tancred since yesterday, when they had descended from the slopes of the mountains and entered the outer fringe of Braedoch. He knew how important this place was to Zoe and respected her feelings as she took it all in after three years away.

Three years. Had it truly been that long? And yet, hadn’t it been decades longer? Time seemed relative to Zoe, occasionally feeling much lengthened, at other times seeming to have hurtled by.

Since the previous autumn, Zoe had kept herself quite busy. Queen Brysa, recently married to Prince Garrick of Aerilya, had contacted Tancred at the end of the previous year with a proposal. Despite the official abolition of the slave trade in Elangsia, she and her new husband were having difficulties eradicating illegal trafficking of human flesh. A black market had sprung up and countless Aerilyans were still kept in bondage in remote parts of Elangsia. King Garrick and Queen Brysa had asked Tancred to investigate the situation and work on ferreting out the slavers.

Tancred had of course disbanded his men by that time, but many of the Hunter’s followers were more than willing to return to help find and bring the remainder of the slave traders to justice. The men with families had declined to join Tancred again; the rest had been at the Ralyn manor before the beginning of the new year.

Shyla had offered to let Zoe stay with her at the manor while Tancred went back into Elangsia, but Zoe had politely refused. She had already talked with Tancred at length and told him in no uncertain terms she wanted to be part of the movement to free the slaves. The excitement that came at the notion of another adventure, another challenge, was powerful incentive...not to mention it meant she would be at Tancred’s side too. The more she prayed and thought about it, the more she felt a gentle urge to go. Had it been Deus giving her a new assignment? Zoe was convinced it was.

That was perhaps one of the best decisions I’ve made yet, she thought privately. From December to April she and Tancred had gone throughout Elangsia with the remains of his band. Their tactics varied with each village, city, and slaver’s rendezvous point they visited. Sometimes they went in undercover, their weapons and intentions hidden. Other times they brashly walked into midnight slave auctions, which were always held in well-hidden areas—and announced that all the slaves were free in the name of the King and Queen of Elangsia.

The task brought a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment to Zoe. To see the hopelessness on the faces of the slaves changed to joy when they were freed, and to watch hundreds returned to their homes in Aerilya, was a pleasure like none other.
More than that, though, Zoe and Tancred’s relationship had deepened and expanded. They had learned to work together in a multitude of situations, most of them complicated or unpleasant. When raiding a heavily guarded cache of slaves in late March, the two of them had fought together so seamlessly they might have rehearsed it. Tancred trusted Zoe to watch his back; and she likewise knew he and his sword stood between her and whatever foes tried to hurt her.

But beyond the fighting aspects of their relationship, their spiritual depth had increased drastically. Tancred was far deeper than Zoe had ever imagined. His spiritual insight had grown invaluable to her. Every night they sat in the camp with the men around a fire and discussed Deus and His ways. Zoe’s faith seemed to grow stronger with each passing day. She was in the center of His will for her and it brought of feeling of contentment like nothing else could.

Then the letter had come.

When Zoe received Taerith’s missive by way of a falcon some months ago, it had taken her a whole day to get over the shock of it all. It had been short and to the point: “Dear brothers and sisters, come home.”

She did not know how many times she had devoured those six short words, struggling to grasp their meaning. Does he really mean home? As in, Braedoch Forest? All of us? Who will come? Who yet lives? What has happened to them all? What changes have occurred?

So many questions. And now here she was at long last; back at Braedoch; and answers were within her reach.

A forked birch, its main limbs twisted oddly, grabbed Zoe’s attention and dragged her back to the present. “We’re close,” she told Tancred, her heart seizing with excitement.

Tancred glanced over at her. “You recognize this place?”

“That tree. I could never forget it.” She slipped off Brac and grabbed his reins. Eyes sparkling, she glanced up at Tancred. “I’m going to walk in from here. It’s but a twenty minute hike, if my memory serves me well.”

He nodded his assent. Before he could even dismount, Zoe had plunged on, leading Brac as she jogged further into the depths of the forest. The stallion snorted and broke into a trot to keep up with her. The ground was slightly squishy from late spring downpours and her boots squelched as she hurried up a rise that was covered with pines. As she struggled to the top, Zoe released Brac’s reins and grabbed hold of a pine bough to help her keep her balance. She reached the top a moment later, panting slightly, and gazed down.

Her heart stopped.

Grip tightening on the branch she clutched, Zoe’s eyes fastened unto the flash of achingly familiar dark red hair she had fleetingly glimpsed. It had to be... Is it? Could it... It could not be anyone else. Sam! Twin!

“Tancred,” gasped Zoe, whirling and looked down. “Take Brac, please....”

“Just go,” he said mildly, reaching out and grabbing Brac’s reins as he came up.

She needed no more encouragement. Spinning around again, Zoe tore down the slope toward the spot she had seen the reddish glint. Sam, Sam, Sam... his name thundered through her brain, shooting adrenaline into her veins and giving her strength to pump her limbs faster as she sprinted on. She topped a little hillock and there he was, sitting in the hollow with his back to her, holding a bow and wearing a leather quiver.

“Ahhh!” she yelled, flinging herself at him. He leapt to his feet and whirled, a startled look on his face as she hurtled toward him in a blur of motion. “Sam!”

Before he could react she rammed into him, throwing them both off-balance and toppling them to the ground. Rolling around a couple times, Zoe ended up on top, grinning down at him. Her eyes connected with his startled gray-green gaze. “Zoe?”

“Yeah! It’s me!” She jumped off him and grabbed his hand to pull him up too. With a cry of delight he leapt up and engulfed her in a tight hug, his arms swallowing her completely. With a half-laugh, half-gasp, Zoe managed, “You’ve certainly gotten stronger!”

“You’re stronger too,” he said, pulling back. “Let me look at you. You’re so...different.”

Zoe’s eyes ran over her twin’s face and she slowly sobered, though her heart still pounded with exhilaration. “You’re changed as well,” she said, trying to calm down.
Sam was twenty-one now, like her. They were still roughly the same height as each other, but he was broader and stronger than before. His hair had darkened a little, and his eyes held much more than they once had back in the old, innocent days. Like her, Sam had been faced with hardship and pain. His face had matured as well, giving him the look of a man, rather than a boy.

Reaching forward she gently touched a lock of his hair and said, “You grew up.”

“Me?” he shot back, his tone reminiscent of the years of teasing she had taken from him. “What about you? You” he searched for words and then his gaze dropped to the daggers she had in her belt and the sword strapped to her back. A faint smile touched his lips. “You look like a warrior. What have you been up to, Twin?”

She smiled ruefully. “I’ve been in a war,” she admitted. “I’m proficient with these weapons, so watch yourself.”

“As if you weren’t proficient before.”

“Hey, you and I both know that three years ago, I had a lot to work on,” she grinned.


Surprised, Zoe turned around at the sound of a feminine voice. For a second she assumed it must be one of her sisters, but one glance at the figure standing in front of her made her discard that thought immediately. A young woman of medium height and slender build had appeared behind them. She wore a dress made of pale, soft green material that was belted around her hips with a wide, bright sash.

“Who are you?” asked Zoe bluntly and without thinking.

The girl smiled slightly, not appearing taken aback in the least by Zoe’s cool greeting. “I am (not going to tell you her name because it would ruin part of Sam's story--we'll call her "G" as a code name),” she said simply. “You must be Zoe.”

“Yes,” Zoe replied, surprised. “But how—”

“I’ve told G a lot about you,” Sam said, stepping around Zoe and walking toward the young woman. He slipped his arm around her waist and looked back at his twin, a strange light in his eyes. “She comes from the region of Rimera, the place where I began my journeys three years ago. She came back with me.”

Zoe’s eyebrows rose by increments as he talked. Understanding slowly dawned and her mouth dropped slightly ajar. “You mean to say you two are...” she paused, her gaze dropping to the hold Sam had on G’s waist, “I mean you’re...that is...?”

G laughed outright as Sam answered, “Yeah.”

“Oh,” Zoe said, fighting her astonishment. Why are you so surprised? You have Tancred; why can’t Sam have this G? Walking forward she addressed the young woman,
“It’s a pleasure to meet you. I hope...we’ll be...good friends.”

“If you live up to the stories your brother has told me, I’m sure we’ll get along wonderfully,” G assured Zoe with a merry smile.

“What has he been telling you?” Zoe asked, shooting a suspicious glance at Sam, who suddenly looked all too innocent.

“Oh, nothing much,” he interjected hastily.

“Sure...” she muttered, eyes narrowed. “I’ll let that pass this once. Come on, sit down, tell me about what has happened to you.”

They sat down and Sam said curiously, “Did you walk all the way back? Where did you travel from?”

“Over the mountains from a country called Aerilya—” Zoe stopped abruptly and then glanced back the way she had come. Tancred. “I, um, rode Brac, actually.”

“Where is he?”

“Over...there.” She motioned slowly toward the hill she had run down.

“You just left him?” Sam stared at her, clearly disbelieving. “What aren’t you telling me?”

Now it was her turn to smile innocently. “Well, little brother, you’re not the only one who has brought back companions from foreign lands,” she began, her stomach twisting strangely.

“Companions...” Sam repeated quietly, his eyes still trained on her face.
Without warning he reached forward and grabbed her left hand. Shock shot across his features. On her finger glimmered a ring fashioned from two gold strands woven together and inset with a fiery red gem. Tancred had given it to her just the month before. They were not yet formally betrothed, but Tancred had made it more than clear that the ring was a symbol of his claim on her. The two of them were not quite ready for marriage, though Zoe knew it was only a matter of time.
Sam shook his head disbelievingly. “No. Zoe, who in the world did you dig up...who did you find who managed to...?”

Her grin simultaneously grew wider and much more hesitant. “His name’s Tancred.”
“Where in the world is he? I must congratulate him,” Sam exclaimed, releasing her fingers and jumping up. “He must be a man of exceptional valor,” he added in a mutter.

Zoe rose to her feet too and punched Sam lightly in the shoulder. “Hey! I’m not that bad, am I?”

“Do you want me to answer that?”

G laughed as Zoe shot Sam a mutinous look. “Yes, you’re exactly as he described you,” she told Zoe.

Zoe smiled back. “I’ve changed some but not a whole lot. Now you two hang on. I’ll get Brac and...Tancred.”

“Make it fast,” Sam ordered.

“Bossy, bossy,” she teased, jogging away. She topped the hill and looked down. Tancred stood halfway down the slope on the other side, stroking Chale’s muzzle. He glanced up, his eyes connecting with hers. “You all right?” he asked as she hurried down toward him.

“Oh, Tancred,” she exclaimed under her breath. Impetuously she threw her arms around him. He laughed and hugged her back, his grip firm and reassuring. “Sam is right over that hill. My brother. My twin! And,” she pulled back and looked up at Tancred, “a girl.”

He chuckled at the tone in her voice. “You begrudge him finding a girl when you bring me back with you?” he challenged, holding up her hand so that her ring shimmered just in front of her eyes.

She smirked at him. “I never said logic was my strongest suit. I’m just surprised. Besides, last time I checked, this ring wasn’t a marriage proposal.”

“You’re right; it’s insurance,” Tancred said, an amused twinkle entering his gaze.

“Insurance?” she asked, feeling suddenly suspicious.

He squeezed her hand and then released it. “So no other man would get ideas about trying to take what’s mine.”

Zoe just laughed.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if most of your siblings have someone with them,” Tancred continued, tossing Brac’s reins at her. “You and Sam are the youngest and you both apparently have brought a significant other with you.”

“I’ll have to ask him if the rest of them are back yet, and, if so, if they brought someone with them.” She hesitated. “It will certainly be different with so many new faces....”

“It’s not like it wouldn’t have happened one day anyway.”

“But it’s so sudden. You can joke about it now, but wait until Kristalyn finds out about you and me. And one day, you’ll have to deal with her meeting a guy.”

“That will be the day,” Tancred replied, his lips twisting wryly as they started up the hill with Brac and Chale.

Sam and G were walking toward them by the time Zoe and Tancred reached the base of the hill together. Zoe studied G carefully and privately decided they made a fine looking couple—though she would withhold that opinion until she had seen more of what this girl with the easy grin was made of, she thought decisively.

Sam and Tancred appeared to be sizing each other up. Zoe glanced from one to the other, surprised at how Tancred seemed to dwarf her twin. He had to be four or five inches taller than Sam.

Slowly, Sam said, “So. You’re Tancred.”

“Aye.” Tancred extended a hand and the two locked forearms in a solid handclasp. “And you are Zoe’s twin—Sam?”

“Yes. This is G, my fiancée,” Sam introduced his companion and she curtsied in a graceful but distinctly foreign manner.

“Good day, sir,” she said to Tancred.

“Greetings, lady,” he replied cordially, inclining his head respectfully at her.

“All right, enough of the awkwardness,” Zoe broke in. “Sam, first: what has happened to Duard?”

“Aiden battled him,” Sam said seriously, finally taking his gaze off Tancred and settling it back to Zoe. “Almost killed him, too.”

“I wondered if that might have happened,” Zoe nodded slowly. “But he didn’t kill him?”

“No.” Sam said nothing for a long time. “I don’t think I should say anything more. You need to ask Aiden—and Taerith—yourself.”

“Taerith is home too?” exclaimed Zoe. “That’s great! But, Sam, you must tell me this at least: is Duard dead?”

Again, Sam hesitated tellingly. “Yes.” He cleared his throat and continued, “Believe me, there’s more to the story than you know. Aiden and Taerith did not share very much about what transpired with Duard, and I did not ask. All I know is that before Duard passed on, he gave his blessing on our clan.” Sam sent G a glance that was laden with meaning. “Which actually does make sense if you know a little of the backstory,” he added quietly.

It was all very hard to believe. The man who had so callously dismissed her family had on his deathbed blessed them? I’ll have to talk to Taerith about it sometime soon, she thought, her brow wrinkled.

“What backstory?” asked Tancred.

“I’ve found out a lot about our parents that you might like to hear,” Sam told them, his expression more wise and weary than Zoe had ever seen it.

“What is it, Sam?” Zoe cocked her head in confusion.

“I thought they were murdered,” Tancred inserted, leaning forward and focusing on Sam.

“Oh, they were,” Sam told him. “But G and I worked on tracking their history and finding out why they were killed in the first place. And by whom. It’s a very…interesting story.”

“By whom?” asked Zoe. “Who else but Duard?”

Sam smiled tightly, but his expression was completely devoid of humor. “Before I left Braedoch, Aiden challenged me to find out about our past, our parents, and why we were targeted. I found it; but the answers I found are more than a little surprising.”

“And it’s a long tale,” G added quietly. Her eyes were filled with soberness that struck Zoe. What had Sam and this girl been put through? “But it really was quite a journey and a story worth telling.”

“I cannot wait to hear it,” Zoe replied. “And I would stay and listen now but...” she shrugged and finished in a low tone, “I need to go see the others too. Is anyone other than Aiden and Taerith home yet?”

“Everyone except you and Arnan. I was beginning to worry you weren’t coming, or that you couldn’t come for some reason.” Sam’s expression grew somber, but he seemed to shake of the cloak of sobriety after a moment. “Anyway, I was impatient for your arrival and went hunting this morning, hoping you might come this way since I was told that when you left it was toward the mountains.”

“I’m glad you were out here,” Zoe said warmly. “Your face is one of those I most wished to see again. But tell me, have the rest of the gang with them too?”

Sam chuckled and was joined by Tancred and G’s laughter. “Friends? You mean friends like G and your Tancred, right?”

She shrugged, grinning impishly. “Yeah, I guess so.”

“So far everyone has brought somebody back with them,” G inserted, looping her arm through Sam’s and smiling.

Zoe’s jaw dropped. “Really?” she breathed. “Everyone?”

“Aiden was home first,” Sam said at last, looking at Zoe knowingly. He knew she would want to see their oldest brother next. “He’s greeting everyone. I think he’s viewing this as his last assignment and duty. He saw us all off; now he is seeing us all back home.”

Heart full, Zoe bit her lip. It was on the tip of her tongue to ask “And did he bring a girl with him?” but she found she could not get the words out. He can tell me himself, she decided. If Sam said everyone had brought somebody back, Aiden must have too...but Zoe did not want to think of that yet. It was too weird thinking of all the new men and women she would have to associate with and accept as part of her family without considering the fact that her big brother, her inspiration and guide, had fallen in love with a girl. It would change so much.

“I have to go see him,” she said, standing up abruptly. “You two going to come back with us?”

G and Sam exchanged a glance. “We’re walking back,” G said. “You both have horses, so go ahead and ride on.”

With a shrug, Zoe agreed. She swept Sam into another close embrace and murmured, “I’ll see you back at home, Twin.” The word home caught in her throat, but she pushed past the emotion and forced her voice to be calm.

She could hear the smile in his words as he replied, “Aye, Zoe. Love you.”

“I love you too,” she murmured, pulling back and swinging up on Brac simultaneously. She looked down at G and half-smiled. “It was good meeting you, G. I hope we find time to spend together soon.”

“I would like that,” G nodded, a smile lighting up her face.

Zoe and Tancred turned their stallions around and Zoe took of at a canter, cutting around trees with ease. Brac was pleased to be going again and he went onward at a brisk clip. Zoe’s hair, worn loose, blew back in the wind like a fiery curtain. Happiness surged through her veins, but it was not yet complete. Nay, before contentment could truly settle over her, she had to first see one more person.
And Deus willing, she thought, I’m on my way to him right now.


Ten minutes later, Tancred swung off Chale and moved past Zoe to take the lead for a moment. Zoe was too enthralled with her surroundings to notice or really care. Tancred led the stallion around a sharp corner in the twisting forest path, so that Zoe and Brac were out of view behind thick bushes and trees. High spirited even after another day spent journeying, Chale butted Tancred’s shoulder playfully.
Movement on the path up ahead caught Tancred’s eye and he stopped. Two figures stood on the path facing him, perhaps twenty feet away. A second later Tancred recognized them both, but the shock that the recognition brought with it immobilized him for a long moment.

One was a young woman with sunny hair, sparkling green eyes, and golden-brown skin. Kristalyn! What was she doing there? This is Braedoch Forest, not Mairbrac. We’re not in Aerilya anymore. Why is she here? What had he missed? And as swiftly as his joy arose at seeing his sister safe and looking well, when Tancred’s gaze shifted to the tall figure standing beside Kris, it evaporated and his nerves resonated with deep, raw shock.

The man was tall and strong of build, with a thatch of almost black hair that overshadowed a deeply tanned face. Dressed in the simple clothes of a woodsman but standing erect and poised as any capable warrior, his dark blue gaze pierced the distance and met Tancred’s. Recognition, shock, wariness, and more flashed through those eyes, matching Tancred’s inward thoughts perfectly.

For they had met before, and each man remembered the encounters.

They had parted months ago, and each man thought they’d never see each other again.

Tancred knew the man who stood beside Kristalyn only as “Assassin.” There must be more to him and his past but at the point Tancred didn’t care, couldn’t think, wouldn’t wait. The only thing he knew was that Kristalyn was in danger as long as she was near this killer. And Tancred would die before he allowed anyone, much less a mercenary from Elangsia, harm his sister.

Dropping Chale’s reins, Tancred’s hand shot up and he had wrenched his broadsword out of its sheath almost before he knew what he was doing. Almost simultaneously, the assassin’s sword was out as well, its familiar steel blade glinting in the sunlight. Tancred took three strides forward when Kristalyn moved quickly to stand in front of the assassin.

“Tancred, wait!” Kristalyn commanded, her voice calm but forceful.

Before he could decide how to respond, a footfall was heard on the path behind him. Without turning, Tancred knew that Zoe had rounded the bend.

What he hadn’t expected was what she said when she came into view. “Aiden!”



Aiden was Zoe’s brother. Zoe’s oldest brother. The one who had given her Brac. The one she longed to see the most. But…this man, this assassin—he was Aiden? The man who had been sent to kill Tancred in Ruma? This was Zoe’s brother?


Zoe struggled to take in everything before her. She had recognized Aiden the second she rounded the bend, but immediately after the first rush of joy she had abruptly seen that something had gone very wrong. Tancred was not looking at her; his gaze was trained instead on Aiden and the person who stood halfway in front of him—a golden-haired young woman who seemed strangely familiar though Zoe hardly spared her a glance. But more than that, Tancred’s broadsword was out and his body was tense as it was only just before he engaged in battle. Aiden stood in a stance that matched Tancred’s exactly, down to the drawn weapon.

But what was the most shocking was the hostility that shone from Aiden’s eyes as his gaze transferred from Zoe back to Tancred. Confusion racked Zoe, spinning her thoughts as though they were an eddy in a river. What was the matter with Aiden—or Tancred for that matter? Why did they look like they were ready to charge at each other and begin hacking away until one of them was the victor? There was no time for her to demand answers from either of them, though Tancred’s name was forming on her lips, for at that moment Aiden reached out, shoved the golden-haired girl out of his way, and stepped forward, his intentions clear by his antagonistic demeanor.

Tancred, never one to back away from a fight, began to advance too. Zoe didn’t understand what was happening, but she knew she had no time; she simply had to act. Dropping Brac’s reins to the ground, she sprinted forward, drawing her sword as she went. Darting in front of Tancred, her chin lifted defiantly, she threw herself between the two men and brandished her sword. Aiden was being unreasonable, and she would not let him hurt Tancred if it meant she had to fight her big brother herself.

Aiden’s shock at her bold move was impossible to miss. Zoe struggled to know what to say, what to do at this point. Nothing came to mind, so she just stayed where she was: her sword remaining upright, a tangible barrier between Aiden and Tancred.

A slight movement to Zoe’s right was picked out by her peripheral vision and caught her attention, though her gaze remained trained on Aiden. It was soon followed by an unfamiliar feminine voice.

“They won’t move, Zoe. You’ve stopped them for now.” A pause followed, and Zoe struggled to concentrate on the meaning of the woman’s words. “My name is Kristalyn. I realize you don’t know me, but I know quite a lot about you. The man you are with is my brother, Tray.”

Zoe lowered her sword a fraction, and turned her head slightly so that her eyes met the calm green gaze of the young woman who was with Aiden. Kristalyn. This was Kristalyn; the one Zoe had wanted to meet. Tancred’s beloved little sister.

“Why do you call him Tray?” The inane question was out before Zoe could stop it.

Kristalyn only laughed. “It’s my childhood nickname for him. When we were young, his name was just too hard to say.”

Just then Aiden’s sword sank and he stepped forward, coming to a stop just beside Kristalyn. At the same time Tancred moved up to Zoe’s side. But this time Aiden’s gaze was not on Tancred; it was completely focused on Zoe.

“Zoe? Kristalyn?” Aiden’s voice was quiet and unsure. His eyes burned into Zoe’s as he repeated in a near whisper, “Zoe?”

Zoe’s sword blade dropped all the way this time and she stepped toward Aiden, compassion rising. Reaching out her left hand, she rested it lightly on his shoulder. She might not understand everything that was going on, but the fact remained that this was Aiden, and she had long desired to see him. The circumstances weren’t ideal, but still…. Forcing reassurance into her voice she said, “I’m here, Aiden.”

Tancred’s fingers dug into Zoe’s shoulder and he pulled her away from Aiden in a none-to-gentle way, simultaneously stepping in front of her she that she was mostly behind him. “Stay away from her, Assassin,” he said, his words ringing out in a cold, hard manner Zoe had rarely heard from him.

She twisted out from beneath Tancred’s hand and stared at him, confused and touched with anger. “Assassin? What are you talking about, Tancred? This is my brother.”
“How dare you tell her of that!” Aiden sounded completely enraged, which drew Zoe’s attention back to him. Aiden glared at Tancred, fairly glowing with fury. “You’re trying to turn her against me,” he accused Tancred. “What else have you done to her?”

Before Tancred or Zoe could respond, Kristalyn broke in, her voice softer than before. “It is her.”

Zoe turned toward Kristalyn, as did Aiden and Tancred. Utter confusion blanketing Zoe’s mind, dulling her thoughts just when she needed them to be sharp. What was going on?! Deus, help me!

“You are the girl from Ruma,” Kristalyn stated, clearly addressing Zoe.

“Ruma? When were you ever in Ruma?” demanded Tancred of his sister, incredulity highlighted by his words.

“I was trying to save your life, Tray, but Aiden decided to spare it anyway,” said Kristalyn.

Zoe’s head spun. “Wait—what?” she demanded, completely lost.

Ruma? Kristalyn had been in Ruma? More importantly, Aiden had been in Ruma. Had she been so close to her big brother and oblivious to his presence? Zoe might have been upset about that fact had not Kristalyn’s last words been so odd. What did she mean about Aiden decided to spare Tancred’s life? What am I missing? She was about to ask Kristalyn just that when Tancred’s sister began a much-needed explanation.

“Aiden was sent to kill the Hunter. I found out and went after him. We landed in Ruma where we watched Tray and a mystery girl who must have been you, Zoe.”

Zoe was still stuck on “Aiden was sent to kill the Hunter” so she just nodded mindlessly to confirm that she was in fact the girl Kris had seen.

Kristalyn continued: “Anyway, Aiden made more than one attempt on Tray’s life; however, I was able to stop him. Until Aiden himself saw what he had missed before.” Kristalyn stopped for a moment and looked Tancred. “Tray, you and Aiden are a lot alike, and you both know it. It is the reason Aiden spared your life when he could have killed you.” Zoe was so intent on listened to Kristalyn that she almost missed the glance that passed between Tancred and Aiden. “But what you don’t know is that Aiden is the one who helped me to stop the Wild Men. Without him, they would have entered the battle, and we would have lost.”

“The battle,” Zoe murmured, trying to assimilate all the information Kristalyn was presenting. She looked at Aiden, her eyes narrowing slightly. “I saw you there, or at least I thought I did.”

Aiden glared over at Tancred and challenged, “You let her join the battle?”

“I’d have liked to see you stop her,” Tancred replied immediately, his tone still touched with anger, but not as much as before.

Aiden didn’t say anything for a moment, but finally he glanced at Zoe and said, “Still my Firebrand, I see.” He glared back at Tancred and added firmly, “But that gives you no right to endanger her.”

“I chose to go to battle, Aiden,” Zoe said decisively. She paused and then added in a quieter voice, “I’m not just your Firebrand anymore. I’ve grown up. I made my own choice.”

Shock at her declaration shot across Aiden’s features. And with good reason. Three years ago Zoe would have never said something like that. Aiden was her first allegiance back then, the one she would have always rallied behind. Now, it was crystal clear to Aiden that Tancred held that position.

“Aiden.” Kristalyn’s voice was soft and drew Aiden’s once-more shocked gaze from Zoe’s face. Zoe watched as something was communicated between the two of them, something Zoe couldn’t decipher.

Aiden finally looked back at Zoe and said very quietly, “Very well, Zoe, you’ve made your choice as only you can.”

“Belittling her choices won’t bring her back to depending on you again,” inserted Tancred, almost warningly. Zoe inwardly groaned. She knew Aiden had not been putting her down, though she also understood how Tancred might see Aiden’s words as disparagement.

“I would never belittle my sister,” Aiden replied hotly. “Can you say the same?”

“Aiden! Tancred!” Zoe said sharply, stepping forward so that she was again positioned at Tancred’s side but facing Aiden directly. “That’s enough from both of you. First of all, Tancred, Aiden would never belittle me. Second of all, you have to calm down, Aiden. Tancred is not replacing you. You are still, and always will be, my big brother.”

At that moment, the sound of clear laughter rang out in the air, sounding completely foreign after the heated emotions that still hung in the air. Zoe looked over at Kristylan in disbelief. Was she mocking them?

“You should listen to yourselves,” she said. “Face it; neither one of you has to like this, but you’re both going to accept it. Tray, I’m in love with Aiden. And Aiden, unless I miss my guess, Zoe is in love with Tancred.”

“You’re in love with him?” demanded Tancred. “Kris, he tried to kill me in Ruma!”
“Yes, but then he saved your life and mine. Besides, we’ve covered this already. Aiden is a good man, Tray. If you’d give him a chance and stop being so stubborn, you’d know that.”

Zoe glanced from Kris to Tancred to Aiden…and then back to Kristalyn. “You’re in love with Aiden?” she asked bluntly.

“I am,” Kris replied firmly. “And I’m going to be living here from now on.”

Zoe blinked at the assurance in Kristalyn’s words. Tancred didn’t take it so calmly. “Living here from now on?” he repeated, quiet but incredulous. “You’re just leaving your life, your friends, and your family without a glance back? Were you planning on ever telling me this, Kristalyn? Or were you just going to disappear without a trace or a simple goodbye?”

Sorrow passed over Kristalyn’s face. “Is that what you think of me now, Tray? That I would tell you nothing and never return? I’ve hated being away from you for so long. But, just as Zoe is now your first alliegiance, so is Aiden mine. And though I would hope to return home often, his place is here and mine at his side. Surely now you can understand that.” Gently Kristalyn tipped her head toward Zoe, making her point impossible to miss.

She spoke the truth, and Zoe knew it. Aiden and Tancred looked less convinced.

Moving slowly but with purpose, Zoe lifted her sword and slid it back into its scabbard on her back. She turned her head to Tancred and said simply, “She’s right.” Clearing her throat, Zoe gently laid her hand on Tancred’s right forearm, which was taut from gripping his sword’s hilt for so long. “My place is beside you, and your sister’s is to be by my brother. And while it will take some getting used to, I know in the end it will be better than any other outcome. Deus’s hand is in this.”

Kristalyn agreed, “This is the best way.” She smiled at Aiden—an expression that revealed even more of her deep, unique beauty—and then turned to include Zoe and Tancred. “We now have two homes that we will live in, and our paths, rather than being split, have been joined.”

Aiden sheathed his sword. “Kristalyn is right. But for this moment, you are at our old home, and it is once again ours. Come on, Zoe, let’s find our siblings and enjoy it all together.”

He raised his right arm in invitation and Zoe stepped forward to give him a side hug that brought back hundreds of childhood memories all at once. Though she relished the security of his arm around her, one worrisome thought still plagued her: what did Tancred think of all this? He still had not said anything.

Drawing back from Aiden, Zoe glanced at Tancred and met his eyes. He stood there: tall, strong, and capable; his sword still unsheathed and face unsmiling. What was he thinking? Would he remain stubborn and unyielding? Please, Tancred, Zoe silently asked him with her gaze.

After another long moment, Tancred lifted his sword and sheathed with a rasp of steel that rang with finality. “Sounds like a plan,” he said at last, a grin breaking through his impassive features as he relaxed. Kristalyn laughed, and then walked forward to be embraced by her brother.

After they pulled apart, Zoe smiled first at Aiden, the one who had freed her to become Firebrand, and then at Tancred, the man who held her heart. “Let’s go home.”


Zoe struggled up the steep, forested hill that rose a quartermile behind the Romany home. It had been a favorite haunt of hers during her growing up years and she had yet to visit it, though she had been home for close to two weeks now. It had been a marvelous time of sharing, remembering, learning, and reaching out. There were many new faces and names to learn and tales to tell. Some siblings were married; children and animals overran the house and stables; and all nine of the Romanys had been vastly changed by their years away.

The sun was setting and cast its crimson and orange rays across the green boughs of Braedoch. Zoe reached the crest of the hill and stopped, awed to stillness by the sight before her. The hilltop was curiously bare of trees, providing a breathtaking view of the setting sun. The skyline was filled with clouds tinged gold, pink, orange, pale green, and cobalt. The sun itself was a dazzling orb of fire that slowly began sliding out of sight behind the distant Cirthian Mountains. Zoe wrapped her arms around her midsection and watched, her loose hair blowing back as a sweet breeze drifted by.

A twig snapped in the woods behind her, and then grass rustled as Tancred walked up the hill to join her. He stopped beside her and stared at the sunset for a long moment. “Deus’s gift for us tonight,” he stated in a low tone.

“Aye.” Zoe sighed and continued softly, “Sometimes I wish it would never end; that I could preserve nights like this and make them last forever. This beauty is so perfect—and so fleeting.”

Tancred wrapped an arm around her shoulders and she gratefully leaned into him, resting her head on his shoulder. They stood together companionably for another long silence as the sky changed infinitesimally with each passing moment.

“It’s almost time to return,” Tancred said at length.

Zoe’s arms crept around Tancred and she held unto him as though he were an anchor. “I know,” she whispered, knowing full well Tancred spoke of their pending return to Aerilya. “I’m sure it’s right, and that I will be happy because I will be in the center of Deus’s will. It’s just going to be hard to say goodbye.”

Tancred’s grip tightened. “Believe me, I know.”

“You have to leave Kristalyn,” murmured Zoe, empathizing.

He just nodded.

“We’ll make it through,” she told him, tilting her head up to look at him. “You know we’ll be back to visit her and Aiden, and they’ve already promised to visit us whenever they can. It’s like Kristalyn said—we have two homes now.”

“Aye.” Tancred looked down at her and smiled slightly. He shifted so that she stood in front of him, her arms still wrapped around him. “It is strange how things worked out, isn’t it? You come back here, only to leave once more for Kris’s homeland. Kristalyn leaves Aerilya, just to settle down and live in the same place you were raised.”

Zoe laughed. “I still find it hard to believe,” she admitted. “Deus is incredible.”

“That He is.” Tancred reached a hand up and ran his finger down her cheek. “I’m especially glad He saw fit to give you to me, Zoe Romany.”

Zoe’s lips curved up into a smile. “No, I’m the grateful one. For I, who wanted adventure and purpose, have found both in the Hunter of Mairbrac and the God he professes. There are still hundreds of slaves hidden throughout Elangsia who need to be rescued, bought, purloined, and otherwise snatched from the hands of those who would use dishonorably.” Zoe’s smile grew softer even as her eyes shone with conviction. “And who but the Hunter will do the rescuing, buying, purloining and snatching?”

“I see only one problem with this picture,” Tancred said, resting both his hands on Zoe’s shoulders. “You mention this Hunter as if he were a lone operative. You failed to mention his secret weapon—the fiery lady who fights at his side.”
Zoe laughed. “Ah, you’re right,” she said, tilting her head. “The Hunter and his Lady. I like the sound of that.”

Tancred’s eyes were lit with intensity as he looked down at her. The sun’s last rays burnished their features; the melodic summer wind whispered through the grass atop the hill. Tancred’s head came down; Zoe’s chin came up; and as the sun slipped behind the edge of the mountains, casting purple dusk across the land, the Hunter kissed his Lady.

And the harmony of two hearts joined to one by the hand and purpose of Deus Himself could be heard as it wended its way up into the velvety heavens while night fell over Braedoch Forest.


Saturday, September 13, 2008

brace yourselves

The end is coming.

Just to let you know, Zoe's end has been written. She died. So did Tancred. Bloody, horrible deaths.

Just kidding.

C'mon--laugh...BREATHE!! :)

I'm completely kidding, they are both alive and well to the best of my knowledge. I will be posting the end of their story here within the next couple days. I probably will not be posting the entire epilogue, simply because it discusses other characters' stories that we don't want disclosed here yet. Plus, I'm not even sure this version will be the final edited version. Anyway, hold on, get ready, and I promise it will be up soon.

You've all been a great bunch of readers/critiquers, and I've enjoyed the journey. I hope you're satisfied with my--uh, Zoe's--finale. Funny, I feel like it's my finale. I guess if I'm Zoe, it kinda is. (Too bad Tancred doesn't exist...JUST KIDDING!!!! *grin*) It's been quite a ride the last two years and I'm both happy and sad to see it end. On to a new tale, eh?

But for now, before I move on, I'm just going to relish the feeling of victory that comes after finishing such a story. It's a great feeling, and one I don't often get.

Until next time, my fine readers-


Monday, August 25, 2008

Hello All

First of all...I'm very sorry for my lack of communication this past month. I haven't meant to ignore you all or leave you waiting on pins and needles. My work schedule (yeah, I do have a normal life...I have a job and all that) really sped up in August. In fact, two weeks ago I worked every single day without any time off! Ahh!

Then, last week I was given a wonderful reprieve--Family Vacation. Oh, what a wonderful time. I was out of normal life for a whole blissful week of beach volleyball, swimming, canoeing, running, back- and front-flipping (off a diving board) and general fun-having. It was amazing and just what I needed. I was pretty burnt out and didn't exactly want to start my freshman year of college in such a state.

On that note, it's pretty weird that I'm a college student now. I'm so used to thinking of myself as a highschooler. Huh.

Anyway, to update you on Zoe. Firstly, in response to something "Mouse" wrote the other day, I have not been offended by the comments left here. Well, that's not strictly true...I have been in the past, but I hope I'm mature enough to have gotten over it, lol. And that is certainly not the reason there has been no movement in the story.

There will be no more chapters of Zoe. At least not if I'm not completely surprised by a burst of inspiration and write something that I have no idea about. Before you all start wailing and dying and complaining, hear me out. I will be writing an epilogue, a rather lengthy one that will probably appear as a "part something-or-other" in the final draft. I'm planning on dividing Zoe into parts and the epilogue will become one of those. The point is, I'm pretty sure everything you want to be resolved yet will be resolved in the epilogue. Aiden/Kristalyn/Zoe/Tancred will meet. Zoe and her twin will be reunited. Zoe will be home again, at least for a little while.

But, I'm afraid I can't promise how soon that will all be written and posted. Aiden and Zoe need to be on the same page (literally) before the epilogue can be properly written. I'm waiting on Charissa to some extent, to get Aiden to where he needs to be. Don't groan too loudly, he's actually almost there. :-) Once we're both ready, we can finish our stories at the same time. And then, I promise, we'll post it here. I'm hoping it will be worthy of all your patience and devotion. I've really enjoyed getting to know all of you through this story. So again, thanks for your patience and I will post more as soon as is feasible.

Thank you,

Thursday, July 17, 2008

time out!!


First of all, I want to thank those of you who left comments on Zoe's latest chapter--and, for that matter, on many, many chapters in the past. I appreciate your thoughts and honesty. Half of the reason we started the Romany Epistles project was so that we writers could grow in our art, and your feedback helps us do just that. I'm eager to grow in my abilities as a writer, and for that reason I have opened myself, and my work, up to criticism and encouragement both.

That being said, I'd like to reply to a few of the comments left for me here. There are quite a few "anonymous" comments, so hopefully you'll be able to sort through which ones are addressed to whom. :)

Anonymous #1: I completely understand what you are saying about me drawing out the ending. Many comments have been left to that effect, actually. Allow me to make it very clear to everyone out there--I KNOW THE ENDING IS TOO LONG AND DRAWN OUT. There. Was that loud and clear enough? I am not, and never have tried to, set myself up as the next Tolkien, who can write thousand-page books with long endings and multiple character stories to conclude. Nor, for that matter, have I written along the same lines as C. S. Lewis. Though I write Christian Fantasy, as did those two illustrious authors, I believe my style is quite different from theirs, and therefore any comparison is a little premature. Regardless of that, though--let me get back to the too-long ending of Zoe.

Something that I have not shared with many of you is that I have tried ending Zoe three different times, at different points earlier in the story. Each time, it came out so wrong, it would have been a disfavor to me and to my characters to post it. Therefore, I continued writing until I was able to write some sort of conclusion that was satisfying to me and Zoe and Tancred. Keep in mind that this is a First Draft of the story, and much of what you have read here over the last months will inevitably be cut in the final edition. I realize that I will have to shorten it a lot in order to get a decent Second Draft. I'm prepared to do that. But also give me a little grace, for though you may find the ending of my First Draft drawn-out, ridiculous, or just boring, it has been very difficult to pen (or...type). Not just because my characters are stubborn, but because this is my time to say goodbye to two very wonderful people who have become exceedingly real to me. Tancred is just as real to me as Zoe; and Zoe technically IS real because she's me. :) So, though you might be sick of them and their lengthy conclusion, and Zoe's stubbornness, please understand that 1) the Second Draft will cut a lot of the ending, and 2) I need time to say my goodbyes and right now, I'm doing that through a longer ending.

Anonymous #2: You wanted Aiden to be the one saving Zoe? LOL, I never would have thought of that. It WOULD have been an interesting, I'll give you that, but it would also break the rules we laid out at the beginning of the Romany Epistles project. One of the first rules was that the characters must never meet during the three years they are separated. Obviously you see Charissa and I walked a very, verrrry thin line with Aiden and Zoe--I mean, they practically DO meet, but in the end, it's still not a proper reunion. Zoe sees Aiden in the battle; Aiden's sent to assassinate Tancred. The whole story they're so close...but we never broke the rules laid out. So I'm sorry to disappoint, if you were hoping for Aiden, but that would have been blatantly violating some rules laid out early on.

I'm sorry that you're finding the ending boring. As I wrote above, the ending will be worked on. Right now I must say that my top priority is bidding my characters farewell. Then, I will go back and begin dissecting the story and making it better than it is now. Although, I must say you're making me a little nervous how you're writing to me-- "I know you will make the conclusion special just for Tancred and Zoe, not your typical hero/saviour idea." Hmm...well, okay! Hope your confidence is adequately placed it me.

Michelle: Thanks. I know you're all trying to help. I'm simply trying to make my point of view clear too. I appreciate everyone's input, though.

solagratiasolafide: I will definitely let Brittany know you want Sam! We're working on it. Slowly. But working on it. :)

Thank you all again for you input on Zoe. I've been very grateful for it. I'm sorry to those of you who have not been satisfied with it--but please remember this is only a First Draft.

Later and God Bless,

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Chapter XLVII - Confrontation

Hey Everyone!

Shocking, I know: two chapters in less than a week? I had to work hard at editing this next chapter, but it's ready now. It is not the last chapter, but it is the second to the last. I think. :-) I have to really think about the next chapter and what I want to put in it. So it may be a while before it's up. Orrr, inspiration might hit, you never know, and it might be up here for your perusal in a few days. With me, you just never know, haha.

Usually I'd reply to all of you who so kindly commented on my last chapter, but I have to work today and so I'd best not! I'm interested in your comments on this chapter. I rather think it's the one you've all been pestering me for for the last year (lol!), but I suppose I will find that out through the comments you leave. :-)

Until next time, then!


Zoe traveled north. The nights were cold and one morning she had to break a thin layer of crystal ice on the surface of a little creek for Brac to be able to drink. She filled her water jerkin and slung it over the horn of Brac’s saddle before mounting and beginning their journey anew.

Two long silent days passed in a similar manner. By the evening of the second one, Zoe couldn’t deny it anymore. She was lonely.

“It will fade,” she muttered under her breath as she worked on starting a fire to keep her warm. “It will fade. It will.”

Brac snorted and Zoe looked fiercely up at him. “You can be quiet,” she ordered. “It has to go away eventually.”

Her horse just stared at her evenly before dropping his head to crop a little patch of grass that looked to recently have been badly frostbitten. Brac would have to start searching harder for nourishment, especially if they continued trekking toward the Cirthian Mountains, as she had been doing thus far.

“You’re a lot of help,” Zoe continued muttering at Brac, disgruntled. “You just glare incriminatingly at me and then calmly go back to eating your dinner. Some companion you are.”

A twig snapped behind her and instantly Zoe snapped out of the rather juvenile tirade she had begun. Brac’s head shot up and his ears were pricked attentively. A couple brown, wilted grass stalks dangled from the corners of his mouth. Slowly Zoe turned her head to scan the terrain behind her. Was she truly as alone as she had assumed?

Thick bushes surrounded three of the four sides where she had elected to make her bivouac. Dusk was thickening with every passing moment, making it difficult to see much. The breeze rustled the leaves of the bushes. The last golden rays of the sun darkened to orange, then crimson, and finally followed the sun as it slipped away behind the curve of the world. Still Zoe remained in place, her muscles tight and ears attuned for anything that would alert her to the presence of an intruder. Brac was still tense as well, telling Zoe all was not well.

Slowly she moved her left hand to reach for her sword, which lay on the ground a short distance away. “Who’s out there?” she called into the growing gloom. “Show yourself.”

Silence followed, broken only by the stirring wind.

Zoe’s hand found the hilt of her sword and she pulled it closer.

Another little noise sounded—perhaps a stealthy footstep in the brush before her?—and Zoe’s head whipped around to the front. Switching her sword to her right hand, her eyes darted back and forth; scanning the bushes for signs of the intruder. Brac stamped his hooves. His ears twitched back and forth frenetically as he tried to pick up sounds around them.

Zoe rose to her feet. “Show yourself!” she called in as confident a voice as she could muster.

A low chuckle sounded behind Zoe and she whirled, unsheathing her sword in a second and brandishing the silver blade at the figure of a tall man. “What do you want?” she demanded, her gaze narrowed.

The man smiled at her, his teeth gleaming in the firelight. From what she could discern of him he was a couple inches taller than her and possessed a head full of blonde hair.

He was also armed, and his sword was out. She swiftly noted the easy way he held his long broadsword and guessed he was well used to combat. Careful, Zoe.

“Why, we saw your campfire, my lady,” he said in a smooth tone Zoe didn’t much care for. “And we thought we’d see if we could stay at another traveler’s fire for the night.”

“We?” she questioned bluntly.

“Aye.” The man motioned with his right hand and six other men stepped out of the bushes at various points around the small clearing. Brac whuffed loudly, stamping his front hooves uneasily. “Just a small group of us. The name’s Orin, little lady.”

“You’re not welcome here. I camp alone.”

The man’s smile broadened, but the result was an unpleasant expression that resembled a twisted grimace more than a smile. He stepped closer, backing Zoe up toward the fire. The heat of the flames washed over the back of her legs, but she did not flinch. Her mind was running at a frantic pace even as she kept a carefully schooled expression of disdain on her face. I could turn, grab my pack and swing unto Brac’s back if I had five seconds, she thought.

Five seconds. It was all she needed but she doubted she’d get it.

“Alone, my lady?” asked Orin with a little chuckle. “These are dangerous times to be without a protector.”

“I’m not holding this sword just to look pretty,” she retorted. “I can and certainly will use it on you and your men if you don’t leave immediately.”

One of the men behind her laughed but Zoe ignored him. “Surely you would not question one who has fought at the side of the Hunter,” she added, emphasizing Tancred’s well-known title.

Scorn flickered through Orin’s eyes. “You’ve been with the Hunter, have you little lady? Since when did that legendary benefactor start recruiting maidens to fight his battles?”

“Since never,” she shot back, refusing to let Tancred appear like a coward. “I volunteered.”

He cocked a brow. “Idealist, are you?”

“I prefer defender of justice.”

“I’m intrigued,” Orin said, stepping closer yet again. Zoe’s grip tightened on her sword hilt and she raised it a notch higher. He seemed to ignore the move and added, “Though I doubt your assets were used by the Hunter on the battlefield.”

“What exactly is that supposed to mean?” gritted Zoe. If only she could get to Brac. This conversation had moved far past uncomfortable, having long since entered the realm of dangerous.

“If what I’ve heard of the Hunter is true, he’s a wise fellow, if a trifle too heroic for my taste.” Orin glanced over at one of his companions and chuckled unpleasantly. “You’re a comely girl and I’m sure he enjoyed you while you were his.”

The color in Zoe’s cheeks drained away, leaving her face white with anger as the stranger’s insinuations became suddenly crystal clear to her. Her thoughts tumbled over each other in rapid succession, none of them making much sense. He was implying Tancred had—no, that Zoe’s honor and reputation were—that she was nothing more than a thing, an object of pleasure for the Hunter? As if she was! As if Tancred would...!

Sharp, cold anger surged through her, catching her up in a wave of emotion and impulse. Her sword swung up and connected with Orin’s before he had a chance to react. Pushing with all her strength, she managed to knock him off balance. Whipping around, she grabbed her pack from the ground and ran for Brac.

Before she could vault unto her stallion’s back, she was intercepted by one of Orin’s minions. “Not so fast,” he grunted as she tried to jerk away from him.

“Let…me…go!” she hissed. She brought her knee up hard into his groin and the man’s grip loosened immediately. A second later he fell to one knee with a moan. Zoe slammed the flat of her sword into the side of his head and he dropped the rest of the way to the ground without another sound.

A second later her blade was engaged with two others as a couple of the other men jumped in to fight her. Zoe parried and slashed as quickly as she could while searching for Brac. At some point in the confrontation with the man she just knocked out she had lost track of her horse. “Brac! Here boy!” she yelled into the air.

One of the men smirked at her. “That’s not going to work,” he taunted.

Zoe grunted as she swung at him. He jumped back out of her range but she pursued him, her sword blows coming faster and faster. Her training over the last year and a half had served her very well...and she was fueled by anger and adrenaline, so she was fighting even harder and faster than usual.

Just when she had the perfect blow lined up to take him out, another sword intercepted hers and distracted her from her target. Zoe wrenched around and found herself face to face with her original attacker, Orin.

“Didn’t your mother ever teach you not to travel alone?” he sneered as he expertly parried each of her furious attacks.

She did not reply as she concentrated on defeating him.

“You might not hold the sword just to look pretty, but you are,” he continued in the same oily tone that originally had put her on guard with him. “Pretty, I mean. The Hunter has good taste in his women.”

“I don’t care to hear your opinion on my physical appearance!” she gritted out, absolutely livid. “And I...” she grunted, as their swords swung off each other. “And I am not, and never was, the Hunter’s woman!”

She whirled under his swinging blade, escaping being wounded by a small margin. Though, something deep within warned her that this man was not looking to wound her. Rather he was looking to disarm her.

“Quite the independent one, aren’t you? You camp alone, fight alone, won’t accept honestly given compliments—”

“Not from you I don’t!” she responded in an explosive tone. Still, she noted with a trace of very real fear that her muscles were weakening as she continued her full fledged fighting. And even if I killed or disabled him, there would be five more to go through, she thought despairingly. She glimpsed the other men standing around her and Orin, their swords at the ready but stances casual. They weren’t concerned enough to help their leader fight her. Obviously they had already decided who would be the victor of this confrontation, and it was not Zoe. Two of them were busy restraining Brac, and therefore were distracted, but still Zoe was well aware she couldn’t take all of them on at once.

Deus? Help?!

“Ready to give up yet?” her attacker goaded.

Again Zoe didn’t reply, keeping her eyes trained on the flashing blade that snaked in and out of her own sword, threatening to disarm her any second. She held out for fifteen seconds more, but then the moment came. With a deft twist and sickening shriek of steel on steel, Zoe’s sword flew out of her hands to land two paces to her right. Panting hard, she just stood there for a moment, staring at Orin, who was smirking.

His sword lowered and he chuckled, though he was breathing hard as well. “You put up a good fight, better than I expected, little fire-maid—”


The dagger whipped through the air so swiftly and silently that for a moment all Zoe could do was stare at the handle that protruded from the blonde man’s neck. Who had thrown it? Orin’s eyes had gone wide with shock. His broadsword clattered to the ground and his hands rose halfway up to his neck as if he would pull out the weapon. A moment later he had collapsed forward to land face first in the dust.

A shadowy figure exploded out of the bushes to Zoe’s right, where the dagger had flown from. Moving with swift, catlike grace, the dagger-thrower yanked his weapon out of Orin’s neck and threw it without warning into another man’s chest. Without pausing to look at Zoe or explain his actions, the dark-clad figure drew a huge broadsword and advanced toward the first of the remaining men.

A surge of powerful, impossible hope overtook Zoe’s senses for a moment. Could it…had it been…?

“Are you going to stand there and watch or help me?” Tancred’s familiar voice rang out in the glade. He turned his head for a split second to glance over at her, his steel blue eyes connecting with her wide green ones; then he twisted back to focus on the man he fought.

Zoe needed no more encouragement. Bursting forward and to the left, she hit the ground in a roll and grabbed her sword again. She thrust herself to her feet and raised her sword into a ready position, facing the four men who yet remained. Tancred dispatched the one he engaged with a swift shove of his blade between the man’s ribs. Zoe sprang on the two men who were beside agitated Brac. Both of their swords were drawn but they had definitely been caught unaware; their expressions were a mixture of alarm and bewilderment at their swiftly changed circumstances.

She crossed blades with the first man, who swung his up to block her attack at the last second. The second man got involved very soon after; seeming to snap out of his apathetic state of shock fairly quickly once the action reached him. They were both skilled fighters, just like all the rest of the men. Who are they, anyway? wondered Zoe. Had Orin been a rogue Aerilyan, one who did not care for his country or its people? He and his small band of followers certainly had all the markings of being lawless brigands who preyed on lone travelers.

Zoe faltered for a second under the crushing blow of the dark-haired, well-muscled man she faced. Her arms trembled as she twisted out from beneath his blade and jumped to the side. The man’s sword slammed a few inches down into the dirt. He cursed as he wrenched his sword back up just in time to meet Zoe’s swiftly following attack.

“I swear…” he spat out as he parried her blows, “I’ll see you dead before I myself fall under your companion’s blade!”

Zoe’s eyes flashed but she didn’t say anything to him as she spun and blocked a blow from the second man that came from her left. The second man was not as good as his dark-haired companion and she disarmed him with a quick, instinctive move that her muscles remembered and performed without any extra effort on her part. The man’s sword flew across the glade, through the leaping flames of the fire, to land on the other side of the glowing coals. The man she’d just disarmed simply stared at her with wide eyes and mouth agape for a moment, and then fell to his knees to plead for his life.

Panting from the exertion, Zoe was about to knock him out so she could deal with him later when her peripheral vision warned her she was about to be attacked from the side. Whirling, she lifted her blade to deflect the attack of the fast-approaching dark-haired man.

It never came. Before she or her attacker could do anything, Tancred appeared, planting himself firmly between her and her target. Zoe pulled to a quick stop, surprised; and watched mutely, wondering what Tancred would do.

She didn’t have to wonder for very long. Tancred batted aside the man’s blade with one ringing blow. It hit the ground with a dull metallic clank and skidded a short distance. Flipping his own broadsword around, Tancred slammed it point-first into the soft, broken-up dirt, and had a knife at the man’s throat before Zoe could even blink. Silence fell over the glade, broken only by the raspy, panicked breathing of the man Tancred had at knifepoint. For all his bravado of a moment before, the man look completely terrified now that he was faced with an opponent somewhat more intimidating that Zoe.

“What was that you said?” Tancred asked in a low, deceptively cool voice.
“I…I don’t know…” the man started, but stopped abruptly as Tancred’s knife dug deeper and a trail of blood ran down his neck.

“Allow me to refresh your memory. You promised to see her dead before you fell by my hand, did you not?”

A moment of silence followed, in which the man’s eyes darted from Tancred to Zoe and back again, and Zoe kept careful watch on the other man she had disarmed but not knocked out.

“Am I correct?” Tancred’s tone was colder than ice.

“Y-yes,” the man managed in a pitiful whisper. His Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed convulsively, which only made the pressure on his throat worse. He gazed at Zoe again, this time for longer.

“Stop looking at her,” Tancred ordered harshly, jerking the man’s tunic so that his frightening gaze flew back to Tancred. Tancred’s knife ground even harder against the man’s unshaven throat, making the brigand convulse in fear. “If your pathetic mind assumed for one second you could kill her before I reached you, you were sorely mistaken.”

“Please…don’t kill me,” the man rasped out. “Please, for the love of all that’s right…”

Tancred shook the man, tension emanating from every line of his body. Zoe could see his bicep muscles bulging as he strained to keep from taking out all his frustration on the man in front of him.

“The love of all that is right?” mocked Tancred. “You’re telling me that you came to assault this woman tonight while thinking of ‘all that is right’? Why, you’re just one noble specimen of manhood, aren’t you.”

“Tancred…” Zoe said softly. Her voice was level, to her astonishment. She was still in shock that Tancred was there, much less defending her with such emotion and gusto. It was so good to see him again. Something deep within her cringed, though, for a reunion with him was but the foreshadowing of yet another painful separation.

After another long moment that fairly crackled with tension, Tancred shoved the man away from him. The dark-haired man stumbled back and fell to the ground, gasping with relief. “Get out of here,” Tancred ordered him in a tone that brooked no argument. “You too,” he added to the mute man Zoe had disarmed earlier.

Without another word to them, Tancred sheathed his knife and pulled his sword out of the ground. Sliding it into its sheath on his back, he turned and grabbed Zoe’s arm and Brac’s reins to lead them away. The four of them made their way through the bushes, stopping once to collect Tancred’s golden-bay, Chale, and the leather pack that was on the ground by the stallion’s hooves. A minute later, they emerged from the scrub trees and bushes into the clear moonlight, the silence between them still not broken. A roadway stretched out before them like a ribbon of silver. Tancred, having again gripped Zoe’s arm, led them down it with a quick, confident stride.

Zoe said nothing as they walked together. Part of her was thrilled by Tancred’s firm but gentle touch at her elbow, guiding her beside him in a way that felt surprisingly natural. The other part of her wanted answers. Why was Tancred here? How had he known where she was? She was grateful for his assistance—he had saved her life, not to mention her honor—but she had to know why he was there.
She halted.

Tancred stopped too and turned to face her. Light from the twinkling stars accentuated his handsome features as he towered above her. His eyes, highlighted with moonsilver, shone down at her.

“What is it?”

She surveyed him for a long moment. “What are you doing here?” she whispered at last, her most pressing inquiry spilling out.

“I should think it’s obvious,” he replied, a faint but oh-so-familiar smirk appearing on his lips. “I’m rescuing you, of course.”

She shook her head, backing up a step. “Tancred, why are you here?” she repeated, her voice becoming tight with tension. “How did you know I was here? Your timing was better than impeccable but...why? How?”

He smiled softly, looking amused. “Zoe, you’re so quick to doubt. When you left, I told you I would be remembering and watching you. Did you forget?”

Zoe just stared at him for a full thirty seconds, her mind working. No, of course she had not forgotten his parting words. They were all she had dwelled on for the last two weeks. Just whenever she thought the pain of being apart from him was lessening, she would remember the look in his eyes when they parted, or the tone of his voice when he bade her farewell, and all the pain and hurt erupted anew.
“You’ve been following me?” she questioned incredulously.

He nodded once. “You couldn’t possibly think me the type of man to let you just walk away from me.”

Frustration and joy vied for top position. “You’ve been close by this whole time?” she demanded.

He merely gave her an amused smile.

Frustration won. “Why didn’t you ever show yourself?!”

“You never appeared to need my help.”

“You know how to judge when I need help,” she stated flatly, crossing her arms.

“Aye. And I’m always right too. You couldn’t have taken on all those men by yourself.”

“You’re always right?” she inserted in disbelief, finding it almost impossible to grasp Tancred’s unapologetic audacity—though she probably should have been used to it by then. “That’s just a little bit of an arrogant comment!”

“No worse than the arrogant life you’ve been living in front of me for the last year and a half,” he shot back coolly.

Shocked, she just stared at him. “What do you mean?”

“Telling me you’re strong enough to handle everything on your own, refusing my help for anything since the day we met, leaving the Aerilyan palace to be on your own again because you’re terrified of your feelings—”

“I am not terrified of anything, Tancred Ralyn,” she cried hotly.

“You’re terrified right now.”

“I am not!”

He smiled gently and shook his head. “You forget your eyes tell me all I need to know, Zoe.”

She glared at him, wishing he wasn’t so infuriatingly correct. “I am not terrified,” she told him a moment later in a calmer voice.

“Oh really,” he said, crossing his arms over his chest. “Why don’t you tell me exactly what you are, then, Zoe.”

Taken aback, she stepped closer to Brac’s shoulder and tried to assimilate what he’d just asked her. “Fine,” she said at last, lifting her chin and rising to the challenge. “I’m…frustrated; angry; upset; annoyed. Not terrified.”

“That’s quite a volatile concoction of emotion,” he observed, not looking at all concerned. “Sure you listed them all?”

She nodded once, curtly.

“Ah, but it’s there you’re wrong.” Tancred uncrossed his arms and advanced one step closer, his voice lowering and expression losing all signs of humor. “You forgot a few.”

“And just which ones did I supposedly forget?” she replied, struggling to stand her ground without appearing cowed. It was hard, for he loomed several inches above her, forcing her to tilt her chin up to meet his gaze.

“You forgot pigheaded. Stubborn beyond reason. Cursedly willful, even when faced with a reality that is obvious.”

Anger and pain converged on Zoe. dare he! How dare he attack her like that, uncaring of how he was shamelessly hurting her? The heartless, arrogant, infuriating—!

With a cry of frustration, she reached up without thinking and wrenched her sword from its sheath. Tancred drew his in time to meet her furious first blow. Reason abandoned Zoe and blind emotion drove her on. Her sword flashed back and forth, up and down, in and out. Everywhere she thrust, he met her blade. Every time she thought she had slipped past his defenses, he deflected her sword and drove her back.

Their swords clashed and ground together, each of them fighting for the upper hand. Zoe strained with all that was within her, trying to overcome him. Simultaneously she instinctively knew that there was no way she could ever overpower him. While she was putting out all her energy and emotion, he was holding her off with a cool strength that did not wane or fail him.

Gasping with fury and on the verge of angry tears, Zoe locked her blade against his and just pushed as hard as she could. Her eyes, swimming with moisture that she fervently wished was not there, rose and met his where he gazed at her between the ‘V’ formed by their crossed swords.

What could she do? She couldn’t give up. She wouldn’t give up, for all that remained by that was to be further humiliated by her weakness and inability. Why was he so much more in control than her? I hate it!

“This is stupid, Zoe,” Tancred said loudly, breathing hard. “Don’t do this.”
She heaved out a grunt and tried to wrench her sword free and swing at him again. He merely followed her a step back, keeping the pressure on their blades so she couldn’t yank away.

“Don’t pull away from me. You’ve done that for the last year and a half, Zoe and I’m sick of it.”

“Sick of me pulling away?” she exclaimed indignantly, trying again—unsuccessfully—to disengage their swords.

“Yes. Especially since you know the truth.”

“What truth?” she cried on the brink of desperation. “You’re not making sense!”

“You love me,” he replied in a simple, suddenly quiet voice.

Zoe froze.

Their swords still remained in place. She stared wide eyed between their slender steel lengths in Tancred’s face. His expression was firm and steady. Her arms, so strong a moment before, began to shake. They were small shudders at first, but then grew into increasingly harder tremors that caused her sword to sweep downward off his with a metallic whisper. Her arms fell loosely to her sides, and her grip on the sword hilt was so lax she was almost surprised it didn’t fall down to land on the roadside.

“What did you say?” she finally managed to ask in a tone several octaves lower than a whisper.

“You love me,” he said again. After another long moment in which she just stood there, he raised his sword and sheathed it slowly. “And, just as importantly,” he added softly, “I love you, Zoe.”

What? He loved her? He…loved her?

She closed her eyes, blocking him out. No. This wasn’t possible.

“Look at me, Zoe.” She did not obey at first, keeping her lashes tightly clenched together as if not looking at him would keep her from the truth.

“Look at me.”

She shuddered involuntarily. She was not afraid, merely overwhelmed. His voice was patient, thankfully. He was giving her time.

At last she raised her gaze again and met his eyes. They were the same as always: blue, cool, and marked with typical Tancred-like control. But deep within them there was something different. Beyond the coolness, the control…there was warmth. Honesty. And…love.

He felt all that for her?

How was that even feasible?

Strength, Zoe. You’ve faced a horde of Elangsian knights, been a slave twice over, and learned so much since Braedoch. If you could do all that, you can face this man and look in his eyes and hear the truth.

Clearing her throat, she asked hoarsely, “Wh-why, Tancred?” She cursed the break in her voice. Now was not the time to show any sign of insecurity! And yet it was impossible to hide it for she was nearly overcome by uncertainty. “I mean, why me?” she added a moment later, her voice a little stronger.

Tancred gazed down at her with a deep, immeasurable look in his eyes. One of his hands came up and took the sword from her loose fingers. He flipped it around, stepped closer, and slid it into the sheath strapped to her back. Zoe’s breath shortened at their close proximity but she did not move away.

Neither did Tancred.

His knuckles brushed her cheek. “Why you?” he responded huskily. “How could I not love you, Zoe?”

Her stomach flip-flopped. “I don’t understand,” she said slowly.

“It wasn’t part of the plan. Your fire, your loyalty, your dedication—all that captured my attention from the start, Zoe.”

“You mean back when you bought me?” she said in a weak stab at humor.

“Yeah, back when I bought you.” His mouth turned up at the corners and Zoe felt completely off kilter again. There was no doubt this man held large sway over her emotions and was able to read her like a book, but did that constitute love?

“The question now, Zoe,” Tancred said slowly, “is not whether or not you love me.”
It wasn’t? Then what was it?

Tancred’s smile had faded away and his expression grew serious as he continued gazing down directly into her eyes. A slight wind whispered between and around them, seeming wild and lonely. At last Tancred spoke in a deep timbre: “The real question is whether or not you trust me, Zoe.”

She swallowed hard. “What...what do you mean?” she asked in a whisper.

“You’re only twenty now but you’ve lived a life full of pain—more pain that most individuals have had to deal with over the course of their entire lives. You have been wounded by so many people…but naturally the worst was when Duard split up your family.”

Emotions swirling just beneath the surface sprang up within Zoe. Everything Tancred said was true. Excruciatingly so. How could he so effortlessly see through her? It wasn’t right, or fair.

Tancred continued in the same low, measured tone. “Because of all that pain, you’ve made a habit of blocking people out of your life. You don’t want them too near your affections because you’re afraid of what will happen if you get close enough to really care about them. Your heart was almost ripped out when you left your family. You can’t fathom that happening to you again.”

She sighed deeply. “I’m not even going to be surprised when you read me correctly anymore,” she said dully.

He tucked a strand of hair behind her left ear. “And so,” he continued, “in order to protect yourself, you have stopped trusting people. You do everything by yourself because you can do it the best way. You don’t want to depend on anybody else because you’re afraid of them failing you—or worse, you failing them.”

One single tear overflowed from her eyes. Tancred caught the tear with his thumb while it was on her way down her cheek. “The problem for you, therefore, is not that you do not, or cannot, love others. It’s that you refuse to trust them. And without trust, there is no basis for any meaningful relationship.

“So, Zoe Romany,” he murmured, cupping her cheeks in both his hands. “Do you trust me?”

Time itself seemed to stop.


Not love—trust. It was vastly different. Trust spoke of commitment and the baring of one’s soul and undying loyalty.

Did she trust this man?

His touch was like fire on her face. Heat washed down her body and she resisted the urge to tremble. Tancred Ralyn. The man who had fought her, bought her, challenged her, helped her, saved her life, and waited patiently for her for the last year and a half. She’d cried with him; sweated, laughed, and clashed with him. He knew her as well, or better, than she knew herself.

She struggled to think of a time that he had failed her. Hard as she tried, she could not think of anything. Even back when they were on bad terms, he had made her a high priority. Despite their numerous combative conversations and various confrontations, he had always been chivalrous and never threatened her. The only times she had felt actually endangered by him was when she was getting closer to him and feared that her emotions were in jeopardy. Oh if only I had known….

Now, the gentle way he cradled her face was breaking down her barriers. The blunt honesty of his confession washed away her pain. She glanced up at him, forcing herself to meet his eyes without looking away.

Do I trust him? Do I believe that he is capable of taking care of me? That I can fight alongside him, knowing his sword will be there when I need its protection, that his arm will be around me when I’m ready to collapse under the trials of life, that his shoulder will be there to hold my tears?

There was really no choice to be made. At least, not anymore. She had already made her decision a long time ago. She simply had not realized it. She had already felt the effects of his protection, the strength of his arm, and his ability to help her with the deep-seated anguish that remained from past hurt. She had already subconsciously made the decision to trust him. The only thing left to do was speak it into existence.

She took a deep breath. “Of course I trust you,” she said in a subdued voice. “How could I do anything but trust you, seeing as you have proven yourself trustworthy time after time?”

His eyes flared with dark blue fire and he searched her face. A million thoughts raced through Zoe’s mind, accompanied by a deluge of different things to say at that moment. Nothing seemed right, however, and so she remained silent. Finally, she leaned forward a little and wrapped her arms around his waist. Her cheek rested against his chest and she exhaled slowly. It felt right. Finally.

Tancred’s hold on her tightened and he pressed a kiss to the crown of her head. “Thank you,” he murmured.

She merely smiled softly and nodded her head once, feeling a sense of freedom that she had not felt for years. And the truth will set you free. She did not know what was ahead of her, but she knew she could count on this man staying beside her through it all.

And at last, Zoe knew joy.