Authors: Michelle Howard
Tags: #Romance, #Paranormal, #Science Fiction, #Fantasy, #Retail
Rise of the Shadow Warriors
By Michelle Howard
Published by Michelle Howard
Copyright © 2015 by Michelle Howard
Edited by: www.bellamediamanagement.com
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This is a work of fiction and is not a reflection or representation of any person living or dead. Any similarity is of pure coincidence.
Laughter pealed across the outer court yard. The trilling sound hard for Argan to miss. His fellow Warlord, Balal, chased after the Raasa woman he’d recently taken as his mate. Assa squealed again when Balal caught up with her. She raised her hands in a surrendering gesture, shaking her dark head back and forth while smiling. Apparently his friend was not in a forgiving mood, because Balal scooped the pretty Raasa in his arms and carried her toward the stairs of their home. More feminine laughter ensued joined by the deep tones of Balal’s chuckle.
Pain flared in Argan’s heart as he turned away from the sight. The ache in his chest was a familiar one. Of late, the sharp pains became routine when he witnessed his friends and their obvious love for the women in their lives. Before betrayal and treachery changed his life, Argan believed he would find a nice woman from Kaban and make her his bride. In the natural order of things, he would have liked an heir or two. A youngling to raise as a strong warrior. Now he wasn’t sure if that was in his future.
A sharp cry pierced the morning air, causing Argan to turn back around. With a crying Arane in her arms, Mikayla held the door open for Balal. Once the couple entered, Mikayla came down the stone stairs, a harried expression on her face. Argan froze and stepped back only to note in relief that she headed straight for his Overlord.
Vaan of course glanced over his shoulder the moment he heard his youngling’s cry. Arane’s golden face flushed red and her arms immediately extended upward when her father came into view. The Overlord waved his hand in Argan’s direction to continue to supervise the training session with the Warlords.
Argan inclined his head and signaled the staring men to resume their sword play. Only four of the six present turned away to lift their swords in mock battle. The other two continued to observe the action taking place only feet from Argan.
“It’s time you came in, Vaan.” Mikayla spoke lightly but the glare in her diamond-shaped green eyes threatened war if her mate refused.
Knowing when to fight and when to regroup, his Overlord chose wisely and reached for the crying youngling in Mikayla’s arms. His daughter quieted instantly and planted her dark head of curls on her father’s shoulder.
In the past, Argan would have mocked Vaan for giving in so easily to the petite woman standing before him. Mikayla was Su-Su to the Raasa compound where Argan and his fellow Warlords had made their home. Because of her help, their homeland of Kaban once again fell under Vaan’s rule. Instead of mockery, Argan now envied his Overlord.
Argan accepted that the Blessed One had a plan for them for surely it was not believable that a group of Warlords could be poisoned and sleep for three years in a hidden cave. But it was truth and Argan as well as his brethren could speak to what had happened to them.
“Mikayla, you know it is not good to interrupt when I am training my Warlords.” Vaan patted the little ones back as he admonished the woman shooting daggers his way.
“She cries when she hasn’t seen you for the day. This morning you left before she woke.”
To Argan’s surprise, Vaan’s lips curled up in a smile. All knew that the feisty girl favored her father most heavily. Her birth sister was of a calmer nature and easily pleased.
“Then I shall make amends and spend time with her at the mid-day meal.”
Mikayla snorted, tucking an errant lock of black hair behind her ear. “You will make amends now. I’m going to feed Erana who is
waiting.” And with that, the slim Raasa turned and marched back across the compound, up the stairs and into their home without a backward look.
Argan glanced around, noting the smiles on everyone’s face. All heard the argument and none expected a different end. Vaan however frowned at each of them and the training Warlords suddenly found an interest in sparring with one another.
“You have no words for me?”
Argan quirked a brow at Vaan’s question. “No.”
Vaan studied him intently, yet Argan refused to shift on his feet. They’d been friends too long for him to be unnerved by a silence that intimidated many.
“You are not quite yourself, Argan.” Vaan shifted the youngling in his arm, her small butt propped by his elbow as she snuggled closer. There was a softness in the black eyes that looked down at the youngling before pinning Argan again with a hard stare.
He held his breath and tried to slow his racing heart under Vaan’s intense scrutiny. Folding his arms across his chest, Argan assumed a relaxed stance. His gut warned that he would not like what Vaan said next.
“Do you ever think of love, my friend?”
And just like that, Argan found himself unable to move and unable to look away. The metallic sound of swords against swords faded as he focused on the heart of his discontent. Love was not something a Kabanian warrior strived for. Women were to get youngling. A good match made for a peaceful one but if the woman proved too troublesome, the relationship could be dissolved easily.
Watching Vaan with Mikayla and now Balal with Assa, Argan questioned all that had once been clear to him. Knowing the happiness his friends shared with their mates, seeing the smiles on their faces each morning tide, Argan realized he’d changed as to what he wanted from a woman.
“Is the question a hard one?”
Argan blinked and Vaan’s humorous expression faded.
“Tell me truth, Argan. Is all well?”
Argan countered with a question of his own. “Do you not worry when you sleep beside her at night?” A Kabanian warrior did not sleep with the woman he chose as his own. Trust was not easily given and rarely to a woman for they were fickle creatures.
“No, it is the Raasa way.” Argan waited and as he expected, Vaan had more to say. “I believe the closeness I share with Mikayla is better because I’m at her side each night. She lays with me safe in my arms. I can not explain how that feels.
trust in me is absolute and mine for her.”
Argan nodded. His Overlord had the right of it; his words did not explain. It was hard to believe the most feared warrior of all time, the Overlord himself, had easily thrown away one of the stronger norms of their culture without hesitation. Balal was doing the same and observing both became a habit Argan couldn’t break. Slowly, he was beginning to crave something he didn’t fully understand.
“I need you to go to Kaban on my behalf.”
Argan paused in eating the evening meal. The clank of dishes and loud talk in the hall almost drowned out Vaan’s words. Vaan’s brother Saran held the lands of their home with a firm fist though minor skirmishes broke out. “Is there trouble?”
“The Councilors seek to meddle.”
Argan rolled his eyes and reached for another piece of the roasted meat on the colorful trays set on the table. Raasa usually ate fruits and vegetables but thankfully adjusted the meals to include plenty of meat for the Warlords who now lived among them. “What is so different about the Councilors’ behavior this time?”
“I fear they need to hear the words from me since they send letters and try to go around Saran with their actions.”
Almost a year ago the Council made of five Kabanians sought to pressure Vaan and his men to return to Kaban. Argan eyed the overflowing dining hall. Warlords and Raasa ate side by side. Talk varied in subject and occasional voices increased in tone but the camaraderie was not feigned. None of them desired to return to their former homeland.
“You plan to ride to Kaban with me?” Argan’s gaze sought Mikayla even as he asked.
She stood a few seat down leaning over Kavan’s shoulder. The Warlord held a bouncing Erana on his lap. Or mayhap Arane. It was hard to tell when both smiled and laughed as they now did. The youngling were identical in looks but not in temperament.
Assa sat close to Balal as she kissed the other youngling, causing giggles to erupt from the little one.
Vaan followed his stare and murmured, “No. I do not believe it is to that point and if I run every time the Council call, they will think me pliable to their ways.”
“Then what would you have of me?” Belly full, Argan pushed his plate to the side.
“You will speak for the Overlord and let them know that Saran has the right of it. If they continue their plotting, I will end all contact with them and only communicate through my brother.”
“Think you they will listen?” Argan didn’t have as many dealings with the Council members as Vaan did but he was well versed in the games they played.
Vaan tipped his head in Argan’s direction. “You are the Death Dealer. They had better listen.”
The name was one given to Argan many years ago when he battled at Vaan’s side. They both fell to the darkness of Fenal, an uncontrollable rage, in battle that gave them the strength of many. For Argan, the rage was worse and harder to come back from. The red haze covered his vision and enabled him to kill ruthlessly and with a swiftness that sent fear through their enemies’ hearts. Through the years when Vaan wanted to quell resistance, he sent Argan along with a contingent of warriors and the fields would bleed red.
“How soon do you need me to leave?” Argan had nothing important to hold him here and relished the idea of a fight even if it was one without the feel of his sword in hand.
“Morning tide is soon enough. I have also spoken with Saran in regards to training three of his best warriors. He believes they will make good Warlords.”
Argan nodded. It was good that they began approving warriors to Warlord status again. During the former Warlord Thenl’s attempt to rule, many under Vaan’s command had lost their life. “It shall be as you command.”
“Take Ramar with you. I do not worry that there will be trouble on this trip but it is wise to be prepared.”
Rising to his feet, Argan mentally began to compile a list of all he would need on the journey. Vaan clapped a firm hand on his shoulder halting his departure. Argan leaned back for further instruction.
Vaan’s grip tightened. “You will have a care, yes?”
Argan curled his upper lip. “Do not worry, Noan. I will be fine.”
At the slurring reference of a Raasa male child caregiver, Vaan used his hold to shove him hard. Argan tripped over his feet, even as Vaan growled and jumped from his seat. They went crashing to the floor in a tangle of limbs.
Argan grunted when Vaan’s fist slammed into his cheek but quickly sent his own plowing into his friend’s belly. Vaan rolled, straddling Argan and pummeled his mid-section. Despite the pain, it was easy enough to use his legs in a slicing motion and throw Vaan to the side.
Without taking a breath, Argan surged forward, striking Vaan across the face and had the satisfaction of watching blood spurt from his Overlord’s mouth. Vaan licked his bottom lip and a slow smile curved his mouth. Heart racing, Argan braced his weight, prepared for the next move but still wheezed when his back hit the hard, stone floor as Vaan tossed him over his head. Pain exploded in his chest as his lungs seized.
Vaan took advantage of his attempts to catch his breath and pulled Argan’s arm up sharply in a brutal hold that threatened to snap the limb. Argan jerked his knee upward, hitting his target when he made contact with Vaan’s toqa. His Overload paled with a curse and toppled over. Argan grinned, reversing their position. For once he planned to win this bout.
It would have been a good match, potentially one in which Argan would have emerged the victor, if Mikayla had not screamed. Unaware of the danger she placed herself in, she raced toward them and bent over to help her mate to his feet as Argan cocked his fist back to punch his best friend.
Proving he was still a warrior worthy to rule Kaban, Vaan rolled away from the blow wrapping both arms around his mate as he tucked her between his body and the floor. Argan realized Mikayla’s proximity a second too late and tried to pull back from the downward swing but his reflexes weren’t quick enough, leaving him with bruised knuckles as his fist rammed harmlessly into the stone floor.
Argan winced as the skin split and blood ran between his fingers. Holding his side, he rose to his feet, eyes on the pair he vowed to protect with his life.
Vaan stood with Mikayla in his arms, the silence in the dining hall deafening. Several Warlords stood on their feet, eyes anxious.
“Is she well?” Argan asked as his breath dragged from his chest in fear and worry.
With short steps, he reached their side. Vaan growled under his breath, head bowed and shoulders shaking. Argan didn’t blame him. After the dangerous birthing she’d gone through, neither of them ever wanted to see Mikayla brought low again. Watching Vaan grieve during that time
made Argan reconsider his feelings on loving a woman to such an extent his world revolved around her. Almost.
“I’m fine, Argan.” Mikayla answered, though she never took her eyes off of Vaan as she ran a soothing hand through his loose, black hair. Ever so often her fingers paused in the stroking and Argan noted how his Overlord tensed when she did this only to relax when the touch continued.
“You will not do such again, Mikayla.”
Vaan’s low warning sent a shiver down Argan’s back. His friend lifted his head and true torment reflected in their black depths.
Mikayla hummed and pressed her body alongside Vaan’s. Her hands drifted to his shoulders as she murmured in his ear. Because Argan stood so close, he heard the words she spoke.
“Nothing will happen to me. I’m fine.”
“More drink,” Ramar announced, raising his mug. The announcement was soon picked up by their brethren and the Raasa servants ran to refill the empty pitchers with cider.
The tension filled moment dissipated and conversations resumed. When Argan turned from the hugging couple, he faced Balal and Kavan, each holding a youngling in their arms. Seeing Vaan was still occupied with Mikayla, Balal nodded and returned to his seat where Assa immediately reached up to tug on his shoulder-length tail and kiss his cheek. Though Balal flushed red, he accepted the affection with a smile.
Kavan tipped his head to the side. “It is still new for us, yes?”
Argan pretended to misunderstand. “Speak clearly, Kavan.”
“The love. They make it look easy.”
Argan grunted for he had no answer and had no intention of discussing his recent thoughts and unsettled feelings with his fellow Warlord until he could wrap his mind around it.