The collar would stay, for Rylis would never free Tamrin…
Childhood memories of the Eth did no justice to what Rylis Tanyan would encounter in the depths of the Teeathun forest. But what he had treasured before had betrayed him, and now he must fight to escape the confines of the forest and his feelings for Tamrin, the Eth whom he’d loved long ago…
Rylis ran across the manicured lawns as fast as his little legs could carry him, flapping his wings furiously as he tried to use them to gain yet more momentum.
He forgot he was late for supper, forgot he was in so much trouble.
All he could see were the approaching horses that had just entered the gates of the great estate.
“Papa!” he cried, joy in every line of his body. “Papa…”
The two Melanian warriors who rode at the head of the returning troops turned their heads in surprise, and the taller of the two broke into an immediate smile of welcome, his harsh face softening.
Without pause, Warin Tanyan dismounted swiftly from his horse, handing the reins to the warrior beside him, who watched with indulgent eyes as his friend stepped forward to greet his son.
“Rylis.” The father went to one knee and caught the hurtling bundle, half unfurling his massive wings to brace himself against the onslaught.
Rylis wrapped his little arms around his father, holding him tightly, as though he might disappear again. He tried to be brave, tried not to cry, but tears escaped his tightly closed eyes anyway.
His father wiped them away with a gentle hand, then kissed his cheek and lifted him high against his chest as he stood up.
Rylis loved the sensation of height and hoped fiercely that one day he might be as tall as his father, as brave as him and as strong.
His father was the High Commander of the Masarian army, whatever that meant. All Rylis knew was that his father was rarely home, and that he missed him with every beat of his heart when he was away.
He buried his head against his father’s neck, unwilling for any of the soldiers to see his emotions. When he felt his father remount his horse, only then did he peek out, enjoying the feel of being on top of Warin’s warhorse.
Rylis eyed the stranger riding beside them, his eyes wide and wary. The man smiled, seeing the inquisitive blue eyes fixed on him.
“Hello, Rylis. I am happy to meet you at last.” The voice was smooth and even, but with a power underlying it that made Rylis cling to his father more tightly.
He did not answer the stranger, only watched him solemnly, unsure.
His father nudged him. “Do not be rude, son. This is my—friend, Kiell. He is the King of Melan, so be respectful.” Rylis nodded, chastened by his father’s tone. “Hello,” he whispered softly, his gaze running up Kiell’s face to the top of his head. “You don’t have a crown.” He frowned, confused.
Kiell laughed out loud. “I don’t wear it all the time,” he confessed to the little boy. “It is very heavy.” His tone seemed to mean many things, but Rylis did not try to understand as he snuggled deeper into his father’s arms.
His father said this man was king, so he was. Kings wore crowns, but… He pushed further thought out of his head. All that mattered was his papa was home…and Mama could not hurt him while Papa was here.
Rylis shivered. He wished his papa never had to leave, because when he did Mama got very angry and seemed to think Rylis was a very bad boy. He was not supposed to tell Papa this, but this time, Rylis was older, and he was big now, big enough to go with Papa.
Perhaps now was the time to bring this up, before Papa and Mama got together. That was never a good time for anything.
Warin looked down at his only child, his eyes soft with love, an oddity on his fierce features. “Yes, Rylis?”
“I am very old now, Papa. Can I come with you now? Please?” The tone held an unfamiliar desperation that chilled Warin.
“Not quite yet, son. Soon, though.”
To his horror, Rylis’s eyes filled with tears, and he clutched his papa tightly, his heart beginning to pound hard enough that his father could literally feel it throbbing in the little chest.
“Please, Papa. Let me come with you. Mama…” Rylis’s childish voice choked off immediately, a look of fear crossing his thin features. Warin felt his suspicions rise. There had been times when he had wondered, but Rylis would never confirm… A deep, dark fury began to rise within him, marred by guilt.
He shot at look at Kiell, his friend, his king, his lover.
If his marriage had been better, had had the slightest bit of love in it, then he would not have turned to his friend for comfort. It had been far too late when he discovered that his wife had a mean streak a mile wide. Still, he had never believed that even she could stoop to harming her own child, until now.
That fear in Rylis’s voice was all too real. This was not the maneuvering of a child to get his way, not that Rylis had ever done such a thing. He was always so quiet, so still, as though trying to be invisible.
Warin’s anger began to rise ever higher. If she had a laid a hand on his son, he would kill the bitch and be done…
Kiell seemed to have picked up the nuances of Rylis’s words, for his face had gone cold and hard as well. “I will see to him if you want to go speak to her…”
Warin shot his lover a grateful glance. He did not want Rylis to be witness to what would occur if he and his wife crossed tempers. If this were true—he was not sure he could hold back as he had so often before. This time she would not be safe from his wrath.
They entered the ornate courtyard of the vast estate house and dismounted.
“Stay with Kiell, Rylis. I need to speak with your mother, all right?”
“She is going to be angry, Papa. I am late for supper already.” Again, the fear on his son’s little face jarred Warin. No child should wear that look at the thought of his own mother.
“It will be all right, son.” Warin kissed the top of Rylis’s head. “Just be good for Kiell.”
Rylis nodded uncertainly, watching his father stride through the metal gates that led to the front doors. He clasped shaking hands together as he stared up and up at Kiell, his little wings wrapped around him in comfort.
It was better when Kiell went to one knee before him. Then he and his huge, dark gray wings did not seem nearly as scary.
“Would you like to see what your father brought home, Rylis?” Kiell’s voice softened.
Rylis shot a fearful glance towards the house, his wings clamping tight against his body before he nodded.
Kiell held out a huge hand and, hesitantly, Rylis took hold of it, his little fingers only able to hold two of Kiell’s in their grasp.
“Your father brought home a pet. Maybe you would like to see it?”
Rylis’s face lit up. He loved animals. He nodded enthusiastically and walked eagerly forward with Kiell, his wings slowly unfurling as they left the influence of the house and its occupants.
“Is it a wolf?” he questioned with vast excitement. He had been hearing stories from his nurse about wolves, and they sounded both scary and wonderful at the same time. He longed to see one.
“No.” Kiell chuckled. “This is much better. It is an Eth.”
“An Eth?” Rylis’s brow furrowed in confusion.
“Yes, a very exotic animal from the south. Your father captured it. They are worth a lot of money because they…” Kiell cut off his words, flushing a little as he realized he had been about to mention how most Eth were sold for sex slaves. They were said to be worth their price, even though they rarely lived long through rough handling and captivity.
Kiell gestured to the men who were currently standing guard near the large, covered cage, and they flung back the thick covering.
Rylis stepped closer, fascinated but confused. He looked up at Kiell with that confusion clear in his eyes.
“He does not look like an animal. He looks like us.”
The creature within, bound with chains at neck, wrists and ankles, slowly looked up.
Rylis felt his heart jump. Such beauty…
Surely this was the most beautiful creature he had ever seen.
A narrow, high-boned face with slanted, golden eyes. A lean, lithe body with pale as snow skin, marred everywhere by bruises that stood out obscenely on the delicate flesh. Long fingers tipped with sharp claws, and fine boned hands balanced well-muscled arms, and the creature seemed large even curled up as it was. Rylis thought it might even be taller than his papa, and that was amazing.
But it was the wings that drew Rylis the most. They were amazingly, stunningly gorgeous. They looked fragile, more like butterfly wings than Rylis’s own sturdy, feathered wings, but they were the same shape. An ornate pattern of dots and swirls covered their surface, again more like a butterfly than Melanian wings. They were huge, bent to fit the small cage, and Rylis drew his own wings close in unconscious sympathy.
The creature, the Eth, watched him, its tangled white hair wild about its face. Rylis wished he could touch—he took a tiny step forward, and the creature snarled, lunging to the end of its chains in a heartbeat.
Kiell yanked Rylis back, even as one of the guards thrust a spear through the bars, driving the Eth back.
“Don’t hurt it,” Rylis pleaded, seeing blood rise on the pale skin. “It was my fault. I got too close.”
Kiell nodded at the guards, and they stepped back to their places, faces expressionless.
“Commander Warin wishes it put in the golden pavilion at the end of the house. See to it. We don’t want to lose it until it has at least seen some use.” The men laughed, and there was an undercurrent that Rylis did not understand. All he could see were those golden eyes, and something in their depths made Rylis very, very sad inside.