Jared slipped out of the stone building, pausing to take a deep breath of crisp night air. No one would follow him. He’d made it clear since the evening meal that he wanted to be alone. Lia was settled for the night and wouldn’t need him for a little while.
Jared smiled. Lady Ardelia had spent the past two days resenting needing him at all, giving him dark looks and muttering under her breath every time he’d carried her from the table to her mattress. Every time he’d carried her to the privy hole, it had taken her resentment half an hour to thaw enough for her to speak to him again. And every time she’d tried to get around him, he’d remind her of Escort’s Privilege and wisely stay out of reach for a few minutes while she muttered and snarled.
But his “unreasonable” attitude and stubbornness about not letting her walk on her injured leg had produced swift results. By combining his basic healing skills with Thera’s and Lia’s knowledge of healing, they had almost fully healed her knee, enough so that this afternoon she’d been able to hobble around as long as she held on to something—usually Tomas’s shoulder.
Her efforts to resist help from him had irritated and amused him in equal measure. At least she’d had sense enough to restrict her helpers to Thera and the children. It would be ludicrous to feel jealous about them, and he could tolerate Blaed’s courtesies to Lia because Blaed was interested in Thera. But the other adult males . . .
It wasn’t so much jealousy, he decided as he studied the full moon and clear sky. It was the possessiveness and territoriality that was a male’s response to a witch’s moontime.
Especially a witch who was also a virgin. It was the sexual potential of the other males that put him on edge, made him watch them with suspicious eyes whenever they got too close to Lia. After all, they hadn’t known each other when Lia bought them a few days ago—and a few days didn’t buy a lot of trust when balanced against instincts bred into males for generations—and those instincts had been riding him hard since they got back to the clearing.
Or, perhaps, it was the way his own blood heated every time he touched her that was making him edgy.
Fortunately, the other males had decided not to test his self-control.
Shaking his head, Jared walked to the north end of the clearing.
He would have thought a Queen would enjoy a little pampering. The witches who had controlled his life for the past nine years certainly had. Hell’s fire, a pleasure slave who didn’t jump to satisfy the slightest whim could lose what few privileges he had—or worse, find himself tied between the whipping posts.
Then again, Reyna had never been gracious about Belarr’s pampering during the first three days of her moon-time either. The first day she’d snap and snarl at him about his constant fussing, even though it hadn’t been constant. Belarr had the administrative duties as the District Queen’s agent for Ranon’s Wood to handle, as well as three young sons to keep occupied so they would give Reyna some peace. It was like a moon’s blood ritual between them. Reyna would snap and snarl until Belarr would respond with, “When you married me, you granted me the right to fuss.” That would usually silence her. Perhaps it was being so vulnerable that made it hard for her to yield, because on the fourth day, when shecould wear the Jewels again and use Craft, she enjoyed Belarr’s pampering.
Once, after Reyna’s temper had been especially harsh, Jared had asked his father why he tolerated being treated that way. Belarr had said, “Even a man who is loved and trusted is feared a little during these days. If showing a bit of temper makes her feel safer, that’s fine with me since there’s no cruelty in it. Besides, this is a small price to pay for the rest of the days . . . and the nights,” Belarr had added quietly, smiling.
Jared smiled at the memory. He didn’t think Belarr had meant for his son to hear that last bit. Or maybe he had. The sons had understood early on that, when it came to Reyna, their father had the dominant claim.
Tomorrow would be the fourth day of Lia’s moontime. Maybe she would let him fuss without snarling at him.
When he reached the edge of the clearing, his smile faded. He looked back at the stone building. Nothing stirred.
Good. This night, which was usually a public celebration, wasn’t something he wanted to share. Not this time.
Jared stepped into the woods beyond the clearing, following the winding footpath through the trees until he reached the narrow creek. Part of it had been diverted to spill over carefully arranged stones into a small, man-made stone pool, then spill over again to flow into a stone-supported channel for a few yards until it rejoined the rest of the water.
Jared closed his eyes. It had been so long, but if hereally listened, he could hear the drums in the wind gently stirring the trees, and the water dancing over the stones.
He opened his eyes and called in the crystal goblet. His uncles had given it to him, along with the small silver chalice, after he’d made the Offering to the Darkness. Like the Jewels, he had carried the goblet and chalice with him, hidden from the witches who had owned him because he hadn’t wanted to risk having them taken away from him.
Holding the goblet under the falling water, he filled it and drank, pouring out the last swallow to share it with the dark land.
Filling the goblet again, Jared stepped over the narrow creek and followed the path to the second clearing.
He’d found it the first day they’d returned to the main clearing. While Brock and Randolf had gone out to hunt fresh meat, he’d cautiously probed the clearing’s defensive shields and discovered they extended beyond the cleared land. So he’d followed the path to this small, second clearing, also strongly shielded but for different reasons.
It was a perfect circle that had been seeded with grass. A few feet in from the perimeter, two large stones had been carefully placed to support a slab of granite, forming a small altar. In the center of the circle was a shallow fire pit surrounded by stones.
The land had absorbed the giving done here, becoming a sacred place. Unlike the Sanctuaries that had a formal altar and a Priestess to tend them, these small places were found throughout the Realm of Terreille. Private places, where the Blood came to reaffirm their bond to the land and the life that sprang from it; where they quietly made the descent into the abyss until they reached their cores and opened their inner barriers; where the power flowed through them and they became a channel between the night sky and the dark land, giving one kind of strength and taking back another. It was in places like this that the Blood came to honor the Darkness.