Jared grabbed her, drawing her back against him while he absorbed the significance of what he was seeing—of what hewasn’t seeing.
The section of the Coach station roof that had been torn away.
The broken windows.
The empty corral where the horses for hire would have been kept during the day.
The pieces of the stable door that were scattered around the yard.
The absence of people.
And the deeper feeling of emptiness.
“The land’s been wounded,” Lia said in a hushed, aching voice. “Oh, Jared, the land’s been deeply wounded.”
Hay fields that should have been thick with stubble from the harvest had small islands of yellow grass growing out of a sea of barren ground. Trees that had been landmarks for generations scarred the morning sky with their dead branches.
“The Blood fought here,” Lia whispered. Her hand shook as she wiped a tear from her cheek.
Hearing her unspoken question, Jared chained his grief, leashed his growing fear. “This didn’t happen because of our coming here. Look at the land, Lia. This happened during the growing season, not the harvest. When we got the supplies at the landen village, the old woman warned me that there was trouble in Shalador.” He took her hand.
“Come on. Ranon’s Wood is about a half a mile from here.”
It would have been easy to probe the village, would have been easy to reach for the familiar minds of his family. He didn’t do either.
The second time Lia stumbled because he’d increased the pace beyond her ability to keep up, she planted her feet and refused to move.
“You go on, Jared. Find out what’s happened to your people.”
“I’m not leaving you.”
“I’ll be fine. There’s nothing here that will harm me.”
“I’m not leaving you.”
As they stared at each other, the words seemed to echo.
Jared swallowed. Tasted bitterness. Silently acknowledged the lie beneath the sincere words. As much as he didn’t want to, hewould leave her—as soon as he saw her safely home.
Jared whirled, putting Lia behind him. Hell’s fire, where were his wits? No one should have gotten this close to them without his sensing it, especially someone cantering toward them on horseback.
“It’s Blaed!” Lia said, stepping around Jared and waving.
Reining in a few yards away from them, Blaed slid off the roan mare’s bare back and dropped the reins to ground-tie her. He spared one quick glance for Jared before focusing on Lia with a hunger that made Jared tense.
Not a sexual hunger, Jared realized as Blaed’s eyes traveled over the body that was covered from neck to mid-thigh by the bulky sweater, but the hunger a strong Blood male feels when he’s bonded to a Queen.
“You’re well?” Blaed asked hesitantly.
Lia gave him a dazzling smile. “I’m fine. I—”
Blaed pulled her into his arms. “Thera’s been frantic about you.”
*Thera’s not the one hugging her hard enough to crack her ribs,* Jared said on a spear thread.
Blaed let go too fast.
Jared lunged to catch her. Blaed grabbed the front of the sweater.
A minute later, Lia was standing out of reach of both of them, eyeing them warily. “Whoever said males were sensible obviously never met either of you,” she grumbled.
Blaed grinned at Jared. “Sheis well.”
“Don’t encourage her too much,” Jared said dryly. “She needs more rest than she thinks she does.”
Lia straightened her sweater. “Let’s go to the village. I’d like to talk to someone sensible. Someonefemale .”
“I thought you wanted to talk to someone sensible,” Jared said.
Lia looked at the sky and threw up her hands.
The gesture, so like Reyna’s, stabbed Jared. As he turned away, he met Blaed’s now-solemn hazel eyes.
Feeling the prickle between his shoulder blades, Jared chose each word as if it were a step he had to take on a trail filled with hidden traps. “When did you get here?”
“Last evening,” Blaed said in a neutral voice. “Thayne’s always been able to call animals to him. Enough of the marauders’ horses survived, so we each had a mount.”
“My mother’s a good Healer. She’ll take care of the witchfire burns for him.”
“Jared . . .”
“My father got you settled in all right? Did you talk to him about getting a Coach to the Tamanara Mountains?”
“Jared . . .” Blaed’s hand closed on Jared’s arm.
Feeling the sympathy that flowed out of that touch, Jared jerked away, circling Blaed cautiously as he moved toward the roan mare.
“Go home. Jared,” Blaed said quietly. “I’ll escort Lia.”
Torn, again, between two needs, Jared froze.
“Go home, Jared,” Lia said.
Because it was the woman and not the Queen who said the words, he found himself galloping down the road to Ranon’s Wood. His mind refused to see the images his eyes collected, and he was grateful. There would be time enough to deal with the destruction later.
It didn’t take long to reach the lane that ended at the weathered, rambling house that had been in Reyna’s family for generations. The Healer’s House, passed on, not from mother to daughter, but from the old Healer to the strongest, or only, Healer in the next generation. Year after year, the land had been tended by and yielded its bounty to the women of that bloodline. Generation after generation, strong Blood males had sought out those women, settling for a long-term contract as a consort if they weren’t able to win the coveted title of husband.
Jared tied the mare’s reins to the hitching post near the path that led to the front door.
Every spring, all the women in the family gathered for a few days to help plant the gardens at the Healer’s House. The males of all ages divided their time between helping with whatever repairs might be needed after the winter and watching indulgently while the women laughed and squabbled over the planting.
Jared opened the gate. It didn’t hang true and got stuck. He went sideways through the narrow opening.
No one had planted this year. He felt the absence of laughter as keenly as he felt the land’s wounds. Flower beds that had dazzled him with color when he was young held a few wind-seeded flowers that looked spindly and faded.
Jared took a hesitant step toward the house. Took another. He raised his voice. “Mother?”