Guardian Queen (Hardstorm Saga Book 3)

The wait for the next Hardstorm book is over!

After a difficult journey to the mainland, Tera and Batumar return to their island to liberate their people from the enemy. This is their final fight, and it will take everything they have, will challenge everything they believe in. As unexpected enemies arise, will Tera and her warlord triumph, or will they lose everything?

--An incredibly rich epic fantasy not to be missed.
--Full of secrets and surprises.

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Chapter One

(Journey’s End)

“Open your britches, my lord.”

Prince Graho’s response was a hoarse whisper. “Lady Tera…”

“You reckon he’s a goner?” a sailor mumbled to my right, then grunted when his mates elbowed him to keep quiet.

My people, the Shahala, have a saying: Truth is the lamp that lights a righteous man’s path.

Truth, however, can also be a ballast around hope’s neck.

The men who surrounded me in the ship’s dim hold needed hope, so I gave them exactly that. “I’m here now. I can help. All is well.”

Truth was, the hardstorms had swallowed two of our five ships. Even the three ships we had left… We had not seen the other two in days. We were lost at sea, running desperately low of food and water.

When Batumar and I had left our island of Dahru to recruit an army on the mainland of Felep, I imagined returning with a liberating force large enough to vanquish the Kerghi mercenaries Emperor Drakhar had sent against us. Now, with a lot fewer men than we had hoped for, victory was far from certain. I feared we would end with our heads on Kerghi spikes.

For the moment, I set those worries aside. I faced a more urgent matter.

The last storm had spilled urine from the buckets—some of which had soaked into the wood—but the three dozen Landrian sailors and half dozen Landrian royal guards around me held their breaths for another reason. Their grim gazes hung on the pain-wracked face of their prince as he lay on a worn blanket at our feet, his eyes fever-glazed.

My heart ached for Prince Graho. He was a good friend. Batumar and I were only able to bring home our small army because the prince lent us his ships.

The light of the oil lamp next to him glinted off the beads of sweat on his forehead. “Lady Tera—”

“You must allow me to see the injury. No more arguments.” I kneeled by his side, close enough to feel the heat rising off his body. “If you do not allow me to treat you now, my lord, the pain will only get worse.” I pushed on, leaving him no opportunity to protest. “When did it begin? How many days back?”

His chest rose and fell in silence for a while, then he said at last, “After the last storm.”

Seven full days.

The light flickered. The ship swayed under us but for the most part only mildly so, the bow easily cutting through the soft waves. Water rushed past the hull—the music of the sea. Our soldiers’ swordplay abovedecks added another layer of rhythm.

In the dim hold, Prince Graho’s men crowded closer, the pungent smell of sweat further fouling the already thick air around us. Stained clothes hung on emaciated bodies. With their hair long and faces unshaven, the men more resembled castaways than sailors in the Royal Landrian Navy.

“We should move him to his sleeping rolls,” Durak, the commander of the Landrian Royal Guard—a grizzled warrior with a missing ear—suggested, glowering at me from under bushy eyebrows.

Since a broken mast had destroyed the top cabins in the stern, the prince slept down below. Batumar and I slept in another tight storage space next to Prince Graho’s. The captain remained in the ruins of his old cabin on top, on principle, even when it rained.

I glanced toward the small storage rooms and shook my head. “There is more space out here. Best to leave him where he is and save him the pain of being jostled.”

The prince reached for my hand. “If they help me up, I can walk over.”

His fingers curled around mine, his fingernails torn and ragged. The Crown Prince and the Admiral of the Landrian Navy, he fought in battle practice daily with his men. He climbed the rigging too, alongside his sailors.

I leaned forward to brush the damp hair off his forehead with my free hand. “We have more light here than in the storage room.”

We were through the storms. The hatch stood open, letting in the late afternoon sunshine and at least some fresh sea air—not nearly enough, yet more than what we would have anywhere else save abovedecks, and the prince could most definitely not be dragged up there.

“I shall sleep off the fever, Lady Tera.” He would not give up trying to dissuade me from my course. “The injury is hardly worth your notice.”

I held his gaze and kept my voice firm. “I insist on seeing it.”

The men stilled, waiting for his answer, while Durak watched me with undisguised mistrust. He blamed me for dragging Landria into the war, and for taking part of the Landrian Navy away from the protection of their own shores. The commander took it as a personal insult to his kingdom when I refused Prince Graho’s offer of marriage and chose Batumar instead.

The Landrian sailors behind him likely felt the same. They were on this arduous journey at the orders of their prince. They owed me no allegiance. Sparks of tension filled the air, swirling like a swarm of wasps, ready to sting.

“My lord,” I began, wishing I had a different truth for him, but I did not. “I believe you have an infection. If the infection is as bad as I think it is, you risk blood poisoning. You must allow me a quick look.” I paused then marshalled my best argument. “We will be reaching land shortly. If you are not able to withstand a battle march, you and your royal guard must remain on the ship.”

That threat finally accomplished what cajoling had not been able to gain. At long last, the prince nodded.

Commander Durak shifted closer.

His eyes narrowed, as if to warn that he would be watching me and closely. He could watch all he wanted. Prince Graho had agreed.

I sent a silent prayer to the spirits, then addressed the prince. “I need to know how it started.”

He cleared his throat. “A sliver of wood. As I... My lady...”

Ah. That. I winced, knowing at once what he meant.

A sliver of wood must have dug itself into his skin next to his most sensitive parts, either as he sat on the bucket, or squatted over the ship’s railing when voiding his bowels. Such injuries happened, especially when the ship pitched.

“When did the fever begin?”

I had first seen him limp some five or six days before. He had squarely refused my help. Then, three days ago, he became swollen enough between his legs, that I could see the growing lump through his leggings. He had done his best to avoid me, but I had cornered him at last the day before, and demanded to know the nature of his affliction.

He had evaded all my questions. Even now, off his feet, he remained silent and would not volunteer further information.

The commander spoke instead, his voice kept low. “He has not been able to climb the ladder to the deck since last night.”

That explained why I had not been able to find him today among the training men. “When did he collapse?”

“Right before the noon meal.”

“You should have come to me at once.” I pulled the oil lamp closer to the prince. “Let me see then.”

A moment passed in tense silence, then another, and another. Finally, Prince Graho reached for his sweat-soaked leggings with unsteady fingers.

I held my breath. All around us, men held theirs as they leaned forward, but before the prince could move the fabric aside, his men’s attention shifted to something behind me. Heads bobbed.

I stifled a sigh. “Lord Batumar.”

We all were so focused on Prince Graho, none of us noticed Batumar come down the ladder. I steeled myself for the warlord’s disapproval as I turned.

The Kadar warlord was built like a fortress: wide shoulders, thick neck, arms corded with muscles needed to swing his heavy sword. The black hair that spilled down his back had silver strands now that had not been there when I had met him. Battle scars he would not let me heal marked his face, one running from his eye to the corner of his mouth. A true warlord, he towered over all of us, and not only because of his stature. He commanded every space he entered.

“Lady Tera.” His gravelly voice carried warning, but his obsidian eyes were filled with warmth as he looked at me. “I wish to talk with you in our quarters.”

My heartbeat tripped, like some young maiden’s in the first blush of love. I too wished to be in our quarters with him. My love for him was endless, yet as a healer with an injured man at hand, my foremost loyalty had to be to my patient. “My lord, I must heal the prince.”

Batumar’s gaze slid to the fever-ridden man on the blanket and remained there for a tense moment before returning to me. “Can he be healed with herbs?”

He did not want me to use my healing powers. I had put my own health at risk during the siege of Uramit—and countless times before, in truth. I had walked the fine line between life and death more than once. Batumar always protested when I weakened myself by giving my strength to others. But a sennight ago, the ship pitched so badly that the boiling soup scalded the cook over most of his body and face. I did not realize how much the hunger and lack of sleep during our crossing had weakened me. After I healed the man, there was a moment when I thought the burns I had taken on might be too much for my spirit to conquer. Unfortunately, Batumar witnessed the moment. He demanded that I use only herbs for the remainder of our journey.

The prince was not any better, and neither were our soldiers—all protective of me to the point of hiding their injuries. Truly, I wasted half my days having to hunt down the odd limp, or wince, or fever-flushed face. Time I could have used for healing!

I drew a fortifying breath, ready to go to battle on the subject. “I cannot tell, my lord, what treatment is needed, until I see the wound. All I can tell is that an infection has already set in.”

I might be in time, or I might be too late already.

Batumar scowled. In the dark shadows of the hold, with his scars, with his width and breadth...another woman might have found him frightful. I have seen even combat-hardened men run from him in battle. But for me, he was the light that lived in my heart. As unhappy as I was with his interference, I had to fight the urge to rise and step into his arms.

Prince Graho spoke up then, his voice strangled. “I am fine well, my lady.”

Oh, for the spirits’ sake! There went all the headway I had made, gone in but a blink.

I pushed to my feet. I spent the long journey trapped on the ship with two hundred soldiers and fifty sailors. The only other female on the ship was a tiger. I have had enough of men and their foolish pride. A walk on deck with Marga, breathing fresh air for a while, was what I needed.

I cast the prince as hard a look as I was capable of, then I marched toward the ladder—the sailors parting before me. I called back over my shoulder as I went, “I suppose I shall be back tomorrow to cut it off.”

Shocked silence.

A weak, “My lady,” from Prince Graho stopped me before I could place my foot on the first rung of the ladder.

I stopped and turned. The prince held both hands over his private parts, the color rapidly leaching from his face. His circle of guards blanched, more than one moving to protect his own loins

Then Prince Graho finally said, “If you would help, my lady.”

His hands fell away, confirming an ancient truth known to all healers: Few things faster convince a man to submit to medical treatment than the threat of losing his manhood.

Avoiding Batumar’s gaze, I returned to the prince and lowered myself to my knees at his side once again.

“The sooner we start, the sooner we finish,” I told him with all the encouragement I could muster.

The prince reached for his britches once again, but Batumar stepped around me, a growl rattling in his throat. “Nay.”

I swallowed some words more suited to sailors, then looked up at the warlord so he could see the determination on my face. I was not just the woman who had pledged herself to him, but a healer fighting for the life of her patient. Even the warlord better not naysay me. “Aye!”

A full-blown gale gathered in his dark gaze, one that would put the hardstorms to shame. Men shifted away from us and held their breath.

“You wish to look at him there?” The warlord’s tone turned colder and harder than sword steel.

“If he is injured there, looking at his ear will not help him,” I pointed out with exaggerated patience.

Batumar glowered.

Why could he not be called away to perform some warlordly task abovedecks? I swallowed an impatient sigh. Does he still consider the prince his rival?

I had made my choice between the two men at the port city of Uramit, before we had set sail. The warlord knew fine well I loved him and only him. Yet he would not forget that when we had all thought him dead, the Crown Prince had kissed me and had asked me to be his princess.

The two men had become allies since, but still, every time the three of us were together in a room, the air thickened with tension. Batumar had forgiven, but he could not forget.

“My lord, I must be able to see the injury.”

He narrowed his eyes. His scarred chin dipped. His chest—left unarmored even though he had been at sword practice earlier—expanded as he squared his massive shoulders.

The spirits give me patience.

“If I cannot treat the infection now, I might have to remove the infected part later.”

Warlord or no, Batumar blanched the same as the others. And then he reluctantly nodded.

The ring of sailors gathered closer around us once again, morbid fascination mixing with horror on every face.

I held up my hand. “Please, all take a step back. I must have light, and Prince Graho must have air.”

They shuffled back a pace, and I shut them out of my mind, shut out the ship, and the war. I sent a prayer to the spirits as I waited for Prince Graho to finish unfastening his britches. Then I sent another prayer as, without meeting my eyes, the prince pulled back the cloth fully at last, with a painful grimace.

A few of the sailors sucked in harsh breaths, others groaned. Several turned their heads. One barked like an injured seal.

Even I, a seasoned healer, had to close my eyes for a moment to steady myself.