Marked for the Pyre by M.T. Fontaine
Series: Brands of Taelgir
Genre: Dark Epic Fantasy
Intended Age Group: Adult
Published: August 30, 2023
Publisher: Self Published
To overthrow the Stewards’ hold on the kingdoms, Kaianne and Andreiyes strike a tenuous alliance between their people – the Marked and the Carved. Yet uniting the two factions is proving a greater challenge than either of them anticipated.
The Carved blame the Marked for centuries of genocide.
The Marked are conditioned by the belief that all Carved are heartless and savage.
If they cannot put aside their differences, the rebellion is doomed. As more Stewards close in and with the king nearly on his deathbed, their window of opportunity is closing.
Meanwhile, Master Rau knows the royal couple is plotting. Torn between his allegiance to his Steward brethren and to his daughter, he struggles with how to proceed. When rumors surface that an old adversary has come out of exile for the benefit of the royals – the very same person who prophesied the Stewards’ end – Rau must decide between what he knows is right and what is best for the person he cares for most.
Plans are made. Objectives are drawn. But their futures depend on more than their choices.
Author Bio & Information
M.T. grew up as that kid whose thoughts always raced faster than what her mouth could spout out. That kid who woke up in the middle of the night to write down ideas and left notes behind for friends and family to find.
She quickly discovered spun stories expressed her emotions far better than the spoken word. The rest was a matter of time, patience, and many deletions.
Mari-Tris lives under Spain’s gorgeous sun and warm weather, gorging on tapas and tea. Lots and lots of tea.
238th Stretch of Fervor Day 21 of the Semest (6th) Cycle of Stretch 954 Two days ride from Castle Ravensten – Isyldill
Patience was not a virtue. It was a hindrance to getting things done. It was the anthem of the indecisive to justify their constant need for more time.
Most of all, it was an added annoyance to Kaianne’s building irritation.
She gripped her reins tight and urged her horse faster. Her leathers and tunic were tacked to her skin under the violence of the sun’s heat with the Stretch of Fervor reaching its peak. Warm wind beat through her hair as her horse vaulted over a fallen tree and stomped through a patch of wildflowers whose perfume permeated the entire meadow.
“Kay,” Andreiyes yelled, his horse matching the gait of her own.
His hair was tousled from the wind which only added to his debonair manner. Perfect posture, calm demeanor, and charismatic smile – he was the ideal emissary. Her, on the other hand, politeness and any semblance of elegance had been thrown completely out the window less than a sandturn ago when she had almost gutted Jintana, one of the female Carved crew leaders that had met with her and Andreiyes.
“Slow down,” he called. When Kaianne only threw him a glare, he rode closer, grabbed her reins, and forced the command on her horse.
“That was unnecessarily dangerous,” she grumbled after nearly lurching from her horse. The meadow was thankfully empty of all other life, no one to keep quiet for, for decorum’s sake, but it was far too out in the open and bright considering her current disposition. She would have much preferred to slink back into the shadows of the woods they had just raced out of. “You shouldn’t risk your neck like that. Let it throw me. My own people might thank you for it with a toast.” She raised an invisible glass. “To Nogo. May you forever sit and shit on her bones.”
His responding sigh was a harsh, drawn-out thing. “Get it out,” he said with such exasperation that she found herself even more annoyed. “Before you poison my good mood too.”
“Well, aren’t you sweet.”
“You do not need me to be gentle right now.”
Kaianne gritted her teeth. “How are you so unaffected? They just stood there, carping, providing no productive ideas of their own.”
Jintana’s condescending attitude was still troubling Kaianne. Hogan’s had not been much better. Neither had ever appreciated how young she had been when she joined a Credence crew at thirteen stretches nor how quickly she had soared in Ghedi’s ranks and esteem. The sneer on the older woman’s face whenever she contradicted Kaianne or Andreiyes or even Ghedi had been infuriating, but when Jintana had declared their plan to be the ridiculous musings of a child, Kaianne’s nails had almost drawn blood at how tightly she had clenched her fists. And all that in front of the council representatives that had journeyed from each of the other three Carved cities in Taelgir: Manumit in Nimedor, Endurance along the Nimedorian and Telfinorian borders, and Paradise in Gyldrise. It was unproductive, demeaning, and thoroughly enraging.
“They did provide intel.”
“What’s the point if no one agrees on how to use it?”
“I feel like you and I are inversing roles here. Should I not be the one complaining? They are your fellow Carved.”
“No.” She jutted her finger back in the direction they had come from. “Those people have forgotten what it’s like to be Carved. They’ve ordered others about for so long without raising a finger that they’re no better than pompous nobles. I bet Jintana hasn’t even used a weapon in stretches.”
“Now you are exaggerating.” She narrowed her eyes at him, but he simply shook his head. “The woman I married would not blindly follow the leaders of a cause if her objectives did not meet theirs.”
She groaned. Her horse’s huffs mirrored her own sentiment. “I’m not going to admit you’re right lest you let it get to your head. Lords know your ego needs no more feeding. How can you be so calm?”
“’Tis politics,” he said with a playful smile and shrug. “What counts is that they agreed with our next steps. The letters will be ready for Ghedi when we meet again in a fortnight. Until then, ignore their hawkish demeanors. I cannot imagine they find it easy for a young woman such as yourself to contribute more to their cause than they have in their lifetimes.
Nor must it be easy to deal with a royal whose men hunt them down. Count the blessings, our standing is better now than a stretch and a half ago.”
He was right. Ghedi and Yannic might have easily accepted her union with a royal, but other Carved she had crossed in the last seventeen Maiesta moon cycles had made it clear that her marrying into royalty had been seen as a betrayal. Perhaps she had been foolish not to think on that when he had proposed in order to save her life from Master Rau. But Gaia forsake her, she was proud of the possibilities their relationship had created.
For now, it was about establishing a rapport between Andreiyes and the Carved, and it was working. The exchanges, despite the frustrations they wrought, were getting better. At the first meeting, two thirds of the Carved leaders had turned their backs and left when Andreiyes was introduced. It took convincing and some bribing on Ghedi’s part for them to return for the next meeting, much to Oidh’s protests. The man would not shut up after Ghedi bartered his newly commissioned prosthetic hand with an attached crossbow. Kaianne ended up throwing a royal treasury gem in Oidh’s face in front of Ghedi and told him to shove it along with his pessimistic attitude up his rear.
At least Ghedi believed in what she was aiming to achieve. Slowly, excruciatingly slowly, the others were beginning to as well. After an entire stretch and a half it felt like they were moving forward, only to find more opposition.
“Is it wrong of me to wish this process would hurry along to get to the actual battle strategy?” The action and wit that involved was why she had loved being part of a Carved crew and had never wished to settle permanently in the underground cavern Carved city, Credence.
Andreiyes barked a laugh. “My dear bloodthirsty viper of a wife, I would not have you any other way.” He squeezed her thigh, his sultry gaze making his meaning more than clear. She looked up at him, less than impressed at his attempt to distract her. If his cunning smile was anything to go by, he wasn’t deterred. “These matters take time, Kay. Hogan was more civilized this go around, and I swear Miltze is softening toward me each time we meet. ‘Tis only a matter of time.”
“Time we might not have.” His smile dropped slightly at the reminder, and Kaianne felt like a nitwit. He didn’t need her telling him that. In an effort to change the conversation, she slapped his chest. “And stop trying to soothe me. I’m a strong, vicious woman. Remember?”
Despite them each being on their own horse, he still managed to wrap an arm around her waist and lug her closer to him. Her feet never even left the stirrups.
“How could I ever forget?” He nibbled at her neck as she squirmed out of reach, giggling. “Do not fret. We shall find you an enemy worthy of your fangs soon enough. As long as you do not busy yourself with attacking our allies.”
“What allies? We’re still trying to get all Carved on-board and speckling tidbits of goodwill with trustworthy kingsmen. And you haven’t even told Jereown yet.”
“I will. Soon.”
“You better. We’re going to need him.”
A flicker of movement among the tree trunks of the woods at her far left drew her eye. She tore away from Andreiyes and scanned the trees surrounding the meadow, barely aware of Andreiyes’ new attempts at tickling her. Perhaps she had been quiet for too long because he suddenly pulled away from her. She just couldn’t shake the feeling that that flicker had held the shape of a person. Nothing moved further. There was an uncomfortable stillness despite the chirps of birds, the rustle of leaves, and Andreiyes’ attentions. She squinted. Something had been there. She just knew it.
“What is it?” he asked.
“I thought I saw…” She was just about to stir her horse forward to investigate when a heavy, flat howl sounded. The hairs on her nape stood straight. Shadow wolves, coming from further south. From the sound, they were still far enough to outrun.
“We should leave.” Andreiyes twisted in his saddle, looking left and right.
Barely had she spoken before Andreiyes raced off. She tugged her reins to the side, about to signal the horse into a gallop toward their camp. They would need speed to escape shadow wolves and luck that the animals would not track them back to their camp of fifteen kingsmen. Before her horse took off though, there was movement in the same direction as that initial flash of a shadow. A shape broke away on two legs from a large trunk, arms tucked tight to its body. It ran further into the cover of the branches and foliage of the woods surrounding the meadow. Definitely a person. Still close enough to be a target.
Kaianne pulled out her bow from the quiver clasped to her saddle and took aim, but she hesitated. What if it was just a curious Carved crewmember trailing them after the meeting or a kingsman protecting his charges? Or what if it was someone with nefarious intent? Decision made, she loosed her arrow, intent on delivering a flesh wound that would be visible if she crossed this person in the near future. A cry sounded as the shaft hit its mark. She grinned. Even after cycles cooped up in Castle Ravensten, she had not lost her touch.
“Kay,” Andreiyes yelled. His horse’s hooves pounded as he pulled up beside her. His brow furrowed when he gazed at her unsheathed bow. “Come on. What are you doing? We cannot linger. Your arrows will sail right through them.”
The wolves he meant. Those animals were impervious to their weapons while shielded by the shadows. Arrows sailed right through them unless their fur was daylight-touched. As if she was an idiot enough to hunt one of them.
She glared at him with indignation. “Twelfth rule of being a good husband. Always assume your wife knows more than you do and has a good reason for everything she does.”
Another protracted howl filled the air, closer, more ominous. “You can berate me later.” He urged her ahead of him, and she settled into the rock of her horse’s canter turned lope as it gathered speed. “But I am still waiting on written proof of those damn rules,” he yelled over their pounding gait. “If you think I agree to rule nine, you have lost your mind.”
“You’ve had no problem with rule one,” she countered as her horse broke into a gallop. In fact, as far as their bedroom adventures went, rule one was extremely well loved and repeated. Often, to her great satisfaction and his glistening lips. She laughed at the imagery, the bounce of their gait breaking it into a cackle as she glanced back at him over her shoulder. “Race you. Winner chooses first position.”
The salacious look he threw her was a promise of a good time and a challenge. It was almost enough to make her forget about whoever had been trailing them.
Kaianne lost, but it was no hardship. Andreiyes made sure of that the moment their tent flaps slapped shut, and he carried her to their cushioned pallet. She couldn’t keep quiet under the assault of his mouth and touch. Carved life had taught her to enjoy the pleasures of life quietly, but Andreiyes managed to pull her base instincts out of her and send all her stretches of careful habits to the pits. He loved it that way, more than intent on scarring her keens of pleasure into the memories of the kingsmen guarding their camp. His smirks when she peaked and cried out his name were downright sinful with wicked intent. Arrogant man.
A stretch and a half together and each time was still better than their last, especially when they fell to the furs in each other’s arms, sweaty and spent, to share gentle caresses. Those were moments of tenderness she had never thought herself worthy of experiencing until him. The soft splay of his fingers along her back made her breath hitch. Every delicate stroke made her chest swell further. She ached for more of him, craved him body and soul.
These moments after, when he looked at her with awe and wonder like she was his beginning and end, were her favorite. This was more intimate than the joining of their bodies. Any man and woman could fit together in the throes of lust, but it was the aftermath that made it real, made it far- reaching and soul-binding. It was in the affection in his touch. It was in the gentle rub of his nose along her forehead and cheek. Moreso, it was in the way he looked at her, like this was far more than a spontaneous marriage between two people that had much to gain from the other. He had saved her life by marrying her, and she had presented him with an opportunity to grow his forces to bring the Stewards to heel.
Now though, it was far more than that. She softly brushed aside his hair from his forehead, wishing to bottle these grainfalls to keep them from sifting to the bottom of a timekeeper. The three words she felt as strongly as her heartbeat were right on the edge of her tongue, spurred forward by a wide smile that he rarely ever displayed, but she bit them back. Even though they seemed to crest in the pit of her stomach every time his adoring gaze met hers, she refused to let them spill.
Not until he said them first. Not until he gave into the vulnerability of their relationship. She needed to know she meant as much to him as he did to her. If those fateful words came out of her and it was unrequited after all that time, she could only imagine how deep it would flay her. Why else had he never uttered them? It made her mouth dry to think on it and her eyes water like the simpering woman she was not. Her, a hardened Carved crewmember that had no problem taking a life if the situation demanded it. She who had tricked him and slithered unbidden into his life and nest. He truly was her wrangler because never had someone had so much power over her since her family’s murders. And that, that terrified her.
It was when she felt herself giving in, her mouth loosening for those three words, that Kaianne pulled away from him. He reached for her, but she dodged with a forced smile. His toned physique and blatant arousal were on full display, nothing left to the imagination, but she averted her gaze lest she fall back into another round with him. Her eyes fixed on the rug at her feet.
“Come back, wife. I have not finished with you yet.”
“Oh yes, you have. Our tryst has lasted long enough for all your men to know of your prowess.” She slipped her underdrawers on and went to wrapping her breasts despite Andreiyes’ furrowed brow.
“If you are leaving our bed so easily, perhaps you do not.” His arms wrapped around her waist and tugged.
She barked a laugh as she fell against his chest. They plummeted back to their pallet, and he kissed the back of her neck and shoulders. She swatted his arm.
“Oh no you don’t. We need to pack camp. I promised Eybah I’d be there for her trial tournament in three days’ time, and I’ll not be late. Not to mention that ridiculous ball your father insists on to celebrate a stretch since the King finally accepted our union. I’ll drive the poor seamstress mad if she has less than four days for fittings and adjustments after we return.”
“I know of a much better thing to do, or a certain place to be.” His breath fanned her ear and the thin hairs on her nape. His fingers slipped down her stomach and into her underdrawers. “If I had the choice, I would never leave. Right here. Forever.”
The words might have been said to entice, but right then, they made her still. It wasn’t what she wanted to hear. They were seductive and tempting, her body still pleasantly sore, yet they dumped a pit in her throat that she had to gulp down.
“Yer Highness,” Uslan called from outside their tent.
Andreiyes’ personal guard sounded more brusque than usual. Kaianne could almost visualize the scowl on his scruffy face. More than likely the man had drawn the short straw deciding who was going to interrupt their roll in the furs. The break in tension was a relief that Kaianne tempered with a relieved sigh.
“Come back later, Uslan. Could you not hear my devotion to my wife?”
She glared at Andreiyes over her shoulder to which the arrogant arse grinned. “Stay, Uslan,” she said, holding Andreiyes’ amber gaze. “I’ve tired of the princeling’s overzealous efforts. Perhaps some sparring will do his struggles a world of good.”
His arms tightened around her torso as his tongue tickled her earlobe. “You were certainly not complaining earlier, dear viper.”