Vampire Queen 8 - Bound by the Vampire Queen - Joey W Hill, page 27
Catriona had gone to her knees and bowed to Firewind. She was speaking to him as she removed Jacob’s tattered tunic from his head. When she was done, she held out the halter, bowing once again.
Firewind tossed his powerful head, which probably weighed twice as much as Catriona, but she took it as assent. Fitting the halter over him, she adjusted the reins on his neck, confirming the halter was an exact match for the blackness of his hair. The horse grumbled, but made no other protest.
Jacob gave the groomswoman a short nod of thanks. She was a wiry, pixie figure dressed in the court colors, the brief tunic and hose style suited to working with the mounts. Her eyes were a strong, mint leaf green, her short hair a glossy chestnut.
When she offered him a hand up, he shook his head, patting his ribs, indicating he needed to figure out the getting up part on his own. He expected it would involve something pathetic, like rolling over to his stomach and pushing himself up on his hands and knees to crawl a few undignified paces. Firewind would probably enjoy watching him fall on his face before trampling him.
Catriona handed off the braided-hair reins to the groomswoman and came to Jacob’s side. “Aren’t you healing?” she asked. “I thought vampires healed themselves.”
“We do. It’s just a bit slow right now.” As he managed to push himself up to his knees, the slim girl gently laid her hands on his chest and back, providing a surprising amount of support for his ribs.
He shamefully had to use her strength to get to his feet. Once there, he swayed a moment, then took a couple steps forward, toward Firewind. She stayed close at his side, steadying him.
“If you are determined to do this, you must touch the halter first.” When he took the wax out, keeping his gaze on her face with effort, she repeated it. “I have spoken to him. He will determine, by your touch, if you are worthy. If you had the power of magic to hold him, as the queen did, his approval would be irrelevant, but it is not the right way to do it.”
“No, it’s not,” Jacob agreed. “Did the groom…
Will she be in trouble for providing the halter?”
“No. She is an old friend, and the halter was not in the queen’s keeping. Yeshi simply knew where it could be found.”
He looked down at her. Her hair was spider-web soft against his bare upper body, her profile determined but so incredibly delicate it would stir the protective instincts of a stump, let alone him. “Are you doing okay? Since you got back?”
She glanced up at him, a flash of surprise in her gaze. But then it was gone and she nodded, her small mouth pursed. “It is… an adjustment.” Her gaze focused on the pendant. It seemed to please her that he was wearing it, and yet he sensed a wistfulness in her gaze. Clearing his throat, he untied it from his neck, offered it to her. “Since you just helped me, as much or even more than I’ve helped you, will you allow me to offer it back, as my gift of thanks to you?”
She glanced up at him, measuring. With a slow nod, she took it back, put it on her neck again, giving him that flash of vibrant green and amber light in the heart of the stone before it settled back into the polished earth color. “You are very kind,” she said.
Turning to the sirens, she spoke in a musical language. They nodded, gave him a detailed appraisal and several very come-hither, incredibly hard-to-resist smiles before they glided back toward the water, generous hips swaying. The cleft of their bottoms were framed and enhanced by the twists of seaweed and shells in their long hair. The breasts he’d seen before they turned had been full and ripe, sitting up high, the nipples pink and erect.
Puzzled, he looked down to find Catriona braced full against him, her wings pumping hard to hold him in place as he strained forward. “Put the wax back in your ears,” she said breathlessly. “Then touch the halter.”
He gazed at her, muddled by pain and blood loss, and a discordant surge of heated lust. Her mouth formed a wordless oath. Letting go of him with one hand, she snatched the wax bal's out of his palm with the other and put them back in his ears. Then, one hand still braced on his chest, she tugged on his other arm, lifting it toward Firewind, a few paces away. The horse eyed him balefully. His upper lip lifted, showing teeth, the ears sweeping back.
“Wait.” Jacob shook his head, his other hand falling on her hip to hold himself steady. It was then he realized the inevitable result of the three sirens— he was heavily aroused. In the snug, very thin hose, that part of his anatomy was pushed rather solidly into Catriona’s flat stomach. “Oh, Jesus. Sorry.” He tried to back away, swayed, and she caught him, continuing to hold him with the additional propulsion of her wings and firm grip.
“It’s alright. You can’t help it.” He was able to make out those words easily enough. Her pointed ears were tinged pink and she kept her gaze on his chest, though.
He cleared his throat, tried to set her somewhat to the side so he could turn, place his hand on her shoulder for balance, instead of the more intimate pose. It also allowed him to face Firewind squarely.
Bowing his head, Jacob bent his knee, gritting his teeth at a searing, mind blackening cloud of pain as he made the respectful obeisance.
“Forgive me,” he said. “Forgive my ignorance, my lord.”
The waterhorse snorted. He felt the vibration of hooves clomping through the grass toward him, fortunately at a more sedate pace. When he looked up, Firewind stood right over him, gazing down at him disdainfully. The halter, however, was within reach of his hand.
Jacob took it, closing his hand on the strap, but then, with another murmur of thanks and apology, he also braced himself on the massive shoulder to bring himself all the way upright. Since Firewind didn’t whack his head off his shoulders like a T-ball, he assumed he’d been found worthy, or at least tolerable.
Catriona reached up, plucked the wax back out of Jacob’s ears. “The sirens are gone,” she explained.
“He liked the apples. He wants more. But he says it’s time to catch up to the Hunt. You’ve wasted enough time.”
“You understand him?”
She shrugged. “Of course. He is Fae. Sometimes he is horse… sometimes other. He says he will bear you for this night, for you are worthy. However, at dawn’s light, he will tolerate no more and you must take off the halter made of his hair. He requires that you return it to me, or to Keldwyn, but not to the queen, even if she commands it. Will you risk her wrath?”
“I think we’re already deep in wrath territory when it comes to Rhoswen, so sure. I'll be happy to give it to anyone he wants.”
Catriona turned to Firewind. Though there was no spoken communication, it was clear Firewind found those terms acceptable, for she turned back to Jacob and asked, “Do you need help getting on him?”
“Male pride is a terrible thing. Not sure I can make myself say yes to that, no matter how true an answer it is.”
Firewind blew out a snort. This time, instead of fire, Jacob was surprised to find himself sprayed with a light mist of salt water, perhaps from their swim in the moat. Stretching out his forelegs in an attitude of total imposed-upon suffering, the waterhorse went to one knee and Catriona helped him mount. Jacob managed it without staggering or uttering vile curses not appropriate to utter before a Fae lord or a female dryad, but it was a near thing.
Once he was seated, she handed him the reins.
“Good hunting,” she said simply.
“Where are you—”
“Back to the forests. I have been watching you, these past few days. The timing today was fortunate.”
“Yes, it was.” He’d automatically shifted to a proper seat, the boon of long experience. Things were getting less painful, though, the bones and wounds healing, but he felt weak as a newborn and knew he had to be far too pale. “Have you been watching Keldwyn, too?”
“Yes. I am not ready for him to see me yet, though.” Her voice softened, and her eyes had a glimmer of tears. “Go with the Goddess’s blessing, vampire.”
“Jacob,” he reminded her. But she was gone, with
Jacob looked at Firewind as the waterhorse turned his head, met his gaze. “Do I just tell you where I’d like to go? I get that I shouldn’t use heels or tugs on the reins, but I can’t promise about the knees and thighs. That’s second nature to me.” The horse shook his whole head and neck, a shudder that went through the withers, which Jacob interpreted as a shrug. “Is it too much to hope that we don’t have to go there at a gallop?” At the horse’s look, he sighed, took a firm hold of reins. “Yeah, I know. We’re already late. Let’s go, then. Do you want the wax?” He opened his palm to show the two balls Catriona had tucked there. “So you don’t have to hear my screams of pain?” The horse laid back his ears and blew a small spout of flame out of his nose. “Wax gone,” Jacob said, tossing it. “At your pleasure, my lord.”
FORTUNATELY, the bones had knitted enough that the furious gallop was uncomfortable, not excruciating. It didn’t take very long for Jacob to see the tail end of the procession, but it was good that Firewind had run, because they weren’t far from the glittering train of horses that had to be the Seelie host.
He cantered along the line, his knees holding him on the horse, one hand wrapped loosely in the mane and braided reins. He’d recovered enough to hold a good seat, and kept his attitude casual, as if it was nothing to ride up on a waterhorse that could burst into flame at a moment’s notice. He saw his lady riding with Rhoswen. It had been a curious honor, given Rhoswen’s attitude toward Lyssa, but he expected since Lyssa’s attendance had been specifically requested by the Seelie king, Rhoswen was playing politics, making it appear as if she was treating Lyssa as an honored guest. Or it could be more of the schizoid love-hate behavior she’d been demonstrating to her half sister throughout their compel ed visit.
As they approached, he noted the palfrey was little more than half Firewind’s size, but given his lady’s petite stature, they were a proportionate match. With Lyssa sidesaddle, the skirt of her dress spread out on the horse’s haunches, and the palfrey’s arched head and flowing mane, they made a beautiful, feminine picture. It didn’t matter to Jacob who led the procession. She was the one who stood out, who riveted his attention.
Based on that, he couldn’t blame Firewind for trying to steal a playful nip of the mare’s neck. He had a similar urge toward her rider. The stallion won an offended whinny, a sidling dance on four dainty hooves. It was instinct to control his mount with a quick whistle of breath, a hiss of admonishment.
Before he could think oh, crap, regretting his faux pas with the prickly equine Fae lord, Firewind’s feet left the ground, but only a few inches. It was a retort, yes, but it was just as much a cocky, handsome display to the mare. Then he settled to his version of a sedate pace, which meant a menacing stalk.
“Manners. Be a gentleman, you big lout,” Jacob muttered.
Of course, he was one to talk. Wearing only the indecently snug hose, holes burned through them in a couple spots, he was well aware he was nowhere suitably dressed for this entourage, but Rhoswen had set the terms. She could explain his appearance to the Seelie king. At least his boots had held up well.
Lyssa’s green eyes revealed nothing. However, he knew she saw the strain of the trek through water, would feel the weakness the burns and injuries had left him. Though she’d been worried, he could also tell she was proud of him, pleased he’d achieved Rhoswen’s quest.
It was an age-old feeling, the sense that he’d done something worthy of his lady’s favor. That he’d won her heart anew, the true prize for a quest performed well. That, and the pleasure of her body later, when she’d offer herself generously as a further reward.
Oh, really? I expected you here at least ten minutes ago. I think you’re losing your touch.
As she looked him over, he saw her remember the first time she’d met him, how he’d been wearing an outfit remarkably similar to this one.
Though that one didn’t have the added benefit of being glued to your body with water, Sir Vagabond.
Her gaze lifted to his face. She knew he needed blood, but she didn’t ask or coddle, knowing this was not the time. And it was not her way, regardless. One of the many things he appreciated about her.
Rhoswen glanced back, as expressionless as his lady, underscoring the family resemblance once again. He didn’t think it would be politic to grin about that, no matter how giddy or slightly unstable he was feeling at the moment.
“So you figured out the secret to riding a waterhorse, vampire. You look a little… overcome by the experience. And far underdressed.” Jacob inclined his head. “If my appearance pleases my lady, then that is enough. And yes, I did figure out the secret. Treat him as he deserves to be treated.”
“Under that maxim, I was overly merciful with the bearing rein. He should count himself fortunate.” After that cryptic comment, Rhoswen turned her attention to Lyssa, dismissing him and Firewind.
“When we reach the Seelie host, I will introduce you to King Tabor and turn you over to him. But remember what we spoke about.” She met Lyssa’s glance. “A day from now, at dawn, the herald will come.”
Jacob gave Lyssa a quizzical look, but she made a neutral gesture, putting him off.
Later, Sir Vagabond. It concerns the last quest.
Hell fire, Rhoswen didn’t waste any time. Given that they’d had the conversation before he arrived, it suggested
Rhoswen had possessed more confidence about his success than expected. Or that she had spies who reported to her the moment he’d succeeded. He’d vote for the latter, but it didn’t really matter. He’d overcome the second quest and lived to tell the tale.
Yes, and don’t waste this moment on worry of what may come. I know how much you’ve longed to see the Seelie Hunt. Let’s enjoy it together.
She truly was remarkable. He found himself wanting to touch his lady, feel her body close to his.
Offering a rakish smile, he held out a hand, leaning down. “Would you like to ride together, my lady?” He wasn’t sure if she would agree, but there was an intriguing sparkle in those green eyes. So intriguing he couldn’t help touching her mind, curious.
She loved seeing him on a horse. When his body became one with the creature, moving together in sinuous strength and grace, she fantasized about having her own body pressed against his, feeling it.
She’d wanted that experience—riding a horse with him—for a long time.
You should have told me that at Mason’s, my lady. I would have been happy to ride on the beach with you and given you all you desired. He could fulfill one of his lady’s personal fantasies here and now. The evening was getting better by the minute, no matter that he looked like a drowned rat and felt like he’d been beaten half to death.
You are incorrigible. But her eyes said she wanted him no other way.
“Lord Firewind.” He twitched a rein, gaining the horse’s attention, which was probably a good thing, since it looked like he was trying to stare fiery holes into Rhoswen’s back. “May my lady join me? I value her safety far beyond my own, so if she will not be welcome, I need to know that.”
In response, the horse did a pretty leg change, damn near a prance, shaking out his abundant mane. He earned a more considering eye from the mare and a small smile from Lyssa.
“I believe that’s a yes,” Jacob said dryly.
Turning her mount’s reins over to one of the guards, she lifted her arms. Leaning down, Jacob slid his arm around her waist and brought her over to Firewind’s back. Despite the complaints from his abused body, he made it appear an effortless move.
Jacob nodded. “In water, he has a tail, a great powerful thing”— boy howdy—“as green as your eyes, with gold edges on the tail and scales.”
“Hmm.” She touched the horse’s neck to get his attention. “Lord Firewind, can you sidle to the left of the Unseelie entourage without appearing… rude?” The horse responded instantly, as if he was more than happy to put some distance between himself and the queen. “Do you really kill children?” she queried softly. “Drown them?”
The horse whuffed, a glint to his eye that wasn’t really an answer. However, remarkably, through Lyssa’s mind, Jacob could make out fragments of the waterhorse’s response, reflecting Lyssa’s limited understanding of the Fae language.
“Truth is always… complicated,” she repeated for Jacob’s benefit. “Yes,” she agreed. “It is.” She asked nothing further. Like his lady, he’d like to know more about the complex and dark beast carrying them, but sensed that was all they’d get right now. Plus she had other agendas to pursue. Leaning against his chest, she put a hand on his face. As she did, she tilted her head back onto his shoulder, exposing her throat, the tempting line that drew his eyes to the swell of her breasts, the way the train of her skirt outlined her thighs. “Drink from me, my vampire,” she murmured. “Replenish your strength for the night ahead.”
He hesitated, aware of eyes on them. Her nails dug into his flesh—that Mistress’s warning. She locked gazes with him . I don’t care what they think, Jacob. Their ridiculous notions of hierarchy and superiority mean as little to me as the Vampire Council’s. You are my servant, but I am also yours, in this regard. Use me to strengthen yourself, so I know I have your full abilities to serve and protect me tonight.