Amid the winter snow, p.1
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       Amid the Winter Snow, p.1

           Grace Draven
 
Amid the Winter Snow


  Amid the Winter Snow

  A Holiday Anthology

  with stories by

  Grace Draven

  Thea Harrison

  Elizabeth Hunter

  Jeffe Kennedy

  As the snows fall and hearths burn, four stories of Midwinter beginnings prove that love can fight its way through the chilliest night…

  Copyright © 2017 by Grace Draven, Teddy Harrison LLC, Elizabeth Hunter, Jennifer M. Kennedy

  EPUB Edition

  ISBN: 978-1-945367-23-6

  All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the author.

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or business establishments, organizations or locales is completely coincidental.

  Thank you for reading!

  Credits

  Cover: Hunter Draven

  Back Cover Copy: Erin Nelsen Parekh

  Table of Contents

  Cover

  Title Page

  Copyright Page

  In the Darkest Midnight

  About the Book

  Dedication

  Copyright Page

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Epilogue

  About Grace Draven

  The Chosen

  About the Book

  Copyright Page

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Author’s Note

  Look for these titles from Thea Harrison

  The Storm

  About the Book

  Copyright Page

  Prologue

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  About the Author

  Also by Elizabeth Hunter

  The Snows of Windroven

  About the Book

  Acknowledgements

  Copyright Page

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  About Jeffe Kennedy

  Titles by Jeffe Kennedy

  In the Darkest Midnight

  by

  Grace Draven

  The mark Jahna Ulfrida was born with has made her a target of the cruel and idle all her life. During the long, crowded festivities of Deyalda, there’s nowhere to escape. Until a handsome stranger promises to teach her to save herself…

  Dedication

  For Lora Gasway, whose spirit lives on in every book I write.

  Copyright © 2017 by Grace Draven

  All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the author.

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or business establishments, organizations or locales is completely coincidental.

  Thank you for reading!

  ~ 1 ~

  The Master arrived, Year 3837

  Jahna squeezed herself into the corridor’s darkest alcove as hard as she could. Here, the cloisters branched in three directions. The one she hid in led to the storerooms and armory, its pathway lit only by the flicker of two anemic torches anchored to the walls and spaced far apart. Shadows cavorted along the floors and ceiling, hinting that other things besides frightened girls lurked in their umbric shelter. With any luck, that sinister cast would work in Jahna’s favor and deter the pack of silk-clad wolves currently hunting her in the royal palace.

  The patter of several feet on stone and the frustrated pitch of voices reached her ears. The wolves. Evaline Lacramor and her ever-present toadies on their annual hunt for the prey they found so entertaining to torment. An icy draft barreled through the open archways, nearly guttering the torches’ flames and frosting the walls closest to the arches. Shielded from the worst of the cold by a wall and bundled in a hooded cloak, Jahna sweated with fear and tried not to breathe too loud as her heartbeat thundered in her ears.

  Another set of steps, this time measured and leisurely, approached from the guest hall opposite from where she hid. A man alone paused, back stiffening as his head turned first one way then the other. The light in the corridors sharpened the edge of shadows more than it illuminated them, but even in its wan luminescence his red hair burned as fiery as a live coal.

  To see him more clearly, Jahna would have to reveal her hiding spot, so she contented herself with only the impression of wide shoulders and the weighty focus of a raptor. His head turned a little toward her before he faced the direction of Evaline and her pack’s approach.

  Their voices were louder now, and they soon came into Jahna’s view, a trio of predators clad in sumptuous gowns and fur-lined cloaks and gloves.

  Evaline, blonde and beautiful, stomped her foot and clenched her gloved hands into fists. “I can’t believe we lost her. She had to take one of these hallways.” She paced back and forth, peering first down the hall where Jahna hid and then down the other where the red-haired man stood in the concealing shadows, silent as the stone at his back.

  Jahna held her breath and prayed she wouldn’t sneeze or cough and alert the others to her presence. It was inevitable she’d have to face Evaline at some point during the Delyalda festivities, but the longer she could postpone that particular misery, the better.

  One of Evaline’s companions, the less forceful but no less cruel Nadel, frowned. “I’m not chasing her if she went that way.” She pointed down the corridor where Jahna hid. “It’s full of rats and…things.”

  The third of their party was a girl Jahna remembered as once being nice to her until she fell in with Evaline. Of their trio, Tefila was the most cautious. “Me neither. And it’s very dark.”

  Evaline rolled her eyes. “Stop being a bunch of ninnies. It’s just Fireface. One girl and there’s three of us.”

  Tefila gestured to where the man waited, silent and unseen. “If I were her, I’d go that way. It leads to a set of stairs that takes you down into the queen’s gardens.”

  Jahna stifled a sigh of relief. She’d almost gone that way, changing her mind at the last moment. The hallway leading to the stairs was long, with no niches or doorways in which to hide, and she had feared not being able to outrun her pursuers.

  “This is dull, and I’m getting my h
em dirty.” Nadel picked at her skirts, shaking them in a futile bid to rid them of the dark stain marring the decorative trim. “Why not just leave her alone? There’s plenty to do here without chasing Fireface all over the palace.”

  She backed up a step, as did Tefila, when Evaline pivoted slowly and leveled a look on them so full of malice, both girls paled. “Because I don’t want to leave her alone,” she said, the words precise, measured and almost spat between her teeth.

  Jahna’s galloping heartbeat picked up speed as terror coursed through her veins. She didn’t know or understand what drove Evaline to seek her out with such zeal, but her pleasure in doing so had been the source of many of Jahna’s nightmares for years.

  A betraying squeak almost burst from her lips when the other witness to their exchange suddenly moved, his footfalls no longer quiet on the floors as he approached the trio. Their voices fell abruptly silent, broken only by a startled gasp from Tefila when he stepped into the light pooling at the juncture of the three corridors. His bright hair literally shimmered as he bowed in greeting.

  “My ladies. A good evening to you.” His voice, deep and languid, felt like a caress, and Jahna fancied he could sing well enough to entice birds from trees.

  If Evaline and her friends’ reactions were anything to judge by, they were as affected as she by that beguiling voice. All three tittered. Evaline, always bold, fluttered her eyelashes and sashayed a little closer to their visitor. Her gaze swept him from head to foot. “You’re the swordmaster from Ilinfan, aren’t you?”

  He bowed once more. “I am, my lady. Radimar Velus, House of Wemerc.”

  Jahna’s eyebrows lifted. Her brother’s new teacher! She desperately wanted to ease out of her hiding place a little more for a better look but dared not. Her fear of Evaline overrode her curiosity for the man her father had paid handsomely to travel from Ilinfan and teach Sodrin how to wield a blade.

  The fall of his hair hid most of his profile, but she made out the bridge of his nose and the curve of his cheekbone, both high and prominent. He wasn’t bundled as she and the other girls were in their cloaks, hats, and hoods. Instead he wore thick riding leathers over layers of quilted wool and tall boots that reached mid thigh for warmth and protection against high snow drifts. A sword in its scabbard was belted at his waist. Vambraces clad his forearms, but his hands were gloveless, revealing long, pale fingers and strong tendons that ran the length of his hands to his knuckles.

  “You look as if you’re all searching for something important. May I be of any assistance?”

  His words made Jahna’s stomach lurch. Had he seen her? More importantly, would he tell? Her legs tensed, and she raised her skirt a little in preparation to run. The only path open to her was the length of hallway behind her back, and that dead-ended at a wall of storerooms. Even if she managed to outrun the girls, her questionable salvation lay in the hope one of those storerooms was unlocked and could be locked from the inside if she reached it in time. That she might freeze to death while she waited out her tormentors seemed a risk worth taking.

  Evaline’s delicate features took on a decidedly feline cast. Her gaze slid away from that of the swordmaster’s for a moment. “We were looking for a friend who’s supposed to attend the court supper with us. She went ahead, and we were hoping to catch up, so we could all go in together.” Nadel and Tefila nodded vigorously to lend truth to her lie.

  Radimar Velus’s silence was just long enough to become awkward before he spoke. “I see, though why would she come this way?” He gestured to a spot behind them. “The great hall iwhere the supper will be held is that way.”

  A mottled flush crawled up Evaline’s neck to stain her cheeks. Her flirtatious smile thinned, and her eyes cooled. “We may have taken a wrong turn or two,” she said, no hint of being caught at a lie in her voice. “None of us are familiar with the palace’s many corridors.”

  His head tilted, sending a lock of that sunfire hair spilling over one shoulder. “I saw a girl heading toward the courtyards. She seemed in a hurry, like you. I only saw her from the back, so I didn’t get a look at her face, but she was wearing a blue cloak I think.”

  Jahna’s eyes stung with tears. He was sending them in the opposite direction from where she hid. May the gods bless you, she mouthed. She still dared not speak or move, nor hardly breathe.

  “That’s her!” Nadel nearly crowed in triumph, Tefila clapped once, the feral glitter of eagerness in her eyes turning Jahna’s stomach.

  Oddly enough, Evaline seemed disinterested. Her features had softened with the come-hither smile she wore before the swordmaster questioned their wanderings in the palace. She waved a careless hand at her two companions as if the moments earlier, when she’d been all but foaming at the mouth to chase down Jahna, hadn’t existed. “We’ll catch up soon enough.”

  Her brother’s new teacher was obviously as much a master of decorum as he was of the sword. His mouth turned up at the corner in a brief smile, and he placed a hand on his chest in a gesture of regret. “Ah, but it would be remiss of me to keep you. You might lose choice seats if you arrive to the supper late.” All three girls frowned. “I’d escort you there myself but I must meet with someone before then. Perhaps I’ll see you there later?”

  It was a masterfully executed ploy. Nadel leaned to whisper something in Evaline’s ear, to which the other girl nodded before offering Radimar Velus another of her coy smiles. “Of course you’re right, Sir Velus, and we’ll be most pleased to see you at the festivities later.”

  They wished him good day amid more smiles and flirtatious glances over their shoulders as they turned back the way they came, their pursuit of Jahna no longer of interest to them.

  Jahna leaned her head against the wall, welcoming the stone’s frigid touch against her hot brow. She didn’t close her eyes but continued to watch the swordmaster where he remained in the hall. After a moment, his shoulders visibly relaxed, and he turned in her direction. “You can come out now.”

  She hesitated, memories of a past scenario like this one, when she thought it was safe only to realize it wasn’t until too late, rose to haunt her. That event had taught her a valuable lesson regarding trust, one she never forgot.

  Her ears strained to hear Evaline’s voice, but the only noise to reach her was the sound of her own breathing. Sir Velus said no more, simply waited, his own exhalations steaming out of his nose into the cold air in a ghostly cloud that quickly evaporated.

  He’d known all along she was there, and his chance to reveal her to her pursuers had presented itself numerous times during their conversation. Instead, he’d deflected their pursuit and sent them away, all with a charming smile, a kind offer to help and a convincing lie told in a bewitching voice.

  Jahna white-knuckled her cloak in both hands, pulled her hood over one side of her face as much as the garment allowed, and stepped out of her hiding place. Her savior said nothing as she slowly approached him. His change in position and her closer proximity revealed all the details of his features previously hidden from her view.

  His voice was beautiful; his visage was not. The facial bones looked as if they’d been hewn from rock by a mason instead of chiseled away from marble by a sculptor. An unforgiving jawline and the deep hollows below his high cheekbones lent a harshness to his features that was enhanced by a thin-lipped mouth. The prominent nose edged toward hawkish, a fitting shape to match the intensity of his gaze.

  He wasn’t handsome by the standards of Beladine society, but he wasn’t ugly either. The ruggedness of his features was softened by the most arresting pair of green eyes she’d ever beheld. Narrow and framed in dark lashes, they watched her from beneath elegantly arched eyebrows a shade darker than his glorious red hair.

  Jahna had to swallow twice before she could speak without stuttering. “Thank you for not showing them where I hid.”

  He gave a brief nod. “The leader of that little trio…”

  “Evaline Lacramor.”

  One of those
auburn eyebrows arched. “Ah, Lord Lacramor’s whelp. Why am I not surprised?” His upper lip lifted in obvious contempt. “One of you and three of them. Do you think she would have been so eager to find you had it just been her?”

  Jahna shrugged, startled by the faint sneering tone in his voice when he mentioned Lord Lacramor’s name and his not-so-subtle insult in calling Evaline a whelp. “Probably. She’s hated me since we first met when we were both small children.”

  He didn’t ask her why Evaline hated her but steered the conversation in a different direction. His hard face softened, as did his voice. “You heard all that was said, but I’m happy to introduce myself again if you wish, my lady.”

  She didn’t dare let down her guard, but she did permit herself a tiny smile. “That isn’t necessary, Sir Velus. I’m Jahna Uhlfrida, Marius Uhlfrida’s daughter.”

  His bow to her was lower than it had been to the other girls. “Lady Uhlfrida, It’s a pleasure to meet you, though this isn’t how I imagined an introduction to one of his lordship’s family. Why did…” He paused and frowned as if trying his hardest to remember what she’d just told him.

  “Evaline,” she said.

  “Evaline. Why did Evaline call you Fireface?”

  Her amusement at his purposeful memory lapse regarding Evaline’s name died a quick death at the question. Jahna had learned early how to position herself to another person when speaking with them so that the unmarked side of her face was what they saw. The head coverings, scarves and hairstyles she wore served the single purpose of obscuring the side disfigured by the purple stain that spread along the right side of her face from her forehead down to her collarbone and over to her ear.

  At the moment, she presented her unmarked profile to Sir Velus, but his question forced her to face the inevitable indrawn breath, the flicker of revulsion not shuttered fast enough for her to miss, the involuntary step back, as if the mark she bore might be contagious.

 
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