Returned, p.1
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       Returned, p.1

           Kimberley Griffiths Little
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Returned


  DEDICATION

  For Kirsten,

  sisters are forever friends,

  and I can’t imagine my life without you

  CONTENTS

  Dedication

  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

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Chapter 26

  Chapter 27

  Chapter 28

  Chapter 29

  Chapter 30

  Chapter 31

  Chapter 32

  Chapter 33

  Chapter 34

  Author’s Note

  Acknowledgments

  Back Ads

  About the Author

  Books by Kimberley Griffiths Little

  Credits

  Copyright

  About the Publisher

  1

  Last night should have been one of bliss. After all Kadesh and I had been through—the loss of my family, the trek through the harsh desert . . . this should have been our night, the first as husband and wife in the marriage tent.

  During the months of hardship and terror, I’d imagined us sipping wine and bathing in a marbled bath of bubbles. Lying in perfect luxury on a golden bed, together at last.

  Instead, Kadesh and I were like lost children, orphaned by the sudden death of his uncle, King Ephrem, at our wedding ceremony, which had been irrevocably shattered mere hours ago.

  “Come,” Kadesh said, tugging at my elbow. His other arm went around my waist as he helped me mount my horse. We rode down the winding cliff path back to the beach where we had just sent off King Ephrem in a royal funeral pyre.

  Those ominous lights we’d just spotted in the distance from the top of the cliffs had imprinted fresh horror on my mind. Strangers on the desert were never a good sign, but hundreds of lights on the desert spelled doom. Horeb’s army was so close, so inevitable. There was no avoiding the war that was about to descend on us in all its wrath and fury.

  Beside me, Asher, the Edomite prince, muttered, “No time left for planning or training. Horeb’s armies will be here before nightfall tomorrow.”

  My horse brayed, as though the animal understood the gloomy words.

  Kadesh frowned at the young man with disapproval. “Don’t worry, Jayden,” he said, trying to comfort me. “We’re ready for them.”

  Despite his trying to calm my fears, I was beyond being worried. Within the next fortnight, Sariba would either survive or fall to its doom—and take the lives of everyone with it.

  The crowd of mourning citizens and palace servants, guards, and king’s soldiers began to disperse when we reached the funeral pyre. Shadowy figures drifted up the sandy beach back to the paths that led to the city above. Silent specters. Muffled tears.

  While King Ephrem’s pyre burned out, the last of the red flames snapped at the salty sea air, devouring the body of the king of Sariba.

  A hot wind whipped at my bridal gown. I wanted to scrape the horror of the night from my sight until my eyelids were raw.

  The acrid smell of smoke and ashes chafed at my nose and throat. I was sure that no amount of water could ever quench my thirst again.

  Gripping my hand, Kadesh lowered himself before the funeral pyre, pulling me with him. On my knees in the soft sand, while waves rushed along the shore, I bowed my head. Tears slipped down my nose, conveying my devotion and love to the kindly old king.

  King Ephrem had welcomed me as his nephew and heir’s betrothed, including my father into his household. We were part of his family now and he was ready to lay aside the safety of his kingdom and people in order to provide us shelter and a new home.

  I was grateful for his love, but apprehensive about Kadesh’s inevitable crowning. The sooner it happened the better when three threatening armies were now at the kingdom’s doorsteps. His crowning would calm the citizens and show leadership and strength. But the man I loved was vulnerable, just as much as I was.

  Kadesh’s heart was tender, and too magnanimous. And, blinded in one eye as he was, he was not the perfect specimen of a fearless soldier and commander in chief. His physical obstacles might not endear confidence unto his army.

  Reaching out to me from the blackness of midnight, Kadesh lifted my fist to his lips and kissed my fingers. We knelt in the sand, trembling and clinging to each other. “I give you all that I am, Jayden, daughter of Pharez. All my heart and all my protection, for as long as I take breath.”

  “We will fight together,” I said, my voice catching. “Horeb now, and any future adversaries. We must trust each other implicitly. You must let me do my part.”

  “I’m not sure I’m ready for the latter.” His mouth crooked into a small smile as he brought me close. “Dear God in heaven,” Kadesh whispered into my hair, his hands cupping my head. “Help this kingdom. Help my people. Help us as their servants and leaders.”

  Swirls of fine sand rose and I closed my eyes. “Let’s go home,” I said softly into his ear.

  Kadesh motioned for Asher to take our horses back up to the city, and then he and I walked together, our hands in a death grip, not wanting to let go. Our shattered wedding, King Ephrem’s death, and the impending war overwhelmed us into silence.

  When Kadesh and I staggered into the palace, my eyelashes were crusted with the salt of the ocean.

  Servants rushed to attend us, bedraggled and dirty as we were. Wall sconces flickered with lowered late-night flames. We gulped down a goblet of water each, but the cool drink hurt my burning throat. All I could smell was ashes and death on me, my wedding dress, even my skin.

  Waving away any more food or drink, Kadesh kept me moving past the columns and carpets of the entrance foyer, as though fearing I would collapse onto the floor. A fainting bride would never do in the public rooms with the eyes of the servants on us, despite the lateness of the hour and the few discreet guards on duty.

  With Kadesh’s arms around my waist, our fingers tightly laced, we maneuvered the hallways, the train of my wedding gown trailing dirt along the deep-cut carpets.

  Kadesh pushed open the door to my suite, light from the hall falling across the floor.

  All at once, my legs gave out, and I faltered on the threshold, reaching for the doorjamb to stay upright. Kadesh swung his cloak around me and lifted me into his arms, carrying me into the suite.

  To my right came the sound of whispers and the soft closing of the door to the bathing and dressing area; my maids prudently disappearing at our unexpected appearance.

  I pictured them waiting up for me, worried after the destruction of the wedding, the sudden death and funeral pyre of our king. Rumors were already spreading like wildfire over the sighting of the enemy armies bearing down on us.

  At the moment we all needed rest, but my mind whirled with a thousand thoughts.

  Kadesh strode across the room to my bed, tossing the extra pillows aside. Gently, he laid me down on the coverlet, the folds of his cloak still caught around my body. I was distantly aware of the shushing sound my ivory wedding gown made against my legs.

  Kadesh knelt beside me and slipped off the gold sandals from my feet, allowing them to clatter to the floor.

  I caught at his tunic with my fingers. The fabric was smudged with ashes as
well as dirt from the fight with the marauders who had attacked our wedding—and had shot an arrow into Chemish’s back. We didn’t know whether the King of the Edomites still lived or not.

  “Any word from Asher about his father’s condition?” I asked, my voice hoarse in the eerie stillness of the suite.

  Kadesh shook his head, and my eyes burned with a fresh wave of grief. I choked it back, not wanting to break down. I had to be strong. Guilt might wrack my conscience at bringing Horeb to the doors of Sariba, but I could not give in to panic.

  “Shh,” Kadesh whispered. He rose from where he knelt on the floor and lay down next to me, curling me into his chest.

  My fingers clutched at his back, pulling his warmth tight against me to stop the shivering. I didn’t realize how cold I’d been until now. “Tonight was our wedding—” I began.

  “Don’t think of that, Jayden,” he said softly. “It will tear you into pieces. The future is still there, waiting for us. I promise. Now you need to sleep.”

  I took a deep breath, keenly aware of his musky smell mixed with dirt and ash and blood. My limbs were limp and I was exhausted, but my mind continued to race with a hundred images. “There will be no more peaceful sleep until Horeb is defeated,” I said in a broken voice. “Or we are dead from his invasion.”

  “Tomorrow will be a long day,” Kadesh said, his eyes on mine. “I’ll have your maids bring you a sleeping draught to help you relax.” I shook my head, but he placed his hands on both sides of my face, staring deep into my eyes. “Tomorrow Sariba will crown me as its new king. I must legally hold the throne before Horeb attacks.”

  “How soon will the armies descend on the city?”

  “It won’t be tomorrow, that is for certain. They’re still half a day’s journey away, and they’ll need to set up camp, find water in the hills. Plan their first battle strategy. Remember, this land is foreign to them. They’ll be sending out their scouts if they haven’t already. The city will remain closed, our own army at the gates, our own scouts in the hills to bring news of their movements.”

  “Kadesh?” I whispered, his hair falling against my neck in the darkness. “I can’t stay in my suite pacing the floor for the next many weeks, hoping you’ll come home. I have to be at your side as your queen—even though we weren’t married tonight.”

  His eyes flicked away and then back to mine. A deep sigh rose from his chest while he brought me closer. “I don’t like you being part of this. I can’t stand the thought of Horeb seeing you. Of hurting you again.”

  “Yet King Ephrem said I was to kill Horeb.” My stomach churned when the words caught in my throat.

  Kadesh pressed his lips against my forehead, his face hovering above mine. “Stay in bed tomorrow. Rest up for what lies ahead. Get your strength back.”

  “I am strong—”

  He rose to a sitting position and let out a chuckle. “A girl who crosses the desert and takes on the Edomites will never be underestimated by me.”

  I gave him a small smile, wishing we were still lying together on the bed. I was cold, chilled, and terrified.

  “I must go before the palace is filled with gossip about my presence in your room at such a late hour.”

  “What are your plans tomorrow?” I asked.

  He lifted an eyebrow. “What are your plans tomorrow?”

  “Actually, I intend to get my sister from the temple. She wasn’t at our wedding tonight, even after I sent her an invitation. The High Priestess Aliyah stopped her from attending, I just know it. I must talk to her and convince her to move to the palace. It will be safer here. I—I don’t even know if she’s still alive. . . .”

  “She is,” Kadesh assured me. “You shouldn’t leave the city, even to go to the temple. I’ll accompany you.”

  “You have a war to prepare for. I won’t waste your time.”

  “The forest between here and the temple might not be safe.”

  “If Horeb’s army actually makes it that close to the city then we are all doomed.”

  “True. We’ll face him in battle on the desert, between the frankincense groves and the foothills of the Qara Mountains. Far from the city gates. I plan to go out tomorrow with my scouts to see what we can learn.”

  “Wait until my return from the temple. I want to go with you.”

  “You are determined. We won’t be riding out until nightfall. I want Horeb to think he’s got a temporary reprieve. There won’t be a sign of any of Sariba’s scouts or soldiers. Silence from us—despite my secret convoy of soldiers already hiding in the foothills.”

  “Then we have quite a day ahead of us. Which means you must kiss me,” I added softly.

  “With all my heart.”

  He leaned in and gently kissed me, his lips warm and comforting. “Soon I can say that I am your queen,” I murmured.

  “To me, you already are.”

  “Being married to you almost seems like a dream now.” I brushed away the tears leaking out of my eyes. “A dream that will remain elusive forever.”

  Kadesh gazed into my face, pensive. “After all this is over, I’m not sure the marriage tent is good enough for us. I want to take you to the place my parents would often visit when they needed a respite from royal life and duties.”

  “Where is that?”

  “An ancient stone castle, or fort, almost two hour’s ride from here in the mountains. It was abandoned and in disrepair, but my father fixed it up for my mother when I was young. They had many happy times and memories there.”

  I gave him a shaky smile. “It sounds perfect.”

  We finally broke apart. Kadesh’s mouth was tight with grief, but his features were filled with an angry passion. “I vow to you, Jayden, that we will overcome the terrible deeds of this night. We will win.”

  “I believe you,” I whispered to assure him. But did I actually believe that we could abolish three armies of Assyrian, Maachathite, and Nephish soldiers? To defend the city without the slaughter of innocent families?

  Horeb’s armies weren’t our only worry, either. Kadesh had been away for a long year, recovering from the caravan raid and helping me search the city of Mari for my sister, Sahmril, while under siege.

  Unfortunately, Aliyah—in her role as the temple High Priestess—had used that year to her advantage, gaining the trust of the city, showing off the fruits of the temple. With Kadesh’s absence and King Ephrem’s ill health, she’d had free reign to influence the army’s leaders and Sariba’s mayors and city council. Further, she had aligned herself with the Egyptians who were now living here and weaving their magical spells and charms. How dangerous that would prove had yet to be seen, but the knowledge made me incredibly uneasy.

  “There’s wisdom in your being crowned as soon as possible,” I said. “To thwart any coup from your army—or Aliyah’s influence. You must act quickly.”

  “I’ve been watching a myriad of thoughts moving through your head,” he said with amusement. “You’re weighing everything out.”

  “How can you tell?”

  “Your eyes go distant. Then you take a breath and hold it while you’re thinking. I always know when I’m about to get a barrage of ideas.” He tightened his grip on my waist. “Please return from the temple as soon as you can tomorrow. You can’t miss the king’s crowning.”

  “Your crowning,” I emphasized, running a finger along his cheek, my heart tugging at the thick white scar along his face from Horeb’s sword that had gouged out his eye. “Who will do the honors of crowning you king?”

  “Uncle Josiah, my closest relative to the throne. He’s in line as my successor. When Uncle Ephrem was a young man, the High Priest Melchizedek from Salem crowned him king, but there’s no time to get him here when the journey takes months.”

  “This will all be over long before then,” I said soberly. “Horeb’s men will likely be under orders to capture me and take me to him.”

  “I won’t let that happen, Jayden, but if you stayed safely at the palace that risk lo
wers,” Kadesh added pointedly.

  “Many people will die over the next few weeks, all because of me. I can’t sit idly by while everyone else takes all the risks. The High Priestess also wants to get rid of me and take you and your kingdom for herself. Death might be the easiest way, but who will try to kill me first, Aliyah or Horeb?”

  2

  The next morning I woke to darkness.

  The hour before dawn hovered like a breath on the horizon. The city of Sariba lay in slumber outside my bedroom window, deceptively peaceful.

  “My lady, it’s time,” Tijah, my handmaiden, whispered.

  Fatigue gnawed at my bones. I shuddered to a sitting position and grasped the pillow, hanging on to it like a lifeline to sanity. I’d only slept three or four hours during which a mirage of images and nightmares had tortured me.

  My mind replayed the sight of Horeb’s raiders slashing through our guests with their swords, hacking draperies, overturning tables of beautifully prepared food. My wedding utterly ruined.

  The shock of finding Uncle Ephrem dead behind the curtains of the dais, his heart failing him as he witnessed the horror of a group of foreigners bent on our extermination caused my heart to hurt with the pain of the great man’s loss.

  Finally, I thought about Asher sitting at the bedside of his father, Chemish, who had been shot through with an arrow, his life hanging by a thread. An arrow meant for Kadesh.

  Kadesh, Asher, and the other Edomites had killed the intruders, pulling them off their horses—until one who was gasping for life confessed that Horeb had sent them. It was all I could do not to personally plunge my dagger into the mercenary soldier’s heart.

  “My lady, please,” Tijah said, pulling me to my feet. “We must leave now if we hope to get to the Temple of Sariba before dawn. Prince Kadesh advised me that darkness will give us cover.”

  I dipped my hands into a basin of warm water to wash my face, wavering on my heels. I used the towel she offered and stared at her. “Are you sure we can get in through your secret way?”

  A hurt look came over her face. “I wouldn’t lie about something so important.”

  I laid a hand on Tijah’s arm, recalling her knowledge of the temple tunnels and passageways. She could help me enter without detection. “I’m just worried that we’ll run into one of those menacing Egyptian magicians.”

 

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