LOVE IS A JOURNEY…NOT A DESTINATION.
He was going to die.
Death stared Kaelen in the eye and promised to be long and painful. He refused to cower before it. What he’d done was in defense of the weak, the helpless; he’d had no choice but to act. However, his motivations would not sway the Queen. She ruled with an iron fist, and it was going to squeeze the life out of him. Despite his imminent end, he regretted nothing. He may have taken a human life, but he’d also saved at least three others. Pride and honor would hold him upright during the judgment of his crime.
Kaelen drank in the sight of the Great Hall. This would be the last time he saw it. Flowered vines crept up the ancient stone walls and clung to the ceiling. Normally, blooms painted the greenness of the leaves with a multitude of colors. Today, however, every blossom squeezed itself into a small tight bud, almost hiding behind the foliage. Nature mourned the loss of one of her protectors. Kaelen drew in a deep breath. The sweet, earthy scent of the realm seeped into his body, into every cell, and offered him a small measure of comfort.
He surveyed the faces of the hundreds who’d gathered to watch his fall from grace. How often he’d been among them, judging the guilty in their midst. Most wouldn’t make eye contact, glancing quickly away as his gaze settled on them. Murmurs drifted on the air as they discussed the situation. They didn’t like it, having to judge someone of his standing. One man, however, met his gaze boldly with a smirk kissing his lips. Darrick. His cousin.
Kaelen clenched his jaw and inhaled sharply through his teeth. Hard facts rushed through his mind. The realization of what would follow his demise hit him. With him dead, Darrick was next in line for the throne. While the Goddess had cursed Kaelen, she’d smiled on the fate of his kinsman. The thought of his cruel, remorseless cousin as King made Kaelen’s chest tighten. Despair gripped him. What would happen to his people? The peace they enjoyed?
A trill of music vibrated through the air, signaling the entrance of the Queen. All bowed their heads as she passed. Kaelen lowered himself onto his knees and focused on the ground in front of him. He remained so as the Queen’s chancellor read the charges against him.
“Kaelen of Fey, you are hereby charged with tampering with events in the human world by causing the death of a mortal and using your healing powers on humans. This has changed the delicate fabric woven by the Goddess and Fate. According the laws of our people, this is punishable by death. The method of which is to be decided by our Great Lady.”
The expected punishment, being read in that awful, droning voice, made Kaelen cringe and his stomach clench. He’d been thinking of his death since being in confinement yester-eve, but hearing the words spoken aloud made it all the more real. He was going to die. Soon.
“Kaelen, rise.” The Queen’s voice rang through the large room, dancing along his spine.
She sounded sad, he realized. Her usually vibrant voice resonated with mournfulness. This was hard on her. Kaelen held that close to his heart, took a deep breath, and obeyed her command.
On his feet, he lifted his head and met his Queen’s wide blue eyes.
“Have you anything to say?”
He shook his head before responding, “I told your men everything yester-eve, Lady.”
“You took a human life. You claim it was necessary. How so?”
Damn her, she would make him relive it all again. He fought against the sick, acidic churning in his gut. Forcing his mind to focus only on the facts, not the emotions straining to surface, he stated the bare details.
“The man was about to torture and slaughter an innocent woman who was with child and her other children. I acted on her behalf.”
“It isn’t your place to act on her behalf,” she snapped.
“I should have watched him butcher them? I’m sorry, Lady, I have neither the willpower nor the stomach for that.”
“You should have walked away.”
Most of those viewing the trial flinched at the harsh tone of their sovereign’s raised voice. Kaelen stared at her a moment, wondering if she was truly so heartless. Or was she truly grieved at what she’d have to do? He shook his head. It mattered not.
“Again, knowing what he would do, I could not.”
“And how is it that you came across this…situation?”
“I know not. I was in my bedchamber sleeping. I dreamed of this woman and must have dream-ported.”
“Had you ever seen this woman before? Ever been to her residence?”
“You have no great psychic gifts, Kaelen.”
He shot her a sardonic smile. “I’m aware of that, Great Lady. I don’t know how I was able to see what was happening and go there.”
Though he certainly had a few ideas. He slid his gaze to his cousin. Darrick appeared bored with the proceeding, but Kaelen noticed his clenched fists. Yes, Darrick knew something, but what?
Kaelen focused back to his Queen and realized her gaze had followed his. She turned to him with a nod and continued.
“Not only did you cause the death of a human, you used your powers to save the life of the unborn child. Without your aid, she would have died. You have meddled with Fate. Perhaps the child’s soul was not meant to be in the world in this lifetime.”
“Or perhaps it was, and that is the reason I was there.”
She acknowledged his logic with a raised brow.
“The necessity of your punishment pains me, but the law is the law. Kaelen of Fey, you are—”
Kaelen stiffened as the loud voice croaked throughout the Great Hall. Maraana the Elder pushed her way through the crowd. She was the most respected and feared of the fey. While their kind aged slowly—and a person several centuries old could look to be thirty—Maraana was clearly an old woman.
Long white hair hung down to her waist, wrinkles coursed over her complexion, and she had a staff she leaned on for support. Kaelen couldn’t even take a guess to how many lifetimes the woman had lived.
She rarely left her dwelling, preferring solitude. For her to be here, among the entire fey society, meant something was wrong. He couldn’t suppress the mass of dread that filled his body and soul. He forced himself to inhale deeply. Whatever it was, he would find out. Whenever Maraana the Elder spoke, all listened.
The old woman bowed her head. “I apologize for the interruption, my Queen, but it is most important that I speak with you. This man will not die.”
Kaelen shifted his gaze back to his Lady. Pale faced, she stared at the elder a moment before nodding. Maraana crossed until she was next to her ruler. The Queen leaned down until her ear was near Maraana’s mouth. He watched as she talked furiously, not allowing the other woman to get a word in. The Queen’s responses were limited to the occasional nod.
Finally, the women separated and straightened to full height. The Queen turned her gaze on Kaelen. Maraana stepped back slightly and focused her eyes on him as well. By the Goddess, what was going on?
The Great Lady addressed him, “It is clear that we do not know all the details of the situation. Because of this and the fact that you acted in defense of another, the death sentence will not be carried out. Therefore, Kaelen of Fey, you are hereby banished from this realm to live out your years in the human world.”
The pronouncement, like a physical blow, caused him to stumble.
“But, Lady, the laws are clear on this crime.” Darrick moved forward, his face blotched with crimson. “You cannot change that simply because the old woman says no.”
The Queen turned toward him. “You are speaking out of turn. Perhaps, you forget who rules here, Darrick.”
“My apologies, my Queen.” He bowed his head and stepped back.
“Don’t make that mistake again.” Her voice, lined with steel, brooked no argument.
Kaelen struggled to draw breath into his lungs. Banished. He was banished. Relief should be flowing through his veins—particularly given he hadn’t been sent to the Dark Realm—but he felt strangely empty. Shock, he decided. Shock had numbed him.
“No one in this realm is to speak of or acknowledge Kaelen until announced otherwise.” The Queen addressed the others before turning to him. “Kaelen, you will be welcomed back into our midst when you have the love of a true mate, who can accept who and what you are, and is willing to accept all you have done.”
What in all the heavens was she talking about? Love? How in the Goddess’ name could he get the love of someone if none could acknowledge him?
“The assembly has leave to go. I’d like a moment with Kaelen before he departs.” The crowd was dismissed with a wave of her hand.
He watched as his people left, eyes averted, avoiding the sight of him. A trio of males wasn’t as paranoid at following orders. They stood near the end of the exiting procession, staring openly at Kaelen. His heart constricted at the sight of his closest friends. Rhys, Leilen, and Dermet each lifted a hand and touched his fingertips to his lips before closing it in a fist above his heart. A sign of loyalty.
Kaelen quickly glanced at the Queen to gauge her reaction to their blatant disregard of her orders. A ghost of a smile touched her lips as she studied them.
“Thank you, gentlemen, that will be all.” She waited until they had left and turned her smile upon Kaelen. “You are lucky you have such loyal friends.”
“And unlucky you have taken them from me…Auntie,” he snapped. He had no audience now.
She walked to stand in front of him. “Would you rather that I’d taken your life? You’ve been given a chance, nephew; embrace it.”
Anger spurted through him, heating his blood. “I am separated from our people, our women. I can come back only if I receive the love of a true mate. A chance? A chance at what? I’ve looked into the Waters; I have no mate in this life,” he ground out through clenched teeth. “You have sentenced me to live my life in solitude until death.”
She reached up and cupped his face in her hands. “Not if you make the right choices.”
Choices? What choices did he have? She’d taken them all from him. Hopelessness filled every pore. He’d resigned himself to death. Now he had a future—an incredibly uncertain future.
The Queen’s laugh trickled from her full lips. “The future isn’t as bleak as your expression tells.” Her fingers caressed his face in a maternal manner. “You have changed the course of your life with what you have done. Your actions, your defense of that woman and her children, determined your fate.”
Kaelen frowned. Maraana. Something the elder said was behind this mystery. He looked down into his aunt’s eyes and tried to interpret the meaning behind her words.
“She has seen something.” It was a statement.
“I’ve seen possibility.”
Maraana stepped out from the shadows. Where had she come from? He’d seen her leave the Great Hall; of that he was certain. The woman made him nervous, uneasy.
“Possibility,” he repeated, hesitant to raise the questions running rampant in his brain. Pushing them aside he simply asked, “Good or bad?”
The elder tilted her head to the side. Her pale, nearly translucent green eyes shimmered with sadness. “That, my dear boy, depends on your choices.”