How to Love Your Elf – Kerrelyn Sparks

In another time on another world called Aerthlan, there are five kingdoms. Four of the kingdoms extend across a vast continent. The fifth kingdom consists of two islands in the Great Western Ocean. These are the Isles of Moon and Mist. There is only one inhabitant on the small Isle of Mist—the Seer. Twice a year, one of the two moons of Aerthlan eclipses the other, or as the people call it, embrace. Any child born when the moons embrace will be gifted with a magical power. These children are called the Embraced, and traditionally, the kings on the mainland have sought to kill them. Some of the Embraced infants are sent secretly to the Isle of Moon, where they will be safe. For many years, the Seer predicted continuous war and destruction across the four mainland kingdoms. But not anymore. Now he claims a wave of change is sweeping across Aerthlan—a change that will bring peace to a world that has known violence for too long. And it is happening because of five young women from the fifth kingdom—Luciana, Brigitta, Gwennore, Sorcha, and Maeve. The women were hidden away as infants on the Isle of Moon, and there, they grew up as sisters. They knew not where they had been born, nor if they had any family.

They only knew each one of them was Embraced. Chapter 1 Sorcha lunged into an attack, but with a swift kick, her opponent knocked the weapon from her hand. “Ouch.” Sorcha rubbed her wrist as the dagger clattered onto the wooden floor of the castle roof. “That hurt.” She aimed an injured look at her cousin. Annika waved a dismissive hand. “If this was a real battle, I would have stabbed you a dozen times by now. Then you could complain about being hurt.” “I don’t think she could,” Dimitri muttered.

“She’d already be dead.” “Oh, thanks. My confidence is now soaring.” Sorcha shot him an annoyed look, but he merely shrugged. “Pick up the knife,” Annika said as she widened her stance. She was dressed in the brown breeches and green shirt of the Norveshki army uniform. For this lesson, she’d loaned Sorcha one of her spare uniforms. “We’ll try again.” “Must we?” Sorcha motioned to the assortment of weapons that lay scattered upon the wide planks of wood, weathered gray from years of exposure to sun, rain, and snow. “You’ve disarmed me ten times in a row.

I’m obviously not any good at this.” “Obviously,” Dimitri agreed, ignoring the face she made at him. “But the king ordered us to teach you self-defense, so we must persevere.” “Don’t worry,” Annika assured her. “You just need practice. I was bad, too, when I first started.” “Not this bad,” Dimitri grumbled. Sorcha whipped a dagger off the floor. “Can I stab him, please?” Annika’s mouth twitched. “You don’t want Dimitri for a sparring partner.

He would break some of your bones.” He stiffened with an affronted look. “I would never injure Her Highness.” Sorcha groaned at the title she wasn’t yet accustomed to. Life had been so much simpler at the Convent of the Two Moons, where she’d grown up with her adopted sisters. There had been no fancy titles, no uncomfortable gowns or pinching headdresses to wear, no long, boring banquets to endure, and no need to learn how to defend herself. “I’m not sure I could actually plunge a knife into somebody.” Dimitri gave her a stern look. “If an assassin is trying to kill you, then you must.” “Is it really that dangerous now?” Sorcha asked.

“Didn’t Silas sign a truce with Woodwyn?” Her brother, Silas Dravenko, the new king of Norveshka, was doing his best to live peacefully with the elves on his border. “We can’t trust the elves to abide by the truce.” Dimitri scowled as he folded his arms over his wide chest. “Besides, danger could come in many forms. The Chameleon could make himself look like someone you know and take you completely by surprise.” Sorcha groaned. That much was true. In the past few years, the Chameleon had proven himself a formidable enemy. Not only was he a gifted shifter, but he was a vicious murderer. And he had proved impossible to catch, since no one knew what he really looked like.

“I bet we haven’t seen the last of him,” Annika muttered. “We foiled his plan to take over Norveshka, so he’s probably looking for revenge.” “And we also have the Circle of Five to worry about,” Dimitri added. “We’re fairly certain they’re in league with the Chameleon, but we don’t know who the members are, so danger could strike at any time.” “Exactly,” Annika agreed with her husband, then turned to Sorcha. “If the Circle wants to conquer Norveshka, they could target you since you’re the heir to the throne.” “You’re an heir, too,” Sorcha muttered. Her cousin was currently second in line. “I can defend myself. You can’t.

” With a sigh, Annika planted her hands on her hips. “If a man attacks you, just remember this: Stomp on his feet. Go for his eyes. Then kick him in the balls.” Dimitri winced. “She wouldn’t have to resort to that if you taught her how to properly wield a knife.” Sorcha snorted. “You sound like you’d rather be stabbed than emasculated.” Dimitri shrugged. “A man has his priorities.

” “So does a woman,” Annika declared. “We do what we must in order to survive.” She smiled sweetly at her newly wedded husband. “Perhaps you would help me demonstrate?” Dimitri’s eyes narrowed. Sorcha suppressed a grin. “That’s right. I need to know exactly where to kick.” When Annika crooked her fingers at her husband, he arched a brow. “If you attack me,” he said softly as he took a step toward her, “I will be forced to retaliate in a manner that you might consider overly . aggressive.

” Annika lifted her chin with a defiant look, even though a blush was sweeping across her cheeks. “I can handle whatever you dish out.” He stepped closer. “Are you sure? You have yet to experience the full extent of my . wrath.” Annika bit her lip. “Try me.” When he leaned forward to whisper something in her ear, her blush flared red-hot. Ick. Sorcha grimaced.

Newlyweds. At any second, she expected them to pounce on each other. “Don’t mind me. I’ll just throw myself off the nearest turret, shall I?” Annika nodded. “That sounds lovely . ” Her voice faded as Dimitri stroked a finger down her cheek. With a groan, Sorcha turned away to give them privacy. Not that they needed it. Her two instructors had forgotten she was there. And if this wasn’t bad enough, she had to endure the same sort of behavior from Gwennore.

She and Silas kept disappearing to their suite of rooms. Even in the middle of the day. They’d been married for six whole weeks. Weren’t they tired of each other by now? Sorcha glanced back, and sure enough, Annika and Dimitri were kissing. A pang reverberated through her heart as she looked away. A small part of her was worried she would never find the gloriously passionate kind of love that her cousin and older sisters were enjoying. But a much larger part of her was afraid that she would. And it would be an utter disaster. At the convent, she’d grown up loving her adopted sisters and the nuns who had raised them with kindness. Love there had been soft and comforting.

Easy and natural. But that safe cocoon had been ripped to shreds the day Luciana had left to face the unknown. For the first time, Sorcha had found herself floundering in a deep well of fear, a fear so profound she’d had trouble eating or sleeping. After a few weeks, they’d learned that Luciana had found her true love, but by then, Sorcha had felt physically ill. She’d hid it well, concealing her pain and distress behind a facade of anger and strength. Life had become peaceful for a short while, but then, the notorious pirate, Rupert, had kidnapped Brigitta in the middle of the Great Western Ocean. Once again, Sorcha’s fear for a loved one had consumed her. Brigitta had fallen in love with her kidnapper, so Sorcha had tried to relax in the following three peaceful years. But then something dreadful had happened. The sister closest to her heart, Gwennore, had been snatched up by a dragon and taken off to Norveshka.

There, Gwen had learned that she was half elf and half Norveshki, two peoples who were constantly at war. Even though Gwennore was now happily married to Silas, the new king of Norveshka, all these events served to reconfirm something Sorcha had suspected about herself for over three years now. When she loved, she loved too desperately. She loved without reason. She couldn’t be practical like Luciana, trusting like Brigitta, or clever like Gwennore. When her loved ones were in danger, she was overwhelmed with a sense of helplessness. Love didn’t make her strong as it did her sisters. Sure, she could put on a good show of being fierce. If someone was rude to her sisters, she had no problem cursing or threatening the offender. This had most people fooled into thinking she was strong, but deep inside she knew she was weak.

Whenever her sisters had been in danger, she’d been unable to help them. And that had nearly killed her. The best solution, as far as she could see, was never to allow anyone else into the small group of those she loved. Recently, she’d had to include her newly found brother and cousin, but that was where she drew the line. No one else would be given entry into her heart. Unfortunately, her older sisters were so happy in their marriages that they wanted her to experience the same sort of marital bliss. And, just as unfortunately, now that everyone knew she was the Norveshki princess, suitors were swarming around like a pack of greedy rodents. Noblemen from Norveshka as well as the nearby kingdoms of Eberon and Tourin had made offers for her hand. She’d turned them all down. There had been a few Norveshki courtiers who had been reluctant to take no for an answer, so she’d finally resorted to publicly slapping each one of them in the Great Hall.

Now, the courtiers were spreading the word that the princess was a volatile creature with a temper as fiery as her red hair. Her hands curled into fists as she wandered over to the battlements. She was on the roof of the southern wing of Draven Castle, where Annika had insisted they would have enough room for a proper self-defense class. Now that the truce with Woodwyn was in place, Annika’s medical skills were no longer needed at the Norveshki army camp. In spite of the truce, the elves remained encamped just south of the Vorus River. So Silas had no choice but to keep his army close to the border in case the elves suddenly decided to restart the war that had gone on for over two years. Sorcha propped her elbows on the stone battlement and leaned forward to gaze at the garden below. It was a shame she couldn’t turn into a dragon like her brother. Then she would be tempted to simply fly away. Or breathe fire on anyone who threatened her sisters.

Oh, how she missed them! Her sisters had come for Gwen’s wedding and coronation six weeks ago, but a month ago they had left. Brigitta and her husband, Rupert, had gone back to Tourin. Luciana and her husband, Leo, had returned to Eberon, and Maeve had gone with them. The youngest sister liked being close to the Ebe River, where she could shift into a seal every month when the moons were full. When they were all here, they had talked and laughed into the wee hours of the morning. They’d also played the Game of Stones to predict Sorcha’s future. The number five, the colors white and lavender—those were the stones Luciana had selected for Sorcha. They had suspected the five referred to the mysterious Circle of Five, who wanted to take over the world. No one was quite sure who the Five were, but they figured the Chameleon and the power-hungry priest, Lord Morris, were two of them. As for the colors, white and lavender, none of Sorcha’s sisters had wanted to state the obvious.

They only had to look at Gwennore’s white-blond hair and lavender eyes to predict that Sorcha was fated to meet an elf. Ha! Ridiculous. No way would she ever fall for an elf. The white and lavender had to signify something else. White teeth? That would be nice. Maybe he would give her lavender flowers. Or his clothes would smell of lavender. Not that it mattered, for she had decided never to fall in love. A movement in the distance dragged her away from her thoughts. A group of horsemen was headed north, along the Norva River toward the village of Dreshka.

The men in the back were holding flags aloft, one white, one dark, the material stirring slightly in the constant breeze that swept down the river valley from the surrounding mountains. Perhaps the men were merchants? Sorcha knew from her visits to the village that different shops used different flags to indicate what type of goods they were selling. And this group of men had several mules packed with parcels. As they came closer, she was able to count ten men. Six were dressed in the uniforms of the Norveshki army. They seemed to be escorting the other four men, who all wore hooded cloaks. A stronger breeze whipped down the river valley, causing the flags to unfurl for a few seconds. Sorcha’s breath caught as she realized the white flag had a golden sun in the middle. All four mainland kingdoms worshipped the sun, calling it the Light, an all-powerful male god that reflected their male-dominated society. This flag, with a sun in the center, meant these men were requesting a peaceful parlay.

They were probably official envoys. But from where? Brigitta and her husband usually sent messages by carrier pigeon, and Luciana and her husband sent Brody. Since his Embraced power was the ability to shift into any animal, Brody was able to reach them quickly when he took on the form of an eagle. That left Woodwyn. Elves. Sorcha grew tense. Was the elf predicted by the Telling Stones on his way to meet her? Good goddesses, she hoped not. She shook her head, trying to convince herself that these men couldn’t possibly be from Woodwyn. The elves never ventured this far away from their homeland. Only once had she encountered any.

A few months ago, three elfin envoys had crossed the border to the nearby Eberoni encampment, and there, they had demanded the return of their princess, Gwennore. At first Sorcha had been struck by their handsome looks and elegant demeanor, but their snooty attitude had quickly annoyed her. And when Brody had overheard them calling Gwen a half-breed and a pawn, Sorcha had realized that beneath their pretty exterior, they were ugly, two-faced bastards. Luciana and Leo had been relieved that Gwen was far away at Draven Castle, so they’d been able to send the nasty elves back home empty-handed. Now, as Sorcha watched the approaching horsemen, she focused on the four men wearing dark cloaks, their heads hidden with hoods. Who would wear a hooded cloak in the summertime? Maybe an elf, who was hiding his pointed ears so no one would know who he was? After all, most people here hated elves. The Norveshki had lost too many loved ones in the war with Woodwyn. That would explain why this group had a military escort. Her gaze narrowed on the second flag. Brown.

The flag of Woodwyn boasted a tall green tree on a brown background. A strong gust of wind whistled down the river valley, unfurling the flags once again and blowing the hoods off two of the men. Sorcha gasped. They had white-blond hair, just like Gwennore. And the brown flag had a green tree in the middle. She jumped when a horn suddenly blasted from the southeastern tower. The guard there was alerting the castle. “What is it?” Dimitri demanded as he and Annika dashed toward her. “Elves.” Sorcha motioned toward the horsemen as, once again, fear for a loved one clawed its way into her heart.

“What if they insist on taking Gwennore?” Annika frowned. “They can’t have her. She’s our queen.” Dimitri waved a dismissive hand. “They just want to talk. We’ve known about them since they crossed the border two days ago.” Annika’s mouth dropped open. “And you never thought to share that with me?” “Well, I . I’d better tell Silas that they’re here.” Dimitri ran to the stairwell.

“I’m not forgetting this,” Annika yelled as he disappeared from view. “I can’t believe he didn’t tell me.” Sorcha huffed. “I didn’t know, either. You would think Silas would keep us informed of this sort of thing. After all, we’re his heirs.” “Men,” Annika muttered. “Well, I’m relieved you can still get mad. I was afraid marriage had turned you into a meek lamb.” Annika snorted, then pressed against the battlements to study the elves.

“The two in front have the white-blond hair of the River Elves, so they must hail from the area around the Wyn River. They could be from Wyndelas Palace, where the king of Woodwyn lives.” “That would be Gwen’s grandfather?” Sorcha asked. “We believe so,” Annika replied. “When Dimitri’s uncle went to Woodwyn as an envoy, we think he may have had an affair with the king’s daughter, and Gwennore was the result. Since she’s half Norveshki and our queen, there’s no way we’ll let these envoys take her.” Sorcha watched as Dimitri and a group of soldiers strode from the southern gate to meet the elves. “Where do you think Silas and Gwen will talk to them?” “The Great Hall, most probably.” “Then, let’s go.” Sorcha headed for the stairwell.

“Wait a minute.” Annika scooped a dagger off the floor and slid it into her boot. “They won’t allow us in there.” “But I have to know what’s going on. I have to . ” The fear in Sorcha’s heart tightened painfully. Good goddesses, she was so sick of feeling useless whenever her sisters were in danger. “I refuse to be left out!” Annika’s eyes lit up. “The minstrels’ balcony. I know a secret way in.

” They could hide there and hear every word. Sorcha ran to the stairs. “Let’s go!” * * * Sorcha was grateful she was wearing a shirt and breeches as she sprawled on the wooden floor of the minstrels’ balcony at the far end of the Great Hall. The balcony was usually accessed by a staircase in the Great Hall, but Annika had shown her a hidden staircase that originated in a nearby waiting room. After blowing out the candle they’d used to light the dark stairway, Sorcha and Annika had hurriedly closed the balcony’s thick, velvet curtains. Now, they were lying on the floor, peeking under the curtain’s hem and between the wooden slats of the balustrade. The afternoon sun was streaming through the long westward-facing windows, illuminating the large, rectangular room and cooling it with a mountain breeze, but up here in the balcony with the curtains drawn, it was dark. And hot. “What’s taking them so long?” Sorcha adjusted the belt buckle that was digging into her stomach. “Silas and Gwen must be putting on their finest clothes.

And they probably sent for their crowns,” Annika whispered. “They’ll make the elves wait.” Sorcha wrinkled her nose. She hoped the elves had been told to wait outside in the courtyard, where it tended to get hot and stuffy at this time of day. “We’re Silas’s heirs,” she grumbled. “He should have invited us to this meeting. I’ll be letting him know how aggravated I—” “Sorcha.” Annika sounded impatient. “You’re still too naïve. I guess it comes from growing up in a convent.

But this is strategy.” “What do you mean?” “Silas doesn’t want the elves to know what his heirs look like. It will keep us from becoming easy targets.” “Oh.” Sorcha swallowed hard. Her cousin had a point. If she was going to be useful, she needed to be smarter. And stronger. And if she was going to survive as the heir to the throne, she would have to be wary and suspicious of almost everybody. Completely the opposite from the convent.

“I’m glad I have you, Annika.” Her cousin gave her shoulder a squeeze, then lifted the curtains a bit more to peer down into the room. The curtain and floor were dusty and made Sorcha’s nose twitch. “I’m afraid I’ll sneeze.” “Don’t you dare.” Annika handed her a handkerchief. “Here, hold this against your mouth and nose.” Sorcha pressed the lavender-scented cloth to her nose as a creaking noise reverberated below. The doors were being opened. Footsteps sounded on the stone floor and a low voice spoke in Norveshki.

It was Dimitri, giving orders. Only two elves had been allowed in, the two with white-blond hair. The other two, who had been tasked with carrying the flags, were most probably servants. Sorcha couldn’t tell much about the elves as they crossed the hall, since she was seeing them from the back. With their hooded cloaks gone, their fancy clothes were now revealed—blue velvet tunics over cream-colored silk shirts and cream-colored leather breeches. That had to be hot, she thought, although they didn’t show any sign of discomfort. They were tall, as tall as Dimitri, but whereas he moved like a wildcat stalking his prey, the elves were as smooth as a pair of swans gliding across a cool lake. Dimitri instructed them to stop a good six feet away from the dais and to move to the left. They set down two parcels encased in blue silk, then stood, facing Dimitri. Now that Sorcha had a side view of them, she could see they were not the same envoys who had come to the Eberoni camp.

But they were equally as handsome, damn them. Hopefully, the Telling Stones had not referred to either of these men. One was shorter and looked quite a bit older than the other with strands of silver gleaming in his hair. Sorcha glowered at the younger and taller elf. He was as pretty as Gwennore. She was tempted to run down there and mess up his hair. They were just too perfect. No wrinkles in their elegant clothes, even after a long journey. Not a single smudge on their flawless complexions. Like Gwennore, these elves had black eyebrows, which made a stunning contrast to their white-blond hair that fell to their shoulder blades like silk curtains.

Side braids kept their hair back from their noble brows, which were decorated with circlets of gold. The elves had no weapons on them, so they must have been disarmed before entering the Great Hall. But they didn’t seem at all intimidated by Dimitri, who glared at them with a hand resting on the hilt of his sword. Another sheath was strapped to his thigh, the jeweled, golden handle of a vicious dagger clearly on display. “You are in Norveshka, so you will be expected to speak Norveshki,” Dimitri announced. The elves gave him a bland look, then the older one spoke quietly in perfect Norveshki, “We did not come to speak to you.” Sorcha gritted her teeth. Arrogant bastards. The door creaked again and more footsteps sounded. She pressed her face against the railing and spotted Silas and Gwennore, walking arm in arm toward the dais, followed by Aleksi Marenko, a captain in the army, who was as fiercely armed as Dimitri.

Sorcha couldn’t help but smile at how radiant Gwen looked in her sparkling gold gown. Silas was quite dashing in his army uniform. They were both wearing their newly crafted crowns. They stopped briefly in front of the elves, giving them a slight nod of their heads. At least the elves were well mannered enough to bow. But it seemed to Sorcha that they were bowing more to Gwennore than to Silas. Her brother helped his wife step up on the dais; then they both took their seats on the gold, jewelencrusted thrones. Aleksi positioned himself next to Gwennore’s throne, where he eyed the elves with suspicion

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