Chapter One

They had been riding for days. He felt like he spent his life in his saddle. He would kill for a proper bed and clean clothes. Brigan winced inwardly. He had just killed several men in a small skirmish with Pikkian smuglers. He had decided long ago not to count the deaths he caused.

Being the Commander of the Kings Army was hardly a glamorous position. When he had been given the post he had known it would be hard. He would have refused, but King Nax had ordered it. Brigan had known Cansrel was behind it. Cansrel had been Brigan's sworn enemy, no matter how ridiculous that sounded. Cansrel had convinced Nax to put him in the Army's service, hoping he would be killed in the field. Brigan would not give Cansrel the satisfaction. He had excelled as a warrior and respect and liking for him grew.

He had been very young then and woefully unprepared for Cansrel's next attack. He assumed Cansrel thought that if Brigan were made Commander of the King's Army he would do a terrible job and his reputation would be ruined by a show of military incompetence. Brigan had been terrified of doing just that, but he daren't show that to the thousands that watched him, looking for any sign of weakness. He had shown the world a mask; a Prince who knew what he was doing, was confident and strong, he expected to be obeyed and would not accept anything less. In reality he had been nervous and scared but he would do his duty to the Dells. Changes were made in the King's Army then, and much to everyone's surprise they were for the better. Brigan had made sure all men of the Army were mounted. Then he had allowed women into the Armies' ranks and increased everyone's pay. The Dellian Army had grown into a powerful force to contend with and now that all were mounted, it moved swiftly. He then set up a signalling system so that far off villages and towns could get help from the Army if they were under attack. It was considered another stroke of brilliance, but to Brigan it was just common sense. Brigan gained confidence from the confidence of his people.

His first year as Commander had been a bloody one. He had thrown himself into battle time and again, gathering a majority of the scars that now riddled his body. Brigan had worked off his grief with sword slashes and cartloads of prisoners sent away to the palace dungeons. He didn't think himself a cruel man, because afterall he was doing his job. But Brigan knew he should have been sickened by all the harm he did, not proud. Yes, there were a lot less criminals out there because of him, but there were also a lot more widows and fatherless children. Criminals were still people, something Brigan had forgotten for a time.

Brigan still remembered everything of that day, the worst and best of his life. He had come home from just over a year in the Army. He'd been tired and sore and longed for some rest. Brigan had been in his chambers preparing to do just that when a knock sounded at his door. Groaning, he'd pulled himself to his feet and answered the door. Roen had stood there with a look of such pity and sadness in her eyes that Brigan had immediately known something was wrong. "What is it?" he'd said, a note of desperation entering his voice. He had immediately thought of Nash, his older brother. Had Nax done something? Had Cansrel? Roen did not keep him guessing. "It's Rose," she'd said gently, "she died."

Brigan had stared at his mother, blinking hard. A sick wrenching feeling had filled his stomach. Rose? His Rose? Dead? Impossible, he'd thought defiantly. But why would Roen lie? She wouldn't, not about something like this. She'd had to have been mistaken then, he'd thought. He had wanted to believe Roen was wrong, that this was a sick idea of a joke but something in him knew it was not. Somehow his heart had recognised that his other half was gone. Dead. It was at that point that Brigan had begun to feel furious. His heart had been shattered and he wanted someone to pay. He'd assumed she'd been murdered for she had been perfectly healthy the last he saw her. So Cansrel must have found out. That cruel monster man had somehow discovered how much he loved her, and killed her to hurt Brigan. It had worked. He'd felt cold with anger and had been shaking violently, his hands curled into fists.

"Cansrel," he had growled, his anger had made his voice inhuman and terrifying. He had picked up his sword from where it had rested against the wall, about to unsheath it. Roen had stopped him with a soft hand on his wrist, "It wasn't Cansrel." He hadn't been able to believe it, "You're defending him!" he'd roared "Brigan listen!" she had shouted back. Roen rarely shouted and almost never at him. He paused. "She died naturally," she'd said, her voice soft and quiet , she'd been as healthy as the horses she'd cared for. Brigan said as much to his mother. She'd sighed quietly, a tired and sad sound. "Come with me," she'd nearly whispered. He'd hesitated, "Now." It was an order.

She'd led him through a series of deserted corridors and walkways that he hadn't paid much mind to. They'd crossed the courtyard that led to Roen's green house. It's image had been blurred, silent tears had been making tracks down Brigans face. He'd been to grief stricken to be embarassed about his show of weakness. They'd slipped through the door and into the smallest bedroom. Brigan had been puzzled. There'd been a small crib set up in the corner and the walls had been painted a cheerful yellow. A tiny baby had been wiggling in the cot, waving it's tiny fists about. "Mother what-" he'd said but she'd interrupted him. "She's your's Brigan."

Brigan had stared at his mother in shock as she'd explained. "Rose was pregnant, she came to me seeking help. We hid her and gave her the best care possible, but she died in childbirth anyway. Rose said you'd only made love once and she was sure the baby was yours as she hadn't taken anyone else to her bed. Her name is Hanna. We are very lucky Cansrel's visiting Fire or he would surely know. Hanna must be kept a secret or the Dells only know what he would do to her in order to get to you." Brigan had understood the reason to keep the baby a secret, but his mind had refused to comprehend the rest. A father? Him? He'd been only seventeen and wasn't ready to be a father. His heart though, had accepted the truth. Without concious thought he had walked forward. He'd stared down at the child in the crib with a wondering expression. He had wanted to pick the child -his child- up and cradle her in his arms. He hadn't been able to do it.

For a long time after Rose's death he had grieved, and in his grief he was unreasonable. He had blamed Hanna for Rose's death. That same day he had been given his new position as Commander of the King's Army. His mask had slid into place and he acted as though nothing were wrong. He had blamed Hanna for Rose's death but he still didn't want Cansrel to get his hands on her, she was just a child afterall. It had taken him three weeks to regain his sense and stop blaming Hanna for Rose's death. Mother's died in childbirth often and it wasn't the baby's fault, just something that happened. Unfortunately by that time he'd left the palace and was swamped with his new duties. It was another week before he got to see his daughter. She'd been beautiful and perfect in his arms. He had still grieved for Rose but did so by bringing justice to as many criminals as possible. The next two years had been hectic. He'd been quickly becoming one of the most powerful men in the Dells. Cansrel had been taking every opportunity to kill him and Brigan had been doing the same. He'd only visited Hanna a few times and he'd missed her desperately.

King Nax had died from drug use and Cansrel had followed soon after, killing himself.

Brigan clenched his fists so hard he split open a small cut on the back of his hand and it began bleeding again. He hated that he couldn't end Cansrel himself. That the selfish bastard had taken so much, even his life. The coward was bored or a bit depressed so he killed himself. After all Cansrel had done, the pain he had caused, for him to die so pathetically. Cansrel had been visiting his monster daughter Fire. He had walked into one of his cages where he kept monster animals as pets. Cansrel had liked to starve his pets, so the leopard monster had gladly torn his throat out. Brigan was envious of the midnight blue leopard monster. It had never occurred to Brigan that Cansrel would take his own life. Cansrel had loved himself too much, even if he was unhappy with his life, but apparently he was wrong. There seemed to have been more to Cansrel than Brigan knew.

They were nearing the end of the tunnel, a small crack of light could be seen up ahead. He sat straiter in his saddle as Big calmly trotted forward. It would not do for his people to see him weary. Thoughts of Cansrel left him and his grip relaxed on Big's reins. Brigan hated the tunnels. With the number of people he had with him there was no danger, but he liked the open ground. In the tunnels you had to ride carefully or your horse would get lamed, and Brigan liked to gallop. Big was Brigan's horse, his favourite. Big was actually quite an average sized black mare. She was well behaved and calm, even in a battle, which she had seen many of. Hanna had named Big as she did all his horses. The black mare would have seemed a giant to Hanna's three year old self. Big was the first of his horses Hanna named. They reached the opening of the tunnel, a large crack in the cliff face. They rode out of the tunnel, the sound of thousands of hooves thundering behind them.

A small ring of guards were circled around Brigan and Nash. Normally Brigan rode at the front of whatever Army division he was leading, but he was with the King and precautions needed to be taken. An enemy might take this opportunity to kill the King and the heir to the Dellian throne who is also the Commander of the King's Army. It was unlikely that anyone would risk it with five thousand warriors at their heels but you can never be too safe. Brigan put his longbow in his hand. Brigan blinked in the sudden light. They were on a large plain of flat rock with the Little Greys to one side. He began to gallop as did everyone around him. Riding Big while she galloped was akin to riding an avalanche. Seeing that there was no threat, Nash and Brigan moved to the front of the charge. A quick glance back showed Brigan the last of his people spilling out of the cliff face. Brigan moved to the right and slowed down some to talk to his two best archers. Jahol saw him first and signalled Zach. "Watch for raptor monsters, there's bound to be a couple lurking about hoping to make a meal out of us." Both men nodded and searched the sky, their bows ready with full quivers on their back's.

Shortly after returning to his place leading the charge Brigan saw a flash of colour at the corner of his eye. He turned and looked up. High above three raptor monsters circled. One was a brilliant pink, another a stunning violet while the third was the green of an apple. Brigan wheeled Big around and signalled Jahol and Zach, who broke off from the rest of the charge and aimed their bows at the raptors along with their small team of archers. The first two raptors went down quickly, arrows through their bodies. The green raptor was smarter than the others. It flew in irregular circles, changing its height and speed at random. It got closer and closer to Brigan's people, all the arrows missing it. Brigan was surprised, Jahol was one of the best archers in the Army, if Jahol couldn't get it, who could? Brigan was reaching for his quiver, about to try his luck with the monster when an arrow shot through the bird from above, clean through it's body.

Brigan looked to where the shot had come from. He eyed the Little Greys' mountain paths, finding a small party of travelers. Leading the party was a man a year or two younger than Brigan with fair hair and expensive looking clothing. Brigan could not see the man's face from this distance but he knew that this must be the famed Lord Archer. Brigan knew little about this lord but that he lived on the other side of the Little Greys with his father Brocker, the previous Commander of the King's Army. Lord Archer was said to be a perfect shot with any bow as Brigan had just witnessed.

Brigan raised an arm in greeting, then pointed to the green bird which had crashed down onto the plain and back to the Lord Archer and his party. His message was clear: you killed it, you can keep it. Many people ate monster meat. Lord Archer gestured back that Brigan could take it, he raised both his arms in thanks. One of his soldiers picked up the dead bird and slung it on one of their many riderless horses, used for carrying supplies and baggage and the bodies of other animals. A lot of their game was monstrous because in these numbers monsters tried to attack them often. The King's Army housed and fed itself so the extra meat was needed. Brigan's men and women were used to living on the road and most would eat monster meat. With the monsters taken care of Brigan began to turn his mare and rejoin his force that was now entering a tunnel at the base of another cliff. It was then that he noticed the rider next to the Lord Archer. The figure was mounted on a dun gelding, the rider was small and pale. At first Brigan thought the person had black hair, but on closer inspection he saw that the figure was wearing a headscarf. A headscarf in this heat? It was absurd.

Brigan's earlier thoughts of Cansrel returned. He remembered how monster animals had gone insane around Cansrel. How all monsters preffered to eat other monsters. Monster animals had wanted to launch themselves at Cansrel, their desire eat him was insanity. Cansrel had used his power to make them feel unimaginable pain as he liked to do. The monsters would be cringing on the ground as Cansrel killed them. It was the sick cruelty that Cansrel had wielded, the reason Brigan had hated him so much.

Cansrel had had a daughter he remembered. Brigans favourite nursemaid Jessa had been the monster childs mother. Brigan had never known if Cansrel had raped Jessa or used his power to make her want to bed him, or maybe she had slept with him of her own free will. However it happened Brigan had hated Cansrel for doing it. He'd treated Jessa like nothing. Jessa had been a wonderful woman with a huge heart. Brigan vaugely remembered her growing stomach and her joy at becoming a mother. Jessa had given birth to a daughter with red hair and green eyes like hers but the child's monstrous heritage had made her eyes brilliant emerald and her hair the colour of fire. Jessa had named her daughter Fire and was so loving of her daughter that her heart was broken when Cansrel had taken the child away.

Previously if any women Cansrel had taken to his bed became pregnant with his child he killed them. Cansrel had decided he wanted to be the only human monster in the Dells. Somehow Cansrel had not found out about his child until the monster was already born. Cansrel had taken his daughter from Jessa to live with Brocker and be raised there. Cansrel had often visited his daughter Brigan remembered, and apparently he'd loved her very much. Brigan could believe Cansrel capable of love, but he did wonder why Cansrel didn't kill the monster child as he had done to many of his other unborn children. It wasn't as if Cansrel hadn't killed babies before. Cansrel had also trained his monster child to use her powers. She was probably just like him.

These thoughts raced through Brigan's mind in a second and it was suddenly very clear who the second rider was. The monster child Fire would now be a woman, still living with Brocker and his son the Lord Archer. Brigan strengthened his mental shield and swung Big around to join the tail end of his fighting forces. He shot a backward glare at the monster woman then trotted into the tunnel.

He was livid, mostly with himself. All these years Brigan had been stewing on his hatred of Cansrel, he had barely spared a thought for Cansrel's child. The monster woman would be just as powerful as her father, and probably twice as cruel. She'd been trained to use her power by Cansrel, of course she would be evil. He should have killed her before she grew old enough to wield her power like Cansrel. A quick calculation in his head told Brigan that the monster woman would be around seventeen years old. Certainly old enough to do some damage.

Brigan thought of the situation in the Dells at present. They were on the brink of war with Lord Mydogg and Lord Gentian. A monster woman was the last thing the Dells needed right now. Brigan decided he would have to be wary of the monster woman. Brigan's own mental defenses were very good but he knew that Nash's were not. Nash would desire her like most other men would, and a King infatuated with Cansrel's monster daughter could do a lot of damage indeed.

He would have to be vigilant then, Brigan decided. He would learn all there was to know about the monster woman and do his best to keep her away from Nash. Brigan would kill her if possible, but first he resolved to assess the situation.