Dust covered the crown that had once held a brilliant luster. The relic from a time almost forgotten rested atop the head table in the celebration hall, tilted on its side amidst grimy plates and cups, as well as the occasional jewel-encrusted goblet. Laina’s fingers tingled to touch the crown, but as always, she kept her hands at her sides and made no move to pick it up.
She looked around, half-expecting the ghost of her father to transpire in the dimness of the hall. But she was alone. She drew in a deep breath and closed her eyes, letting painful and confusing childhood memories wash over her.
She used to spend her days in this very hall, with no one but her father as company. He would sit at the head table, drinking heavily of the wine he procured from the nearby Banded, a race whose males were born in pairs and eventually took one wife to share. Had a curse not caused the forests to grow up around all the castles and human villages, her father, King Germond the Third, would have ruled the countryside. Instead of presiding over his would-be subjects, he had spent his days trading valuables from the castle for the wine aged by the Banded men, and drank and sang in his lonely celebration hall until he passed out in his cups.
Laina shuddered at the memory of the time he didn’t wake up after passing out drunk. She’d been six years old and hadn’t known what to do. So she’d left the castle grounds for the first time in her life—her father had never permitted her to tread beyond the vine-covered stone walls surrounding the castle—and walked and walked, wondering if she’d run across someone who would help her.
She opened her eyes and felt a seething rage toward her late father as she stared at the crown. He was the only other human she had ever seen. She didn’t like these moments, the times she was certain she hated him, but she couldn’t stop the fury from heating her blood. Until his death, he was the only parent she’d known. Until his death, she hadn’t realized the full extent of how horribly he’d treated her.
A shuddering sigh left her. She shouldn’t have come here today, but she forced herself to visit after the winter snows melted each year, because she was the only one left to remember what had once been a great dynasty. She moved to the receiving hall and gazed at the resplendent and massive oil paintings of generations past. There weren’t paintings of her father or even his father, because the forests had already started growing around the castles and villages by then, but her great-grandfather’s family had a painting. They looked happy, and the solo paintings of her great-grandfather made her smile, for he seemed a strong, capable ruler, rather than a miserable drunkard.
She took in each painting one last time, unsure if she would be able to return. The young Banded men who’d fought in the great war against the River Lord were returning victorious, and as they returned they were claiming the unoccupied homes in the countryside, many that once belonged to the humans who had left for larger villages after the forest started caging them in. She supposed a pair of Banded men, or maybe several pairs, would lay claim to the castle soon. Would they tear the paintings from the walls? Would they melt down her father’s crown and the goblets in the dining hall to make weapons?
Part of her hoped they would renovate the entire castle and dispose of everything that had once been human. Maybe then she could forget the loneliness and the terror of living with her father. On the night that he died, he’d been at his worst. He’d made her dress in a gown that was much too large and put his crown atop her head. When she hadn’t looked regal enough, in his opinion, he had slapped her hard enough to send the crown flying to the dirty floor. Then he’d scrambled to get the crown off the floor and fixed it back atop his own head.
The walls threatened to close in around Laina and she hurried for the nearest exit in the overgrown courtyard. Once out in the open, she breathed a sigh of relief. A sharp chill hung in the air, but the scent of plant shoots and early blooming flowers carried through the breeze, a promise that warmer weather wasn’t far off. She drew the hood of her cloak over her head and set off for home.
She bid good morning to all the Banded men and women she passed. During the daytime hours, she usually only saw one Banded twin of each male pair—the one of the light, who always possessed blond hair. When she ventured out after the sun dipped below the horizon, she would only see the dark-haired twin—the one of the night, who was nocturnal. Of course, venturing out into the woods at night wasn’t safe, but she occasionally glimpsed a dark-haired Banded when one walked near her cottage. It was said that the Goddess created the Banded men in pairs, with one twin naturally awake during the day and the other twin naturally awake during the night, so their mates and children would always remain protected.
The only time she witnessed both twins in a pair side-by-side was when they returned from war together. The road near her house led up the mountainside and was one of the more well-traveled paths between Banded homesteads, which were usually spread out through the trees, with each homestead occupying several acres.
The wooden gate to the garden creaked as Laina entered, and she smiled at finding her adoptive father, Benjin, an elderly one of the light whose twin had died long ago, inspecting the grapevines. Since his twin had perished in childhood, he had never taken a mate. It was frowned upon for a twin-less Banded man to claim a mate, because in the eyes of their people, a female should be well-protected by two Banded mates.
“Did you enjoy your walk, my dear?” He turned around and settled a broad smile on her, which instantly chased away the lingering ugliness of the castle.
He gave her a sudden frown. “You went to the castle, didn’t you?”
She’d never been good at hiding her emotions or telling lies, so she didn’t even attempt it. She wasn’t forbidden to venture to the castle, but he disapproved of her visiting the place because it made her sad. “Yes, Papa, but it will probably be the last time. Surely some Banded brothers returning from the war will claim it, don’t you think? It’s one of the last unclaimed structures around.”
He nodded and gave her a thoughtful look. Sunlight glinted on the white strands of his otherwise blond hair. “Aye, I suppose it will be claimed soon. Does that upset you?”
“I don’t think so. It comes as a relief, actually.”
“Comes as a relief to me, too. Come, I have good news to share. I’ve received a letter from my nephews.” He paused for a moment, lifted his gaze to the sky, and said, “Sheena,” referring to his late sister, “you would be proud of your strong sons.”
Curious, Laina followed him inside the warmth of the cozy cottage that had been her home since the day her father died. Benjin had found her on the side of the road and taken her in to raise as his own daughter. Now she was twenty and a woman grown. He had told her recently that she wouldn’t live here forever, that one day she would mate with a pair of Banded brothers and he would take a pilgrimage to the Willow Lakes, the blessed place elderly Banded often visited in the late years of their life.
She swallowed hard against the sudden burning in her throat and watched as Benjin unrolled a sheet of paper. She wished she could freeze time and stay here with him forever.
His eyes lighted as he glanced up at her. “They will return soon. Aron, Hadden, and Randall.”
Unexpectedly, Laina’s breath caught in her chest. She hadn’t seen the brothers for years, since she had been seven when they’d gone off to fight against the evil River Lord who’d been terrorizing the faraway settlements of the Banded. They’d been young men then, strong and handsome, and she wondered about them now. Had war changed them, perhaps hardened their hearts? Would Randall be withdrawn and sullen over the loss of his twin brother, Herc, during a battle two years past? Would Hadden be haunted by his time spent as a prisoner of war?
As Benjin read the letter aloud, which was written in Aron’s hand, she suddenly realized why her papa was so excited. Aron and Hadden didn’t have a mate waiting for them in the countryside, and neither did Randall. There weren’t any unmated adult Banded females left in this part of the forest, since the brothers were returning later than most men who’d gone to war. But Laina was still unattached, and the knowing looks Benjin kept shooting her spoke volumes.
He wanted to see her matched with his nephews.
All three of them.
If Randall didn’t have any other brothers, he would be doomed to spend his life unmated, like Benjin. But when a Banded male lost his twin and he happened to have a set of older or younger twin brothers, he would normally join his brothers to take the same mate, which resulted in occasional pairings of three Banded men to one female.
She gulped and felt increasingly breathless.
All three of them.
The forest had grown denser in the years he’d been absent. Randall spied the crumbling castle in the distance, which stood at the center of a vast arrangement of cottages and larger stone houses. Roads and smaller paths connected the homes. Between each cleared homestead, trees and vines stood thickly together. He headed up the mountain, his younger brothers Aron and Hadden close behind, as they finally returned to the land of their birth.
Randall was a Banded of the light and accustomed to being awake during the daylight hours, as was Aron, but Hadden was a Banded of the night and his steps had slowed with fatigue. Once they returned and claimed an empty homestead, they could fall into a more normal sleeping pattern. They had traveled during many nights as well, in order to reach home faster, and Randall could sympathize with Hadden’s apparent bone weariness.
“Almost there, Hadden,” called Aron playfully. “Uncle Benjin will receive us and help us locate suitable housing. Don’t fall asleep on us. Randall looks angry at the prospect of carrying you up the mountain, brother.”
“That’s Randall’s normal face,” Hadden replied through a deep, stretching yawn.
Randall ignored their banter, readjusted the pack he wore, and increased his pace. When his two younger brothers spoke to one another so easily, even though Aron typically did most of the talking, he felt hollow inside. Though his own twin, Herc, had died a full two years ago, there were times it seemed like it had happened yesterday, the sense of loss reverberated so acutely in his chest.
Herc would have wanted him to move on and join in his brothers’ lives. They had already invited him to live with them and share a mate. Knowing it best for the woman he bonded with to have the protection of more than one Banded man, he had accepted. He wouldn’t admit that he’d also accepted because the prospect of living alone and possibly not finding a female interested in a lone Banded man was too much to bear.
At last, Uncle Benjin’s cottage came into sight, tucked neatly into a small clearing in the tall, overgrown forest. Smoke billowed faintly from the chimney. Messenger doves cooed from their cage near a wide trellis covered in green vines. Grapes, Randall thought with a smile. Benjin had often talked of growing grapes. He must have finally found a trader in possession of the coveted bare-root grapevines.
Randall’s gaze wandered beyond the trellis to a petite feminine figure tending the garden that wrapped around the house. As he came closer, he realized it was Laina—the little human girl Benjin had raised as his own daughter. A princess, she was. Or rather, a queen, since her parents were both dead. Although, he surmised since she’d never had an official coronation, this technically meant she was still a princess. Mayhap she was the last princess in all the land.
Never mind her title; she looked the part of a princess, with dark flowing locks and a crown of daisies atop her head. Aron and Hadden had fallen silent behind him, and he sensed they were equally entranced by the delicate beauty. The chill in the air seemed to disperse and he was filled with warmth as he gazed upon her.
Benjin had mentioned Laina frequently in his letters, proudly announcing she’d grown into a lovely, kind, and hardworking woman. More than once, Benjin had hinted she would make a fine mate for any set of Banded brothers, even boldly writing that she had the spirit to take on all three of them, should they not meet another suitable female on their way home from war.
Well, they hadn’t met another suitable female. Because Randall had been a commander and tasked with sentencing the elven prisoners—loyal subjects of the River Lord’s—as well as redistributing Banded lands that had once been held by their enemies, he and his brothers were among the last Banded to return to the land of their birth. Not a single Banded woman was to be found on the way home, and they had been actively searching.
The drive to mate was suspended during times of emergency, such as war, but now that the time for peace had arrived, claiming a female, protecting her and loving her, and even getting her with child, occupied a large part of Randall’s mind and his base instincts. At least when he thought of claiming a female, he wasn’t dwelling on the emptiness left behind by Herc’s death.
“Is that really Laina?” Aron asked.
“Of course it is,” Randall whispered over his shoulder. “Do you know of any other human girls in the area? She’s just all grown up. We’ve been absent for years.”
All grown up indeed. When she bent over to pluck dead leaves off a plant, he had a difficult time tearing his gaze from the white creamy mounds of her suddenly prominent cleavage. When she righted herself, a little gasp left her as she finally noticed their approach.
“When Uncle Benjin spoke of her in his letters, he mentioned more than once she was unclaimed.” Hadden sounded much more awake now.
“We should take her now, before other Banded brothers have a chance to claim her.” Aron, impulsive and headstrong as ever, walked briskly past Randall.
Laina looked at them with widened blue eyes as they entered the garden, with Aron in the lead until Randall and Hadden came to stand beside him. Her mouth dropped open and she made a strangled sound in her throat, as if she were trying to speak but fear held her tongue.
Goddess, she was perfect. Despite her small stature, she had wide hips and a curvy figure underneath the purple dress she wore. Full, round breasts rested beneath the dress that was cinched tight at the small of her waist. The hint of cleavage heated Randall all over, especially when the mental image of her bending over remained fresh in his mind.
He stepped forward, in front of his brothers, and reached for her trembling hand.
Time slowed and the surrounding garden became a blur of green.
He saw only her, and the moment his flesh touched hers, he knew for certain she was the woman destined to become their mate. Even if they’d found an unattached female during their journey home, they wouldn’t have claimed her had the Goddess not given them a sign. This electric and breathless moment was most definitely a sign.
As he held Laina’s hand and felt the tingling of what would turn into a powerful mating bond race through his body and soul, he silently thanked the Goddess for all creation, especially this fine young human woman. He’d never imagined mating with a human or any race besides the Banded, but there was no denying the pull he felt toward Laina.
The powerful urge to mate that had remained dormant for so long raged to life within him, so strong that a wave of dizziness swept over him. His heart raced and his entire body tensed with the urge to carry her off to have his way with her.
“She’s the one, brothers,” he said confidently. “She will become our mate.”
Laina tried to reclaim her hand, but no matter how hard she yanked, Randall wouldn’t let her go. She recognized all three of them: Randall’s blue eyes and hair the same dark blond as Benjin’s; Aron’s lighter blond hair and eyes an unusual shade of green; Hadden was the most distinguished-looking of them all, with dark eyes and black wavy hair. All of them were much larger than she expected, taller and more muscular than most Banded men.
Randall was the tallest and most intimidating though. A scar crossed his right cheek, lending a fierceness to him that made her stomach flutter. She’d also never glimpsed a Banded man with shoulders so broad. He looked like a mountain.
Never mind that his words kept ringing in her ears.
She will become our mate.
Large as they were, she didn’t know how she could handle one of them, let alone three of them. A spasm of virginal apprehension raced through her.
“Um, Benjin is inside. He’s taking a nap, but I’m sure he won’t mind you waking him. He’s been anxious for your return, and he’s had a home prepared for you, a bit further up the mountain. It’s a massive stone structure, with high arched ceilings and large windows. Lots of bedrooms. There’s a garden too; some of the local Banded women have pitched in to get it going.” In her nervousness, she was rambling. A flush stole over her face when she glanced from brother to brother… to brother.
“You are the mate of our dreams, Laina,” Aron said, his tone deep and husky.
“After we visit with Uncle Benjin, you will come with us up the mountain.” Hadden stepped closer and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, the brush of his fingertips leaving behind a burning trail across her flesh. Goosebumps prickled on her arms and across the back of her neck, flooding her with a euphoric sensation.
With Randall still holding her hand, she couldn’t move away. Their nearness sent a wave of heat through her loins, startling a gasp from her. She’d been around many Banded men before, though none had affected her into a trance of wantonness. She had never felt so needy and achy between her thighs as she did now. All because two of them had touched her.
Make that three.
Aron approached her other side and ran the back of his hand across her cheek. A low, animalistic growl rumbled in his throat. Goddess be good, she didn’t know how to respond. She’d suspected the brothers might be interested in her upon their return, especially given Benjin’s not so subtle hints, but she hadn’t expected to be stroked and growled over in the garden not a minute after their arrival.
She half wondered if they would start tearing their clothes off in broad daylight in order to claim her now. At the mental vision of them gloriously naked, all three of them, heat seared her face. She glanced down, trying to hide her deep blush, but Randall’s knowing chuckle proved her efforts were too late.
But no matter how tempted she was to entertain the possibility of accepting the brothers as her mates, she didn’t want to leave Benjin. He needed her. He grew older and feebler by the day. His sleep schedule, once like clockwork, had become erratic. He was often out of breath, and during the last few months, his hair had become more white than blond. He’d been an old man when he’d adopted her, but he’d still nearly possessed the strength of a healthy Banded man back then, and until recently, she had thought of him as immortal even though Banded had the same lifespan as humans.
Faced with his mortality, she wanted to remain by his side until the very end, even join in his pilgrimage to the Willow Lakes, a journey from which most elderly Banded never returned, for they typically lived out the rest of their days in the blessed place. She hadn’t told him of her plan to accompany him though, because he would most certainly disapprove.
“Please,” she said, finally slipping out from the middle of the brothers. She moved around the grapevines and held out her hands in a defensive manner. “I’m certainly flattered, but I’m not looking for a mate… or mates.”
“You will pack your things while we visit with Uncle Benjin. We will leave this evening,” Randall said. “Perhaps after dinnertime.”
It was late afternoon. Her stomach flipped. She only had a few hours before they wished to take her away from the home that had become her refuge after the castle.
She glanced at the cottage, her heart in her throat. With its leaky roof and rotting boards, the home had seen better days. At first she’d thought Benjin wasn’t keeping up with repairs due to his inability to manage them himself. But when she’d suggested asking a neighbor to fix the leaking roof, he had told her to leave it alone.
Now she understood the reason. The state of his house didn’t matter because he planned to leave and see her mated to his nephews. No one would be living here.
Her stomach twisted when she recalled his hesitation to start the garden in early spring. As a result, she’d done most of the work herself, getting it going even though he had kept telling her to wait. Her joy over trading for the grapevines had been met with sadness from Benjin. He’d smiled and thanked her for arranging the trade, but his eyes had held a distant and regretful gleam. She blinked back tears.
The cottage was safe. Benjin was safe. She couldn’t imagine leaving, or at least being apart from her adoptive father. Most of the Banded women she knew didn’t fret about leaving their parents once they came of age. In fact, most of them became giddy over the idea of being claimed by their prospective mates and starting their own families.
She wished she could be as happy as the Banded women about being claimed, but her worries for Benjin and her nervousness at being mated to three Banded males overshadowed the heated tingles that swept through her as she looked between Randall, Aron, and Hadden.
She shook her head and lifted her chin as she drew to her full height. Why couldn’t she be a few inches taller? Even standing straight as she could, all three brothers were over a head taller than her. In fact, her eyes were level with the center of Randall’s chest. She shuddered at the thought of them carrying her off against her will. Banded men didn’t typically ask a female’s opinion on the matter before taking her as a mate. When they found an unmated woman they believed was meant to bond with them, they claimed her as soon as possible. It was the Banded way.
She gulped and entered the cottage, not turning her back on the brothers as she went inside. They followed her in and divested themselves of the large packs they wore, sitting the packs against the wall and lifting their broad shoulders in relief at having the weight off their backs. The muscles in their arms flexed, barely concealed under their short-sleeved shirts. The cold didn’t affect Banded the way it affected humans, and it wasn’t unusual to see a Banded male walking around shirtless on a snowy day. She had to force herself not to stare, but it was difficult when she kept picturing the three of them shirtless.
“Papa! We have visitors! Papa, wake up!”
Footsteps sounded upstairs, and Benjin soon appeared on the landing above, his eyes clouded with sleep. At the sight of his long-absent nephews, all fatigue vanished from his face and he began to hobble down the steps, careful to keep ahold of the staircase, and also avoid the soft, rotted indents on the wooden steps.
Randall met him at the bottom. “You look well, Uncle,” he said, even though Benjin had aged considerably since his nephews had last laid eyes on him. “It’s good to see you.”
When Laina had first come to live here, Randall, Herc, Aron, and Hadden had shared a room upstairs, since they’d recently been orphaned after an illness stole their parents from this world. She’d thought of them as the older brothers she’d never had and her heart had broken when they left for the war. Though her heart swelled to see Benjin’s joy over their arrival, as he drew each of his nephews in for a hug, their much anticipated return was rather a complication.
She wanted a family one day, yes, and had always assumed she would mate with a pair of Banded brothers, since there were no humans nearby. But the idea of three Banded men claiming her left her drenched in nervousness, and the thought of leaving her home and Benjin only increased her worries. She wished she could turn back the clock and have more time to prepare for the change in her life that would inevitably come. Or better yet, stop the blasted clock from ticking.
“Laina, my dear, would you prepare dinner for our company?”
“Yes, Papa.” She hurried to the kitchen, thankful to escape the brothers. Their strong, masculine presence filled the room and made it impossible for her to think clearly.
As she prepared a vegetable stew and fresh baked bread, she couldn’t help but linger at the doorway now and then, eavesdropping on bits of conversation between her papa and his nephews.
Herc was buried in the Green Mountains, a day’s journey from the Eratot River, wherever that was. Most of the elves, who had instigated the war against the Banded, had fled to a continent over a vast sea, and those captured had either been put to death or sold into slavery. They spoke of the last battle, a bloody affair that had lasted ten days, for a while before Benjin brought up the subject Laina had been dreading.
“Tell me, nephews, does the Goddess call you to claim Laina? I have kept her rather sequestered here since she came into womanhood, my heart telling me she was meant to be yours. I do hope my instincts were correct.”
“Aye, Uncle. We have already announced our intentions to claim her as ours. I’ve told her to pack her things and that we’ll be taking her home with us this evening,” Randall said. “She told us you had a home prepared for us not far away. Thank you, we are eager to start our lives and appreciate your help.”
“Yes, thank you, Uncle. Do not worry, we will treat Laina well,” Aron added.
“When will you leave on your pilgrimage?”
At Hadden’s question, Laina’s stomach dropped to the floor. Don’t leave, Papa. You promised to always take care of me. Tears burned in her eyes. For all the meanness and pain her real father had doled out on her, Benjin had shown her kindness and love a thousand times over, even during the times she hadn’t been on her best behavior.
“I will leave tomorrow at first light.” There was a long, tense pause. “I feel I will never return. I know it in my bones. My time on this world is coming to an end.”
The tears gathering in Laina’s eyes spilled down her cheeks. She shook her head, denial sweeping through her. Not only was she going to lose Benjin, forever, but she was to become the mate of three brothers she’d once known well, but for all the years they’d been gone might as well be strangers.
It was all too much to absorb, and she opened the back door, conveniently located in the kitchen, and ran out into the garden. But she didn’t stop there. Her legs carried her farther and farther away.
She ran and ran, knowing if Benjin couldn’t find her to say goodbye, he wouldn’t leave. It was incredibly childish of her, she knew, but she would do anything to get Benjin to stay, for at least a few more days. Life moves slow until it moves too fast. Her papa had said this many times, particularly if she complained of boredom as a child.
“Too fast,” she whispered to herself. “It’s changing too fast.” The crown of daisies Benjin had affectionately placed atop her head earlier in the day flew off as she picked up her pace.
She hurried through the courtyard and into the castle, squinting in the dimness of the place, trying to make her eyes adjust to the gloom faster. The last of the sunlight shone through the broken windows, guiding her way as she ventured to the third level of the crumbling structure.
Even if Benjin or his nephews suspected where she’d run off to, there were so many rooms and secret hiding places in the castle, she was certain she could elude them, at least for tonight. There were too many dangerous creatures in the forest for her to seek refuge there, making the castle her only safe hiding spot.
She huddled against the headboard of a bed in a huge master suite, a lady’s room, one she supposed her great-grandmother, and the queens before her, had occupied. Legend said the forests had grown up around all the castles and human settlements in faraway lands, before the curse finally reached her family’s lands.
If she’d been born a few generations ago, she would have one day become a queen. She didn’t much feel like a queen, or even a princess, as she pulled a heavy top cover, thick with dust, over her legs to keep warm. Though spring was now well on its way, the castle always felt cold, no matter the time of year.
She wiped at her tears and closed her eyes, physically and mentally exhausted. Benjin would be displeased with her, not to mention deeply worried, and this only made her cry harder. By the time she realized what a terrible mistake she’d made, it was too late to return home. Not in the dark. The scariest animals came out in the dark. Tomorrow morning, then.
The castle creaked and groaned around her, and outside the stone walls, she heard the ferocious growls of nighttime creatures coming out to hunt their dinner. She shuddered and clutched the covers around her.
A long and lonely night awaited her.