The Collective Saga
A Sci-Fi Romance
Copyright © 2014 by Lisa Shea / Minerva Webworks LLC
All rights reserved.
Cover design by Lisa Shea
Book design by Lisa Shea
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No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the author. The only exception is by a reviewer, who may quote short excerpts in a review.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
~ 7 ~
First Printing: August 2014
Reach for the stars
Never forget your roots
Flirtation lasts the brief flutter of a butterfly’s wing.
True love endures the weathering of a mountain to dust.
-- Hun Proverb
In a far distant past …
Nikita’s heart ached with deep, searing respect for her fallen friends as she strode up the rocky slope to the plateau overlooking the mud-churned battlefield. It had been four long days since the death-sworn raiders had first thundered down the mountains in seemingly unstoppable numbers. Four agonizing days of blood-soaked chaos; four obsidian nights punctuated by heart-rending screams and groans.
Many good warriors had been slain. Men and women she had trained with. Laughed with. Fought with, side by side.
She had almost lost hope.
It had been Nathan who had, in the darkest night, at last turned the tide. Nathan, his five lieutenants, and their soul-deep commitment to holding the line, no matter what it took. Inch by inch, minute by minute, they had pushed back the onslaught. They had rallied the troops.
They had saved the day.
She drew in a breath. Each man in that group had paid dearly for his valiant efforts. She had seen it with her own eyes - each of those soldiers now bore deep wounds which would leave lasting scars. But, somehow, they had done it. Against all odds, against the most brutal of foes, they had held the field.
She looked to her right, to where Nathan walked steadily at her side. Warmth soaked her to the bone.
He was everything she could ever hope for.
The corner of her mouth turned up. He hardly looked a knight in shining armor. His leather tunic was pocked with ragged holes and countless stains. Blood soaked through the bandage on his thigh, and she marveled that he was able to walk. The sword at his hip was well worn.
But it had saved her life more times than she could count.
She loved him.
She bit down against the thought with well-practiced effort. She could never afford the distraction. Not when so many innocent lives were at stake. Not when every ounce of focus was needed to stay on the conflict at hand.
She drew to a stop as they reached the crest of the rise. Behind her, Nathan’s five loyal lieutenants spread out, always vigilant for danger. She almost smiled, given the desolation on the field. For so long their lives had been about war – about holding off the endless waves of bandits and raiders who sought to destroy all they had so carefully built. Those habits were hard to break.
But now, at last, the final threat had been dealt with. After years of bloody conflict, they might have at last achieved that peace so long dreamed of.
It took her breath away.
She turned to Nathan.
His gaze was on her, steady and sure.
She remembered that gaze. His gaze had been all which held her whole, that fateful moonless night. The night when her family’s journey home from a neighbor’s party had been ambushed by bandits. Her parents had been brutally murdered – and she had been left for dead beneath the wreckage of the carriage.
Nathan had found her. The eldest son of their nearest neighbor, he’d come upon them by chance while patrolling the borders. Nathan’s gaze had been the first she’d seen when she blinked to pain-racked awareness.
Nathan had held her while she screamed.
Since that day, Nathan had never left her side. Throughout the pounding raids and sieges which followed, Nathan had driven in when other soldiers had fallen back.
And now, against all odds, there was victory.
Her heart wound with coiled razor wire. For so long she had not dared dream of this day. It had seemed like the long, hellacious storm would never end. And now the clouds were finally passing and dissolving away with the coming of dawn.
Would he leave as well?
The coils drew tighter. She could not imagine her keep without him in it. Without his warm smile as they practiced sword-work in the stone-shod courtyard. Without his insightful conversations as they walked the wind-whistled battlements.
Then there were the nights where they found warmth in being - just being – side by side in her large, empty hall. They would sprawl, exhausted, on the worn-down leather couch before the crackling fire. They would drink to having somehow survived yet another blood-drenched battle which would have broken the will of most others.
A week ago, he had laid his arm across her shoulder …
She wrapped her arms around her chest. It seemed as if, at long last, peace was finally a reality. He had his own lands. His own responsibilities. Would he now leave her to return east? Would her family home become safe, secure …
She looked out to the field, strewn with broken chariots and dented shields. They had given every last effort to hold their ground. To bring an end to the bloodthirst of the invaders.
Her eyes rose up past the plains to the city of Aquarius. Thank all that was holy, those sturdy walls had never been breached. The innocents huddled within could finally emerge. They could furrow their soil and seed the ground. They could laugh, love, and rebuild.
And it was all due to the brave man who stood by her side.
If he were to go …
She blinked her eyes against the emotion, then turned to him. She looked up into those amber eyes …
Her voice caught in her throat.
It took all her strength to put breath behind her thoughts.
“Nathan, I wanted to say …”
The words dried up.
There were no trite platitudes which could express her feelings for all he had done. He had put his life on the line for her more times than she could count. He had been there in the darkest hours, when all hope seemed lost. He had held her close when despair threatened to suck away the last of her will.
She knew what she wanted to say from the very depths of her soul.
Please don’t leave me.
The setting sun shimmered behind him, casting shadows across his face. She could not read his expression. His hand, as always, rested lightly on the hilt of his sword, ready to defend her.
She wished she knew what he was thinking. Was he grateful that he was finally released from his obligation? Was he eager to return home to his parents? She swallowed hard, clinging to the tiniest fragment of hope.
They had been friends since childhood. Could it be that he, too, found that their relationship had grown, through the blaze and fury of battle, into a precious metal forged to last the ages?
Nathan’s gaze swirled, caught up in emotions she could not name. He, too, swept his focus to rest on Aquarius for a moment. Then he turned to each of his lieutenants in turn, their eyes meeting in some sort of understanding.
Her heart thundered against her chest.
He was leaving. He was saying goodbye.
At last he brought his gaze back to her.
He lowered himself onto one knee.
Nikita swayed, the world taking on a dream-like glow. Not in a thousand years, not in her deepest unspoken dreams, could she have hoped –
He reached up to take her hand in his. She felt the sturdiness of his fingers, the rough-worn strength which had grappled against death and clawed its way back from the edge of despair. Now they held her fingers with the delicacy of a newborn chick.
The world faded away, and it was just her and Nathan.
His voice was rich and warm. It soothed into the depths of her soul; into the ragged places which thought never to find solace.
“Nikita, my other half, the one who makes me complete. When I first came to your side, I did so as a loyal friend who held the deepest respect for our families’ treaties.”
His voice grew rough. “But over these past four years …”
He shook his head as if he could not believe she was before him. It took him a moment to continue.
“Nikki, it has been an honor. An honor to share your table. An honor to fight by your side. An honor to witness the depths of your care for those you watch over. I have witnessed your blossoming from a stripling girl into a woman who takes my breath away.”
Nikita forced herself to breathe, so lost she was in his gaze.
Nathan’s eyes shone with emotion. “You deserve far better than me. You deserve the richest king and a castle carved from gold. You deserve the finest destriers and the softest silks. But I swear to you, if you would do me the honor of being my wife, that our home will be rich with laughter, security, and love.”
He reached into his pocket and brought out a small wooden box. Lifting the lid, he revealed a simple but finely crafted ring.
Joy filled Nikita, radiating out, seeming to light the entire valley below with golden brilliance. Her world was complete. There was nothing that could mar her sense of wholeness. Nothing could put even the slightest shadow over the love which blossomed out from the innermost reaches of her soul.
She looked down into the eyes of the man who had won her heart. She held her hand out to him, fingers splayed. Her voice rang with the certainty that echoed in every cell of her body.
“I love you. I love you with every beat of my heart; with every breath. Yes, I will be yours, Nathan. Forever.”
Nathan’s eyes glowed with emotion. He took up the ring, preparing to slide -
The golden glow around them intensified, then shimmered. A deep, resonant voice surrounded them, seeming to come from their very bones.
It was as if the planet itself had come to life.