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Then, the atmosphere of the room changed. The air became charged as his whole body tensed. With his fingers digging into my thigh, his voice was low and controlled when he asked, “Where is your ankle shackle?’

Damn. I had become careless.

Not bothering to respond, I tried to roll away but Regin was too quick. Thrusting my shoulders flat, he straddled my hips as he raised my arms over my head. “I know one of the other men would not have been so careless as to have left you unchained,” he reasoned as he stared down at me, his eyes two hardened pieces of jade. “What have you done, Zella?”

“What I had to,” I hissed.

Regin’s grip on my wrists tightened. “You little fool. Can you not see that as our prisoner you are under our protection? Do you think King Basil is the only one who wants to see you dead?”

“Yes, and the only thing keeping me alive is my knowledge of Briar Rose,” I sneered as I tried to pull on my arms and break his grasp.

“You are denying a father the right to bury his child.”

“I am denying a pompous ass the right to use his grief for his political advantage. He does not and never did care for that girl.”

Regin leaned back. The underside of his shaft pressed between my legs as his powerful thighs tightened against my hips.

“Careful, Zella. If I hadn’t been told you had heartlessly killed Briar Rose before her father’s very eyes, I would think you cared for the girl yourself.”

Clenching my jaw, I lowered my eyes as I turned my head to the side. In my anger, I had revealed too much.

Regin leaned down. Tilting his head to the side, he captured my gaze. “You did kill her, did you not?”

I stayed silent.

“Zella, we can protect you. Tell me the truth. Does Briar Rose live?”

“Enough of this,” I cried.

Green sparks flew from my fingertips. Regin was forced off my body and thrown across the room. Grabbing my dressing gown, I quickly pulled it on as I kept my eye on his prone body. I hadn’t thrown him hard enough to crack his skull against the stone walls of the fortress, so I was certain he was just momentarily knocked still. I could hear rapid steps coming down the hallway outside my door. The sound of Regin’s large body hitting the floor must have alerted the other men that something was amiss.

The long metal bolt across the door began to shift as the latch was being turned. Raising my hands, I watched as the metal bolt and hinges melted then hardened, sealing the door.

“That should hold them,” I murmured. Taking a step, I reached out for the bedpost as a wave of dizziness assailed me. My powers were not quite up to full strength and dispatching Regin as well as melting the bolts of the door had taken their toll. I had to leave now. Racing to the window, I threw open the sash. Closing my eyes, I summoned all my reserves as I stretched my arms out straight before me. My body trembled as sweat broke out over my brow. Clenching my teeth, I groaned as I gave up a silent plea to the ancients. Finally, opening my eyes, I saw before me a great, green cloud. Lifting my skirts, I stepped gingerly over the sill, onto the cloud.

As the cloud began to float away from the fortress embattlements, I could hear a terrible crash from inside the bedchamber. Moments later, the dark visage of Troylus appeared.

“Dammit, Zella. You know not what dangers you have called down upon yourself,” he called out before he turned to bark orders over his shoulder.

I bristled at the implication. “I have been taking care of myself and my own for thousands of years, Troylus. I do not need you or anyone else.”

At my words, my stomach gave a curious flip. I wondered at my strange feeling of sadness… almost a wistfulness. It was as if I wished it could be true. That I could lean on these men. That I could finally have someone to protect me instead of me always being called upon to be the protector. It was all nonsense of course. While it was amusing to play along with their punishment games while I awaited the return of Hrafn, it was ludicrous to think I would actually crave something like that in my life.

Nonsense! The very idea of Queen Zelladine needing four male mortals!

Deliberately turning my back on them and the fortress, I turned my attention to the forest as the green cloud carried me toward its dark, bristled treetops.

My powers would only get me to the edge of the forest. Running through the trees, I hastened to the glen. I would find the forest witch and have her cast a binding spell to protect me from whatever black magic the men may use. Given rest and time, my full powers would return, and I would no longer be as vulnerable. In the center of the forest, the trees gave way to a beautiful open field. Small and almost hidden, it was filled with sweet grass, flowers, and a tiny trickling stream down the center. Nestled among the rocks by the creek bed was a small thatched cottage. The home of the forest witch. She benefited from my protection and benevolence, so I knew she would not turn me aside. I had a great affection for the old crone. She was as much a part of the forest as I.

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