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The Curse Giver
cover art © Brad Fraunfelter

 

 

An innocent remedy mixer condemned to die for a crime she didn't commit must ally with the embittered lord pledged to kill her in order to defeat not only the vile curse obliterating their lives, but also the curse giver who has already conjured their ends.

 

 

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The Curse Giver

fantasy

Dora Machado

 

 

 

Prologue

The curse giver slithered out of the basin and glided among the counter wares, surveying the tidy kitchen. Tonight, she favored the serpent’s sleek shape. When she was sure she was alone, she grew herself into a watery semblance of the human form that defined her current existence. Her face’s reflection, coalescing into something tangible on the windowpane, might have been considered beautiful if one cared about such things.

She didn’t. Beauty implied good and good entailed virtue, all spoilers to the evil she practiced.

The evening storm agreed with her mood. It had been a busy night. She was on the last leg of her three-part errand. First, she had paid a visit to the arrogant fool who had provoked her wrath nearly ten years ago. Why had he been surprised to see her? He should have known that she would be back to avenge his treachery. Nothing could protect him from her rage.

True, he had provided her with a rare opportunity. Betrayal was rare when one was a recluse of gods and mortals. Revenge was an elusive treat. The man’s misdeeds were unforgivable and yet his offense had freed her to indulge in her greatest compulsion.

A curse was serious work, precision’s highest aim. A curse was challenge and duel, battle and victory, the maker’s highest praise. And this night, after ten years of careful planning, she had returned to cast the perfect curse, a layered trap of death, suffering, ruin and catastrophe; a cruel, complex, and horrific work of art.

Her best and most satisfying creation yet.

Had the proud lord really thought he had avoided retribution? Had he expected any less than what he got? He must have, because he pleaded with his eyes and wailed like a pathetic fool while she wrote the curse with his blood.

The pleasure she got from casting the curse was so obscene it should have been forbidden. The enjoyment she would get in the years to come thrilled in advance. She had been meticulous in her preparations, deliberate in her provisions, fierce like the Goddess herself.

That’s why prior to traveling to the kitchen, she had visited a second victim that night, lulling the young woman to sleep with a peaceful lullaby, cursing her with a kiss on the shoulder, where a tiny mark would grow over time to play a small but entertaining part in the curse’s expanding evil.

Practicality was a sign of genius. Diligence upfront saved time.

And now, to the last part of the plan. The need for preemptive action had brought her to this orderly kitchen, where a thousand scents mingled to entice the nose, including the lingering perfume of sweat, toil and exhaustion.

What would it be like to live in a place like this? How would it feel to welcome guests every day, catering to their needs and listening to their stories? How would her life have turned out if she had devoted her talents to cooking, tending to the gardens, laundering the linens, mixing this, testing that, catching a few hours of sleep only to begin the same backbreaking routine all over again the next day?

She shook her head, knowing the answer—it would be boring, tedious and dull. A waste of time, a squandering of her creative genius. A dreary existence that no one could possibly relish, let alone want.

Destroying a life condemned to such a fate could have been seen as merciful, if one believed in such a thing as mercy. But she didn’t. Good was to bad as seed was to sprout. Mercy was a waste of time.

She went about the kitchen, lighting the lamp, stuffing it with drying rags, until a nice little fire burned on the tabletop. She felt quite diligent as she fed the fire more kindling, a bundle of dried flowers, a bunch of rushes from the floor, some logs and twigs from the stack by the fireplace, and a jug of oil, which she splattered liberally over the place, until the fire was large enough to lick the ceiling beams and ignite the walls.

How simple it was to ensure the curse’s future with a little forethought and the roaring flames. Nobody in this place would survive the fire. She wasn’t about to leave anything to chance. Call it overkill, because the casting had been done and death was the only possible outcome.

With the smoke growing thick and the curse’s loose ends firmly knotted, she splashed back into the basin and, making the quick trip home, returned to her lair. She was in a mood to celebrate.

She sat at her desk and smiled. After rubbing her hands together, she dipped her precious quill in the ink pot and pressed it against the vellum. The realms needed to beware. Her best curse was now loose upon the world. A warning, that’s what she needed to compose, the opening for a new masterwork, a battle cry and a victory song.

And so, she began.

I am the curse giver.

Spawn of the fickle gods’ whims,

Scorned by virtue, spurned by faith,

Shudder when you hear my name.

 

 

Chapter One

Dread stared at Lusielle from the depths of the rowdy crowd. Concealed under a heavy hood, only the stranger’s black eyes dared to meet her gaze among the growing throng. The man’s eyes refused to flinch or shift from her face. His stare was free of the hatred she had gotten from the others, but also devoid of mercy. He held on to her gaze like an anchor to her soul, testing her fortitude, knowing full well her fears’ vast range.

She had always been meant for the fire. Even as she had escaped the blaze that killed her parents and burned the inn to the ground, Lusielle had known that the flame’s greedy god would return to claim her life. But she hadn’t expected it to happen after days of torture, surrounded by the raging mob, found guilty of a crime she didn’t commit, betrayed and condemned.

The town’s cobbler, one of her husband’s best customers, tightened the noose around her neck until it cut off her breath. She had waited on him countless times at the shop, and had always padded his order with a free measure of coriander to help with his wife’s cough.

But none of the town’s inhabitants seemed to remember any of her kindnesses as of late. On the contrary, the crowd was booing and jeering when they weren’t pelting her with rotten fruit. They treated her as if she were a common thief.

The brute who had conducted her torture shoved the cobbler aside, tying her elbows and wrists around the wooden stake. Orell. She remembered his name. His bearded face might have been handsome if not for the permanent leer. Like the magistrate, he wore the king’s burgundy colors, but his role had been more vicious. Had he been granted more time, he might have succeeded at extracting the false confession he wanted, but the magistrate was in a hurry, afraid of any possible unrest.

Orell yanked on the ropes, tightening her bonds. The wound on her back broke open all over again. She swallowed a strangled hiss. It was as if the thug wanted her to suffer, as if he had a private reason to profit from her pain.

But she had never seen him until three days ago, when he and the magistrate had shown up unannounced, making random accusations.

Lusielle couldn’t understand any of this.

She knew that the king’s justice was notoriously arbitrary. It was one of the main reasons why she loathed living under King Riva’s rule. But she also knew better than to express her opinion. Ruin and tragedy trailed those who dared to criticize the king. That’s why she had never mentioned her misgivings to anyone.

What had she done to deserve this fate? And why did they continue to be so cruel? After all, she wasn’t fighting them anymore.

True, she had resisted at first. Out of fear and pride, she had tried to defend herself. But in the end, it hadn’t mattered. Her accusers had relied on the testimony of the devious liar who had turned her in—Aponte Rummins—her own husband.

The mock hearing had been too painful to bear, too absurd to believe. Aponte swore before the magistrate that Lusielle was a secret practitioner of the forbidden odd arts. It was ridiculous. How could anyone believe that she, who had always relied on logic, measure and observation to mix her remedies, could possibly serve the Odd God’s dark purposes? And how could anyone believe Aponte’s lies?

But they did, they believed him as he called on his paid witnesses and presented fabricated evidence, swearing that he himself had caught her at the shop, worshipping the Odd God. In the end, it had been her husband’s false testimony that provided the ultimate proof of the heinous charge for which Lusielle was about to die.

Burning torch in hand, the magistrate stepped forward. Still in shock, Lusielle swallowed a gulp of bitter horror and steeled for the flames’ excruciating pain. She didn’t want to die like a shrieking coward. But nothing could have prepared her for what happened next.

The magistrate offered the torch to Aponte.

"The king upholds a husband’s authority over his wife in the kingdom," the magistrate shouted for the crowd to hear. "There can be no protests, no doubt of the wisdom of royal justice if a husband does as he’s entitled to do by his marital rights."

Aponte could have forgone her execution. Considering the magistrate’s proclamation, he could have chosen a different punishment for her. Instead, he accepted the torch and, without hesitation, put the flame to the tinder and blew over the kindling to start the fire.

"Go now," he said, grinning like a hog about to gorge. "Go find your dark lord."

Lusielle glared at the poor excuse for a man who had ruined her life many times over. She had known from the beginning that he was fatally flawed, just as he had known on the day he claimed her that she couldn’t pledge him any affection.

But Aponte had never wanted her affection. He had wanted her servitude, and in that sense she proved to be the reluctant but dutiful servant he craved.

Over the years he had taught her hatred.

His gratification came from beating and humiliating her. His crass and vulgar tastes turned his bed into a nightmare. She felt so ashamed of the things he made her do. Still, even if she loathed him—and not just him, but the slave she had become under his rule—she had tried to make the best of it.

She had served him diligently, tending to his businesses, reorganizing his stores, rearranging his trading routes and increasing his profits. His table had always been ready. His meals had been hot and flavorsome. His sheets had been crisp and his bed had been coal-warmed every night. Perhaps due to all of this, he had seemed genuinely pleased with their marital arrangement.

Why, then, had he surrendered her so easily to the magistrate’s brute?

Aponte had to have some purpose for this betrayal. He was, above all, a practical man. He would not surrender all the advantages that Lusielle brought to him—money, standing, common sense, business acumen—without the benefit of an even greater windfall.

Lusielle couldn’t understand how, but she was sure that the bastard was going to profit handsomely from her death.

The scent of pine turned acrid and hot. Cones crackled and popped. The fire hissed a sinister murmur, a sure promise of pain. She didn’t watch the little sparks grow into flames at her feet. Instead, her eyes returned to the back of the crowd, seeking the stranger’s stare. She found him even as a puff of white smoke clouded her sight and the fire’s rising heat distorted his scarred face’s fixed expression.

The nearing flames thawed the pervasive cold chilling her bones. Flying sparks pecked at her skin. Her toes curled. Her feet flinched. Pain teased her ankles in alarming, nipping jolts. Dear gods. They were really going to burn her alive.

Lusielle shut her eyes. When she looked again, the stranger was gone from the crowd. She couldn’t blame him. She would have never chosen to watch the flame’s devouring dance.

A commotion ensued somewhere beyond the pyre. People were screaming, but she couldn’t see through the flames and smoke. She flinched when a lick of fire ignited her shift’s hem. A vile stink filled her lungs. Her body shivered in shock. She coughed, then hacked. Fear’s fiery fingers began to torment her legs.

"Come and find me," she called to the God of fire.

And he did.

 

Chapter Two

Dressed in a common laborers’ garb, Severo leaned against a market stall at the back of the rabble, keeping watch. It was a testament to his lord’s dire plight that they had stolen deep into Riva’s kingdom, into yet another Twin forsaken town, running with filthy gutters and crammed with these wretched people who were braying like mules trapped in a pen.

What a miserable crowd it was, mostly baseborn churls with a taste for morbid spectacles trying to gain favor from the king’s minions. It made him sick, all of those pathetic people willing to lick the sons of whores’ filthy asses for a shot at royal favor or a handful of debased coins.

But such was the yoke of Riva’s rule. It made Severo proud to hail from one of the last bastions standing against Riva, the Free Territory of Laonia.

For a man who had spent the last few years of his life chasing ghosts and always on the run, blending with the crowd was hardly a challenge, even if the king’s guards were sniffing at his balls like a bunch of hungry mutts. Stealth was the scout’s crucial trait, the difference between tidy or messy, free or caught, breathing or stiff cold.

Severo was damn good at sly and sneaky. The others always joked he blended so well ‘cause he was so common-looking. They only said that ‘cause they were jealous of his burly looks. The truth was he had the Twin’s gift—plus a lot of years of practice with his nose to the ground and his paws on the trail. He was as good as invisible in a crowd.

The floppy cap and the ragged mantle he wore made him look like every other goon in the square. The tattered trousers and the crutch helped disguise his stiff gait, which was caused by the sword he had strapped to his leg. His knives were tucked in the back, under his belt, all seven of them. Three tubes of dazzling powders were strapped to his chest beneath his shirt.

Severo’s full attention remained on his lord, standing but a few paces away among a wall of towering thugs. How a man as brave and strong as the Lord of Laonia had netted such a grim fate was beyond Severo. What vicious force had claimed his life? And why had he been punished with such a grim legacy?

The Twins knew, the Lord of Laonia needed answers to those questions and much more, because his time was running dangerously short.

Which explained why Severo and his lord were here, on this filthy square, sticking out their necks like geese for the cook, flirting with the noose of Riva’s hangman.

His lord was also in disguise, wearing the only garment remotely capable of providing a small measure of anonymity and protection from the King’s men. Severo stifled a laugh when he remembered his adventures in the laundresses’ quarters. What a night that had been. Stealing the prized uniform hadn’t been easy, but Lord Bren looked good in the King’s colors.

The night was dark, his lord cut a striking figure as a royal guardsman, and the crimson and gold mantle might defer passing inquiry. Still Severo worried that Lord Bren’s highborn bearing could betray his presence among the common folk.

Even more dangerous was the scar on his face. It was now concealed in the depths of the hood’s shade, but should something change, it would be easily recognizable, especially to that whoremonger, Orell, the king’s man.

Severo had begged the Lord of Laonia to stay out of sight, to wait at the rendezvous point. But, true to his character, he had refused. Despite the danger, he never shied away from an opportunity to trounce Riva or to outwit and outmaneuver Orell.

Severo smirked in the darkness. His lord might be cursed and fated for tragedy, but he was fierce, tough and iron-willed. He would not surrender to his plight. He fought with both his sword and his wits, and beyond the oath, that’s what kept men like Severo by his side. Most importantly, the Lord of Laonia didn’t want his men to do his dirty deeds. He hunted his own prey.

Severo’s job tonight was to keep Lord Bren alive, not an easy task to accomplish. Since Severo had been the one who had generated the lead, investigated the prospects, and scouted the town, it was his right to look after his lord. It was a job he cherished, not only because it required focus and skill, but also because it was considered the highest honor among the Twenty.

It was also a job he abhorred. The price of failure would be catastrophic, for his lord, the Twenty and Laonia.

They’d had little trouble infiltrating the square, mostly because they had sneaked in ahead of the guards and hidden in the market’s cellars the night before Orell cordoned off the square. The plan tonight hinged on preparation, stealth and speed.

With hooded eyes, he glanced over to his right, where old Petrus splayed by the south gate, disguised as a drunkard. He might have overdone it a little. Every once in a while the breeze carried a whiff of his rank scent. He reeked of cheap ale.

Somewhere to his left, Severo made quick eye contact with Cirillo, who mingled with the beggars by the well. He found Clio already in position, high atop a tree among some local lads, hovering over the north entrance. The rookie looked nervous. Severo hoped he’d keep from shitting his pants.

That made a total of only five men in the square, too few; but his lord favored wits over numbers and smarts over brawn, and the balance of the Twenty would be ready.

The Twenty were the best that Laonia had to offer, even if glory and the gods shunned them these days. They might look like a ragged pack of mangy wolves, but they were a fine-tuned unit, a prime collection of prized hunting dogs.

Severo’s vigilant eyes scanned the square once again. He might not be able to fight fate’s cryptic ways, but flesh he could slash and blood he could spill. He wasn’t going to allow any common man to harm his lord.

His stare fell on that ass licking weasel, Orell, who was amusing himself by torturing the woman, this time in public. He was a dangerous foe. Snaring Laonia’s clever lord was Orell’s greatest ambition. Severo smirked. Not tonight. The damn cur dog was gonna get his ass whipped.

To be fair, Orell had taken fitting precautions at the market, archers on the wall, fighters in plainclothes, guards at the gates, around the pyre and along the square, plus reinforcements outside the south gate. The north gate merited little attention. It had been broken in days past, and despite the efforts of men and beasts, it couldn’t be opened. Severo estimated the Twenty faced a force roughly four times their size, and that number didn’t include the sentinels posted at the crossroads and at the guild’s tower, which was the town’s highest point.

Those sentinels were going to be useless tonight. Severo had spotted them early on. By now, they were probably dead at the hands of Lord Hato and the handful of men he commanded.

The agitated rabble began to chant. "Burn her, burn her!"

Severo joined in the savage chorus. He didn’t envy the woman on the pyre. Whether or not she died today, she would die; and whether she burned or perished from an even worse injury, who cared? Her death was bound to be terrible either way.

That was as much pity as Severo could muster for the wench, because as far as he was concerned, women were the Lord of Laonia’s bane and he shouldn’t be here, in this cramped square that felt a lot like a death trap, right beneath Orell’s filthy nose. Severo didn’t like that his lord was skirting catastrophe, risking his life for a baseborn wench with no fortune, merit or real promise to her person.

He had tried to tell Lord Bren that the woman wasn’t worth the danger. He had even mentioned that she wasn’t particularly beautiful or distinguished. Severo was absolutely sure that she wasn’t what they needed. She was but a tradesman’s wife, for the Twin’s sake, the meek daughter of a modest innkeeper, a remedy worker, hardly any better than a common mountebank.

Severo had also mentioned the charges. So what if they were true or false? Anybody with eyes could see that there was something to the claims. The wench had the bewitching stare of a sorceress.

He winked at the plump girl giving him the eye. If only he had the time to take a dip under her skirts. The crowd cheered. A plume of white smoke rose from the pyre. The fire began to burn.

Time for the Lord of Laonia to make his choices.

Like every man of the Twenty, Severo lusted after a good fight, but this time, the woman wasn’t worth a single drop of the Twenty’s blood. He would follow his lord to Riva’s damn salt mines if he had to, but tonight he hoped that Lord Bren would recognize the woman as just another fake.

It would be a lot easier to keep him alive for a little while longer if he did.

The tension in Severo’s body ebbed when his lord walked away from the crowd towards the south gate. There would be no fight today. The Lord of Laonia would live another day. Severo exhaled a long, quiet breath.

Then it happened.

Abruptly, Lord Bren changed course, dropping a scarf on the ground, entering the leather shop at the edge of the market and disappearing behind the counter.

Damn the Twins and all the stinking gods. Severo started the count in his head.

The plump maid who had been looking his way screeched, pointing to the sky, towards the guild tower, from where a cloud of red smoke rose in a spectacular, shape-shifting puff.

Severo scratched his beard’s dark stubble. "Pretty, eh? Wanna give me a kiss?"

The woman stared at him as if he were mad before returning her attention to the sky. She wasn’t that pretty anyways. The silhouette of a sinister figure swelled against the night, a monster wearing a crown and clawing at the feeble stars. The next puff of smoke came in the shape of a crooked sword. It punched through the crowned monster, scattering the image, which wilted into nothingness.

The images struck fear into people’s hearts. Women cried, men shouted, children wailed. Orell commanded some of his guards to the guild tower. Still keeping count in his head, Severo made a mental note to ask Lord Hato how he had managed to conjure such a hackle-raising, ball-shrinking distraction, even though it was highly unlikely that the old master would give away his secrets.

As he reached the end of his count, Severo pulled up his scarf and covered his mouth. At the same time, old Petrus struck, disabling the guards and hacking the ropes that held up the south portico. The portico dropped, dividing Orell’s force and isolating the men inside the square. The contest was about to start.

Severo sprinted along the north wall, deploying all three of his powder tubes as he ran. Bang, bang, bang. He kept track of Cirillo in his peripheral view, who, methodical as always, retrieved his bow from the well where it had been concealed the night before, loaded it, and fired, eliminating the archers on the wall—one, two, three, four.

The air sparkled with iridescent crystals. The crowd began to cough, fleeing from the explosions, clearing the way, moving towards the south side in unison like a wild herd.

Severo heard the hoofs of a horse clattering on cobblestones before he spotted his lord atop his steed. The beast cleared the leather shop’s counter with an extraordinary leap spanning not just the counter and the merchandise piled atop it, but also the startled shopkeeper and his frightened apprentice. Unsheathing his sword, Severo turned around to keep the path open, clashing almost immediately with two plainly-dressed guardsmen, whom he dispatched without hesitation.

From the corner of his eye, he caught the familiar movement of a guard on the ground putting an arrow to the bow, aiming for the Lord of Laonia.

Severo threw his knife.

It plunked into the archer’s chest like an arrow itself. Anticipating Lord Bren’s trajectory, Severo threw three more knives, eliminating the threats in his lord’s path.

By then, Clio had opened the north portico. It had been Severo himself who had stolen into the market square three nights ago and applied a coating of Lord Hato’s especially prepared jamming glue to the portico’s hinges.

At that time, Severo had been doubtful that anything could make those hinges move again, but it seemed that Lord Hato’s thinning solution had worked and the second phase of the plan was about to begin.

The rest happened very quickly.

Clio’s swift bow sent Orell and his men diving for cover. For sure, the kid could shoot. Several members of the Twenty scaled the walls and joined Clio in providing cover for those on the ground.

As the Lord of Laonia spurred his whinnying steed into the burning pyre, Severo teamed up with Cirillo and Petrus, forming a semicircle around the pyre, fighting with their backs to the fire, engaging the few defenders who dared the arrows and the powders with their swords. Severo stood his ground despite the heat singeing the hair in the back of his head, until he heard the rustle of ropes breaking under a blade and his lord’s triumphant shout as he goaded his horse towards the north gate.

Covered by the friendly archers, Severo followed, bolting through the gate, along with Petrus and Cirillo, before the effect of the powders dwindled and the crowd and the guards recovered. As soon as they were out, the portico dropped down, the archers scrambled down and Clio rushed to reseal the portico’s hinges with more of Lord Hato’s glue.

"They won’t be coming after us now," the kid said as he leapt down from the wall and ran with the others into the forest, where their horses were hidden.

Severo mounted his horse and raced down the track he’d scouted the day before, chasing after his lord. He whooped. The plan had worked, just as his lord had said it would! Only three of the Twenty had sustained injuries and they were all minor.

Sure, they were on the lam again, but the Lord of Laonia was alive and that pile of crap Orell was stuck in that stinking market for a while. With a little luck, the woman had made it as well.

Poor wretch. If she was indeed alive, she had leapt from one kind of execution to another.

 

Chapter Three

The sound of the sword’s blade rustling against the sharpening stone soothed Bren. The sinuous sequence of the long sword’s curves was a familiar rhythm to his hands. Up and down, the blade offered a wild ride as three curves of perfectly balanced metal ended at the well-honed point, accounting for the blade’s singular course.

The weapon was perfectly built to fool the bone’s hard protection and infiltrate the densest parts of the human body, where the essence of life was meant to be kept intact. Wielding the sword was something Bren did well, with skill, conviction and honor. And so it was that whenever his mind was restless he resorted to sharpening the blade, for it was—and would always remain so—by far a fairer executioner than he would ever be.

The sword belonged to his noble line, the house of Uras. It was beautiful, and not just to his warrior’s trained eye. By all accounts, the ivory-carved hilt was a work of art. On the hilt, the black stone of the house of Uras presided over all his killings.

It was an heirloom of death, a weapon worthy of his cursed fate.

"Well?" Bren said, unable to contain his impatience any longer.

Hato replaced the bandage on the woman’s back and covered her with a blanket. His sharp features were grimmer than usual as he delivered the bad news with a sigh and a nod.

The cave where Bren had set up camp seemed darker than before.

It was just like Hato to ask, "Have you—?"

"No," Bren said, turning the blade on his lap. "She’s too sick."

"It’s been four days since you fetched her from the pyre," Hato said. "The men are eager to steal out of the kingdom before Orell finds us. She’s slowing us down."

"I know," Bren said, dabbing his whetstone with a wet sponge.

"My lord," Hato said gravely. "You might as well get the trial over with."

"She doesn’t stand a chance, sick as she is." She wouldn’t stand a chance if she was healthy either, but that was beside the point.

"Theoretically," Hato said, "that’s not true."

"But practically, we know it is."

"Either way," Hato said stubbornly. "We need to know."

"She’s getting better," Bren said. "She’s stronger every day."

"So what?"

"Why put her through all of that if we know what’s going to happen?"

"‘Cause it’s your damn duty."

Leave it to the old man to say the things no one else would say aloud. Leave it to Hato to state so casually the wretched legacy he had been birthed to uphold.

"You’re a beaming beacon of hope," Bren muttered, holding up the sword, closing one eye, and inspecting the blade’s edges against the light of the fire.

"Hope, you say?" Hato flashed his long teeth in a bitter smile. "I’ve been at this since your father’s time. For you, I’ve toiled the length of your adult life, so that Laonia can survive. Forgive me if I give you truth instead of falsehood."

Damn Hato. He wasn’t giving up. And why should he?

Bren returned the sword to his lap and, applying the whetstone to the blade, reassumed the long, even strokes necessary to sharpen the edges. The sound of the whetstone grinding against the metal filled the cave. The repetitive motion calmed his anger and focused his thoughts.

"What if the mark is just a coincidence?" Bren said.

Hato shook his head. "I’d be remiss to think that Orell and his men went to all this trouble for nothing. You saw what those fools tried to do. They tried to burn the mark off her, and when that didn’t work, they tried to hack it off. Had it been a fake, it wouldn’t have resurfaced."

"Yet your tests have proven inconclusive."

"That’s because the mark has been so savagely attacked."

"Hato," Bren said, steeling his tone. "I won’t kill her unless you’re sure."

"Would you like me to test her a third time?"

"As if she hasn’t endured enough torture already," Bren said. "If you were sure, you wouldn’t be itching to test her again. But you’re not sure, Hato, and I’ll have more than just hesitation to sanction murder."

"She has the mark," Hato said. "On that we agree."

"But she doesn’t fit Robert’s riddle."

"I thought you didn’t trust the riddle."

"They’re the words of a dying man, a madman there at the end. We don’t even know when and how he found it."

"I, for once, won’t dismiss the riddle as a madman’s raving," Hato said. "Your brothers were determined to save the line of Uras. They died for you, so that you could continue their work."

Bren winced, remembering his brothers. He wanted to do well by the house of Uras, but his was a deadly inheritance, and he refused to take it lightly.

"Think about the riddle," Bren said. "There’s no might or wealth to this wench. She’s baseborn, the wife of a mere merchant. Inasmuch as we could use a break in our venture, she’s not it."

"We can’t afford to ignore any leads," Hato said, logical as always. "Don’t forget, she bears the mark. Get to the trial, so we can move on. Just do it, my lord."

The whetstone ground to a halt with a jarring screech. Bren’s fingers tightened around the sword’s hilt. He had an urge to slip the blade between the old man’s ribs, to thrust it up and break through the solid encasement of a heart that failed to feel anymore.

But Hato had given up his life to serve the house of Uras. No matter how hopeless or terrible, he had always told Bren the truth. And when defeat had overtaken Bren’s soul, Hato had been the only one able to wrench him away from despair’s crushing hold.

Bren eased his grasp on the hilt and set aside his sword on the folded pad on the ground. Then he took a deep breath, trying to temper the raw fury coursing through him.

The old man didn’t deserve to die for speaking the truth. He couldn’t slay his friend and mentor just because Hato reminded Bren of the beast he was.

On the other hand, it was he, and not Hato, who had to do the terrible deed, and he couldn’t just slay an innocent because time was running out and they were desperate.

"Don’t overthink the matter," Hato said. "Riva is bound to catch up with us soon. We have little coin and low supplies. The tribute is almost due. Teos will call soon—"

"A few more days," Bren said. "Perhaps some of the other leads will bear fruit."

"I commend you for your decency, my lord, I really do, but practicality takes precedence in our case and time is not on our side. Orell is on our tail. You’ve got nothing to gain from a delay and everything to lose. Will you at least consider my advice?"

"I always do."

Hato squeezed Bren’s shoulder as he shuffled out of the cave to join the others camping outside. Bren heaved a frustrated sigh. The old man was right again.

But what about the woman?

Bren didn’t know her. Her life might not be meant for rule or greatness, but was it any less valuable than his?

Dam the Twins. The house of Uras was fated to become extinct if he continued to think like this. He knew he couldn’t afford to be weak. He had to be strong—for his people, for his house. He had to finish it.

He knelt next to the woman’s pallet. Lusielle. He had learned her name when he scouted the lead. After four days on the run, an attractive face was beginning to emerge from beneath her yellowing bruises. The small, straight nose was sprinkled with freckles and underscored by a set of generous lips that enhanced her features’ harmony. The tiny line between her brows betrayed a hint of character. A trace of red streaked her brown curls, a touch of the fire that had almost killed her.

Her body might have been pleasant to look at if she hadn’t been so brutally battered. Not only had Orell tried to hack the mark off her back, but he had beaten and even flogged her in the hopes of extracting a confession. King Riva liked confessions—even if they weren’t true—as long as they served to justify his lies.

Bren knew that Lusielle’s wounds would mend if festering could be avoided. The blisters on her legs and feet had begun to heal, especially as Bren had cooled them with packed snow and oiled them with Hato’s balms. In a week or two, she should be able to walk again.

He pushed a curl away from her face. It was silky between his fingers, strong and resilient. Her face was flushed with fever. Even so, she smelled good, like fragrant bread—a rich loaf, fresh from the oven.

Why did he have to kill her?

Bren guessed the woman must be in her middle twenties. He thanked the Twins for the small favor. At least she wasn’t a child or an old woman past her prime. This woman was young enough to have a full life ahead and old enough to look forward to enjoying it.

She was brave too. He had admired the courage he had discovered in her eyes, even as she had been about to die. In the depths of her mossy green gaze, he had tangled with her will as if fighting a duel.

But considering what he’d do to her—what he had to do—he should have surrendered her to the fire. Her death would have been kinder.

Enough of this. He wasn’t born to heal. He had been spawned to destroy. No mercy. It was the house of Uras’s motto. No self-pity, either, as he couldn’t afford the luxury.

He reached for the sword, craving its strength, but an odd sense of longing tugged at him. Damn it, why not? It was his curse, his right. On impulse, he pressed his mouth against the woman’s lips.

A wave crashed over him. His breath felt drawn from his lungs. A force he’d never felt before rumbled inside of him, like a beast awakening. It was astonishing, improbable, incredible. He had to fight like a drowning man to return to reality.

Then he realized that a pair of steely green eyes stared up at him. "Who are you?"

 

Chapter Four

It wasn’t the man’s scarred face that had alarmed Lusielle. It wasn’t his proximity either, or the feel of his lips on her mouth, or the tingle swelling her lips. It was the shock that she spotted in his eyes, along with the loathing and the misery she saw there, followed by the instant hardening of the dark stare she had caught undefended.

Who was he?

A memory of fire and pain flared in her mind. The high heat running through her veins muffled her thinking. Dread. She had survived the torture and the flames. Despair. Was it about to start all over again?

She scrambled out of the pallet like a rat dashing out of a trap.

"Don’t!" the man said, grabbing for her leg but letting go as soon as his fingers came in contact with her bandages.

She scooted backwards on her hands and elbows. A solid wall of rock slammed against her back. Pain shot through her body like a rain of arrows. Out. She had to get away from this man. Fast. She looked around in desperation. Was that a sword lying on the ground?

Mustering whatever little strength she could, she dove for it. Her fingers wrapped around the sword’s hilt as she forced her voice past her bruised throat.

"Stay back!"

"Easy now," the man said, standing up slowly, displaying his empty palms, motioning for her to calm down. "You’re going to reopen your wounds."

No more pain. No more torture. She was done with King Riva and his random courts of so-called justice. She was done with the magistrate, Orell, and Aponte. She wasn’t going to let it happen again.

She scoured the place for an exit, swallowing great gulps of smoke-scented air. Her feet throbbed. Her legs ached. Her arms quivered under the heavy sword’s strain. It was an odd weapon, curved instead of straight, unwieldy to her untrained hands, foreign and wild. She clung to it with all the grit she could muster.

He took a step towards her.

"If you come any closer," she said, "I’ll have to kill you."

"That’s a mighty big boast," he said. "Do you really think you can hurt me with my sword?"

Shaking as hard as she was, she could barely keep the heavy sword aimed at him, let alone manage a thrust. If she hadn’t been so weak, maybe she could have edged her way out of the cave. As it was, he looked very strong and daunting standing between her and the way out.

"Listen, Lusielle," he said. "That’s your name, right? Lusielle?"

She nodded reluctantly.

"Lusielle," he repeated her name, almost kindly. "You’ve been through a lot. I understand that you’re scared, but you’re safe at the moment, and you’re not doing your wounds any favors. For your own good, do you think you could lower the sword and try to settle down?"

Her mind was spinning in too many directions. The pain wasn’t helping either. But Lusielle forced herself to think.

Where was she? In a cave of some sort, not in a place she recognized. How had she gotten here? She’d have to come back to that. Was this man friend or foe?

Lusielle willed her frantic heartbeat to slow down. Her arms quaked with the effort of holding the sword. She recognized that she was ill and not just physically. She was also sick with fear. She had been hurt and could have died, but someone had been taking care of her.

Him?

She could barely get the words through her parched throat. "Did you—did you tend to my wounds?"

He gave a curt nod.

"A-Are you one of Orell’s guardsmen?"

"I’m not with Orell or the magistrate," he said. "We’re no longer near your town."

"Then why are you wearing the king’s colors?"

"Oh, this." He tugged at his sleeve with a measure of embarrassment. "It’ll be off as soon as we’re out of the Kingdom. It was a ploy. To get to you. Without getting killed?"

"Oh." She wasn’t sure she could believe him—or anyone else—ever again, but she decided to give him the benefit of the doubt because she wasn’t feeling well or thinking straight and he had kept her alive, at least until now.

She fought a bout of dizziness. "W-Where are we?"

"We are in hiding, in a cave, away from those men. I got you from the fire. Remember?"

She had a memory of his black eyes, holding her stare; of his curiously scarred face lit by the fire’s hot flames. She recalled the crowd’s snarling faces, flames flaring all around her, a commotion beyond the pyre, and something else, right at about the time she lost her senses… a horse, galloping through the flames?

The world blurred. He got there just in time to catch the sword as it slipped out of her grasp. Resting the back of her head on the wall, she laughed. There was no amusement to her chuckles, only bitter surrender.

"Don’t you go mad on me," he said, enfolding her in a warm blanket. "Hang on to your wits, girl."

Easy for him to say. His life hadn’t been destroyed in three terrible days.

He picked her up from the ground and lay her down gently on the pallet. His words came through muted and distant, but the masculine murmur was pleasant to the ear and calming to her nerves. His lean face occupied the full space of her vision. His mouth was firm, like the expression on his face. His nose was also stern, matching the grimness in his black eyes.

Shame about the scar, which was so deep that it had burned through skin and muscle. It was a dark blotch on the cusp of his chiseled cheekbone, an oddly round patch, intricately roped around the edges where the mangled skin rose above the rest. The seared flesh pulled on the man’s lower eyelid, warping his right eye into a fearsome expression. Her sight was still blurred, but when she squinted, she thought she spotted a tear-shaped outline within the blackened edges.

She shook with fever. Flashes of cold and heat traveled through her bones like caravans of rattling wagons. Her lips were as dry as cracked leather. She knew what she needed; liquids, lots of it, preferably infused with some of her healing herbs. But her arid mouth couldn’t quite make out the words.

The man must have sensed that she was thirty, or else he had tended to the wounded before, because he braced her carefully against his chest and leaned the rim of a pewter cup against her lips. Lusielle swallowed the lukewarm tea eagerly. It restored moisture to her throat and revived her senses.

The man’s essential scent enveloped her, a fusion of heated metal, worn leather and fresh rain. It also wafted from the blanket and scented the air she breathed. It was strange, but despite the darkness she spied in his eyes, she wasn’t afraid of the scar or the man anymore. She reached out to touch him.

He flinched, but that didn’t stop her.

She ran her fingertips through the dark bristle of his closely cropped hair, allowing her hand to slide down to his clean-shaven cheek, caressing his chin and crossing over to the other side of his face, until her fingers tripped over the scar’s leathery edges.

Had it been a dream? "Did you . . . kiss me?"

"No," he said harshly, but then the light changed in his eyes. "Aye, I did."

By the gods, he had kissed her, with tenderness, she remembered, with passion. "Why?"

He frowned. "I—I don’t know."

What a strange man he was. Perhaps she was hallucinating and he wasn’t real. Perhaps he was her mind’s odd creation. At least he had admitted to kissing her, which was her most recent memory. Or maybe she was making that up too.

She traced the scar on his face. "Were you kissed by the God of fire?"

Surprise flashed in his eyes. "I guess you could say that."

"But you survived?"

He offered a reluctant nod.

"And yet you dared the fire again? After you knew how bad it burned? To get me out?"

He gave her a curious look, but said nothing.

The world spun violently within those black eyes, but she managed to keep her senses. "What’s your name?"

"I’m Brennus."

"Brennus." She mulled over the word. "He who comes with the darkness. In the old tongue. Why did you fetch me from the fire?"

"We’ll talk about that later."

"Was it an act of kindness?"

A sneer twisted his face. "Hardly."

"A feat of courage?"

"I was pissing in my saddle."

"A charitable deed?"

He scoffed. "I gave up on charity a long time ago."

It was odd. It must be the fever. She was having trouble distinguishing between humor and sarcasm, bitterness and rage. There was nothing soft about his face, no trace of joy or friendliness. Still, she wasn’t afraid of him. She thought perhaps she should be.

"Why did you act as you did, Brennus?"

"Would my reasons make any difference to you?"

The question hung in the air like a promise about to break. She tried to read his eyes and found nothing but blackness in his stare. Her mind was flickering like a sputtering candle. Her thoughts were fading. But she could have sworn he was about to say something when a tall, gaunt man rushed into the cave.

"They’re onto us," he said. "We’ve got to move."

 

Chapter Five

The next few days were lost to Lusielle. Her life was a jumbled sequence of snippets, blurry images breaking up long periods of dense darkness, triggered by a sudden jostle or a twinge of pain, cold, heat or thirst. She spotted glimpses of a gray sky, spitting out rain, and campfires burning deep in the woods. There was more rain, and a face—his face—hovering just beyond reach.

Occasionally, sound trickled into her muffled world from a distant place. The wind rustled through the trees. The horses’ hooves pounded on dirt, gravel, and mud. Men spoke, snorted, muttered and snored. A low, measured voice—his voice—echoed very near, urging her to drink, eat or sleep, accompanied by the pervasive masculine scent that was her constant companion.

There were times when she came to just enough to realize that she existed in the world in-between, where gods and mortals met in dreams, where dreams and reality were one and the same. In those moments, she realized that she survived only because of someone else’s will, that if she wanted a future, she had to wake up and seize it. She kept trying, even though it required great effort, like swimming against a colossal tide.

"This way," the voice said.

She felt listless as a corpse, but she grabbed on to that voice and followed it to a semblance of consciousness. Fighting her heavy eyelids, she managed to glimpse the man’s stern face, outlined against a background of pewter clouds.

Brennus.

She rode with him on his horse, wrapped in an oiled mantle, mostly protected from the rain. His strong arms kept her from slipping off the massive beast. His armored chest offered a hard but steady pillow. The beat of his heart echoed through the copper plates, strong, vibrant, and enthralling.

He must have realized that she was awake, because his stare swooped down on her like a hawk on the prowl, even though his voice was gentle. "Hush," he said. "We won’t be too much longer on the road today."

His eyes were lined with worry and exhaustion. So were the faces of the other men who rode with him. All of them were wet, tired and miserable, picking their way up a steep mountain track as the relentless rain continued to pelt them. That same rain was dripping from Brennus’s face, drenching his hair and trickling down his neck.

"The rain," she whispered. "It’s making you wet." She reached out to dry the water from his face, but the wound on her back protested with a pang of pain.

He caught her hand and tucked it back into the blanket. "It’s no use," he said. "You can’t keep me dry."

"One can try," she said.

And he actually smiled.

"Where are we?" she asked.

"South of nowhere and north of wherever," he said. "Far from the usual routes. We’re seven days out."

Seven days was an awful long time to be senseless among strangers.

"Don’t worry," he said. "Riva’s not going to find us."

She winced when the horse missed a step.

"Hato!" Brennus called.

Why was he barking like that?

There was splashing, the sound of hooves clattering and then, "My lord?"

"We’ve got to stop. The fever’s back and she’s hurting again."

"No place to stop around here, my lord," the other man said.

"Send Severo and Cirillo ahead," he said. "Tell them to find a decent camp and get a fire going. She’s got to rest."

"My lord," he said, "we have pressing business. We can’t slow down to accommodate her comfort—"

"Do you want her alive or not?"

The other man sighed. "As you wish, my lord." He rode away.

She tried to tell him that she was fine, but ended up whimpering instead.

"Shush," he whispered in her ear. "You need to sleep."

And by the Thousand Gods, off she went, at his command, into the darkness again, following his heart’s steady rhythm as it sang a lullaby to her heart.

 

 

Chapter Six

Lusielle’s eyes opened to reveal yet another unfamiliar setting. She lay on a wide and comfortable bed in a lavishly appointed chamber. She was fairly sure there was a feather mattress beneath the fine linens. Her head was propped on a pile of pillows. The fire’s chatter announced a crackling hearth in the room. Had she died and been reborn to one of the gods halls?

She tried to summon some kind of order out of her jumbled memories. Rain. She recalled the endless drizzle. Gray. It had been the sky’s color for many days. And something else. Him.

She sensed more than saw a presence leaning over her. Her eyes focused on the intricate patterns of finely spun blue silk. Golden ribbons edged the ends of a dangling sleeve. Someone was trying to look at the wounds on her back. The expensive gown rustled when Lusielle stirred, announcing a quick retreat.

A woman with a goddess’s face and a temptress’s body stood above her. Her elegance matched the chamber. The pristine planes of her face served as the perfect background for her exotic blue eyes. Shrewdness sparkled in her stare, but the smile blooming on her face dispelled all traces of fear or caution.

"You’re awake," the woman said.

Lusielle cleared the cobwebs from her throat. "And you are?"

"I’m Eleanor. You might know me as the Lady of Tolone. You’re in my house."

Dear Gods. She was in the presence of a ruling highborn. She was in Tolone, one of the Free Territories bordering King Riva’s kingdom on the east side of the river Nerpes. Lusielle had never been out of the kingdom before, but she had heard many rumors about the Free Territories, including stories about Tolone and the fair lady who had come to rule it.

Lusielle took another look at the plush chamber, making out a third person in the room. A tall, dark-haired woman stood behind the lady with a hand poised on her dagger’s hilt. She was either a nicely appointed servant, or, more likely, the lady’s bodyguard. Well, the bodyguard could be well at ease. Lusielle had a hard time pushing herself up on her elbows to sit on the bed. She wasn’t any threat to anybody at the moment.

The Lady of Tolone’s shrewd eyes settled on her face. "You’re not exactly what I was expecting. You look like you’re healing well enough, but you are… well, a little mousy. I suppose that’s to be forgiven, given your circumstances. But on the whole, you’re not bad for a baseborn wench."

The woman’s condescension was hard to take, but Lusielle was wise enough to let it pass. She was in the lady’s house, in a precarious, maybe even dangerous situation. Better to let the lady think she was slow-witted while she found her footing and figured out her surroundings.

She focused on the facts. "You said you were ‘expecting’ me?"

The woman exchanged a guarded look with her bodyguard. "I suppose we’ve all been expecting you in one way or another—not you, not exactly, but someone like you."

The woman wasn’t making any sense to Lusielle, but then again, highborn hardly ever did. "Where is he?" she asked.

"Who?"

"The man who brought me here."

"Oh." She clasped her hands together. "You mean the Lord Brennus?"

"Is he a highborn also?"

"He might not always look the part, but he certainly is." She tilted her head to one side and smiled sweetly. "He rode out for a few days. He said something about having some business to attend to. But he’s on his way. My scouts report that he crossed the border and should be back anytime now."

Lusielle’s impossible situation was looking stranger by the moment. The Lady of Tolone seemed beautiful and nice, and yet warnings were ringing in Lusielle’s mind like fire bells. She didn’t trust the lady. First, she was a highborn. Everyone knew about them. They were rarely truthful and always engaged in intrigue. Second, the lady’s eyes shifted like a flowing river with too many undercurrents, and her gestures were a little too precise and schooled for Lusielle’s taste. Lusielle wagered that the lady could make anybody believe anything.

But if trusting the lady was out of the question, collecting as much information from her was absolutely necessary.

"Why did Lord Brennus bring me here?" Lusielle asked.

"He told me he wanted to give you time to heal." The lady gestured to the tray of remedies on the night stand. "Believe me, child, in the last few days, I’ve put my best healers on you. A man like the Lord Brennus is always unpredictable. He has only a few friends, but if I had to guess, I’d say he needed a safe haven when he brought you here."

"A safe haven from what?"

"Aren’t you a curious one?" The lady clasped her hands behind her back and paced to the foot of the bed. "Well, if you must know, the Lord Brennus is a wanted man in the kingdom and has been outlawed in most of the territories."

"Outlawed?" Lusielle’s voice quavered. "Why?"

"Because—well, you know—this."

Lusielle looked around. "This?"

"You."

"Me?"

"Yes, you," the lady said, betraying a hint of exasperation. "Aren’t you going to ask?"

"Ask what?"

"Why he fetched you in the first place?"

"I’ve been wondering—"

"Oh, that’s easy," Eleanor said. "It’s because of your birthmark."

"My birthmark?"

"Well, you must have a mark," the lady explained. "You see, the noblemen of Uras are trained to chase the Goddess’s mark. They hunt. Baseborn. Females. With the mark."

How Lusielle managed to repress the sudden need to wretch was a mystery to her, but she did, because now more than ever she was going to need her wits.

"So?" The lady stared at Lusielle expectantly. "Did you understand what I just said?"

"Yes." Lusielle stomach was heaving to and fro.

"You must be so scared." Lady Eleanor’s eyes widened with compassion. "But now you know. That’s why the Lord of Laonia is a wanted man in the kingdom. Ask anybody. Ask the servants. Ask Tatyene here."

The lady’s bodyguard nodded.

Lusielle felt numb all over. "But . . . why?"

"Who knows the minds of wicked men?" the lady said. "It doesn’t matter. A woman mustn’t allow the world of men to destroy her. We’re allies, you and us. We must mind each other."

The lady motioned to her bodyguard, who fetched and deposited a small pile of clothing at the foot of the bed. Tatyene’s smile might have been soothing if her canines had not been so sharply filed. She spoke in a gently accented voice that managed to suggest and command at the same time.

"You’ll find a proper shift and a decent skirt with a shirt among these," she said. "You’ll also find wool stockings and a pair of sturdy boots. A traveling wench needs reliable footwear."

A traveling wench?

Lusielle considered the women carefully. She had just learned a terrible lesson. It was more than fresh in her mind. It was seared into her scalded flesh. These two were deep and twisted, definitively plotting something. She had to proceed with caution.

"Does the lady think I should travel?"

The Lady of Tolone smiled and stepped aside to look out of the lead and colored-glass window, where the rain tapped a torrential beat against the panes. Her bodyguard sat down on the bed and clasped Lusielle’s hands as if they had known each other for years.

"You should listen to your instincts," Tatyene said. "Freedom is a woman’s only assurance. Should you decide to part ways with the house of Uras, you’ll find the back gate behind the kitchens. Don’t follow the main road. It’ll be an easy hunt if you do. Take the shepherds’ shortcut through the wood. You can pick it up at the road’s bend, after the fenced plots."

The icy touch of three gold coins tripped Lusielle’s fingertips. A single finger crossed Tatyene’s ferocious smile when Lusielle started to ask. She looked to the Lady of Tolone. Her gaze was lost out the window.

Lusielle didn’t know who or what to believe, but she knew that she had to make sense of her plight in order to make good decisions for herself. Her gut also told her that she had to get away from these scheming highborn and fast.

"One last question, if you don’t mind," Lusielle said.

"Yes?" the lady said, emerging from her contemplation by the window.

"If the Lord Brennus wanted to hunt me, why did he spare my life after he found me?"

"Oh, no, dear," she said quickly. "He didn’t fetch you to spare your life."

"What do you mean?"

"You poor innocent." The compassionate stare made another appearance. "Everybody knows but you."

"Know what?"

"That he fetched you from the fire and brought you here so that he can take pleasure in killing you himself."

* * *

Lusielle waited until the lady and her bodyguard left the room before she stole out of the bed. She stood up slowly, testing both her feet and her balance. The soles of her feet protested slightly as she pressed them to the floor, but then went numb. She tried taking a step.

The jars and bottles crowding the nightstand wobbled when she steadied herself on the table. She spotted an open jar. A quick whiff revealed the presence of cat’s claw, mixed with high quality fats and scented with lavender’s extract and a touch of calendula to ward off the festering. Upon further inspection, she recognized several kinds of aromatic oils to promote quick healing and the laudanum tincture that was most likely responsible for her drowsiness.

The lady’s healers had used nothing but the best ingredients. No wonder her burns were almost healed.

Dragging the linen sheet around her body, she shuffled towards the ornately framed mirror leaning against the far wall. It was a shock to see her reflection in that long, gilded mirror, disheveled, gaunt and half-naked, like a frail, helpless fool.

Lusielle found the sight alarming, because with the exception of the small hand-held mirror her husband used to supervise her when she shaved him, Aponte Rummins refused to allow mirrors in his house. He thought mirrors spoiled women, aiding in the corruption of the feminine virtues he appreciated best—modesty, obedience and humility. Vanity, he’d often said, was a woman’s blight, and he intended to protect Lusielle from the sins it engendered, including pride, arrogance and wantonness.

Ten years she had lived under Aponte’s rule. Ten lost years she would never get back.

Until today, Lusielle had never had the time or the means to examine her body in front of a full-length mirror. Releasing the crumpled sheet, she found her legs too long, her frame too thin and her feet bound in clean bandages. She also spotted a dressing covering her back.

After undoing the knots, the bandages dropped to the floor. Then for the first time she looked—really looked—at her back.

A few crooked welts snaked between her shoulder blades, marking the trail of the lash. Her skin was still red, but it was healing in the spots where the braided whip had broken through. A messy bruise surrounded the mending wound midway down her back. Craning her neck, she spotted the darker pigmentation beneath the bruise, the faint but even outline of what looked like a small pair of butterfly wings imprinted at either side of her spine.

The gods protect her. Her body indeed wielded a mark, just like the lady said!

She suppressed a rush of fear and forced herself to think. Just because she bore a mark didn’t mean that everything the lady and her bodyguard had said was true. Lusielle might come from a modest family, but she was no ignorant wench. She understood that every cauldron cooked a different mix, more so if it entailed the mighty highborn. For reasons she couldn’t yet comprehend, the Lady of Tolone wanted Lusielle gone. Thus the boots and the gold coins.

On the other hand, why stay and run the risk that the lady was right on any count? The most compelling fact supporting the women’s warning was obvious. Her rescuer was a highborn lord. He had no reason to offer Lusielle his protection and no motive to save her life. She could be of no value to him, as she wasn’t highborn and she didn’t command a ransom.

Her husband had repudiated her. Her town had turned her out. Orell had tortured her. The magistrate had condemned her to death. Under the circumstances, it didn’t seem so far-fetched that when it came to her, the grim-gazed lord had no other purpose but sport.

Nothing good could come from staying with these people.

She sensed the danger all around her. Sure, she couldn’t exactly go back home, but staying put offered more risks than advantages. She didn’t understand the Lord Brennus’s actions and she couldn’t even begin to fathom the lady’s motives, but she knew one thing—she had to trust her instincts. She had to leave.

But where could she go?

Lusielle knew she had to have a sound plan if she was going to survive. The last few weeks—no, the last ten years of her life—had taught her a brutal lesson. At sixteen, she had become an orphan and a bride. At twenty-seven, she was equally helpless and sentenced to die.

Despite her best efforts and sacrifices, she was still alone—as helpless, weak and vulnerable as she had been the day her parents died.

She wiped a stray tear from her eye. No more of that. She was done grieving, and she was tired of submitting and conforming.

She was determined to turn disaster into opportunity. To do so, she was going to have to carve out a spot in a world that had thus far refused to make space for the likes of her. She must go to the only place where she might have a chance to survive and maybe even thrive. It entailed a long and dangerous journey with no assurances, and yet it was her best—nay, her only—chance. She just had to figure out how to get there.

Her eyes fell on the money Tatyene had given her, the three gold coins glinting atop the pile of clothing on the bed. They offered a good beginning.

She donned the soft linen shift and put on the ruffled blouse and the brown skirt. She rolled the woolen hose over her bandaged feet and up her legs, then put on her boots, lacing them loosely. Because of her rescuer’s care, she’d had precious time to heal, and thanks to the healers’ efforts, her feet were mostly mended.

No excuses. This had to be done.

A quick look out the window confirmed that the rain continued to fall. She had no choice but to steal one of the oiled leather mantles she found conveniently hanging on a peg. Her eyes fell on the tray of food standing in the corner. Her stomach grumbled. After downing a bowl of broth in one long gulp, she crammed a buttered roll in her mouth and stuffed her pockets with a bunch of grapes and a few slices of ham. She would have to eat the rest on the run.

She went to the door, but hesitated at the threshold. She had a plan and she intended to follow it. But what if this Lord Brennus was simply a nice man, the last one remaining in this cruel, crazy world?

She recalled how well he had cared for her throughout their journey. Had it not been for him, she would surely be dead. Even her lips remembered his kiss’s generosity. After enduring Aponte’s harsh mouth, she fancied she could easily distinguish cruelty from kindness and voracity from honest passion. No, despite the lady’s warning, she couldn’t think of the lord who had rescued her as mean, vicious or brutal.

What if he had seen through the injustice that had befallen her? What if he had been the only person—highborn or not—willing to help her in the face of that injustice?

The risks were too many to ignore and the danger was too real to forget, but the Lord of Laonia had saved her life and even as she fled him, she didn’t have to join the ranks of the ungrateful.

Lusielle retraced her steps and rummaged through the desk. Although there was no parchment in the drawer, she found a quill and a little pot of ink. She jotted down a few words on her unlikely page and then made for the door.

She slipped out of the chamber into the corridor. She had no idea which way to go, but she had to find a way out of the seed house. Voices and lively music echoed from below. A carved stone banister overlooked the main hall. She peeked between the railings.

The Lord Brennus sat on a high-backed chair next to the Lady of Tolone across from a fire roaring in the massive hearth. He sipped from a gilded horn, listening to the lady’s chatter but staring at the fire with a sullen expression.

Lusielle could tell that he had recently arrived from whatever foray he had undertaken as his boots were wet and muddy. He was still wearing his greaves and his muscled breastplates, impressive leather-and-bronze chest armor strapped at the shoulders and embossed with swirling vines.

The music began. The tall, gaunt man who had accompanied the lord during their trip came into the chamber and joined some of the warriors who had ridden with them on the way to Tolone. She recognized their faces from her journey’s hazy memories.

Other people loitered in the great hall, the lady’s servants and retainers, talking, gaming and eating from the trays on the tables. The lady’s fierce-looking bodyguard stood behind her chair. Even the guards wearing Tolone’s colors seemed to linger in the hall, until a couple of them got up and headed for the stairs, reminding each other loudly that it was time to make their rounds.

Lusielle froze as the guards mounted the first few steps. She wasn’t sure, but she thought that the lady had spotted her, hiding behind the railings.

Without delay, the lady rose to her feet and announced that she was going to dance in ringing tones. Every eye in the room fell on the stunning woman, including those of the guards, who paused on the stairs to watch their mistress.

Lusielle crept down the hallway. She didn’t really trust the Lady of Tolone or anyone else for that matter, but she was determined not to waste her best chance to escape.

 

Chapter Seven

Hato sipped his wine with the same lack of enthusiasm his young lord showed for his drink. Bren was a better man than his brothers, more disciplined, less impetuous, surprisingly honorable at times and equally skilled with his sword and his judgment. The house of Uras had been ruled well by Bren.

It was a shame his chances were so poor. Hato would have liked to see at least one of his lords beat the odds.

Hato didn’t like what he saw in his lord’s dark gaze tonight. Anger was a fickle emotion and the slightest trace of reluctance could destroy even the best of men. But Bren had a reason to be angry, as their trip to meet with the moneylenders hadn’t gone well. Laonia’s credit was strained and no more aid would be forthcoming to pay the tribute this year. It all bode badly for his lord, especially when mixed with the stubborn streak that had doomed so many of his kin.

It bode badly for Hato as well. By birth and occupation, Hato’s fate was linked to the house he served. What was good for his lord was good for him. What troubled his lord equally worried Hato. That included Tolone.

It was time to act.

He got up from his stool and bowed before Eleanor. "May I see it, my lady?"

"Again?" Eleanor’s brow rose sharply. "You’ve asked to see it every single time you’ve visited here."

"Indulge an old collector, my lady. Your library is a marvel, one of the last great collections in the Free Territories. And your illustrated version of The Tale . . . it’s magnificent."

"You’d do well to say yes, and quickly." Bren nudged Eleanor. "The scent of old parchment and leather is like a drug to Hato. He might start drooling on your floors if you don’t consent."

"What a horrid prospect." Eleanor laughed. "By all means, my lord. Tatyene here will take you to the library. But you shall not linger there for too long. The entertainment is about to begin."

"Obliged." Hato bowed again and followed Tatyene out of the hall, down the long corridor, past the guard and to the gilded double doors that opened to reveal Tolone’s true treasure—Tolone’s library.

Tolone’s library doubled as the lady’s office. It wasn’t a huge room like the massive libraries of yesteryear, but it was adequate. A somber collection of oil portraits hung on one of the walls. The orderly arrangement of dark and severely bearded elders stood in contrast to the lady’s own bright and lively portrait. Three tall, colored glass windows brightened the far wall, astonishing works of art forming a colorful rosette displaying the peacock’s feather, Tolone’s seal. The elaborate stained glass windows were not only gorgeous—they were expensive. Hato knew this, because in better times, the Lord of Laonia had paid for them.

The windows framed the Lady of Tolone’s massive desk. Top to bottom shelves held the ancient book collections on one side of the room. The scrolls and manuscripts were stacked along the opposite wall around an arched niche illuminated by a Laonian shimmering stone, another gift from Bren. The exquisite volume lay on the niche’s ornate stand, an ancient, priceless and masterfully illustrated version of The Tale, which told the highborn version of the Goddess’s creation and the Triad’s rising.

As he approached the niche, Hato set his trained face into the appropriate expression of awe and appreciation. He watched as Tatyene busied herself, straightening the piles on her mistress’s desk. It was a shame that the bodyguard had decided to stick around. Hato could have accomplished so much more without her present.

But even though he might not be able to achieve everything he needed to do in one visit, he could still manage his most important goal of the night.

He leaned over the volume and admired the pages’ illuminated decorations. He ogled the splendid loops and knots framing the text’s flowing calligraphy, admiring the way in which the light ignited the miniature illustrations of Suriek’s ascension, a luminous window to the world’s creation captured on fine parchment. He spotted mighty Onisious winning the race in one corner, and clever Ronerus as he quickened the Nerpes in the opposite corner. For Tatyene’s sake, Hato clucked and sighed to his heart’s content. All the while, his eyes scoured the shelves to his right, seeking out the old manuscript he needed.

He exhaled quietly when he caught sight of the ragged leather tag dangling from the manuscript’s loose stitching. He leaned a hand on the shelf and ran his fingertips over the battered edges. It wasn’t a very thick manuscript. It wasn’t flashy or beautiful and it wasn’t decorated at all. For most people, its only importance was that it was very old.

Not to Hato. He and his lord needed it for so much more.

Word was that the Lady of Tolone had been selling some of the lesser known valuables from her library in order to raise cash to pay for her whims. Upon learning this, Hato had gone into a quiet panic. She could have sold the somber paintings or the extravagant windows. Instead, she chose to dismantle the library. The library!

It wasn’t as if he hadn’t studied the manuscript before. In the last few years, he had managed the feat three times and made the most out of his opportunities. But the homely manuscript was the last of its kind and the only version known to exist outside of Teos. Even if Hato knew the essence of what it contained, he—and more to the point, his lord—had to secure it.

Music drifted from the hall.

"The entertainment has begun," Tatyene said. "The lady will want us there."

Having confirmed that the manuscript was still in the lady’s possession, a resigned Hato had to call in his gains for the night. He followed Tatyene to the hall and watched the bodyguard take her place by her mistress. Eleanor was well served by her bodyguard, who was not only skilled, cunning and attentive, but also loyal, a rare quality these days.

Hato knew this because he had once sent one of his best operatives to entice Tatyene with a fat, juicy bribe in exchange for information about her mistress. When his agent returned, he did so in a sack, crushed like the fine ground wheat produced by the Tolonian mill that Eleanor had gifted to Tatyene on the occasion of her elevation as the lady’s protector.

By the time Hato reclaimed his seat and his wine goblet, Tolone’s stunning mistress had taken to the floor and was dancing, teasing Bren with reckless disregard. Was the woman being cruel by being kind? Was she trying to amuse or to provoke? And who could believe that anything but kindness dwelt in that seductive smile?

The Lady of Tolone was too shrewd of a ruler to reveal her hand, but Hato had an opinion. Far from offering hope and consolation, the Lady of Tolone was yet another burden to a hobbled mule. Resources urgently needed elsewhere ended up financing Eleanor’s quirks. True, her patience was noteworthy, but also true, Tolone would be a lesser territory without its alliance with Laonia.

The treaty had pitched Eleanor and his lord into a flimsy boat on rocky seas. But Eleanor knew better. Hato wondered: Why did she feel a need to sway her hips and joggle her breasts before his lord like a common harlot?

The years had worn down Hato’s soul. He was getting old. He found no pleasures in youthful joys anymore, no comforts for his aching bones. Trapped in Tolone’s landlocked seed house and away from the great river, he felt cut off and isolated, too far removed from his ancestral shores on the Lake of Tears, Laonia’s vast sea.

And yet, he had made an oath. Only after the last man of the house of Uras was dead would Hato stop trying to defeat the curse. On a soggy night like this one, it didn’t look like it would be too long now.

Somber thoughts. He should seek out the company of parchment and ink. They were really his better friends.

He could leave quietly, but instead he took pity on Bren. Someone had to save his lord from Eleanor’s misguided attentions. He shuffled to his lord and bent over his ear. "Might we pretend we’re off to plot something important, my lord?"

Bren’s smile lacked in joy what it offered in gratitude. He rose to his feet, eager to escape Eleanor. "Let’s go, old man, then you can go find your bed and I’ll go meet my fate."

Hato’s discreet sigh betrayed his relief. He saw no reason to put off the inevitable. Delaying would only cause further grief to a man who didn’t need more sorrow in his life.

"Don’t go." Eleanor entwined her arms around Bren’s stiff neck, brushing her generous breasts against his arm. "It’s early yet."

"What’s with you?" Bren said, disentangling from her arms. "Stop flirting with calamity."

"My apologies, my lord," Eleanor said, suddenly contrite. "I was just happy to host you."

Alarm bells pealed in the back of Hato’s mind. What was she up to?

As he followed his lord out of the chamber, Hato could sense the Twenty’s foul mood. They didn’t like the Lady Eleanor. They didn’t trust that she would be faithful to Bren or to Laonia. Every man in the room resented the woman almost as much as they regretted their lord’s grim fate. They were as suspect of Eleanor as Hato was.

His lord wavered at the landing, then took on the stairs like a man stepping up to the gallows. Hato watched him go with a heavy heart. Bren carried his people’s fate on those broad shoulders. He was the last of the good men of the house of Uras, and yet he was destined to lose the little he had and die a horrible death.

 

Chapter Eight

Propelled by sheer will, Bren grabbed his saddlebags and made it to the top of the stairs. His blood pounded in his temples. The scar on his face burned like a glowing chunk of coal.

Eleanor had a way of stirring his angry blood into a rapid boil. He was tired of listening to her complaints. No matter how much he allotted to Tolone, it was never enough.

Even so, he was used to enduring her gripes. It was her daring that perturbed him most. She should be smart enough to refrain from tempting him, but she had always been even bolder than all of her audacious ancestors put together. If it would have been in his power, he would have released her from her obligations years ago.

He shouldn’t have come, but a man was entitled to a dry bed and a warm meal, especially if he was paying generously for it. The rainy season had made a mess of his camps and his men deserved a proper roof and a dry pallet every once in a while.

There was also the matter of the woman. She shouldn’t have to spend her last days on a wet horse and her last nights on the soggy ground. She didn’t deserve to be murdered coldly in a back alley among paupers and whores or in the forgotten wilderness of a wind-swept ridge.

There he went again, trying to justify the absurd delay. But he was done delaying. Eleanor’s lewd dance had stirred up his wrath. Wrath was good, the ultimate motivator. A stoked up man was the most efficient killer, a hunter worthy of Laonia and the house of Uras.

He had to do it, now, before he changed his mind.

He entered the room he kept at the seed house of Tolone and dropped his saddlebags by the door. The chamber was still warm, but the fire had died down into a pile of glowing embers. The chamber’s gloom matched his bleakness.

Not for the first time, Bren wondered what type of weakness had earned his father the curse that plagued his house. He might never know, because his father was dead and so was the rest of his line.

He wasn’t feeling very merciful tonight, a change that was bound to help. He came upon the bed in two strides. There was no point in explaining, no benefit to warning, coaxing or compelling. He was angry—at himself, at his fate. He clutched the hilt of his sword and ripped off the blankets from the bed.

The woman was gone.

He stared at the empty mattress in disbelief. A most improbable line was neatly written on the sheet, a flowing trail of ink on white linen.

Whether it was kindness, courage or charity, I thank you, my lord. Farewell. L.

 

Chapter Nine

Lusielle stole through the gardens under the cover of darkness. The rain had sent most people indoors. The guards posted at the walls seemed few and far between. The Lady of Tolone might be fair, but she didn’t seem particularly concerned about minding her house’s safety tonight.

Lusielle followed the wall’s perimeter. She avoided the main gates, including the back entry by the kitchen that Tatyene, the lady’s bodyguard, had mentioned. Instead, she looked for the small gate that led directly to the orchards. She knew those were common to wealthy homes because before Aponte had servants and slaves, it was she who had delivered remedies and ingredients to his highborn customers.

She found the little gate soon enough, behind the vegetable garden. Better yet, there were no guards in sight. This was strange, but then again, Tolone had a reputation as peaceful. Perhaps the lady didn’t have any enemies to worry about. Or perhaps the huge, heavy bar on the gate was enough protection. After wrestling with it for a few long moments, she managed to lift it. She squeezed through the gate and stepped out into the night.

The countryside was dark and drenched. Thunder rumbled in the distance. The whole world felt as if it was on edge. Quietly, she traversed the orchards and followed a small lane down the hill, stepping past the fenced pastures. A cow mooed in the distance. A herd of goats startled when she came upon them unexpectedly. Or was it the other way around? The sound of the rain falling muffled the animals’ noises, but did nothing to appease her booming heart.

She sought the trees’ protection as soon as she could. The shepherds’ shortcut was exactly where Tatyene said it would be, but Lusielle didn’t take it. Instead, she walked on until she found a stream swelled with new rain. She trailed the creek deeper into the forest, avoiding the suggested route, tripping over the wet rocks and splashing in the mud.

Her senses were on alert. She was prepared for deceit. Sure enough, she spotted the back of the first man hidden behind a dense growth of bushes at the top of the hill. He was facing away from her, stalking the trail. A second man, draped in a dark cowl, crouched next to him. Both men wore common garments, but their swords left no doubt as to their occupation.

Lusielle suppressed a surge of panic. The men could be thieves waiting to ambush an unsuspecting victim, but the likelihood of thieves stalking a shepherd’s track was low, especially when the nearby road offered much wealthier prey.

Nay. These men had not been randomly posted here. They were waiting for someone, most likely her.

But why?

She had suspected the lady’s motives in helping her from the outset. But what could a highborn lady who had it all, including riches and a reputation for fairness, gain from setting up someone as lowly and irrelevant as Lusielle?

Lusielle cursed her ignorance, her inability to come up with a plausible explanation for the violent turn her life had taken. How was she supposed to make sense of the improbable, the impossible and the absurd?

As she moved deeper into the wood, her eyes adjusted to the dark. By the time she crept up the hill along the creek, she spotted more men at the top of the hill. The rain’s relentless pelting helped conceal the sounds of her steps, but she feared they would hear her hammering heart as she skirted past them.

She thought she was clear of the stalkers until a few moments later, when she saw three more men hunkering deep in the forest. Reinforcements, she decided. It seemed like such a waste to send all those warriors after someone like her. She wasn’t armed, and even if she were, she wouldn’t know how to fight them very well.

Concealed behind a cluster of poplars, her eyes narrowed on the three men. One leaned against a tree with his eyes closed. Another one was chewing on something, perhaps a hunk of bannock. The third one traced lines on the wet ground with the point of his massive knife.

By the gods, she recognized the last man!

The broad face, the thick beard, she’d seen this man before, in the kingdom, wearing the king’s colors, although he was not wearing them now. Orell. He was the brute who had come with the king’s magistrate, the one who had taken such great interest in all aspects of her torture, the one who had seemingly enjoyed witnessing her destruction.

What was he doing here? Were Aponte and the magistrate hiding in the forest as well?

Lusielle shivered in fear and yet she couldn’t imagine her portly husband or the delicate magistrate crouching in the dark wood, enduring the elements. More likely, they had sent Orell and his men to finish her off.

Had the lady known? Had her bodyguard Tatyene encouraged Lusielle’s escape only to deliver Lusielle to her pursuers?

They had to know.

Lusielle crouched among the poplars and tried to catch her breath. She felt as witless as she was breathless. Her feet hurt, her back ached and her legs cramped with exhaustion. She had left her sickbed too early. She was weak, hungry and thirsty, and any of those conditions could cause her to blunder. She had almost walked into the snare and yet she hadn’t.

But if she wanted to be free tomorrow, she had to keep going tonight.

She crept away from the men and headed deeper into the forest, looking for a place to cross the brook. She was a good ways upstream when she heard a racket. There was a shout, then she heard the sound of bodies crashing through the woods and the clash of swords. The sounds of struggle stalked her as she stole through the forest. Something—or someone—was running up the trail and engaging the stalkers.

But who would want to come after her?

Only one man.

And why?

So that he can take pleasure in killing you himself.

Lusielle knew without a doubt that the Lady of Tolone couldn’t be trusted and yet her instincts told her to run. She had to get away from this place. Now.

She heard the cry of a dying man closely behind her. For an instant, she wasn’t sure what to do. She ducked behind a fallen tree. Someone leapt over her, running swiftly. A second man attempted the jump, but landed, face first, on the ground. With a feral grunt, he scampered to get up. His little eyes fell on the shadows where Lusielle hid.

Realization dawned on Orell’s dreaded face. A sneer bloomed on his bearded lips.

Lusielle ran, crashing through the woods like a doe in full flight.

The man took up the chase, bellowing for his warriors to join him. "I got her," he shouted.

But he didn’t have her yet.

Perhaps if she were stronger, she would have been able to outrun the men. Perhaps if she knew the terrain, she might have been able to make a swifter escape. As it was, her strength was waning and her breathing had grown ragged and short. To make matters worse, the soggy ground suddenly quit beneath her feet. She balanced at the edge of a cliff. She turned to see the stalkers, inching toward her.

Orell emerged from the tree line. "For a wench, you can run. I’ll give you credit for that. But now it’s time for you to be nice and helpful."

Before she knew it, Lusielle was on the ground, kicking and trying to scream despite the gag the man stuffed in her mouth. Her wrists were roped together and strapped against her belly, and her arms were immobilized by the same rope, coiled around her waist and knotted at her back.

"Up." The man clutched her braid, dragged her to her feet and, bracing her against his body, manhandled her into facing the wooded slope. "You might as well step out where I can see you," he shouted. "Quickly, before I slit her throat."

The serrated edge of a hunting knife tickled Lusielle’s neck. She didn’t gulp, not even when a tall, powerfully built figure stepped out from the forest with his sword unsheathed. She recognized the bloodstained sword first, the curled blade with the black stone at the hilt. She had trouble making out the sword wielder’s face, as half his face was covered in blood, presumably his opponent’s blood because he didn’t seem to be wounded. The other half of his face—where the flushed scar flared like a flaming beacon—was alight with murderous rage.

Lusielle had trouble both breathing and thinking. What was Lord Brennus doing here?

The man at her back barked a command. "Drop the sword."

Lord Brennus flashed his mirthless smile. "Orell, my old friend, have you forgotten the code? You’re in the Free Territory of Tolone. You’re forbidden here."

"Forbidden, you say?" Orell chortled. "There’re always ways to hunt the king’s outlaws. I won’t ask again. Drop your sword or I’ll kill the woman. She’s nothing to me."

The glare the lord directed in Lusielle’s direction was more than a scold; it was an accusation. She knew without knowing that she had gotten him caught. Whoever was after her was hunting more than just her. They were hunting him as well. What foul games were these highborn playing?

Suddenly, Orell scored her back, grinding the hilt of his knife into her healing wound. She flinched but managed to swallow a startled cry.

The lord barked. "Leave her be!"

"I bet you I can make her wail." Orell traced his knife across her belly. "I bet you I can make her suffer even more than you can. Surrender your weapon or watch me start."

The lord dropped the sword.

"I guess he wants you more than you know." Orell signaled to his men, who seized on the lord like crows on scraps. Within a few moments, they had him disarmed with his hands trussed behind his back.

"As soon as the locals spot you, you’ll be detained if not killed outright," the lord Brennus said. "The people of the Free Territories abhor the king’s so-called justice."

"Do you think I’m a fool?" Orell said. "I’ve got a plan, one you won’t like much."

Whatever response the lord gave was smothered under a gag. He managed to kick two of Orell’s men to oblivion, but despite his efforts, he fought against too many, especially considering that his hands were tied behind his back and he no longer had a weapon.

"Allow me." Orell shoved Lusielle into the arms of another brute and hit the lord several times. When he was done, the lord Brennus was bleeding from the nose and barely conscious. Orell and his lackeys dragged him and Lusielle down a slippery track toward the main road.

A hitched wagon waited, hidden among the shadows. The night was dark and the rain continued to fall, but she made out a draft horse and a cart. A long box was strapped to the back of the cart.

Lusielle blinked away the raindrops. One of the thugs was lifting the lid off a wooden coffin. As she was hustled toward it, she wished she hadn’t figured out what it was, because if Orell had an option between bringing in his prisoners dead or alive, he had already made his choice.

 

Chapter Ten

Orell threw Bren into the coffin. His shoulder hit the bottom of the box with a smarting thud. Orell was no gentler with the woman. When she balked, Orell put her out of her senses with a brutal backhand, then crammed her slender body into the tiny space behind Bren. They both lay on their sides, back to back, with their faces shoved against the coffin’s sides.

For all his brutality, Orell wasn’t stupid. He had come up with a sound plan. No one in Tolone would take notice of a humble funeral procession, and travelers were likely to stay away from a coffin.

"Enjoy the ride," Orell said, before he slammed the heavy lid on Bren’s face.

Then he heard pounding, a hammer beating on nails and nails crunching into the wood. Ropes rustled against wood as Orell and his men secured the coffin to the wagon.

Damn the Twins. Bren was livid. He knew better than this. He should have taken an escort, or at the very least, alerted some of his men as to his whereabouts. But he had been careless in his fury, not just because the woman had escaped, but because when he had finally gotten up the nerve to do his duty, she was missing.

Damn Orell.

Damn the woman. What could have possessed her to attempt an addlebrained escape on a night like this?

The cart lurched, and then wobbled into a staggering roll as it zigzagged down a steep trail. Both he and Lusielle sloshed like soggy sacks in the cramped box. Lusielle’s limp body was tucked tightly against his back. She was unconscious but still breathed.

He started working on the gag right away. It was an old trick that Hato had taught him years ago. It entailed clenching and unclenching the jaw and pushing with the tongue. The tongue, Hato used to say, was a most powerful, if underestimated, muscle.

Time to test his theory.

Bren pushed until his face’s muscles were sore, all the while scraping the leather strap against the newly hewn boards at the bottom of the coffin. The pervasive stink of pine resin irritated his lungs. His own scent—damp leather and acrid sweat—permeated the air. A few hours passed by the time he finally managed to dislodge the strap and spit out the gag.

By then, the woman had woken up and gone into quiet panic. She gagged and wheezed, breathing too fast for her own good. Her body shook in a convulsive rigor. He sensed her madness cramming the limited confines of the coffin as her anxiety reached a point from where her mind might not be able to return.

"Panic kills," he told her. "Get a hold of yourself."

In what could have been bitter sobbing or mocking laughter, the woman’s shoulders shook against his back. He wasn’t getting through to her.

"Listen to me," he said intently. "We’re getting out of here. It’s a promise. Do you hear me? I always keep my promises. You and I. We’re going to escape. Do you understand?"

He heard a muted rustling. He had her attention.

"These wretches want us alive," he said, "at least for now. They bored small holes into the sides of the coffin. Press your nose against the holes and breathe."

He felt her head shift.

"That’s right, take deep, even breaths. Good." He paused, and thought about what to say that might calm her further. "We’re going to have to work together. First of all, I’m going to tackle your knots." He scooted down and grappled with the ropes behind her back. "Be patient. They’re tight knots, but I think I can undo them."

Time passed without much progress, but to her credit, the woman held on to her wits. Every so often, he succeeded in loosening one of Orell’s knots. A cold sweat broke out on his forehead, but he kept going. He judged that a good hour had passed before he managed to undo the ropes binding her tied wrists to her waist. Although her wrists were still bound together, she could at least move her hands up and down.

She tackled the gag right away. "It’s off," she reported hoarsely.

"Excellent," Bren said. "Now, I’m going to try to turn around. Bear with me . . . ."

What followed was a feat of will and bodily contortions. His rigid chest plates and his leather greaves didn’t help. He turned his neck first, then his torso, twisting a shoulder, straining his waist, rotating the other shoulder . . . .

"Ouch."

"Pardon me."

"That’s my—"

"Sorry."

Facing up, he knew his body would take up all the space in the box, so he wedged one of his wide shoulders under her head before rotating his legs. His knees scraped against the coffin’s lid. They were sore, entangled and sweating, but at least they were both facing up now.

"Can you reach the ties of my breeches?" he asked.

A pause. "Um, this might not be the best time for that sort of thing."

"What?"

The nervous giggle smothered against his cloak startled him. Had she just tried to jest with him? At a time like this? He let out an uneasy laugh.

"What do you want me to do?" she asked.

"There’s a leather trim at the waist. The leather cords come out of it. Can you find it?"

"You want me to undo the cords?"

"Aye, release the cords and bend down the leather trim. Can you feel the hardening in it?"

"And if I say yes, what else will you make me do?"

He was on to her now. "It’s a pair of little knives, you dirty-minded wench, the only ones Orell and his idiots didn’t find. Can you slide them out of the trim?"

Her fingers worked diligently. Her knuckles brushed against his underbelly. It was strange. He found himself thinking about things that men in extreme danger of dying seldom ponder.

"Here comes the first one," she said, tugging on his breeches until the little blade slid onto his belly.

"Now if you can just stand me moving around one more time . . . ."

She clutched the little blade while he managed to turn on his side again. If she only knew his intentions, she would have plunged the knife in his back. Instead, without need for further explanation, she put the small hilt between his hands and rubbed the ropes around her wrists against the blade.

It wasn’t easy. Groping blindly in the darkness, holding the blade stiffly between his swollen fingers, he was fairly sure he managed to cut her at least a couple of times.

But she didn’t complain. Instead, she kept at it with single-minded determination. A quiet little shriek announced the moment in which the rope gave way. Without prompting, she took the knife from his hands and began slicing through his ropes.

His hands were free shortly thereafter.

"One last time," he said, shifting to his back. She shrunk back as much as the limited space allowed. He braced his hands and feet on the lid and pushed, but the lid didn’t budge.

"What now?" she whispered.

"We wait." He slid the second knife out of his waistband.

"I hate waiting."

"So do I, but it can’t be too much longer now. Riva wants us alive; otherwise, Orell would have killed us earlier. That means they’ll have to stop to feed and water us before morn."

She flinched when the wagon jerked over a particularly deep rut.

"Cramps?" he said.

"My leg."

He reached down to knead her calf with one hand. Her skin was warm and damp beneath his fingers. Her muscles were knotted. His own body was also feeling the effects of the long hours in the cramped box. His rigid chest plates were digging into his ribs. He calculated they had been on the road for at least six or seven hours.

"Better?"

He felt her nod in the darkness.

It was strange, but he took a measure of comfort from having her near. She was so different from what he had expected. She was earnest, resourceful and witty; fragile, but yet somehow reliable. He found himself making space for her, adjusting his body to mold to her softer lines, inhaling the damp version of her feminine scents with something akin to appreciation.

He could feel her heartbeat pummeling against his side, the fear trapped under her mind’s strong will. He didn’t like small spaces either, not since Hato had smuggled him in a trunk out of his father’s house and kept him hidden through some of the purge. But he wasn’t going to think about that now.

He forced his muscles to relax. He had learned long ago not to squander a drop of the vital energy he would need to survive.

"Are you hungry?" she said, groping in the dark.

"Are you thinking Orell will treat us to a nice dinner in a tidy tavern along the way?"

"I might be baseborn, but I’m not daft." She stuffed a few squashed grapes into his mouth, followed by a chunk of stiff ham. "Eat. I might need to rely on your strength."

"Sorry," he mumbled through a mouthful. "I get cranky in tight spaces."

"Word is all highborn are wiseasses."

"Are all baseborn chits as feisty as you are?"

"Only the ones stuffed in tight coffins with arrogant thugs like you."

"Peace, girl." He gulped down the rumpled fare. "You’re brave. If I had to be stuck with someone in a rattling coffin, you’d be my first choice."

"I would’ve gotten away fine if you hadn’t shown up."

"I doubt you could’ve taken on Orell and his goons."

"I wasn’t going to fight them, you fool."

"None of this would’ve happened if you would’ve stayed where I left you."

"And what good would’ve that done me?"

No good at all.

"Are they after me or after you?" she asked.

"They’re after me and therefore, they’re after you."

"You’re not making any sense."

"I don’t expect you to understand."

"My expectations are slightly higher than yours," she said. "Why are they after you?"

"It’s a long story."

"It appears you may have the time to tell it."

Damn his bad luck. The woman was going to be troublesome. Bren had learned long ago that trust was an expensive grant. He was not about to betray Laonia or compromise his hunt in any way.

"Well?" she said.

"Be quiet."

Outside, voices were shouting instructions. The wagon lurched and stopped, until the wheels found purchase and clattered on wood.

"What’s happening?" the woman asked.

"I think we’re coming to a boat," Bren said. "We’re crossing the river."

"The Nerpes?"

"It’s the only one around here that merits a ferry boat."

"Where do you think we are?"

"Somewhere in southern Tolone. It’s the fastest way down the mountains and it’s not heavily trafficked. If I had to guess, I’d say we’re crossing the Nerpes a few leagues short of the Dismal Swamp. Orell is in a hurry to get back to the kingdom."

"Why does he hate you so?"

"Orell?" Bren said. "It’s a highborn thing."

"Would you like to explain?"

"You wouldn’t understand."

"I might not be as dumb as you expect," she said. "Have you two known each other for long?"

"We grew up together in Laonia."

"So you really are the Lord of Laonia?"

"I try to be." When he wasn’t on the hunt.

"Was it something you did to Orell?" she said. "Or was it something he did to you?"

"Do you always ask this many questions?"

"Only when my life depends on the answers."

He had to give it to her. She was a persistent little witch. But Bren was not about to tell her about how nearly nine years ago, after Ethan’s sudden death, Orell’s father had led the rebellion against the rule of the house of Uras. Or how the people of Laonia had risen in defense of the ruling house against the traitors and put down the revolt, or how the mob had hacked Orell’s father into bloody chunks and Orell had fled from Laonia and sworn fealty to Riva.

"I don’t think Orell cares much for my rule," he said instead, hoping to put an end to her inquiries.

"So you think he doesn’t like you because of your politics?"

"Why else?"

"You must be blind like a calf born without eyes."

"Pardon me?"

"Can’t you see? The way he looks at you, the loathing in his eyes? Hatred like that is personal."

She had a mind as sharp as a needle and she didn’t miss a stitch. "I’ll worry about Orell," he said. "He’s my problem."

"He’s my problem too," she said. "What will happen if we can’t escape him?"

"It’ll be a long stay in Riva’s dungeon for me." Not to mention, he thought, a fast descent into chaos for Laonia. "But we’ll get out of here. You’ll see."

"I know you’re supposed to hunt me," she said. "Because of my birthmark."

He felt the lack of air in his lungs for the first time. "Who told you that?"

"Back at the seed house."

"Eleanor told you to run?"

"It was Tatyene, the lady’s bodyguard, who brought it up."

That explained Lusielle’s escape. Eleanor had never been praised for her discretion and Tatyene wouldn’t do anything without her lady’s sanction. He owed Eleanor some gratitude for her patience over the years, but he didn’t appreciate her meddling with his affairs.

"I don’t believe you want me dead," Lusielle said with a conviction that left him reeling.

"You can’t be sure of that."

"Hunting for a mark like mine might be your family’s sport, but if you wanted me truly dead, why did you come after me when I was about to die anyway?"

Is that what Eleanor had told her? That he was hunting her for sport? Bren didn’t know if he was grateful for Eleanor’s fabrications or furious for her plotting. Had she woven the trap all by herself? Or was she playing someone else’s game?

Women. The one crammed in the coffin with him was no dimwit.

"Well?" she insisted.

"Coming after you doesn’t make me any less dangerous to you."

"So you don’t deny the hunt?"

How could he deny the truth? He shrugged.

"Yet you don’t feel dangerous to me."

Her instincts were sorely lacking if she couldn’t feel the danger in him, and yet her honesty was refreshing. He had a dangerous impulse. For a moment, he considered telling her everything: the why, the how, the previous murders, the future’s gloom. But reason prevailed.

He couldn’t betray Laonia.

The wagon rattled violently. He pressed his body against hers to cushion the banging. They jostled against each other like tiles thrown together in a pewter cup. It was a fitting analogy. He was hoping that the death demon wouldn’t turn up at the end of this throw.

 

Chapter Eleven

The man crammed in the coffin with Lusielle wasn’t much for words. Talking to a toad would have bettered her chances to learn something pertinent, let alone helpful. A toad would have been more forthcoming and less irritating as well.

She didn’t give a hoot about highborn and their bloody quarrels. After all, the highborn had been plotting against each other for centuries. But if she was going to escape with her life, if she was going to survive her plight, she needed to understand what the Lord of Laonia wanted and why. Her life depended on her wits.

"Word in the kingdom is that Laonians are warmongers," she said.

A snort. "That’s what Riva would like for you to believe."

"He’s sent away a lot of able men and women to repel Laonian raids."

"Have you considered it could be the other way around?"

"Why would we want to attack you?"

"I’m not having this discussion with you."

How wrong he was. "We’ve heard rumors of a few little skirmishes at the river borders over the years," Lusielle said.

The man’s body tensed in the darkness. "Skirmishes?"

"King Riva always wins."

"Ha!"

"Ha?"

"Do you always believe everything that Riva says?"

"Nobody challenges King Riva and lives."

"Riva rules over a bunch of fools."

"The kingdom’s cemeteries are seeded with his opponents’ tombstones."

"He’s a man, not a god," the lord said.

"And yet he can’t be defeated."

"Of course he can be defeated. My father defeated him in battle twice, thirty years ago and then again twenty years ago. And less than two years ago, I repelled a full scale invasion at the Narrows."

"You did?"

"The tyrant can be defeated. Laonia has seen to that."

Lusielle was hard pressed to believe what the lord was saying, and yet she had to admit that some of what he said made sense. There had been rumors. Thousands of troops had never returned from the river borders. Sons and daughters forsook their mothers for good. Husbands and wives went missing en masse. Food had grown scarce. Even horses had been difficult to find.

Had the king managed to conceal a major defeat from his subjects? Was the Lord of Laonia telling the truth?

She had never heard anyone else speak ill of King Riva, let alone challenge him openly. Everyone she knew was afraid of Riva. Not even the kingdom’s highborn dared to call the king a tyrant aloud.

The Lord of Laonia might be short of words and quick to anger, but these days, a man had to be very brave to speak as he did.

"Is that why the king is after you?" she asked. "Because you speak against him and claim you’ve defeated him in battle?"

"I did defeat him."

"So the king wants to bring you back to the kingdom and silence you in the same way in which he has silenced every dissenter who speaks against him?"

"I suppose."

"Will he order you quartered like young Torkel?"

"Torkel?"

"One of my neighbors, an aspiring painter who lived down the street. He got quartered for painting a portrait of the king without permission."

"Sounds like Riva."

"I heard the portrait was a good likeness. Maybe Riva will spare you the quartering. Maybe your sentence will be more like Marlina’s, the town demented drifter, who likened Riva to a swine during a fit of madness. She, he ordered drowned in a barrel of horse piss."

"Leave it to Riva to make quartering appealing by comparison."

But there had to be more to Riva’s quarrel with the Lord of Laonia, Lusielle thought, trying to ignore her body’s urgent need to stretch, to be free of confinement. The king had gone to great lengths to trap the lord, sending his goons across the river, taking pains to bring him back in secret.

"What do you have that Riva wants?" she asked.

He was silent for a few moments then said, "You don’t give up easily, do you?"

"Is Laonia a rich territory?"

"Some would think so. In good times, precious metals and gems can be mined from the Crooked Mountains. The sturdiest of steeds are raised on the High Steppes. The finest wines are produced from the Hill Country crops. The best white woods can be harvested from Laonia’s Quercus Forests and the sweetest grains grow in the Lake Basin."

King Riva would like all of that, but Lusielle wasn’t daft. The lord had failed to mention Laonia’s greatest treasure, the Lake of Tears, the source of the Nerpes, the site of the sacred spawning and the beginning and the end of the all-important tides. Without the yearlings’ migration, there would be no quickening of the Nerpes. Without the quickening, there could be only hardship and famine.

Since the Goddess’s time, Laonia was the lake’s first and final custodian. Even Teos deferred to Laonia when it came to the lake. Oh, yes. King Riva would love to take on Laonia’s duties, because if he ruled the lake, he could hold the land hostage to his whims and prevail over Teos.

In addition, the king liked to grow his kingdom by annexing his neighbors. There were no Free Territories left on the west shore of the Nerpes. Had it not been for the river, Riva might have overtaken the Free Territories on the east shore a long time ago. Everyone knew the Narrows offered the only viable crossing for an army. Laonia was the plug preventing Riva’s poison from spilling into the rest of the world.

"A foothold," she said. "If Riva can get into Laonia, he’ll have a foothold for conquest."

"Impressive," he said. "All that heat coming from your head . . . ."

She would have hit him if those leather-and-copper plates covering his chest hadn’t posed such a challenge to her knuckles.

"Don’t worry," he said. "Laonians are fierce fighters. We won’t let Riva cross the river."

That was the real reason why King Riva was after Laonia’s lord, because if the king couldn’t defeat the lord in battle, the only other choice he had was to try to end the lordship line and take over Laonia’s charter as the king had done many times before with the territories he had annexed.

But if that was the case, why was Orell keeping the Lord of Laonia alive? Why wasn’t he dead yet?

The highborn code. It was shifty territory, but Lusielle knew that it had been set up to prevent savagery among the bloodthirsty highborn. The code prohibited a highborn suspected of murdering another highborn from appropriating a territory, unleashing Teos’s infamous inquests and imposing stiff penalties on the aggressor, including death and the loss of charter.

King Riva would want to avoid all of that. It was probably the only reason why Laonia’s lord was still alive.

But people disappeared in the kingdom all the time without a trace. Murder, by definition, couldn’t be proven if a body never turned up. And if the Lord of Laonia made it to the kingdom, there was a good chance he would never be seen again.

One other thing. "Don’t you have to be present to renew Laonia’s charter when Teos summons you?" she asked.

"Aye."

"Don’t you have to offer tribute then?"

"Everyone has to pay the tribute to Teos, and that includes your mighty King Riva."

"What happens if Laonia can’t pay the tribute?"

If he would have been a bear, he would have growled. "You don’t think I can meet my obligations?"

"I didn’t mean—"

"We’ve managed every year of my rule so far."

But with him trapped and unable to raise the bounty, it couldn’t be a surety this year. His rule would end. Laonia would lose its charter. Riva would prey upon a world where no one believed the tyrant king could be challenged.

What a frightening prospect for her, who had lived under the king’s rule her entire life and was now a fugitive of the king’s capricious justice; what a grim and hopeless prospect for the Lord of Laonia, for Laonia and for the Free Territories.

"Perhaps it’s fate," he said. "Perhaps the gods are set on ending the rule of the house of Uras."

"You don’t mean that."

"You’re right," he said. "I’ll get to Teos on time. It’s my duty."

And it was obvious to her that he took his duty very seriously.

The cart stopped suddenly. The fake funeral procession came to a halt. Lusielle and the lord fished for the discarded gags in the coffin, stuffed the foul things back into their mouths and tucked their hands behind their backs. Surprise was the only advantage they had. The Lord of Laonia clutched a blade in each fist.

"Here we go," he whispered through the gag. "Are you ready?"

Lusielle braced herself. The lid lifted. Orell hauled her out of the coffin and dropped her against the cart’s railing. Two of Orell’s men were readying to lift the Lord of Laonia when he exploded from the box. Death came quickly for the careless men. The lord’s knives sliced through sinew and flesh with chilling efficiency. Orell unsheathed his sword and launched his bulk against Lord Brennus, calling for his scattered men to join him.

Lusielle spat out the gag and spotted the lord’s weapons piled on one side of the wagon. She lunged for the sword and, unsheathing it from the scabbard, called out, tossing the heavy blade in the air, praying it wouldn’t slice off a finger or a hand.

He caught the sword in midair and deflected Orell’s blow with a block and a thrust. Lusielle bolted over the wagon’s bench, unhooked the brake and grabbed the reins, urging the draft horse into an uneasy trot. The wagon made for an unwieldy load, with the two men fighting in the back, an escort of saddled horses tied to the cart, and three or four warriors in pursuit. Lusielle didn’t allow any of that to stop her.

One of Orell’s mounted guards caught up with the wagon. His sword crashed next to her with a deafening whack. When she dodged his sword again, he leapt from his horse and climbed onto the side of the driving bench. She struck him with the whip, once, twice, three times, then braced a foot on his belly and kicked him off the wagon. She looked back just in time to see Orell, diving headfirst into the mud with a bloody gash on his shoulder.

"Ha!" she egged on the horse. "Go!"

The beast strained to pull the wagon on the muddy road. The wheels sank in the deepening mire. Several arrows struck the wagon. One hummed too close to her ear and hit the bench, pinning her skirt. The angry shouts of Orell and his men kept up with the wagon’s pace. By the gods, they would be on them very soon.

The Lord Brennus pulled up next to her, riding one of the horses that had been tied to the back of the wagon. "Jump!"

Lusielle swallowed a rush of fear and, ripping her skirt free from the arrow, jumped into the front of the saddle. A harsh grip secured her atop the horse. The beast’s powerful muscles gathered beneath her precarious seat. The horse took off, leaving the lumbering wagon behind and taking them out of Orell’s arrows’ reach.

The sun was struggling to rise. A gray fog lodged in the landscape’s hollows as the low-lying road led them through a deepening swamp where the dark waters of the Dismal Bog seeped like black molasses into the mighty Nerpes. The horse had trouble with the sludge. The rain had muddled the trail even more. The thick mire muted the horse’s hooves, imposing an ominous silence in the surreal dawn.

They had made almost two leagues when the horse began to falter. Lusielle turned in the saddle and spotted an arrow in the horse’s haunches an instant before the beast stumbled. She tumbled head over heels into the mud, crashing into a stand of cattails.

She shook off the impact and found her bearings. It took her a moment to clamber back onto the road. The poor beast was sprawled on its side, bleeding out from the arrow wound.

She could hear the lord cursing with the land’s foulest mouth. As she came around the dying horse, he thrashed on the ground, half-buried in the mud. His leg was pinned beneath the animal. Every time he moved, he sank deeper into the mire. Lusielle glanced in the direction they had come. Orell and his men couldn’t be far behind.

"You better get running." Lord Brennus strained to free himself, but he wasn’t making much progress. "They’ll be on us as soon as Orell regains his mount."

He was right. Lusielle started to leave. She had a good destination in mind and a plan to journey there. This could be the only opportunity she might have to escape Orell and Laonia’s lord. She had been listening very carefully during the time they had been trapped together in that awful coffin. She had learned a lot about Laonia, but despite having plenty of opportunities to dispel misunderstandings, not once had the fickle lord attempted to dispute the notion of her death at his hands.

And yet she couldn’t get herself to walk away. She didn’t understand many things about the Laonian lord, but she couldn’t forget that he had freed her once from the fire and a second time from Orell’s clutches. In fact, while it pained her to admit it, she could very well be the reason he was trapped and sinking into a mud pit, in a land where he was considered an outlaw.

And he wouldn’t be able to meet Laonia’s obligations while imprisoned in one of Riva’s dungeons.

Lusielle had lived all her life under the king’s harsh rule. She had experienced the king’s injustices on her own flesh. She understood the dangers firsthand. If she failed to act, she could be condemning all of those brave Laonians, indeed all the people of the Free Territories, to the tyranny of Riva’s reign.

She made up her mind. A debt paid was freedom gained. She would help him now, then she would find a way to part company and continue her journey.

"What are you doing?" he said, when she took a cautious step toward him. "Don’t come any closer!"

"Oops." Lusielle’s leg sank into the mud all the way down to her thigh. She tried to back out, but the mud clung to her leg with astonishing grit. It was thick as mortar and sticky as glue.

Gathering her skirts around her waist, she pulled and tugged until at last, with a sudden slurp, her leg came free. The mud returned her soiled foot, but almost managed to keep her boot. She fished it out with the tip of her toes and rushed to put it on.

Her eyes narrowed on a cluster of exuberant growth visible in the bog beyond the gnarled trees which edged the road.

"You need to go," the lord said. "Orell’s going to be in a foul mood when he catches up with us. He’ll have to keep me alive for Riva, which means he’ll take his anger out on you."

"Throw me your knife," Lusielle said. "Quickly, please."

He unsheathed the hunting knife from his belt and tossed it to her. "Now go."

Lusielle started down the trail, veering off into the swamp, stepping over the slow, flowing moats of dark water meandering through the bog. She ducked under the moss-draped branches of the golden cypresses, avoiding the root’s knotted stumps, and stepped from one quaking pile of moss-covered peat to the next.

The scent of decay filled the air, coating her skin and lodging in her lungs. In her haste, she stepped on a bullfrog. The critter grunted with an offended croak and splashed into the black water.

She found the leather leaf bushes growing low to the ground among a cluster of yellow marsh ferns and mustard sedges. The giant leather leaves were not unlike the ones she used to harvest for their sap in the Little Gray Swamp near the inn where she grew up. Each giant, deeply veined leaf was a good four measures long. True to their name, the leaves were almost succulent in texture and waxy to the touch. The stems, on the other hand, were sharp with thorns, good to make pins but terrible for the hands. Wrapping her fingers in her skirt, she cut out some of the giant leaves and, leaving the milky resin to waste, rushed back to the road.

The man’s stare held both shock and disbelief. "What are you doing back here?"

She could tell by the churned-up mud that he had been thrashing hard, trying to get out. He was now buried down to his waist. Lusielle approached carefully, spreading the first leather leaf over the mud ahead of her. "I think these might help."

"Have you taken leave of your reason?"

"I suppose I have." Lusielle knelt on the first leaf, spreading her weight evenly on her hands and knees. The leaf didn’t sink into the mud, but rather floated over it as she had hoped. "Try not to move."

"You’re going to get yourself trapped!"

"For a mighty lord, you’re an optimistic soul." She put down another leaf and scooted closer, repeating the process several times, until she had laid a path between the solid ground and the sinking man. Scooping handfuls of mud, she dug his legs out from under the horse. "This is where it gets tricky. Can you toss me those ropes without sinking all the way down to your chin?"

He reached down and, grabbing the rope hooked to the saddle, threw it over to Lusielle. "Are you always this stubborn?"

"Can you unclasp your chest plates? Yes? That’s good." She pulled the plated vest over his head and set it aside. Well, at least he could follow directions. "Now, lift your arms, please." She ran the rope beneath his armpits and after tucking in a last leaf between his back and the mud, retreated, balancing her weight carefully on the shifting leaves.

Back on sound ground, she began pulling. The mud pit didn’t yield at all.

"See?" he said. "It’s no use. I’m stuck."

"Patience is to achievement what rush is to defeat." Lusielle heaved. "Are all highborn impatient or are you just short on faith?"

"You won’t be able to handle my weight."

"Don’t be mistaking me for one of your primped-up ladies," she said. "I can lift more than a powder brush to my nose."

"You don’t look very strong to me."

"I once handled a full barrel of seed flour, all three bushels of it, by myself." She heaved again. "True, I had to roll it across the room. It’d be nice if I could roll you, too."

"I am ordering you to go now!"

"You can command all you want, my lord, but don’t thrash." She wrapped the ropes around a tree to enhance her leverage. "And stop fighting the mud. Can you just play slack?"

This time when Lusielle pulled, the mud budged, if only slightly. Slowly, she managed to dislodge the man and heave him onto the leather leaf path. He clung to the ropes with one hand holding on to his sword with the other one. She heaved, straining under his weight, but was determined to bring him in. She settled on a rhythm, a long pull and a short breath, making just a little progress each time.

"It’s working!"

"Of course it’s working." She tugged with all her strength. "You could use a little bit more faith in your fellow humans, my lord. But then again, you can’t trust others very well, can you? After all, you were born higher than the rest of us."

"And what fault do you find with that?"

"That’d be a long list."

"Humor me."

"If you insist." She took a deep breath and, ignoring her aching back, fired the words in between pulls. "Greed. Arrogance. Belligerence. Violence and—"

"And?"

"You are so heavy." She was ready to collapse from the effort. "Too much muscle on your hefty bones."

"Hey!"

"Hush, my lord, this is hard work. I think one more pull might do it . . . ."

As soon he hit solid ground, he turned on his belly and, rising to his feet, disentangled himself from the ropes. Mud caked his body from waist to feet, but not even the exhaustion of thrashing in the mud could slow him down.

"I think I hear them coming." He grabbed her hand and led her away from the road. "We don’t have a chance of outrunning men on horseback. Can you swim?"

"Swim? You don’t mean to dare the Nerpes’s currents, do you?"

"The Nerpes? No, not the Nerpes." He stopped at the edge of the bog. "I mean to cross this."

Lusielle stared at the impassable swamp before her, then at the mud-splattered Lord of Laonia. "Are you crazy? This is the Dismal Bog. Do you have any idea of what’s in there? Perhaps your privileged life has sheltered you from frequenting places like the Dismal Bog—"

"My privileged life?"

"It’s league after league of swamp and mire like you’ve never seen—"

"I’m not an idiot."

"Do you know the stuff that lives in there? If it doesn’t sting you, it’ll poison you, and if it doesn’t eat you, it’ll kill you."

He had the gall to smile. "Have you a better plan?"

"Why on earth would you want to trek through that?"

"To lose Orell, that’s why. He won’t follow us in there, I guarantee it. And because there’s a place on the other side of the bog where I know someone who can help us."

"And will you be able to find your way out of the bog?"

"I can find my bearings anytime, anywhere."

"Mad and cocky."

"It’s either the bog or Orell." He waded until he was knee-deep in the black water and offered a muddy hand. "Are you coming?"

Only the nearing clatter of a mounted party persuaded her to follow him. "These friends of yours better be very helpful."

"A man can only hope."

 

 

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Author Bio

Dora Machado is the award winning author of the Stonewiser series. She is one of the few Hispanic women exploring her heritage and her world through the epic fantasy genre today. She holds a master's degree in business administration and graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a degree in history from Georgetown University. She was born in Michigan and grew up in the Dominican Republic, where she developed a bilingual fascination for writing, a preference for history, and a taste for Merengue. After a lifetime of straddling such compelling but different worlds, fantasy is a natural fit to her stories. She enjoys long and winding walks, traveling, and connecting with the remarkable readers who share in her mind's adventures. She is currently working on her next novel, The Misery Glutton. She lives in Florida with her indulging husband and three very opinionated cats.

To learn more about Dora Machado and her award winning novels, visit her website at http://www.doramachado.com/. You can also email her at Dora@doramachado.com, find her on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/DoraMachado101, or follow her on Twitter @DoraMachado.

TTB title: The Curse Giver

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The Curse Giver Copyright © 2013. Dora Machado. All rights reserved by the author. Please do not copy without permission.

 

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List Price: $24.95 USD

 

  Author News

Author appearance
Friday, July 31st, 2015 at 12:00 EDT
Tampa Bay ComicCon
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Dora Machado, Maria DeVivo and Scott Eder are back again this year at Tampa Bay Comic Con 2015! Representing Twilight Times Books, the authors bring to you the latest in fantasy reading! Stop by their tables in Artist Alley (E19 and E20) and join them as they speak on the Author Panels!

The Curse Giver by Dora Machado is a finalist in the 2013 ForeWord Book of the Year award in the category of fantasy as well as a finalist in the Fiction: Fantasy category in the 2013 USA Best Book Awards.

 

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