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Authors: Ann Gimpel

A Matter of Honor

BOOK: A Matter of Honor
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A Matter of Honor
by Ann Gimpel
Copyright © Ann Gimpel, 2013

All Rights Reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without prior written permission of the publisher.

This e-book is a work of fiction. While references may be made to actual places or events, the names, characters, incidents, and locations within are from the author’s imagination and are not a resemblance to actual living or dead persons, businesses, or events. Any similarity is coincidental.

Musa Publishing
633 Edgewood Ave

Issued by Musa Publishing, Aprl 2013

This e-book is licensed to the original purchaser only. Duplication or distribution via any means is illegal and a violation of International Copyright Law, subject to criminal prosecution and upon conviction, fines and/or imprisonment. No part of this e-book can be reproduced or sold by any person or business without the express permission of the publisher.

: 978-1-61937-577-2

Head Editor: Aimee Benson
Editor: Cathey Spies
Artist: Kelly Shorten
Line Editor: Helen Hardt
Interior Book Design: Cera Smith

itches and cats have nine lives.

The river caught Melis Andresen and spun her around, pulling her under. Plumes of red eddied next to her, dark against the murky water, then vanished into the river’s current. A distant part of her mind clamored,
that’s my blood.
Strike out for shore. Do it now while there’s still some left.
The same thought repeated in her brain,
do it it now,
but she couldn’t force her arms or legs into motion.
It’s already too late
, an insidious inner voice whispered.

“No,” she rasped, shocked by how weak her voice was. “Damn it. It’s not too late. I have things to do yet.” Pulling her body through the water was excruciating. Melis gritted her teeth so hard they ached. Muscles took over where her mind stopped. Her legs kicked against the weight of the water pulling against her. Somehow, she got into a ragged rhythm, but even that required constant attention. Heavy clothing dragged her down. The river’s current was strong—almost stronger than she could handle in her present physical state.

A snag rose out of the turbulent water just out of reach—part of a huge logjam. If she could just catch hold of it, she might be able to work her way to shore using the logs for purchase. A shudder ripped through her, making her teeth rattle uncontrollably. Now she’d begun moving…the cold enveloped her. She hadn’t noticed how close to river temperature her body had fallen until she started fighting so desperately for her life. Ironically, the cold water was likely the only reason she was still alive. It slowed the rate she was bleeding from her wounds.

Pay attention to now. It’s my only chance.

Melis forced her eyes to focus. She was closing on the snag fast. She’d have to work hard or she’d miss it by a good five feet. Gasping, panting, and moaning, Melis drove her limbs to move faster. She shook her head to avoid inhaling any more of the polluted water.

An ungodly shriek rose from deep inside her, trumping the rush of the water. She flung herself toward the snag and closed her fingers over it. She hadn’t counted on how slippery the bark would be and nearly lost her grip. Sheer will saved her—and a foot she jammed into something underwater. Pain ratcheted up her leg.
Don’t think about it

Clinging to water-slick logs with both hands, Melis wanted to howl her victory to the skies, but the logjam began breaking apart. She had to hurry or she’d be right back where she started—a foundling in the current. She wouldn’t have the strength for a second round if she lost this one. Pulling herself onto the rolling logs, she eyed deep gouges on her arms and winced.

Get moving. Check the damage later.

A different inner voice added,
do whatever you have to. Make sure you have a later.

Time slowed. The sun—a pale November presence—barely moved in the sky. Melis dragged herself to safety, clambering from log to log. Under the burden of her weight, more than one piece of wood slipped out of her control and into the current. Her heart quickened when she wasn’t certain she’d find another in time. Finally, her feet settled on the river bottom. She staggered upright, unutterably grateful the water only came to her waist. The logs tempered the worst of the current as she slowly and cautiously made her way to shore.

Her vision wavered; her head pounded. Melis collapsed face down on the rocks and sand of the riverbank. If she didn’t shuck her soaked clothes and find a way to get warm, all her efforts would be for nothing. Reaching up, she patted her back.
Yessss…I still have my kit.

Using her arms for leverage, she pushed herself to an awkward seated position and stripped off the voluminous skirts that had almost been the death of her in the river. She tugged at her ruined satin jacket and padded winter underclothes. The thick undergarments had probably saved her life by providing a precious layer of protection from the knives. Shaking straight, dark hair out of her face, Melis eyed her battered body. Many of the knife wounds were shallow. The cold water had worked a small miracle and sealed the cuts so blood merely trickled from the worst ones.

Hoping infection wouldn’t set in from the polluted water, she yanked her kit sack open and felt around for her things. Her skin was still so numb she barely felt the pricks from her bone suture needle as she stitched up the worst of her injuries. Once finished with immediate medical needs, she took blade in hand, cut some of her underskirt into strips, and used them to bandage her wounds.

She pulled out her cloth bags of herbs.
. The hyssop and comfrey would be worthless after all that time in the river. An herbal decoction to fight infection would have to wait. She was too tired to hunt down fresh plants.

She struggled with the knots in her leather bootlaces, gave up, and sawed through them with the steel blade, wincing because she was probably ruining its edge. Once she’d removed her stockings, she stuffed her feet back into her boots, got up, and walked into the nearby forest, intent on finding something dry enough to burn.

She gathered tinder and arranged it carefully between three rocks. Next came larger pieces. She set those off to one side. When she thought she had enough fuel to last the night, Melis extended a hand and chanted to bring fire. Nothing happened. After another failed attempt, she pulled her flint from her sack.

Soon the flames from her fire crackled. She held out her hands, grateful for its warmth. If she could find shelter, food, and dry clothing, she might make it. Exactly what she’d do or where she’d go wasn’t clear. She couldn’t go home

Melis didn’t want to be a healer—or a witch—anymore. That was why the mob had tried to kill her. She snorted.
As if I could walk away from the magic running through my blood. No more than I could change my hair or my eyes.

Egged on by the Church, poor, ignorant souls without a dram of magic had taken matters to hand. They’d firebombed coven gatherings and sought out suspected witches, hanging them without benefit of a trial. The Austrian government had turned a blind eye. No one ever championed witches.

Although she had taken a circuitous route through little-used Viennese side streets earlier that day, a mob had waylaid her walking home from her secret abortion practice. Thank God she’d been carrying her medical supplies along with a few other items in a valise she’d designed to wear across her back. Afraid she would be cut off from either her home or her office, she was never without her kit of medical tools and herbs.

Melis shook her head; sadness washed through her. She swallowed hard around a thickening in her throat. Home, with all her precious things, was definitely out. The anti-witch thugs had finally found her.

Not much I can do about that right now.

Weariness made her limbs heavy. Her eyes fluttered shut. Forcing them open, she piled more wood on the fire. She could afford to let herself sleep for a bit, but she needed the fire to keep animals at bay. Wolves roamed these woods—so did coyotes. A woman alone ran other risks as well. Once she’d rested, she could use magic to protect herself against a single assailant or maybe even two. Right now, she was as vulnerable as a newborn. Sending a prayer to the goddess to see her safely through the coming night, Melis let sleep take her.

Music thrumming through the darkness woke Melis with a start. Eyes wide and staring, she scrabbled for her clothing and dragged the sodden lumps of fabric closer. The damp night air had obliterated whatever good the fire might have done drying them. Because she couldn’t stand to have the wet garments next to her skin, she made do with her shift and tattered petticoats. They were close to dry since she’d kept them on.

She wrapped her arms around herself and clamped her teeth together so they wouldn’t chatter and give her away. The fire was all but out. That was probably the only reason whoever was singing and playing some sort of stringed instrument hadn’t found her. Melis made obeisance to Gaia and her Earth spirits and asked for strength. She took a wary breath and reached for her magic. Gratitude made her dizzy with relief. Her magic hadn’t fully recovered, but she could access enough to protect herself. She wove strands of fire and earth together for warmth, careful not to draw too much energy—no point in attracting attention.

No self-respecting Christian would be playing music and singing out of doors in the middle of the night. Whoever she shared the riverbank with had to be like her. Not all magic wielders worked the good side of the street, though. Those who indulged in the Black Arts would be just as quick to kill her as the crowd yesterday morning. She pinched the bridge of her nose between thumb and forefinger and considered her options.

A branch crackled...then another. Melis froze. Someone was walking toward her. Another few steps and they’d surely see the glow from what was left of her fire. It was too late to throw water or dirt on it. She wished she’d done that the moment she’d been jarred awake. Her eyes darted toward the thick foliage. It would make a horrible racket if she tried to shelter under it. Because it was the only avenue left, she darkened the air around her and blended into the night, invisible as a ghost.

“You needn’t waste power. I know you’re there.” The voice was deep, definitely masculine. He spoke with the cultured tones of the gentry.

She loosed her spell and thought about draping her soggy jacket around her naked shoulders. Melis settled for crossing her arms over her chest. A tall man stepped out of the dense forest and strode to her fire. Barking a word in demonspeak, he pointed to her fire pit; flames jumped skyward. She welcomed the sudden heat, but her muscles were still taut with apprehension.

The stranger chucked wood on top of the embers and turned toward her. Coppery hair was pulled into a queue and doubled under. His face was clean-shaven, all sharp bones and angles. Blue eyes held mini-reflections of the fire. As his voice had suggested, he was dressed in a well-cut dark linen suit with a black woolen overcoat. A pale shirt and blood red cravat showed through the open front of his coat.

“What happened to your clothes?” He peered more closely at her. “And who did that to you? Those wounds look fresh.”

Melis drew in a deep breath. Should she tell him the truth? He already knew she had magic. To try to deny it at this point might anger him. She sidestepped his questions by asking one of her own. “May I borrow your coat?”

Finely sculpted brows raised in surprise. He shrugged it off his shoulders and handed it to her. “There. Now will you answer my questions?”

“Why do you want to know?” She slipped her arms into the wool already warmed by his body. A spicy, musky odor enveloped her. She gathered the soft garment close about her, reveling in its fine weave…and its masculine scent.

“Because it makes a difference what we do with you.”

She looked around, seeing nothing but blackness. “Who are ‘we’?”

He shook his head, looking annoyed. “Let’s start with who hurt you.” He hesitated. “I can drag the truth out of you, woman. You won’t like it much.”

A tiny muscle danced under one of his eyes. He reminded her of a tightly coiled spring, radiating menace. His hands balled into fists. She shrank away. Fear twisted her guts, making them burn. Something probed her mind, digging sharp edges behind her eyes. Melis sprang to her feet and threw up wards, giving them all she had. She wouldn’t be as defenseless eye to eye with him. Tall for a woman, she squared her shoulders, faced him, and prepared to fight to the death.

Something crossed his features. Surprise, perhaps, mingled with a grudging admiration. He quirked a brow; the corners of his mouth twitched into half a smile. The persistent hammering in her skull receded. He held a hand toward her. “I am Gerald Brunner.”

Melis watched him warily and infused compulsion into her next words. “What are you doing out here?”

The half-smile split into a broad smile showing very straight, white teeth. “I thought that was my question. I belong to a secret society. This is where we meet.”

“What secret society?” She took a step back, keeping a close eye on the fire. She didn’t want to add burns to her other injuries.

Gerald waggled a finger at her. “Uh-uh. You should know better than to ask questions that won’t be answered.”

“So should you,” she retorted tartly.

His eyes narrowed as if he were trying to decide something. When he met her gaze again, he said, “You’re hurt and alone. I think you’re in some sort of trouble. And I know you have magic.”

Melis felt the sting of sudden tears. There’d been kindness in his words. It had been so long since anyone was kind to her. She stifled an urge to throw herself against him and sob like a child. She turned away to get her emotions under better control. A hand on her arm stopped her.

“Come with me. Let me help you.”

“And what would that cost me?” She heard the venom in her tone and wondered when she’d become so bitter.

“That, my dear, is entirely up to you.” A speculative gaze washed over her before he hooded his eyes. “It’s not every day I stumble across a half-naked woman—with power as strong as my own.”

“What about your fellows?”

“I will go back to our circle, tell them I found no one, and finish tonight’s ritual. I will return for you before the dawn.”

“What if I’m not here?”

He furled his brows. “Then you’ll have to figure out some other way of returning my coat.”

BOOK: A Matter of Honor
6.06Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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