Authors: Alexis Morgan
He stepped out into the darkness, relieved to leave the heavy atmosphere of Keirthan's keep behind him for the moment. Tom hadn't mentioned whom he was waiting for; most probably one of the maids had slipped out to spend time with a beau.
Just in case, though, perhaps he would take a stroll through the garden and listen for the mystery person's return. He looked around. The night was still. Maybe it
was safe enough to let Hob out for a while. The poor beast had been confined far too much lately.
Before Kane could return to his quarters to release the gargoyle, he caught a faint sound on the night's air and froze. Someone else prowled the paths that wound through the garden. He remained in the deep shadows under the trees as he studied the area. There, across the way, he caught a hint of movement.
Kane reached out with his senses, detecting a single heartbeat and the slow breath of someone strolling carefully in the darkness, most likely because he lacked Kane's enhanced night vision. The intruder was on the far side of the small clearing and heading in Kane's direction. Any movement on his part now would only draw unwanted attention.
A few seconds later, the unknown person left the shelter of the trees; the moon overhead bathed the clearing in its silvery light, revealing her identity at last. There was no mistaking Lady Theda despite the cloak she wore. Still oblivious to his presence, she stopped in the center of the clearing to push back her hood and smile up at the starlit sky.
Kane could have no more walked away at that moment than he could have quit breathing. The lady obviously had no fear of the night, not with that expression of simple pleasure on her striking face.
He must have made a noise because she gasped and looked right in his direction. “Who goes there?”
If he left without identifying himself, it would only frighten her more. He joined her in the light.
“Kane, my lady. I apologize for startling you. I only sought to enjoy the night air and didn't realize you were out here, too.” He bowed his head slightly. “I will leave you to your walk.”
She moved closer. “Please don't. Surely this garden is big enough for two. I wouldn't mind some company.”
The poor woman must be desperate if she had to
settle for him. He looked past her, not sensing the presence of anyone else nearby. “Where are your ladies?”
“I sent them to bed. They would be most distraught to find out sometimes I walk at night without them. I love them dearly, but at times their need to hover over me is a bit trying.” She gave him a conspiratorial smile. “Please don't tell them I said that. It would hurt their feelings, and they mean well.”
“Your secret is safe with me.”
Theda stared up at him in the moonlight. “Shall we walk together?”
Kane offered her his arm, not sure she would accept it. But her hand immediately settled in the crook of his elbow with an ease that pleased him. He let her decide the direction of both their steps and their conversation. When she began pointing out some of her favorite flowers, he dredged up centuries-old stories from the times he assisted his mother in her herb garden. He shared one particularly vivid memory of when he'd mistaken one of her rare plants for a patch of weeds and pulled them all out by the roots. It had taken him hours to replant them all.
He liked that Theda found his story amusing, knowing how few reasons she had for smiling these days. He hoped that Tom didn't mind staying up for a while yet because Kane was in no hurry to return Theda to the keep. As he finished one tale, he launched into another.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Strolling in the night with the captain of the guard was scandalous, but Theda didn't care. Her reputation was no longer of any concern to her. The need for such worries had ended the day Armel died and his brother's reign of terror had begun. Besides, she liked Kane.
More than liked him, in truth. It had been a long time since she'd felt the stirrings of attraction for a man, but they were definitely simmering now. Perhaps it was the intoxicating scent of the flowers perfuming the night air that made her so daring.
Soon, her official period of mourning would end, and Ifre would auction her off like a prize horse. Once that happened, she would be at the mercy of whoever offered him the highest price.
“It grows late, my lady. I should return you to the hall. I'm sure your friend Tom will worry if you stay gone much longer.” Kane sounded genuinely concerned about her.
She spied one of the clusters of benches that were scattered about the garden. “Would you mind if we sat for a few moments? Then I promise I will go inside.”
He led her over to the nearest one and spread his cloak on the seat, which was damp from the dew. His courtly behavior seemed second nature to him, which made her wonder again how he'd come to be a mercenary. Despite the tales he'd shared with her, his past remained shadowed in mystery.
The bench was long enough for the two of them, but only just. The warmth of Kane's body seeped across the small space between them, making her want to curl in to his strength and let him hold the true darkness in her life at bay.
“Lady Thedaâ,” he started to say, but she stopped him.
She cocked her head to the side to look up at him through her lashes. “I think under the circumstances, you could simply call me by my given name, Kane.”
He frowned but nodded. “We're playing a dangerous game tonight, Theda. Despite the hour, someone might see us. I know for certain that some of the guardsmen will be returning from town before dawn.”
They both paused to listen, but it appeared they still had the night to themselves. At the continued silence, he said, “We have lingered long enough for one night.”
Her heart surged with hope. “So shall we share other nights like this?”
He studied her for several seconds before responding. Was he trying to find a gentle way to refuse her or
fighting his own desire to spend time away from the tensions of the court?
Finally, he looked away. “You should know that I cannot stay here in the city for much longer. I have other commitments that have first claim on me.”
His truth deserved hers in return. “And I have but a short time before Ifre will force me to marry one of his cronies. I'm not asking for anything you cannot give me, Kane, but only a few hours in the moonlight.”
She was glad that the anger in Kane's pale eyes wasn't directed toward her. His hand sought out hers, cradling it with such aching care. “That man is a monster.”
Then why did Kane serve him? She wouldn't ask the question when she might not like the answer. “So we have an agreement? A stolen hour here and there will surely cause no harm.”
“I will meet you here in two nights' time if that's your wish. Now we should return. I will watch from the shadows to make sure you reach the door safely.”
As much as she hated to admit it, he was right. But as she stood, he stepped in front of her, settling the reassuring weight of his hands on her shoulders.
“There is one more thing, my lady.”
His cold anger had changed into something else, something hot and hungry. “What would that be, Kane?”
Then his stern mouth claimed hers with a fierce heat that burned and sizzled in the damp chill of the night air.
ane had never been one to give in to irrational impulses, but he could have no more let Theda walk away without kissing her than he could have stopped breathing. The hunger for her overwhelmed both his good sense and his honor, and he found himself taking what he had no right to want. If Theda had offered even a token protest, he would have stepped back, apologized, and escorted her to safety.
But she hadn't. Instead, as soon as she'd discerned his intentions, she'd smiled.
From the second Kane's lips touched Theda's, he was lost. She tasted of cool moonlight and the sweet spice of night-blooming lilies. He let his hands slide down from her shoulders, following the curve of her back, to settle at her waist. As much as he wanted to continue his explorations, willing or not, Theda was a lady and deserved to be treated as such. She was no wanton to be tussled within a garden, no matter how private the moment might seem.
Her hands fluttered up to circle his neck as he bent closer and deepened the kiss. Her lips parted without hesitation, moaning softly as his tongue swept in to sup deeply on her sweetness.
But even as he savored the way Theda fit in his arms, guilt was already pricking at his conscience. He didn't regret the kiss; he wasn't that noble. But the longer they lingered, even under the cover of darkness, the greater the risk that someone would happen along.
He broke off the kiss and tucked her head against his chest, holding her close and letting his touch say what he couldn't find words for. For her part, Theda melted against him, her curves playing sweet counterpart to all of the hard edges of his body and his life.
“Well, that was certainly unexpected.”
Although he couldn't see the expression on her face, he heard the smile in her words. He pressed a soft kiss to the top of her head. “No regrets?”
She pushed gently against his chest, putting a small distance between them. Reaching up, she caressed the mage-marked side of his face with her hand. “None, other than we had to stop when we did.”
Kane closed his eyes and savored the sweet touch of her palm against his cheek. “A regret I share. Now we really must get you back inside.”
The night air felt far chillier without Theda's body pressed against his, but wisdom had to outweigh desire. He tucked her hand in the crook of his arm again.
“Come. I will see you to the door.”
When they reached the edge of the garden, she stopped. “I will count the hours until we stroll in the garden again, Captain Kane.”
He should tell her no, that this couldn't happen again, but he couldn't bring himself to refuse her. “As will I. Now go.”
She spared another moment to smile and wave at him one last time before knocking on the door. Kane waited until she was safely inside before heading for his quarters. As he walked, he smiled up at the night sky and savored the knowledge that in less than two days he would once again walk in the moonlight with Theda Keirthan on his arm.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
The afternoon sun beat down from above. Restless and unable to settle, Kane circled the small clearing where he'd met up with Averel. They'd scouted the location before entering the city of Agathia for the first time,
knowing they might eventually need a place where they could talk in private. Hob kept pace with Kane, stopping occasionally to hiss at Averel's white dog if it got too close.
The younger knight looked on with bemusement. “You look like death walking, Kane. How many hours a day are you on duty?”
Averel gave him another pointed look. “No, you're not. You're not sleeping enough, or something else is making you tired.”
He tried to ignore his friend's concern, but Averel wouldn't let it go. Kane wasn't about to admit what he'd been up to the night before last or that he hadn't been able to relax since. Not only did he wish to protect Theda's reputation, but if his young friend found out about her, he'd never let Kane live it down.
He was in no mood to be teased. Not about her, especially when his feelings on the subject were so raw. “I said I am fine. Let it go, Averel.”
Instead of backing off, Averel came closer, and his eyes widened in shock. “I swear, Kane, you have the exact same expression on your face as Gideon did on the day we confronted him about Lady Merewen.”
Enough was enough. “By the gods, I said let it go, Averel. Continue at your own peril.”
Kane's hand strayed toward his sword. Averel's dog, trained to defend his master in battle, immediately lunged between them, his hackles up and a deep growl rumbling in his chest. Hob took umbrage at the dog's threat. He snarled and snapped back, his fangs dripping with venom.
“Whoa!” Kane shouted as he caught Hob by the neck and yanked him out of reach at the same instant Averel grabbed his dog by the collar and hauled him back a few steps.
As they both worked to settle their companions, Kane's face flushed with a painful mix of embarrassment
and shame. “I apologize, Averel. My temper is unpredictable today.”
His friend, always quick to forgive, waved him off. “I shouldn't have pushed.”
Satisfied that Hob would behave, Kane closed the distance between himself and his friend. “I'm the one at fault here. This situation is hard on both of us. I shouldn't take my mood out on you.” He stuck his chin out. “If you would care to take a swing at me, I promise not to hit back.”
Averel laughed and gave him a soft tap on the jaw. “Where would be the fun in that?”
Kane sat on a downed log, the tension between them having eased. His bones ached with weariness, but perhaps it wouldn't hurt to talk about the situation.
“My position as captain has gone unchallenged. There are a fair number of good men among the guards. Others follow the duke's example in how they treat the members of his household.”
He stared at his boots as he continued. “I've already drawn Keirthan's attention. If I were to openly object to their behavior, he would see it as a weakness to be exploited, perhaps putting those same people at greater risk.”
Averel entertained his dog by throwing a stick for the misfit to fetch. That didn't mean he wasn't listening to what Kane was sayingâand what he wasn't.
“Does this member of Keirthan's household have a name?”
What kind of stupid question was that? “Yes. And would you sit down? I tire of watching you caper about with that useless dog.”
Averel threw the stick one last time before sitting down. “Keirthan's household is not the only one where servant girls are considered fair game. That doesn't make it right.”
“True.” Kane pulled out his knife and began flipping
it in the air. “But in this case, the females are noblewomen, not servants, including Keirthan's sister-in-law, Lady Theda.”
His friend watched Kane's blade twirling as he absorbed the implications. “And this Lady Theda, she is deserving of better treatment.”
Kane caught his knife and stabbed it into the log. “She is. Unlike Keirthan, she cares about those in her charge. He intends to wed her off to one of his friends as soon as her official period of mourning ends.”
A fact that had Kane wanting to gut not just the duke but also the bastard who would eventually claim Theda as his own. Kane could only imagine what kind of monster Keirthan would choose for her.
“You've developed strong feelings for the lady.”
If Averel's tone had been anything other than gentle, Kane would have gone on the attack again. Instead, he offered up his truth.
“I have known her but a short time, but already she is special to me in much the same way Lady Merewen is to Gideon.”
“And Lady Alina to Murdoch?”
Kane was surprised to find himself smiling. “Who would have thought such a thing could happen to even one of us, much less three at once?”
Averel shuddered. “I can only hope that I am immune to such things. I am much too young to have my heart entangled with another's.”
Not to mention they were all running out of time. The day would soon come when their mission was accomplished and they would return to the river to stand judgment before the Lord and Lady of the River. Regardless of their decision, it would mean the end of the time the five warriors would walk in the world, at least until they were once again needed to stand against evil.
Although the other warriors all held hope each time that the Lady would finally release them from her service, Kane held no such belief. They were too good at
what they did, and evil would always return. Besides, aside from his four friends, no one had ever valued Kane for anything other than his ability to fight. It had given him a purpose in life.
A small voice in his head whispered,
But Lady Theda saw you as a man, not simply a weapon to be aimed at the enemy.
“Averel, I should return before my absence draws the duke's attention.”
“How much longer do you think we should stay? Gideon will want to know.”
“I have yet to find out who is giving aid to Keirthan, but someone is furnishing him with victims. Give me a week and then we'll leave regardless.”
They both headed for their horses. “I'll let the captain know.”
Before Kane could mount up, Averel caught his arm. “Be careful, Kane. I do not question your loyalty to the goddess, but your feelings for Lady Theda cannot help but muddy the waters for you. Now is not the time to lose focus, not when we have so little time left to bring down Keirthan.”
“I have not forgotten where my duty lies, Averel, nor shall I. When the time comes for us to leave, I will ride out and not look back.”
Even if it killed him.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Keirthan paced his office in frustration. Where was Kane? Right now, the connection between them was so faint as to be almost nonexistent. The sigil the captain wore allowed Ifre to track his every move. Kane had to have left Agathia, stretching the range of the magic to its limit.
What business could his captain have outside of the city walls? It was the first suspicious move the man had made since taking over command of the guard. If anything, Kane was doing too good of a job. Ifre had overheard grumblings about the newly instated schedule for
weapons practice and the way Kane had of showing up at odd hours to check on his men.
Ifre himself had been unable to escape the building unnoticed since the day he'd observed Kane beating Gart bloody in a practice match. In fact, if he set foot outside of his office, Kane had a pair of guards waiting to haunt Ifre's every step. He supposed he should be flattered that the captain took his ruler's safety so seriously.
It was damned inconvenient. How was he supposed to slip his latest victims down below with someone watching his every move? The darkness was hungry, demanding to be fed almost constantly now. If he didn't supply it with new blood soon, it might turn on him. Only when it was satisfied did it leave Ifre alone long enough to continue his studies.
He must have missed something in his reading, some detail that would help him strengthen his control over the weapon he'd created. He needed go back to the beginning and start over, comparing his notes to the original texts. Then he wouldâ
A knock at the door interrupted his line of thought. “Come in.”
Sergeant Markus stuck his head in the door. “Sire, Kane has returned.”
Ifre threw his hands up in exasperation. “Don't hover in the doorway like a fool. Come in and make a proper report.”
He waited until the sergeant closed the door before continuing. “Do you know where he was?”
Markus kept his stance relaxed, but all the same, Ifre sensed he wasn't happy to be there. “He left the city on horseback. He was gone for just over three hours.”
Ifre stamped his foot in frustration. “I didn't ask how long he was gone, Sergeant. I asked where he went.”
“I don't know, Sire. I made discreet inquiries of the guards at the gates, and all they could tell me was that he rode out alone and returned the same way.”
“Did anyone else leave around the same time?”
Like someone who might be plotting against Ifre. He hadn't forgotten about the mysterious allies who had defended both Lady Merewen and Lady Lavinia.
“Only a young troubadour, but he left by a different gate and returned much sooner than did Kane.”
Interesting. “This troubadour. What do you know about him?”
“Only that his name is Averel and that he arrived in the city within days of Kane. From what I hear, he draws a goodly crowd for all of his performances.”
“If you learn more, report directly to me.”
Markus bowed and backed toward the door. “Shall I tell Captain Kane that you are looking for him?”
There was a gleam in his eyes that told Ifre that the sergeant wouldn't mind seeing his new captain taken down a peg or two. “No. I'll send for him later. You may return to your duties, Sergeant.”
When he was gone, Ifre sat back in his chair and stared at the ceiling. It was quite a leap in logic to assume it was anything other than a coincidence that the troubadour and Kane both picked today to ride outside of the city walls. Was it significant that they'd both arrived in Agathia at around the same time?
He'd let the matter go until he had more information. Once Markus reported back to him, he'd decide if the matter deserved any further action. Later, after he met with his petitioners for the day, he'd take a stroll through the hall and look for Kane.
It might prove interesting to see if the man mentioned his time outside of the walls on his own. Until then, Ifre would spend the rest of the afternoon studying potential suitors for Lady Theda's hand. He smiled at the thought. Once he pared the list down to the final few, he might even let her review his choicesânot that he'd allow her to make the final decision.
It all came down to power and money. She would go to the one who would pour the most gold into Ifre's
private coffers. Half of Theda's personal wealth seemed like a fair price. For a moment, he even considered taking her to wife himself. What fun it would be to strip her lands of everything of value.