Authors: Alexis Morgan
Kane ended the battle with one stroke. It was a quick kill, although Kane doubted the man would be grateful for the small mercy. After all, dead was dead.
Kane murmured a prayer for the merchant and
grudgingly added a shorter one for the dead guard. As soon as he quit speaking, he caught the sound of voices in the distance. They were moving in this direction. Kane froze when he made sense of what they were saying.
“Captain, where did you go?”
A second voice asked, “Where did he disappear to this time?”
“Most likely into an alley to take a piss.” The speaker sounded disgusted.
Kane ducked farther back into the shadows, debating his limited choices. Just as he'd feared, the captain hadn't been alone. If his friends found Kane standing over their dead leader, more would die in that alley.
It would be but a minute, maybe two, before the guardsmen reached the alley. He couldn't count on them simply passing by, and it was his misfortune that the alleyway came to an abrupt end at a high wall. After studying the two bodies, Kane made his decision. Apologizing to the merchant's spirit, Kane quickly rearranged the bodies and the weapons. He retrieved the merchant's weapon and closed the dead man's fingers around the grip.
Then he wiped the captain's blade clean and sheathed it, making it look as if the merchant had assassinated the guard with no provocation. Then Kane rushed to the street and waved his hands to attract the attention of the three guardsmen searching for their leader.
“Help! I tried to stop him, but it was too late! Captain Bayar has been murdered!”
Unlike their leader, these three were sober and smart enough to approach Kane with swords drawn and a great deal of suspicion.
Two of them pinned Kane against the wall and stripped him of his sword while the third investigated. It didn't take him long to assess the situation. When he rejoined his friends at the mouth of the alley, he grabbed Kane by the throat, choking off his air.
One of the others glanced toward the alley. “Sergeant, is it true? Is the captain dead?”
The man jerked his head in a quick nod and then leaned in close to Kane's face. “When I let you breathe, start talking. Tell me everything that happened. If I believe your story, you get to live. For now. If I don't, you might want to end your explanation with a prayer for an easy death.”
He tightened his grip. “Nod if you understand me and what's at stake.”
As one of the goddess's avatars, it went against Kane's nature to surrender without a fight, but he was playing the role of a mercenary down on his luck. Pretending a fear he didn't feel, he bobbed his head and managed to whisper, “I understand.”
“Good. Mayhap you're smarter than you look.”
The guard dropped his hand and retreated a step. Kane jerked his hands free of the other two fools and rubbed his neck as if he were in pain. The action bought him a few seconds to organize his thoughts.
He decided to throw the dice and see where it got him. “I had a drink with Captain Bayar, and he mentioned the possibility of a job. I stopped to use the privy and was supposed to catch up with him.
“By the time I got here, he was dead. I never heard the other man's name, but Bayar was already down and wounded. He obviously hadn't even had a chance to draw his own weapon. The merchant was standing over him with a bloody sword and stabbed Bayar a second time.”
Kane drew another breath and finished his hastily assembled tale. “I rushed forward, hoping to block the blow, but I was too late. When the crazy bastard came at me next, I killed him.”
There. His explanation covered all the observable facts. He waited to see if these three believed him or not. If they didn't, there'd be another fight, although he really hoped it wouldn't come to that. There was no telling how the duke's guards would react to finding four of their own dead in one night.
Kane had no doubt of the outcome of the possible fight. These fools might be well trained by their standards, but they'd never faced one of the Damned in armed combat before. Finally, the sergeant glared at Kane and then at his two companions. He pointed at the one on the right.
“Corporal, fetch the rest of the men and bring them here along with something to carry the bodies on.”
As the corporal took off running, the sergeant told the third guard, “Bring a pair of lanterns so I can see better what happened back there.”
Then he turned his attention back to Kane. “You stay right where you are. Try to leave and I'll gut you like a pig. If your story holds water, we'll give your sword back. I'm Sergeant Markus.”
“I'm called Kane.” He leaned back against the wall, crossing his feet at the ankles. “I've got no place to be. Let me know when you've made up your mind.”
Even knowing Kane didn't have his sword, the guard didn't turn his back until he was halfway down the alley. Kane smiled. Maybe the man was smarter than
For now he would wait to see if he'd taken his first step toward infiltrating the duke's inner circle.
e need her.”
“Are you certain?” Murdoch glared across the table at Gideon as he waited for him to defend his decision.
Normally he would accept his captain's opinion without question. Gideon had led their small band of warriors wisely and well. The sole exception had led them right to this point in time, with all five of them damned to an endless cycle of bloody battles alternating with long periods of time sleeping under the river.
Gideon rubbed his temples and briefly closed his eyes. When he opened them again, his words conveyed his own reluctance, as if he needed to convince himself as much as Murdoch. They'd all been in the pasture trying to calm the horses when Duncan and his lady had come charging into the keep just as the enemy had attacked. Lavinia had wielded her own powerful magic to block the blasts of destructive power Duke Keirthan had sent their way. At the same time, Duncan had shielded everyone else from harm, using a spell Lavinia had taught him.
Gideon was struggling to come to terms with all that had happened. They all were. “You saw what happened out there, same as I did. If Lady Lavinia hadn't been there to intervene, we would have all died. She almost did.”
Murdoch frowned as he nodded. “True, but she's Keirthan's blood kin. Could that connection have led his attack right to our doorstep?”
Duncan had remained quiet until that point. He surged to his feet and slammed his hands down on the table. “Murdoch, I share your mistrust of magic, but do not accuse Lavinia of being in league with her brother. Her honor is above question. I stake my own upon that being true. She saved every one of us from the duke's attack.”
Murdoch wasn't ready to concede the point. He aimed for speaking reasonably but wasn't sure if he succeeded. “But the goddess forbids the use of dark magic. How are we to know if the source of her power is any different from his?”
Duncan's expression went flat. To a stranger he might have looked bored, as if the conversation no longer interested him. Murdoch knew better. So did Gideon. The captain was already up and moving, hoping to provide a buffer between the two men.
Lady Alina put her fine-boned hand gently on Murdoch's thick wrist. Her soft touch was enough to render him helpless to move. Meanwhile, Gideon convinced Duncan to sit back down even though the man would clearly prefer to continue the discussion with his fists.
Once they were all seated again, Gideon took charge of the conversation. “Duncan, tell us what you learned while you were at the abbey. Start from when you left here. Leave out nothing, even if the details seem inconsequential. Once we've heard the entire story, we will better understand what happened out there as well as the source of Lady Lavinia's power.”
Then he shot Murdoch a hard look. “Agreed?”
He'd listen, but that didn't mean he had to like it. The goddess's disapproval of all kinds of dark magic had been one of the axioms they'd lived by since entering her service. But this time, they'd already accepted Lady Merewen's special gift with horses. Now Duncan was wanting them to accept Lady Lavinia's gift for combat magic. She claimed she'd merely shielded them from Keirthan's attack, but they'd all seen what she'd done. What was worse,
she'd taught Duncan how to build a magical construct he called a ward.
Magic was magic, and Murdoch hated it all.
However, Duncan had been a good friend for centuries, and he owed it to the man to at least listen. He met Duncan's gaze and slowly nodded, hoping he understood that Murdoch's anger was aimed at the situation, not at Duncan himself.
Duncan nodded in return and began speaking. He began with the moment he'd first felt Lavinia's presence, long before he'd actually reached the abbey. From there, he explained Keirthan's attacks on Lady Lavinia and the abbey where she was acting as the abbess.
A ripple of shock circled the table when he revealed the Lady of the River had spoken directly to Lavinia. A second wave swept through when Duncan admitted that he'd almost succumbed to the hunger for the power magic could give him, but that he'd stepped back from the precipice at the last moment.
He brought them full circle back to the attack they'd all survived out in the pasture. An uneasy silence settled over the room as they absorbed all the information they'd just been given.
Gideon broke the silence. “Are you all right?”
Leave it to the captain to be more worried about his men than he was the situation, Murdoch thought to himself.
Duncan offered him a weary smile. “I'll be fine after some food and rest. It's a relief to be here because I'm worried about what Ifre Keirthan will do now; he won't take defeat well. This is the third time Lady Lavinia has thwarted him, the fourth if we count destroying the talisman one of our pursuers was carrying.”
He glanced toward the door. “And I'm worried about the effect projecting all that power will have on Lavinia. It almost killed her.”
Duncan paused as his face went pale. “No, it did kill her. She awoke saying the Lady led her back to me.”
He took a long drink of wine and looked first at Gideon and then at Murdoch. “I don't ever want to see her like that again. But how do I protect her from something that comes flying across the sky with no warning? What good is my sword against an enemy I can't see?”
There was no easy answer to that question, and they all knew it. Once again, Gideon took charge.
“You've given us all a lot to think about, and we'll all do a better job of that after a good night's sleep. Tomorrow morning will be soon enough to start making more plans.”
“Murdoch, check in with the guards and let them know to send for me if they notice anything at all unusual during their watch. After that, turn in for the night. I want all of us rested in the morning. I plan to ask Lady Lavinia to join us. We need to better understand what she can and cannot do with her gift. Perhaps she has suggestions about reinforcing our defenses, as well.”
For the first time since the meeting started, Duncan looked happier. “I will tell her.”
He walked out of the room without another word. Murdoch stared at the closed door.
It was the first thing Alina had said since they all filed into the library to talk about the day's events. She gave Murdoch's arm a soft squeeze.
“None of you are accustomed to letting your hearts direct your actions, but obviously your goddess approves of Duncan's involvement with Lady Lavinia. And clearly we're going to need her as an ally when we make a stand against the duke.”
Then she rose to her feet. “Now, if you'll excuse me, I'll check with Ellie to review the menus for tomorrow.”
When she reached the door, she smiled directly at Murdoch. “Just so you know, Shadow is in my room. You might want to stop by to check on her.”
There was a hint of heat in those soft gray eyes as she spoke. Several days ago, she'd invited Murdoch to share
her bed, but he'd been called away. Was this her way of letting him know that invitation still stood?
Please, gods above, he hoped so. “I will come as soon as I speak to the guards.”
“I look forward to it.”
Then she swept from the room, taking his last coherent thought with her. When Gideon laughed, Murdoch glared at his friend.
“You find something amusing? Because as tired as I am, I think I can still find the strength to teach you some manners.”
All right, maybe he couldn't, but he'd give it his best effort. Besides, what energy he did have he hoped to put to better use with Lady Alina.
Fortunately, Lady Merewen intervened. “Gideon, be nice. The man is clearly exhausted. So is Duncan, not to mention Sigil. Save your teasing for a time that's more appropriate.”
Then she gave the captain a look that was all too similar to the one Alina had given Murdoch. “We've all had a trying day and should retire early. Right now I need to see how the horses are faring after the attack.”
When she left the room, Gideon sighed and shook his head. “Did you think we'd ever meet women who could wield such power over us? Besides the goddess herself, of course.”
The last of Murdoch's bad mood faded away. “No, I didn't. We'll know that the world has truly turned upside down if the same thing were to happen to Kane.”
They both laughed over that thought. “Any word from him or Averel as yet?”
Gideon shook his head again. “No, and I don't expect to receive word for a while. They won't send the dogs until they have something to report.”
He settled back in his chair. “Now that I've heard Duncan's story, tell me what you saw. How did Sigil do? Any worries about him?”
Murdoch reached for his wine. “None. In truth, the only reason we reached Duncan in time was that Sigil sensed something was wrong. We abandoned our camp in our rush to find him, Lady Lavinia, and the little girl Sarra.”
He ran through the events in his mind. “Sarra also carries the taint of magic, although you'd have to ask Duncan more about the nature of it. She's the one who cried out that we needed to get to the horses before they were killed.”
Gideon put his hand on Murdoch's shoulder. “I'll add that to the list of things to talk about tomorrow. For now let's see to the guards and call it a day.”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Time dragged. What was taking Murdoch so long?
Surely he didn't doubt his welcome at her door. But then, Alina had her own reasons for being nervous about what they had planned. After all, until her husband's death, he was the only man she'd been with, and Fagan's brutality had left her terrorized every time he'd demanded she share his bed.
While waiting for Murdoch, her elderly maid helped her change into a nightgown and let her hair down. After Magda left, Alina added wood to the fire and turned down the bed.
It was another hour before the knock at the door finally came.
“Alina, I'm here.”
She swung the door open, relieved that the moment had finally arrived. “Come in.”
“I'm sorry if I kept you waiting, but I wanted to wash the trail dust off before I came to you.”
She should have thought of that. “I wish I'd known. I would have had the servants bring the tub in here.”
But then the image of helping Murdoch bathe had her blushing. It wasn't as if she hadn't seen a naked man before. In fact, she'd seen all of Murdoch when she'd nursed
him back to health after he was wounded. Though that wasn't at all the same as the intimacy of a wife assisting her husband with his bath.
Not that Murdoch was her husband, but he would be her lover.
Oh, but how to begin?
In her marriage, her husband had always dictated the details of how and when.
His stern mouth spread in a slow smile as he reached out to trace her cheek with a single fingertip. “I can only imagine the thoughts racing through your mind right now. Upon my honor, Alina, I will go as slowly as you need me to and only as far as you are willing to go.”
The sweetness of his touch combined with the raw hunger in his eyes gave her the courage she needed. Taking his hand in hers, Alina tugged him toward the bed.
“Murdoch, I want it all.”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
From the angle of the light streaming in through the window, the sun had already been up for several hours. No doubt everyone else was awake and about, but Murdoch refused to feel guilty about stealing a few precious hours in Alina's bed, in her arms.
Last night had beenÂ .Â .Â . Truly, he had no words to describe it. All he knew for certain was that he'd never experienced anything like it before. Right now his lady lay cuddled at his side, her hand over his heart, her leg over his.
Her pale blond hair spilled across his arm and shoulder in a tangle of silk. He loved the feel of it against his skin. Loved the feel of her against his skin.
His desire stirred to life again, along with the impulse to pick up where they'd left off just before dawn. He'd taken her three times during the night, and she would probably appreciate some time to recuperate. He shifted
slightly away from her, hoping that little bit of space would help.
His movement woke his lover. She blinked up at him. Her eyes widened and her mouth opened in a circle of surprise. Had she thought it was all a dream? Or mayhap hoped that he would have slipped out of her bed to go skulking back to his own? He hadn't thought to ask her.
“Should I go?”
She scooted toward him, closing the small gap he'd just created. “Only if that's what you want. I mean, I'd understand.”
Damn her late husband all over again! Murdoch had spent the night worshipping this woman with everything he had, and yet she still worried she might not have pleased him.
“If I could figure out a way to manage it, we wouldn't leave this bed for at least a week, Alina.”
He took her hand and led her down to the rock-solid proof of how much he still wanted her. To his delight, she gripped his cock and gave it a promising squeeze. He had to stop her before he lost all control.
“Alina, you might not want to stoke that fire again.”
“Why not? Don't you like it when I do this?” She repeated a slow stroke. “Or this?” she asked as she cupped his sac with a firm squeeze.
His head kicked back at the jolt of pleasure. “I like it a little too much. Keep that up, and I won't be able to stop.”
Instead of retreating, she slid up on top of his body, settling her core right over his cock and pressing her sweet breasts against his chest. Then she wiggled up to kiss him.
He rolled to the side and trapped her arms and legs with his, immobilizing her for the moment. “Sweetling, I want you so badly that I ache. But given what all we did
last night, I'm afraid you'll be uncomfortable and won't say anything.”