Authors: Alexis Morgan
The first step would be to figure out the best plan of attack. She rose to her feet, ignoring her fear and concentrating on what had to be done.
On her way out, she once again paused to offer Hob the comfort of her touch. “Hob, tell Kane to hang on. We'll be coming for him soon.”
And although she was raised in a different faith, she added a prayer. “Dear Lady, please watch over your warrior and give me the strength to do what needs to be done. He deserves better than to die at the hands of a coward like Ifre.”
Maybe it was only her imagination, but as she stepped out into the gathering darkness, she could have sworn she heard a woman's voice whisper in the back of her mind,
“That he does, Lady Theda, but hurry. Time grows short for all of the Damned.”
ideon jerked upright, gasping for breath. His chest was covered in chevrons of shallow cuts, and his blood poured down his rib cage to drip on the marble surface beneath him. He spread his hands on his chest in a futile attempt to stanch the flow of his life's blood.
He struggled to make sense of the confusion. His skin was hot to the touch, but whole and dry. Gideon held his palms up to his eyes to make sure. No blood. No open wounds. No marble surface either, but a soft mattress. Had it all been a dream? If so, he'd never experienced one so real.
Merewen stirred and blinked up at him sleepily. “Is everything all right?”
“I don't know.”
Before he could explain, there was a knock at the door. “Gideon, are you awake?”
Hearing the worry in Murdoch's voice deepened Gideon's own growing sense of dread. “Stay here, Merewen. I'll explain when I can.”
He reluctantly left the bed. Without bothering to grab his clothes, he yanked open the door to find both Murdoch and Duncan waiting there. Both were barefoot and wearing nothing but their trews. Like him, they were breathing hard, as if they'd been running long distances over rough ground. They also had matching sets of red welts on their chests. He glanced down to verify that his skin bore the same marks.
He asked the obvious question, needing to hear the
truth from his friends. “Did you both feel as if your chest had been sliced open, and you were bleeding?”
Murdoch merely nodded, but Duncan said, “I woke up screaming. I terrified Lavinia.”
“It has to be Averel or Kane.” There would be no more sleep for any of them now. “Get dressed, and I'll meet you down in the hall.”
Gideon returned to Merewen. She was sitting up and waiting for him. “What's wrong?”
It was easier to show her than explain. Already the marks were fading. “Something has happened to Kane or maybe Averel. We've never experienced anything like this.”
She pressed her palms against his chest, murmuring softly under her breath. The marks and the last ghosts of pain disappeared, allowing him to think more clearly. He took her hand and brushed a kiss across her knuckles.
“Go back to sleep. I'll be fine. I'm meeting Duncan and Murdoch downstairs.”
The urge to be with all of his friends, not just Murdoch and Duncan, was riding Gideon hard. He wished to the gods that Averel and Kane weren't half a realm away. None of them would feel complete until they were all together again.
“I'll join you as soon as I get dressed.” Merewen held up a hand before he could protest. “Don't bother to argue, Gideon. They are my friends, too. I suspect Alina and Lavinia will be there as well.”
A wise warrior knew when to surrender, especially when it was a battle he didn't particularly wish to win. “On one condition.”
“Which is?” she prodded.
Despite his worry for his friends, he managed a smile for his lady. “You three are the ones who stage a raid on Ellie's kitchen for food and drink for all of us. She might come after one of us with her sharpest knife, but she likes you.”
Merewen smiled, which was his intent. “Agreed.”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
An hour later they were no closer to understanding what had happened. In all the time Gideon had known Kane, he had never once deliberately used the legacy he'd inherited from his grandfather. But what if Keirthan had subverted Kane's resistance to dark magic? In his pain, could Kane have somehow found a way to reach out to them across the miles? If so, why were they no longer feeling his pain?
Gideon exchanged looks with Murdoch and Duncan. Just as he'd feared, they'd all jumped to the same painful conclusion: Kane was no longer screaming because he couldn't. A fist-sized ball of pain caught in Gideon's throat, making it impossible to speak, his attempt nothing but a deep rumble in his chest. It was becoming clear that someone, most likely the duke himself, had captured Kane for the purpose of working dark magic.
Death had been their constant companion for centuries as they rode into battle. That was true for any warrior, but for Kane to suffer and perish alone was beyond bearing.
All three men clutched their knives, hunting in vain for a suitable target for their pain. Frustrated when he couldn't find one, Gideon picked up the ewer of ale and heaved it across the room to shatter against the wall.
Merewen caught Gideon's wrist with both hands. “Be calm and think. I am convinced you would sense if he was dead. Remember, too, you told me Kane is the strongest man you know.”
She was right, although Murdoch looked mildly insulted by her words. Merewen was still talking.
“You are right to be worried about him, but allowing your anger to rule your thoughts will not help Kane.” Her dark eyes were sympathetic. “Think about what we know for certain. Perhaps then we can figure out what can be done to help him and Averel.”
Merewen meant well, but none of the information they had was at all useful. He listed the few facts they
had. “We know Kane was hired as the captain of Keirthan's personal guard, and Averel has been working as a troubadour. In the last message the dogs brought, Kane and Averel were planning to return to us in a matter of days.
“Did I forget anything?” He paused to look around the table and then answered the question himself. “Oh, yes, we all awoke in agony because one of our friends is being tortured.”
Gideon and the other two men sat in stony silence while the three women exchanged glances. Just as Gideon expected, no one had a single helpful suggestion.
Merewen was the first to speak. “You three should ride for the capital and rescue Kane. I'll call for spare horses for the three of you, so you can change off mounts on the way.”
As much as Gideon appreciated her offer, he shook his head. “Our duty is here with you, my lady, until we are ready to march against Keirthan. We are still awaiting the arrival of additional men. Rushing our plans will only increase the likelihood of failure.”
She immediately protested. “But you need Kane and Averel to be the most effective against the duke and his men.”
Murdoch spoke for the first time. “My lady, even if we were to ride for the city this very moment, there's no guarantee we would reach Kane in time to save him. We would also run the risk of all of us being captured or killed. The goddess would not soon forgive us for failing you in order to save one of us. In truth, neither would Kane.”
Merewen turned to Gideon, probably hoping he would deny the truth of Murdoch's words. “But we can't just let him die!”
The hall held a chill more akin to a winter night than to an early-summer morning. The truth was painful, but it was still the truth. “Murdoch has the right of it, Merewen. And remember what our failure would mean to you.
I won't have you wandering the afterlife forever alone and cold. I will not risk that, not even for my friends.”
This was getting them nowhere. He needed guidance, the kind that his friends could not provide. Only rarely over the centuries had he risked a trip back to the river to ask the Lord and Lady for advice. Mayhap it was time to do so again.
“I will go to the river.” And before his friends could react, he added, “Alone.”
Duncan's fist came down hard on the table in a rare show of temper. “No, Gideon. You will not do this by yourself. Kane and Averel are our friends, too. Your duty is our duty. If we need to approach the Lord and Lady, we go together.”
“No. We cannot all be gone at the same time. If I don't return, Lady Merewen will need the two of you more than ever.”
Lady Lavinia rose to her feet, drawing everyone's attention to her. The men immediately fell silent. No matter what she was about to say, Gideon was grateful for the distraction. The memory of Kane's agony had all of them short-tempered and ready for a fight.
If Duncan had any idea what his lady was up to, he gave no sign of it. She gave him a small smile before looking first at Gideon and then Murdoch.
“I well know and understand how the Damned feel about the practice of magic. However, Captain, I would offer you an alternative to journeying to the river. I could attempt a scrying. Your goddess has already spoken to me once before. Perhaps she will do so again.”
To everyone's surprise, it was Murdoch who immediately agreed. “If you think it will present no danger to anyone here in the keep, I would appreciate your offer to check on our brother for us.”
“I do not control what the gods choose to reveal to me, Sir Murdoch, but I am willing to ask for their guidance.”
Gideon glanced around the room, noting the servants
were now up, preparing to serve the morning meal. Soon the hall would be crowded, offering no privacy for what they were about to do.
“Lady Lavinia, I would greatly appreciate anything you can do to help, but I suggest we seek out a more private spot.”
Then it occurred to him to ask, “Is this something we can all observe, or would our presence be an unwelcome distraction?”
He liked that she gave the matter some thought before answering. “I've had success scrying with Duncan at my side as well as a near disaster. I am willing to have you there as long as you understand it may not work with an audience.”
“Of course. Where would you prefer to set up your scrying bowl? In the library, perhaps?”
Duncan answered as he caught Lavinia's hand in his. “The garden would be better. Is that right, my lady?”
Lavinia stared down at their joined hands. “There's nothing written that says that I have to be outdoors, but I find it easier to concentrate in the quiet of a garden.”
Having a plan of action, however tenuous, gave Gideon the first glimmer of hope since he'd awoken in pain. “Then that's what we'll do. Shall we gather in there after the guards change shift? I would like Sigil to be able to join us as well, and he's still on duty.”
Their plans made, they all scattered to take care of their usual morning duties. As Gideon joined Merewen in her early-morning stroll through the newly rebuilt stable, he prayed that the gods could offer their avatars some badly needed help. He'd already made the decision to send out Scim to seek Averel and Kane if Lavinia was unable to discover what was happening with them. If their friends were lost, the rest of the Damned knew their duty and would see it done.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
The sky overhead was blue, the sun warm. Sigil trailed along after Murdoch and the others as they walked
toward the garden. Gideon had ordered everyone else away from that side of the keep, even the guards who were patrolling on the rampart along the top of the palisade.
Sigil couldn't exactly say that he was looking forward to watching Lady Lavinia scry. Magic was nothing to be taken lightly, but it would be beneficial to see what advice the gods might have to offer to aid their avatars. Soon the Damned and their allies would all march into battle. After all, Gideon and company had to finish this fight before the solstice.
He would ride at their side, willingly offering up his life if necessary to support their cause. He had no past and perhaps no future. What he did have was this one chance to redeem his honor. For that, he was grateful.
He joined the others in forming a circle around Lavinia and Duncan. She set a deep green glass bowl on a small table. When she had it arranged to her liking, she motioned Lady Alina to bring forward the pitcher she was carrying.
Lavinia drew a deep breath and slowly filled the bowl to the brim before she handed the pitcher back to Alina, who set it on a nearby bench before rejoining the circle. When she was back in place, Lavinia and Duncan stood on opposite sides of the bowl, their hands clasped as she bowed her head.
Without looking up, she said, “You may all approach now.”
The rest of them took slow steps forward until they stood shoulder to shoulder an arm's length from Lavinia and Duncan. From where Sigil stood, he could see the surface of the water in the bowl, but he noticed that Murdoch had positioned himself so that Duncan blocked any view of the bowl. No surprise there, given his particularly strong feelings about magic.
As Sigil watched, Lavinia murmured a few words, their meaning unknown but their sound and rhythm soothing to the ear. After several repetitions, she fell
silent. At first he thought perhaps she had given up, but then he realized the water, which had been still, was now rippling.
Lavinia and Duncan leaned in closer, their expressions rapt. He wished he was close enough to see into the depths of the bowl, but Lavinia would explain her vision soon enough.
As they watched, the water continued to ripple and then grew still. Finally, a pair of small figures rose up out of the water, one male and the other female. Despite being made of clear water, there was no doubt they were alive and aware of those crowded around the bowl.
Duncan's eyes flashed wide as he looked around to find Gideon in the circle. When three warriors dropped to their knees, Sigil followed suit, as did Lady Alina and Lady Merewen. Lavinia remained standing, but bowed her head to the gods who had now grown in size to reach her eye level. How was that possible? There couldn't be that much water in the bowl. Now wasn't the time for such thoughts. Sigil forced his attention back to Gideon.
“My Lord and Lady.” Gideon spoke for them all with great solemnity. “Thank you for answering your servants' call.”
The gods turned to face their captain. “Rise up, Warriors. We have much to say and little time to do so.”
Once again everyone crowded close to the bowl and waited to learn what they had to say.
It was the Lord of the River who spoke for the pair. “Your friend suffers greatly, Captain, but know he also has an unexpected ally. For your efforts to succeed, you must trust that Lord Kane will find his own way out of the darkness.”
The Lady spoke next. “Sir Murdoch, set your doubts aside. They weaken you all. Victory will come only if everyone is free to use their gifts.”