Authors: Alexis Morgan
There was a small space between two of the tents that was currently unoccupied. What a relief to be alone even if all that separated her from the rest of the world was
the thick fabric of the tent walls. A few minutes of stolen time away from her odious brother-in-law and his friends was truly a gift from the gods.
The crowd's constant cheering of the fighters taking part in the tournament had given her a headache. The noise formed a constant drone, punctuated occasionally with applause or catcalls when a fighter failed to live up to everyone's expectations. Despite Ifre's orders that no one was to die in the practice battles, that didn't mean blood wasn't shed when either a sword or a temper slipped out of control.
She had dampened a handkerchief in water before escaping the tent. It served to cool her face and the back of her neck. Feeling slightly better, she wandered closer to the railing that separated the fighters from the spectators. The field was empty, but there was a sense of growing excitement in the crowd.
A single fighter appeared at the closest end of the field. He had the build and coloring of the raiders from the far northern lands, with hair the color of fire and fair skin that would burn red in the sun. His weapon was an enormous broadsword, one that most men would have trouble drawing, much less wielding for the length of a battle.
A movement at the other end of the field caught Theda's attention. The second combatant had arrived. She watched as the two men met in the middle and then turned to approach the fence in front of Keirthan's tent. Where the redhead was mammoth, all muscle and power, this warrior moved with a lethal grace. He was nearly as tall, but built along much leaner lines. If the other man's hair sparked hot in the sun, this one's was an unrelenting black, a shadow too powerful for mere sunlight to overcome.
In contrast, his eyes were surprisingly pale, an odd shade of gray or perhaps light blue. His face wasn't handsome, not in the superficial way that Ifre's was, but it was compelling. There wasn't even a hint of softness about
the warrior, as if life had carved it all away, leaving nothing but the bedrock of grim strength. He would never go unnoticed in a crowd. Men would step aside while women would be tempted to get all too close.
Theda couldn't tear her eyes away from him.
If he was taken aback by the size of his opponent, he gave no sign of it as both men had stripped off their tunics. Then they held their swords aloft in salute to the duke, bowing first to him and then to each other before moving farther away to face each other with their weapons ready. Normally, Theda had little interest in the dangerous games men played, but for some inexplicable reason, she was riveted.
She watched in utter fascination as Sergeant Markus barked the order to begin. This time the crowd remained strangely silent as the two men put on a display unlike anything she'd ever seen before. It was brute force facing off against speed and grace, with neither man willing to give an inch.
If their fighting styles were at all hampered by the duke's order to avoid serious injuries, it didn't show. In fact, the dark warrior was grinning now, clearly enjoying facing off against another talented fighter. If she had to predict the victor, her first instinct would be that size and overwhelming power would win the day.
And she would've been wrong. After a sudden flurry of blows, the pale-eyed fighter had his huge opponent in full retreat. Realizing that defeat was upon him, the redhead bellowed in challenge and charged forward. The two men came together in a clash of weapons that echoed across the silent field.
How was Ifre reacting to the display? It wasn't hard to spot him leaning forward over the fence, his hands holding on to the top railing with a white-knuckled grip. The expression on his face was greed, pure and simple. But which of the two warriors was he so interested in?
Sergeant Markus had made his way to the fence, as always, trailing after Ifre, watching his back and keeping
an eye on the crowd. She approached slowly, careful not to startle him. He glanced down at her, the expression in his dark eyes flat and suspicious. She didn't take it personally. He didn't trust anyone who got too close to Ifre.
“Sergeant, who are those two men?”
“The redhead is Johan. He normally rides guard for one of the caravans but lost his position when he got caught with one of the trader's daughters. He's hoping to get a job with the troops who ride patrol, but the duke is considering him for his personal guard.”
“And the other?”
Markus glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. She was known for actively avoiding the guardsmen as much as possible. Her curiosity must seem out of place to him.
A little bit of honesty might go a long way toward assuaging his concern. “I often watched the weapons practice when my late husband was the duke, but I've never seen anything like his style of fighting.”
Markus grunted. “Neither have I. Johan is a talented swordsman, but Kane is just playing with him. If this were a real fight, Johan would have been dead seconds after they drew steel.”
As if his words were prophetic, a shout went up. They both looked to see what had caused the uproar. Just as Markus had predicted, the one called Kane stood over Johan, the tip of his sword at Johan's throat. A single thrust would have ended the big man's life right there in the dust.
Her brother-in-law had joined them. “Markus, send Johan to the troops.”
Ifre smiled with obvious glee. “I shall be keeping a close eye on him. Keep me apprised of how he does.”
“As you wish, Sire.”
Markus bowed and backed away. Neither man paid any attention to Theda, but that was fine with her. She
was too busy staring at the dark-haired warrior as he helped Johan back to his feet. What about him drew her attention? She normally had little use for the men who served Ifre.
As if sensing her interest, the dark warrior turned to stare right at her. The power of his cold gaze swept over her, leaving her chilled in the hot summer sun. When he abruptly looked away, she stumbled away from the fence. Deciding she should resume her hostess duties, she lifted her skirts and all but ran toward the questionable safety of Ifre's tent.
ane tugged at the collar of his uniform. The cursed thing wasn't tight, but still it choked him. Both the fit and fabric of the tunic were fine; it was what the uniform represented that chaffed. He was a Warrior of the Mist and sworn to serve the Lord and Lady of the River, not a corrupt blood mage like Ifre Keirthan.
He left the barracks to head for the stone building that served as Keirthan's home as well as the center of government for Agathia and its people. According to Markus, servants and tradesmen used the side doors, which were never left unattended. The guard on duty nodded to Kane. “Saw you fight Johan yesterday. That was something.”
“I got lucky. It's been a while since I've faced off against someone that good.”
Another lie, but he had to play the part. “Sergeant Markus told me to find him so he can show me the layout of the duke's keep. Have you seen him?”
“Not recently, but the men on duty at the front entrance will likely know where he is. You can either go through the building or walk along the edge of the garden to the front.”
A little more time spent outside and away from the stench of Keirthan's magic held a great deal of appeal. It was also gave Kane an excuse to explore the area on his own. “I'll go around.”
He walked away without thanking the man. Knowing he would face the guards in battle, he had no desire to make friends with them. He strolled along the side of the
building and studied his surroundings. The garden on his right was quite elaborate. The morning breeze carried the scent of flowers as well as the sound of women's laughter in the distance.
Instantly, the memory of that dark-haired woman who'd watched his bout yesterday flashed through his mind. He hadn't noticed her until after the fight was over; he'd been too busy trying to keep from being knocked senseless by the flat of Johan's sword. But the moment their eyes had connected, everything else faded away completely, as if the entire world had narrowed down to just the two of them.
The whole encounter had lasted but a heartbeat, but she'd felt the impact, too. It was there in the way she drew a sharp breath and froze like a deer trying not to draw the attention of a wolf. Her reaction had made him mad then, and the memory stirred his temper even now. He was no threat to her.
Yet she'd fled into the duke's private tent, which also meant she was part of Keirthan's household. She lived with that monster and yet feared Kane at first sight? He should be used to it by now, but he grew weary of being feared by the very people he was sworn to protect.
Some things never changed. For now he would hunt down Markus and get to work. He rounded the front of the building, where two guards flanked each side of the huge wooden door. He approached slowly, making sure they saw him coming. Even then, they looked suspicious. After all, if an assassin were planning to kill the duke, wearing the uniform of his personal guard would be a logical way to slip inside the hall.
Sergeant Markus's honor might be called into question because of his choice of employers, but Kane couldn't fault him on how he did the job. At least these men were alert and constantly scanning the area for anyone who looked out of place. When they spotted Kane, the closest pair stared at him in suspicion until one of the guards on the other side said something.
They all relaxed but only a little. “You're not on the duty roster. What's your business here?”
Kane kept his hands away from his weapons. “Sergeant Markus asked me to meet him this morning.”
The closest guard jerked his head toward the door. “The sergeant usually stands near the staircase so the duke can find him easily if he wants him. If he's not there, try the practice field.”
“If you see him, tell him that I'm looking for him.” Kane injected enough authority in his voice to have all four guards standing at attention.
Kane crossed the threshold of the duke's stronghold for the first time. Once inside, his eyes, always sensitive to the light, took longer than usual to adapt from the bright sunshine outside to the dark interior of the building. He blinked several times only to realize that the enormous room wasn't actually poorly lit.
No, what he was sensing was the shadow cast by Keirthan's blood magic. Everyone else in the room was going about business as if nothing were wrong. Either they were completely blind to magic or else they'd grown accustomed to its taint.
The air was thick with it, and Kane could feel the pulsing of Keirthan's blood magic coming from beneath his feet. Logically, that meant the mage's private workroom was located immediately below the great hall, not that he had any desire to find out for certain. If he ever ended up down there, it would mean Keirthan had discovered the real reason Kane had sought a position with his personal guard.
Right now he needed to do something besides standing there and blocking the doorway. He aimed toward the side of the room, taking time to study the ebb and flow of the people around him. Interesting that only the servants had a furtive air about their movements, clearly trying to avoid drawing attention to themselves.
In sharp contrast were the courtiers, mostly nobles
and wealthy merchants, judging by the style and quality of their clothing. The lot of them strutted through the room as if they owned the very air they breathed. How did Keirthan hide his true nature from these people? Did they suspect but believe they were immune from his predations?
If so, they were fools.
Right now, while Keirthan was still building his power, he would limit his victims to those who wouldn't be missed by anyone other than their families. But once he unleashed his full fury upon Agathia, no one would be safe. If these people didn't wake up soon, it would be too late to make an organized stand against the mage. They'd be dead before they could lift a sword.
He spotted Markus standing in the shadow of the staircase exactly where the guards said he would be. The sergeant would find it odd if Kane continued to meander through the room, so he cut straight through the crowd to where Markus stood waiting.
“I wondered if you'd gotten lost. The duke doesn't tolerate tardiness.” Then he raked Kane with a cold-eyed look. “Neither do I. Understand?”
Kane shrugged. “I wasn't aware we'd agreed upon a specific time.”
“If it were just me waiting to talk to you, that wouldn't be a problem. However, Duke Keirthan wants to see you after he finishes hearing petitions. Luckily, the line is long today. Otherwise you'd be explaining to him why you dawdled along the way. And if I had been the one having to make excuses for your absence, well, let's just say that I have ways of making my displeasure known.”
Right now Kane cared less about incurring Markus's wrath than he did about why Keirthan was singling him out for attention. From the way Markus was staring at him, he was wondering the same thing.
There was no use in worrying about it overmuch. They'd both find out soon enough. Meanwhile, Kane continued to study the people in the hall. As he watched,
two men got in a heated discussion, but they seemed to be a threat only to each other. As they argued, the doors opened again and a trio of women filed in, including the one who had watched Kane's fight with such interest.
From her demeanor, he had to think that she was a noblewoman surrounded by her ladies-in-waiting. He cast about for a way to learn her identity without singling her out of the group.
Did she remember him, and would she admit it if she did? He noticed Markus also had his attention on the women as they cut across the room, heading directly for the staircase at Kane's back. Finally, he nodded in the direction of the approaching women.
“I hadn't heard the duke was married.”
Markus looked disgusted. “He's not. The woman in blue is Lady Theda, the widow of the duke's older brother. She does serve as Keirthan's hostess when he needs one, which is why she and her ladies-in-waiting attended the trials yesterday. Ordinarily, she acts as the chatelaine and oversees the servants and the kitchen.”
Interesting. By all reports, Keirthan had been jealous of his late brother. Maybe he was just petty enough to take it out on the man's widow.
The women were now but a few feet away. At the last second, Markus moved to stand in front of the staircase, partially blocking their way and forcing them to squeeze past him. Obviously, part of Keirthan's lack of regard for his sister-in-law included letting his men treat her shabbily.
Kane wanted to shove Markus out of the way and teach him some manners. But that would be out of character, especially for a new hire who was looking to fit in. Lady Theda waited until the other women made it safely past the sergeant before following after them. When she reached the third step, she paused to shoot Kane a sideways look before continuing on up the stairs.
“Lady Theda thinks she and those others are too good for the likes of us, but her day is coming.”
Markus's sly smile revealed much about what he thought would happen then. Kane sincerely hoped that the women slept behind locked doors. It reminded him of the terror Lady Merewen had lived with while her uncle had been alive. If Fagan hadn't promised her to Duke Keirthan for his blood magic, she would have suffered greatly at the hands of the captain of Fagan's guard.
There were obvious reasons why Fagan had been a favorite of the duke's. The two men had much in common, all traits that had led to Fagan's death and, with the goddess's blessing, would lead to Keirthan's downfall as well.
While they watched the women disappear upstairs, a servant had joined them. Markus glared at him. “What do you want?”
“Sergeant, Duke Keirthan would like to speak with the new recruit now. He said to tell you that he'll send him back to you shortly.”
Kane started to follow, but Markus blocked his way. At the same time, he grabbed the servant by the arm and spun him back around. “You haven't been dismissed.”
The man kept his eyes firmly chest high on the guard, his free hand clenched down at his side. “Sorry, sir. I meant no disrespect.”
“Repeat what the duke said exactly.”
Fear had sweat beading up on the servant's face, and his voice cracked as he spoke. “He said, âBring the new recruit named Kane to see me. Tell any of the rest of the guards to stay away. I don't need them muddling things up.' Those were his exact words, sir.”
“You insolent idiot,” Markus snarled and raised his hand as if to smack the servant. Kane caught his arm before he could strike.
The sergeant stared at Kane's hand. “You dare interfere? You have no right to question my actions.”
Kane got right in his face, forcing Markus to listen. “Do you want to explain to the duke why you sent his servant back to him bruised and bleeding? Especially
when the man's only crimes were doing exactly what the duke ordered and then answering your question. It is hardly this man's fault you didn't like what the duke had to say.”
He held on to Markus's arm until he was sure the man had heard what he'd said and understood. Finally, the sergeant relaxed.
Ignoring the servant now, Markus stared at Kane. “Go, but report back to me when he's done with you. Then I'll let you know what your duties will be for the next few days.”
Kane bowed slightly and followed the servant to a door on the far side of the room. There were a few people standing in a row along the wall, but the two of them walked past them to the head of the line. Kane's guide started to open the door but then hesitated.
After a quick look around, he whispered, “Thank you, sir, for what you did back there.”
Without giving Kane a chance to respond, he opened the door and led Kane inside.
“Sire, Kane is here. I'll be outside if you have further need of me.” He left Kane standing in the middle of the room as Keirthan finished writing something down.
Keirthan made a show of closing the ledger and setting his pen aside before he acknowledged Kane's presence.
Steepling his fingers, Keirthan leaned back in his chair and stared at Kane for an uncomfortable amount of time. Kane stood with feet apart, his hands clasped behind his back, not quite at full attention. Now wasn't the time for insolence, but neither would he act cowed by the duke's presence.
“Tell me, Kane, have you ever held a position of authority?”
“I've led my share of men, Sire.”
Keirthan nodded as if Kane had confirmed his own suspicions. “As you know, I recently lost the captain of my guard. Normally, I would prefer to replace him with
someone I know and trust. Would you agree with that policy?”
Where was he going with this discussion? “A man in your position should be careful about those he allows to get close.”
Would the man recognize that as the warning it was? Probably not. Keirthan was the sort of fool who thought he was smarter than anyone else. Considering he'd murdered his own brother, he should know that attacks could come from the most unexpected sources.
“The men in my personal guard were all chosen because of their ability to fight. That's all most of them are good for, although Sergeant Markus is a cut above the rest. What is your impression of him?”
Kane went with the truth. “I've known him only a short time, Sire, but so far he has treated me fairly. Certainly, he didn't have to help me find a job. I am grateful for his assistance.”
Keirthan dismissed his comments with a wave of his hand. “All that is fine, but do you think he has the ability to command?”
The ice beneath Kane's feet grew thin. “The men follow his orders promptly.”
The duke's laugh was nasty. “That's because he's a vicious bastard and would gut them if they didn't. That doesn't mean he understands battle tactics or how to command in time of war.”
“I don't know him well enough to judge. I've known sergeants who had a better feel for command than most generals. Others can train men to fight but little more than that.”