Authors: Alexis Morgan
“I know my duty, Ifre, and I'll see it done.”
She walked away without a word, her nails biting into the palms of her hands. Before she'd gone five steps, he called after her. “Tomorrow see what you can do about hiring more servants. We seem to be shorthanded again.”
She barely paused before continuing on as her
stomach roiled with fear. If she didn't do as he asked, he would simply seek his prey elsewhere, perhaps among her ladies. If she did hire the servants, it was with the full knowledge that some of them wouldn't live long enough to collect their first wages.
His laughter trailed after as she all but ran from the dark stench of his evil nature.
he library was crowded, but its thick walls offered the best chance of privacy for the discussion they were about to have. Gideon looked around the room, counting heads to make sure everyone was there.
Murdoch had been the most recent one through the door, arriving shortly after Lady Alina. Gideon had his suspicions about where his friend had spent the night, but it was not truly any of his business. If Lady Alina chose to offer Murdoch comfort for the remaining daysâand nightsâof their sworn service to her niece, so be it.
That thought had Gideon automatically reaching out to take Merewen's hand in his. She smiled and gave it a quick squeeze, momentarily distracting him from the task at hand. When the door opened again, Duncan entered with Lady Lavinia holding on to his arm. Murdoch frowned slightly, clearly still not won over to the woman's cause. Gideon had his own misgivings, but he trusted Duncan implicitly and would therefore give her the benefit of the doubt. After all, she'd saved their lives with her heroics.
Duncan led Lavinia down to the far end of the table where they could sit together and present a united front to everyone else in the room. Gideon understood his reasons but wished he hadn't felt that the gesture was necessary.
Maybe he could do something about that. He rose to his feet, always more comfortable speaking while moving around.
“Lady Lavinia, thank you again for rushing to our
defense yesterday. Lives would have been lost if you hadn't intervened.”
Some of the tension in her face eased. “I'm only glad that we arrived in time.”
Her smile seemed genuine as she looked around the table and met each person's gaze. It faltered only when she got to Murdoch. Eventually, the two would have to come to terms, but Gideon liked that she didn't cower. He sensed the same strength in her that he'd found in Merewenâand even Lady Alina was starting to show signs of such a strength. That was good; they would need it if they were all to get through the days ahead.
“Yesterday, Duncan had the opportunity to describe his journey to the abbey and back. Lady Lavinia, I know he explained our circumstances to you and why magic is anathema to us. Our gods have commanded us to forswear the use of all dark powers.”
Duncan immediately started to speak, but Lavinia stayed his protest with a wave of her hand. “I understand your concern, Captain. Perhaps I can clarify a few things for you and your men.”
She glanced in Murdoch's direction and waited until he nodded before continuing. Duncan immediately leaned back in his chair, further reducing the tension.
“Make no mistake; the kind of magic my half brother practices is evil, both at its source and in its intent. He draws his power from the living to feed the blackness that devours his soul. Eventually, it will grow in strength until he will no longer be able to contain it. When that happens, it will destroy Ifre, leaving it free to ravage all that it touches.”
Her blunt words froze Gideon where he stood. “Butâ”
She cut him off just as she had Duncan. “I would prefer to lay it all before you at once. Then I'll answer what questions I can.”
He nodded as he dropped back down in the seat next to Merewen, needing her calming presence. When he was settled, Lavinia resumed her lecture.
“For most mages, the source of their power is the natural energy that surrounds us all. Their talent as a mage comes from their inborn ability to draw on that power and the skill with which they learn to manipulate it. In short, one is born a mage, but most have only a small gift, which limits what they can do with it. Only rarely is someone born with the ability to wield a great deal of power.”
Once again she looked at each person in turn. “Magery runs in both sides of my family. My father, the late duke, was a powerful mage, and Armel, his eldest son, was his equal. Both were honorable men, who used their powers only sparingly, preferring to rule their people through justice and wisdom rather than fear.”
Her expression turned bleak. “My mother also had a gift for magic, and there were those who accused her of using it to capture the attention and the heart of the duke. I was but a child when they both died, but my memories are of two people who clearly loved each other. Both of my parents made sure that I was taught both the ethics of magic along with the techniques.”
Merewen frowned. “And your half brother? What of him?”
“I think it likely that Ifre resented me because of my mother's influence over his father. I am also convinced he was responsible for our brother's death. Ifre will not tolerate interference in his quest for power, and his greed knows no boundaries.”
She shivered. When Duncan moved closer to put his arm around her shoulders, she leaned against him, clearly drawing comfort from his touch. Gideon hated to keep pressing her, but time was speeding by them.
“If you have to be born a mage, how were you able to teach Duncan the spell he cast yesterday?”
For the first time, she averted her gaze, focusing on the flickering flame of the candle in the center of the table. He braced himself for an answer he wouldn't like.
“I honestly cannot say if Duncan was born with a gift
for magic or if his connection with the Lady of the River gave rise to the ability.”
Gideon had been right. He didn't like the answer, but at least he was willing to listen. Murdoch had a thunderous expression on his face, his huge fists clenched as if readying himself for battle. Lady Alina tried to distract him, but her success was limited.
Gideon couched his response as the order it was. “Explain your reasoning.”
Lavinia held up her hand and ticked off her points. “He sensed my scrying before he arrived at the abbey. He was able to detect the magic in the duke's ensorcelled coins but was not affected by it. And in the abbey's library, he not only felt the power in the wards I'd set to protect our collection of forbidden books, but he could see it. No one without at least a smattering of magical talent could have done any of those things.”
Murdoch gave voice to his anger. “No insult intended, but until Duncan met you, he has never before carried the taint of magic. He has also admitted to being tempted by its power when using the spell you taught him. Had he not pulled back from that precipice, all of us could've been condemned to a soulless existence for eternity.”
Duncan was on his feet, for the second time in two days ready to draw a weapon against one of their own. “Perhaps no insult was intended, Murdoch, but insult was taken. Apologize to the lady now or I'll teach you some manners myself.”
At that point, everyone was on their feet. Alina was trying to make herself heard over the deep rumble of Murdoch's voice. Sigil stood beside the big man, making his own loyalties clear. Lavinia had planted herself right in front of Duncan, her face flushed bright with either embarrassment or temper.
Something had to be done and quickly, if for no other reason than their gods would not tolerate one of the Damned turning against another. They'd all come too far, been friends too long, for Gideon to let this happen.
“ENOUGH!” he shouted.
During the brief silence, he repeated himself. “Enough! Everyone, sit down. Now, or it will be me you face.”
The women were the first to comply, followed more slowly by Sigil, Murdoch, and finally, Duncan.
Gideon glared at his two friends equally. “The goddess expects better from both of you, as do I. I will remind both of you right now that your primary duty is to Lady Merewen. We have all sworn to protect her at any cost. Have you forgotten that?”
Duncan broke off glaring at Murdoch long enough to shake his head. “I am well aware of my duty to both the goddess and Lady Merewen.”
Murdoch growled through clenched teeth, “I have not forgotten.”
“Good.” Gideon still had more to say. “Murdoch, none of us are comfortable around magic, but do not let your fear blind you to the fact that we can't fight what we refuse to understand.”
The big warrior flinched as Gideon's words lashed at him. “I am no coward.”
To Gideon's surprise, it was Duncan who responded. “No, you're not, Murdoch. And you weren't wrong about me almost giving in to the magic, but the goddess herself forgave my weakness. It is not your job to judge me, but I would ask you as my friend to help make sure I don't falter again.”
Alina smiled at Murdoch in encouragement. He took her hand in his as he stared first at Lavinia and then Duncan. “I would ask for forgiveness from both of you for letting my fear rule me. Duncan, you have never failed the goddess, and you will not this time.”
Lavinia managed a small smile. “You are right to fear magic, Sir Murdoch. You've seen firsthand what can happen when it is misused, as have I. I also worry that my own abilities pale in comparison to what Ifre will unleash if we cannot soon put a stop to his predation.”
Duncan rejoined the conversation. “These are tense
times, and the situation is grave. It is no surprise that our tempers are easily frayed.”
Finally, the atmosphere in the room felt lighter. Perhaps now they could get on with their plans. Gideon cleared his throat, prepared to launch into his thoughts on how best to put their recently acquired allies to good use.
Before he could get a word out, the door opened and Sarra, the little girl who'd arrived with Duncan and Lavinia, walked in. She scurried around the table to whisper in Lavinia's ear. The abbess studied her young friend for several seconds and then turned a worried look in Duncan's direction.
He lifted Sarra onto his lap and murmured something to her in a low voice. Gideon found himself leaning forward, trying to catch what Duncan was saying. Murdoch mirrored his actions while everyone else simply sat and stared. Sarra's small face scrunched up in an angry frown.
Gideon gave voice to the obvious question. “What's wrong now?”
Duncan glanced toward Gideon. “Sarra has a message she needs to deliver.”
They'd all learned firsthand yesterday to respect the small girl's pronouncements. If she hadn't warned Lavinia and Duncan of the duke's threat, they would have never reached the keep in time to save the horses or the people who were with them. But that didn't mean that any of them were comfortable with gods speaking through a child.
Gideon had little experience in dealing with children, but he was willing to try. “We're listening, Sarra.”
“My message isn't for the Damned, Captain Gideon. I need to speak to the one who has lost his way.”
She wiggled down off Duncan's lap and made her way around the table to where Sigil sat watching her as if she were a serpent poised to strike.
In a voice far deeper than a child's, she stared up at him, her expression intense. “Would you hear what we have to say, wanderer?”
Sigil jerked his head in a sharp nod. “I would.”
“Come with us, then. Our words are for your ears alone. After you have listened, you can do as you will with what you have learned. I will wait for you in the pasture.”
She walked away, leaving the room in stunned silence. Sigil looked first to Murdoch and then toward Lady Lavinia. “What should I do, my lady?”
Lavinia still stared at the door. “I do not understand the source of Sarra's gift, but I have never known her to be wrong. She came to the abbey only a short time ago, after the duke's men killed her father and took her mother. At first Sarra did small things, such as helping people find lost objects and the like. Only recently has her gift grown in power. I have repeatedly cautioned her to come to me in private before she shares her message. Most of the time, she complies, but as you can see, not always.”
She finally looked in Sigil's direction. “You may choose not to listen to her, but I fear you would do so at your own peril.”
The warrior immediately rose to his feet. “Captain Gideon, if you will give me leave to depart, I think it best that I hear what Sarra has to tell me.”
“Of course. Feel free to rejoin us when you are done.”
“Yes, sir.” He paused in the doorway. “Know that you may count on my sword in any plans that you make.”
And with that pronouncement, he was gone.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Outside the library, Sigil put his hand against the wall for support as he struggled to control the hot rush of emotions burning through his veins. What could that child know of him or his past? Did she know his name? Had their paths crossed at some point? If so, why hadn't she said something while they were riding back to the keep?
His instincts were saying no, that they'd never met before the night he and Murdoch had ridden through the darkness to meet up with Duncan and Lavinia. Yet he couldn't deny that when Sarra had spoken to him
in the library, her voice had carried a heavy portent of approaching danger. The true question was whether he was its target or its source.
With the same sense of dread he would feel marching into battle, Sigil walked down the stairs, taking care to move normally to avoid drawing attention to either himself or the girl. Lady Merewen's people were already uneasy with everything that had happened recently. The more superstitious ones would do far more than simply shun Sarra if they thought she was possessed by spirits. It was hardly her fault if her gods chose to speak through her, but they certainly put her at risk by doing so.
He stepped out into bright sunshine and turned in the direction of the pasture. It wasn't hard to spot one small girl surrounded by a circle of horses. Her face was bright with happiness as a mare accepted one of the apples Sarra carried in her apron. She giggled when the horse's lips tickled her hand.
Rather than ruin the moment for her, Sigil stood back and waited for her to finish distributing her gifts to her four-legged companions. When she'd delivered the last apple, he started forward. She calmly watched his approach.
She cocked her head to one side when he joined her inside the pasture. “You came. I wasn't sure you would.”