Authors: Alexis Morgan
“Neither was I.”
His honesty surprised them both. He liked that she laughed rather than took offense. “Shall we walk as you tell me what you want me to know?”
Sarra patted the neck of the closest mare. “I'd rather ride.”
Sigil recognized a hint when he heard one and lifted her onto the mare's back. Sarra gripped the horse's mane while Sigil led the mare by her halter. The little girl didn't speak until they'd reached the distant end of the pasture.
“This is far enough,” Sarra announced as she slid back down to the ground.
The mare moved off a short distance to graze as Sarra
clambered up the fence to perch on the top railing. The maneuver put her closer to Sigil's eye level, which he suspected was a deliberate choice on her point.
“Are you ready, Captain?”
She sounded remarkably calm; he wished he could say the same about himself as he nodded.
Her face immediately changed. The alterations were minor, but the effect was disturbing. Once again, it was as if the girl was gone, and someone else peered out through her eyes. Certainly, when she spoke, the voice was no longer that of a young girl.
“Lost one, how fare you?”
At first Sigil was too stunned to answer, but he finally mumbled, “My wounds have all healed.”
Sarra's mouth frowned in disgust. “We can see that much for ourselves. We were asking about your memories. Do you yet fear their return?”
He started to protest but then held back. “In truth, I do. If that were to happen, it will force Captain Gideon and Murdoch to decide what to do about me. We all know that I served a monster. I worry about what that says about me.”
Her eyebrows shot up. “But we would ask you this, Captain: If you were the monster Duke Keirthan is, would you even worry about such things?”
Once again she'd surprised him with her wisdom. “Perhaps not. What more can you tell me about myself?”
“Only that by choosing to pledge your sword to the Damned, you will redeem yourself and your honor. Your memories are a burden you do not yet need to bear. You will find your way back to yourself and those who love you, but let the knowledge that you follow the right path suffice for now. We hope that our words have eased your mind.”
With no warning, Sarra scrambled down off the fence. When she spoke, her normal voice had returned. “Can I ride the horse again?”
As he followed her toward the mare, the rapid changes in her demeanor had his mind spinning in circles. Yet he realized he also felt better than he had in a long while. Lighter, as if a burden had been lifted from his shoulders.
Instead of setting Sarra on the horse, he boosted himself up on the mare's back first and then held out a hand to tug Sarra up in front of him. When she was settled, he told her, “Hold on tight, little one, and we'll see how fast she can run.”
As they circled the pasture, the sound of Sarra's joyous laughter soothed Sigil's soul.
ane strolled into the tavern and took his usual table in the back corner away from the few other patrons in the room. Averel had yet to make an appearance for the evening, but Kane was not concerned. He could use a short respite that entailed drinking at least a flagon of ale before resuming his duties. It had been a long day. After the tour Markus had given him, they'd parted ways so Kane could move the rest of his things from the inn to his new quarters in the barracks.
His new room's stark simplicity suited him. As long as he could lock the door and allow Hob time out of the shield without fear of discovery, he was happy. It wasn't as if he intended to take up permanent residence in the city.
He was about halfway into his first drink when Averel entered the tavern. The young warrior was faring well enough in his position as troubadour. His dogs wandered in behind him, stopping to sniff the air before ranging out in front of him to check out the customers.
Both gradually made their way toward Kane, stopping along the way to get petted. Averel followed them, making time to greet several customers before finally arriving at Kane's table.
“I see my dogs have taken a liking to you,” he said with a smile. “I noticed you the other night, but we didn't get a chance to talk. My name is Averel.”
Kane pushed an empty chair out with his foot in invitation. “I'm Kane, the new captain of the duke's guard. I enjoyed your performance.”
His friend managed to disguise his shock at Kane's pronouncementâbarely. Then he grinned. “Congratulations are in order then, Captain Kane.”
Averel signaled one of the barmaids. “Another flagon for my new friend and one for me as well.”
They waited until their drinks arrived before speaking. Averel leaned back in his chair and crossed his feet at the ankles, his relaxed demeanor belying the intensity of his gaze. He glanced around the room before he spoke again.
Pitching his voice low to keep their conversation private, he asked, “I thought you were going to try to get a position with guard, but captain? How did that happen?”
Kane shrugged. “The duke thinks I executed a local merchant in retaliation for him killing my predecessor, Captain Bayar. In truth, it was the other way around. A sergeant and a couple of other guards arrived shortly after it happened, looking for Bayar. Once I convinced them my story was true, Sergeant Markus invited me to join their ranks if I passed the duke's inspection.”
Averel blinked. “You've actually met Duke Keirthan?”
Kane couldn't quite hide his revulsion. “Twice now. The bastard reeks of old blood and death, although I seem to be one of the few who notices it.”
While Kane swigged down some ale to wash away the foul taste the memory carried with it, Averel asked, “Why did he make you captain?”
“Good question. I easily defeated the favorite in the tournament a couple of days ago, but I'm not convinced that's why.” His hand strayed to the mark on his cheek. “Keirthan was far more interested in how I came by this than how I fared against another fighter. Keirthan hungers for more power at any price.”
“I'll send one of the dogs to Gideon with the news. Is there anything else he should know?”
“If Keirthan hasn't already started losing control of the magic, he will soon. The path the fool follows will be his undoing. Only a highly trained blood mage like my
grandfather would have stood a chance against that much darkness upon his soul.”
Kane finished his drink and smiled. “I need to get back and go through the motions of my new position. Seems I am at least the third man to be appointed captain recently. Let's hope that I last longer than Bayar did.”
His friend didn't find the jest amusing. “Watch your back, Kane. Send Hob to fetch me if you run into trouble.”
Kane's own amusement faded. “I will, my friend. Take care of yourself and the mutts as well. As time allows, I will stop by.”
Then he walked away, hoping that it wouldn't be the last time.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Two days had passed since Kane had visited Averel. The brief meeting had helped, but he missed being one of five warriors united in a common cause. He still believed that they were best served by having someone inside the duke's retinue, but at the same time he hated being isolated from the others.
The hour grew late, but he was too restless to sleep. Although not normally given to premonitions, his instincts were telling him that something was wrong or someone was in peril. He wanted to shrug it off, but couldn't. If he was mistaken, fine.
At the worst, the exercise he got from pacing the hallways of the castle would make it that much easier for him to sleep when he finally sought out his bed. But if he were right and failed to investigate, someone would suffer. He wouldn't take that chance.
He wore his black leathers since he wasn't officially on duty. The duke's formal livery with its tan jerkin and dark trousers was too noticeable, while black allowed him to fade into the shadows outside the barracks.
The guard on duty had left his post at the side door, no doubt to relieve himself behind some bushes. Kane took
advantage of his absence to slip inside the keep. It was a breach in the duke's defenses that a real captain would have immediately pointed out to Markus. Kane wouldn't bother, not when he might need to exploit the weakness again sometime.
Inside, he followed the hallway to the first passage that opened off to his right, which led toward the great hall. There he paused to listen, to take in all the night sounds that echoed softly along the thick walls of the castle. One by one, he eliminated those that were of no concern. The rattle of a servant carrying a tray of dishes back to the kitchen. The scrape of tables being dragged to the side of the room to clear space for the servants who slept on the floor at night. A few dogs sniffing among the reeds on the floor for any food scraps that had been missed.
All harmless. All normal.
But still he sensed a faint taste of fear in the air. A few seconds later, he located its source. A short distance away, the sound of a deep male voice rumbled in counterpoint to a higher-pitched feminine one. Kane didn't recognize either one, but he knew scared when he heard it. He started forward, his soft-soled boots making but the slightest sound as he stalked his prey.
The voices were nearer now. The woman was insisting that she was expected elsewhere and her mistress wouldn't be happy if she were delayed any longer.
Her unwanted companion only laughed. “Your mistress will have to wait. I have need of you myself.”
At the sound of cloth tearing and a muffled whimper, Kane abandoned all attempts at caution. Even if the female was a servant, she shouldn't have to suffer unwanted advances.
He turned the last corner; his already bad mood immediately flared hot. The bastard wore a guard's uniform. While Kane knew Markus turned a blind eye to some of his men's unsavory behavior, rape was beyond the pale. Kane couldn't risk killing one of his own men, but he could make him bleed.
From the guard's slurred speech, he'd been drinking. Good. His memories of tonight's activities would be blurred when he sobered up. Kane ran the last distance, pulling his cudgel from his belt. He shook his head when the woman spotted him, hoping she wouldn't warn her attacker that Kane was there.
When he was within striking distance, he swung hard, bringing the heavy head of the small club cracking down on the back of the guard's skull. The man sank to the ground in a boneless heap. Kane resisted the urge to kick him in the ribs. A lump on the back of his head might be attributed to a drunk's clumsiness, but it would be harder to explain more than that.
The woman looked at the crumpled guard and then at Kane, the fear on her face unchanged. She backed up a step, obviously about to bolt. He should have been used to that reaction by now; that didn't mean it didn't rankle. He'd never knowingly harmed a woman and had no desire to take one against her will. Granted, she didn't know that, but he'd just rescued her. Couldn't she at least give him the benefit of the doubt?
He took her arm, being careful not to bruise it, and led her along the hallway to put some distance between them and the fallen guard. They stopped near a torchlight, basking them both in its glow.
“What's your name?”
“Lady M-Margaret,” she stammered.
“Who is your mistress?” he asked, although he already knew the answer. Unless he was mistaken, he'd seen the young female twice before in the company of the duke's sister-in-law.
He needed more information. “Why are you wandering alone this time of the night, especially with one of the guards?”
“Our paths crossed when I was returning from an errand in town. I'd been delayed, and it was already dark when I started back. When he offered to escort me, I
accepted, thinking I would be safer with him than alone.”
She blushed and dropped her gaze. “I didn't realize until too late that he'd been drinking. Once we reached the great hall, he dragged me into that corner and demanded a kiss in payment for his services.”
Lady Margaret would've been damned lucky if the guard had settled for just a kiss, but this was no time to berate her for her foolishness. He'd save his sharp words for her mistress.
“I'll see you safely back to Lady Theda's quarters.”
She started forward. “I know the way.”
He would have applauded the fact that she'd learned her lesson about blindly trusting a man she didn't know, but he wasn't in the mood. “I said I will see you safely back to Lady Theda. Let's go before anyone discovers your unconscious friend back there.”
Without waiting to see if she'd comply, he started for the back staircase. It was a relief when she scurried to catch up, saving Kane from having to drag her along in his wake. At least she showed the common sense to keep quiet as they made their way through the darkened passages. At one point, he pulled her back into a corner and waited for a pair of servants to pass by.
Once they were out of sight, the two of them hurried up the steps that brought them to the second floor near Theda's personal quarters. At this time of night, she'd be more likely to be there than in her solar farther down the hall.
When he lifted his hand to knock, Margaret stopped him. “Let me.”
She rapped her knuckles on the wood twice and then a third time after a brief pause. The door swung up almost immediately, the light from the room spilling out into the hallway as Lady Theda stepped into sight. Upon seeing Margaret, Theda latched onto her arms.
“Margaret! Where have you been? I've been so worried!”
“It was so awful, Lady Theda.” Then without explaining what she was talking about, the younger woman collapsed against Theda's shoulder in tears. Her choking sobs echoed up and down that hall as she gave into the hysteria that Kane had been expecting since he'd rescued her.
He'd been standing in the shadows outside the pool of light, but now he eased closer. Unlike Lady Margaret, Theda showed no fear, only confusion at his unexpected appearance.
“What happened to her?”
Her tone stopped short of accusing him of being responsible for the tear in Margaret's dress. At least she hadn't dragged the girl inside the room and slammed the door in his face before giving him a chance to explain.
“She was foolish enough to linger too long in town. One of the guards escorted her back, but apparently he was only interested in saving her for himself. I got there in time to save her from suffering more than an unwanted kiss and a ripped sleeve.”
Then he crossed his arms over his chest and waited to see what Theda had to say next.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Theda stared at the stony expression on Captain Kane's face and tried to discern his mood. His stance said he was angry. Fine, so was she.
“Captain, if you would be so kind as to wait a moment, I'll be right with you.”
He jerked his head in a quick nod. Satisfied that he wasn't going to disappear, Theda led her young charge into her room but left the door open. “Lydia, please hand me a cloth for Margaret. She's been through a rough patch.”
Margaret's tears had already slowed to a small trickle. Theda used the linen to wipe her face dry. “You're safe now. I think a small glass of wine is in order.”
Before accepting the drink, Margaret turned back to face the grim warrior in the hall. “Captain Kane, thank
you for coming to my rescue. I don't know what I would have done if you hadn't arrived when you did.”
If Theda hadn't been looking at Kane at that exact moment, she would have missed seeing his eyes widen in shock. Why? Was he truly so surprised to have someone show a little appreciation for his efforts?
He nodded to acknowledge Margaret's thanks before turning his intense gaze back toward Theda. “I don't have much time, and we need to talk.”
It was more of an order than a suggestion. Either way, his words sounded ominous as his deep voice rumbled along her nerves, although it wasn't exactly fear that had her clenching her hands at her waist. More like a heightened awareness of the man leaning against the wall outside of her bedroom door. What could he want to discuss this late at night? She picked up a lit candle before joining him out in the hallway and pulled the door closed behind her.
He straightened and looked up and down the hallway. “Is there somewhere more private we can go? I'd rather not be seen with you.”
So few did, but his blunt statement still hurt. “Fine. My solar is close by.”
Although perhaps she was being as foolish as Margaret had been in trusting a drunken guard to see her home safely. They walked in silence to the end of the hallway. She led the way into the solar, using her candle to light several more, driving back the shadows. Despite the flickering light, the man standing beside her seemed to carry his own darkness with him.