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Authors: Janet B. Taylor

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BOOK: Into the Dim
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“So what do we do now?” I knelt beside him. “Say
abracadabra
? Click our heels together?”

Bran snorted. When he shifted on the rock, though, a quiet moan escaped.

“Let me see.”

Unprotesting, he let me draw up the hem of his tunic. I sucked in a quiet breath. The wound had broken open. Dark blood and murky fluids drenched the side of his breeches. The red streaks across his abdomen were now a dark, malevolent purple. When he touched my hair, in question, it was a moment before I could face him.

“Okay,” I tamped down the horror and plastered on a smile. “So . . . it's not that bad. But, uh, we probably need to get home pretty quick.”

“You,” he said, “are a terrible liar.”

I opened my mouth to argue, but he brought a finger to my lips.

“When we met by the river,” he said, “I had a purpose. Get the information for my mother. Do whatever she said, so she'd leave my brother where he was safe. Then, once he turned eighteen and could leave her, I'd take him away with me. We could go and I'd never be her bloody slave again.”

Inside the silence of the cavern, the only sound was Bran's raspy breath as he curled a strand of my hair around his finger.

“But there you were,” he said, “so shy and funny, but brave, too. So beautiful and so damn brilliant that everything changed.”

He leaned in toward me, his lips hot embers where they touched my cheeks, my lashes, my forehead. His hands scorched my cheeks as they cradled my face.

“I've thought of you every single day since they took us, you know.” His voice was husky. It filled me with a need so deep, I couldn't get close enough to him.

He smiled ruefully. “When I was small, and things were so bad at home, I'd pretend you were a lost princess in a tower, and that I'd be the shining knight who rescued you.”

I trembled in the cold as tears stung my eyes. “You did.” His eyes widened, as I choked out the words. “Don't you know that?”

The kiss was sweet. A blessing. My eyes closed as I leaned into him. When he rose onto his knees, I went with him. His hands burrowed into my hair, his mouth slanting over mine again and again. When he gave a deep, guttural growl, I felt it all the way to my toes. The kiss turned desperate, hungry. Savage. I was soaring, the blood singing in my veins as I twined my arms around his neck, and I knew I'd wanted this since the first moment I'd seen him in the river. Since the instant I'd felt that strange connection between us. I felt something click into place, like two long-lost puzzle pieces finally brought together and made whole.

The muscles in his shoulders bunched as he pressed me to him. We breathed each other. Fire and ice.

Chapter 47

I
FELT HIM SMILE AS HE MURMURED AGAINST MY LIPS
, “I cannot
tell
you how long I've wanted to do—”

A thunk vibrated through me. Bran went instantly limp in my arms and slithered bonelessly from my grip. My eyes popped open, and I couldn't comprehend what I was seeing.

Bran puddled on the cold stone. And behind him, a stout club still raised in his fist, stood Eustace Clarkson.

“Hallo, pretty,” the foul guard said, showing mossy teeth.

I scrambled away until my back met the cold stone wall. With an arrogant nonchalance, Eustace dropped the club and bent over Bran, his greedy eyes brightening at the sight of his fine, twin blades.

The side of his face where I'd struck him with the candlestick was purple and swollen. Eustace caught my look and touched the cheek.

“It's time to collect payment for this.” His hand moved from his cheek to the ties on his hose.

Disgust twisted my guts.
Think. Think. There has to be a way out of this.

Eustace lunged without warning, raising me up and slamming me hard against the wall in one motion. My head smacked into stone. Waves of pain crashed through my brain. He was huge, his muscles hard and sinewy. My torn fingernails dug for his eyes. I tried to stomp his instep or kick him in the crotch like Phoebe had taught me. But he was too close, and I only connected with his thigh.

His lips drew back in a snarl, and he slapped me with such force, I nearly went limp. Stars exploded in my vision an instant before the pain arrived.

Bran. Oh God, please, Bran. Please wake up.

But I was alone. And no one would ever hear me scream.

My left eye was already swelling shut from the blow. A trickle of liquid ran from my nose, rimming my teeth with the iron taste of blood. I slapped and scratched at Eustace, but he merely clamped my wrists together in one hand and slammed them above my head. His bulbous nose smashed against mine as wet, flabby lips wormed over my closed mouth. I squeezed my thighs together as he viciously tried to wedge his knee between them.

Weak. Weak. Weak.

“NO!”
I writhed and twisted, but he was too strong. He yanked at my bodice. My dress ripped down the front like it was made of paper.

Furious tears turned the torches into giant prisms. God, I wanted to tear out his eyes, his black heart. Black as the inside of the chasm.

The chasm.

My eyes darted to the small opening and chasm beyond. An idea began to form as he slobbered on my neck.

“So,” I made myself say, “you're nothing but Becket's lackey, huh? While he's dining with the king, he sends you down here to do his dirty work.”

I wasn't exactly sure where I was going with this. But the jealous words Eustace had spat at the other guard earlier had roared up in my memory.

In minute degrees, I forced myself to meet his pale, insipid eyes. “I bet he didn't even mention the treasure.”

A glimmer of confusion flickered behind his eyes. He leaned closer, his stubble grating against my cheek as he growled in my ear. “There's no treasure.”

I made myself slump in his grip, trying not to wince at the rotted-meat stench of his breath. “You're right. Just do whatever you want, then. I won't fight. But leave me here when you're done.” I looked pointedly at the chasm. “I didn't want to share it anyway.”

Eustace followed my gaze, just as I'd hoped. His mouth and chin gleamed with bloody spittle. “You lie.”

But I saw the indecision on his face, and pressed on. “Don't pretend you haven't heard. Everyone knows about the treasure of the abbey cave.”

He studied my face. When his tongue flickered out to lick my blood from his lips, I clenched my teeth to keep from gagging.

With a final twist of my wrists, he let go and backed away. “All right, wench. What treasure? Where?”

Again, I let him see my eyes flick to the dark opening.

Careful now. Not too obvious.

“Um, I'm not sure exactly.”

When he wrapped his fist in my hair, I could feel each individual strand rip loose from my scalp. He forced me to my knees, bending my head back at an unnatural angle. “You tell me where it is,” he snarled in my ear as he moved behind me. “Or . . .”

I heard the snick of steel just before the edge of his blade stung my throat. A trickle of blood oozed down my chest.

“Fine.” Terrified, I didn't dare breathe. “It's there. Just inside that opening in the stone.”

“Show me.”

He jerked me to my feet and frog marched me to the entrance of the Dim. As we approached, a cold breath of wind huffed out of the chasm. It smelled of grave dirt and nightmares, and even Eustace took an involuntary step back. When it ceased, the goon's hand flew forward, wrapping around my throat. He lifted me until my toes barely touched the ground.

I heaved, scratching, fighting for breath.

“Tell me where!” he bellowed, tossing me back to the floor. I landed hard on my hip. A stab of pain shot up my side as the Nonius Stone—nestled deep inside my pocket—plowed into my flesh. I rolled over, retching.

When he stalked over, fist raised, I cowered.

“Yes! I'll tell you,” I didn't have to fake the sobs. “Please—don't hit me again.” I took a ragged breath. “The treasure is in a jeweled case, on a ledge inside the crevice. You have to lean way in to reach it.”

I scuttled away until my back met the damp wall, my hands wedged behind my back. My blood-caked fingertips ached against the cool pebbled surface.

Eustace stopped a couple of feet from the entrance, then swiveled back to me, eyes narrowed. “You get it.” He snapped his fingers at me, as if I were a dog.

“I can't reach it.” I bowed my head, letting my hair curtain the faint gleam of hope in my eyes. “Lord Brandon was supposed to—”

“Shut up,” he said, “and stay where you are.”

He jabbed the dagger at me in warning and turned back to the chasm. Stroking his weak chin in thought, he moved to the opening.

Turning back, he leered at me. “If this treasure is worth it—and you please me properly—I may let you live. Might even give you a coin or two when we're done.”

Laughing, he sheathed the dagger and leaned out over the edge, steadying himself on the wall with his left hand.

I knew I'd have only one shot. If I failed, Eustace would kill us both. And I had no doubt that he'd make my death very, very unpleasant.

“You'd best not be lying to me, wench. If you are, I'll cut your pretty little tongue out of your head.” He leered. “
After
you use it on me, of course.” He laughed at his own joke, but the chasm ate his laughter. He shot a look over his shoulder, looking uneasy for the first time. “Where the devil is it?” he growled. “Damn, it's cold as a nun's tit in here. And why does it feel so queer in this place? Like ants crawling over me?”

I closed my eyes. Every possible option flooded out before me in a neon-green overlay. In an instant, my brain had calculated the perfect angle, the required velocity, the number of steps it would take. Every muscle in my body tensed, ready. Eustace began to turn, his ugly, battered profile illuminated by the torchlight.

“Higher.” I kept my eyes locked on him as I inched to a standing position. “You have to reach up high.”

A sudden wind blasted from the chasm. It circled the chamber, sending tiny pebbles skittering. “I feel nothing,” Eustance said. “What the hell was—”

I launched myself from the wall, slamming into him from behind with every bit of strength I had left. Already unbalanced, Eustace teetered, arms pinwheeling. His horrified eyes met mine for a split second before gravity won and he tumbled over the edge. At the last instant, he snatched the hem of my skirts. His weight dragged me forward, and my feet skidded over the slick stones as the brute dangled over the seemingly bottomless chasm.

Bracing a hand against the rock face, I jerked desperately at the fabric. A look of pure terror washed over his snarling face as the material ripped. The sound of it reverberated as Eustace Clarkson tumbled backwards into the abyss.

His screams echoed around me. I clapped my hands over my ears, but it didn't help. There was no cutoff. The sound only grew fainter, until finally it faded away.

Chapter 48

I
SANK TO MY KNEES, MY LEGS UNABLE TO HOLD ME AS
I crawled back to Bran. Wind circled the cavern, casting the pebbles in an endless loop around us. I groped at the side of his neck, praying frantically for a pulse. At first there was nothing. No answering beat.

“Oh no. Oh no. Oh no.”

I rolled him to his back and tried again. My fingertips were all but numb. I pressed harder, begging, until finally I felt a weak, threadbare thump of life.

Sobbing with relief, I grabbed his hands and dragged him to the center of the room, into the eye of the cyclone that was building around us. His skin felt like fire beneath my palms.

“Bran,” I cried, “wake up. You have to wake up.”

The glimmering light played across his pale features and closed eyelids. His breaths were so shallow that his chest barely moved, and no matter how hard I shook him, he still didn't respond. Wincing, I slapped him, twice, as hard as I could. My fingers raised scarlet welts on his cheeks.

Now furious, exhausted, and more frightened than I'd ever been in my entire life, I screamed, “You jerk! How can you do this to me? You lied to me. You spied on me. You followed me here. Your screwed-up mom nearly killed mine. And now you are going to just lie there unconscious while I deal with this alone? Oh hell no.
Hell
no!”

I shook him so hard, his head bounced off the stone. Sinking back, I hugged my knees and rocked back and forth, my face buried in my skirts. I had a sudden, fierce longing for Collum's sturdy presence and Phoebe's cheerful comfort.

I let out a long string of curses, pounding the stone with my fists until they were scratched and stinging.

“Such language.” My head shot up at the creaky voice. “And, uh . . . not to abuse the cliché,” he said, groaning, “but where am I?”

I threw myself on top of him, darting small kisses on every inch of his face. He winced. “Ow. Why do my cheeks hurt?”

My hair hung down, framing his face as I grinned. “No idea.”

His brows drew together. One fingertip traced a gentle line across my cheek. “Your face.”

“Doesn't matter.”

Nothing mattered, because Bran was alive. He was
alive.
His eyes darted around the room. Though the wind was sweeping around the perimeter of the cave, its velocity growing, it barely touched us. “Do I want to know what happened?”

He struggled to his feet, his hand clutching his side. I glanced away from the dark pool of blood he left behind.

“It was Eustace,” I said. Once I started babbling, I couldn't get the words out fast enough. “He hit you from behind. The wind started a few minutes ago. I have no idea if it means what we hope it does. I thought you were dead. Then he . . . he tried to . . . And so I—”

“Did he hurt you?” Bran's voice was deceptively soft, but I could see rage glimmer in his eyes as he pulled the edges of my ripped bodice together and tied it closed. “Did that bastard touch you?”

BOOK: Into the Dim
4.43Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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