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Authors: A Rose in Winter

Shana Abe (41 page)

BOOK: Shana Abe
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“There is no future for you,” she said simply.

“Step away from my wife,” came the icy command from the doorway.

Redmond stilled; she saw the past and the present and the future blend, she saw the three of them from outside of herself and from within: violence, then a calm that portended all was ending right now. It was ending, and she knew how it would end.

Then Redmond smiled at her, a gentle smile she had seen countless times before, and so knew what it meant.

In the instant before his hand moved, she flung herself to the ground and rolled without hesitation, avoiding the deadly drive of his sword but still feeling the sting of it as it sliced at her arm. In the next heartbeat Damon had let out a bellow of outrage and was upon him. Redmond used his momentum to carry himself forward, but it was too late. As he swung up and around, Damon had already delivered the fatal thrust, piercing Redmond’s leather jerkin as if it were nothing but spun cotton.

Solange scrambled out of the way as his body fell to the ground with a heavy thud, a lifeless shape with a spreading stain of blood on the ribs.

Damon stood immobile, sword still poised in the air. He was breathing heavily, though not from exertion. He was lithe and taut and ready to fight again, even though the battle was over and the enemy was defeated. The point of the sword began to quiver ever so slightly.

She went over to him and put both her hands over his.

“Put it away now, my lord. This work is done.”

He resisted the light pull of her hands at first, not seeing her, not hearing her. She kept her back to the thing that had been Redmond, and stepped in front of Damon, trying to catch his eyes.

“My love, my beloved. It’s over. Let us go.”

His eyes remained fixed behind her. Over his shoulder Solange saw Godwin walk in, give the body a dismissive glance and her a longer one. “The marchioness is injured,” he said dispassionately.

That brought Damon back.

“Where?” He dropped the sword and brought her into the jagged line of moonlight creeping into the room.

“ ’Tis nothing,” she said hastily. “A scratch.” His hands carefully pulled apart the torn cloth around her shoulder, revealing the razor thin cut Redmond had given her as she had rolled away from him. It had to be deeper than it looked. The crimson of her blood was smudged black in the darkness.

“We should get her back to Wolfhaven,” Godwin suggested in his diffident voice.

“Aye,” Damon agreed. “Have the others take care of this.” He gestured to the form on the floor. “And the rest of them.”

He could barely think of what he was doing. All he knew was he had to get her to safety. She was bleeding, dear Lord, and he had to staunch it, he had to think of what he could do to staunch it. He would fix her at Wolfhaven. Wolfhaven was the key.

When a party of his men from Wolfhaven had ridden out to meet his own group returning three full nights ahead of schedule from Ironstag, he had fought the rising panic in his gut with a steely force. When they had told him she was missing, that a child had babbled of a monster in the old orchard and that she had gone back alone to fight it, he had heard enough to push Tarrant forward into the run of his life, thinking only of her, of saving her, of fighting whatever she was facing.

Somehow there was no doubt in his mind who that monster might be. A part of him had known all along that Redmond was not dead, that he could not have
been dead, and now he had Solange again. The thunder was coming again, that old familiar ally. The thunder of the hooves and in the sky were blending together to drown everything else, bringing out the warrior’s instinct until it burned away every other part of him, until it left him as honed and sharp as his blade. The Wolf was alive in him once more.

The warrior met with the men at the gate of Wolfhaven, found the tracks that led to the woods, found the two sets that had followed hers, doubled back, and then followed her again, and then found the place where his wife had collapsed into the snow, leaving the clear imprint of her body where she had fallen before they had picked her up and carried her away.

The thunder had been a stone in his heart until then. At that moment he came closer than any other in his life to letting go of his reason altogether. He could trace her outline in the pristine white snow where her arms had been outflung, where her head had lain to the side. But there was no blood, as Godwin had pointed out. No blood.

Not yet.

It had been remarkably easy to find the old sod dugout, even though he had not guessed it existed before now. Easy to follow the trail of the two men. Easier still when he heard the wolves attacking, guiding him right to her.

And it had been easy to kill Redmond. The thunder had been silenced when he had drawn the life out of that body.

He didn’t know what was wrong with him now. It
should have been over. The anger should be gone. It
gone. But what was this new thing?

“I am fine,” Solange was saying over and over. “I am fine.”

She was not fine. He could see that there was blood soaking her arm, coming down in blackened ribbons, making his hands tremble again as he held the reins of his stallion, making him push the horse as hard and as safely as he dared in the snowy night to get them home.

They were waiting for him at the gate, those who had not ridden with his search party. They were men with stony faces, women with weeping ones, all of them converging upon them as Damon brought Tarrant to a halt.

“I am fine,” Solange assured them, but he didn’t allow her more than that. He issued a curt command for his medicine bag to be brought to him, then carried her in, ignoring her protests, to the great hall.

He put her in a chair next to the fireplace, fed her the warm soup the servants brought for her, pushed back her hair, and then ripped the gown from her shoulder to expose the wound.

It’s not that bad, his logic told him. You’ve seen far worse.

But it’s
, howled his heart, it’s
bleeding, it’s
flesh that is torn. He stared at the cut, at the flow of blood, and tried to think of what he should do next, but he couldn’t. He had no idea. Everything, all his field experience, all his learning, was banished. It was her blood. It was her

One of her hands touched his cheek. It was like ice. “Damon. Drink the soup.”

He didn’t want any damned soup. He wanted to fix her arm. He had to fix it, but he just couldn’t think of how. He looked up at her blankly, hoping she could help him. She smiled. “A sip, my love. For me.”

He slowly became aware that there was a crowd gathered around them both, and that someone was holding a bowl of broth beneath his nose. He hesitated, then took the bowl and drank it and handed it back. The bracing warmth of it allowed him to breathe a little better.

“Hot water,” he said suddenly. “I need hot water and clean cloths.”

“Here, my lord,” said a woman he knew, Solange’s companion, pointing to the basin of steaming water at his feet. “And here are the cloths, my lord.” She put two into his hands and held on to the rest, standing ready.

“ ’Tis only a scratch,” Solange said. “You were lucky,” he said gruffly as he began to clean the cut.

“I know,” she replied.

he slept through the night and past the next day and night, making him fear she had slipped into a fever somehow when he was not watching her closely enough. But no, her forehead remained cool to his touch, even though she didn’t stir, not even when the child she had rescued had to see for himself that she was alive and came into the room that night with his mother in tow, gulping down tears until he saw the
covers rise and fall with the rhythm of her slumber. She did not stir when Damon at last lay beside her, on top of the covers, nor when he got up the next morning. She did not stir when he changed the bandage on her arm twice, checked on the fine stitches he had sewn himself to close the wound, and replaced the herbal poultice he had mixed for her. She slept on.

But the afternoon of the second day brought a sunbeam to drift across her face, warming it and gradually brightening the redness behind her closed eyes until she was squinting. When she tried to raise an arm to cover her face, she found she could not move either of them, and this caused her to open her eyes and turn her head.

On her right she could see a thick white padding secured to her arm, and felt the streak of pain when she attempted to lift it. That explained that.

On her left were no bandages, but rather the sleeping figure of Damon, sitting on a low chair but bent over the bed so his head rested on the covers, one of his hands holding fast to hers.

What she could see of his face was drawn and haggard, though she thought, blurrily, that the rough stubble of beard gave him a roguish charm.

The irrelevance of the thought tickled her mind and made her smile a little. Damon stirred, tightening his grip on her fingers before moving his head, blinking wearily into the brightness of the light. He looked up and caught the remnant of her smile, then blinked again, as if to clear his vision.

She said nothing, but kept her smile in place, allowing him the moment of adjustment. Immediately he
was up, placing a hand over her forehead. “How do you feel?”

“Most excellent,” she said. “And you?”

His reply was to sit on the chair again and bow his head low over the hand he held. With a great deal of effort she managed to lift her other hand and bring it over to rest on top of his head, letting her fingers comb through the luxuriant strands. He didn’t move to stop her. He didn’t move at all, just allowed the caress, breathing shakily down into the covers of the bed.

There were no other sounds she could hear, no noises from the hallway, no birdsong outside the diamondglass window; only him, only the sweet sound of his breath filling her room, the beauty of him overflowing in her.

“I tried to kill him myself,” she said, still stroking his hair. “Right before you came.”

Still he said nothing, but moved his head to rest his cheek upon the back of her hand. He stared off into someplace she couldn’t see.

“I didn’t want to deceive you.” Her own voice sounded somewhat strange to her, as if she were listening to someone else speak. “I thought he might have actually been dead when you arrived. It certainly seemed as if he were about to die the last time I had looked in on him. I was going to wait one more day before leaving, but then you came, and I …” She trailed off momentarily, then continued, stronger. “I wanted to leave with you. I knew you didn’t want to accompany me, but I had to try to get you to come. I was so glad that you did.”

“You didn’t tell me any of this,” he said, still not looking at her. “You should have told me.”

She felt a faint amusement. “What, my lord, that I had attempted to murder my husband not three days before, and that now I needed to flee the country before I could be formally accused? Oh, yes, I can imagine how receptive you would have been to helping me then.”

“You should have told me. You should have trusted me to help you.”

“Perhaps you are right.” There was no hostility in her voice, only her typical calm reflection. “But I could not take that chance. I had to leave Du Clar. By my life, I had to leave.”

“Aye, by your life you did!” Damon raised his head and looked at her fully. Anger tightened the lines around his mouth. “And now I know full well why! You risked your life to end that of a man who should never have been allowed to live in the first place! You were left to fend for yourself against that monstrosity, who cut and maimed you—”

“He had not touched me for an age, Damon. It had been years since I had seen him last. And I did not give him the opportunity to hurt me again. By the eve of his return I had already taken care of him.”

It felt remarkably good to talk about this to him at last. The words flowed from her tongue and she let them out, breaking loose the last of the chains of the past. “It was the blood, you see. It was what he wanted, for his tests. The experiments. The alchemy ruled him, it had always ruled him, and he needed me, he said, something in me made them better. But after
that time at Wellburn, when I was ill … he sent me to France to recover, and I refused to return. I threatened to do whatever I could to foul his experiments. For a while, it worked.”

Damon was staring at the back of her hand. “And then?”

“And then, one day, he came back.” She left the rest unsaid, because the memories had taken her back to that brutal day two years ago, and once again she could not speak from the fury within her, she could not voice the keen despair that had swept her as she had watched Gytha die at his hands. Within that memory grew the newer one, that of Redmond laughing at her, laughing at the memory of a good man offering everything for her. It mingled with his laughter as he taunted her with the blood of her horse still splashed on his boots.

The most wicked of men was always laughing, she thought, and wondered what he had laughed about over his dinner that night she had given him the hemlock.

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