Slight and Shadow (Fate's Forsaken: Book Two) (10 page)

BOOK: Slight and Shadow (Fate's Forsaken: Book Two)
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Kael tried not to think about this as he swallowed. Instead, he convinced himself that the porridge was nothing more than a mushy helping of Tinnarkian stew.

He’d finished two handfuls and was going in for a third when a monstrous hand clamped over his wrist. By this point, Kael was entirely fed up. The giants could make fun of him all they wanted to, but if they tried to stop him from eating — well, that was going to be a problem.

When he looked up to say as much, the icy words died on his lips.

This giant was not like the others. Porridge ringed his mouth, dribbling from his lips and down his neck, where it crusted onto the collar of his ragged shirt. His skin was so filthy that his hair had actually begun to yellow. But the worst part, by far, were his eyes.

They were a stark, milky white — like the eyes of a man who’d been dead for a while. They hung still in their sockets; they didn’t rove over Kael or even narrow in warning. So he was rather shocked when he was suddenly thrown to the ground.

“Argh!”

The giant bellowed as he stood over Kael. He seemed to be trying to speak, but his tongue rolled uselessly inside his gaping mouth. Finally, he seemed to give up on speaking and instead, raised his huge foot over Kael’s head.

His meaning couldn’t have been clearer.

Kael forgot about his aching bones and rolled madly to the side. He swore he could feel the earth shake as the giant’s foot came down. He’d narrowly missed being crushed to death, and he realized that this wasn’t a battle he was going to win. So he scrambled to his feet and tried to make a dash for the nearest stall — but the giant grabbed him by the shoulders.

With his arms pinned to his side, Kael had no choice but to fight dirty. He swung his leg up and caught the giant between the legs. It was a move he’d learned from Aerilyn — and one that had so far proven itself to be effective against men of all sizes. But even though his boot struck true, the giant didn’t release him. He
did
stop roaring for a moment, and his dead eyes blinked slowly.

But in the end, the blow only seemed to make him angrier.

One of the giant’s hands wrapped around his throat, and Kael’s feet left the ground. He grabbed the giant’s wrists, trying to hoist himself up and take the strain off of his neck. His legs kicked out wildly, his boots struck the thick meat of the giant’s chest and stomach, but did nothing to stop him. If anything, he only squeezed harder.

There was no emotion in the dead whites of the giant’s eyes — mercy least of all. Kael knew that if he didn’t think of something quickly, he’d be killed. No one rushed to his aid. Not even Brend or Declan rose to help him.

Starbursts of black exploded across his eyes as the giant’s grip tightened. He only had a precious few seconds of consciousness left. The giant raised Kael higher, lifting him until he could see the top of his yellowed head — and it gave him an idea.

He took his arms off the giant’s wrists and balled his hands into a single fist. In his mind, he saw a mountain boulder. He clung to the image, remembering the smooth, unforgiving texture and the impossible weight. As he concentrated, he watched as his hands began to change: his fingers grayed, he could see cracks and crevices breaking out across his skin as his fist became like stone. His arms shook violently under the weight until he could no longer hold them.

His fists came down, and the giant released him.

Kael landed flat on his back. The wind left his lungs and he clutched his throat, feeling for any lasting damage. Fortunately, there was none — and for one brief second, he was relieved. Then he heard a groan from above him and looked up in time to see the giant lose his footing.

He swayed back and forth on his heels, his mouth open and listless. A stream of scarlet trickled from the top of his head and down his nose. His eyes rolled back, and then he fell.

It took the last of Kael’s strength to roll backwards. The giant’s head clipped the heel of his boot, but he managed to save himself from being crushed to death.

He lay on his back for a moment, massaging his sore throat and easing little breaths of air back into his lungs. He was none-too-pleased when Brend’s face popped into view.

“Would you look at that?” he bellowed, rattling Kael’s ears. “The wee rat’s still got a bit of life left in him.” He glanced towards the fallen giant. “Ah, the same can’t be said for poor Casey.”

“At least he’ll finally be at rest now, poor soul,” one of the giants said, and there was a murmur of agreement from the others.

Brend nodded slowly. He seemed about to say something else when the light in the barn suddenly dimmed. The fires of the torches shrank back, as if they’d been battered by a stiff wind. Then came a rumble of hurried footsteps.

“Grab his clothes, Brend!”

“All right.”

Even though he was near to passing out, Kael still had the presence of mind to clutch his shirt tightly. He couldn’t let the giants see his whisperer’s mark.

Brend chuckled as he stepped over Kael to get to the dead giant. “Oh, your wee trousers wouldn’t cover much.”

Kael heard a ripping sound as Brend relieved Casey of his clothing. Then he headed for the stalls, nudging Kael with his foot as he passed.

“I’d get moving, were I you — you don’t want to go all crispy.”

That was the last thing Kael needed. He struggled to his feet, the world spinning around him. He’d just gotten his footing when the stall doors began to close.

They moved of their own accord, screeching down the rusted iron bars that served as their tracks. The taint of magic filled the room like a cloud. Kael managed to take a few steps before the smell finally overcame him. He fell on hands and knees, heaving against the horrible smell and at the same time, fighting to keep his dinner down.

He crawled for the nearest stall — the black opening shrank to hardly a crack as the door slid over it. He wasn’t going to make it in time. There was nothing he could do.

Just when he’d resigned himself to whatever crispy fate awaited him, an arm shot out of the opening. A large hand grabbed Kael around the collar and jerked him to safety. His ankle struck the door as he was pulled through, pain shot up his leg, but he didn’t care — he was safe. He looked up to see which giant had saved him, and was met by the stern face of Declan.

He watched Kael intently from the shadow over his eyes. There was a loud crackling sound out in the aisle, followed by a burst of blue light. But Declan never blinked.

“There goes Casey.” Brend had been craning his neck over the stall door, watching the aisle. He shook his head as the blue light faded and dropped into a crouch. He flicked Kael’s arm with the back of his hand. “Lucky for you that Declan thought to reel you in, eh?”

“Very lucky,” Kael snapped back. “Especially since you left me to die.”

There was a mocking edge to the hurt on Brend’s face. “I thought you were right behind me — I swear it by the plains mother.” Then his mask gave way to a smile as he punched Declan in the arm. “Why’d you have to drag him in
here
? You should’ve flung him into one of the Fallow stalls.”

Declan didn’t return his smile. Suspicion lined his face, bending his mouth more deeply than before. “No,” he said slowly. “I think it’s best if we keep an eye on this one. He’s already proved himself to be the Kingdom’s most interesting rat.”

“What are the Fallows?” Kael said, quickly changing the subject. When Declan didn’t answer him, he turned to Brend. “The giant who attacked me — Casey … there was something wrong with his eyes. It was almost as if he was …”

“Dead?” Brend said as he pawed through Casey’s ragged clothing. “Well, that’s because he
was
dead, wee rat. Dead up here.” He tapped the side of his head. “Why do you think we call them the
Fallows
? The ground’s all tilled up, but there’s not a thing left growing — if you know what I mean.”

Kael wasn’t sure he did. All he knew was that he didn’t want to wind up like Casey. “What happened to him?”

“Gilderick,” Declan grunted, his shadowed face still pointed in Kael’s direction. There was a murmur of agreement from the other giants in the stall. “He sucks the soul right out of them, and leaves naught but an empty husk behind.”

Kael wasn’t sure he believed that. It was true that the Lord of the plains had a dark reputation, but he’d never seen anything like what had happened to Casey. It didn’t seem possible for a man to be dead, but his body left to wander around.

When he said as much, the giants snorted.

“Gilderick is a monster.” Brend’s eyes glinted with what might’ve been scorn or fury — Kael couldn’t tell. “He waits till one of us is injured or falls ill, and then he strikes. Many a good giant has been dragged from the fields, bleeding or sick. And they never come back the same.”

“We aren’t even allowed to
die
in peace,” Declan growled. While the rest of the giants had crowded in to listen to Brend’s tale, Declan hung back. He leaned against the far wall, watching.

“Do you know how he got the name Gilderick the Gruesome?” Brend said.

When Kael shook his head, Brend leaned forward.

“Well, during the Whispering War, he served as King Banagher’s chief interrogator. Whenever they caught a rebel whisperer, they’d pass him off to Gilderick. They say he had a special room in Midlan — deep down in the belly of the castle. Only Gilderick and his subjects were allowed inside. They say you could hear the screams from the upper towers.” Brend paused, and the silence in the barn made the crackling of the torches sound unbearably loud. “Gilderick wore a leather apron, smeared black with blood. And there was a bloody handprint stained into his doorframe, from where he’d lean out to tell the scribes what he learned.

“Everybody says he tortured them, but no one could ever prove it,” Brend whispered. His gaze swept around the room for a weighty moment, and the giants leaned in. “The rebels would stumble from the castle a few days later, not so much as a scrape or a bruise about them. Then they’d wander out into the wilderness — never to be seen or heard from again. We can’t
prove
that it’s him,” Brend’s eyes flicked back to Kael’s, “but we do know this: a man is never quite the same … after an audience with Lord Gilderick.”

Kael tried to shrug Brend’s tale aside — but he didn’t sleep well that night.

Chapter 9

The Head of an Arrow

 

 

 

 

 

 

Countess D’Mere’s eyes hovered across the last page of Aerilyn’s letter, moving in a slow, brooding line. Then she folded the parchment neatly and set it aside.

Elena had arrived back at the castle shortly after sunset, and now it was only an hour before dawn. D’Mere spent the night sifting through each one of Aerilyn’s rambling notes, reading between the neat lines of her writing for the clues hidden just beneath. Her search had not been in vain.

Though she’d obviously tried to be cryptic, the truth still leaked out from Aerilyn’s stories — escaping into the open space that the vagueness left behind. It was what she
didn’t
say that most intrigued D’Mere. And that was how she came to learn of the Duke.

 

… Kael managed to get us into one of Reginald’s parties! Well, we weren’t exactly on the guest list — but Kael’s very resourceful, and he thought up a clever way to slip us in. I can’t say too much here, but I
will
say that we accomplished a great deal more than dancing. I know you’re dying to know more, but I simply can’t tell you.

All right, I’ll give you one clue: a night at the inn won’t cost you twelve silvers anymore. That ought to tell you everything you need to know …

 

Oh, it most certainly did. And D’Mere was happy to hear it.

“Reginald has fallen,” she whispered.

She said it so quietly that a dog lying beneath her chair wouldn’t have heard it. But Elena’s ears were far keener — she picked up D’Mere’s words from the hearth.

“You mean he’s been murdered, My Countess?”

She looked up from where she’d been tracing the lines of ink, and saw Elena sitting cross-legged before the fire. She still wore the clothes she’d traveled in, though now her scarlet corset was mud-stained and the toes of her boots were scuffed. Her back was turned so that she could watch both the door and D’Mere from the corners of her eyes. But the dagger in her hand held most of her attention.

It was entirely black, from pommel to tip. While she polished one dagger with oil and cloth, its twin sat sheathed on the ground beside her — both blades were nearly as long as her forearm.

D’Mere didn’t ask if she’d had to use them … but knowing Elena, she’d probably used them anyways.

“Not murdered,” D’Mere said, answering her question. “If Reginald had been killed, there would have been a war — and no doubt those gold-mongering merchants would’ve tried to drag us into it. No … more than likely, he’s been captured.” She flipped to the first page of the letter, prepared to begin her search again. “The only
real
question is: where are they holding him?”

“Would they not have left him in the island fortress, My Countess?” Elena said after a moment. She never took her eyes off the dagger — though her polishing slowed to a less-vigorous rate. “A rock floating out in the middle of the ocean would be difficult to breach. And they likely wouldn’t want to risk trying to transport him anywhere. What is it that you’re always muttering about the seas men?” She looked up from her work, her dark eyes lighted on D’Mere. “Something about the weather?”

“They only set sail in fair weather,” she supplied. She was half-pleased with Elena — and half-troubled. Things would have been so much … simpler, had she been as stupid as her brothers.

“Why didn’t His Majesty tell us?” Elena went on, digging herself deeper. “Surely he’s heard.”

“Perhaps not,” D’Mere murmured.

The walls of Midlan had gone strangely silent; its doors were sealed tightly shut. Even her spies were having a difficult time sneaking their way in. What few letters they managed to send were filled with all sorts of troubling rumors: tales of locked doors, closed passageways, and of windows being bricked shut. All of Midlan’s armies had been called back to the fortress — where they’d disappeared behind the impenetrable walls.

All across the Kingdom, the question was the same: had the King gone mad?

If so, Crevan wouldn’t have been the first. So many of the past Kings had fallen into madness that many believed the throne of Midlan was cursed — riddled with the spells of some ancient enemy. They said the halls were unnaturally cold, and the dungeons were rife with ghosts. D’Mere didn’t know if the stories were true … but she didn’t think any amount of gold could’ve tempted her to find out.

“I know Crevan. If he knew one of his rulers had fallen, he would’ve called his whole army out by now,” D’Mere said. She stood up from her chair and crossed to the map that hung on an otherwise-vacant portion of her wall. She followed the path of the High Seas and pressed her finger against Reginald’s island castle. “But I’ve no doubt that he’ll find out eventually. And if Reginald is still alive, the merchants might use him to bargain their way out — to put an early end to the war. We certainly can’t have that, can we?”

“No, My Countess. The war needs to weaken the King.”

Elena spoke from directly behind her. D’Mere hadn’t even heard her move. “Precisely,” she said, turning casually until both the girl and the map were in her vision.

“And the battle will draw him out of Midlan,” Elena added. She traced her dagger’s blade excitedly. D’Mere could hear the calluses on the tips of her fingers scraping against the edge. “It seems our plan will work even better than expected, My Countess.”

D’Mere smiled.

Oh, clever Elena — calm, clever, and in control. She had always been D’Mere’s favorite. After all, she’d outshined her brothers in every way: in stealth, memory, and wit. And while almost anybody could learn to kill, few were born to do it.

Elena had been born a killer.

D’Mere had entrusted her with her most troubling enemies, and the way she’d dispatched them was almost … artistic. There was never a mess, never a struggle. Elena didn’t waste time trying to create a scene, as so many of the others felt it necessary to do. No, she seemed to prefer subtlety and routine best of all: the utter shock of finding someone dead, having died doing something they did nearly every day.

Rabble-rousers would often disappear on their way to the village square to protest taxes. On more than one occasion, a property owner who was unwilling to sell his lands had fallen and tragically broken his neck. Randall had been her most recent target. His servants had discovered him dead on the floor of his office. The village healers claimed it was a trauma of the heart that finally did him in, a result of his unhealthy love of smoking.

It wasn’t a grandeur death — it might’ve happened to anybody. No, it was the
timing
that made it suspicious. It was the way these sorts of things always seemed to benefit D’Mere that got people talking. And she rather liked that about Elena. In fact, it reminded her of another resourceful young assassin she used to know …

But her pride could only go so far before it ran into her fear. Elena was no longer a little girl. She was very much a woman, now — and her powers were growing beyond D’Mere’s control.

Our
plan?
Our
was such a small word, and yet it had such potential to be deadly. It was the head of an arrow; the fully formed idea was not far behind. And if Elena ever thought to put any force behind it … well, D’Mere’s days as Countess would be shortened to an arrow’s flight.

No, the hour had finally come. It was time to do something about Elena.

“I have a task for you,” she said. She crossed over to her desk and felt Elena following silently behind her. “Obviously, we’ll need to get to Reginald before the King does. He’ll sing like a lark if Midlan captures him — and we certainly can’t have that.”

“It will be done, My Countess.”

“Good.” She pulled one of her desk drawers open and began to dig inside of it. “Oh — and take Holthan with you.”

Elena inhaled sharply. “Don’t you trust me to do it on my own?”


Trust
has nothing to do with my decision,” D’Mere replied curtly. “After you’ve taken care of the Duke, I need you to go straight to the desert — which means I’ll need Holthan to bring me news of your success. It’s a job for two.”

“Then can’t I bring the others —?”

“The others are going to stay with me. You’ll take Holthan, and you’ll be silent about it. Understood?”

She thought she could practically hear the grate of Elena’s words as they slid between her teeth: “Yes, My Countess.”

A few moments passed where the only sounds in the room were the crackling of the fire, and of D’Mere as she shuffled through her desk — though she could feel Elena seething at her back. After a fair bit of digging, D’Mere found them.

They were tucked inside a box at the back of her drawer: three flat knives. Their blades were the length of D’Mere’s smallest finger, not even long enough to be considered deadly. But when she held them to the light, she could see the faint purple poison that coated their edges.

“Be very careful with these,” she said, handing them over to Elena. “This is not a poison you’ve used before.”

She held them in her left hand, fanning out their blades in a macabre bouquet. “What is it, My Countess?”

“A special remedy, for a … special problem.” She stood and took Elena by the wrists, bending her head forward in confidence. “You see, for all of our careful planning, there’s one pawn we cannot control,” she whispered, making sure to keep Elena’s eyes locked on hers. “Aerliyn mentioned that the Dragongirl has spilt from the main party. She may have been useful to us this time — but how much longer before she comes after me? How long will it be before she tries to cast me from my throne? She is a danger to us all, for as long as she lives.” D’Mere took Elena under the chin and gave her a motherly smile. “That’s why I need you to travel to the desert, where I believe she intends to strike next. Find out where Dragongirl is hiding … and remove her from the board. Will you do that for me, my dear?”

Elena’s face softened considerably. Her brows, usually stuck in downward slopes, bent backwards in dutiful arcs as she nodded.

D’Mere smiled and patted her gently on the cheek. “Thank you. Now, gather whatever supplies you need and let Holthan know of his duties. I’ve got to write to Lord Gilderick — he’ll be pleased to know that I’ve accepted his invitation.”

Elena stopped at the doorway. “I thought you said you weren’t going this year.”

“Well … I’ve changed my mind,” D’Mere said, flipping her hair over her shoulder. “Leave now, and travel quickly.”

Elena nodded, slowly. She still looked confused as she closed the door.

The moment she was gone, D’Mere could hold it in no longer. She hurried across the room and tore through the piles of letters, flinging them aside until she came to the last one. She read the final sentence Aerilyn had written, hoping against hope that she’d somehow misread it. But she hadn’t:

 

I can’t tell you where we’re headed next, dear Horatio — Kael said it wouldn’t be safe to tell. But I
can
offer you a riddle: what’s the distance of the sea, and what would the opposite of lavish be?

 

The Endless Plains.

D’Mere’s heart began to pound as she grabbed a quill and parchment. She quickly scribbled a letter to Gilderick, her hands shaking all the while. The moment she was finished, she stood. Her nightgown swept out behind her as she paced, the soles of her feet were damp against the cold stone floor.

She didn’t like this sick feeling, this sort of worry. She wasn’t at all used to it — and to be perfectly honest, she never thought she would have to feel it. Her mind should be focused on more important matters, after all. There were far greater things at stake than the fate of a merchant’s daughter who’d wandered so foolishly into Gilderick’s realm …

And then again, there was nothing greater.

 

*******

 

Dark clouds gathered over Midlan in the early afternoon. They hovered above the fortress for an hour or so, swelling as they murmured their rumbling threats to the soldiers who wandered outside the barracks. At last, the clouds seemed to run out of things to say. And for a while, the grounds were silent.

Then they opened their gullets and spewed forth such a downpour of icy rain that every man went sprinting for shelter.

Argon watched it all take place from his window. He kept his chambers high atop one of the castle’s smallest towers, and from there he had quite a view of the chaos beneath him. He could even hear the rhythmic
tink
of the rain as it landed on the soldiers’ ironclad heads. Even though they’d just begun their shifts, they already had to pace across the walls to stay warm. It would be a wretched watch, and though Argon certainly pitied them, they would find no mercy from the King.

With every night the Dragongirl went unfound, Crevan slipped closer to the brink of madness. He traveled his own halls with his sword drawn and ready at his hip, a torch burning in his other hand. He slept in full armor. Not one week ago, Argon heard the servants claim that the King had ordered the windows in his throne room to be covered in mortar and stone.

BOOK: Slight and Shadow (Fate's Forsaken: Book Two)
10Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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