Slight and Shadow (Fate's Forsaken: Book Two) (7 page)

BOOK: Slight and Shadow (Fate's Forsaken: Book Two)
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“Well, no —”

“Do you think Harbinger is a murderer?”

He scoffed. “That’s completely ridiculous. How could a
sword
be a murderer?”

“Exactly — he can’t be. And even though he likes to think that he’s got a mind of his own, he still swings when I tell him to.” Jake could see where she was going and tried to argue, but she grabbed him under the chin. “The Duke and the Witch used you for a sword. But you aren’t a sword anymore, are you?”

“No,” he mumbled, when she raised her brows.

“That’s right. You aren’t a sword — you’re a man. And a man who is more than capable of making his own decisions. You may have a battlemage’s gift for war, but it’s up to you to decide how you use it. Do you understand?”

He looked away. “Yes.”

“Good. And I’ll hear no more of this dark talk — it doesn’t become you.” She released him and planted her hands on her hips. “Are you still coming with me to the desert?”

He looked surprised. “Of course I am! I’ve been looking forward to it all winter.” He straightened up, and Kyleigh smiled when she saw the inquisitive glint come back to his eyes. “It’s supposedly the most uncharted land in the Kingdom. Three fourths of it is simply marked as blank space on the map. Even Baron Sahar doesn’t have much control over it. His people simply live in tribes and keep to themselves. There’s dozens of them, each with their own culture and language. Can you imagine? And there could even be dozens more that haven’t yet been discovered — look here.”

He reached over a ring of books and pulled a new one out from behind them. It was thinner than most and didn’t seem to have a title. When he flipped through the white pages with his thumb, she noticed that every one of them was blank.

“It’s a journal,” he said, with a small smile that would’ve been a normal fellow’s sharp-toothed grin. “I bought it from a vendor last week. I’m going to use it to record our whole journey — the lands we cross, the creatures we spot. Perhaps we’ll even discover a new tribe.”

Kyleigh laughed. “Well if we do, I certainly hope they’re friendly.” She glanced at the door before she lowered her voice. “It looks as if we’re going to have leave sooner than I expected. Are you packed?”

“Are you joking? I’ve been packed for weeks.” He shuffled through his papers for a moment. “But, ah … I’m afraid I haven’t been able to find us a very useful map.”

“That’s not a problem.” Kyleigh tapped the side of her head. “I’ve got one right here.”

Jake frowned. “That doesn’t seem like a very sensible place to keep a map —”

“I know what I’m doing,” she said firmly.

Well, at least she
hoped
she knew what she was doing. The truth was that Kyleigh wasn’t used to being the leader. Any decisions she made were always hers to deal with, and if she got herself into trouble — well, she could always get herself out of it. But the thought having Jake along was beginning to make her anxious. She knew she would be responsible for his life, as well.

And she hoped she was up to the task.

Still, she wasn’t worried about crossing the desert. That bit would be the simplest part of their journey, and she could certainly navigate without a map. Maps were for humans — a way to compensate for their duller senses. Kyleigh had no need of them.

“All right.” Jake pulled himself to the edge of his chair and looked up at her through his spectacles. “I’ve got my journal, and you’ve got the map. So … what are we waiting for?”

“Dawn,” she said, stepping out the door.

She grinned when she heard Jake whoop loudly from behind her.

 

*******

 

The clouds didn’t relent their hold on the day, and evening seemed to come much more quickly than usual. Kyleigh finished packing and stuffed her equipment under her bed — where Crumfeld wasn’t likely to spot it. Then she made her way down to the kitchens.

It was easily her favorite room in Roost. She could hear the sounds of pots clanging together from the great hall, the hiss of soup striking the fire, and the relentless tittering of the women in charge of dinner. The warm comfort of food wafted down the passageway, and Kyleigh’s stomach had begun to rumble before she even opened the door.

Inside the kitchen was organized chaos. Women flitted here and there, hoisting sacks of flour over one another’s heads and tossing potatoes wherever they were needed. Kyleigh ducked under a tray sporting the weight of a suckling pig, destined for the oven. She spun her way around a woman carrying a hot pot and helped a little girl retrieve a basket of apples from a high shelf.

By the time she made it to her usual spot, she felt as if she’d crossed a battlefield.

A round-faced young woman caught sight of her and smiled as she cleared a place for her to sit at the counter. “Evening, Miss Kyleigh.”

“Evening, Mandy.”

Kyleigh hadn’t expected to make any friends among the women of Roost. Honestly, she found most women to be complicated beyond the point of frightening: their minds seemed capable of holding onto a dozen thoughts at once, and their emotions never trickled — but seemed to come only in torrents and floods.

The she-wolves in her pack had at least had some animal blood to temper them. But without it, a fully human woman could be rather … wild.

Fortunately, Mandy wasn’t like most women. She was calm-spirited and steady, and wise beyond her years. She was also the only person in all of the High Seas who would agree to drop the
Lady
from Kyleigh’s name.

“What’s for dinner tonight?” Kyleigh said as she situated herself on a tall stool.

“Venison.” Mandy grabbed a nearby knife and began sharpening its blade against a whetstone. “The cook found your — ah, well, there was another deer found at the back door this afternoon, you see. And we didn’t want to let it go to waste.”

Kyleigh propped her fingers over her lips to hide her smile, nodding thoughtfully. She had a feeling that several nearby ladies were listening in, watching her like a clump of curious squirrels from the trees. “Yes, quite right. It’s a shame that it’s happened again — I wish we could keep the little blighters from leaping over the walls and breaking their necks.”

Mandy struggled to keep her face serious. “Perhaps we ought to put a sign out for them, so they’ll be sure to know the dangers.”

“Brilliant. And we’ll write it in
deer
so they’ll be able to read it.”

By now, the eavesdropping ladies were giggling into their aprons and giving themselves away. The cook shooed them back to their chores as she bustled over with Kyleigh’s dinner.

“This isn’t story hour — back to work, you lot! Those pies aren’t going to bake themselves.” She plunked a heaping plate of venison on the counter and said a quick hello — before she barreled off to scold some girls who were speaking
deer
instead of peeling apples.

“I’m afraid I get them into trouble with my nonsense,” Kyleigh said as she cut into the venison. It was barely seared on top and raw in the middle — just the way she liked it.

Mandy smiled. “Oh, they don’t mind it so much. They’re fond of your nonsense: it’s exciting to see the Lady of Copperdock behaving so poorly. You ought to see how they beam when the visiting captains grumble about how odd you are.”

“I resent that,” Kyleigh said around a mouthful of meat. “I’m not odd at all.”

Mandy just smiled and shook her head. She pulled a bunch of carrots to her station and chopped them into neat, even slices — wielding her knife with all the deadly grace of an assassin. Kyleigh watched her for a moment, enjoying the spices the cook had rubbed into the venison. Then she had a thought.

“Would you like me to teach you how to use a blade?”

Mandy straightened up. “What ever do you mean?”

“Well, you know — how to fight. How to throw a punch and aim to cripple.”

Mandy’s eyes went wide and she clutched her bosom — as if Kyleigh had just suggested that they tie Crumfeld in a sack and toss him into the sea. “Oh, no. I don’t think I should like that at all, miss. Fighting is a man’s business.”

Well, perhaps there were
some
things about Mandy that were a bit ridiculous. But Kyleigh was determined to make her see reason. “What would you do if a man attacked you?” she countered. “How would you fight him off?”

Mandy settled her shoulders and went back to chopping. “I like to think that I wouldn’t have to fight — because there’d be some handsome young man who comes along and rescues me.”

Kyleigh rolled her eyes. “That’s rubbish, Mandy.”

“No, it’s
romantic
,” she said, shaking her knife in Kyleigh’s face. Then she flicked the blade to point to a goblet near her elbow. “Drink your tonic, miss. You’re far more agreeable once you’ve had it.”

Kyleigh’s
tonic
was actually just warm, spiced wine with a few herbs thrown in. She normally didn’t drink spirits, but lately it had become a necessity.

Her first few nights away from Gravy Bay had been complete and utter torture. She’d convinced herself that she was perfectly capable of settling her own heart. She had time on her side, after all. But her soul seemed to feel differently.

If Kyleigh ever managed to fall asleep, it was only to be jerked awake moments later — startled by the violent heaving of her chest. Gasps would rake her throat raw; tears pushed their way out and ran in burning lines down her face. She would wrap her arms around her middle, sometimes digging her nails in until she bled. Once, she’d screamed so loudly that Crumfeld had sent the guards to her room, convinced that she was being murdered.

Eventually, her chest would stop heaving and her sobs would quiet. But the next morning, she would be nearly too sore to walk. Her body would feel like someone had stripped off her skin and beaten her innards with poles.

It was on one such morning that she’d stumbled down the stairs and nearly run into Mandy — who’d taken one look at her before nodding knowingly. “I’ve got something for that, miss. You come see me after dinner.”

Kyleigh did, and Mandy’s spiced wine tonic had turned out to be just the thing to quiet her … well, Mandy called them her
fits
. Kyleigh didn’t know what to call them. All she knew was that they hurt worse than an axe to the face.

She’d just brought the goblet to her lips when the chattering in the kitchen came to an abrupt halt. The women were suddenly very focused on their chores — and very intent on not being noticed.

Kyleigh groaned when Crumfeld swept through the crowd and made a straight line for her counter. He had his bandaged hand propped against his chest and a rather peeved look on his face. She thought she might be in for it.

“But I don’t want to eat in the dining room,” she said as he approached. “It’s lonely in there —”

“I’m not here about that,” he said swiftly. “Though we
will
discuss it later. And in the future, I should like to see some vegetables on your plate,” he added, wrinkling his nose at her nearly-diminished mountain of venison. He straightened his coat hems and glanced about him quickly. “There’s a guest here to see you, Lady Kyleigh. I have him waiting in the library.”

She sighed inwardly. It was likely just another merchant trying to get her to buy a dress. Or perhaps a curious noble here to see if the rumors were true — if Lady Kyleigh really
was
as beautiful as her manners were odd. There had actually been a few of those.

But as she rose to go deal with whoever it was, Crumfeld gripped her arm tightly — something he never did. So Kyleigh was already alert when he leaned forward and whispered:

“This man … he is no ordinary man. He’s dangerous, and my guess is that he means you great harm. Kill him quickly.”

Chapter 7

The Lion and the Chandelier

 

 

 

 

 

 

Very rarely did Kyleigh ever get permission to kill someone. And she certainly never expected to get permission from Crumfeld — especially when he often complained about how difficult it was to get bloodstains out of the rugs.

So if Crumfeld was willing to risk irreparable damage to his furnishings, she knew the man waiting for her in the library must be very unsavory, indeed.

“After I present you, I’ll find Shamus and have him bring the guard to your aid,” Crumfeld said, straightening his collar as they arrived at the library doors. He cleared his throat and stepped stiffly inside — as if he was expecting to walk into a blast. “Lady Kyleigh to see you, sir,” he said, with a great deal less than his usual pomp.

She strode past him, and he shut the door — leaving her alone with their unwanted guest.

Most of the rooms in Roost were completely unfurnished. But for whatever reason, Crumfeld had taken great care with the library. The small hearth was stoked to a blaze, the elaborate desk and its many compartments were swept clean, and every thread of the rug had been beaten free of dust. Even the lounge chair cushions were settled just so, with every stitch lined up with the pattern of the backing.

As if the room wasn’t gaudy enough, he’d also taken it upon himself to hang an elaborate, gold-branched chandelier from the highest point of the ceiling.

It was all a bit unnecessary, in Kyleigh’s opinion. The library should’ve been about books and little else. Towering shelves lined the whole room like walls but — to Crumfeld’s constant dismay — they went mostly bare.

When she’d suggested that he fill them himself, his face had gone rather longer than usual. “You are the Lady of Copperdock,” he’d scolded her. “The library should be your sanctuary. It is
your
duty to fill them as you please.”

There were few things that exhausted Kyleigh more than reading. So if Crumfeld was waiting for
her
to gather books, he might have a several hundred years to wait.

She glanced about the room, and it didn’t take her long to spot the man who’d managed to get Crumfeld’s kerchief in a knot.

He was bent over behind the desk, inspecting the library’s one tiny collection of books. He wore a stained tunic and breeches that were far too large — both sopping wet from the rain. His dark hair stood on end, as if he’d slung his head about to dry it. His feet were bare and caked in mud. She could see clearly where he’d roamed about the room, leaving filthy footprints across the stone and rug in his wake.

Well, no wonder Crumfeld was cross.

Kyleigh took a step towards him. “Can I help you?”

“An interesting collection, you have here.” His voice was light, and the way he growled made it sound strange — almost like a purr. “I don’t know all of the words,” he continued, tracing one finger against the nearest spine, “but I think I know this one:
dragon
. And here it is again —
dragon
. Every book seems to have it. How interesting.”

Kyleigh stopped. “Yes, I’m something of a collector,” she said, more cautiously. She didn’t like the direction this was heading, and her hand wandered closer to Harbinger.

Fortunately for him, the man turned slowly.

He was younger than she’d expected him to be — perhaps only a little older than Mandy. His skin was tanned like leather. His face was clean-shaven and his nose was straight. There was a considerable amount of arrogance behind his smirk. And his eyes …

Wait — she knew those eyes.

Kyleigh took an involuntary step forward, squinting for a better look. The man’s eyes were a deep, golden brown. They took in the firelight and somehow managed to mute it. There was an unnatural focus in them, and a deadly sense of play. He watched her as if he had a hand about her throat — as if he were squeezing out her last breath and at the same time, trying to calm her struggling. As if she might as well just lie still, and accept the fact that there was nothing she could do to stop him.

Oh, yes. She most definitely knew those eyes.

“What are you doing in my territory, cat?”

He smirked as she stepped towards him. “Merely following some rumors … I’ve come all the way from the Unforgivable Mountains, you know.”

“Have you?”

“Oh, yes.” He stepped to the side, dragging his feet obnoxiously against the rug as he went. “The birds have been growing ever more insolent. They’ve returned from their winters with fats bellies, and with their beaks full of tales. They claim that there is a beast in the Kingdom more fearsome than I.”

“Only one?” Kyleigh quipped, and she was rewarded with a snarl.

“There is none greater,” he growled, stopping his pace. He glared at her from under the lengths of his hair. “I make my home in the mountains when others would flee. I am the greatest beast in these lands … and I’ve traveled all this way to prove it.”

Quite suddenly, his clothes ripped apart and a blur of brown burst from the remains. She spun to the side and felt him whoosh past her, heard claws scrape against the stone floor — and when she turned, a full-grown mountain lion glared back at her.

He paced beside her, weighing her. Watching her. His powerful limbs curled beneath him, his tail flicked to the side. A purring growl came from deep within his throat. And then he lunged.

Kyleigh ducked under his grasping claws and rolled swiftly to the side, popping back onto her feet. The lion hit the front of the desk hard. He dug into its shining top to keep from flipping over. She grimaced as the wood screeched and splintered under his claws.

Crumfeld wouldn’t be pleased about that.

The lion could only slow his fall — he couldn’t stop it. His body fell behind the desk and for a moment, the room went eerily silent. But Kyleigh knew their game wasn’t finished just yet. She kept her hands loose and slid one foot behind her for balance. The muscles in her back bunched up at her shoulders. She held her breath, tensed and waiting.

When the lion burst from his cover in a blur of teeth and claws, she was ready for him.

Taking her second shape was like stepping through a door, or cracking a joint: it took less than half a moment. She felt herself slide into her dragon skin and grinned when she saw terror widen the lion’s eyes.

The scent of his fear filled her nostrils. Something like a hunger rumbled inside her lungs, and Kyleigh became too focused on her prey to remember not to cause a mess. She reared back; her horns scraped the top of the ceiling. Her wings unfurled as far as they could, crushing up against the shelves. A lounge chair sailed to the other end of the room as she snapped her tail about her.

The lion tried to change directions in mid-leap. His body twisted to the side and his limbs flailed madly in the open air. But try as he might, he couldn’t stop himself, and he wound up crashing into the unforgiving scales of Kyleigh’s stomach.

No sooner had he flopped to the ground than he tried to dash away, but she caught his tail in one of her massive foreclaws. Then she began dragging him towards her, slowly.

He hissed and slapped her arms with his claws. The blows he landed would’ve torn the hide off a full-grown deer, but Kyleigh hardly felt them. When the lion’s claws glanced harmlessly off her scales, he began to wriggle desperately. Kyleigh tightened her grip and brought him to her face, holding him up by his tail.

She’d never liked cats. They were arrogant, spiteful creatures who claimed loyalty to no one but themselves. Cats preferred to crouch in the brush instead of meeting their prey outright. They went after young things, sickly things, and they had no respect at all for territory.

This cat was no exception. When he realized that his claws were useless, he roared defiantly in her face. And Kyleigh couldn’t help it: she roared back.

He squirmed as her voice shook the room. The crystals of the chandelier tinkled as the deep tones made them quiver on their fastenings. She flung the lion away by his tail, and he struck the bookshelves hard. His body went limp as he fell behind the desk.

Kyleigh thought she’d accidentally killed him. And in her disappointment, she dropped back on all fours.

Her horns got caught up in the chandelier. Dust fell across her snout as it ripped from its fastenings, and she couldn’t save it: the great, golden decoration crashed to the ground. The crystals shattered and went flying in every direction, spraying across the room like droplets of water.

Kyleigh hardly had a chance to groan before a voice cried out: “Enough! I yield!”

The cat wasn’t dead at all: he was back in his human form, crouching behind the toppled desk. His eyes peeked out at her from over the top of it — the rest of him was hidden. “Mercy,” he said, as he tried to rise. But he stopped and swayed, paling a bit as he gripped the top of his head.

Kyleigh arched her back. Her bones creaked a bit as they shrank, and her skin tingled as it slid back into place. The change always made her feel a little unsteady for a moment, as if she was returning right-side up after having gazed at the world upside down. But she’d had a lot of practice, and it only took a moment to get used to her human gait.

Her boots kicked up sharp bits of crystal as she strode to the front of the desk. Her fingers curled at her sides when she smelled the fresh blood that stained the cat’s hair. There was a part of her that wanted to kill him, and the scent of his blood made it swell dangerously in her chest.

Half of her clamored for his death — and it
was
always rather satisfying to stomp on the head of an enemy. But that was an animal thing to do. And Kyleigh had been trying hard to live more like a human, which meant that she couldn’t give in to her animal desires. No, she would deal with the lion in proper human fashion.

“Why should I offer you mercy?” she said, her voice low. “You’ve crossed into my territory without permission, entered my den without asking. You came here to kill me —”

“No, that isn’t why I’ve come.” He gripped the front of the desk and leaned forward. “I wasn’t trying to kill you: I was testing you.”

Kyleigh laughed. She’d almost forgotten how sly cats could be — especially when they were beaten. “Testing me, hmm? Then tell me: how did it go? Did you find your tail-lashing satisfactory … or shall we continue?”

A playful smirk bent his lips. “You didn’t defeat me. I just needed to make sure you were strong enough to serve my purpose.” He leaned back and pointed his chin at her. “The birds called you a great white serpent … but I can see now that you are much more. You are a dragoness.”

“Really brilliant. What gave me away?”

He seemed confused for half a second, then he laughed. “You’ve spent too much time around the humans,” he purred. “Methinks you’re turning into one.”

Kyleigh frowned. Now that they stood only a few paces apart, she got a better look at his eyes. There were none of the softening lines she found in human eyes, none of the thought or emotion. They were completely untamed — as untouched as the wildest corner of the Kingdom … and as unforgiving as stone.

Now she understood why she wanted to kill him so badly: there was no human left in him.

“What happened to the boy?” she demanded.

The cat bared his teeth in a grin. “He was weak, dragoness. He entered the battle far too young, and I defeated him easily.”

Kyleigh clenched her fists tightly, but managed to keep the anger off her face.

The magic required to become a shapechanger was particularly dangerous. After all, binding two souls into one body was no common spell: it required an offering of blood, and a ritual. And sometimes things went horribly wrong.

Only one soul could have control over their shapes, and if a man’s soul wasn’t strong enough to control the animal, then the animal would control
him
. Kyleigh was a woman who just happened to be able to take the shape of a dragon.

But this was a lion masquerading as a man.

“I’ll admit that I did like one thing about the human: his name,” the cat went on, smirking at the disgust on Kyleigh’s face. “
Silas
. It’s regal, don’t you think? I took it for myself as a sort of … tribute.”

Though she found his smirk undeniably annoying, his confession made her think. “Silas?”

He nodded.

“You’ve given yourself a name?” When he nodded again, she crossed her arms. “That’s odd. I thought you great cats didn’t give yourselves names. I thought you just relied on your stench —”

“The name is for your benefit, not mine,” Silas growled. “Every beast in the mountains knows me by my scent. You are unfamiliar with it.”

“Still, it seems rather … human, of you.”

His upper lip pulled back threateningly over his teeth. “Humanity is weakness, dragoness. And you’ll find no weakness in me.”

Kyleigh wasn’t convinced. She thought Silas might’ve been a little more human than he let on — which wasn’t all that surprising, really. Cats tended to keep their pride in the most ridiculous places.

“I haven’t traveled all this way to chatter with you,” he murmured. His lip fell back and haughtiness smoothed his features once again. “It is a small matter, but —”

BOOK: Slight and Shadow (Fate's Forsaken: Book Two)
11.01Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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