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Authors: Jenna Burtenshaw

Winterveil

BOOK: Winterveil
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Dedication

For beautiful Belle—

my canine writing companion, who

explored Albion at my side from the very beginning.

Champion tail wagger & mistress of the howl.

2001–2011
.

1

GRAVEDIGGER

H
igh above the chilled waters of a sunlit sea, a dark tower rose like a wizened thumb from the crags of a blackened cliff. It cast a broken shadow across the rubble-flecked land behind it, standing crooked but strong in the rising daylight as it kept its ancient watch over the waves below.

The waves crashed against the foot of the cliff, their rhythmic surge echoing along the eastern coast of Albion, but few human ears were there to hear it. There, in that isolated place, a man climbed out of a hatch in the tower's roof and carried a small wooden crate draped with cloth up into the open air. He left the crate near the hatch and walked to the edge, where a spyglass stood upon its stand, pointing out across the sea. His stubbled face was half hidden beneath a wide hat, and his hair hung tattered across his shoulders as he cleared the lens and pressed his eye to the eyepiece.

Tarak had spent months freezing in that tower, watching ice drifting sluggishly across the horizon. That bleak seascape had become his world, but not—he hoped—for much longer. He knocked his hat back, exposing deep green eyes. The sword he kept propped beside the spyglass had claimed the life of the man who once guarded that place, and a mound of earth near the tower's foundations marked the spot where the body now lay.

This was the day he had been waiting for. Everything was going according to plan.

As the sun rose higher, a distant shape on the water drew his eye. He adjusted the lens until he could make out every wave on the surface of the sea, raised the spyglass's eye to the horizon, and settled at last upon a dark, welcome sight. A ship, heading toward the coast, with a mass of black sails raised high and full.

“The
Gravedigger
,” Tarak whispered, his face softening into a satisfied smile. At last, his time in that vermin-ridden place was coming to an end. He buttoned up his coat and set to work.

He crossed the tower roof and dragged the cloth from the crate. Powerful wings beat hard against the latticed sides and four beady eyes blinked up at him as he carried it to the wall. He cooed gently to keep the birds calm and carefully unlatched the lock before reaching in and lifting out a pigeon. He tucked the bird under his arm and slid a prepared note into a ring attached to its bright pink leg. “It's time to do what we came here for,” he said.

The bird wriggled excitedly, sensing the freedom of the open sky. Tarak held it out and sent it fluttering into the freezing air, where it settled into a smooth glide and flew across the water heading toward the Continental lands that lay beyond the icy sea.

Tarak watched it swoop past the dark sails of the oncoming ship. He had spent many months of his life stationed on that weather-beaten deck. The black hull bore the scars and burns of countless battles, and just seeing it again brought back memories of combat, war, and death. Enemies often underestimated the deadly power carried beneath those sails, but the
Gravedigger
was the strongest vessel in the Continental fleet. It had earned its name many times over.

He prepared a second note and attached it to the leg of the remaining bird, which sat peacefully in his hands as he held it out over the side. The pigeon flapped into the air the moment he let it go, circled once, and settled in the opposite direction to the first bird, heading deep into Albion territory, straight toward the distant graveyard city of Fume.

Tarak closed the crate. With the ship in sight and his messages sent, his work in that tower was done. He waited until both birds were no more than dark specks against the sky, then grabbed his sword, headed for the roof hatch, and descended the tower steps two at a time. He spiraled his way down past the living quarters and out onto an overgrown patch of land that was half buried in snow.

His horse was where he had left it, inside the tower's single tumbledown stable. He slid the blanket from its back, saddled it quickly, and led it outside. Salty wind whistled past the tower's stones as he mounted the beast, flicked the reins once, and rode along a gravel path, following a narrow trail that ran along the cliff top, traveling south.

Winter still held Albion firmly in its grip, and the clear morning sky was already under threat as heavy clouds massed on the horizon. Tarak glanced out to sea and spotted the winking light of a lantern signaling from the ship to the shore. He worked the horse harder, forcing its hooves to slam into the crumbling cliff, traveling past long-abandoned buildings that stood perilously close to the edge. The watchtower had not always been alone. It had once stood guard over a coastal town that had almost finished crumbling into the sea. Now only a few forgotten houses were left to mark the inland edges of the vanished settlement. The ground here was riddled with old tunnels, weakening the cliff and making it a dangerous place.

Tarak led his horse into a sheltered spot between two buildings, tied the reins to a bare tree, and picked his way on foot through what was left of the town. He headed for an exposed patch of land, perilously close to the cliff edge, and walked slowly until the ground sounded hollow beneath his boots. There he bent down, scrubbed away a thin layer of earth, and heaved open a hidden door, revealing a steep flight of steps cutting down into the cliff.

Two threads pinned across the entrance were undisturbed. No one had passed through that door in days.

Tarak followed the steps down into a twist of old cellar tunnels, and the glare of the low sun dazzled him at the point where the base of the cliff met the shore.

The tunnel's mouth opened out into a small cove, with the watchtower's crags on one side and a curving face of jagged rock on the other. A small, battered fishing boat lay abandoned within a low cave close by. Smugglers sometimes used that place, and it was not unusual for them to leave things behind.

Tarak crossed the cove quickly, tugging at a leather cord hung around his neck. A circular disk of polished crystal slid from his collar and sparkled in the sunlight as he pressed it into his palm. The ship's lantern flickered again. He held the lens up to catch the sun and flashed a signal across the water, letting the crew know that their landing place was secure.

The
Gravedigger
's crew pulled in the sails. Ropes snaked out over the ship's starboard side, and a boat with a curved roof was lowered slowly down onto the water. It was hard for Tarak to see anyone in it clearly, but he knew whom to expect. A woman and a girl were due ashore that day, accompanied by armed officers wearing their distinctive uniforms of red and black. Tarak straightened his shabby coat. He would be glad to clean himself up, cut his hair, and wear the colors of his true station again. Those men were his comrades, his brothers, every one of them honored to be part of the Continental army's elite force known as the Blackwatch.

He was standing proudly at the water's edge, waiting to welcome the boat ashore, when the sound of a whistle carried down from the top of the cliff. He looked up to where a man was leaning fearlessly out from the cliff edge, flickering a signal. Tarak raised a hand in reply. The horses had arrived.

He turned back to the sea and watched the boat advance slowly toward the shore, until thickening clouds swept over the sun and sharp spits of hail began to fall. The wind churned, and the air filled quickly with swarms of stinging ice, while storm clouds swelled like a bruise, filling the northern sky. Tarak stood braving it out, until the hail became too heavy to bear. He had hoped to provide a dignified welcome, but if he stood there much longer, he would look like a fool.

Cursing the weather under his breath, he headed to the cave for shelter. He pulled up his collar and made for the hollow where the fishing boat's prow jutted out over the sand. His hand had just touched the cave's clammy wall when he hesitated. Something about the boat looked different. There was a red net draped over the side that he was sure had not been there before. He edged closer, until his boot pressed down on something firm just beneath the sand.

A strained cry rose up from the ground, like the whimper of a wounded animal. He raised his foot and saw what looked like four long fingers curling upward, but the moment he saw them they were gone.

Tarak drew his blade, not sure what he had just seen. He tested the ground again, pinpointing the muffled sound, then bent down and sank his fist firmly into the sand. His fingers met something that felt like cloth. He grabbed hold of it and dragged it out. The cloth was a dirty sweater, and wearing it was a young man who spluttered loudly as his sand-covered face and mop of black hair were revealed.

“Who are you?” demanded Tarak.

The boy was too busy coughing to answer. Tarak was about to question him again when he sensed something cool and sharp press against his throat, and a dark voice spoke into his ear.

“Release the boy.”

A trickle of cold fear ran through Tarak's blood. He had been threatened before; he had been close to death more times than he could remember. His fear had nothing to do with the blade at his throat but everything to do with the person who was wielding it. He hesitated for a few seconds before releasing his grip. The boy scrambled away from him.

“Drop your weapon,” said the voice. “And turn. Slowly.”

Tarak did as he was told, letting his sword fall flat upon the sand. The blade of a dagger played gently around his neck as he turned to face a pair of dead gray eyes.

He was standing in the presence of a man whose height towered far above his own. Those lifeless eyes stared down at him with no hint of emotion. The rugged face gave away nothing but indifference as his ambusher held a rough dagger in one hand and a sword made of blue-black steel in the other.

“Silas Dane.”

Fear pulled the name unwittingly from Tarak's lungs and out into the air. This man's reputation had spread farther than he could imagine. People on the Continent called him a man without a soul, a perfect warrior. The soldier who could not die. Tarak was trapped in the shadow of a predator that could not be outfought, outwitted, or outrun, but he would not flee and die with a blade in his back. Pride kept him standing tall, knowing that all he could hope for was the mercy of a swift death.

“The ship,” said Silas. “How many of the crew are coming ashore?”

Tarak remained silent. He would not betray his men to the enemy.

“How many are above us with the horses?”

Silas's blade bit a bloody mark into Tarak's flesh, but still he said nothing. How had he not noticed that the fishing boat's hull was damp from recent use? Why had he not stayed by the water, braving the weather, rather than venture close to the cliff?

No matter what happened to him, his birds were already on their way. Not even Silas Dane could stop what was to come. He rolled his shoulders back, forcing himself to look his enemy in the eye. If he was to die, he had done his duty. There was no dishonor in that.

Silas gave him time to answer, letting the silence stretch on. “If you will not talk,” he said at last, “I have no time for you.”

In one quick move the blade cut deeper, slicing swiftly through the pulse beating in Tarak's neck. Warm blood spilled across cold skin. Tarak felt the weight of his body slump heavily to the ground; his life stolen away in a single cut. Darkness and pain closed in. The warm current of death swept through him, and then his spirit was gone.

Silas looked down at the body in the bloodied sand, then stepped over it and watched the sea through the swirling hail. The young man with him was a shabby seventeen-year-old named Edgar Rill, who stared at the dead man, not sure what Silas expected them to do next.

“Bury him,” ordered Silas, cleaning his dagger on a patch of sand grass. “And stay out of sight.”

“More Blackwatch are heading in on that boat,” said Edgar. “We don't have time. Have you seen how close they are?”

“I have eyes. Dig.”

Edgar grabbed an oar from the fishing boat. His stomach, which had been growling with hunger just a short while earlier, squirmed with discomfort at being so close to the dead man. He used the oar to scrape away a hollow in the sand beside the body, working as quickly as he could. “Are you going to help?”

Silas had tucked the dagger back into his belt and was listening silently to the ice-filled wind.

“I'll take that as a no.” Edgar's hands were shaking. Through fear or cold, it was impossible to tell. In the past day alone he had been stabbed, dragged back from the waiting hands of death, and ferried across a frozen sea. His only company had been a man whose conversation stopped at giving orders. Silas's presence still made the hairs bristle on the back of Edgar's neck, despite his having been the one who had saved Edgar's life.

“Next time you can be the bait,” said Edgar, digging quickly. “What if he had decided to kill me as soon as he grabbed me? What then?”

“I would have stopped him.”

“Why couldn't I have hidden in the boat?”

“Dragging someone out of a boat makes them an enemy,” said Silas. “Dragging them out of the sand makes them a curiosity.”

“Well, I'm glad that logic works for you. Feel free to step forward a bit quicker next time.”

Edgar knew the makeshift grave was not yet deep enough to fully hide a man, but the Blackwatch were getting too close. He had to finish the gruesome job quickly. He jabbed the oar into the sand and decided to improvise. Two drags—one on the man's shoulder and one on the knees—sent him rolling into the shallow trench, where Edgar spotted the bright glint of a crystal lens light hanging around his neck. Something like that was too useful to leave behind, so he tugged it loose and pocketed it.

“And the coat,” Silas said, without turning around. “He has no use for it anymore.”

Edgar's own coat was torn, filthy, and drenched through. He was surprised he had survived so long in that state. He may not have liked stealing clothes from the dead, but Silas was right. He dragged the patched garment off the man and claimed it for himself. Sliding his arms into the wide sleeves, he realized with a grim shudder that they were still warm. He whispered an apology, covered the man's face with his hat, and kept working.

BOOK: Winterveil
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