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Authors: Rachel Rossano

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BOOK: Wren (The Romany Epistles)
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I blinked. “Not now.”

She nodded. “Which way did Arthus go with the ladder?”

I pointed in the direction I last saw him, and she strode
off. I watched her go. She was a strange puzzle of control and spirit. But the
question that burned in my mind was whether or not I could trust her.

 

~~~~~

 

 
Chapter VI

 

Wren

Dinner was a tense affair. I began to wonder if I had
stumbled across a gopher mine. It began with Tourth informing the others about
my discovery.

Dardon lowered his leg of mutton. “What will be our
response?”

“The same as it has always been,” Tourth replied.

Arthus leaned back uncomfortably and focused intently on his
meal. Kat’s blue eyes darted warily from Dardon to Tourth and back again. Svhen
continued eating without pause or raising his eyes, but I sensed a sudden
tension in him despite the lack of physical signs. I long ago learned to trust
my instincts. This was a long standing argument that even put Svhen on edge.

“We sit back, watch them suffer, and do nothing.” Dardon
shoved his dish across the uneven surface of the table almost spilling it into
Tourth’s lap. He leaned back and crossed his arms over his chest boring a hole
in Tourth’s head with his dark eyes.

“Dardon, we have been over this many times.” Tourth calmly
moved the plate and mutton a safer distance from the edge. “We are doing
something.”

“Putting food on their tables isn’t enough when the enforcer
is killing off their men. You know Simon lost his leg a month ago. Only last
week the Gibonson boy took a blow to the head and died. The working conditions
are inhumane. All you would have to do is declare your identity and claim your
birthright. You could spare these people from that monster. The people will
stand with you against Orac. It is only a matter of time before he discovers us
anyway and puts us to work there as well or takes our heads.”

Tourth’s knuckles grew white where he gripped his plate. The
movement of the meat to his mouth slowed, the motions becoming more deliberate.
Tension thickened with every silent moment.

“You know it isn’t as simple as that, Dardon,” Kat said,
showing more courage than I gave her credit for. “Father and Mother died simply
for taking a stand.”

“He is only protecting his own hide and he knows it,” Dardon
replied. Surging to his feet, he crashed out the door into the darkness,
cursing under his breath.

Tourth didn’t move. His breathing slowed, painfully regular.
His dark head bowed so that his face hid from my sight, but the muscles in the
forearm resting on the table tensed and corded. I watched him warily as he
struggled to regain his temper. Kat quietly removed Dardon’s portion from the
table, being careful to give Tourth a wide berth.

“I will go see he doesn’t do himself harm,” Arthus finally
volunteered, breaking the heavy weight of restrained words and actions, before
disappearing out the door.

“Bed,” Svhen muttered. He followed practically on Arthus’
heels. I doubted that was truly where he headed since his usual sleeping place
lay inside in the opposite direction.

I continued to eat. It would take more than an argument to
stop me from eating, a habit born of years of not knowing where my next meal
would come from. I pulled off a piece of the roasted mutton with my teeth and
chewed slowly. The meat was tender and well prepared. Kat was a pretty decent
cook most of the time. While I worked on my bite, I continued to watch Tourth.

He didn’t move, but as Kat continued cleaning up and I
eating, the muscles in his arms slowly relaxed, his knuckles returned to a more
normal color, and his breathing eased into a natural rhythm. Once I was certain
he had calmed to the point that he wouldn’t lunge at me, I spoke.

“I haven’t been around long enough to hear the reasons why
you are choosing to do nothing, and I would prefer hearing from you rather than
someone else.”

His head snapped up, and his eyes glared at me for a moment
before softening. “Sorry about that.” Sighing deeply, he reached around to
catch Kat’s arm as she moved past him. “I am sorry, Kat, but I seem to have
lost my appetite.”

She grimaced. “You know you should have let me know that
everyone was going to fight and lose their appetite tonight.”

“Sorry.”

She waved off his apology and claimed his portion as well.

With a heavy sigh, he leaned his elbows on the table, ran
his hands through his hair as though to clear his mind, and finally met my gaze
again. “It all comes down to the past. My father and mother died because my father
refused to comply with Orac. If I stand up and declare my rights, I will simply
be dealt with in the same manner and this time, he will probably kill Kat too.
What will that gain anyone?”

“Was your father aware Orac wanted him dead?”

“Not as far as I know.”

“Then you have an advantage that your father didn’t have,” I
pointed out.

“I also have no troops or walls to defend myself. I have no
money to build an army or even a simple castle keep. If I stood up and
proclaimed my rights only to demand that my people build my fortress instead of
the enforcer’s how would that be better?”

Katherine sat down next to him. “At least they would know
that your fortress would be used to protect them and not to oppress them. You
have to admit that Dardon has some good points.”

“He does,” Tourth agreed. “But I cannot see how it will work
out any way except for disaster.”

“Surely your father wasn’t the only lord to speak out
against Orac,” I commented.

Kat answered, suddenly eager. “Father’s friend, Lord Eryant,
in the next valley used to support father when he was alive. He even sent me a
letter offering help should I ever need it. My old nurse, Lydia, offered me a
place to stay. I wrote back to Lord Eryant, thanking him for his offer and
explaining that I wished to stay with my old nurse.”

“Perhaps Eyrant would assist you,” I suggested. I had met
the Earl’s men a month or so ago, but had no dealings with the man himself.

Tourth sighed heavily. “I will consider it. But for now, I
am going to prepare for a trip into the village tonight.”

As he rose from the table, Kat caught his arm. “Please don’t
go. Send someone else.”

“I will go,” I volunteered. “I have great deal of experience
moving without detection. I could move in and out without even the storekeeper
knowing.”

Tourth scrutinized me for a moment before agreeing. “Kat has
the list of what we need. Come find me in the stable for the money when you are
ready to leave.” He then turned and left, closing the door firmly behind him.

“He doesn’t really know what to do,” Kat commented, frowning
after her brother. “I don’t know how to help him and neither do the others.”

Crossing to a slate on the wall, she took it down and set it
before me. It was a short list of items, bare essentials that they couldn’t
produce or trade from the farmers around the area. I memorized it easily and
rose to follow the others. Kat stopped me. “Please go easy on him. He is trying
his best.”

I nodded. “I only want to help.” Then I pulled my heavy
woolen cloak from the hook by the door and stepped out into the chilly night.

 

 

The village was silent and dark; not even a glimmer of light
shone in any of the windows. It was easy to spot and avoid the enforcer’s men.
They tramped along alleys and streets in groups of two, holding lanterns aloft to
light their way. Every time they came near my position, I shrank into the
shadows, huddled down in my cape behind an object, and waited in silent
stillness for them to pass.

Tourth’s clear instructions led me straight to the
shopkeeper’s back door, a roughhewn slab of wood, thick and sturdy, left
slightly ajar in preparation for my arrival. Just as I was about to dash across
the open alley to enter it, a sudden noise made me pause. Two of the enforcer’s
men came shambling around the corner, slightly drunk as they wove back and
forth along the narrow way.

“Well looky here,” the elder one muttered, tapping the door
open with his sword.

A middle-aged man, slightly gray at the temples appeared in
the doorway and regarded the soldiers with alarm.

“Expecting someone, old man?” the young, skinny one asked,
shoving the shop owner back against the now open door.

“I was only inventorying my stock,” the man Tourth called
Roulf protested.

My fingers crept to the throwing knife at my waist. Before
leaving Iselyn, I strapped all five on just for such an emergency. Now as my
palm weighed the hilt’s reassuring smoothness, I debated how it would be best
to use it.

“Hardly a job to do so late at night,” the older, more
flabby soldier drawled. He drew his eating knife and began picking his teeth
with it. My stomach rolled. It was a nasty habit that so many men did. It
always left a dirty knife. I hoped he slipped. “Who knows who would come along
and try your door and perhaps murder you at your work? It is fortunate for you
that we happened along when we did.”

“Yeah, you might have been assaulted or something.” The
skinny man shoved Roulf’s head back against his door, banging the wood next to
it with the hilt of his drawn sword. “Good thing we were walking by. Seems you
are in our debt.”

“Worth a cask of ale or something–”

I let my first dagger fly. It whizzed past the flabby one,
nicking his ear and buried itself in the door two inches from the skinny one’s
hand. The second was on its way before they could even react. It flew past the
other side of Flabby’s face and embedded in the doorframe inches from his nose.

Flabby yelped, dropped his eating knife, and grabbed his ear
while Skinny jumped away from my first knife as though it was a snake rearing
up to strike. Both of them let loose a stream of profanities that made my skin
crawl. I wanted to release another blade, but I restrained myself to watch how
my first assault was received.

Flabby was attempting to regain control of the situation. He
peered into the darkness of the alley in the wrong direction. Skinny grabbed a
lantern and strode off in search of me among the shadows on the side of the
alley opposite them. Swiftly melting into the darkness of a doorway, I waited.
As I guessed, Skinny swept past my huddled form without a second glance. He
probably supposed I was a bundle of laundry waiting for the wash or something
else of little consequence. However, when they turned back to question Roulf,
they discovered something even stranger.

“Where are the knives?” Skinny squeaked.

“What knives, sir?” Roulf inquired. He had apparently
removed them from the door frame and door when their attention was elsewhere.

Flabby lunged forward, grabbing Roulf by the back of his
tunic and shoving his face into the wood of the door. “The knife that made that
mark you imbecile,” he demanded.

“That has been there since before I owned the shop, sir. I
don’t know where the knife is that made that.”

Skinny’s face, ashen in the lantern light, stared at the
spot on the door as though he were losing his mind. Flabby wasn’t giving up
easily though. “I saw a knife.”

“What knife, sir?” Roulf cowered. “I saw no knife.”

Flabby swore, slapping Roulf’s face. “Come,” he ordered
Skinny. “I am tired of this idiot. Let us check the tavern next.”

The two of them shuffled off into the darkness, Skinny
whimpering that there was a knife, and Flabby swearing at him to keep quiet. I
waited until they turned the corner before slipping from my hiding place across
the street and into the open door of Roulf’s shop. I closed the door firmly
behind me, sliding the bolt home before turning to survey the interior.

“Welcome, mistress,” Roulf said. He stood among the
box-lined shelves with a towel to his face, cleaning off the blood. “I have to
admit I am a bit surprised to see you, but it makes sense.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, suddenly suspicious. I had
purposefully kept a low profile since joining Tourth and his band.

“This is a village, Mistress Romany. We don’t have much
gossip of our own so we borrow from the towns around. It isn’t every day that a
female bounty hunter forces Steward Farley to pay the full bounty on a wanted
horse thief. Also, you are pretty well known among the farmers. I think the
only people who do not know of you via gossip are the enforcer and his men.” He
lowered the cloth from his face and smiled at me. “Don’t worry, we protect our
own. He will not hear of you from one of us.”

I inclined my head. “Thank you for removing my knives.”

He shrugged. “It is better for them to think they are going
mad than to stage an outright rebellion. It keeps the simpletons from bothering
us more than once. Those two were new to the area and thought I would be an
easy score. I doubt they will be returning anytime soon.” He crossed to the
herb garden along the window sill. Reaching behind the pots, he drew out my
knives. “I am grateful for your quick thinking. I can ill afford to give away
ale by the cask.”

“I have come to purchase some supplies.”

He nodded. “What does Kat need?” Pulling a slate toward him,
he picked up a stub of chalk. I recited my list.

“I think I have it all. Let me go see.” He disappeared
behind the first row of goods. “Help yourself to some of my wife’s cider while
you wait,” he called over his shoulder. “It is the best in the valley.”

I complied. The cider was delicious, tart and sweet
simultaneously, and blessedly cool as it slid down my throat. Within moments he
reappeared with a small sack full of what we needed. He set it on his work
table and began double checking the contents.

“I am actually very glad that you made this trip.” He moved
aside the portion of gray cloth to fit in a bottle of cider. “It is getting too
dangerous for Tourth to be seen about. If you were stopped, it wouldn’t go well
with you, but,” he motioned to the knife hilt now back at my waist, “You can
obviously take care of yourself. There are murmurings among those who have
allegiance to Orac that the Lord of Mynth has returned. It is only a matter of
time before the enforcer turns his attention to searching for Tourth. If he
doesn’t take measures to protect himself, you might all be in danger.”

BOOK: Wren (The Romany Epistles)
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