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Her heartbeat gave her awaytoo fast, too erratic, too telling. Fear. She was coated in it.
But where was she?
Kerr Vik scanned the dark tavern, searching for the source of the emotions he sensed felt.
Only one being would be so immersed in fear by the appearance of the Jagers and their mercenaries. The one they hunted a witch.
His gaze shot to the others. Marina, the Jager leader, placed one fingertip to her temple and closed her eyes. With a frown, she dropped her hand and raised her eyelids. "I know this is the place. I've sensed magic here before."
She spun; the gold threads sewn through her tunic caught in the light adding an ethereal quality to her movements as she leaped in front of the tavern's owner and placed the sharp tip of a dagger against his throat. "You say there are no witches here?" she asked.
The owner, a sturdy man with dark hair and a steady gaze, stared straight ahead. "You said yourself, there was no power coming from my tavern. Perhaps a witch was here and left. People don't tend to stay too long."
Kerr stepped over a bench on his way to the back of the room. The fear was growing. It wrapped around him like a noose and tugged him deeper into the room, past the tavern owner and Marina.
The Jager leader ignored him, but the man she had pinned jerked. "There is nothing in there for you."
Kerr stopped, his hand resting on the top of an iron-bound ale barrel. He heard a gasp and felt the fear begin to pulse from inside the cask. He had found her.
Heather Moore held her breath. Her hands, sweaty from fear, pressed against the rough wood surrounding her. She had no idea what was happening, where she was or why she had agreed to hideinside a musty barrel. There had been something about the light in the eyes of the man she'd encountered as she stepped through the portaljoy turning to horror as the sounds of horses and men stomping outside thrust him into some kind of panicked action.
He'd urged her into the barrel, warned her to hold her tongue and her powers, then plopped the lid on top of her.
She'd sat, her knees curled to her chest, her forehead resting on her kneecaps while people stomped inside. Voices threatened the man who had hidden her, insisting they had sensed a witch inside his tavern.
Heather had pulled her knees a little closer to her chest at their tone when they said the word witch. She had no idea why they searched for one, but every fiber of the survival instinct she possessed told her it was for nothing pleasant.
The lid to her hidey hole edged to the side, letting in light and cool air. Heather held her breath, bit her lip and waitedreadying herself to ignore the man's warnings and blast whoever held that lid with as much energy as she could muster.
Except she couldn't. As she tried to draw power from the room, she realized her resources were drained, perhaps from her journey through the portal.
She was stuck no magic and nowhere to hide.
His gaze on the tavern owner and Marina, Kerr waited. The witch inside the barrel was going nowhere. But the tavern owner
As the thought formed in his head, the lid under his hand shifted. Whoever was inside wanted to come out.
Kerr turned his body, instinctively blocking Marina, his charge, from whatever danger waited inside the barrel and jerked off the lid.
A pair of brown eyes, wide with desperation, stared back at him.
The witch. He'd found her.
Elation flooded over him, thenlike a slapa new emotion struck. Surprise. Shock.
A witch, but not just any witchnot a nameless body he knew nothing of, and could turn over to the Jagers with little thought to her destiny.
No, damn it. This witch he knew.
Heather. How had she found him?
"Did you find her?" Marina's dagger dug into the tavern owner's neck; blood dribbled down his dark skin onto his tunic. The man's gaze stayed steady, but defeat was written across his face.
Kerr plopped the lid back onto the barrel and turned. "Thievery."
Both Marina and the tavern owner frowned. "What?" Marina asked.
"A barrelful of elfin silk. We've caught a thief."
Marina pursed her lips, her gaze shooting to the tavern owner. His brows lowered in confusion for one brief second, then he smoothed his forehead and lowered his gaze to his hands. "I'm just a stopping place, a middle man. No real money in it for me, but I can offer you free drinks if you keep my secret from the government. Or at least give me a day or two to get the goods out of my place."
Marina cursed. "Silk?" She stepped away from the man, her dagger still held in front of her. She closed her eyes and after a second she cursed again. "Nothing." She rammed her knife into its scabbard and stared at the tavern owner. "I know a witch was here. If you want to keep your " She gestured toward the back where Kerr stood. " secret, next time you won't let her escape so thoroughly." She stepped close to the man and placed one finger over his heart. "Understand?"
The tavern owner's face was meek, his gaze dropped, but Kerr could see his posture stiff and unyielding as he muttered an agreement.
Without a word to anyone, Marina strode from the room. Kerr hesitated, his hand back on the barrel, but as the remaining Jagers flowed from the room, he dropped his hand and followed. Heather would wait. She'd have to. She had no more options for leaving Gunngar than he did.
Heather's mind raced as the lid to her barrel clunked back into place cutting off light and airbut also threat, hopefully.
The damned portal guardian had sent her to the same place he had sent the garm. Heather moved her shaking hands to her temples and pressed. So, wherever she was, there were garm who knew who she was, what she was. Based on the snippets of conversation she'd been able to decipher from her hiding place, anyone knowing she was a witch couldn't be good.
But Kerr, the silver-haired garm she'd known in the human world fought with at times, hadn't turned her in. Yet.
Sudden light streamed into the barrel, and a rough hand grabbed her by the elbow. With a quick jerk, the tavern owner pulled her to a stand. "What happened? Did you spell him?" he asked.
Weak from lack of food and rampant adrenaline, Heather sagged onto the lip of the barrel and glanced around. The room, a square space filled with rough-hewn tables and benches, was empty of all life except Heather, the tavern owner and a bored cat who studied her from next to a pewter tankard.
The man tightened his grip on her arm. Her gaze flew to his blunt fingers, nails rimmed with dirt dug into her skin. She frowned.
He stepped back. "Remember what I told you about your magic."
She shoved a length of hair out of her eyes and sighed. Good Lord, the man was dressed in some kind of tunic and a leather apron. From the strange close-fitting cap on his head to the wooden shoes on his feet, he looked like an extra from Robin Hood or Macbeth or some other classic tale.
"What year is it?" she asked. Could she have time traveled, landing in the middle ages when people believed in witcheshunted them?
Completely ignoring her question, he lifted the lid off a second barrel and pulled out a small wooden box. His large hands shaking, he took a flat stone about the size of an egg from inside.
Seeing he was going to offer no assistance, she started to step out of the barrel.
He placed a hand on her shoulder, stopping her. "Not yet. The barrel is bound in repelling ironblocks your magic. You get out now and they'll sense yoube back here in two twitches of a light elf's nose."
He dropped his gaze back to the stone in his hands, then held the object out toward her. With an intake of breath, he stared at her.
Heather waited, her agitation growing, but the man just stood, staring. Finally, a rustle of noise outside propelled him into action. "Here." He thrust the stone into her hand. "Keep this on you. It will protect you."
Heather ran her thumb over the smooth surface of the rock. It was a dark red with tiny veins of brown crisscrossing its surface. "How?" she asked.
He stared at her again, his fingers curling into his palms. His close perusal caused a bead of sweat to form above Heather's lip. To cover her anxiety, and to get in a better position to run if needed, she crawled out of the barrel. This time he helped.
The stone still gripped in her hand, she walked the length of the room, studying every aspect of the space as she did. What appeared to be modern lights hung from the ceiling, but aside from that anachronism the place could have been ripped from the middle ages. A fire burned on
a stone hearth. Hewn benches and tables lined the walls. And a heavy oak door, complete with iron hinges and a thick wooden cross bar, stood between her and the outside world. She couldn't help but wonder what lay beyond that closed door, how out of place she would look. She rubbed her palms over her jeans and tugged at the tail of her once-clean shirt.
The man stepped in front of her and lowered the bar with a clunk. Heather swallowed and stepped back.
"What year did you say it is?" she asked again.
He pulled a rolled shade, leather, Heather noted, down over the windowswindows she hadn't thought to approach, peer out of. Once done, he lowered himself onto a bench and studied her. "Didn't. Residents of Gunngar don't take a lot of notice of time."
Gunngar. Heather searched her brain for any mention of such a placeshe came up empty.
At her blank stare, he sighed. "Gunngar used to be a passageway between Svartalfaheim and Alfheimthe only direct route. But years ago, the elves " He turned his head and spat on the floor. " shut us down, blocked all exits, trapping anyone who lived here, or had the bad luck to be traveling through that day, in Gunngar."
Now at least Heather could follow what he was saying. Svartalfaheim, home of Svartalfars dark elves and Alfheim, home of light elves. Which meant she was Heather took a step backward. The backs of her knees hit a bench. She sagged onto it. "I'm somewhere in the nine worlds," she muttered.
"Gunngar." The man stared at her from under bushy eyebrows.
She looked up. "And you are?" she asked.
"Arn," he replied. A thick hand shot toward her.
She wrapped her fingers more tightly around the stone and ignored his offering. She had to get out of hereback to the human world, where she could pretend the other eight worlds didn't exist. She'd already made the mistake of trying to work with beings of the nine worlds. That and her own stupid desire for power is what landed her here.
She stood. "Where's the portal?" she asked. Only minutes earlier, the guardian had shoved her through a portal in the human world, sending her into exile as punishment for her part in a plot to free Fenrir, the most powerful of all garm. Unlike Kerr, Heather hadn't cared about the politics involved in the struggle. She'd only been interested in the payoff promised her by the woman behind the plot: power. Heather had wanted power. Look where that had gotten her. She started to glance around, then stopped herself.
It didn't matter. She wasn't staying. She hadn't killed anyone, hadn't done anything to deserve this. Kelly, the friend and mentor she'd betrayed, would see that, be over her anger by now. Heather would go back through the portal and beg Kelly to forgive her show mercy for God' s sake.
Confident Kelly could convince the guardian to rescind his sentence, Heather squared her shoulders and asked again, "Where's the portal?"
Arn pointed toward the back. "You came from there, but"
Heather strode past him, shoving a bench out of her way as she went. At the back of the room was a small open doorway. Without pausing, Heather stepped through, and into a kitchen.
She blinked. No tingle, but the place appeared modern enoughstone countertops, industrial-looking metal box that had to be a refrigerator. She'd made it, she was back in the human world.
She set the stone she'd carried with her onto the coun-tertop and leaned forward, resting her forearms on the cold, polished granite.
"I told you. Hold on to that stone." Arn rushed through the doorway to shove the stone she'd discarded into her hand.
Her heart sinking and a soft "no" passing her lips, Heather stared back at him. She was still in Gunngar.
"I was so sure." Marina vaulted onto her horse with the grace only a purebred light elf could exhibit. She waited as Kerr lifted himself onto his mare, then reined her stallion beside him. "I noticed what you did in there."
Kerr stiffened, but his voice remained calm. "What I did?"
"Put yourself between me and the barrel. You thought there was a witch in there, didn't you? You put yourself between me and the threat."
Tension smoothed from Kerr's shoulders. "It's what garm do. What you hired me to do."
"Hmm." Marina tilted her head, her almond-shaped eyes sparkling as she thought. "I'd never met a garm before you and your group arrived. I doubted wolves could be protectors. Hellhounds I've heard they're impossible to control."
His mind back on the barrel and the woman hidden inside it, Kerr shrugged. He didn't mingle with hellhounds, didn't care about the differences between them and his kind.
"Do you believe in our cause? The importance of the Kampanjen?"
Kerr stared ahead, over the bobbing ears of his horse. The Kampanjen the Jagers' crusade to rid Gunngar of witches. Until today he'd given the cause, as Marina called it, little thought. His role was protector of Marinasince she'd hired him, given him a purpose for the first time in his life. Her politics and causes hadn't concerned him at all until today.
"Garm protect, guard. That's all," he replied.
"So, you don't care that if we win the Kampanjen, find the witch of legendthe one who will take up the vesselGunngar will finally be opened? You'll be free to travel again. We'll all be free to return to our families, and the lives that were cut off over a century ago?"
She reined her horse closer and leaned forward, until her long hair caught in the breeze and wrapped around them both. "You don't care that free to travel back to Alfheim, I could find a place for you and all the garm? Portals, beings, palaces. The light elves would gladly turn over the responsibility for guarding such things."