PRAISE FOR THE NOVELS OF ALEXIS MORGAN
Also by Alexis Morgan
River of the Damned
The Warriors of the Mist are a legend, their origins lost in the shadows of the past. In dark times, it is whispered that the warriors can be summoned from beneath the roiling currents when a champion is needed and if the cause is just.
However, the cost will be high and the risks are great. For if the battle is won, the champion faces judgment by the same gods who had once condemned him to the cold chill of the mountain river. If his performance is found worthy and valiant, at long last the warrior will make the final journey to the great hall where the noble knights of the past dwell for all eternity. However, if the champion is found lacking still, he returns with his brothers to the river.
If the battle is lost, regardless of fault, both the champion and the supplicant will be condemned to the netherworld. Together they will wander without hope and without light, lost in cold darkness until the ages have passed and all that exists ceases to be. Only the powerless and the desperate dare approach the Warriors of the Mist to plead for their cause.
Many years have passed since last a worthy supplicant journeyed to the river’s edge, but times are dark and desperation has once again come to the people of Agathia. There is a disturbance in the mists, and the waters grow restless. Someone comes, bringing either disaster or redemption.
The Warriors of the Mist ready their weapons and prepare to meet the enemy.
It had been three days since Kane first rode through the arched gates of Agathia, capital of the kingdom with the same name. He already hated everything about the place: the throngs of people, the constant noise, and especially the spicy miasma of dark magic that permeated every corner of the city.
During the daylight hours, he slept. Afternoons he prowled the streets, memorizing the layout of the city. Knowing which walls could be scaled and where the guards dozed while on duty could make the difference between life and death if his mission were to go badly.
His nights were spent visiting taverns to gauge the mood of the patrons. They definitely weren’t happy, not with the heavy dose of sour fear mixed with the usual smells of greasy food and cheap wine.
He’d hoped to cross paths with Duke Keirthan’s personal guard while they were off duty. Yet he hadn’t seen any in the places he’d been so far, and it wouldn’t be prudent to ask strangers to direct his footsteps. In this city, anyone who showed too much interest in the duke’s men was likely to end up dead.
The Broken Sword was the fourth such place he’d been in tonight, but this time he planned to stay awhile. Long enough to finish a second tankard of ale, maybe even a third.
He looked around the crowded room. Had all of these fine citizens of Agathia taken to drinking in reaction to the growing evil trapped within the city walls? Kane felt sure it wasn’t the quality of the food that drew them to this piss pot. He choked down another bite of the greasy stew and shoved the bowl aside.
At least he had a table to himself. Several people had started to sit down with him but had quickly changed their minds. Evidently, Agathians were reluctant to share space with a man who bore a mage mark on his cheek and had eyes the color of death.
Fine with him. The company of strangers always made his skin crawl.
The evening’s entertainment was about to start, the real reason Kane was there. Averel, the newly hired troubadour, sat in the far corner, tuning his lute and warming up his voice for his debut performance in the city. Two oversized dogs lay sprawled at his feet, their relaxed air deceptive. One hostile move toward their master and these people would learn all too quickly how much damage a pair of war dogs could do.
Kane leaned back in his chair with his arms crossed over his chest, watching the crowd while keeping a wary eye on the young musician. There was a definite air of innocence about the youth. Most of these fools probably thought the calluses on Averel’s hands came from hours of plucking the strings on his lute. In truth, they’d come from years of gripping the pommel of a sword.
If Kane hadn’t spent centuries of fighting side by side with the young knight, he might well have bought the innocent act himself. However, despite their long friendship, tonight they were strangers to each other. He’d keep his distance to minimize the chance of someone noticing the two of them shared the same unusual eye color. Those who clung to the old superstitions would say they’d been marked by the gods.
They would be right.
Both Kane and Averel served the Lord and Lady of the River. Along with their captain and two other warriors, they were the Warriors of the Mist or, as Kane actually preferred, they were simply called the Damned. The gods had sent them to make this land safe for Lady Merewen, the woman who’d risked everything to call the warriors from their sleep beneath the river back on the spring equinox.
Averel headed toward the small platform in the front of the room. Silence followed in his footsteps as he made his way through the jumble of tables and benches. By the time he took a seat on a tall stool, every eye in the room was on him. Kane would have hated that, but Averel took all the attention in stride.
It seemed as if everyone was leaning forward a bit, anxious for the performance to begin. No doubt in these dark days, the promise of any entertainment was a welcome diversion. Even a poor musician would serve the purpose; tonight they were in for a surprise.
Averel had a true gift for music and a voice that lent itself to both the beautiful and the bawdy, depending on the crowd and his mood. Kane waited to see which direction his friend would choose tonight.
“Good evening,” the young minstrel began, pitching his voice just loud enough to be heard over the quiet murmurings of the crowd. “As your humble servant, I will begin with a few personal favorites. Later I will take suggestions, but I make no promises. My master specialized in the old songs, so I have not yet learned the newer melodies.”
Kane was impressed. Averel had come up with the perfect excuse for not performing all the popular ballads. Considering how long they’d been absent from the world, it was unlikely he knew anything that had been composed in several hundred years.
It wasn’t long before Averel had the crowd singing along with him. Kane looked around for the tavern owner. The grinning fool was behind the bar, serving up pitchers of ale as fast as he could fill them. Obviously, singing was thirsty work, which boded well for Averel’s chances of being hired on for an extended stay.
Kane’s situation was trickier. His assignment was to get close to Duke Keirthan himself. His best option would be as a member of the duke’s personal guard, but the man had a reputation of being careful about letting strangers get too close. Considering the man harvested his own people like a crop to feed his blood magic, the caution was understandable.
A movement off to his side had Kane reaching for his knife. Realizing it was one of Averel’s idiot dogs, he forced himself to relax. Both of the mutts were working their way through the crowd, mooching for bits of bread and meat. The white one stopped only inches from Kane’s table.
Everyone in his immediate vicinity watched the interchange with understandable caution. After all, the dog was tall enough to look a seated man in the eye.
Kane glared at the offending beast. “What do you want?”
The dog responded by wagging his tail and then laying his head in Kane’s lap. It would be more in Kane’s character to shove the dog away, but then he glanced up at Averel, who gave him a slight nod before looking away.
All right, then. The animal was there for a purpose. Kane relented and gave him a thorough scratching, in the process palming the message Averel had stuck inside the dog’s collar. After a few seconds, Kane gave the dog a gruff push.
“That’s enough. Be off with you.”
The dog stopped at a few more tables before rejoining the other beast in the back corner. Well done. The message had been delivered without Averel having to approach Kane directly or his dogs singling Kane out for attention.
Averel started a new song, one that had everyone clapping their hands and stamping their feet in time to the music. Kane sipped more of his ale and waited until the song ended before making his escape. Aiming for the back door where the privies were located, he staggered as if he were feeling the effects of all the ale he’d consumed.
When he was sure he wasn’t being followed, he dropped the act and continued on down the alley for several blocks before cutting back over to the main road through town. Thanks to the late hour, the streets were dark except for the occasional pool of light from a window along the way. Kane kept to the shadows, where he felt most at home. The few people he passed gave him a furtive look and hurried on their way. He didn’t blame them. There were many scary things that prowled in the darkness; Kane was one of them.
His own destination was close by now. He’d taken a room at an inexpensive inn on the edge of town, the kind of place where a few coins ensured privacy. Add another piece of silver to the price, and the staff would turn a blind eye to anything short of murder in the dining hall. While Kane had no immediate intentions of killing anyone, he did have an unusual companion sharing his quarters. Hob wouldn’t attack unless provoked, but just the sight of him would likely throw the whole inn into chaos and draw unwanted attention to Kane himself.
Gargoyles had that effect on most people.
Kane entered the building through a side door. At this time of night, few guests would still be up, but he preferred to keep his movements as private as possible. For the same reason, he automatically avoided the fourth step, the one that creaked.
His room was at the far end of the hall with a window that overlooked the courtyard below. If he needed to make a quick escape, Kane could easily jump to the roof of the stable and then to the street below. A smart man slept better knowing he wasn’t trapped in a room with only one way out.
All was quiet as he slipped inside his room and locked the door. Making his way to the small table by the bed, he lit a candle. Averel’s note could wait until Kane released Hob and got comfortable.
He kept the shutters closed even though the air in the room reeked of boiled cabbage and stale beer from the dining room below. Murmuring the words to release Hob from his magical resting place on Kane’s shield, he averted his eyes from the sudden burst of light that accompanied the gargoyle’s appearance.
Hob looked around and shook from the tip of his nose to the tip of his tail before leaning back on his haunches in a long stretch. Then he circled around Kane’s legs, bumping him in a show of affection.
Kane patted the beast on his scaly head. “Sorry to be so late in returning, boy.”
When Kane opened the shutters, Hob laid his head on the sill to taste the night air with a few flicks of his tongue and then gave the rest of their quarters a thorough sniff. Satisfied all was well, he turned a few circles before curling up on the floor at Kane’s feet.
Unfolding Averel’s note, Kane spread it out on the table near the candle for light. All it said was The Empty Keg and The Rooster’s Crow. No other explanation was needed. Averel knew Kane was hunting for the tavern where the guards spent their off hours. He must have heard something about these two places.
Kane would visit them as soon as the sun went down tomorrow night. He needed to evaluate the caliber of man the duke was hiring but also hoped to bring himself to their attention. The best way to get a job as a hired sword was through a recommendation from someone already on the payroll.
It wasn’t much of a plan, but before meeting Captain Gideon all those centuries ago, Kane had made his living as a mercenary. Some things never changed, especially the demand for men who could wield a sword and weren’t too picky about who they worked for.
He stripped out of his clothes and stretched out on the thin mattress. When Kane was situated and had the threadbare blanket pulled up to his chest, Hob crawled onto the bed and curled up at his feet. The damned animal took up too much room, but he and Hob had been partners since Kane’s grandfather had presented him with the freshly hatched gargoyle. He’d intended it as a bribe to purchase his grandson’s willing assistance in his magery. The ploy hadn’t worked, but Kane and Hob had formed a bond that had proven unbreakable.
That wasn’t the only reason he tolerated Hob sprawling across his ankles. The Damned had fought as a unit even before the goddess had taken them into her service. Not that he’d admit it to his friends, but Kane missed them on this solo mission. Hob’s solid presence close by helped fill the gap.
Before dozing off, Kane offered up a prayer that his time here in the city would be short. He’d volunteered for this duty, but war was coming; he sensed it in his bones. When it came time to fight, the Damned would face their enemy together.
* * *
An hour after sundown, Kane left the Empty Keg to move on to the next tavern. Outside, he overheard an argument in the nearby alley. He crept closer, his pulse quickening at the possibility that he may have just stumbled across exactly the kind of situation he’d been looking for. He peeked around the corner to see one of the guards facing off against a middle-aged man dressed in clothing suited for a well-to-do merchant.
The guardsman shoved the older man back a few steps. “Hold your tongue, you twice-cursed fool! Quit spreading false lies about your ruler! I’m off duty or else you’d already be on your way to prison for such traitorous remarks.”
Rather than listen to the sound advice, the man pushed back. “The truth cannot be silenced no matter how many of you brutes the duke hires, Captain Bayar. Does he think we don’t know what he’s done? How many of his own people have died at his hands?”
The guard was both drunk and belligerent, a volatile combination, but it was his opponent who had Kane worried. The merchant’s words echoed with grief and righteous anger. The man might have good cause, but he was asking to get skewered.
The argument turned lethal as both men drew their swords. Kane charged forward, hoping to distract the two long enough for them to back away from the precipice.
The guard reeled forward, but even drunk, he disarmed his opponent easily. He could have stopped there, the fight done before it had really started. Instead, he sneered and held the tip of his blade at the merchant’s throat.
“Do you really think you can insult both me and the duke and live?”
Kane drew his own sword as he closed the distance between himself and the two men. Hoping the guard would respond to the bark of an order, he shouted, “Drop your weapon!”
He was too late. The merchant dropped to the ground, his throat slit. Kane took up his cause. Drunk or not, the captain was paid to protect the citizens of Agathia, not to execute them over a few ill-advised words. Yes, the merchant had been foolish to cross swords with the guard, but he didn’t deserve to die for it.
But maybe the captain did.
Bayar blinked at Kane. “What do you want?”
Kane smiled. “To ensure you face the judgment of the gods tonight for crimes against Agathia, including murder.”
The fool bellowed in fury and went on the attack. Kane sidestepped him easily. Despite the alcohol he’d consumed, the captain still put up a credible showing. It was tempting to play with him for a while, but the other guards might be looking for him.
Kane ended the battle with one stroke. It was a quick kill, although Kane doubted the man would be grateful for the small mercy. After all, dead was dead.
Kane murmured a prayer for the merchant and grudgingly added a shorter one for the dead guard. As soon as he quit speaking, he caught the sound of voices in the distance. They were moving in this direction. Kane froze when he made sense of what they were saying.
“Captain, where did you go?”
A second voice asked, “Where did he disappear to this time?”
“Most likely into an alley to take a piss.” The speaker sounded disgusted.
Kane ducked farther back into the shadows, debating his limited choices. Just as he’d feared, the captain hadn’t been alone. If his friends found Kane standing over their dead leader, more would die in that alley.
It would be but a minute, maybe two, before the guardsmen reached the alley. He couldn’t count on them simply passing by, and it was his misfortune that the alleyway came to an abrupt end at a high wall. After studying the two bodies, Kane made his decision. Apologizing to the merchant’s spirit, Kane quickly rearranged the bodies and the weapons. He retrieved the merchant’s weapon and closed the dead man’s fingers around the grip.
Then he wiped the captain’s blade clean and sheathed it, making it look as if the merchant had assassinated the guard with no provocation. Then Kane rushed to the street and waved his hands to attract the attention of the three guardsmen searching for their leader.
“Help! I tried to stop him, but it was too late! Captain Bayar has been murdered!”
Unlike their leader, these three were sober and smart enough to approach Kane with swords drawn and a great deal of suspicion.
Two of them pinned Kane against the wall and stripped him of his sword while the third investigated. It didn’t take him long to assess the situation. When he rejoined his friends at the mouth of the alley, he grabbed Kane by the throat, choking off his air.
One of the others glanced toward the alley. “Sergeant, is it true? Is the captain dead?”
The man jerked his head in a quick nod and then leaned in close to Kane’s face. “When I let you breathe, start talking. Tell me everything that happened. If I believe your story, you get to live. For now. If I don’t, you might want to end your explanation with a prayer for an easy death.”
He tightened his grip. “Nod if you understand me and what’s at stake.”
As one of the goddess’s avatars, it went against Kane’s nature to surrender without a fight, but he was playing the role of a mercenary down on his luck. Pretending a fear he didn’t feel, he bobbed his head and managed to whisper, “I understand.”
“Good. Mayhap you’re smarter than you look.”
The guard dropped his hand and retreated a step. Kane jerked his hands free of the other two fools and rubbed his neck as if he were in pain. The action bought him a few seconds to organize his thoughts.
He decided to throw the dice and see where it got him. “I had a drink with Captain Bayar, and he mentioned the possibility of a job. I stopped to use the privy and was supposed to catch up with him.
“By the time I got here, he was dead. I never heard the other man’s name, but Bayar was already down and wounded. He obviously hadn’t even had a chance to draw his own weapon. The merchant was standing over him with a bloody sword and stabbed Bayar a second time.”
Kane drew another breath and finished his hastily assembled tale. “I rushed forward, hoping to block the blow, but I was too late. When the crazy bastard came at me next, I killed him.”
There. His explanation covered all the observable facts. He waited to see if these three believed him or not. If they didn’t, there’d be another fight, although he really hoped it wouldn’t come to that. There was no telling how the duke’s guards would react to finding four of their own dead in one night.
Kane had no doubt of the outcome of the possible fight. These fools might be well trained by their standards, but they’d never faced one of the Damned in armed combat before. Finally, the sergeant glared at Kane and then at his two companions. He pointed at the one on the right.
“Corporal, fetch the rest of the men and bring them here along with something to carry the bodies on.”
As the corporal took off running, the sergeant told the third guard, “Bring a pair of lanterns so I can see better what happened back there.”
Then he turned his attention back to Kane. “You stay right where you are. Try to leave and I’ll gut you like a pig. If your story holds water, we’ll give your sword back. I’m Sergeant Markus.”
“I’m called Kane.” He leaned back against the wall, crossing his feet at the ankles. “I’ve got no place to be. Let me know when you’ve made up your mind.”
Even knowing Kane didn’t have his sword, the guard didn’t turn his back until he was halfway down the alley. Kane smiled. Maybe the man was smarter than he looked.
For now he would wait to see if he’d taken his first step toward infiltrating the duke’s inner circle.
“We need her.”
“Are you certain?” Murdoch glared across the table at Gideon as he waited for him to defend his decision.
Normally he would accept his captain’s opinion without question. Gideon had led their small band of warriors wisely and well. The sole exception had led them right to this point in time, with all five of them damned to an endless cycle of bloody battles alternating with long periods of time sleeping under the river.
Gideon rubbed his temples and briefly closed his eyes. When he opened them again, his words conveyed his own reluctance, as if he needed to convince himself as much as Murdoch. They’d all been in the pasture trying to calm the horses when Duncan and his lady had come charging into the keep just as the enemy had attacked. Lavinia had wielded her own powerful magic to block the blasts of destructive power Duke Keirthan had sent their way. At the same time, Duncan had shielded everyone else from harm, using a spell Lavinia had taught him.
Gideon was struggling to come to terms with all that had happened. They all were. “You saw what happened out there, same as I did. If Lady Lavinia hadn’t been there to intervene, we would have all died. She almost did.”
Murdoch frowned as he nodded. “True, but she’s Keirthan’s blood kin. Could that connection have led his attack right to our doorstep?”
Duncan had remained quiet until that point. He surged to his feet and slammed his hands down on the table. “Murdoch, I share your mistrust of magic, but do not accuse Lavinia of being in league with her brother. Her honor is above question. I stake my own upon that being true. She saved every one of us from the duke’s attack.”
Murdoch wasn’t ready to concede the point. He aimed for speaking reasonably but wasn’t sure if he succeeded. “But the goddess forbids the use of dark magic. How are we to know if the source of her power is any different from his?”
Duncan’s expression went flat. To a stranger he might have looked bored, as if the conversation no longer interested him. Murdoch knew better. So did Gideon. The captain was already up and moving, hoping to provide a buffer between the two men.
Lady Alina put her fine-boned hand gently on Murdoch’s thick wrist. Her soft touch was enough to render him helpless to move. Meanwhile, Gideon convinced Duncan to sit back down even though the man would clearly prefer to continue the discussion with his fists.
Once they were all seated again, Gideon took charge of the conversation. “Duncan, tell us what you learned while you were at the abbey. Start from when you left here. Leave out nothing, even if the details seem inconsequential. Once we’ve heard the entire story, we will better understand what happened out there as well as the source of Lady Lavinia’s power.”
Then he shot Murdoch a hard look. “Agreed?”
He’d listen, but that didn’t mean he had to like it. The goddess’s disapproval of all kinds of dark magic had been one of the axioms they’d lived by since entering her service. But this time, they’d already accepted Lady Merewen’s special gift with horses. Now Duncan was wanting them to accept Lady Lavinia’s gift for combat magic. She claimed she’d merely shielded them from Keirthan’s attack, but they’d all seen what she’d done. What was worse, she’d taught Duncan how to build a magical construct he called a ward.
Magic was magic, and Murdoch hated it all.
However, Duncan had been a good friend for centuries, and he owed it to the man to at least listen. He met Duncan’s gaze and slowly nodded, hoping he understood that Murdoch’s anger was aimed at the situation, not at Duncan himself.
Duncan nodded in return and began speaking. He began with the moment he’d first felt Lavinia’s presence, long before he’d actually reached the abbey. From there, he explained Keirthan’s attacks on Lady Lavinia and the abbey where she was acting as the abbess.
A ripple of shock circled the table when he revealed the Lady of the River had spoken directly to Lavinia. A second wave swept through when Duncan admitted that he’d almost succumbed to the hunger for the power magic could give him, but that he’d stepped back from the precipice at the last moment.
He brought them full circle back to the attack they’d all survived out in the pasture. An uneasy silence settled over the room as they absorbed all the information they’d just been given.
Gideon broke the silence. “Are you all right?”
Leave it to the captain to be more worried about his men than he was the situation, Murdoch thought to himself.
Duncan offered him a weary smile. “I’ll be fine after some food and rest. It’s a relief to be here because I’m worried about what Ifre Keirthan will do now; he won’t take defeat well. This is the third time Lady Lavinia has thwarted him, the fourth if we count destroying the talisman one of our pursuers was carrying.”
He glanced toward the door. “And I’m worried about the effect projecting all that power will have on Lavinia. It almost killed her.”
Duncan paused as his face went pale. “No, it did kill her. She awoke saying the Lady led her back to me.”
He took a long drink of wine and looked first at Gideon and then at Murdoch. “I don’t ever want to see her like that again. But how do I protect her from something that comes flying across the sky with no warning? What good is my sword against an enemy I can’t see?”
There was no easy answer to that question, and they all knew it. Once again, Gideon took charge.
“You’ve given us all a lot to think about, and we’ll all do a better job of that after a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow morning will be soon enough to start making more plans.”
“Murdoch, check in with the guards and let them know to send for me if they notice anything at all unusual during their watch. After that, turn in for the night. I want all of us rested in the morning. I plan to ask Lady Lavinia to join us. We need to better understand what she can and cannot do with her gift. Perhaps she has suggestions about reinforcing our defenses, as well.”
For the first time since the meeting started, Duncan looked happier. “I will tell her.”
He walked out of the room without another word. Murdoch stared at the closed door.
It was the first thing Alina had said since they all filed into the library to talk about the day’s events. She gave Murdoch’s arm a soft squeeze.
“None of you are accustomed to letting your hearts direct your actions, but obviously your goddess approves of Duncan’s involvement with Lady Lavinia. And clearly we’re going to need her as an ally when we make a stand against the duke.”
Then she rose to her feet. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll check with Ellie to review the menus for tomorrow.”
When she reached the door, she smiled directly at Murdoch. “Just so you know, Shadow is in my room. You might want to stop by to check on her.”
There was a hint of heat in those soft gray eyes as she spoke. Several days ago, she’d invited Murdoch to share her bed, but he’d been called away. Was this her way of letting him know that invitation still stood?
Please, gods above, he hoped so. “I will come as soon as I speak to the guards.”
“I look forward to it.”
Then she swept from the room, taking his last coherent thought with her. When Gideon laughed, Murdoch glared at his friend.
“You find something amusing? Because as tired as I am, I think I can still find the strength to teach you some manners.”
All right, maybe he couldn’t, but he’d give it his best effort. Besides, what energy he did have he hoped to put to better use with Lady Alina.
Fortunately, Lady Merewen intervened. “Gideon, be nice. The man is clearly exhausted. So is Duncan, not to mention Sigil. Save your teasing for a time that’s more appropriate.”
Then she gave the captain a look that was all too similar to the one Alina had given Murdoch. “We’ve all had a trying day and should retire early. Right now I need to see how the horses are faring after the attack.”
When she left the room, Gideon sighed and shook his head. “Did you think we’d ever meet women who could wield such power over us? Besides the goddess herself, of course.”
The last of Murdoch’s bad mood faded away. “No, I didn’t. We’ll know that the world has truly turned upside down if the same thing were to happen to Kane.”
They both laughed over that thought. “Any word from him or Averel as yet?”
Gideon shook his head again. “No, and I don’t expect to receive word for a while. They won’t send the dogs until they have something to report.”
He settled back in his chair. “Now that I’ve heard Duncan’s story, tell me what you saw. How did Sigil do? Any worries about him?”
Murdoch reached for his wine. “None. In truth, the only reason we reached Duncan in time was that Sigil sensed something was wrong. We abandoned our camp in our rush to find him, Lady Lavinia, and the little girl Sarra.”
He ran through the events in his mind. “Sarra also carries the taint of magic, although you’d have to ask Duncan more about the nature of it. She’s the one who cried out that we needed to get to the horses before they were killed.”
Gideon put his hand on Murdoch’s shoulder. “I’ll add that to the list of things to talk about tomorrow. For now let’s see to the guards and call it a day.”
* * *
Time dragged. What was taking Murdoch so long?
Surely he didn’t doubt his welcome at her door. But then, Alina had her own reasons for being nervous about what they had planned. After all, until her husband’s death, he was the only man she’d been with, and Fagan’s brutality had left her terrorized every time he’d demanded she share his bed.
While waiting for Murdoch, her elderly maid helped her change into a nightgown and let her hair down. After Magda left, Alina added wood to the fire and turned down the bed.
It was another hour before the knock at the door finally came.
“Alina, I’m here.”
She swung the door open, relieved that the moment had finally arrived. “Come in.”
“I’m sorry if I kept you waiting, but I wanted to wash the trail dust off before I came to you.”
She should have thought of that. “I wish I’d known. I would have had the servants bring the tub in here.”
But then the image of helping Murdoch bathe had her blushing. It wasn’t as if she hadn’t seen a naked man before. In fact, she’d seen all of Murdoch when she’d nursed him back to health after he was wounded. Though that wasn’t at all the same as the intimacy of a wife assisting her husband with his bath.
Not that Murdoch was her husband, but he would be her lover. Oh, but how to begin? In her marriage, her husband had always dictated the details of how and when.
His stern mouth spread in a slow smile as he reached out to trace her cheek with a single fingertip. “I can only imagine the thoughts racing through your mind right now. Upon my honor, Alina, I will go as slowly as you need me to and only as far as you are willing to go.”
The sweetness of his touch combined with the raw hunger in his eyes gave her the courage she needed. Taking his hand in hers, Alina tugged him toward the bed.
“Murdoch, I want it all.”
* * *
From the angle of the light streaming in through the window, the sun had already been up for several hours. No doubt everyone else was awake and about, but Murdoch refused to feel guilty about stealing a few precious hours in Alina’s bed, in her arms.
Last night had been . . . Truly, he had no words to describe it. All he knew for certain was that he’d never experienced anything like it before. Right now his lady lay cuddled at his side, her hand over his heart, her leg over his.
Her pale blond hair spilled across his arm and shoulder in a tangle of silk. He loved the feel of it against his skin. Loved the feel of her against his skin.
His desire stirred to life again, along with the impulse to pick up where they’d left off just before dawn. He’d taken her three times during the night, and she would probably appreciate some time to recuperate. He shifted slightly away from her, hoping that little bit of space would help.
His movement woke his lover. She blinked up at him. Her eyes widened and her mouth opened in a circle of surprise. Had she thought it was all a dream? Or mayhap hoped that he would have slipped out of her bed to go skulking back to his own? He hadn’t thought to ask her.
“Should I go?”
She scooted toward him, closing the small gap he’d just created. “Only if that’s what you want. I mean, I’d understand.”
Damn her late husband all over again! Murdoch had spent the night worshipping this woman with everything he had, and yet she still worried she might not have pleased him.
“If I could figure out a way to manage it, we wouldn’t leave this bed for at least a week, Alina.”
He took her hand and led her down to the rock-solid proof of how much he still wanted her. To his delight, she gripped his cock and gave it a promising squeeze. He had to stop her before he lost all control.
“Alina, you might not want to stoke that fire again.”
“Why not? Don’t you like it when I do this?” She repeated a slow stroke. “Or this?” she asked as she cupped his sac with a firm squeeze.
His head kicked back at the jolt of pleasure. “I like it a little too much. Keep that up, and I won’t be able to stop.”
Instead of retreating, she slid up on top of his body, settling her core right over his cock and pressing her sweet breasts against his chest. Then she wiggled up to kiss him.
He rolled to the side and trapped her arms and legs with his, immobilizing her for the moment. “Sweetling, I want you so badly that I ache. But given what all we did last night, I’m afraid you’ll be uncomfortable and won’t say anything.”
His lover finally showed a spark of temper. “I’ll decide what’s too much for me to handle. Eventually, someone will come looking for you or for me. Do you really want to miss this chance before the rest of the world intrudes?”
She had a point.
“I surrender, my lady. Use me as you will.”
He sprawled onto his back and then lifted his lady to settle her over his hips. Her eyes widened as she realized that he wanted her to take control. He doubted she’d ever been allowed to do so before, but she was a quick study. As she took him deep inside her slick heat, he forgot how to breathe.
When she found her rhythm, she was so beautiful, with her hair flowing down her shoulders, her head tipped back, and her eyes closed. The sight took him right to the edge. He grabbed her hips and thrust upward, shuddering in release deep within the welcoming heat of her body. She followed him in the dance, calling his name over and over as she shivered in his arms.
He grinned as she collapsed on his chest, boneless and content. He stroked the elegant length of her back, calming them both.
Then, just as she’d predicted, the world intruded. After knocking on the door, Sigil called softly, “Lady Alina, I apologize for disturbing you, but it would seem that Murdoch has gone missing. Gideon is hunting all over for him. If you’ve, ah, seen him recently, would you let him know?”
“I’ll tell him. Thank you, Sigil.”
Alina sat up and pushed her hair back from her face. It was impossible to know if the rosy tint to her complexion was a result of their lovemaking or that Sigil had known exactly where to find Murdoch. Either way, their time together was at an end. For now.
Evidently, she was thinking along the same lines. “I will be counting the minutes until nightfall.”
He kissed her one last time. “As will I, my lady.”
Time to go to work. The Damned had plans to make and people to protect, including Alina herself. Murdoch knew his duty and would see it done. Even so, it took all of his considerable strength to make him leave the bed and start looking for his scattered clothing.
Kane stood in a ragged line of mercenaries and farmers’ sons and tried to blend in. Sergeant Markus had finally accepted his explanation of how their captain came to be lying dead in an alley. As a result, he’d promised Kane a chance at being hired as one of the duke’s guard. As he’d explained, there were two different divisions of military in Agathia.
The largest group was the troops who served the country as a whole. They dealt with bandits and other threats. The second set was comprised of the elite fighters, the ones assigned to protect Ifre Keirthan himself. They patrolled the city, but especially his residence.
It was interesting that the duke personally viewed all of the potential applicants, deciding who would be offered a position and where each recruit should be assigned. From the rumors that flowed like water up and down the line, the majority of the hires were being assigned to the regular troops. Recently, several patrols had come under attack, greatly reducing their numbers.
Kane knew firsthand about one such attack. He and Hob had themselves accounted for a number of those deaths. There’d been at least two more skirmishes since then. Had his friends been involved? He prayed to the goddess that she keep the Damned safe until he was able once again to stand beside them in battle.
The line shuffled forward again. It should be only a few more minutes before he came face-to-face with the man the Damned were determined to topple from his throne. It was tempting to take advantage of this unexpected audience to execute the bastard immediately.
He rejected that idea as soon as he crossed the threshold into the dim interior of the building. Keirthan’s personal guard kept him surrounded, and Kane would have to fight his way through at least two layers of defense to get close to the duke.
It wasn’t difficult to pick Keirthan out in the crowd. He was the one with an oily cloud of evil clinging to him like a second skin, following his every move. It was not an accident that no one stood within arm’s reach of the man. Even those with little or no sensitivity to magic would be repulsed by the chilly blackness that writhed and swirled around their ruler.
How many of their countrymen had died to create that abomination? Kane kept his hands away from his weapons, but in his head he imagined the sweet slide of his sword through Keirthan’s flesh, plunging it deep and twisting it hard to make sure the man suffered for his crimes.
Better yet, Kane wanted to wrest control of that darkness for himself, turn it back on its master, and let it eat its fill of Keirthan’s soul. The image set the mage mark on Kane’s cheek afire, as for the first time in centuries he hungered to wield the kind of magic that was his family heritage.
Dear Lady, what was he thinking? The last thing he wanted was to touch the blackness that Keirthan had flowing in his veins like poison. He’d seen how that kind of craving for power had warped his own grandfather, turning the man into a coldhearted bastard who sacrificed even his own kin to feed his hunger. If it hadn’t been for the gentle influence of Kane’s mother, he might have very well followed in his grandfather’s path. It had been a hard-fought battle, but he’d walked away from his heritage. Despite his best efforts, the magic still left its mark on him, the one on his face only the most obvious.
He forced his attention back to the moment at hand, watching closely as Sergeant Markus assessed the group of men just ahead of Kane. Each applicant drew his sword and held it out pommel first. What was Markus looking for?
The sergeant made his way down the line of eight men. When he’d hefted the last sword in the bunch, he stepped back and gave the men their orders. From the dejected posture of the first two, they’d been turned down. The next five were directed toward a side door, presumably to join the regular troops.
After they filed out, the duke approached the one remaining applicant. The mercenary started to step back, but then stopped midstep, frozen in an awkward position and clearly not in command of his own movements. Sweat broke out on his forehead and his jaw worked hard, as if trying to force words through his clenched teeth.
The duke smiled and nodded to Markus as he released his hold on the man’s body and mind. Markus waited until the duke stepped back behind the safety of his guards before directing the merc toward a door in the back corner. Obviously, he possessed whatever quality the duke had been hunting for.
Markus returned to his position. “The next eight line up here.”
Kane and seven others slowly shuffled forward to stand in front of the sergeant.
Markus made quick work of the first seven swords, but frowned when he examined Kane’s. What could he possibly be checking for? Kane’s blade was high quality with a curved cutting edge, but carried no taint of magic. The sergeant returned Kane’s weapon and stepped back.
“All but Kane go through the second door. Someone will be waiting to show you to your new quarters.”
After they filed out, the duke stepped down off the dais again. “Is this the man you spoke of, Sergeant?”
“Yes, Sire. This is Kane. He personally executed the man who killed Captain Bayar. Since he was looking for a position with the guard, I thought it was appropriate to invite him here today.”
Keirthan studied Kane with greedy interest. “Thank you for defending the honor of my guard, Kane. Captain Bayar will be missed. It will be difficult to replace him.”
As Keirthan stepped closer, the shadow of darkness slithered forward to wrap around Kane’s body. It sent a burning chill straight through to his bones, requiring considerable effort to hide his reaction and hold his ground. The inside of his skull itched as Keirthan’s mind pushed at the boundaries of Kane’s own. It had been centuries since Kane had last been subjected to such treatment, but his grandfather had taught him well how to defend himself against such an intimate invasion.
The duke’s eyes narrowed as his efforts intensified. Kane held strong, but he wasn’t sure if that was a good thing. It might cost him this opportunity to join the guard, but it would cost him his life if the duke managed to breach his defenses. All he could do was wait Keirthan out.
After a few seconds, the pressure lessened and then disappeared altogether. Keirthan remained close, though.
“Turn your face to the side.”
Kane didn’t bother to ask which way. Keirthan wanted to see his mage mark. He could look all he wanted. If he tried to touch him, mayhap it would be the duke’s day to die. Kane’s, as well, but it might be worth the price.
Keirthan held his hand palm out but didn’t actually touch the mark. “I’ve read of such sigils, but I’ve never actually seen one before. How did you come by it?”
“It was a gift from my grandfather.” One Kane would have gladly gutted the old bastard for, but he made sure none of his anger leaked into his voice.
“Have you much practice wielding the magic behind it?”
Keirthan sounded more curious than cautious. If he truly knew much about the marking, he would have been more prudent. This time Kane could answer without hesitation.
“He was killed before he could infuse the mark with its full potential.” True enough, although Kane had taken care of that himself before he’d finally renounced his magical heritage.
The duke looked like a child whose new toy didn’t perform as expected. “And your father couldn’t finish it for you?”
“I never knew him. It was my maternal grandfather who was the mage.”
Also true. Kane’s father had been sacrificed to Grandfather’s ever-growing need for blood to fuel his magic. He’d even used his own daughter for the same foul purpose, while she carried Kane in her womb. Unlike most of the mage marked, Kane had been born with his.
“Your eye color is also odd.”
Kane shrugged. “Another gift.”
One from the goddess herself, but that truth would get him killed right where he stood. Keirthan continued to stare at Kane for several long seconds, clearly waging an internal battle as to what Kane’s fate should be. Finally, he gave a decisive nod.
“I will offer you a position in my personal guard. For now Markus here will get you settled in. In three days’ time, there will be a trial by combat so we can evaluate the new recruits. I expect you to participate.”
Without waiting for Kane to respond, Keirthan stalked away, his guards scurrying to catch up with him. For a man with an ever-growing number of enemies, he was careless with his own safety. No doubt he thought his cloak of magic would keep him safe. An ordinary man would stand little chance against the lethal combination of Keirthan’s personal guard and blood magic.
But there was one thing Keirthan hadn’t taken into consideration: Kane was not an ordinary man.
* * *
“Lady Theda, the duke would like to speak with you.”
She paused, wishing she had the courage to simply ignore her brother-in-law’s summons. She knew full well that any show of rebellion would only make her already tenuous situation at court far worse. If Ifre ever decided she was more trouble than she was worth, she would die.
She hated the fact that there were days the idea held some appeal. However, the other people under her care would face the same fate, and she would not risk their lives needlessly.
Theda turned to Lady Margaret and her other lady-in-waiting. “Return to the solar. I will join you shortly.”
Her young friend knew better than to let her worry show in such a public venue. Keeping her voice to a low whisper, she asked, “Would you prefer that I came with you?”
Theda smiled, as always maintaining a calm facade. Sometimes her face ached from the strain of the mask of pleasantry she was forced to wear when what she really wanted was to scream. “I’ll be fine. I’m sure it’s nothing.”
She waited until her two friends safely made their way through the crowded room toward the stairs. They’d all put in their token appearance in front of Keirthan’s associates. The man didn’t have friends, only those who curried his favor. Anyone who felt differently about the man either stayed tucked away on their family estates or mysteriously disappeared.
On her way to where Keirthan waited, Theda made the effort to greet several acquaintances. There were so few left who were overtly friendly to her anymore, a depressing change from when her late husband was the duke. With Ifre’s ascension to power, her own position at court had fallen into disfavor.
Finally, she reached the throne where Ifre liked to sit and watch the ebb and flow of those who sought his favor. Her husband had understood the politics of ruling, but Armel hadn’t basked in the power he had over his people. Instead, he’d worked hard to ensure that they were cared for and protected. In contrast, Ifre was a selfish bastard who never saw beyond his own best interests.
Right now he was busy ignoring her as one of the nobles from a nearby estate described the mare he’d just purchased for his wife. She waited until he paused to take a breath to make her presence known. Ifre was well aware of her standing there, but he enjoyed treating her like a servant whenever possible.
She dropped into a short curtsy. “You wanted to see me?”
“You will attend the trials this afternoon as my hostess. I have guests who will need to be served refreshments. Bring those two women who flutter around you as well. They’re not good for much, but at least they look pretty and can serve the wine.”
Theda dug her fingernails into the palms of her hands to avoid lashing out in response to the insult. Ifre made remarks like that for the sole purpose of goading her. She never let him win.
“We will be there.”
Not that she had any interest in watching men beat one another bloody with swords for the entertainment of Ifre and his cronies. She’d heard trials were being held in part to replace the late Captain Bayar, who’d died unmourned in an alley. As far as Theda was concerned, he’d met a fitting end.
“If you’ll excuse me, I will check with the kitchen to make sure that the refreshments and drinks will be ready.”
Ifre smiled as she backed away. “They’d better be, Theda. It wouldn’t do for my guests to be disappointed in any way.”
“I understand.” All too well. With another curtsy, she made her escape.
Although his tone was intended to convey concern for his friends, the implied threat was real. If anything went wrong with his plans, someone would suffer. Someone she cared about. As yet, Ifre had never raised a hand to her, but he barely kept a leash on those animals who served as his personal guard.
She lived in constant fear that he’d tell them her ladies-in-waiting were fair game. If that ever happened, he would die. She spent long hours imagining all the ways that could happen.
If it were up to her, Ifre wouldn’t have lived this long. However, he had one other weapon in his arsenal that served to keep her in line. He held her stepson in his thrall. She hadn’t seen him in weeks now, but Keirthan had made it clear that Theda had to do exactly as he ordered or her stepson would die.
As she headed for the kitchen, she sent a prayer skyward that the gods would have mercy on her people and end Ifre’s tyranny once and for all.
* * *
The tent offered shade against the afternoon sun but also blocked what little breeze there was. Theda sipped her drink and pretended an interest in her companion’s endless prattle about his prowess with a sword.
“If you will excuse me, I have to see to my duties as hostess.”
She smiled and made a pretense of studying the crowd to make sure everyone had a drink and looked reasonably content. Her ladies were mingling in the crowd yet being careful to not single out any one man for very long. To do so ran the risk of encouraging unwanted attention.
Everything was flowing along smoothly, which meant Ifre had nothing to complain about. Even knowing the potential risk that she’d miss something, Theda desperately needed to slip away for a few minutes’ respite from the crowd and heat. She wouldn’t go far.
There was a small space between two of the tents that was currently unoccupied. What a relief to be alone even if all that separated her from the rest of the world was the thick fabric of the tent walls. A few minutes of stolen time away from her odious brother-in-law and his friends was truly a gift from the gods.
The crowd’s constant cheering of the fighters taking part in the tournament had given her a headache. The noise formed a constant drone, punctuated occasionally with applause or catcalls when a fighter failed to live up to everyone’s expectations. Despite Ifre’s orders that no one was to die in the practice battles, that didn’t mean blood wasn’t shed when either a sword or a temper slipped out of control.