Read an Excerpt
Drake stood in the dark alley, gaze fixed on the village center, waiting. It was full dark. The night was quiet, cool, devoid of insects. His eyes had adjusted to the darkness, but without the moon it was still difficult to make out any details.
The witch should have escaped by now. Drake's gaze narrowed on the dark smudge of the thieves' hole, marked by a pole. Earlier that day the witch's hands had been nailed to the pole, but later he'd been ripped free and thrown down into the hole.
Drake had seen the cycle often enough in the past six months. It followed a similar pattern each time: the witch was captured, tortured into confession, and then waited in a hole or other prison to be executed. And through each one, Drake observed an interested bystander, nothing more. On occasion he would plant suggestions if he thought it prudent, and he always made certain the witch had opportunity to escape eventually.
The escape was of vital importance, since he had to be captured by another village in order to start the whole process all over again.
They'd been through this dance a number of times and the pattern was always the same. Usually by now the witch had escaped and was slinking away into the night, with the occasional frantic stop to feed on a farm animal.
But tonight was different. Drake continued to wait in the darkness, his lips tight, his fists opening and closing rhythmically, debating whether to leave the safety of the darkness. He scanned the town square again. The windows of the houses surrounding the square remained black. He sprinted across the square, dropping to a crouch beside the thieves' hole. He surveyed the square again.
He leaned over the wood grating. "Luthias," he called in a loud whisper. "Luthias."
Nothing but silence. Drake sat back on his heels, listening and waiting, wondering if the witch had finally died.
A baobhan sith did not die easily; Drake knew this, so the silence puzzled him. True, the cycle of abuse had been ongoing for months, and any human man would have died long ago or, at the very least, been permanently crippled from all that Luthias had endured. But Luthias was not a human man and had been through worse than the relatively tame bit of torture he'd been subjected to in this village. A dunking. The wheel. Some rocks on the chest. Nothing a baobhan sith couldn't recover from in a few hours.
"Luthias," Drake called again, his voice a harsh whisper. Still no answer.
Drake's chest constricted. If Luthias was dead, then it was over. Drake could be finished with this duty he'd assigned himself.
And move on to the next one, the one he had been using Luthias to avoid.
Drake's head bowed. He stared sightlessly at the ground. He was tired, weary to his bones. His taste for vengeance had been satiated. If Luthias was not dead now, he would be tomorrow, when they burned him at the stake.
Drake stroked his beard. Had it not been for the dreaded task that followed, he would have loved to be finished with this one. It had been six months. Doubtless the thing that waited for him believed he did not intend to fulfill his promise at all. And that was not true. Drake MacKay honored his promises, even the ones that were misery to even contemplate.
It was time to go. He had done what was necessary to protect his family and punish the man who persecuted them.
But it was over now.
He secured the grate over the thieves' hole. He had unlatched it earlier so that Luthias could easily escape. Let him meet the village's sentence. It was in their hands now.
After another visual surveillance of the village, Drake returned to the safety of the dark alley. His horse was stabled close by. Now that he'd made the decision, he didn't want to waste another moment on Luthias.
He saddled his horse and led it out of the village. When he was clear of the last cottage, he mounted and rode into the night, bound for the far northern highlands and a promise overdue.
The island was exactly as Drake remembered it. Windswept, treeless, lonely. A lethargic bell clanged in the distance as a goat wandered through the tall grass. The clouds broke, and sunlight blinded him. He squinted as he crossed the island, following the sound. He remembered the last time he had made this same journey under very different circumstances. He had come here with murder on his mind. To take revenge on the thing responsible for his years of misery. Instead, the blood witch had saved the life of his friend.
This was not a woman who granted favors out of the kindness of her heart. In fact, technically, she wasn't a woman at all and probably didn't have a heart. She was a baobhan sith. A blood-sucking witch. And he owed her a life.
It wasn't worth much these days anyway.
He waded through the tall grasses to the top of the hill. A lush green valley, dotted with white puffs of sheep, spread out before him. The baobhan sith's house nestled in the side of a hill, not immediately visible to the unobservant. It had a new door no doubt thicker than the last one, which he had hacked through with an ax.
The door was locked from the inside, but he had expected no different. Baobhan siths were nocturnal creatures. They derived their power from the night or the moon he didn't know which. Because of this they often hid themselves during the daylight hours.
He pounded on the door, not really expecting any response. When none came, he settled down beside the door, crossed his arms over his chest, and closed his eyes.
He slept fitfully, startling awake frequently, hand on dirk, wondering where he was. The moment he remembered, his body relaxed, his eyes turning to the door, still closed, then to the sky, gauging how long until the sun set. Then he shut his eyes and slept some more.
He dreamt, too. Strange, vivid dreams that seemed real and yet couldn't be. He saw the baobhan sith in his dreams, walking in shadows, just out sight. He would tell her to stop running and come out where he could see her, but she only faded further away.
The next time he woke it was in increments and with care. His eyes opened to the darkness. He didn't move as he waited for them to adjust to the gloom. It was night, but no stars or moon were visible. A thick fog had moved in from the water and hung around him, clammy. He suppressed a shiver.
He got to his feet, listening. Sheep bleated in the distance. He felt along the grass wall until he touched the door. It was open, just a crack. He pushed on it, and it creaked inward.
Muscles tensed and ready, he stepped into the house. The darkness was complete; not a single candle lit his way. He had a vague recollection of his last visit six months ago. There had been a table several feet to his right, and on it had been a fat, squat candle. He moved toward the table, hand outstretched until he touched it. His hands skimmed over the tabletop, searching for candle and flint.
Before he encountered anything, there was a scrape, then a spark. A halo of light spread across the table.
She sat at the table across from him, the flickering candle in front of her, her long, slender arm lowering the flint matches to the tabletop. The candlelight lit her hair so that it burned like fire, deep auburn and copper.
The sight of her there sent a jolt of energy through him. His hands curled into fists. She was so still, so quiet. He could discern nothing by her blank expression.
The silence stretched out interminably until Drake felt compelled to say, "Well. I'm here."
Her head tilted slightly to one side as she regarded him thoughtfully. Silken copper hair slid from her shoulder to fall behind her back. "It took you long enough."
He lifted a shoulder. "Aye, well..."
She looked away, disinterested. "You can go."
Drake frowned at the woman before him. She seemed different somehow. Previously she had been enigmatic, mysterious...now she just seemed bored.
"No," he said. "I made a promise, and my word is good."
She waved a pale hand in his direction. "Apparently." The emotionless line of her mouth curved minutely into something resembling a smile. "Your honor is noted, Drake MacKay. No one will speak ill of the solidarity of your word. I release you from your promise."
Drake had been dreading this moment, dreading coming to this island, and most of all, dreading the fulfillment of his promise. Her words should have been welcome. And there was a sigh of relief in his soul. But the larger part of him was annoyed.
She stared up at him, waiting. Her eyes were large and sultry, curtained with thick auburn lashes that seemed too heavy for her to hold up consistently, so they lowered, shadowing her eyes and making her thoughts elusive.
"I came a long way," he said. What was he doing? Arguing? My God was he insane?
Apparently he was, because rather than run to the boat and row back to the mainland, thanking God for this reprieve, he was still here.
She seemed as puzzled by his strange behavior as he was. "I imagine you did. And if there had been some way to get word to you about this, well..." She lifted a palm and shrugged. "Well, I wouldn't have done it anyway, so never mind about that." The corners of her mouth pulled tight, and she exhaled. "You are released. Do not be a fool and question it."
His brows drew together as he regarded her. She was right. There was no sense in questioning such a gift. He was free. He inclined his head, not willing to thank her verbally. She held his gaze for a long moment. Then her gaze drifted away, disinterested.
Drake backed out of the house and closed the door. He stood outside, hesitant for some inexplicable reason. She seemed so odd. Not that he had known her well, but he had spent a fortnight in her company, and during that time she had been very different. Though insouciant and understated, she had still seemed alive. Witty and clever; conversant. He had not found her company objectionable.
The woman inside was a shell.
He turned away from the door. Whatever ailed her was not his concern. He was free, and that was all that mattered now.
He rowed back to the village, relief washing over him in slow waves. He had stopped thinking about a future. There had been no point. His future had been sealed when he had made the promise to the baobhan sith. But now the future opened before him again, full of possibilities. Where did he go from here?
The thought was such a profound one that he stopped rowing. His oars trailed through the water. Before the blood witch had saved his friend Stephen, he had lived his life seething with anger and misery over his wife's horrible death, needing someone to blame. And that someone had been the baobhan sith. But then she'd helped him, and though he hadn't forgiven her, he no longer felt compelled to revenge himself on her.
Luthias had been punished.
The blood witch had released him from his promise.
The sudden hollowness in his chest unnerved him. It seemed abnormal to view the years that stretched ahead of him with no interest.
He was no longer young, but neither was he an old man. He would find another woman, have sons. He'd lived practically as a monk since his wife had died. That needed to change.
He pulled at the oars with new vigor, letting the hard work dominate his thoughts. He kept at it until the bow hit the beach. He dragged the boat ashore and left it, trudging up the pebbled shore. No one paid attention to him. The fishermen were further down the coast where a narrow dock extended out into the water, readying their vessels to set sail. It was very early; the sun had not yet risen.
Shops and houses clustered just past the waterline. Drake had not rented a room, so he entered the tavern and dropped wearily onto a bench. The taverns never closed, since the fishermen came and went all night. The smell of bread and porridge filled the air. Within seconds a tall, lean woman stood over him with a tankard of ale and one thick brow arched. Drake tossed his coin on the table. She exchanged the ale for the coin and left him to his drink.
Drake drained the tankard and then a second. He wanted to drink away the troubling thoughts that plagued him about future and family. He had just started his third when he realized the men sitting at the table behind him discussed the baobhan sith. He paused, then slowly brought the tankard to his lips, shifting backward to eavesdrop better.
"She rejected the offering again," one of the men said, his voice deep and gruff.
"What does that mean? What does she want?" another man asked. This one sounded smaller, his voice thinner. He was frightened.
There was a brief silence. An exhalation. "Human blood," deep and gruff said ominously.
The silence drew out longer this time.
"So...what do we do?" a different one asked in a low, harsh whisper. "Do we send her a human?"
"Mayhap we should wait," the thin voice said anxiously. "Mayhap she doesn't care about us anymore."
"The last time we waited and prayed," the gruff voice said, "bad things happened. She killed entire herds of animals. Dried up the fishing. Preyed on humans. No." Drake imagined him shaking his head decisively. "No more. We have been at her mercy too long. I say we kill her."
There was a sharp intake of breath. "It canna be done. She canna be killed."
"Everything can be killed," gruff man drawled.
Drake's heart beat into the silence. He realized that he had stopped drinking and sat very still, head tilted toward the men. He took a drink of his ale and leaned forward on the table, rubbing the back of his head wearily.
His antics to appear as if he wasn't listening caused him to miss what was being said.
"...told me the only way to kill one was to cut their heads off and burn them to ash."
"How do we manage that when she lives on an island? She knows who is coming and going. There is no surprising her."
"Then we have to outnumber her. And daytime is the best time."
Drake couldn't listen anymore. He stood and left the tavern. He paced outside for a moment, his chest a knot, teeth clenched. They were going to kill her. And it sounded as if maybe they knew how. He raked a hand through his hair and stopped short, staring out to sea. It was too dark to make out but he saw it in his mind. A green place, populated with peaceful animals. A calm place, a safe haven, not the lair of a baobhan sith.
She wasn't his problem. She had released him from his promise, and if he had kept walking to the stables rather than stopping to have a drink, he would never have known any different.
But he did know. And he couldn't just ignore what he knew. He owed her. Being released from a promise was one thing, but deliberately allowing someone who had aided him to die...well, that was quite another.
He headed for the beach and the skiff he'd left resting on the pebbled sand. Urgency mixed with impatience in his gut. He had thought he was finally free of everything, ready to start fresh, and here he was, in the thick of it again. But no sense starting anew when there was unfinished business to resolve. Some part of him felt better with a task, a mission, something to distract him from thoughts of the future.
He shoved the skiff into the water and stepped in, rowing back toward the island and his promise. Copyright © 2008 by Jen Holling