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The thief in black melted into the shadows of the room so completely it was easy to believe he had done this a thousand times.
Yes, Roland thought, as he lay still. Be cautious. Your enemy is close by.
He watched the figure through slitted eyes, feigning sleep determinedly. It had been excruciating waiting these last few nights, and he had begun to suffer from the exhaustion. But now he was full awake. His mission was almost finished.
The feeble light from the embers in the fireplace was so dim the moonlight shamed it. He saw the intruder's legs, first the right, then the left, block the sullen red glow as he passed the grate; slow, so slow Roland could not be sure it wasn't simply the passing of time that turned the red to black.
But no, it was the thief, coming closer to his goal. Roland shifted slightly and sighed, as if in his sleep: a test, and the thief halted and disappeared once more into the shadows.
Very good, Roland thought. How patient are you, my friend? How careful will you be?
After a long while, Roland saw the shadows shift again, coming closer to where he lay prone on his pallet. Coming closer to the box.
He could hear the softest of sounds, the whisper pad of the intruder's footsteps on the rushes littering the floor. Roland hated rushes, hated the crumbling mess they became over time, but tonight he was glad for the dry reeds, and he silently thanked the faceless servant who had scattered them days ago.
No doubt his guest was cursing the same event.
The rushes gave the intruder a significant pause in every step. Roland imagined himselfprowling through the room, between the reeds, imagined how he would roll his feet around the sound they made, imagined how the sharp anticipation would taste as he neared his goal. He wondered if the intruder felt the same things.
He had left the wooden box out in the most obvious of places, lid not quite shut, the folded paper peeking out coyly. If he were the thief, Roland would have retreated as soon as he saw the box on the table by the door, an open invitation, ready for the taking.
It was all much too easy.
Luckily, his prey didn't think so. Or did he?
The intruder had halted halfway to the table, as if uncertain of the surety of his situation after all.
Go on, Roland urged silently. Go. He was running out of time, and the intruder was still too far away.
But now the thief had turned and faced Roland's pallet. From where he lay, Roland could see his head tilt, just so slightly, could almost hear the unspoken questions forming in the intruder's mind.
Before Roland could think to move, the thief had crossed to him instead of the box with the swiftness of a greyhound, had pulled out a respectably wicked dagger and was holding it quite nonchalantly--and very professionally--at Roland's throat.
"Give me one reason not to kill you," the intruder hissed, breaking the silence at last.
Roland opened his eyes fully, glanced down at the polished blade, and then up into the masked face of the outlaw he had been tracking for this past half year.
"Because without me you'll be dead soon," he replied.
"But you will be dead much sooner than I, my lord." The thief's voice was surprisingly light, even though he was obviously trying to mask it, but Roland passed that off as a quirk of his youth, when voices were unpredictable things.
The dagger blade turned delicately against his skin. Youth or no, he obviously knew just what to do with the knife to create the most excruciating pain. Roland felt the warm trickle of blood slipping down his neck.
"What matter is it to me if I die?" the boy asked. "You will go first. I can ensure that you will go most painfully first."
"You don't want to die, Alister." Roland could see the use of the boy's proper name had startled him. The tip of the dagger shifted against his throat; a short dart of deeper pain jabbed through him. Roland ignored it. He kept his tone calm and reasonable. "You can't afford to die. Not yet. I still have something you want."
But now the boy was in greater control of his emotions and did not spare even a flicker of a glance for the table with the box on it. Roland focused on the eyes staring at him through the black, meshed mask, and caught a chill of emotion there, a frigid thing so deep it seemed to burn him to the core.
My God, he thought suddenly, he's serious. He wants to kill me.
And that, of course, made him smile, because there was his damnable sense of humor again, always coming to the fore when he least needed it to. After everything he had managed to live through, to be killed by this slip of a boy with a grudge, it was too ironic. He turned the smile into a placating tone.
"Don't you want it, Alister? Don't you want the letter that would save your father?"
Again came that chill as the boy looked down at him, held the dagger rock-steady against the artery in his neck.
"I've learned many things," said Alister lightly. "Many creative things, my lord, involving all sorts of unpleasantries with knives and anatomy. I could, for instance,"--here the blade shifted again, higher now--"cut out your tongue through the bottom of your jaw. A most effective means of silencing undesired chatter. Or"--he trailed the blade lower, leaving a stinging path down to the base of Roland's throat--"I could simply sever your windpipe. It's a little less messy that way. But just as painful, I assure you."
"The letter," Roland said. "Your sister."
"Yes," said Alister. "You would like to trade the letter for Kyla, isn't that right? I believe that is how the message went. Tell me this, Lord Strathmore, what makes you think I would trade my sister to you for a tattered bit of vellum?"
Roland managed another smile. "She likes me."
"Really?" said the boy mockingly. "She never mentioned that to me."
"Perhaps she didn't wish for you to rush out and kill her intended out of spite."
"Spite, my lord? What is spite to me?" Alister's voice grew sharper. "What is mere spite to one who has lost everything, everything, damn you! I come for revenge, Strathmore, nothing so petty as spite. Revenge is much more delicious than that."
The moment had come. Roland knocked the blade away with a hand-numbing blow, heard the dagger go clattering across the floor. In an instant he was up off the pallet, stifling the dismayed cry of the boy by clapping one hand over his mouth and using the other to pin his arm to his side, easily lifting the boy's feet off the floor.
A part of him registered that Alister was surprisingly slender in his arms, though he wouldn't stop struggling long enough for Roland to handle him gently. Instead he crushed the boy into him with sheer force of muscle, turning the boy's head until Alister's ear was by his lips.
"Listen to me," he whispered urgently. "Stop fighting! There are guards everywhere, you know that! Don't be a fool!"
It seemed that his words had some impact after all, for suddenly Alister grew still, his breathing ragged and muffled beneath Roland's palm. The boy's heartbeat thudded heavily against the arm Roland had pinned to his chest; he could feel the faint trembling shaking the slight body. One less cautious would assume it was fear making him shake so. But Roland was quite certain this young man knew no fear of him.
It was fury shaking Alister, plain and clear. Pure fury.
Interesting, that the weight of the form in his arms was not so heavy as he had expected. Curious, the softness of the shape he held pressed to him. Not like a boy at all, not even a young one. ...
"Ah," said Roland.
The puzzle fell into place with sudden clarity. He took his hand from the thief's mouth and pulled off the black hood.
He released her as her hair tumbled free past her shoulders, a glorious sight even in the murky light. It was red, he noted distantly, not the reddish orange of just about every Scotsman he had met, nothing ordinary like that, but a deep, rich red. More like the color of a fox, Roland thought. A gorgeous, furious fox.
There was a penalty to be paid for his bemused distraction. He saw her arm pull back just before she punched him in the jaw, snapping his head to the right. He took a step backward, cradling his chin.
"Ah," Roland Strathmore, Earl of Lorlreau, said again. "Lady Kyla, I take it. How delightful to meet you at last."