When young Alec of Kerry is taken prisoner for a crime he didn’t commit, he is certain that his life is at an end. But one thing he never expected was his cellmate. Spy, rogue, thief, and noble, Seregil of Rhiminee is many things–none of them predictable. And when he offers to take on Alec as his apprentice, things may never be the same for either of them. Soon Alec is traveling roads he never knew existed, toward a war he never suspected was brewing. Before long he and Seregil are embroiled in a sinister plot that runs deeper than either can imagine, and that may cost them far more than their lives if they fail. But fortune is as unpredictable as Alec’s new mentor, and this time there just might be…Luck in the Shadows.
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LUCK IN THE SHADOWS
Asengai’s torturers were regular in their habits—they always left off at sunset. Chained again in his corner of the drafty cell, Alec turned his face to the rough stone wall and sobbed until his chest ached.
An icy mountain wind sighed through the grating overhead, carrying with it the sweet scent of snow to come. Still weeping, the boy burrowed deeper into the sour straw. It scratched painfully against the welts and bruises that bloomed across his bare skin, but it was better than nothing and all he had.
He was alone now. They’d hanged the miller yesterday and the one called Danker had died under torture. Alec had never met either of them before his capture but they had treated him kindly. Now he wept for them, too, and for the horror of their death.
As the tears subsided, he wondered again why he’d been spared, why Lord Asengai repeatedly told the torturers, “Don’t mark the boy too badly.” So they hadn’t seared him with red-hot irons or cut off his ears or opened his skin with knotted whips as they had with the others. Instead, they’d beaten him skillfully and dunked him until he thought he was drowned. And no matter how many times he’d screamed out the truth, he couldn’t seem to convince his captors that he’d wandered onto Asengai’s remote freeholding seeking nothing more than the pelts of spotted cats.
His only remaining hope now was that they would finish him off quickly; death loomed like a welcome release from the hours of pain, the endless stream of questions that he didn’t understand and couldn’t answer. Clinging to this bitter comfort, he drifted into a fitful doze.
The familiar tread of boots jerked him awake sometime later. Moonlight slanted in through the window now, pooling in the straw beside him. Sick with dread, he pulled himself into the deeper shadow of the corner.
As the footsteps came closer a highly pitched voice suddenly burst out, shouting and cursing over the sounds of a scuffle. The cell door banged open and the dark forms of two warders and a struggling captive were framed for an instant against the torchlight from the corridor beyond.
The prisoner was a small, slightly built man but he fought like a cornered weasel.
“Unhand me, you cretinous brutes!” he cried, his furious words marred somewhat by a noticeable lisp. “I demand to see your master! How dare you arrest me! Can’t an honest bard pass unmolested through this country?”
Twisting an arm free, he swung a fist at the warder on his left. The larger man blocked the blow easily and pinned his arms sharply back again.
“Don’t fret yourself,” the guard snorted, giving the prisoner a sharp cuff on the ear. “You’ll meet our master soon enough and wish you hadn’t!”
“His partner let out a nasty chuckle. “Aye, he’ll have you singing loud and long before he’s through.” With this, he struck the smaller man quick, harsh blows to the face and belly, silencing any further protests.
Dragging him to the wall opposite Alec, they manacled him hand and foot.
“What about that one?” one of them asked, jerking a thumb in Alec’s direction. “They’ll be taking him off next day or so. How ’bout a bit of sport?”
“No, you heard the master. Be worth our hides if we spoiled him for the slavers. Come on, the game’ll be starting.” The key grated in the lock behind them and their voices faded away down the corridor.
Slavers? Alec curled more tightly into the shadows. There were no slaves in the northlands but he’d heard tales enough of people carried off to distant countries and uncertain fates, never to be seen again. Throat tight with renewed panic, he tugged hopelessly at his chains.
The bard raised his head with a groan. “Who’s there?”
Alec froze, regarding the man warily. The pale wash of moonlight was bright enough for him to see that the man was dressed in the gaudy clothing common to his kind: a tunic with long, dagged tippets, the striped sash and hose. Tall, muddy traveling boots completed the garish outfit. Alec couldn’t make out his face, however; the fellow’s dark hair hung to his shoulders in foppish ringlets, partially obscuring his features.
Too exhausted and miserable to attempt idle conversation, Alec pressed into his corner without reply. The man seemed to be squinting hard in his direction, but before he could speak again they heard the guards returning. Dropping flat in the straw, the bard lay motionless as they dragged in a third prisoner, this one a squat, bull-necked laborer in homespun garments and stained leggings.
Despite his size, the man obeyed the warders in terrified silence as they chained him by the feet next to the bard.
“Here’s another bit of company for you, boy,” one of them said with a grin, setting a small clay lamp in a niche over the door. “Someone to help you pass the time ’til morning!”
The light fell across Alec. Dark bruises and welts showed darkly against his fair skin. Clad in little more than the tattered remnants of his linen clout, he returned the man’s gaze stonily.
“By the Maker, boy! What did you do that they dealt with you so?” the man exclaimed.
“Nothing,” Alec rasped. “They tortured me, and the others. They died—yesterday? What’s the day?”
“Third of Erasin, come sunrise.”
Alec’s head ached dully; had it really only been four days?
“But what did they arrest you for?” the man persisted, eyeing Alec with obvious suspicion.
“Spying. But I wasn’t! I tried to explain—”
“It’s the same with me,” the peasant sighed. “I’ve been kicked, beaten, robbed, and not a word will they hear from me. ‘I’m Morden Swiftford,’ I tell ’em. ‘Just a plowman, nothing more!’ But here I am.”
With a deep groan the bard sat up and struggled awkwardly to untangle himself from his shackles. After a considerable effort he finally managed to arrange himself with his back resting against the wall.
“Those brutes will pay dearly for this indignity,” he snarled weakly. “Imagine, Rolan Silverleaf a spy!”
“You, too?” asked Morden.
“It’s too absurd. There I was, performing at the Harvest Fair at Rook Tor only last week. I happen to have several powerful patrons in these parts and believe me, they shall hear of the treatment I’ve endured!”
The fellow prattled on, giving an encyclopedic recital of the places he’d performed and the highly placed people to whom he looked for justice.
Alec paid him little heed. Wrapped in his own misery, he huddled morosely in his corner while Morden gaped.
The jailers returned within the hour and hauled the frightened plowman away. Soon cries of an all-too-familiar nature echoed up the hallway. Alec pressed his face against his knees and covered his ears, trying not to hear. The bard was watching him, he knew, but he was beyond caring.
Morden’s hair and jerkin were matted with blood when the guards dragged him back and chained him in his place again. He lay where they flung him, panting hoarsely.
A few moments later another guard came in and handed out meager rations of water and hard biscuit. Rolan examined his bit of biscuit with obvious distaste.
“It’s maggoty, but you should eat,” he said, tossing his portion across to Alec.
Alec ignored it and his own. Food meant dawn was close and the start of another grim day.
“Go on,” Rolan urged gently. “You’ll need your strength later.” Alec turned his face away, but he persisted. “At least take a bit of water. Can you walk?”
Alec shrugged listlessly. “What difference does it make?”
“Perhaps a great deal before long,” the other man replied with an odd half smile. There was something new in his voice, a calculating note that was decidedly out of place with his dandified appearance. The dim light of the lamp touched the side of his face, showing a longish nose and one sharp eye.
Alec took a small sip of the water, then downed the rest in a gulp as the needs of his body took over. He’d had nothing to eat or drink in more than a day.
“That’s better,” murmured Rolan. Getting to his knees, he moved out as far as the leg chains allowed, then leaned forward until the manacles drew his arms back tautly. Morden raised his head, watching with dull curiosity.
“It’s no use. You’ll only bring the guards back,” Alec hissed, wishing the man would keep still.
Rolan surprised him with a wink, then began to flex his hands, spreading the fingers and straining the thumbs about. From across the cell Alec heard the soft, sickening snap of joints separating. Rolan’s hands slipped free of the manacle rings. Falling forward, he caught himself on one elbow and quickly relocated the joints at the base of each thumb.