A cunning and impetuous scout, Alix only wishes to serve quietly on the edges of the action. But when the king is betrayed by his own brother and left to die at the hands of attacking Oridian forces, she winds up single-handedly saving her sovereign.
Suddenly, she is head of the king’s personal guard, an honor made all the more dubious by the king’s exile from his own court. Surrounded by enemies, Alix must help him reclaim his crown, all the while attempting to repel the relentless tide of invaders led by the Priest, most feared of Oridia’s lords.
But while Alix’s king commands her duty, both he and a fellow scout lay claim to her heart. And when the time comes, she may need to choose between the two men who need her most…
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.70(w) x 4.10(h) x 1.10(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
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Smoke crawled up the side of the bluff, carrying with it the screams of the dying. Alix strained her eyes, trying to pierce the swirling black folds, but all she could make out was the occasional gleam of metal or flicker of flame far below. It was impossible to tell how the battle fared. The cries of men mingled with the screams of horses and the baying of dogs, sounds of triumph and terror indistinguishable from one another.
The only thing Alix could see clearly was the neatly formed ranks of the White Wolves, holding their position on the western fringe.
“Why don’t they attack?” She started to uncoil from her crouch.
A hand shot out and seized her wrist. “What are you doing? Get down!” Liam glared up at her, punctuating his words with a sharp tug.
“What does it matter who sees us now?” Without waiting for a reply, Alix twisted out of his grasp and started along the edge of the bluff. A muttered oath and the creak of leather told her that Liam was following.
She moved with more haste than care, springing between the frost-slick stones and shooting the occasional harried glance at the Wolves. Their ranks remained unmoved—horses reined in, swords sheathed, bows lowered. Their standard flapped bravely at the lip of the bluff, the pole as straight and still as if it had been driven into the ground.
What in the gods are they waiting for? The enemy had long since moved into position. Arran Green had struck, leading his battalion down the eastern fringe to drive like a spear into the Oridian flank. The Wolves should have mirrored the attack from the west. Instead, Prince Tomald White simply sat astride his horse, immovable as a statue, looking on as his brother’s army battled the enemy below.
A gust of wind nudged the curtain of smoke aside, offering the first clear view of the battlefield since the barricades were set alight. Alix lurched to a halt and sucked in a sharp breath. “They’re falling back.”
“Already?” Liam scrambled closer to the edge of the bluff, his eyes widening in horror. Beyond the writhing knot of men at the centre of the melee, the rear lines of the Kingswords had begun to blur, their ranks disintegrating under the pressure of the Oridian onslaught. They were outnumbered, but the Wolves were supposed to make up the difference.
Except they weren’t.
Something cold and bitter rose at the back of Alix’s throat, but she swallowed it down. “I’m going,” she said, stepping toward the edge of the bluff.
“Alix . . .” Liam grabbed her arm again. “What do you think you’re going to accomplish down there? You’re a scout.”
“What of it? You’re a scout, and you’re a better sword than half the king’s knights. I can handle myself, Liam.”
He hesitated. “Our orders were to stay here.”
“And their orders were to attack.” She stabbed a finger in the direction of the Wolves.
“What are you saying?” He knew the answer—Alix could see it in his eyes.
The king is betrayed. The words burned on her tongue, but for some reason, she couldn’t bring herself to speak them. “Look,” she said, “you can either regret not following orders, or regret standing up here watching our brothers get slaughtered. Your choice.”
Liam paused another few precious seconds before his gaze hardened. “Let’s go.”
They threw themselves down the slope, skidding sideways to keep their footing as loose rock tumbled out from under them. They moved as fast as they dared; Alix had to lean into the hillside, her fingers brushing the dirt, just to keep from rolling an ankle. Even so, the descent seemed to take forever. Alix’s thighs burned, and her breath came in short puffs of vapour. Still the slope went on and on. Gradually, however, the clamour of battle grew louder, the smoke thicker and blacker. And then they plunged into the dense wood at the base of the hill, and an eerie hush swallowed them.
Alix trailed Liam through the pines. A light snow had begun to fall, lending the scene a surreal aura of peace. Only the occasional cry or ring of metal reached back through the veil. Alix slowed to a jog, chain mail jingling, breath harsh in her ears. Liam bounded ahead.
A ghostly silhouette materialised through the trees. A horse, riderless, its white war paint spattered with blood. Liam faltered briefly as he watched it go by. Then another figure appeared, weaving erratically among the drifting snowflakes. A man this time, a soldier, both hands clamped against his neck as he tried in vain to staunch a gushing wound. Liam went for his sword, but the man staggered past without even registering his presence. Moments later, another soldier appeared, and another—Kingswords all, their faces taut with fear. Soon, the shadows swarmed with fleeing men.
Liam drew up short, throwing a grim look over his shoulder. It was worse than they’d thought. “Let’s find Green,” was all Alix could think to say.
Liam nodded and turned to go.
He looked back. Alix hesitated, the words dying on her lips.
A tense smile flickered across Liam’s face, as though he understood. “Just be careful, all right?”
They pushed past the tree line, and hell erupted before them.
The valley surged like the sea under a storm. A riot of bodies heaved according to some unfathomable rhythm, steel and leather and blood and hide flowing around each other in dizzying tides of silver and crimson. Alix froze, momentarily overwhelmed under the assault of sound and motion. Then something crashed against her shoulder, knocking her to the ground, and she found herself lying amid a tangle of bodies. A young man with wide blue eyes stared vacantly in her direction. Shuddering, Alix scrambled to her feet.
She looked about wildly. Liam was nowhere to be seen. Hardly a glimpse of White heraldry anywhere. They had hoped to find Arran Green and the rest of their comrades, but instead Alix was adrift in a sea of Oridians. She needed to move; if she didn’t regroup with the others, she was as good as dead. She backed up, keeping to the fringe of trees, her gaze raking the field for allies.
A small island of Kingswords fought in a tight cluster nearby. Alix started toward them, but she didn’t get far before an Oridian soldier blocked her path. He made straight for her, eyes glazed with battle lust. At his side dangled a massive sword stained with death. Alix gripped her own blade—light, but bloodforged—and gritted her teeth against the inevitable spike of fear.
He came at her with a sloppy swipe, his shoulder too low to get much force behind it, and Alix turned the stroke aside easily. It was then she noticed the blood darkening the man’s leathers. The injury prevented him from raising his sword arm properly, and Alix took full advantage. She feinted, and when he committed himself to parry, she twisted out of the way and landed a solid blow to his flank, her blade biting neatly through boiled leather. The man cried out, folding over himself, and Alix came in again, driving the point of her sword under his armpit. She waited until his knees buckled before yanking the weapon free, the blade trailing a thick ribbon of gore.
She paused; she’d lost the knot of Kingswords in the commotion. Then she spied a flash of white in the corner of her eye and turned. A White banner mounted atop a golden spear pitched forward in the crowd, collapsing under an invisible assault. If the standard-bearer had fallen, his commander could not be far behind. Alix craned her neck to catch a glimpse of the coat of arms as it went down.
Gods preserve us, she prayed in horror.
It was the king’s.
A horse screamed, and then Alix spotted him, just a flash of reddish-gold hair beneath a shining white half helm. His destrier reared, driving back the crowd with its reaching hooves. Alix could see him clearly now: surrounded, alone, his jaw set grimly as he swivelled his horse’s head and pointed it toward the trees. The animal surged beneath him, and he broke away, half a dozen Oridians in pursuit. They were on foot, but even so, the king would not get far, not with the steep slope ahead. Horses were not meant for climbing, especially not heavy warhorses covered in plate. It would be hard enough just manoeuvring between the trees.
Alix felt herself running. She twisted and dove through the bodies, friend and foe alike, making for the spot where King Erik had disappeared into the trees. The snow fell more heavily now, flaying her cheeks with icy barbs as she veered back into the wood.
He wasn’t hard to find. Alix could hear the cries of his attackers, high-pitched and jubilant, like a pack of coyotes harrying an injured stag. The clang of metal told her that the king lived yet.
Get there. Get there!
She burst through a dense copse of pines to find King Erik and his destrier beset by four Oridian soldiers. A fifth lay dead nearby. Erik alternated blows between a pair of attackers at his left flank, trying to keep them both at bay. A third was circling around the horse’s rump, while an archer readied his bow a few feet away. An arrow already protruded from the destrier’s unprotected foreleg, and its haunch bled from an invisible wound.
The Oridian circling behind the destrier was too busy trying to avoid the horse’s hooves to notice Alix closing in. She slammed into him from behind, running him through before he even realised she was there. His death cry was lost beneath the scream of his comrade as the king hacked into the shoulder of one of his foes, splitting him like firewood. But the move left him open, and his other attacker landed a hard blow to the king’s ribs. The sword rang off Erik’s armour, doubling him over just as an arrow hissed through the air where his head had been. The destrier skittered sideways. Alix flew at the king’s attacker in a frantic attempt to drive him back.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the archer taking aim. Alix was on the opposite side of the horse; she knew she would never reach him in time. She did the only thing she could think of: She leapt at the king and tried to pull him down behind the horse’s bulk. But the destrier was still off balance, and with an outraged scream, the warhorse pitched sideways, crashing to the ground and pinning the king and his attacker both. Alix swore viciously even as she plunged her sword through the Oridian lying prone at her feet. Then she dropped to her knees to help her king. He lay unconscious, his helm knocked askew. The destrier struggled to stand. Alix dragged the king from the stirrups just as the animal righted itself and bolted away through the trees, leaving Erik exposed.
The archer nocked an arrow. Alix had only one course left to her. She charged.
The archer drew. A feral scream tore from Alix’s throat as she bore down on him, sword flashing.
The man flinched. The arrow flew wild.
Alix drove into him blade-first, toppling them both to the ground with such force that the air was blasted from her lungs, and just for a moment, everything went black.
* * *
Erik White awoke to darkness and the smell of blood. Something was lying on top of him. A corpse. His head ached, and his left leg was a pulsing beacon of agony. He tried to move.
“Shh,” a voice whispered in his ear. “Be still.”
Erik froze. Shuffling sounded nearby, and low voices, speaking in a foreign tongue. Oridians.
He could feel warm breath on his neck. Whoever was lying on top of him was not dead after all. She was quite alive, though doing her best to pretend otherwise. She was covering his body with her own, so the Oridians would not notice him amid the clutter of anonymous dead. Clever, he thought.
He lay still, trying to ignore the pain in his leg. It was broken, if not worse. His ribs throbbed. He tried to piece together what had happened, but the last thing he remembered was being hunted down like wild game. And before that, the relentless tide of Oridians, and the sickening realisation that his army was losing. Something had gone terribly wrong.
A long time passed. Erik shivered with cold. Eventually, the weight on top of him shifted, and he squinted in the light. Hazel eyes stared down at him. A curtain of copper hair framed a lovely face etched with concern. He knew this face, but for a moment his sluggish mind would not surrender the information.
Black, he recalled finally. She was unbuckling his armour.
“Er,” he began, but whatever he had intended to say dissolved into a gasp as a spasm of pain seized his ribs.
She removed his cuirass and cast it aside, then made short work of the smaller pieces. That done, she dropped to one knee, grabbed his arm, and slung him over her shoulder. She staggered to her feet, swaying a little, but managing to keep upright. She started to walk.
When his head quit swimming from the pain, Erik marvelled that she could bear his weight. That’s why she took off the armour. Clever indeed.
Yet even so, she was clearly hard-pressed; each step was a lurch, painful to both of them. Erik wanted to say something, but he had to clench his teeth to keep from crying out. Eventually he gave up, letting himself slip in and out of consciousness. Each time he opened his eyes, he saw only the frozen ground passing slowly below.
After what seemed like an eternity, Erik heard voices.
“The king! Look to the king!” And then there were hands everywhere, and he was being lifted, gently but surely, away from his rescuer. Darkness began to take him again. The last thing he saw was Alix Black, standing unnoticed amid a gaggle of soldiers, her legs giving way beneath her.
Alix gasped and sat bolt upright. For a terrible moment, she saw only flame and shadow, her ears echoing with the screams of dying men. Slowly, the flames resolved into a single candle, and the shadows gathered into the shape of a tent. She was on a cot, something warm and heavy draped over her legs.
“Gods’ blood! You scared the life out of me!”
The voice, only inches away, sent a bright arc of panic through her. Alix scrambled away from the sound. A silhouetted figure at her bedside raised a hand in a mollifying gesture. “It’s all right, it’s just me.”
“Liam!” Alix threw her arms around his neck, clinging to him as though her life depended on it.
“Oh. Er . . . okay.” After a moment of awkwardness, he relaxed, gathering her close. “It’s all right,” he repeated gently, “it’s over now.”
She drew away, embarrassed. “Sorry. I just . . . I didn’t expect to see you alive.”
Liam grinned. “At your service. Anytime, really.” He leaned in and looked over her shoulder. “I just hope you didn’t pull your stitches.”
“I have stitches?” Alix twisted, and her question was answered by a sharp tug in her lower back. She hadn’t even noticed the pain until now. When had she been wounded?
The memories flooded in like cold seawater into the hull of a sinking ship. Flashing steel. Vacant blue eyes. White war paint spattered with blood . . .
“The king!” she gasped. “Oh, gods, where is he?”
Liam’s grin turned wry. “Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten single-handedly rescuing the King of Alden?”
“I . . . that’s not exactly how I remember it.” Alix brought a hand to her forehead, willing the pounding to subside. Liam handed her a cup of water, and she downed it gratefully.
“You should take it easy. The healers say it’s a miracle you made if off the field. I’m not even supposed to be here, pestering you.” He lowered his voice, suddenly serious. “What happened out there, Allie?”
She smiled faintly. The only other person she had ever allowed to call her Allie was Rig. Liam had stumbled onto it, teasingly at first, and she hadn’t objected. It was a small thing, but it comforted her somehow, a reminder of the brother she missed so terribly. What I wouldn’t give to have Rig here now.
“If you don’t want to talk about it . . .”
“No, it’s all right.” She paused, remembering. “After I lost you, all I could think was to fall back and regroup with the Kingswords. But I couldn’t find more than a few pockets of them here and there. And then I saw the king. He was alone.” She glanced up suddenly, something occurring to her for the first time. “Green. Is he . . . ?”
“Alive. Pretty banged up, but he’s seen worse.”
Alix nodded, relieved.
“How does a king end up alone on the battlefield?”
“I’m not sure. The enemy managed to take out his guard somehow. They drove him into the trees and cornered him. That’s where I found him. We fought them off—barely—and then I had to carry him away. I walked for a long time before I found someone. I don’t really remember what happened after that.”
“Gods, Allie.” Liam’s eyes were round with awe. “That’s . . . amazing.”
She winced. “Not so amazing. I almost got him killed.” When Liam raised a questioning eyebrow, she explained, “I pulled his horse down right on top of him. A destrier in full plate. Knocked him out cold.”
Liam stared. Then he burst out laughing. “I guess that explains the broken leg.”
Oh, dear gods. Alix felt a flush creep into her cheeks. “It’s not funny.”
He only laughed harder. “What a dashing rescue! Why, it’s like something out of a bard’s tale! I can picture it now: the brave heroine . . .”
“Bugger off, Liam.”
“The brave, charming heroine . . .”
“What were you trying to do, anyway?”
She scowled. “There was an archer. I wanted to use the horse as cover, but I didn’t count on the weight of the king’s armour.”
Liam shook his head and dabbed at his eyes. “Good old Alix. Act first, think later.”
“I can’t believe you’re laughing about this. I broke the king’s leg!”
“I’d say he’s forgiven you.” Liam gestured at their surroundings. “You haven’t even noticed where you are yet. It might not be Blackhold, but it’s the army equivalent.”
Belatedly, Alix glanced around. The tent was huge, at least ten feet by twelve. A fur coverlet lay pooled at her waist, and she sat on a cot, a luxury she hadn’t known since leaving the barracks months ago. “Generous of him.” She shifted awkwardly under the blanket. “How is he, anyway?”
Liam sobered. “All right, considering. They say he’s got a pretty nasty break, and some bruised ribs, but he’s up and about. And mad as a hornet.”
“The Kingswords . . .”
He dropped his gaze. “Massacred. Less than five thousand left, we think.”
“Merciful gods.” Tears welled in her eyes, but she blinked them back. This is war, she told herself sternly. Still . . . so many dead . . . “How could this happen?”
“The Raven betrayed us, that’s how.” Liam’s eyes were steel, grey and hard and glinting with fury.
Alix blew out a long breath. Tomald White, commander of the Wolves and their prince—a traitor. He had left his own brother to die. “Why would he do that?”
“Maybe he’s in league with the enemy. Or maybe he’s just a coward. Does it really matter?”
His words barely registered. “And how could the Pack just stand by and watch?”
“They didn’t. Not all of them, anyway. When the Raven ordered them off the field, hundreds deserted to join Green and the rest.” Liam jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “Gwylim and Kerta are here in the camp somewhere. Ide too.”
“The Blackswords . . . how many of them survived?”
Liam shook his head. “I don’t know. I’m sorry. There hasn’t been time to take stock. We’ve been on the run ever since the retreat sounded, just trying to put distance between ourselves and the Oridians.”
“Where are we, anyway?”
“About fifty miles north of Teardrop Lake.”
Alix started. “How is that possible? How long have I been out?”
“A couple of days. They gave you something to help you sleep. Said you needed it.”
Her surprise quickly gave way to humiliation. A couple of days in the care of total strangers, being fed, tended, carted around, and gods knew what else . . . She paused, sniffing herself. Clean and fresh. Her eyes widened in horror. “Who’s been bathing me?”
Liam laughed. “This is what you’re worried about? Your modesty?”
“It wasn’t you, was it?”
His laughter sputtered out instantly. “What? Don’t be . . . of course not!” He rose quickly and cleared his throat. “Right, you should get some sleep. And I’ll go and . . . not sleep. At all. Possibly ever again.” He rubbed his eyes.
Alix smiled, despite herself. Every once in a while, it was possible to reduce Liam to the shy squire he’d once been. Tempting as it was to tease him, however, she could already feel her eyelids drooping. She would have thought two straight days of sleep would be enough, but apparently her body had other ideas.
“Thanks for staying with me.” She yawned and slid down under the coverlet.
“No problem.” He paused at the tent flap, looking back at her. “I’m glad you’re all right, Alix.”
Sleep claimed her.
* * *
Alix peeled back the tent flap to reveal a brisk morning glittering with frost. A pale winter sun strained through the morning mist, washing the clearing in thin watercolours. The camp had not yet stirred; only a few soldiers milled about, carrying water, cleaning weapons, poking at the dying embers of cooking fires. It felt like any other morning, and for a moment, Alix just stood there, watching, some part of her praying that it had all been a bad dream. But of course she knew that wasn’t true. She had woken up on a cot, in an unfamiliar tent, with a vile taste in her mouth and a subtle throb in the small of her back. The battle had been no nightmare—at least not the imaginary kind.
She let her gaze wander over the camp, taking a silent tally of the small canvas pyramids dotting the clearing. So few, she thought. Was this really all that remained of the king’s army? They had been twenty thousand strong when they marched out of Erroman. Eight thousand of those had been Blackswords. Rig’s men, and their father’s before, men whose families had been loyal to the Blacks for generations. Massacred, Liam had said. Alix shuddered.
“Good to see you’re up,” said a voice, and Alix turned to find Gwylim beside her, a steaming cup in his hand. He looked haggard, his green eyes clouded over, his hair tousled into an ash-blond briar patch. “How do you feel?”
“I ache,” Alix said, “inside and out.” Inside, especially.
“Well, if it’s any consolation, you look awful.” He took a long pull of his tea.
“That’s it?” He made a small noise of disapproval. “Those Oridians must have knocked the vinegar out of you.”
She looked at him askance. “You know, for such a short man, you’re awfully brave.”
“That’s more like it.”
Alix couldn’t quite manage a smile. She gazed out over the tents. Gwylim drank his tea. Neither spoke for long moments. Alix longed to ask him about the battle, but she hesitated. Maybe he just wanted to forget. Gwylim and most of the other scouts had been sent with the Wolves, while Alix and Liam scouted for Green. Gwylim would have witnessed the horror up close, and it seemed unfair to make him relive it.
Yet in the end, she found she couldn’t deny herself. “The Wolves,” she said quietly. “What happened? Did Prince Tomald . . . did he not hear the horn?” Some part of her still refused to believe their prince would betray them.
“He heard it. We all did. He just didn’t order the charge.” Gwylim spoke matter-of-factly, but Alix didn’t miss the way his fingers tensed around his cup, chasing the blood from his knuckles.
“What did you do?”
“Same as you. Ran down the hill and tried my best to get myself killed. Practically all the scouts did the same. Kerta and Ide and Nik.”
“Nik’s here?” Liam hadn’t mentioned him.
“No,” said Gwylim. He took another sip of tea.
It took Alix a moment to understand. When she did, her eyes squeezed shut. “Gods, I’m sorry. I know you were close.”
“Lots of good men died out there.” Gwylim avoided her gaze, continuing to stare out over the camp.
Something like nausea wrung Alix’s stomach. How much of it was hunger, and how much horror, she couldn’t tell. “So the White Wolves are disgraced,” she said, more to herself than Gwylim. “Traitors to their own banner.”
“The White Wolves don’t exist.” Gwylim’s voice was quiet but fierce. “Half of them deserted. As for those who stayed with Prince Tomald, who stood by as he betrayed his king . . . They’re his men. The Raven’s men. They’re not the Pack. There is no Pack, not anymore.”
Alix had nothing to say to that, so she just nodded.
“The king named Arran Green commander general of his army,” Gwylim said. “Such as it is.”
Alix frowned. “What do you mean, such as it is? There’s another twenty thousand swords in Erroman, and the Greyswords haven’t even mustered yet.”
“And who’s to say where their loyalties lie?”
“I beg your pardon?”
Gwylim glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. “You’re the noblewoman here, Alix. You know more about politics than a nameless sod like me. Think about it. Prince Tomald has powerful allies, to say nothing of the White Wolves and the tens of thousands of other soldiers he’s commanded over the years. He’s riding back to Erroman right now, convinced that King Erik is dead and the crown is his, and there’s no one there to disagree with him.”
“But the king isn’t dead.”
“Right. So the question is, what happens now?”
Alix grew cold as she processed the implication of his words. If Tomald wanted the crown, he would find plenty of supporters, especially among the army—enough to mount a credible challenge to his brother’s rule. As though one war isn’t enough, she thought bitterly. “Gods help us.”
“The Virtues take no sides in the quarrels of men,” Gwylim said.
“Spoken like an almost-priest.” She gave him a wry look. “I’ll bet you’re asking yourself why you ever left.”
“And here I was just thinking how familiar it all is. The treachery, the ruthless ambition . . . All we’re missing is the temple.”
A new voice spoke. “Merciful Nine, Gwylim, that’s cynical, even for you.”
Alix’s nose wrinkled at the sound. It was far too early in the morning for a dose of Kerta Middlemarch. Alix made a point of avoiding Kerta until at least the midday meal, in much the same way she avoided imbibing heaps of sugar before breakfast. But she was careful to smooth her face into an expression of cool politeness as she turned to exchange greetings with her comrade. Her breeding demanded no less, and she would be damned if she shamed her late parents in front of a Middlemarch.
“How are you feeling?” Kerta asked, her big blue eyes gazing up at Alix through a veil of long lashes.
“I’m all right, thank you. And you?”
“Oh, I’m fine. I wasn’t injured, fortunately.”
Of course you weren’t. Kerta didn’t get injured. She also didn’t curse, drink, sweat, or allow a single perfect blond curl to stray from its proper place. She even fought primly. The second daughter of Byron Middlemarch, Kerta did everything in her power to live up to her family’s ambitions. The only reason she lowered herself to serve as a scout was that she was too small—too bloody dainty—to do much of anything else. And anyway, that was only temporary; Kerta had bigger designs. Once her service with the Kingswords was through, she would no doubt marry well, perhaps even into one of the Banner Houses. The Browns, maybe, or the Greens. About the only house she didn’t have a chance of marrying into was the Greys—and Alix’s own, thank the Nine Virtues.
“Such a terrible day,” Kerta said. “Each friend spared is a gift from above.”
And just like that, Alix felt like a cretin. It was petty to indulge in ungenerous thoughts, especially now. Kerta had never been anything but amiable, and if her overtures were slightly overwrought, there were surely worse sins. Alix mustered something appropriate to say. “It must have been awful, being up there with the Wolves.”
Kerta nodded sadly. “Bad enough to watch our comrades falling to the enemy, but to see Prince Tomald betray his own brother . . .” Her voice wavered, and she looked away. After a pause, she added, “At least King Erik survived, thanks to you. You’re a true hero, Alix.”
Alix squirmed even more. She cast about for a suitably gracious reply, but fortunately, Gwylim spared her the trouble. “Tell Alix what you told me—about the Trion.”
“It’s only a rumour,” Kerta said.
That didn’t bother Alix. Rumour fed an army as surely as dried meat and hardtack. “Tell me.”
“Apparently, one of the Trions was spotted on the battlefield.”
Alix’s eyebrows flew up. “Which one?”
Alix swore quietly. Of the three lords of Oridia, the Priest was the most feared. It was the Priest whose fervour drove the Trionate to conquer and convert. It was he who kept their army equipped with bloodforged weapons, who called down the favour of his gods before every battle. Rumour had it that he commanded other, darker magicks as well. Every child in Alden knew the name of Madan “the Madman,” dark witch of the Trionate, haunter of shadows and nightmares.
Infamous as he was, however, Alix had never heard of the Priest being spied on a battlefield. “Who saw him?”
“One of the knights.”
“How would an Aldenian knight know what the Priest looks like?”
Kerta shrugged. “As I said, it’s only a rumour.”
Alix started to ask another question, but that moment, Liam appeared, looking uncharacteristically serious. “Good,” he said, “you’re here. Green sent me to look for you. He wants to speak with us right away.”
Alix winced. She’d been dreading this. “Just the two of us?”
“I’m afraid so. He’s been saving it up until you were well enough.”
“How considerate of him.” Alix sighed and rolled her stiff shoulders, as though preparing for battle—which was not far off. “Oh, well. Better get it over with.”
“Good luck,” Gwylim called after them.
They would need it. A lecture from Arran Green was enough to make even the hardest man quail. From the moment she had stepped over the edge of that bluff and into battle, Alix had known she would be made to answer for it. Arran Green was not a man to take disobedience lightly, no matter how well intentioned.
They found Green near his tent, issuing orders to his squire. Alix and Liam paused at a respectful distance while they waited for him to finish. Alix watched Liam watching the squire. There was no resentment in his gaze, only interest. She hoped that meant Liam was finally getting over his anger at being replaced. More than once, she’d thought to ask him how he came to be banished to the scouts, but it was such a sore point that she didn’t dare.
At length, Green sent the squire off and turned to his scouts, folding his hands behind his back as he looked them over. He held himself straight and proud as always, but Alix noticed that one shoulder hung slightly lower than the other. Dislocated, maybe. But if Green was in pain, he gave no sign; his expression was inscrutable as always, pale eyes sharp beneath the thick brows, angular features hewn from granite, bearded jaw set in hard, unyielding lines.
“I am pleased to see you are feeling better,” he told Alix. If he felt any real pleasure, his voice gave no hint of it.
“Thank you,” she said with an awkward dip of her head. “And I was relieved to hear you were all right.”
He grunted. “I should not be. Had I been at my king’s side where I belonged, I would no doubt have perished along with the rest of his knights. Being assigned to lead the eastern charge was both a boon and a curse, it seems.”
Alix and Liam nodded mutely.
“A hard-fought battle,” Green continued. “It is a blessing that King Erik survived. You showed extraordinary courage, Alix.”
But . . . She could feel the word bearing down on her.
“The fact remains, however, that you disobeyed a direct order. Both of you.” His gaze shifted to Liam. “I explicitly told you to stay behind on the bluff. In defying me, you dishonoured yourselves and your commander. The king’s army demands discipline above all else. Insubordination cannot be tolerated. I do not have to tell you that it is customarily punishable by death.”
Alix felt the blood drain from her face. She had anticipated stern words, but this? Surely even Arran Green could not expect them to stand idle as their comrades were slaughtered, when even the White Wolves had deserted in droves? But a moment’s glance was all it took to answer that question; Green’s gaze was cold and unforgiving, his mouth pressed into a thin line of disapproval.
“I might have expected as much from a Black, but I am especially disappointed in you, Liam. You were my squire for almost seven years. You know better than to defy me.”
Liam faced the rebuke with admirable composure. “I have no excuse, General,” he said, raising his chin, “but surely Alix did right? She saved the king.”
“She disobeyed a direct order.”
“I’m rather glad she did, actually,” came a voice over Alix’s shoulder, and she turned to find King Erik hobbling toward them, leaning on a crutch. He winked at her discreetly as he passed. “Don’t be too hard on them, Green. They have done their kingdom a great service.”
Alix fought to suppress the blush spreading over her cheeks. Fortunately, all eyes were on the king.
Green’s countenance betrayed no annoyance, but Alix knew it was there. “Of course, Your Majesty. Nevertheless, I wish to make certain that insubordination does not become a habit. We have just seen what becomes of an army when men take it into their heads to defy their orders.”
Alix caught her breath, astounded by his lack of tact. Her gaze snapped instinctively to the king. A shadow of anger flickered through Erik’s eyes, but it was gone as quickly as it appeared. “Indeed,” he said, “and I don’t wish to interfere, but I did want to thank my rescuer in person.” He turned to Alix, smiling warmly. “The crown owes you a great debt, Lady Alix, and I owe you my life. You have my eternal gratitude. And may I add that you cut a very impressive figure on the battlefield.”
“I . . . Thank you, Your Majesty.”
“If only I had a hundred like you, we should have defeated the enemy even without the Wolves.” The light drained from his eyes at these words, and he turned back to the commander general. “I would have a word, Green. We are at a safe distance from the Oridians now. It’s time to talk strategy.”
“Indeed, Your Majesty.”
The king started to shuffle away on his crutch. “Bring your scouts. One can never have too many sensible voices.”
Green’s thick eyebrows gathered like a storm cloud, but he didn’t protest. “As you say, sire.”
Liam looked uncomfortable. “Why does he want us to come? It’s not our place to—”
“Have you learned nothing today, boy?” Green snapped. “One does not question one’s betters.”
Exchanging a look, Alix and Liam trailed after Arran Green and the king.
Erik White perched on a field chair, trying his best to look dignified in spite of it. His leg hurt like a bastard, and though he had not admitted it to anyone, standing for too long made him dizzy. Not that he would be able to sit comfortably on this blasted chair. The thing was little more than a tripod of sticks saddled with canvas, and the edge pressed uncomfortably into the back of his thigh. Still, he ought to be grateful for it. Good men had died protecting the supply wagons during the flight from Boswyck Valley. Every spade, every blanket, every stick of furniture and wheel of cheese was a prize snatched from the Oridian horde. You insisted you would have no trouble living like a soldier, Your Majesty, he reminded himself ruefully. Here is your chance to prove it. He propped his left boot on a crate and waved for some water.
He watched Green making his way over, his charges in tow. Erik knew the old knight was irritated with him for inviting the scouts along, but so be it. Green deserved a little rankling after that outrageous lecture. To think he was actually angry with his men for their heroics. Absurd. The old knight had grown overprotective lately, and Erik meant to put a stop to it. Besides, he was curious about his fair young saviour. He had met Alix Black once before, when she had been about fourteen, and he five years her senior. He did not recall much about that meeting, except how painfully awkward she had been. He could see even then that she would be a beauty, but Alix had been utterly oblivious to her own charms, blushing and fidgeting and avoiding the prince’s eye. Erik could not recall for certain, but he did not think she had uttered a single word.
Watching her now, Erik decided that the years had been kind. Her features were more defined, and her copper hair was as beautiful as he remembered, falling past her shoulders in lazy waves. She had grown tall and strong—strong enough, apparently, to bear a grown man off the battlefield. Remarkable. Yet she was no ox; she moved with all the grace of her sex, and her figure, though fit, was unmistakably feminine. As for her fellow scout, he trailed behind her with obvious reluctance. A man of his size, good looks, and reputed skill with a blade ought to have carried himself with confidence. Instead he walked with his head down, and when they came to stand before Erik, he tucked himself behind Green, doing his best to remain inconspicuous. As though Erik might not notice him, and both of them would be happier for it.
Erik sipped his water, letting it clear his head. He needed to focus on the matter at hand. “Tell me, Green, what do you think my brother intends?” He kept his voice as neutral as possible, trying to disguise the hint of disbelief that still lingered foolishly in his breast. He could not doubt the testimony of his own eyes, and yet it was still so hard to fathom. My brother. My own flesh and blood. How can it be true?
“I cannot say, Your Majesty, though we can presume Prince Tomald means to claim the crown.”
“That’s absurd,” Erik snapped.
Green gazed at him coolly. “As you say, Your Majesty.”
He thinks you a fool. Erik could see it in the old knight’s eyes. Perhaps he was not wrong. Erik cleared his throat. “Very well, suppose he does mean to take the crown. What then?”
“Most likely he will head for Erroman. He will need to gather more swords before he is ready to confront the Oridians again.”
“But how will he explain himself to my court?”
“I doubt he will try. He will simply proclaim himself king.”
Erik felt his whole body tense. “He would not dare, if he knew I was alive.”
“But he does not,” Green said, “and I recommend we keep it that way.”
Erik pressed his lips together, momentarily at a loss. Rage was building inside him, the same rage that had overwhelmed him earlier, had caused him to lose his composure in front of the men. He could not let that happen again. He looked to Alix Black. “You agree?” he asked her, buying himself a moment to recover.
She started; she had apparently not realised she was nodding. Her eyes darted uncertainly to Green. The commander general took one look at his king and wisely decided to let her speak. He nodded stiffly.
“I do, Your Majesty,” Black said.
She spared another glance at Green before replying. “We are weak right now, and vulnerable.”
Erik scowled. “I’ll not cower in the shadows. Besides, am I to allow my brother to entrench himself in the royal palace, telling the nobility any story he wishes?”
“Exactly.” She flushed as soon as she had spoken, but Erik encouraged her with a brief incline of his head. She cleared her throat awkwardly. “Let him play his hand, sire. Bide your time while he explains what happened at Boswyck Valley. He’ll spin so many lies that when the truth is finally revealed, he’ll be hanged with his own rope.”
“A risky strategy,” Green said. “It will give him time to build alliances.”
“I respectfully disagree, General,” Black said, her eyes on her boots. “He won’t trouble to build alliances if he believes himself unchallenged. Whereas if he knows King Erik lives, he’ll scramble to fortify himself.”
Green grunted and scratched the closely cropped fringe of his beard.
She had a point. No one would challenge Tom’s right to the crown if they believed Erik dead, and Tom would not waste his time currying favour if there was no need. He had never had much taste for it, and he still had a war to contend with. All Tom needed to do was convince the nobility that he had no choice but to retreat. The mutterings of common soldiers would not be enough to gainsay him. “I see the wisdom in this,” Erik said. The wisdom in letting my brother think me dead. He felt dizzy, as though it were all a dream.
“Strike your colours, Your Majesty,” Black said, “and the royal pavilion as well.”
“Prudent,” Green agreed. “If the Raven sends scouts, he will find no evidence that the king lives.”
Erik rose unsteadily. “Very well. I will do as you say. Put away anything that bears the royal crest.” He took a deep breath, reaching inside himself and fetching his most charming smile. “And since Lady Alix helpfully relieved me of my armour, that’s one less thing to worry about.”
His words had the desired effect: a comely blush rose to her cheeks, diverting attention from his own discomfiture. “We make for Greenhold,” he said. “I hope your cousin can lend us strength, General.”
Green nodded. “I have no doubt of it, Your Majesty.”
“Good. And now if you will excuse me, I have an appointment with the healers. They are most irritable when I’m late.”
* * *
“You have a head for strategy, Alix,” Arran Green said after the king had gone. “Perhaps I undervalued your input. The king has few left to advise him, and your family has ever been steady counsel to the Whites.”
That might have been true when Alix’s parents were alive, but she doubted many would say so now. Still, she accepted the compliment as graciously as she was able. “Thank you, General.”
“Now pack your things, both of you. We break camp soon.”
They started back for their tents. Alix could feel Liam’s gaze on her, and when she glanced over, he was smirking. With the king well out of sight, Liam had relaxed, and the mischief returned to his eyes. “A head for strategy, huh? Is that just a nice way of saying you’re sneaky?”
“I can be sneaky.”
“I doubt that.”
“Oh, I can. Believe me, I’m incredibly subtle. So subtle that you don’t even see it. It’s that subtle.”
She laughed. “That is subtle.”
He gave her an arch look. “For example, only yesterday I tricked you into my arms. You thought that was an accident, but it was actually a cunning trap.”
Alix started to reply, but one glimpse of that crooked grin of his, and her wit deserted her. Again. When had that become a pattern? Flirting was a stock colour in any noblewoman’s palette, and Alix had mastered it as well as any—or so she’d thought, until she met Liam. That she should find herself so discomposed by a no-name scout was an irony she could have lived without.
Mistaking her silence for annoyance, Liam touched her elbow, bringing her up short. “Allie, wait. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t make light. What you said yesterday, about not expecting to see me again . . .”
The mischief was gone from his eyes, replaced by an earnest warmth. Alix tried to ignore the sudden flutter in her throat.
“I know exactly what you meant,” Liam said. “When I lost you in the battle . . . I looked everywhere, but you’d just vanished. I thought . . .” He trailed off, his gaze roaming over her features, his hand tightening at her elbow. Alix found herself staring into his slate-grey eyes, pinned like a stunned rabbit. Slowly, his mouth curled back into a grin. “Are you blushing?”
She broke off from his gaze. “I’m always blushing. Don’t get any ideas.”
“Never had an idea in my life,” he said solemnly.
Alix laughed, pushing her hair back from her face to hide her deepening colour.
“All right,” he said with a mock bow, “I’m going to quit while I’m ahead. I’ll see you in a while.” He headed off to pack up his gear, looking well pleased with himself.
Alix kept walking until she reached the river’s edge. A sharp wind swept over the water, bracingly cool against the warmth of her face. Not for the first time, she cursed her fair complexion for revealing her every emotion to the world.
Liam was going to be a problem.
She’d never become so close with anyone so quickly. In the few short months since she’d joined the Kingswords, Liam had become a central feature of her life—her scouting partner, her sparring mate, her closest confidant. And now he was becoming something else—something much, much more complicated.
She hadn’t seen it coming. In the beginning, she’d simply clung to him out of necessity. She’d been alone and away from home for the first time, and she’d needed a friend. Liam had been there. He wasn’t Rig, but he’d been there. He took care of her, and she let him, and it worked.
And then something changed. It seemed to happen overnight; she’d woken up one morning feeling more like a Kingsword than a lost little girl. She didn’tneed Liam anymore. But by then it was too late. By the time she noticed those beautiful grey eyes, that roguish grin, he had long since earned her trust. He’d slipped past her defences completely unnoticed. It was going to be a problem.
Because what I really need is another problem.
The sound of the rushing stream gradually pushed its way into her consciousness, bringing to mind an urgent need. Alix headed deeper into the trees to find a discreet place to relieve herself. She had just started back when a loud cooing drew her attention. Peering through the trees, she spied the king’s messenger fussing with his bird, trying to stuff a scroll into the tiny leather case strapped to its leg. The pigeon fidgeted and pecked at him, frustrating his efforts and provoking a string of hot curses.
She knew Berton, the king’s messenger. All the scouts did; he often accompanied them on long-range patrols, using his pigeons to send reports back to their commanders. He was a gentle soul and loved his birds, and they seemed to love him. The man struggling inexpertly with his pigeon was definitely not Berton, she realised. It was possible that Berton had been slain in the battle, but what would the king’s messenger be doing out here in the trees?
The man started at the sound of her voice, sending the pigeon flapping and trilling. “Ho yourself. Be gone with you, girl, I’m busy.”
“Mind your tongue. You address a lady.”
The man blanched a little. He glanced nervously behind her, as though checking to see if she was alone, and his fingers brushed the hilt of his sword. His discomfiture left Alix little doubt she had stumbled across something he didn’t want her to see. “Who are you?” She pitched her voice to carry through the trees. “What business do you have with that bird?”
“Who are you to demand my business?”
“I am a lady of a Banner House. I outrank you, and I have every right to demand your business. By whose authority do you send missives from the king’s army?”
By now, her raised voice had summoned a pair of soldiers on watch. They picked their way through the trees cautiously, their swords unsheathed. Alix drew her own blade and pointed it at the stranger. “Take this man in hand. He is not the king’s messenger, and I want to know who he reports to.”
The watchmen exchanged a glance, unsure who Alix was and whether they should follow her orders. They must not have liked the look of the messenger, though, for they started in on him. The man tensed, his gaze snapping back and forth between Alix and the advancing soldiers. After a moment’s hesitation, he bolted.
The watchmen gave chase. The pigeon burst into the air, its scroll case empty, its destination unknown. Alix started after the fleeing messenger, but she was in no condition to run anyone down; pain tugged sharply at her back, and she felt instantly dizzy. Fortunately, she didn’t need to go far. The watchmen quickly overtook their prey, disarming him and wrenching his hands behind his back. Alix stopped to catch her breath as they dragged the messenger between them.
By now, the commotion had drawn even more attention. Someone had summoned Arran Green, and he stalked through the trees toward Alix, a forbidding scowl on his face. “What is the meaning of this? Speak quickly, Black, I’ve had my fill of you already today!”
The feeling is mutual, General. Aloud, she said, “I came upon this man in the woods, behaving suspiciously. He was attempting to send a message by pigeon. As you can see, he is not the king’s messenger.”
Green looked the captive over. “Bring him here.”
“He had this on him, General,” one of the watchmen said, handing Green a scrap of parchment.
Green scanned it, his face darkening. “Take this wretch to the prisoners’ wagon!”
The watchmen hurried to obey. Green turned on his heel and stomped back through the undergrowth; all Alix could do was follow.
The king himself awaited them in the clearing. “I heard shouting. What’s happened?”
“Black apprehended a spy, Your Majesty,” Green said, handing over the parchment.
The king looked it over, but he only shook his head. “I can make nothing of it.”
“It is in cipher, sire. That is how I know the man was a spy, though for whom, I cannot say.”
The king gave an uneasy little laugh. “Why, it must be the Oridians. Who else?”
“Your brother comes to mind,” Green said with only a hint of dryness.
A flash of emotion lit the king’s eyes before he hid it by looking down at the parchment. “Tom never had much use for spies. He prefers to be more . . . direct.”
“Agreed,” said Green, “but these are strange times.”
Strange times. That was putting it mildly. Half the continent at war, and Tomald White plotting to steal his brother’s crown. Plotting, but with whom? Could the Raven be working with the enemy? It wouldn’t do to ask the question aloud, not yet. The king was already struggling to accept what was happening. Conspiracy theories were unlikely to appeal to him just now.
“There may be other spies among us,” Green said. “I suggest we take additional precautions.”
“You should assign yourself a personal guard, Your Majesty.”
“I have a personal guard. You just appointed them yourself.”
“Every one of them new and untested,” Green said. “In any case, I do not speak of your knights. I refer to someone closer, someone who will accompany you night and day.”
The king frowned. “A bodyguard? Is that really necessary?”
“Until we know more about your brother’s plans, we cannot rule out assassination attempts. And with your injuries, you are especially vulnerable.”
The king’s blue eyes turned to ice. “Are you suggesting that Tom would try to have me murdered? Stabbed in the back like some brigand in a bar brawl?”
Green returned his gaze evenly. “I do not know what to think anymore, sire, but we cannot afford to take chances.”
The king shook his head, cursing quietly. “Very well. From henceforth, Alix Black will be captain of my knights, and my personal bodyguard.”
Alix’s mouth fell open. She had no words. She did not even have breath.
Arran Green had breath enough for both of them; he blew it out indignantly. “Your Majesty, she is a scout, not a knight. With due respect to her station, she—”
“She is quick-witted, observant, and skilled with a sword. Ideal qualifications in a bodyguard, wouldn’t you say? She has already saved my life once, and rooted out a spy. Moreover, I can be sure of her loyalty, since her brother is a friend. Come now, Green, you have scouts enough. Surely you can spare this one.”
“She is barely a fledgling, and wilful as an old mule.”
Alix’s face burned with shame, but the king only laughed. “So it is often said of me.”
“Your Majesty, I strongly—”
“Your point is made,” the king said coldly, “as is my choice. All that remains is to hear whether Lady Alix will accept the appointment.” He turned to Alix, arching a red-gold eyebrow.
Alix’s mind whirred, and for a moment she feared she wouldn’t be able to string anything sensible together. Thankfully, her breeding took over. “It will be my great honour, Your Majesty,” she heard herself saying.
The king smiled. “Good. Come to my tent when you’re ready, Captain. You will ride beside me.”
Alix could only nod numbly, watching the king’s receding back.
Alix glowered her way between the tents, earning uncomfortable glances and a refreshingly wide berth from everyone she passed. She could practically hear her mother’s voice scolding her for looking the gargoyle, but she didn’t care. She’d had a day. Again.
“Ho there, sunshine,” Liam called, with remarkable indifference to his health. Maybe he counted on safety in numbers. Gwylim and Kerta and Ide were all sitting by the fire, though from the worn look of them, they wouldn’t last long.
“Did you bring us any wine?” Ide asked. That made three nights in a row. Ide seemed to be under the impression that attending the king gave Alix the right to pilfer his comforts.
“No.” Alix plopped down near the fire. “But feel free to ask me again tomorrow.”
If Ide noticed the sarcasm, she didn’t let on; she merely sighed in disappointment. Alix had never met anyone who enjoyed her drink more than Ide. She had complained regularly about the Kingswords’ paltry mug-a-day ration, and that was before the flight from Boswyck. Now, there was nothing at all. Ide considered it an incomprehensible failure of military planning that no one had thought to prioritise the wine barrels.
Alix shuffled closer to the fire, grateful for its warmth. “How are your new duties suiting you, Alix?” Kerta asked.
Like satin suits a sow. Alix felt constantly in the way, stumbled over by squires and healers and attendants and knights and sundry others who demanded their king’s attention. She was trying to learn their faces, but they came and went like waves lapping the shore, and she couldn’t keep them straight from one day to the next. Nor could she decide which of them she should trust and which to be wary of, for the king greeted them all with the same breezy warmth, clapping shoulders and trading jibes as though they were all the closest of confidants. How in the Nine Domains was she supposed to protect him when his tent was bloody teeming with strangers?
Aloud, she simply said, “I’m exhausted. I have no idea what I’m doing. Just the stress of not making a fool of myself is enough to do me in. And the king certainly doesn’t make it easy. He’s too busy being charming to be careful. He meets with anyone who asks for an audience, and if I try to impose a little distance, he just laughs and accuses me of being paranoid. What’s the point of having a bodyguard if you won’t let her do her job?” She shook her head in exasperation. “At least Green has stopped glaring at me all day, though I’m not naïve enough to think he’s forgiven me yet.”
Liam snorted. “As though it’s your fault you were appointed. So much for not questioning one’s betters.”
“And the king?” Kerta asked, diplomatically brushing Liam’s remark aside. “How are his spirits?”
“I wish I knew. For the most part he’s as sunny as a summer day, but I can’t tell how much of that is putting on a brave face. And every now and then he falls to brooding.”
“Maybe he doesn’t fancy bumping along in the back of a supply wagon like a sack of royal turnips,” Liam said.
Kerta looked positively scandalised. “You oughtn’t jest, Liam. The king has suffered a heavy blow.” She laid a hand over her breast, mournfully. Alix resisted the urge to roll her eyes. “You should try to cheer him, Alix,” Kerta suggested.
“No, she shouldn’t,” Liam said. “It’s not her job, and anyway, the last thing she needs is to encourage him.”
Alix frowned. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing.” Liam picked up a stick and poked at the fire.
Kerta smiled knowingly and shook her head. “Now, Liam, you needn’t worry about Alix. She can handle herself. Besides, you can’t really believe those tawdry little whispers.”
“For pity’s sake, Liam, the king is betrothed, remember?”
“Oh, I remember. He’s been betrothed for how many years? If that doesn’t tell you something . . .”
The scandalised look returned. Kerta sat up a little straighter. “Are you implying that the king is deliberately putting off his marriage?”
“Of course not. I’m sure he’s eager to be rid of the dozens of beautiful women who follow him about.”
A tiny line of disapproval appeared between Kerta’s perfectly arched eyebrows. “If His Majesty hasn’t found the right time, I’m sure there’s a good reason.”
“Maybe Sirin Grey is hatchet-faced,” Ide said.
The king’s intended was anything but hatchet-faced, but before Alix had a chance to say so, Gwylim yawned widely and got to his feet. “Fascinating as this subject is, it’s late, and I’m tired.”
“Me too,” said Ide, rising.
They left behind an awkward silence. Liam continued to stir the embers, sending sparks swirling in the dark.
“It doesn’t sound as though you’re enjoying yourself much, Alix,” Kerta said, trying to breathe some life back into the conversation.
“Then why do it?” Liam’s gaze was still fixed on the fire.
“Because the king asked me to, Liam. It’s my duty. If I’d said no, I would have brought shame on my family.” Most of them might be dead, but that was all the more reason to conduct herself in a manner befitting their memory. She’d come late to that notion, as had Rig, but they embraced it now, and passionately. Wayward children, they’d been called, and maybe that was true, but they had time to set it right, and what better way to start than in the King’s Service?
“I understand,” said Kerta. She wasn’t just being polite, Alix knew. Kerta had a name too. She was a Middlemarch. A lesser lord’s name, to be sure, but a name nonetheless. Liam, though, had no family name. He wasn’t nobility, lesser or otherwise. Like Gwylim, like Ide, like all commoners, he inherited nothing; he had only the name he was given at birth. He had only Liam, only himself to honour and do right by. He couldn’t understand what it meant to have a legacy to live up to.
Liam scratched around with his stick and said nothing. Kerta glanced from him to Alix and back. Then she brought a hand to her lips to cover an imaginary yawn. “I think I’ll turn in too,” she announced.
If her retreat was not exactly subtle, at least it was swift. Alix and Liam were left alone.
More silence. Alix waited in vain for Liam to break it. Eventually, she said, “If you’re just going to sit there and sulk, I’m going to bed.”
He looked up with a frown. “I’m not sulking.”
“I’m thinking. Hard to believe, I know, but it happens occasionally.”
She sighed. There was no point in tiptoeing around it anymore. “You don’t like it, do you? My being his bodyguard?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. Why wouldn’t I? Aside from the fact that I don’t have to see you all day, I get to listen to Kerta go on and on and sodding on about how handsome and dashing His Majesty is, which I can assure you is a real treat.”
Alix laughed. “That’s aiming a little high, even for her.” She shuffled over to sit beside Liam, bumping him with her shoulder. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were jealous.”
“Of course I am. I used to have you all to myself, and now I barely see you.” The firelight played over his features, etching his profile in moving shadow. It gave him a strangely haunted look.
“That’s not it, is it? Not all of it, anyway.”
Liam sighed and tossed his stick into the flames. “Not really, no.” He looked over at her. “I don’t like the idea of you being his shield, Allie. There’s no telling who might be out for his blood, and now it’s your job to stand between him and his enemies. It makes me nervous.”
Alix smiled. “That’s sweet.”
“I was going for gallant.” He tried to muster a grin, but his heart wasn’t in it. Instead he raked his fingers through his dark hair, a nervous habit that left it in a near-constant state of dishevelment.
“You’re really worried, aren’t you?”
“Of course I am. The gods only know who that spy was, or how many messages he sent before you caught him. We could be marching straight into an ambush. Or there could be assassins, or brigands, or, you know . . .” He gestured vaguely at the trees.
“Bears?” she offered wryly.
He flicked her a look, the glint returning to his eye. “Not to mention wolves and badgers and beavers.”
“You laugh, but have you seen the fangs on those things?”
“Beavers don’t have fangs.”
“I know a few trees that would beg to differ. Keep your chain mail on, is all I’m saying.”
She dropped her head on his shoulder, and they fell silent for a while, watching the fire rustle and snap. “None of us is safe,” she said eventually.
“Things are going to get worse before they get better, too.”
“You really are a ray of sunshine, you know that?”
“You started it.”
Alix could feel his eyes on her. She twisted her head to look up at him, bringing her face within inches of his. His breath ghosted across her lips.
“Allie . . .”
She swallowed hard. Liam gazed at her with . . . something . . . in his eyes, something fragile and shifting. It was like watching a die tumble over itself, waiting for it to settle.
The die came up scratch. Liam looked away. “It’s late.”
Alix straightened, a little too quickly. “We’ll reach the outskirts of the Greenlands tomorrow. Hopefully we can catch up on some rest once we get there.”
“That would be nice.” He gave her a thin smile. “Good night, Alix.”
As she walked away, Alix looked back to find Liam staring into the fire, shaking his head.
* * *
“Where is everyone?” King Erik raised the visor of his helm to reveal a worried frown.
Good question, Alix thought. The village was completely deserted, save for a few stray dogs that snuffled hopefully around empty livestock pens and the closed doorways of stone-and-thatch hovels. No smoke curled from the chimneys, in spite of the morning chill. “It looks abandoned, sire, and recently.”
“How can you tell?”
Alix inclined her head toward one of the huts as they passed. “The straw piled up at the side of that house is still fresh, and look at the animal pen.”
“Muddy,” the king said, “though the road is dry. You’re right, it can’t have been long.” As he spoke, the wagon hit a rut, and he winced, his hand going to his thigh. Alix bit her lip in sympathy. They had done everything they could to make King Erik comfortable in the supply cart, but the wagon was of simple construction, designed for nothing more fragile than fresh apples. Even a thick layer of blankets under his leg wasn’t enough to shield him from the painful jostling.
“Shall I fetch the healer, Your Majesty?”
“So he can dull my senses with his potions? I think not, Captain. I’m afraid there’s nothing for it but to endure.”
Arran Green appeared on the opposite side of the cart. “I do not like the look of this place, Your Majesty. I have sent riders ahead to scout the way, and to announce us at the castle.”
The king frowned. “To announce you, I trust.”
Green’s countenance remained impassive, but his eyes hardened, as if to say, Do you think me a fool? “Indeed, sire. The men have all been informed of the need for secrecy. No man in this army will speak of you without my leave. Liam travels with word from Arran Green to his cousin, seeking shelter for himself and his men.”
“Good.” The king lowered his visor, and when he spoke again, his voice was muffled. “No one but Raibert himself must know. That includes his knights and servants.”
Green nodded curtly. Then he squeezed his horse’s flanks and rode back to the point. The king watched him go, his expression unreadable beneath the visor. “So dour,” he said. “Even worse than Tom.”
Alix wasn’t sure whether the remark was meant for her, but it seemed safest to hold her tongue. As little as she cared for Arran Green’s disposition, at least he was predictable. The Raven was anything but. One moment he was all smiles and jests, and the next he was sullen and waspish, or worse. Alix had seen him reduce grown men to quivering, stammering fools. How many times had she thanked the silent Nine that she had not chosen to join the White Wolves, as her rank entitled her? Not a day went by that she didn’t congratulate herself for that decision, not least because it allowed her to avoid Tomald White.
He and his brother are night and day. Or maybe, sunshine and darkness.
“A crown for your thoughts, Captain.”
Alix smiled nervously. “I think you will have overpaid, sire.”
Thankfully, he didn’t press her. Instead, he asked, “What do you suppose could have cleared out these villagers?”
“It must be the Oridians, or the rumour of them. Maybe we’ll find the people within the walls of Greenhold.”
“My thoughts also. Still, I’m surprised—the scouts say the Oridians are holding their position. We grow farther from them by the day.”
“Fear spreads faster than a brushfire, my father used to say.”
“Gossip spreads faster than a brushfire. That’s the saying.” The king laughed, adding, “But it sounds very well with fear.”
“Oh.” Alix felt the telltale beginnings of a blush, and she brought a hand to her face, pretending to brush away a stray lock of hair.
“Don’t worry, Captain, the colour becomes you.” Through the slat of his visor, Alix could see his wink.
Of course, that only set the blush aflame. Gods, he’s as bad as Liam, she thought irritably. But she regretted herself moments later, when the king looked back over the empty village with a sigh. Who was she to begrudge him a few moments of humour amid all his troubles, even if it came at her expense?
“Olan is late today,” he said absently.
Alix glanced up at the sky. Sure enough, the moon lurked, pale and round, behind a wisp of cloud. If Gwylim were here, he would call it an ill omen. Olan had prolonged his patrol into the day, when it ought to have been his twin brother’s sole watch. Worse, his battered shield was in full view. Olan only raised his shield when the dragon was near; the rest of the time, it dangled casually at his side, showing only a slim silver arc.
“Do you believe, sire?” she found herself asking. An impertinent question, maybe, but she thought she knew the answer. Few noblemen would claim to be believers. Faith was for the common classes, quaint and unfashionable. Noblemen swore by the gods, and some even prayed, but it tended to be more out of habit than faith.
Still, the king seemed to consider his answer carefully, the horses’ steady hoofbeats counting out a long pause before he spoke. “Do I believe the moon and sun are all that stands between us and destruction? Most assuredly. Do I think that literally means that the moon and sun are divine weapons wielded by gods to defend us from evil? I can’t say that I do, but I would be very put out if you mentioned that to the priests.”
She smiled. “Noted.”
Now it was her turn to pause. “I don’t know. Most of the time I think it’s all nonsense, but every now and then something happens that I can’t explain, and I wonder. Like the Priest. They say the Oridian army has never lost a battle when he rides with them.” Hesitantly, she added, “The men say he was spotted at Boswyck.”
“I’d heard that.” The king’s voice was unreadable.
“They say he knows magicks that can bend a man’s will.”
Excerpted from "The Bloodbound"
Copyright © 2014 Erin Lindsey.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Praise for The Bloodbound
"Lindsey puts the hero back into heroic fantasy with action and intrigue and flawed but likable characters who, in complex political/personal situations, make hard decisions and stand by them." —Tanya Huff
“Strong romantic elements and a dash of humor enliven Erin Lindsey’s fantasy debut set in a kingdom besieged by dark forces and torn apart by betrayal.”—Jacqueline Carey
"Sturdy characterizations and intriguing magic anchor this solid series launch...By the time the relevance of the novel’s title to the bonds of family, as well as to battle and enchantment, becomes clear, Lindsey’s mostly balanced mix of romance and heroic fantasy will have captured readers’ hearts." —Publishers Weekly
"Palace intrigue, military strategy, and plenty of sword-fighting keep the story line interesting and exciting." —Bitten by Books