an excerpt from
The Curse Giver
by Dora Machado
Copyright © 2013 by Dora Machado and published here with her permission
The curse giver slithered out of the basin and glided among the counter wares, surveying the tidy kitchen. Tonight, she favored the serpent’s sleek shape. When she was sure she was alone, she grew herself into a watery semblance of the human form that defined her current existence. Her face’s reflection, coalescing into something tangible on the windowpane, might have been considered beautiful if one cared about such things.
She didn’t. Beauty implied good and good entailed virtue, all spoilers to the evil she practiced.
The evening storm agreed with her mood. It had been a busy night. She was on the last leg of her three-part errand. First, she had paid a visit to the arrogant fool who had provoked her wrath nearly ten years ago. Why had he been surprised to see her? He should have known that she would be back to avenge his treachery. Nothing could protect him from her rage.
True, he had provided her with a rare opportunity. Betrayal was rare when one was a recluse of gods and mortals. Revenge was an elusive treat. The man’s misdeeds were unforgivable and yet his offense had freed her to indulge in her greatest compulsion.
A curse was serious work, precision’s highest aim. A curse was challenge and duel, battle and victory, the maker’s highest praise. And this night, after ten years of careful planning, she had returned to cast the perfect curse, a layered trap of death, suffering, ruin and catastrophe; a cruel, complex, and horrific work of art.
Her best and most satisfying creation yet.
Had the proud lord really thought he had avoided retribution? Had he expected any less than what he got? He must have, because he pleaded with his eyes and wailed like a pathetic fool while she wrote the curse with his blood.
The pleasure she got from casting the curse was so obscene it should have been forbidden. The enjoyment she would get in the years to come thrilled in advance. She had been meticulous in her preparations, deliberate in her provisions, fierce like the Goddess herself.
That’s why prior to traveling to the kitchen, she had visited a second victim that night, lulling the young woman to sleep with a peaceful lullaby, cursing her with a kiss on the shoulder, where a tiny mark would grow over time to play a small but entertaining part in the curse’s expanding evil.
Practicality was a sign of genius. Diligence upfront saved time.
And now, to the last part of the plan. The need for preemptive action had brought her to this orderly kitchen, where a thousand scents mingled to entice the nose, including the lingering perfume of sweat, toil and exhaustion.
What would it be like to live in a place like this? How would it feel to welcome guests every day, catering to their needs and listening to their stories? How would her life have turned out if she had devoted her talents to cooking, tending to the gardens, laundering the linens, mixing this, testing that, catching a few hours of sleep only to begin the same backbreaking routine all over again the next day?
She shook her head, knowing the answer—it would be boring, tedious and dull. A waste of time, a squandering of her creative genius. A dreary existence that no one could possibly relish, let alone want.
Destroying a life condemned to such a fate could have been seen as merciful, if one believed in such a thing as mercy. But she didn’t. Good was to bad as seed was to sprout. Mercy was a waste of time.
She went about the kitchen, lighting the lamp, stuffing it with drying rags, until a nice little fire burned on the tabletop. She felt quite diligent as she fed the fire more kindling, a bundle of dried flowers, a bunch of rushes from the floor, some logs and twigs from the stack by the fireplace, and a jug of oil, which she splattered liberally over the place, until the fire was large enough to lick the ceiling beams and ignite the walls.
How simple it was to ensure the curse’s future with a little forethought and the roaring flames. Nobody in this place would survive the fire. She wasn’t about to leave anything to chance. Call it overkill, because the casting had been done and death was the only possible outcome.
With the smoke growing thick and the curse’s loose ends firmly knotted, she splashed back into the basin and, making the quick trip home, returned to her lair. She was in a mood to celebrate.
She sat at her desk and smiled. After rubbing her hands together, she dipped her precious quill in the ink pot and pressed it against the vellum. The realms needed to beware. Her best curse was now loose upon the world. A warning, that’s what she needed to compose, the opening for a new masterwork, a battle cry and a victory song.
And so, she began.
I am the curse giver.
Spawn of the fickle gods’ whims,
Scorned by virtue, spurned by faith,
Shudder when you hear my name.
Dread stared at Lusielle from the depths of the rowdy crowd. Concealed under a heavy hood, only the stranger’s black eyes dared to meet her gaze among the growing throng. The man’s eyes refused to flinch or shift from her face. His stare was free of the hatred she had gotten from the others, but also devoid of mercy. He held on to her gaze like an anchor to her soul, testing her fortitude, knowing full well her fears’ vast range.
She had always been meant for the fire. Even as she had escaped the blaze that killed her parents and burned the inn to the ground, Lusielle had known that the flame’s greedy god would return to claim her life. But she hadn’t expected it to happen after days of torture, surrounded by the raging mob, found guilty of a crime she didn’t commit, betrayed and condemned.
The town’s cobbler, one of her husband’s best customers, tightened the noose around her neck until it cut off her breath. She had waited on him countless times at the shop, and had always padded his order with a free measure of coriander to help with his wife’s cough.
But none of the town’s inhabitants seemed to remember any of her kindnesses as of late. On the contrary, the crowd was booing and jeering when they weren’t pelting her with rotten fruit. They treated her as if she were a common thief.
The brute who had conducted her torture shoved the cobbler aside, tying her elbows and wrists around the wooden stake. Orell. She remembered his name. His bearded face might have been handsome if not for the permanent leer. Like the magistrate, he wore the king’s burgundy colors, but his role had been more vicious. Had he been granted more time, he might have succeeded at extracting the false confession he wanted, but the magistrate was in a hurry, afraid of any possible unrest.
Orell yanked on the ropes, tightening her bonds. The wound on her back broke open all over again. She swallowed a strangled hiss. It was as if the thug wanted her to suffer, as if he had a private reason to profit from her pain.
But she had never seen him until three days ago, when he and the magistrate had shown up unannounced, making random accusations.
Lusielle couldn’t understand any of this.
She knew that the king’s justice was notoriously arbitrary. It was one of the main reasons why she loathed living under King Riva’s rule. But she also knew better than to express her opinion. Ruin and tragedy trailed those who dared to criticize the king. That’s why she had never mentioned her misgivings to anyone.
What had she done to deserve this fate? And why did they continue to be so cruel? After all, she wasn’t fighting them anymore.
True, she had resisted at first. Out of fear and pride, she had tried to defend herself. But in the end, it hadn’t mattered. Her accusers had relied on the testimony of the devious liar who had turned her in—Aponte Rummins—her own husband.
The mock hearing had been too painful to bear, too absurd to believe. Aponte swore before the magistrate that Lusielle was a secret practitioner of the forbidden odd arts. It was ridiculous. How could anyone believe that she, who had always relied on logic, measure and observation to mix her remedies, could possibly serve the Odd God’s dark purposes? And how could anyone believe Aponte’s lies?
But they did, they believed him as he called on his paid witnesses and presented fabricated evidence, swearing that he himself had caught her at the shop, worshipping the Odd God. In the end, it had been her husband’s false testimony that provided the ultimate proof of the heinous charge for which Lusielle was about to die.
Burning torch in hand, the magistrate stepped forward. Still in shock, Lusielle swallowed a gulp of bitter horror and steeled for the flames’ excruciating pain. She didn’t want to die like a shrieking coward. But nothing could have prepared her for what happened next.
The magistrate offered the torch to Aponte.
“The king upholds a husband’s authority over his wife in the kingdom,” the magistrate shouted for the crowd to hear. “There can be no protests, no doubt of the wisdom of royal justice if a husband does as he’s entitled to do by his marital rights.”
Aponte could have forgone her execution. Considering the magistrate’s proclamation, he could have chosen a different punishment for her. Instead, he accepted the torch and, without hesitation, put the flame to the tinder and blew over the kindling to start the fire.
“Go now,” he said, grinning like a hog about to gorge. “Go find your dark lord.”
Lusielle glared at the poor excuse for a man who had ruined her life many times over. She had known from the beginning that he was fatally flawed, just as he had known on the day he claimed her that she couldn’t pledge him any affection.
But Aponte had never wanted her affection. He had wanted her servitude, and in that sense she proved to be the reluctant but dutiful servant he craved.
Over the years he had taught her hatred.
His gratification came from beating and humiliating her. His crass and vulgar tastes turned his bed into a nightmare. She felt so ashamed of the things he made her do. Still, even if she loathed him—and not just him, but the slave she had become under his rule—she had tried to make the best of it.
She had served him diligently, tending to his businesses, reorganizing his stores, rearranging his trading routes and increasing his profits. His table had always been ready. His meals had been hot and flavorsome. His sheets had been crisp and his bed had been coal-warmed every night. Perhaps due to all of this, he had seemed genuinely pleased with their marital arrangement.
Why, then, had he surrendered her so easily to the magistrate’s brute?
Aponte had to have some purpose for this betrayal. He was, above all, a practical man. He would not surrender all the advantages that Lusielle brought to him—money, standing, common sense, business acumen—without the benefit of an even greater windfall.
Lusielle couldn’t understand how, but she was sure that the bastard was going to profit handsomely from her death.
The scent of pine turned acrid and hot. Cones crackled and popped. The fire hissed a sinister murmur, a sure promise of pain. She didn’t watch the little sparks grow into flames at her feet. Instead, her eyes returned to the back of the crowd, seeking the stranger’s stare. She found him even as a puff of white smoke clouded her sight and the fire’s rising heat distorted his scarred face’s fixed expression.
The nearing flames thawed the pervasive cold chilling her bones. Flying sparks pecked at her skin. Her toes curled. Her feet flinched. Pain teased her ankles in alarming, nipping jolts. Dear gods. They were really going to burn her alive.
Lusielle shut her eyes. When she looked again, the stranger was gone from the crowd. She couldn’t blame him. She would have never chosen to watch the flame’s devouring dance.
A commotion ensued somewhere beyond the pyre. People were screaming, but she couldn’t see through the flames and smoke. She flinched when a lick of fire ignited her shift’s hem. A vile stink filled her lungs. Her body shivered in shock. She coughed, then hacked. Fear’s fiery fingers began to torment her legs.
“Come and find me,” she called to the God of fire.
And he did.
Dressed in a common laborers’ garb, Severo leaned against a market stall at the back of the rabble, keeping watch. It was a testament to his lord’s dire plight that they had stolen deep into Riva’s kingdom, into yet another Twin forsaken town, running with filthy gutters and crammed with these wretched people who were braying like mules trapped in a pen.
What a miserable crowd it was, mostly baseborn churls with a taste for morbid spectacles trying to gain favor from the king’s minions. It made him sick, all of those pathetic people willing to lick the sons of whores’ filthy asses for a shot at royal favor or a handful of debased coins.
But such was the yoke of Riva’s rule. It made Severo proud to hail from one of the last bastions standing against Riva, the Free Territory of Laonia.
For a man who had spent the last few years of his life chasing ghosts and always on the run, blending with the crowd was hardly a challenge, even if the king’s guards were sniffing at his balls like a bunch of hungry mutts. Stealth was the scout’s crucial trait, the difference between tidy or messy, free or caught, breathing or stiff cold.
Severo was damn good at sly and sneaky. The others always joked he blended so well ‘cause he was so common-looking. They only said that ‘cause they were jealous of his burly looks. The truth was he had the Twin’s gift—plus a lot of years of practice with his nose to the ground and his paws on the trail. He was as good as invisible in a crowd.
The floppy cap and the ragged mantle he wore made him look like every other goon in the square. The tattered trousers and the crutch helped disguise his stiff gait, which was caused by the sword he had strapped to his leg. His knives were tucked in the back, under his belt, all seven of them. Three tubes of dazzling powders were strapped to his chest beneath his shirt.
Severo’s full attention remained on his lord, standing but a few paces away among a wall of towering thugs. How a man as brave and strong as the Lord of Laonia had netted such a grim fate was beyond Severo. What vicious force had claimed his life? And why had he been punished with such a grim legacy?
The Twins knew, the Lord of Laonia needed answers to those questions and much more, because his time was running dangerously short.
Which explained why Severo and his lord were here, on this filthy square, sticking out their necks like geese for the cook, flirting with the noose of Riva’s hangman.
His lord was also in disguise, wearing the only garment remotely capable of providing a small measure of anonymity and protection from the King’s men. Severo stifled a laugh when he remembered his adventures in the laundresses’ quarters. What a night that had been. Stealing the prized uniform hadn’t been easy, but Lord Bren looked good in the King’s colors.
The night was dark, his lord cut a striking figure as a royal guardsman, and the crimson and gold mantle might defer passing inquiry. Still Severo worried that Lord Bren’s highborn bearing could betray his presence among the common folk.
Even more dangerous was the scar on his face. It was now concealed in the depths of the hood’s shade, but should something change, it would be easily recognizable, especially to that whoremonger, Orell, the king’s man.
Severo had begged the Lord of Laonia to stay out of sight, to wait at the rendezvous point. But, true to his character, he had refused. Despite the danger, he never shied away from an opportunity to trounce Riva or to outwit and outmaneuver Orell.
Severo smirked in the darkness. His lord might be cursed and fated for tragedy, but he was fierce, tough and iron-willed. He would not surrender to his plight. He fought with both his sword and his wits, and beyond the oath, that’s what kept men like Severo by his side. Most importantly, the Lord of Laonia didn’t want his men to do his dirty deeds. He hunted his own prey.
Severo’s job tonight was to keep Lord Bren alive, not an easy task to accomplish. Since Severo had been the one who had generated the lead, investigated the prospects, and scouted the town, it was his right to look after his lord. It was a job he cherished, not only because it required focus and skill, but also because it was considered the highest honor among the Twenty.
It was also a job he abhorred. The price of failure would be catastrophic, for his lord, the Twenty and Laonia.
They’d had little trouble infiltrating the square, mostly because they had sneaked in ahead of the guards and hidden in the market’s cellars the night before Orell cordoned off the square. The plan tonight hinged on preparation, stealth and speed.
With hooded eyes, he glanced over to his right, where old Petrus splayed by the south gate, disguised as a drunkard. He might have overdone it a little. Every once in a while the breeze carried a whiff of his rank scent. He reeked of cheap ale.
Somewhere to his left, Severo made quick eye contact with Cirillo, who mingled with the beggars by the well. He found Clio already in position, high atop a tree among some local lads, hovering over the north entrance. The rookie looked nervous. Severo hoped he’d keep from shitting his pants.
That made a total of only five men in the square, too few; but his lord favored wits over numbers and smarts over brawn, and the balance of the Twenty would be ready.
The Twenty were the best that Laonia had to offer, even if glory and the gods shunned them these days. They might look like a ragged pack of mangy wolves, but they were a fine-tuned unit, a prime collection of prized hunting dogs.
Severo’s vigilant eyes scanned the square once again. He might not be able to fight fate’s cryptic ways, but flesh he could slash and blood he could spill. He wasn’t going to allow any common man to harm his lord.
His stare fell on that ass licking weasel, Orell, who was amusing himself by torturing the woman, this time in public. He was a dangerous foe. Snaring Laonia’s clever lord was Orell’s greatest ambition. Severo smirked. Not tonight. The damn cur dog was gonna get his ass whipped.
To be fair, Orell had taken fitting precautions at the market, archers on the wall, fighters in plainclothes, guards at the gates, around the pyre and along the square, plus reinforcements outside the south gate. The north gate merited little attention. It had been broken in days past, and despite the efforts of men and beasts, it couldn’t be opened. Severo estimated the Twenty faced a force roughly four times their size, and that number didn’t include the sentinels posted at the crossroads and at the guild’s tower, which was the town’s highest point.
Those sentinels were going to be useless tonight. Severo had spotted them early on. By now, they were probably dead at the hands of Lord Hato and the handful of men he commanded.
The agitated rabble began to chant. “Burn her, burn her!”
Severo joined in the savage chorus. He didn’t envy the woman on the pyre. Whether or not she died today, she would die; and whether she burned or perished from an even worse injury, who cared? Her death was bound to be terrible either way.
That was as much pity as Severo could muster for the wench, because as far as he was concerned, women were the Lord of Laonia’s bane and he shouldn’t be here, in this cramped square that felt a lot like a death trap, right beneath Orell’s filthy nose. Severo didn’t like that his lord was skirting catastrophe, risking his life for a baseborn wench with no fortune, merit or real promise to her person.
He had tried to tell Lord Bren that the woman wasn’t worth the danger. He had even mentioned that she wasn’t particularly beautiful or distinguished. Severo was absolutely sure that she wasn’t what they needed. She was but a tradesman’s wife, for the Twin’s sake, the meek daughter of a modest innkeeper, a remedy worker, hardly any better than a common mountebank.
Severo had also mentioned the charges. So what if they were true or false? Anybody with eyes could see that there was something to the claims. The wench had the bewitching stare of a sorceress.
He winked at the plump girl giving him the eye. If only he had the time to take a dip under her skirts. The crowd cheered. A plume of white smoke rose from the pyre. The fire began to burn.
Time for the Lord of Laonia to make his choices.
Like every man of the Twenty, Severo lusted after a good fight, but this time, the woman wasn’t worth a single drop of the Twenty’s blood. He would follow his lord to Riva’s damn salt mines if he had to, but tonight he hoped that Lord Bren would recognize the woman as just another fake.
It would be a lot easier to keep him alive for a little while longer if he did.
The tension in Severo’s body ebbed when his lord walked away from the crowd towards the south gate. There would be no fight today. The Lord of Laonia would live another day. Severo exhaled a long, quiet breath.
Then it happened.
Abruptly, Lord Bren changed course, dropping a scarf on the ground, entering the leather shop at the edge of the market and disappearing behind the counter.
Damn the Twins and all the stinking gods. Severo started the count in his head.
The plump maid who had been looking his way screeched, pointing to the sky, towards the guild tower, from where a cloud of red smoke rose in a spectacular, shape-shifting puff.
Severo scratched his beard’s dark stubble. “Pretty, eh? Wanna give me a kiss?”
The woman stared at him as if he were mad before returning her attention to the sky. She wasn’t that pretty anyways. The silhouette of a sinister figure swelled against the night, a monster wearing a crown and clawing at the feeble stars. The next puff of smoke came in the shape of a crooked sword. It punched through the crowned monster, scattering the image, which wilted into nothingness.
The images struck fear into people’s hearts. Women cried, men shouted, children wailed. Orell commanded some of his guards to the guild tower. Still keeping count in his head, Severo made a mental note to ask Lord Hato how he had managed to conjure such a hackle-raising, ball-shrinking distraction, even though it was highly unlikely that the old master would give away his secrets.
As he reached the end of his count, Severo pulled up his scarf and covered his mouth. At the same time, old Petrus struck, disabling the guards and hacking the ropes that held up the south portico. The portico dropped, dividing Orell’s force and isolating the men inside the square. The contest was about to start.
Severo sprinted along the north wall, deploying all three of his powder tubes as he ran. Bang, bang, bang. He kept track of Cirillo in his peripheral view, who, methodical as always, retrieved his bow from the well where it had been concealed the night before, loaded it, and fired, eliminating the archers on the wall—one, two, three, four.
The air sparkled with iridescent crystals. The crowd began to cough, fleeing from the explosions, clearing the way, moving towards the south side in unison like a wild herd.
Severo heard the hoofs of a horse clattering on cobblestones before he spotted his lord atop his steed. The beast cleared the leather shop’s counter with an extraordinary leap spanning not just the counter and the merchandise piled atop it, but also the startled shopkeeper and his frightened apprentice. Unsheathing his sword, Severo turned around to keep the path open, clashing almost immediately with two plainly-dressed guardsmen, whom he dispatched without hesitation.
From the corner of his eye, he caught the familiar movement of a guard on the ground putting an arrow to the bow, aiming for the Lord of Laonia.
Severo threw his knife.
It plunked into the archer’s chest like an arrow itself. Anticipating Lord Bren’s trajectory, Severo threw three more knives, eliminating the threats in his lord’s path.
By then, Clio had opened the north portico. It had been Severo himself who had stolen into the market square three nights ago and applied a coating of Lord Hato’s especially prepared jamming glue to the portico’s hinges.
At that time, Severo had been doubtful that anything could make those hinges move again, but it seemed that Lord Hato’s thinning solution had worked and the second phase of the plan was about to begin.
The rest happened very quickly.
Clio’s swift bow sent Orell and his men diving for cover. For sure, the kid could shoot. Several members of the Twenty scaled the walls and joined Clio in providing cover for those on the ground.
As the Lord of Laonia spurred his whinnying steed into the burning pyre, Severo teamed up with Cirillo and Petrus, forming a semicircle around the pyre, fighting with their backs to the fire, engaging the few defenders who dared the arrows and the powders with their swords. Severo stood his ground despite the heat singeing the hair in the back of his head, until he heard the rustle of ropes breaking under a blade and his lord’s triumphant shout as he goaded his horse towards the north gate.
Covered by the friendly archers, Severo followed, bolting through the gate, along with Petrus and Cirillo, before the effect of the powders dwindled and the crowd and the guards recovered. As soon as they were out, the portico dropped down, the archers scrambled down and Clio rushed to reseal the portico’s hinges with more of Lord Hato’s glue.
“They won’t be coming after us now,” the kid said as he leapt down from the wall and ran with the others into the forest, where their horses were hidden.
Severo mounted his horse and raced down the track he’d scouted the day before, chasing after his lord. He whooped. The plan had worked, just as his lord had said it would! Only three of the Twenty had sustained injuries and they were all minor.
Sure, they were on the lam again, but the Lord of Laonia was alive and that pile of crap Orell was stuck in that stinking market for a while. With a little luck, the woman had made it as well.
Poor wretch. If she was indeed alive, she had leapt from one kind of execution to another.
The sound of the sword’s blade rustling against the sharpening stone soothed Bren. The sinuous sequence of the long sword’s curves was a familiar rhythm to his hands. Up and down, the blade offered a wild ride as three curves of perfectly balanced metal ended at the well-honed point, accounting for the blade’s singular course.
The weapon was perfectly built to fool the bone’s hard protection and infiltrate the densest parts of the human body, where the essence of life was meant to be kept intact. Wielding the sword was something Bren did well, with skill, conviction and honor. And so it was that whenever his mind was restless he resorted to sharpening the blade, for it was—and would always remain so—by far a fairer executioner than he would ever be.
The sword belonged to his noble line, the house of Uras. It was beautiful, and not just to his warrior’s trained eye. By all accounts, the ivory-carved hilt was a work of art. On the hilt, the black stone of the house of Uras presided over all his killings.
It was an heirloom of death, a weapon worthy of his cursed fate.
“Well?” Bren said, unable to contain his impatience any longer.
Hato replaced the bandage on the woman’s back and covered her with a blanket. His sharp features were grimmer than usual as he delivered the bad news with a sigh and a nod.
The cave where Bren had set up camp seemed darker than before.
It was just like Hato to ask, “Have you—?”
“No,” Bren said, turning the blade on his lap. “She’s too sick.”
“It’s been four days since you fetched her from the pyre,” Hato said. “The men are eager to steal out of the kingdom before Orell finds us. She’s slowing us down.”
“I know,” Bren said, dabbing his whetstone with a wet sponge.
“My lord,” Hato said gravely. “You might as well get the trial over with.”
“She doesn’t stand a chance, sick as she is.” She wouldn’t stand a chance if she was healthy either, but that was beside the point.
“Theoretically,” Hato said, “that’s not true.”
“But practically, we know it is.”
“Either way,” Hato said stubbornly. “We need to know.”
“She’s getting better,” Bren said. “She’s stronger every day.”
“Why put her through all of that if we know what’s going to happen?”
“‘Cause it’s your damn duty.”
Leave it to the old man to say the things no one else would say aloud. Leave it to Hato to state so casually the wretched legacy he had been birthed to uphold.
“You’re a beaming beacon of hope,” Bren muttered, holding up the sword, closing one eye, and inspecting the blade’s edges against the light of the fire.
“Hope, you say?” Hato flashed his long teeth in a bitter smile. “I’ve been at this since your father’s time. For you, I’ve toiled the length of your adult life, so that Laonia can survive. Forgive me if I give you truth instead of falsehood.”
Damn Hato. He wasn’t giving up. And why should he?
Bren returned the sword to his lap and, applying the whetstone to the blade, reassumed the long, even strokes necessary to sharpen the edges. The sound of the whetstone grinding against the metal filled the cave. The repetitive motion calmed his anger and focused his thoughts.
“What if the mark is just a coincidence?” Bren said.
Hato shook his head. “I’d be remiss to think that Orell and his men went to all this trouble for nothing. You saw what those fools tried to do. They tried to burn the mark off her, and when that didn’t work, they tried to hack it off. Had it been a fake, it wouldn’t have resurfaced.”
“Yet your tests have proven inconclusive.”
“That’s because the mark has been so savagely attacked.”
“Hato,” Bren said, steeling his tone. “I won’t kill her unless you’re sure.”
“Would you like me to test her a third time?”
“As if she hasn’t endured enough torture already,” Bren said. “If you were sure, you wouldn’t be itching to test her again. But you’re not sure, Hato, and I’ll have more than just hesitation to sanction murder.”
“She has the mark,” Hato said. “On that we agree.”
“But she doesn’t fit Robert’s riddle.”
“I thought you didn’t trust the riddle.”
“They’re the words of a dying man, a madman there at the end. We don’t even know when and how he found it.”
“I, for once, won’t dismiss the riddle as a madman’s raving,” Hato said. “Your brothers were determined to save the line of Uras. They died for you, so that you could continue their work.”
Bren winced, remembering his brothers. He wanted to do well by the house of Uras, but his was a deadly inheritance, and he refused to take it lightly.
“Think about the riddle,” Bren said. “There’s no might or wealth to this wench. She’s baseborn, the wife of a mere merchant. Inasmuch as we could use a break in our venture, she’s not it.”
“We can’t afford to ignore any leads,” Hato said, logical as always. “Don’t forget, she bears the mark. Get to the trial, so we can move on. Just do it, my lord.”
The whetstone ground to a halt with a jarring screech. Bren’s fingers tightened around the sword’s hilt. He had an urge to slip the blade between the old man’s ribs, to thrust it up and break through the solid encasement of a heart that failed to feel anymore.
But Hato had given up his life to serve the house of Uras. No matter how hopeless or terrible, he had always told Bren the truth. And when defeat had overtaken Bren’s soul, Hato had been the only one able to wrench him away from despair’s crushing hold.
Bren eased his grasp on the hilt and set aside his sword on the folded pad on the ground. Then he took a deep breath, trying to temper the raw fury coursing through him.
The old man didn’t deserve to die for speaking the truth. He couldn’t slay his friend and mentor just because Hato reminded Bren of the beast he was.
On the other hand, it was he, and not Hato, who had to do the terrible deed, and he couldn’t just slay an innocent because time was running out and they were desperate.
“Don’t overthink the matter,” Hato said. “Riva is bound to catch up with us soon. We have little coin and low supplies. The tribute is almost due. Teos will call soon—”
“A few more days,” Bren said. “Perhaps some of the other leads will bear fruit.”
“I commend you for your decency, my lord, I really do, but practicality takes precedence in our case and time is not on our side. Orell is on our tail. You’ve got nothing to gain from a delay and everything to lose. Will you at least consider my advice?”
“I always do.”
Hato squeezed Bren’s shoulder as he shuffled out of the cave to join the others camping outside. Bren heaved a frustrated sigh. The old man was right again.
But what about the woman?
Bren didn’t know her. Her life might not be meant for rule or greatness, but was it any less valuable than his?
Dam the Twins. The house of Uras was fated to become extinct if he continued to think like this. He knew he couldn’t afford to be weak. He had to be strong—for his people, for his house. He had to finish it.
He knelt next to the woman’s pallet. Lusielle. He had learned her name when he scouted the lead. After four days on the run, an attractive face was beginning to emerge from beneath her yellowing bruises. The small, straight nose was sprinkled with freckles and underscored by a set of generous lips that enhanced her features’ harmony. The tiny line between her brows betrayed a hint of character. A trace of red streaked her brown curls, a touch of the fire that had almost killed her.
Her body might have been pleasant to look at if she hadn’t been so brutally battered. Not only had Orell tried to hack the mark off her back, but he had beaten and even flogged her in the hopes of extracting a confession. King Riva liked confessions—even if they weren’t true—as long as they served to justify his lies.
Bren knew that Lusielle’s wounds would mend if festering could be avoided. The blisters on her legs and feet had begun to heal, especially as Bren had cooled them with packed snow and oiled them with Hato’s balms. In a week or two, she should be able to walk again.
He pushed a curl away from her face. It was silky between his fingers, strong and resilient. Her face was flushed with fever. Even so, she smelled good, like fragrant bread—a rich loaf, fresh from the oven.
Why did he have to kill her?
Bren guessed the woman must be in her middle twenties. He thanked the Twins for the small favor. At least she wasn’t a child or an old woman past her prime. This woman was young enough to have a full life ahead and old enough to look forward to enjoying it.
She was brave too. He had admired the courage he had discovered in her eyes, even as she had been about to die. In the depths of her mossy green gaze, he had tangled with her will as if fighting a duel.
But considering what he’d do to her—what he had to do—he should have surrendered her to the fire. Her death would have been kinder.
Enough of this. He wasn’t born to heal. He had been spawned to destroy. No mercy. It was the house of Uras’s motto. No self-pity, either, as he couldn’t afford the luxury.
He reached for the sword, craving its strength, but an odd sense of longing tugged at him. Damn it, why not? It was his curse, his right. On impulse, he pressed his mouth against the woman’s lips.
A wave crashed over him. His breath felt drawn from his lungs. A force he’d never felt before rumbled inside of him, like a beast awakening. It was astonishing, improbable, incredible. He had to fight like a drowning man to return to reality.
Then he realized that a pair of steely green eyes stared up at him. “Who are you?”
It wasn’t the man’s scarred face that had alarmed Lusielle. It wasn’t his proximity either, or the feel of his lips on her mouth, or the tingle swelling her lips. It was the shock that she spotted in his eyes, along with the loathing and the misery she saw there, followed by the instant hardening of the dark stare she had caught undefended.
Who was he?
A memory of fire and pain flared in her mind. The high heat running through her veins muffled her thinking. Dread. She had survived the torture and the flames. Despair. Was it about to start all over again?
She scrambled out of the pallet like a rat dashing out of a trap.
“Don’t!” the man said, grabbing for her leg but letting go as soon as his fingers came in contact with her bandages.
She scooted backwards on her hands and elbows. A solid wall of rock slammed against her back. Pain shot through her body like a rain of arrows. Out. She had to get away from this man. Fast. She looked around in desperation. Was that a sword lying on the ground?
Mustering whatever little strength she could, she dove for it. Her fingers wrapped around the sword’s hilt as she forced her voice past her bruised throat.
“Easy now,” the man said, standing up slowly, displaying his empty palms, motioning for her to calm down. “You’re going to reopen your wounds.”
No more pain. No more torture. She was done with King Riva and his random courts of so-called justice. She was done with the magistrate, Orell, and Aponte. She wasn’t going to let it happen again.
She scoured the place for an exit, swallowing great gulps of smoke-scented air. Her feet throbbed. Her legs ached. Her arms quivered under the heavy sword’s strain. It was an odd weapon, curved instead of straight, unwieldy to her untrained hands, foreign and wild. She clung to it with all the grit she could muster.
He took a step towards her.
“If you come any closer,” she said, “I’ll have to kill you.”
“That’s a mighty big boast,” he said. “Do you really think you can hurt me with my sword?”
Shaking as hard as she was, she could barely keep the heavy sword aimed at him, let alone manage a thrust. If she hadn’t been so weak, maybe she could have edged her way out of the cave. As it was, he looked very strong and daunting standing between her and the way out.
“Listen, Lusielle,” he said. “That’s your name, right? Lusielle?”
She nodded reluctantly.
“Lusielle,” he repeated her name, almost kindly. “You’ve been through a lot. I understand that you’re scared, but you’re safe at the moment, and you’re not doing your wounds any favors. For your own good, do you think you could lower the sword and try to settle down?”
Her mind was spinning in too many directions. The pain wasn’t helping either. But Lusielle forced herself to think.
Where was she? In a cave of some sort, not in a place she recognized. How had she gotten here? She’d have to come back to that. Was this man friend or foe?
Lusielle willed her frantic heartbeat to slow down. Her arms quaked with the effort of holding the sword. She recognized that she was ill and not just physically. She was also sick with fear. She had been hurt and could have died, but someone had been taking care of her.
She could barely get the words through her parched throat. “Did you—did you tend to my wounds?”
He gave a curt nod.
“A-Are you one of Orell’s guardsmen?”
“I’m not with Orell or the magistrate,” he said. “We’re no longer near your town.”
“Then why are you wearing the king’s colors?”
“Oh, this.” He tugged at his sleeve with a measure of embarrassment. “It’ll be off as soon as we’re out of the Kingdom. It was a ploy. To get to you. Without getting killed?”
“Oh.” She wasn’t sure she could believe him—or anyone else—ever again, but she decided to give him the benefit of the doubt because she wasn’t feeling well or thinking straight and he had kept her alive, at least until now.
She fought a bout of dizziness. “W-Where are we?”
“We are in hiding, in a cave, away from those men. I got you from the fire. Remember?”
She had a memory of his black eyes, holding her stare; of his curiously scarred face lit by the fire’s hot flames. She recalled the crowd’s snarling faces, flames flaring all around her, a commotion beyond the pyre, and something else, right at about the time she lost her senses… a horse, galloping through the flames?
The world blurred. He got there just in time to catch the sword as it slipped out of her grasp. Resting the back of her head on the wall, she laughed. There was no amusement to her chuckles, only bitter surrender.
“Don’t you go mad on me,” he said, enfolding her in a warm blanket. “Hang on to your wits, girl.”
Easy for him to say. His life hadn’t been destroyed in three terrible days.
He picked her up from the ground and lay her down gently on the pallet. His words came through muted and distant, but the masculine murmur was pleasant to the ear and calming to her nerves. His lean face occupied the full space of her vision. His mouth was firm, like the expression on his face. His nose was also stern, matching the grimness in his black eyes.
Shame about the scar, which was so deep that it had burned through skin and muscle. It was a dark blotch on the cusp of his chiseled cheekbone, an oddly round patch, intricately roped around the edges where the mangled skin rose above the rest. The seared flesh pulled on the man’s lower eyelid, warping his right eye into a fearsome expression. Her sight was still blurred, but when she squinted, she thought she spotted a tear-shaped outline within the blackened edges.
She shook with fever. Flashes of cold and heat traveled through her bones like caravans of rattling wagons. Her lips were as dry as cracked leather. She knew what she needed; liquids, lots of it, preferably infused with some of her healing herbs. But her arid mouth couldn’t quite make out the words.
The man must have sensed that she was thirsty, or else he had tended to the wounded before, because he braced her carefully against his chest and leaned the rim of a pewter cup against her lips. Lusielle swallowed the lukewarm tea eagerly. It restored moisture to her throat and revived her senses.
The man’s essential scent enveloped her, a fusion of heated metal, worn leather and fresh rain. It also wafted from the blanket and scented the air she breathed. It was strange, but despite the darkness she spied in his eyes, she wasn’t afraid of the scar or the man anymore. She reached out to touch him.
He flinched, but that didn’t stop her.
She ran her fingertips through the dark bristle of his closely cropped hair, allowing her hand to slide down to his clean-shaven cheek, caressing his chin and crossing over to the other side of his face, until her fingers tripped over the scar’s leathery edges.
Had it been a dream? “Did you . . . kiss me?”
“No,” he said harshly, but then the light changed in his eyes. “Aye, I did.”
By the gods, he had kissed her, with tenderness, she remembered, with passion. “Why?”
He frowned. “I—I don’t know.”
What a strange man he was. Perhaps she was hallucinating and he wasn’t real. Perhaps he was her mind’s odd creation. At least he had admitted to kissing her, which was her most recent memory. Or maybe she was making that up too.
She traced the scar on his face. “Were you kissed by the God of fire?”
Surprise flashed in his eyes. “I guess you could say that.”
“But you survived?”
He offered a reluctant nod.
“And yet you dared the fire again? After you knew how bad it burned? To get me out?”
He gave her a curious look, but said nothing.
The world spun violently within those black eyes, but she managed to keep her senses. “What’s your name?”
“Brennus.” She mulled over the word. “He who comes with the darkness. In the old tongue. Why did you fetch me from the fire?”
“We’ll talk about that later.”
“Was it an act of kindness?”
A sneer twisted his face. “Hardly.”
“A feat of courage?”
“I was pissing in my saddle.”
“A charitable deed?”
He scoffed. “I gave up on charity a long time ago.”
It was odd. It must be the fever. She was having trouble distinguishing between humor and sarcasm, bitterness and rage. There was nothing soft about his face, no trace of joy or friendliness. Still, she wasn’t afraid of him. She thought perhaps she should be.
“Why did you act as you did, Brennus?”
“Would my reasons make any difference to you?”
The question hung in the air like a promise about to break. She tried to read his eyes and found nothing but blackness in his stare. Her mind was flickering like a sputtering candle. Her thoughts were fading. But she could have sworn he was about to say something when a tall, gaunt man rushed into the cave.
“They’re onto us,” he said. “We’ve got to move.”
The next few days were lost to Lusielle. Her life was a jumbled sequence of snippets, blurry images breaking up long periods of dense darkness, triggered by a sudden jostle or a twinge of pain, cold, heat or thirst. She spotted glimpses of a gray sky, spitting out rain, and campfires burning deep in the woods. There was more rain, and a face—his face—hovering just beyond reach.
Occasionally, sound trickled into her muffled world from a distant place. The wind rustled through the trees. The horses’ hooves pounded on dirt, gravel, and mud. Men spoke, snorted, muttered and snored. A low, measured voice—his voice—echoed very near, urging her to drink, eat or sleep, accompanied by the pervasive masculine scent that was her constant companion.
There were times when she came to just enough to realize that she existed in the world in-between, where gods and mortals met in dreams, where dreams and reality were one and the same. In those moments, she realized that she survived only because of someone else’s will, that if she wanted a future, she had to wake up and seize it. She kept trying, even though it required great effort, like swimming against a colossal tide.
“This way,” the voice said.
She felt listless as a corpse, but she grabbed on to that voice and followed it to a semblance of consciousness. Fighting her heavy eyelids, she managed to glimpse the man’s stern face, outlined against a background of pewter clouds.
She rode with him on his horse, wrapped in an oiled mantle, mostly protected from the rain. His strong arms kept her from slipping off the massive beast. His armored chest offered a hard but steady pillow. The beat of his heart echoed through the copper plates, strong, vibrant, and enthralling.
He must have realized that she was awake, because his stare swooped down on her like a hawk on the prowl, even though his voice was gentle. “Hush,” he said. “We won’t be too much longer on the road today.”
His eyes were lined with worry and exhaustion. So were the faces of the other men who rode with him. All of them were wet, tired and miserable, picking their way up a steep mountain track as the relentless rain continued to pelt them. That same rain was dripping from Brennus’s face, drenching his hair and trickling down his neck.
“The rain,” she whispered. “It’s making you wet.” She reached out to dry the water from his face, but the wound on her back protested with a pang of pain.
He caught her hand and tucked it back into the blanket. “It’s no use,” he said. “You can’t keep me dry.”
“One can try,” she said.
And he actually smiled.
“Where are we?” she asked.
“South of nowhere and north of wherever,” he said. “Far from the usual routes. We’re seven days out.”
Seven days was an awful long time to be senseless among strangers.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “Riva’s not going to find us.”
She winced when the horse missed a step.
“Hato!” Brennus called.
Why was he barking like that?
There was splashing, the sound of hooves clattering and then, “My lord?”
“We’ve got to stop. The fever’s back and she’s hurting again.”
“No place to stop around here, my lord,” the other man said.
“Send Severo and Cirillo ahead,” he said. “Tell them to find a decent camp and get a fire going. She’s got to rest.”
“My lord,” he said, “we have pressing business. We can’t slow down to accommodate her comfort—”
“Do you want her alive or not?”
The other man sighed. “As you wish, my lord.” He rode away.
She tried to tell him that she was fine, but ended up whimpering instead.
“Shush,” he whispered in her ear. “You need to sleep.”
And by the Thousand Gods, off she went, at his command, into the darkness again, following his heart’s steady rhythm as it sang a lullaby to her heart.
Lusielle’s eyes opened to reveal yet another unfamiliar setting. She lay on a wide and comfortable bed in a lavishly appointed chamber. She was fairly sure there was a feather mattress beneath the fine linens. Her head was propped on a pile of pillows. The fire’s chatter announced a crackling hearth in the room. Had she died and been reborn to one of the gods halls?
She tried to summon some kind of order out of her jumbled memories. Rain. She recalled the endless drizzle. Gray. It had been the sky’s color for many days. And something else. Him.
She sensed more than saw a presence leaning over her. Her eyes focused on the intricate patterns of finely spun blue silk. Golden ribbons edged the ends of a dangling sleeve. Someone was trying to look at the wounds on her back. The expensive gown rustled when Lusielle stirred, announcing a quick retreat.
A woman with a goddess’s face and a temptress’s body stood above her. Her elegance matched the chamber. The pristine planes of her face served as the perfect background for her exotic blue eyes. Shrewdness sparkled in her stare, but the smile blooming on her face dispelled all traces of fear or caution.
“You’re awake,” the woman said.
Lusielle cleared the cobwebs from her throat. “And you are?”
“I’m Eleanor. You might know me as the Lady of Tolone. You’re in my house.”
Dear Gods. She was in the presence of a ruling highborn. She was in Tolone, one of the Free Territories bordering King Riva’s kingdom on the east side of the river Nerpes. Lusielle had never been out of the kingdom before, but she had heard many rumors about the Free Territories, including stories about Tolone and the fair lady who had come to rule it.
Lusielle took another look at the plush chamber, making out a third person in the room. A tall, dark-haired woman stood behind the lady with a hand poised on her dagger’s hilt. She was either a nicely appointed servant, or, more likely, the lady’s bodyguard. Well, the bodyguard could be well at ease. Lusielle had a hard time pushing herself up on her elbows to sit on the bed. She wasn’t any threat to anybody at the moment.
The Lady of Tolone’s shrewd eyes settled on her face. “You’re not exactly what I was expecting. You look like you’re healing well enough, but you are… well, a little mousy. I suppose that’s to be forgiven, given your circumstances. But on the whole, you’re not bad for a baseborn wench.”
The woman’s condescension was hard to take, but Lusielle was wise enough to let it pass. She was in the lady’s house, in a precarious, maybe even dangerous situation. Better to let the lady think she was slow-witted while she found her footing and figured out her surroundings.
She focused on the facts. “You said you were ‘expecting’ me?”
The woman exchanged a guarded look with her bodyguard. “I suppose we’ve all been expecting you in one way or another—not you, not exactly, but someone like you.”
The woman wasn’t making any sense to Lusielle, but then again, highborn hardly ever did. “Where is he?” she asked.
“The man who brought me here.”
“Oh.” She clasped her hands together. “You mean the Lord Brennus?”
“Is he a highborn also?”
“He might not always look the part, but he certainly is.” She tilted her head to one side and smiled sweetly. “He rode out for a few days. He said something about having some business to attend to. But he’s on his way. My scouts report that he crossed the border and should be back anytime now.”
Lusielle’s impossible situation was looking stranger by the moment. The Lady of Tolone seemed beautiful and nice, and yet warnings were ringing in Lusielle’s mind like fire bells. She didn’t trust the lady. First, she was a highborn. Everyone knew about them. They were rarely truthful and always engaged in intrigue. Second, the lady’s eyes shifted like a flowing river with too many undercurrents, and her gestures were a little too precise and schooled for Lusielle’s taste. Lusielle wagered that the lady could make anybody believe anything.
But if trusting the lady was out of the question, collecting as much information from her was absolutely necessary.
“Why did Lord Brennus bring me here?” Lusielle asked.
“He told me he wanted to give you time to heal.” The lady gestured to the tray of remedies on the night stand. “Believe me, child, in the last few days, I’ve put my best healers on you. A man like the Lord Brennus is always unpredictable. He has only a few friends, but if I had to guess, I’d say he needed a safe haven when he brought you here.”
“A safe haven from what?”
“Aren’t you a curious one?” The lady clasped her hands behind her back and paced to the foot of the bed. “Well, if you must know, the Lord Brennus is a wanted man in the kingdom and has been outlawed in most of the territories.”
“Outlawed?” Lusielle’s voice quavered. “Why?”
“Because—well, you know—this.”
Lusielle looked around. “This?”
“Yes, you,” the lady said, betraying a hint of exasperation. “Aren’t you going to ask?”
“Why he fetched you in the first place?”
“I’ve been wondering—”
“Oh, that’s easy,” Eleanor said. “It’s because of your birthmark.”
“Well, you must have a mark,” the lady explained. “You see, the noblemen of Uras are trained to chase the Goddess’s mark. They hunt. Baseborn. Females. With the mark.”
How Lusielle managed to repress the sudden need to wretch was a mystery to her, but she did, because now more than ever she was going to need her wits.
“So?” The lady stared at Lusielle expectantly. “Did you understand what I just said?”
“Yes.” Lusielle stomach was heaving to and fro.
“You must be so scared.” Lady Eleanor’s eyes widened with compassion. “But now you know. That’s why the Lord of Laonia is a wanted man in the kingdom. Ask anybody. Ask the servants. Ask Tatyene here.”
The lady’s bodyguard nodded.
Lusielle felt numb all over. “But . . . why?”
“Who knows the minds of wicked men?” the lady said. “It doesn’t matter. A woman mustn’t allow the world of men to destroy her. We’re allies, you and us. We must mind each other.”
The lady motioned to her bodyguard, who fetched and deposited a small pile of clothing at the foot of the bed. Tatyene’s smile might have been soothing if her canines had not been so sharply filed. She spoke in a gently accented voice that managed to suggest and command at the same time.
“You’ll find a proper shift and a decent skirt with a shirt among these,” she said. “You’ll also find wool stockings and a pair of sturdy boots. A traveling wench needs reliable footwear.”
A traveling wench?
Lusielle considered the women carefully. She had just learned a terrible lesson. It was more than fresh in her mind. It was seared into her scalded flesh. These two were deep and twisted, definitively plotting something. She had to proceed with caution.
“Does the lady think I should travel?”
The Lady of Tolone smiled and stepped aside to look out of the lead and colored-glass window, where the rain tapped a torrential beat against the panes. Her bodyguard sat down on the bed and clasped Lusielle’s hands as if they had known each other for years.
“You should listen to your instincts,” Tatyene said. “Freedom is a woman’s only assurance. Should you decide to part ways with the house of Uras, you’ll find the back gate behind the kitchens. Don’t follow the main road. It’ll be an easy hunt if you do. Take the shepherds’ shortcut through the wood. You can pick it up at the road’s bend, after the fenced plots.”