Archers tugged bowstrings back to their ears. Warriors drew swords in a clatter of iron as they ringed armed riders protecting the woman who had vowed to take this land by storm.
Every bowman, every bladesman looked to their lord on the castle walk, willing his hand to fall.
So tempting to drop his arm. So easy to snatch up his sword and unleash the rage carefully shackled within. Slaughter her guards, take her captive—and call it duty.
But a heartbeat before seizing the blade at his hip, Vraymorg reined in his yearning. Unseemly for a lord, self-indulgent even, to desire bloodshed. Embrace it. But anger filled the hollow place within, and he feared who he was without it.
“Well, where is he?” A rider at the woman’s side shouted up at the guard walk. Wind whipped auburn hair across a surly, young face Vraymorg at once disliked.
“Where is this fiendish bladesman whose deeds maudlin poets spin into legend, this terrible lord of the abyss? Cowering in the shadows? Show yourself, Vraymorg.”
Vraymorg. Yes, they called him that.
But it was just a name to hide his secrets.
They called him lord, too. Lord of these mountains where wind brawled with frosted grass and a bleak sky curved to a rusted horizon. Lord of this gaunt, grey, iron-gated castle.
Its lord? An ugly laugh soured his throat. No. Its prisoner—though the nauseating poets and the singers wandering from hall to hall with their crystal voices did not know it.
A captive of wretched duty, of shame who belonged in this dismal, repellent fortress.
An eternity of pain drenched its ancient keep. Its hulking walls blistered the edge of a rolling gorge like ugly, naked spines. The fangs of its portcullis, crafted from the teeth of the dead, grated into an eerie silence.
Yet for all the spells woven with blood and bone into its stone, she dared ride through this castle’s gates, head disdainfully high, wind streaming a cloak of black dog hair.
She dared bring armed men to this outpost of Telorian rule, their murmurs, chafing metal, and jingling harnesses a discordant riot in the ward.
Rozenn, Queen of Cahir. Young, pretty.
“Wherever you’re hiding—my lord—tell your archers to lower their bows.” The surly man slapped a glove against his horse’s flank. He paused. Smirked. “We have your pup.”
Air swooped in Vraymorg’s gut. He sought Kaell’s blond head among the riders. The boy sat unbowed upon a horse roped to another’s.
“How?” He turned to his captain. “How? We couldn’t find him. How did they?”
Arn Tranter’s scowl guttered an angry scar on his jaw. “Seems these foul Cahireans scooped the boy up somewhere beyond the gorge.”
“The gods take them. I can only hope they don’t know who Kaell is. But take no chances until they surrender him.”
“I assure you, my lord.” Arn clasped fingers about a belted knife, his face stiff with outrage. “They will surrender him.” With a curt nod, he hurried down the stairs to the ward.
Vraymorg braced the parapet, the worn stone beneath his calloused hands barely warm from a bleached autumn sun.
Rozenn’s fire-banners slapped air as cold as liquid silver. Its scents of dried mud, dying wildflowers, and distant smoke stank of emptiness, of the wild, steep hills and lonely hollows of this remote wasteland—unsettling to a man born on the sea cliffs of the Isles.
He swept his eyes across cleared land to wind-scarred rocks. No streaked movement. No sun glittering on helms.
Rozenn was too clever to bring an army against him.
Yet should she threaten Kaell, he’d fall to his knees and surrender this castle, his body, his cursed blood—whatever she demanded in return for the boy.
“I’m losing patience, Vraymorg,” the rider said. “If you want your pup, show yourself.”
At another insolent challenge, fury pricked his skin. His men looked to him. Wind buffeted dying grass. A crow’s caw faded away into an expectant hush.
For a span of wing beats, Vraymorg did nothing but brush his fingers over his worn sword hilt. Anger harnessed for Kaell’s sake, he called from the walk, “Show me the boy.”
Leisurely, the man dismounted. Sunlight gleamed on jewelled steel sheathed in his belt beneath a flowing cloak of finely woven wool. From the garments, the sword, his arrogance—wellborn.
He pulled Kaell off his horse and shoved him forward. “Show yourself.” The man’s grin twisted with malice. “Orphan brat.”
The boy stiffened. Glared. Vraymorg half expected bared fangs and a snarl.
“The bastard calls himself Kaell of Vraymorg,” the man said. “He’s a little knight, apparently. Or a lord. The lord of mud from the look of him.”
His companions hooted laughter and nudged each other. Rozenn said nothing, only looked towards the broken tower, into the murk that hid him.
Wind plucked at a hood covering hair of baked gold. That hair and her banners betrayed who she was, but not why she risked a perilous journey through the gorge. What she wanted.
What she knew…
Nothing. She couldn’t. Not his name. Not his past.
Vraymorg shook off his unease. Still he didn’t move, reluctant to leave the walk. But pitiless duty intruded. As it always did.
Men parted as he trod stairs to the ward, his blade’s slap against his thigh the music of slumbering death. Their gazes fell hard, their tongues silent.
The Cahireans, though, murmured behind their hands. “That’s him… Gods, such stories. They can’t be true.” Then even their whispers faded. A hush plunged in the courtyard, taut and eager.
Kaell followed his every step with low-lidded green eyes. A small sword tucked into his belt around a dirty, ripped, woollen tunic. But for the silver bracelet circling his upper arm and kersey cloak, he looked as wild as a wolf’s-head’s whelp.
“You reckless, young fool.” Vraymorg’s relief poured out in fury. “My men searched the gorge for days with no sign of you. Thank the gods you’re safe.”
“Thank the gods, we found him,” the surly man said. “Before ghouls did.”
Kaell spun, jeering. “Stay safe in your bed if you fear ghouls, old man. I want them to come. So I can kill them.”
“Arrogant whelp.” The man chuckled indulgently. “He has more spirit than the rest of you milk-blood Telorians.” He faced his queen. “We should keep him, Your Majesty.”
Rozenn made a poor attempt to hide a smile. “And do what with him?”
“Keep me?” Kaell snorted. “Am I a pet? You can’t keep me. My lord.” He shot Vraymorg a glance stiff with all the affront and elaborate hauteur a nine-year-old boy could muster.
“He teases you, whoever he is.”
The man carelessly bowed. “Tarvan Blackstone. You’ll have heard of me.”
“Nothing good.” Vraymorg lifted a glare to Rozenn. “And you—the queen who vowed to take this land by storm. That was your word. Storm. You say this and dare approach this castle? Tell me why I shouldn’t arrest you and surrender you to my king?”
A silence deepened, thick with menace, ready to accompany him in a bladesman’s dance of blood. How he longed for its familiar, dread steps. That relief of gnawing rage.
One or two Cahirean warriors aware of his reputation edged back. Though the boldest among Rozenn’s women offered appreciative, lingering looks he hardly heeded.
Their queen dismounted. She pushed back her hood. The blue gaze that slowly passed over him ghosted with strangeness, a dusting of the otherworld.
Strange rumours swirled about Rozenn of Cahir. Dangerous rumours. She was, as those fool poets might say, of a mystical bloodline.
“Then you didn’t hear?” Her voice was cool, like shards of moonlight.
“All is forgiven. We are, in fact, journeying to Dal-Kanu. Your king invited me to celebrate peace between our lands. I seek nothing more than hospitality, Vraymorg.”
“Then it appears I must offer you that—Your Grace.”
At his discourtesy, Rozenn smiled. In a tone equally insincere, she said, “I thank you for your warm reception. In return, I bring a gift. And give you back this child found wandering.”
Indignant, Kaell said, “I don’t wander. I hunt.”
“Hunt,” Vraymorg echoed in disbelief. He grasped Kaell’s shoulders. “Hunt? What if ghouls or Varee slavers found you?”
The boy mimicked his lord’s usual stance with a thrust of hands to hips. Such a small gesture, yet Vraymorg tasted brackish sadness. The boy looked up to him. But he could never be what Kaell wanted. What he deserved.
“I can take care of myself.” Kaell’s prideful tone also echoed his.
“With no boots and a useless blade? Did your wits desert you?”
Beneath his lord’s stare, Kaell’s boldness wilted. He scuffed toes across dirt. “I—I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to disappoint you.”
And there it was. The undercurrent of need beneath the words. Almost unbearable.
Vraymorg beckoned to a slender, ruddy-faced man. “Ewen, take Kaell to his room. Have the physician see to his cuts and scrapes.”
As Kaell trailed after the servant, he traced the boy’s steps, a faceless fear weighing his shoulders. The gods willed he keep this child safe. Prepare him for the malign struggle ahead. But how to protect Kaell from himself?
At a swift intake of breath behind, he turned. Rozenn’s hand stilled on a fold of her gown, her brows arched, her stare on his exposed wrists.
Vraymorg dragged an etched bronze bracelet over his scars. He looked at his wind-whipped banners, their insignia that of a king he despised but would follow to the tower tomb. All the while self-loathing roiled, its bitterness in his mouth.
“I’m obliged to you for returning Kaell, Your Grace,” he said, his tone elaborately polite. “The gods only know why he ran off.”
Rozenn tore her eyes from the bracelet, a disarming smile burying a flicker of speculation, even triumph. “Surely it’s obvious, Vraymorg.” She paused as if to let the stillness settle about her words. “The boy ran off to do as his gods bid him—kill ghouls.”
Men muttered uneasily. Arn’s grope at his blade rattled steel against a belt clip, the sound brittle. Angry.
“For what else”—she clearly relished their discomfort—“can Khir’s bonded warrior do?”
Vraymorg flinched as if struck. Whispers faltered. Tense looks flicked from him to Rozenn. A caw as a bird flapped from a tower lifted hairs along his arms.
“I don’t know what you mean, Your Grace.”
With ringed fingers, Rozenn tapped an impatient rhythm on a low-slung girdle. “Do you take me for a fool, Vraymorg? Khir’s signs mark his flesh. The battle god claims this boy. You train him to slay ghouls. How desperate you must have been when he ran off, my lord.”
Desperate? Maybe so. But now he owed her something for Kaell’s return?
“You spoke of hospitality.” Annoyance clipped his words. “The ancient lords did not build this fortress to accommodate a queen. We shall, however, try to make you comfortable. Once you’ve rested, it will be my pleasure to entertain you in the feasting hall.”
“The pleasure will be mine.”
Vraymorg frowned. Her provocative smile held meaning he could not unravel.
“First, let me give you this.” Rozenn drew out a book, its leather cracked with age.
“No. It is a warning.”
He glanced up sharply. Fading light shadowed her face. Hard to read. But a sibilant murmur prickled his spine. The wind? Its whisper coiled all day, sentient, a portent of danger that soaked down into him like rain.
“I don’t understand.” A lie. He knew too well the malevolence within this book.
“It contains writings about the boy. Kaell is, after all, the Nineteenth Bonded Warrior.”
Reluctantly, panic scraping his gut, Vraymorg took the book in his fingertips. How did she get hold of this? “Even if that were true, it hardly concerns you—Your Grace.”
Only the knifing wind sat between them. That, and centuries of secrets.
Rozenn leaned close. “You know,” she said. “You know the truth.”
He did not reply. His heart drummed against ribs.
“We must talk.” Rozenn grasped his arm. “Alone.”
“We’ll talk, yes.” Vraymorg snatched at duty to mask his alarm. “First, my steward will find you suitable rooms. See to your men.”
Shrugging off her touch, he strode away. He would not look at the book. He would not. But it drew his glance. And his shudder.
A BRANCH TAPPED STONE like gnarled talons scouring iron. The wind brushed his skin, damp and cool.
Beyond Vraymorg’s window, the moonless night fell away into a basin of soft sounds and shadows, broken only by braziers flaring on the wall walk where sentries muttered and stamped their feet.
How vast the wilderness beyond the rutted great gorge seemed with its abandoned cities of red stone, its knotted forests, and sleek, turgid rivers where only Varee slavers flourished and ghouls hunted human prey.
Against such lawless chaos, the decay of civilisation far from the reach of kings and queens, this Telorian castle was surely as impotent as a buckle shield against Seithin steel.
Loneliness boiled up. He was just as impotent. An Isles man displaced. Alone. Damned.
At first Vraymorg mistook the knock at his door for a shutter whipped by a gust. Until it came again. Insistent.
With a weary sigh, he looked up from tedious accounts. Perhaps Ewen might stomp in with complaints about their Cahirean guests camped in the ward, or Arn with a report from the watch. Even Kaell, his eyes clouded, seeking comfort from tormenting dreams.
The door creaked. Seeing who stood there, he blinked, tried not to gape. Cold foreboding hammered down his backbone, but his heart sprang.
Rozenn said not a word, only walked inside. Her satin cloak whispered over floorboards like fingertips on skin. Her bare feet sank into a threadbare rug.
She possessed a sleepwalker’s ethereal fragility. Her unbound hair tangled and beautiful, lids languidly lowering over her glistening, long-lashed eyes.
“Your… Grace?” Vraymorg stammered. “I… can I help you?”
She looked at him. Just looked.
Wind gnashed stonework. An owl hooted. Wings beat air. A bell tolled sweetly in the distant well house. A candle guttered with a last fizzle against cool air.
“I know who you are.” Her voice was breathy. “Who you really are, Val Arques. I know what you’ve done, why you hide here. I know who hunts you and what they will take from you if they can. But for all your menace, you’re too young to be the keeper of such secrets.”
With deliberate care, Vraymorg pushed back his chair and rose to light a new candle. He did not bother to deny her words. But they tore a bitter laugh from him. “You expected a grizzled, grey-haired man, stooped beneath the burden?”
Candlelight glowed on golden hair. Her rose and vanilla perfume wisped as she moved very close.
“You are younger and more beautiful than I expected, true. But you move with the grace and confidence of a man certain of his formidable skill. Like an Isles bladesman trained in the mysteries and mysticism of the Serravan.”
“There is no Serravan. Not for centuries.”
“And yet, only a Serravan bladesman could hold these mountains against ghouls. Or hold on to himself beneath this shroud of duty.”
Her gaze dropped to his wrists. “Hold on to himself,” she repeated, her smile ironic.
“What do you want, Rozenn of Cahir? Why are you here?”
A shrug. “I brought you a gift.”
“You brought me a curse. That book is evil.”
Rozenn released a breath. “I am right. You do know about the boy.”
Vraymorg flung his glance from her. By candlelight, the few objects in his drab room looked jarringly unfamiliar. A cloak flung carelessly over his chair, his discarded weapons belt and long-bladed sword, a knife with a jewel-clustered hilt.
Few possessions and he valued none of them.
“And what will you do?”
She swung on him with words. “Are you so arrogant? Give me Kaell, and I’ll do what you’re afraid to.”
“You’d spill his blood? A child’s?”
“And bring Khir’s curse upon my head? Even I, a Cahirean, respect the old gods of Telor. I won’t spill a drop. Though, if the omens prove true, I’ll bloodlessly execute Kaell when he is older. I am not cruel. It’ll be quick.”
“How old is old enough to die?” Vraymorg forced his fist through air to beat back her meaning. “Do your vicious gods set an age?”
“The priests and priestesses did. Yes.”
They glowered across a chasm of mistrust. The room filled with a yowling wind, a rattle of shutters, the fire’s crackle. Yet something else ripened, too strange, ripped from his longing, his emptiness.
Her glare softened to a sad smile. “How alone you must feel here, Val Arques. An Isles bladesman in these desolate mountains.”
He made no reply. Not just her beauty, but a yearning to feel, to escape his loneliness just for one night, quickened his heart to chaos.
She took a step closer, even closer, touching fingertips to his lips. “Such a sensuous mouth for a killer, my lord.”
Vraymorg did not draw away. The atmosphere needled with that intimacy of warriors locked in a fight to the death, akin to passion. Enlivening but dangerous.
Rozenn’s cloak slid from her shoulders to puddle on stone. Candlelight gleamed on bare skin, shadowed soft, sweet curves.
“Is that what you want of me, Rozenn of Cahir?” he whispered, his hand moving to the nape of her neck. Her hair was as soft as a child’s.
Beneath his palm she trembled as she fell against him. He closed his arms about her. Desire blazed hot and fast in his groin, a carnal ribbon of fire through every muscle.
With ragged breaths, Rozenn stripped off his garments.
He pressed his lips to hers with a savagery born of loneliness, his caresses roaming hungrily from tangled hair to breast to hip.
When they tumbled onto the bed, wind fanged his naked back. Vraymorg thought he heard a warning in its moan. Though it might only be Rozenn’s cry as she arched beneath him.
A GRINDING WOKE HIM. The creaking portcullis. The room was cold; the blankets were tangled about his ankles, the indented bed empty but still warm from where Rozenn slept.
Vraymorg sat up fast. He rose and padded to the windows. Moonlight gleamed on faces beneath hoods, on sword hilts as riders threaded through the gatehouse.
The Cahireans. Leaving before dawn.
Vraymorg turned for his cloak. His breath cut.
A thin, silver blade, its hilt ivory, protruded from his pillow. A forbidden Seithin temple knife that pinned parchment to spilled feathers.
Heart clamouring in his chest, he ripped the knife out, snatched up the paper, and took it into the moonlight. He read:
Generous, indeed, Val Arques. Tonight you gave me the throne of Telor. You, my lord, have brought on the very storm you fear.