Ravens hand, p.10
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       Raven's Hand, p.10
 

          
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  I kept my concentration focused and strolled along the way that had been made for me. As I went, the vegetation along the path behind me folded in again, covering my tracks should Kane attempt to follow me. Even if he had been distracted by something else, he was sure to come searching for me. After all, I was very important to Mistress Evelyn and her plans. If Kane did not bring me safely to her, she would likely have his head taken in retribution.

  I strolled into a clearing and paused—not for some strange noise I had heard, but because of a lack of the natural sounds I expected. Every cricket, beetle and rodent that might have been normally active right now had gone suddenly silent. Fear crept up my spine. Something was wrong here. I wondered, immediately, if Kane had managed to find me.

  I was wrong.

  It wasn’t Kane at all.

  Growls reverberated around the clearing—deep, guttural noises that sent chills up my spine. I had seen these creatures before—so recently that it felt like no time had passed at all. I had watched them kill my only friend in this cruel world and leave her body lying in a ditch on the side of the road.

  The Cindermen had found me.

  A dozen man-like beasts surrounded me. Their foul stench, like that of a wet mongrel, mingled with the subtle insidious aroma of decay. Their teeth were bared in ravenous smiles, showing elongated canines that appeared readymade to rip my throat out.

  “At last,” one of them said. “Judah will be pleased when we bring back your ragged carcass.”

  “Nothing wrong with having a taste or two first,” another said lustfully. “Tender meat on this one.” He licked his lips as saliva dripped onto the ground.

  I realized he doesn’t intend to ravish me and steal away my virtue. Instead, I was to be at least partially consumed. As long as they brought back enough proof of my death to their leader, there would be no harsh consequences if they sated their bloodlust a little in the process.

  Days ago, after witnessing Celia’s death and knowing that I had been the cause of it, I would have bared my neck for them in my guilt and gladly welcomed oblivion at their hands. That was then, and this was now. Killian was a real person living in the world, and I had to find him. I had to do whatever I could to save him from the danger he was in. I might have already been too late. But I was not going to accept it; not yet.

  A subtle shift in the atmosphere occurred in the clearing. I sensed it, and so did the Cindermen. I could see it on their faces, as their grins subsided into grim lines. My fear, which had moments ago had them so excited, was now gone. In its place remained only my hardened determination to fight these monsters and kill them so that I could get to Killian before it was too late.

  Fierce energies ignited within my soul in preparation for the destruction I now intended to bring in this clearing. The muscled bodies of the Cindermen tensed, as they prepared themselves to attack. A single second passed—a heartbeat—a half-breath before all Hell broke loose.

  A wolf-like Cinderman cried out in pain; his arm severed just above the elbow. That scream was silenced just as suddenly by a blur of steel coming out of the shadows again, striking him in the heart. I caught only a glimpse of Kane moving as fluidly as a running river among these beastly men.

  For their part, the Cindermen wasted no more time. They attacked with all of the ferocity they could muster. Most went after Kane, or at least they attempted to go after him. The assassin appeared one moment—long enough to strike a killing blow—and then disappeared again.

  A reptilian Cinderman lunged for me. Before I could react with my own defenses, the beast was hurled away without Kane ever touching him. I felt a chill wind and recognized the same oppressive spirit at work as before, when I first met Kane at the abbey.

  I turned round and round, finding Cindermen dying everywhere I looked. Moments later, the final agonized cry died away as another reptilian brute expired upon the ground with Kane’s deadly sword stabbed through his chest. The assassin stood above him, looking at me with a wry grin upon his face.

  I saw the other light in his eyes and perceived the Malkind spirit within him. With the Cindermen dead, I considered making my attack upon Kane. After all, Killian needed me desperately. However, the working of that spirit remained too strong for me.

  I attempted to muster my power, but found only the smothering influence of the Malkind. I was powerless to escape now that Kane had arrived upon the scene. My opportunity to flee my captor was gone.

  Crossroads and Consequence

  Dawn’s first light found Killian and Esmeralda wearily walking toward his father’s shop and their family home. Already, he could see the smoke rising from the vent chimney. His father, Radden, must have been forging another weapon to which he would apply tender loving care and a craftsmanship unequaled by any bladesmith in the kingdom.

  Killian attended to Esmeralda’s needs first: food, water and clean hay in her stall. He removed her saddle and gave her coat a quick brushing out. All this time he considered what he would say to his father. Radden was expecting a report of a job well done and a newly blessed blade ready for delivery to Prince Nathan at the palace.

  What Killian had to offer his father was a far cry from good news. Eliam’s priestess had not behaved in the manner he had expected. Eliam himself had not blessed the sword in the way Killian had supposed he would. Yeager and his daughter, Wendy, had been killed at the Mangy Cur by mercenaries working for who-knows-what great house, and he had been attacked by that same group. Worst of all, the blessed blade had been stained with his blood and, as near as Killian could tell, it had bonded with him as a result.

  Esmeralda was grateful and relieved to be back home in her own private stall. She could no longer speak to convey her feelings, but as always Killian sensed her emotions through contact. She nuzzled his hand with her nose, apparently having no further concern about the sword or the prince. She had fresh hay and oats so, as far as she was concerned, all was right with the world.

  Killian left her at peace and walked back toward his father’s shop. When he arrived in the doorway, he carried the sword and scabbard in his hand with the strap wrapped around it. What he had to tell his father was bad enough without wearing the sword and appearing impertinent.

  Still, Killian wanted to wear it—at least, part of him wanted to wear it, wanted to hold the weapon in his hands. He knew with certainty that the bond had occurred. He had heard about the drawing power a blessed weapon held upon its bond. He felt that tugging desire upon his soul, even now. The bonding of blood and blessed steel had made them one.

  He resisted the call of the weapon upon his thoughts, trying to concentrate. Killian stood there for what seemed like hours. Radden watched him curiously from his work bench.

  “Are you all right, boy?” Radden asked.

  Killian’s eyes snapped up from the work bench. He realized that he was avoiding looking at his father. His gaze came to rest upon Radden’s middle-aged features.

  “What’s wrong, Killian? You look like you’ve seen a spirit, or something.”

  Radden started to laugh a little, but paused. He could see something unsettling in his son’s eyes. Something was definitely wrong here.

  Radden stood, gripping Killian’s shoulders in his broad, calloused hands. “What’s happened?” he said sternly. “Don’t leave out anything.”

  Killian took a deep breath, concentrating on his father’s command. The sword was calling him, even now. It wanted to be worn, to be held in Killian’s hands.

  He shook himself and started telling the story from the time he entered the Brine Wood until coming home again a few minutes ago. When he finished, twenty minutes later, Killian was trembling. Surprisingly, Radden was shaking a little himself.

  His father released him after hearing the part about his vision of Eliam. Now, he sat at his work bench again, gripping an etching tool as the story concluded back at his workshop. Radden’s knuckles were white from squeezing the tool.

  Killian pulled up a chair next to
his father and laid the scabbard and sword across his lap. This, at least, seemed to sate the hunger to brandish the blade. The weapon seemed almost like a child wanting out to play. Such was its impatient persistence.

  After a moment of silence between them, Killian asked, “What should we do, Father?”

  Radden looked up. Killian could see immediately that his father hadn’t the slightest idea how to proceed. He was worried, frustrated, and fearful. Any number of things might happen because of this.

  Most immediately was the matter of Prince Nathan. He was expecting his sword to be delivered to the palace for the bonding ceremony. Disappointing the royal family might harm his family any number of ways. They might be stripped of their status. They might be beheaded.

  Killian began to utter his earlier idea of taking the sword on to the palace with the hope that the bonding ceremony might somehow undo this bond. However, even as he began to wrest the thought to the forefront of his mind, regret arrived with it. He could barely stand to consider such a thing as giving away his sword.

  “We have little choice but to take the sword to Prince Nathan,” Radden answered finally. “I would chastise you for allowing such a thing to happen, but the fact is there is nothing you could have done differently. Who are we to defy Eliam or his priestess?”

  Killian smiled with relief. “You don’t know how badly I wanted to mention that point. I just didn’t want to seem impertinent about it.”

  “I know,” Radden said. “Something is happening here that we just don’t understand. Still, the prince is expecting a sword to be delivered.”

  “Alternate sword made at breakneck speed?” Killian offered reluctantly.

  Radden slapped his palm down heavily upon the work bench. “And I’m sure the prince would accept shoddy craftsmanship,” he said in frustration. “A sword like that takes time and tender-loving-care to produce. You know that as well as I do, and we have no time.”

  “I know, Father,” Killian said. “I’m just desperate. This could harm our family, and that’s the last thing I want to happen.”

  Radden sighed heavily, relaxing upon his stool again. “The fact is Eliam has done this for some purpose. We don’t know what it is, but I doubt very much that he means to use this as some way to destroy our family. If we trust Eliam like we claim, then we must also believe that he will reveal his purpose in due time. He must already know what recourse we have and don’t have.”

  “So, we take the sword to the palace and see what comes of it?” Killian asked.

  Radden nodded. “I can think of nothing else.”

  Royal Welcome

  Morning was already well on the rise when we stopped again. Kane’s horse began to graze and drink from a pond off the road while the assassin and I attended to our own needs. As much as I would have liked to go to Killian, I would not attempt to escape again. I had no chance of making it with Kane around.

  Little did I know that the assassin had already noticed the Cindermen tracking us. There was never a moment when he did not know what I was up to. He just wasn’t concerned that I might actually get away from him.

  As far as Killian was concerned, I had no idea where he was, or even if he had survived the night. The man with the eye patch, along with his men, may have killed my love while he slept in his bed. That thought prompted a tear to roll down my cheek. This was not the first one I had shed tonight for Killian.

  I was tempted to wonder why I should care so much for a man that I had never met before. However, I knew in my heart that our meetings in my dreams were not mere flights of fancy in the night. We had truly met and danced and loved. Killian was real. He could not be so different in life than he was in my dreams, could he?

  Kane appeared from behind a group of bushes, walking toward me. “We are near Rainier,” he said.

  I glared at him, but I did not speak to the man. My look might have seemed proud, but I was trembling inside. The Malkind spirit’s presence was pervasive. I knew that I could not overcome it by my own power. I was quite certain Kane knew the same thing.

  A woman suddenly appeared between us in the clearing where we had stopped to refresh ourselves. Her image seemed spectral for a few moments before gathering resolution. I immediately understood what was happening. Evelyn had sent her visage traveling to find her servant.

  Back at the palace, whatever room she happened to be standing in would have taken on the appearance of this glade. The effect was not the same for us, however, since our images were not traveling. We only saw her.

  In seconds, Evelyn’s form solidified, in every detail appearing just like she was in person. Even her image was unsettling to me, bringing back terrible memories of her torturing me inside my room at the abbey. I shivered as her traveling form turned to look at me.

  She sighed noticeably when she saw me. “Good, you’ve kept her alive,” she said, turning back to Kane.

  It said something to me that Evelyn didn’t appear to be the least bit intimidated by the assassin. She knew her role as queen. Kane was her servant. He knew this as well. His demeanor before the woman was humility itself. He didn’t have to serve her, but he chose to.

  “Yes, my queen,” Kane responded. “We were tracked by a group of Cindermen for a time.”

  Her brow raised slightly at this.

  “I disposed of them,” Kane added.

  Evelyn’s composure returned to severely reserved. “Very good,” she said, which I supposed was as wonderful a compliment as the woman had ever bestowed. “I suspected Judah and his brutes would be watching the abbey. Only the blessing of Eliam kept them from attacking it outright.”

  “Holy ground,” Kane added in a somewhat delicate manner.

  “Yes, I suppose,” Evelyn replied distractedly. “At any rate, this girl, as unfortunate a choice as she is, is my only recourse. We must have her here at the palace for the bonding ceremony in two days’ time.”

  “The Prince’s sword is ready?” Kane asked.

  “I’ve only just received word by courier,” she reported. “The bladesmith will arrive today with the weapon. I want you back at the palace later today, as well. In fact, I’ve placed a garrison outside the South Gate that will accompany you inside the wall and on to the palace.”

  “Only the one garrison at the one gate?” he asked.

  “I’m not a simpleton,” she retorted. “I have a battalion at each gate, waiting. The Cindermen will not know which gate you arrive at. By the time they realize, you’ll already be inside the wall and safe.”

  “Of course, my queen.”

  Evelyn turned from her servant then, looking sternly at me now. “Well,” she said, “I hope you realize the opportunity you’ve been afforded here. Thanks to the Cindermen, you are my last resort. I trust you have learned your lesson finally and will behave yourself in a dignified manner as is befitting your station.”

  Inside, I glared at her with every ounce of venom I could muster. However, outwardly, I remained subservient. I did not wish to undergo any more of her lessons. Nothing good could come of my rebellion now. Yet, my vision of Killian had filled me with hope. He was out there somewhere, waiting for me to find him. All was not lost.

  I nodded and said nothing.

  Evelyn didn’t seem happy. She glowered at me, but then finally nodded in return, seemingly satisfied. As long as I did what I was told, she didn’t care about how I felt. In fact, my feelings were the least concern she had. I was nothing more than a tool to her, a means toward assuring her son a great deal of power—power that was necessary if House Rainier was going to survive the coming months.

  Turning back to Kane, she said, “One of my armored carriages awaits your arrival at the gate. See that Raven is interred before another move is made. Her safety must be assured for the sake of my son and House Rainier. Let there be no further delays. Time is of the essence.”

  With her final command issued, Evelyn’s image vanished from the clearing. No farewells; not even for her servant. I looked at him.
He flashed me a feral grin.

  “You’re no different than I am,” I said to him.

  “No?” he replied impishly.

  I glared at him in a somewhat self-satisfied way. “You’re a servant to House Rainier just like I am.”

  His eyes narrowed, showing teeth in his grin now. “But I don’t have to bond with the prince, or spend my nights in his bedchamber.”

  Kane’s remark deflated me instantly. He was right. Despite being a servant to Evelyn, he did have a measure of freedom. He was not humiliated by her, but prized. I was a prize for a completely different reason. I would be forced to bond with Nathan, meaning that, at least once, he would bed me as part of the ritual that made us one in body and spirit. I would belong to him and be forever under his control and the control of whatever woman became his queen. She would become Mistress of the House when Evelyn stepped down. She would be a queen, while I remained a slave.

  Kane smiled broadly now, seeing the effect his words had on me. He gestured toward the black stallion waiting for us to climb back onto its saddle. The rest of the journey could not be long enough for me. When it ended, I would be placed inside Evelyn’s locked carriage, like a diamond inside a jewelry box. When it opened again, I would face my fate with Prince Nathan.

  Killian and his father had attempted to do the right thing with regard to the waiting prince. A courier had been dispatched immediately that morning in order to convey their sincerest apologies for any delay felt by His Royal Highness and to let him know that they would soon arrive with the sword in hand. However, before they could make ready for their journey to the palace, a contingent of royal guards arrived with orders to escort them to the palace where Prince Nathan and his mother, the queen, would receive them.

  A dozen guards rode before them in the livery of House Rainier. Dark gray breeches with navy shirts and white gloves. The soldiers wore leather-bound plate armor capped with polished steel plating at the breast and the back. Swords hung at their sides and short spears hung in special holsters attached to the horses’ saddles.

 
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