Death of a king, p.23
Death of a King,
Lady Braverton threw her hands up to the cold blue sky. “Why does it always end this way? You and your father…” She choked on fresh tears. “I want to get to know you. You’re the only thing I have left from him!”
“You have”—Natalie checked to make sure they were alone—“you have your daughters.”
Lady Braverton rolled her eyes disdainfully. “They have their own lives and families. Besides…they’re themselves. You—you’re Ed. I can see it in you more and more. You are him.”
Now Natalie was fighting off her own tears. She wanted to say that was the most wonderful thing anybody had ever told her, but she couldn’t speak.
“You and your damned father. Stubborn as old mules.” Lady Braverton regarded Natalie again. “Are you sure?”
“Yes, my lady.”
“I could force you to stay.”
“You could try.”
Lady Braverton sighed again. “Very blasted well. What can I do? And don’t say ‘nothing.’ Although I haven’t been trained to fight, I can be of some assistance in this matter. I have influence in several realms and can write you letters of introduction. Besides, if you’re right, I want Brago to pay dearly for what he’s done.”
“The only help you can provide is not telling anybody my father is dead.”
“Why? Element of surprise?”
“Something like that. Plus, I don’t want to give the bastard any satisfaction.”
Lady Braverton thought for a moment. “I can delay word from getting out for a few days, but not forever.”
“The longer the better.”
Lady Braverton drew her black shawl around her shoulders and motioned for Natalie to walk with her through the dreary gardens. “I’m afraid this leads us to a rather delicate subject.” She took Natalie’s arm in hers. “I don’t have any claims on you, Natalie. I’ll do anything I can to help you, but you don’t owe me any favors. However, I was hoping you’d allow me to make a few…arrangements.”
“Arrangements, my lady?”
Lady Braverton lifted her tear-stained face toward a grove of maple trees covering a distant hillside, their remaining leaves a hundred shades of yellow and crimson. They fluttered in the autumn breeze. “Ed and I used to walk in those woods. There’s a secluded clearing with a creek and soft grass and colorful crocuses that grow in the spring. He and I used to—well, I suppose you know what we did there.”
Natalie thought she understood what Lady Braverton was attempting to ask.
“It sounds like a lovely place to lay him to rest.”
“Oh, thank you!” Lady Braverton embraced Natalie. “Thank you so much.”
“I’m happy somebody who loved him will be watching over his, his…” Natalie couldn’t bring herself to say “grave.”
They stood, holding each other and weeping. Lady Braverton pulled away first.
“We’ve certainly been through a lot together in a brief period, haven’t we?” she said, drying her tears.
Natalie sniffled. “Yes, we have, my lady.”
“Please, call me Bea. As far as I’m concerned, we’re family.” Then she added, “Ed would want me to take care of you as best as I could.”
“Thank you, Bea. I appreciate everything you’ve done.”
“If you must go, will you do something for me?”
Lady Braverton watched a servant head to the stables. Another was returning from the brick gatehouse up the road from the manor. Neither was close enough to overhear.
“If you really believe Ed’s salve was poisoned, take it with you. I want Brago to suffer as badly as Ed did.”
• • •
Natalie rode to Winros Minor alone. Lady Braverton offered to send one of her servants with her, but Natalie had no desire to be with a stranger. She didn’t want to make pleasant conversation. She didn’t want to have to acknowledge somebody else’s presence. The only thing she wanted was to kill Brago.
She went to her shop first. Everything was as it had been when she left. The bronze coins remained jammed in the windowpanes. None of her possessions had been touched. Everything was normal. This led to Natalie’s first tough decision.
Brago undoubtedly would’ve heard she had ridden off with Reg and Sir Rowan. He’d assume they’d raced to find Sir Edris. Would he be expecting her to return so soon? And if not, could she work that to her benefit? Perhaps, if Natalie went about her day as though nothing was wrong, Brago might wonder how his plan to poison Sir Edris had failed. He might come out of hiding to confront her or to gain news regarding Sir Edris’s condition.
But Natalie knew she couldn’t go about her day as though nothing had happened. Something had happened. Sir Edris was dead, and she was going to hunt down and butcher his murderer. She couldn’t pretend to be a storekeeper ever again. That part of her life was over.
How was she going to do this?
She needed to find Brago. Then she needed to catch him unaware. Then she needed to slit his throat.
Find the bastard…
He was most likely at The Prairie Wind—the inn Natalie had seen Magnus entering.
How could she determine which room?
Standing alone in the dark stillness of her shop, Natalie suddenly felt vulnerable. Brago probably had his informants watching the place. He could be on his way. Her hands instinctively went to the knives hidden in the folds of her dress.
That was something else to decide. Natalie needed every edge she could get, and drawing a weapon from her belt would be a lot faster than having to reach into a deep pocket. The problem was, an armed woman of social standing would attract a lot of unwanted attention. She needed to blend in.
Natalie pondered her profile in a mirror. Gone were the days when she could pretend to be a boy. She was a woman now, and baggy clothes were not going to hide that. Nevertheless, there might be ways to wear a weapon without raising suspicion.
She unbraided her hair and shook free the curls. That didn’t work. She still looked too wealthy.
Taking scissors, Natalie trimmed her bangs, making sure they were noticeably uneven.
She then cut her hair above her shoulders, the long auburn locks falling to the floor.
Good. A functional haircut for a lower class farm girl.
She examined her clothes. They were filthy from the ride, but they were new and of high quality. Nobody would look at them and think she was poor. She needed something else.
You’re wasting time…
Rummaging quickly through a chest, Natalie found some old clothes that might work. She put them on and strapped a short sword to her belt.
Damn. She stuck out like a sore thumb.
You’re alone in the place Brago would expect you to be…
Natalie took off the short sword and stashed it in a wicker basket in which a peasant girl might carry food. She looked in the mirror.
She’d have to make do.
Leaving her shop, Natalie drew her hood over her face—not so far it appeared like she was hiding, but far enough so it blocked her profile. Brago would have to be right in front of her to see who she was, and she planned on seeing him first.
Heading toward The Prairie Wind, Natalie came across a street vendor selling wildflowers. She bought enough to fill her basket, hiding the short sword. Then she continued along Winros Minor’s primary east-west thoroughfare, the constant wind flapping her patched and faded cloak, threatening to reveal the two knives she’d tucked into her belt.
There were far more people in the streets than normal; most were deep in conversation as they headed toward the town square. Natalie followed them, asking the occasional passersby if they wanted to buy some flowers, all the while, keeping her eyes peeled for anybody resembling Brago’s size and build.
Turning a corner, she came within sight of The Prairie Wind. Sure enough, Magnus was sitting on the front porch, looking frightened.
“Flowers, sir?” Nat
The couple ignored her.
Natalie went about the crowd, showing her basket of purple coneflowers and bluebonnets to everybody jostling past. She stopped on the corner, her back to Magnus, and listened.
“Crazy,” Magnus muttered to himself. “He’s crazy. He has to be. Nobody could sew themselves up like that. Nobody.”
“Flowers, sir?” Natalie called to an older gentleman in a green cloak. He shook his head and continued to the town square.
After a pause, Magnus grumbled again. “A horse. That’s the key. But how? He’ll…he’ll know. He’ll know straight away. Then he’d track me down and, and…”
Natalie could hear the growing panic in his voice.
She surveyed the busy street. Brago was nowhere in sight. Then again, she didn’t expect him to be ambling about. She took a few steps backwards so that she was directly in front of Magnus.
“Sooner or later,” he moaned to himself. “Sooner or later…” He sounded as though he were about to cry. “A horse. That’s the key. I have to get a horse.”
“I have a horse,” Natalie told him quietly.
“What?” Magnus said. “I’m, I’m sorry. Were you talking to me?”
Natalie faced him, watching his reaction. “I have a horse.”
At first, Magnus appeared confused, then recognition gradually dawned on him.
“Natalie?” He smiled. “It’s great to—” Then terror flooded his expression. “Oh great gods!” He shot a panicked glance at the passing crowds. “Sir Edris isn’t with you, is he? I have to sit here and look for him—him and other knights and people who don’t belong! And, oh, Sir Edris’s daughter. I have to look for her, too. And I don’t even know who she is!”
Natalie drew closer, keeping an eye on The Prairie Wind’s windows. “I’m his daughter, Magnus.”
“You? He’s your father? The Sir Edris?” He lowered his voice again. “Look, you two have to get out of here. Seriously. You’re in danger!”
From a pocket, she pulled the pouch containing the remnants of Sir Edris’s salve. She showed it to Magnus.
He blushed, then gave a sheepish grin. “Was he pissed?”
He doesn’t know about the poison. Maybe he wasn’t involved with Sir Edris’s death after all.
“Can we talk, Magnus?”
“What? No! I’m trying to tell you. You’ve gotta get out of here! This guy I’m working for, he’s insane! Actually insane! He wants me to tell him when you and your father come to town. He’ll slaughter me if I don’t!”
“Where is he, Magnus? Where’s your employer?”
An elderly lady from the upper classes came up to them, making Natalie jump.
“How much for the flowers?” she asked.
“A bronze,” Natalie said cheerfully.
The lady handed her a bronze piece and took a bundle of bluebonnets. When she had gone, Magnus whispered, “Run! Get out of town as fast as you can!”
“Magnus…do you remember me telling you about the man who cut me?” Natalie tapped the top of her left breast. “Remember?”
“He’s the man you’re working for.”
Magnus’s face drained of all color. He pointed to her chest, his mouth moving. Eventually he managed to say, “Him?”
“Where is he, Magnus? I know he’s here somewhere.”
Magnus turned in a circle, holding his head. “Oh, shit! Oh, shit! You’re not lying about this, are you? This isn’t a joke, is it? To get back at me for the stinky slime?”
“You know the answers to those questions, Magnus,” Natalie said calmly. “Where is he?”
Magnus shouted, “I don’t know! Honest! He…he left five minutes ago. He’s not here.”
“Okay. Calm down. I believe you. Where’d he go?”
Magnus took several deep breaths. “I don’t know! He said he had an errand and went that way.” He extended a shaking hand toward the street, where long lines of people were walking. “He has a room on the second floor. Two rooms, actually! But he doesn’t use one. He only uses the one I rented. He’s been acting very strange. Very strange! He’s been drinking and nervous and, and, and then he was all bloody! And limping! I don’t know, but I think he’s…”
“He’s a monster.”
“Yes!” Magnus hissed. “By the gods, if he sees me talking to you, he’ll kill us both! I’m not kidding. He will gut us like pigs. He said so! Go. Get out of here!”
“Not yet. Tell me where he might be. Do you have any idea? Any idea at all?”
“I don’t know! The town square? Everybody is going there. There’s supposed to be a royal announcement or something. Something big is happening. War or something? I don’t know. Everybody’s heading there. He might be there too!”
“Okay. Thank you, Magnus. Magnus, look at me.” Magnus’s frightened eyes met Natalie’s. “I think you should leave town.”
“How? He got rid of our horses, and he says he knows all the horse dealers! They’ll tell him, and then he’ll hunt me down and—!”
“Magnus, you can’t stay here. He’s going to take one look at you and know immediately you’ve done something wrong. And if he thinks you’re working for me or Sir Edris…”
Magnus grew even paler. “Oh, shit!”
Natalie thrust a fistful of gold coins into Magnus’s hands. “Go buy a horse.”
“But they’ll tell him!”
“I’ll deal with Brago. Go buy a horse. Something nondescript.”
“Something that can’t be described easily. Get a horse that looks like every other horse, like a red bay.”
Holding the coins in his cupped hands, Magnus stuttered. “R-r-red bay?”
She led him to the street. “Leave your stuff here and go. Ride north to Upper Angle. You’ll be safe there. And Magnus…I’m so sorry I got you involved in this.”
Magnus raced along the crowded streets, pushing through the mass of people headed the opposite direction. He dropped several gold coins as he ran, but he was too afraid to pick them up. For all he knew, Lord Fairhill was right behind him.
Heart pounding, he sprinted into the first stable he came across.
“Do you have a nondescript horse for sale?” he blurted out to a stable owner.
The stable owner looked at him like he was an imbecile. “A what?”
“A horse,” Magnus said, trying to catch his breath. “A horse that’ll, that’ll blend in?”
“Blend in with what?”
“Never mind! Just…just give me a horse. Give me the fastest one you have!”
The stable owner showed him a large brown mare with splotches of white on her hind legs. “We have this—”
“I’ll take it!” Magnus threw his fistful of coins at him. “And all the stuff on her. The, the gear and stuff. I’ll take that too! Right now.” He scrambled into the saddle and aimed the horse toward the still open stable door.
The stable owner counted the money, his satisfaction growing with each gold coin. “Okay, young man. She’s all—”
Magnus snapped the reins. “Move!”
“Hey!” The stable owner shouted, springing out of the way, gold coins flying everywhere.
Magnus rode onto the street and turned to the north gate. Hundreds of people were headed to the town square. He’d never escape that way. Wrenching the reins to one side, he got the horse facing the south gate. That way was less congested.
He kicked his heels into the horse’s ribs with all of his might. It shot forward, snorting. Several people shouted for him to slow down—but he didn’t dare. With the wind screaming in his ears, he could’ve sworn he heard Lord Fairhill calling for him.
Natalie roamed the edges of the massive crowd packing Winros Minor’s town square, her wicker basket hanging from the crook of her left arm,
A newcomer ran up. “What’s going on?” he asked somebody standing in front of Natalie.
“King Lionel is dead,” his friend replied, standing on tiptoe, trying to see over the crowd.
“Is that good or bad?”
The friend shrugged. “I don’t know, but it doesn’t sound good.”
A gentleman in a long black coat shushed them.
“Seemingly,” the friend went on in a whisper, “Lionel didn’t have an heir, so all of his relations are competing for the crown. The one who wins the most quests becomes king. Lord Haakon was saying how none of our adventurers can get involved.”
Following his friend’s example, the newcomer stood on tiptoe, attempting to see over the wall of taller men. “So what’s he talking about now?”
“As much as I can figure out, he’s telling us what the quests are.”
“What? The ones we aren’t supposed to be involved with?” The newcomer shook his head. “Mark my words, our adventurers are going to get involved, and there’ll be a war. It’s as plain as the nose on my face.”
A husky man in torn overalls spun toward him. “And I’m going to punch that nose if you two don’t shut up! I’m trying to hear!”
Others around them grunted their agreement.
“Nothing to hear back here anyways,” the newcomer said. “Let’s go to The Goblin’s Head. Brucie will know what’s happening.”
“Good idea. Best get a table before they’re all taken.”
The two men headed up a side street, talking about how many men would die in a war with Eryn Mas, as Natalie eased her way to the left. Weaving her way along the far edge of the mass of bodies, she sized everybody up as she passed. Many people were Brago’s height. He wasn’t tall, nor was he particularly broad; but he held himself with a regal bearing not many commoners could muster.