The Dead Shall Live – Sample Chapters
To Annie Talbot who helped me get my magic back.
And to Diane Tarbuck without whom this book would not exist.
So when the last and dreadful hour
This crumbling pageant shall devour,
The trumpet shall be heard on high,
The dead shall live, the living die,
And music shall untune the sky.
—John Dryden, 1687
“In Ireland, ’tis said—
Never trust a Fury.”
—an adage of the Magi
Persephone’s Youghal, Ireland – October, 1811
Lark’s voice rose, as clear and pure as the bird for which she’d been named. “An army will be moving to and fro, Blood will rule the land, He will be met with rejoicing and will bring the time of golden peace to all.”
She dared address this …this Fireborn captive with words of the blood-writ prophecy, the exact words he had carried next to his heart since the goddess had given them to him a half a lifetime ago?
“You told her,” Persephone accused.
But in that moment, every muscle screaming with the aches of battle, Vespasian could speak only one word. “Never.”
Lark spread her arms, and tears spilled down her cheeks as she dropped to her knees and cried out, “Behold the day of rejoicing. Behold the True King!”
And with those new words, the world turned upside down.
The dawn sky above was painted in gold and pink and red. A comet appearing as the head of a dragon, trailing a tail of fire, framed the prisoner’s head. Beyond the rocky edge of the hilltop plateau spread a vast plain of destruction from the night before. But all any of the Earthborn rebels saw was the comet blazing in the sky behind the stranger’s head, bestowing upon him a halo of flame, for all the world as though the dragon graced him with its benediction.
Gracing him with an illusion—for yes, Vespasian thought, it had to be an illusion, despite Lark’s proclaiming—the illusion of prophecy fulfilled.
For that comet spoke of ancient tales, of Uther taking the name both he and his son Arthur would hold—Pendragon—because of just such a comet in the sky, streaming flames like the head of a dragon.
Even the standing stones framed him where he stood.
Night, their revered crone, stood transfixed by the sight. Her body pulsed with ancient wisdom, and yet even she slowly dropped to her knees in awe.
And finally, Vespasian’s last hope for sanity in this moment of disaster…
Vespasian turned to see the tears leaking from the corners of Grebe’s ancient eyes. Where were the old man’s sense and sagacity now when they were most needed? Leaking from his brainpan with his tears?
Black rage boiled up in him. He had never doubted Lark’s rare visions. They had always proven to be clear and true.
But this soft son of comfort and privilege? He was the True King? He would unite them and carry them to victory on his shoulders?
One moment, this stranger was being led into their midst, their lone prisoner after the previous night’s massacre of enemies.
And then a single step forward converged with the sight of a comet so bright it ruled the lightening dawn sky. Lark had seen in that halo of dragon’s fire an omen, the answer to their prayers.
The next moment, she proclaimed him their True King.
Around Vespasian, the Earthborn rebels dropped to their knees in joy and relief, believing this—this twaddle. This obscenity. This incredible, inconceivable shite.
Through his rage-numbed haze, Vespasian felt Persephone’s fingers biting into his biceps like blacksmith’s tongs. He snapped his head around to see her expression and remembered. Like an ember flung into his face, a memory hit him, seized with mind magic from Persephone’s young London companion: a vision of this scrawny girl he’d wed in a moment’s desperation in this very man’s embrace.
They’d married to save her from a death sentence. But hadn’t their marriage also joined their Dark magic? Hadn’t it brought her into what had been his own private prophecy to fulfil?
He needed her as much as she needed him.
He’d resented her as much as she’d despised him.
They were joined by powers they did not understand and to which they were both enslaved.
She alone remained unbowed with him before this so-called king.
She stood in her dirty man’s clothing, stinking of all they had seen and done in the battle the night before. She stood riveted, her face ashen, a bite on her hand he didn’t remember her getting, a split lip he remembered too well. Her emotions warred oh-so-visibly on her narrow face. By the gods, even her hair had gone to war, crackling with electricity and lifting from her back and shoulders in feathery strands.
But, even though Persephone’s fingers bit into his arm, it was the prisoner who claimed her attention. Her eyes were locked with his in wordless emotion.
Vespasian’s raging blood turned cold in his veins.
He peeled her fingers from him with fastidious care and turned his attention to the usurper. He gloried that at last he was no longer held captive by rage and had a target to turn it on. “Forgive us for not having a crown prepared, your majesty.”
But his words did not pierce the prisoner’s thick skull any more than Lark’s proclamation seemed to have done. “My Persephone,” the man said softly, his face twisted with pain. “My dear, sweet girl!” He lifted a manacled arm, reaching for her in appeal.
“Sweet?” Vespasian scoffed. “This one, sweet?”
She bristled beside him.
“Are you harmed?” the fool asked urgently, oblivious to the declaration of his kingship that doomed them all, so fixated was he on his dear, sweet girl’s well-being.
“I would suggest your Persephone introduce you to your subjects, your majesty, except I am doubting you know her at all, if you think her such a delicate flower.” Vespasian paused before driving his next point home. “Or did her family keep her so drugged on tisanes during your meetings that you truly think her a sweet, docile weakling?”
Yet to Vespasian’s growing frustration, neither Persephone nor the prisoner reacted to his barbed words; neither spared Vespasian a glance.
Finally, the Fireborn prisoner took a step forward, leaving his halo of dragon’s fire behind him in the sky and turning back into a mere man. He took another step, and another, and then he was running to her, dropping his manacled arms around her shoulders, the chains falling heavy against her thin back. He bent his head low to hers, not in a kiss but in an urgent seeking as he gazed into her eyes. His tangled, dirty russet waves of hair hung limp whilst her hair writhed silver and black and sparked with scarcely controlled reaction.
Vespasian’s wand slid into his hand—dark comfort, dark protection, dark vengeance. He didn’t remember summoning it. But he’d desired it, of course he had, and he raised it elegantly to touch the usurper’s chin as he whispered his command: “Unhand my wife.”
Fierce satisfaction unfurled within him as the Fireborn raised his face and stared dumbly at him. Disbelieving, he slowly released her, dragging his chains back over her head. He took a slow step back.
But Persephone’s slight body, drained of strength so few hours before, after her magic had rained death upon the multitude of their enemies, now surged with new magic; her power almost knocked Vespasian backward as she whirled toward him, her eyes narrowed. She clasped her melted and misshapen silver flute in her hand as if it were still straight and strong, as if she were ready to use it to defend this man against him.
“Wife?” the Fireborn finally repeated, a dumb dog, slow to pick up the thread. “Persephone, what is he saying? Surely you haven’t—” He touched her hand—the hand with the cheap, narrow wedding band, and spun, suddenly arrogant and threatening as he attempted to face Vespasian down. “What have you done to her?”
Vespasian cupped an affectionate hand on her head. To his surprise, her hair twined around his fingers, caressing him with writhing tendrils as his Dark magic called to the Dark magic that lived within her. Vespasian raised his eyes to the other man’s and smirked.
“What has he forced upon you?” the prisoner begged of Persephone.
Wild-eyed, she did not answer, though her body shook.
Vespasian turned his voice to a razor-sharp blade of ice. “His name, my dear… sweet… wife?”
“Robin Fitzwilliam,” she said evenly. And then she raised her voice so that none would miss her next words. “The trusted cousin of our enemy, the Fireborn king.”
And did his Earthborn rebels gasp in horror?
Did they recoil in dismay?
Did they realise the foolishness of their hasty and misplaced acceptance of this unknown stranger?
They did not.
That heavy knowledge and its myriad consequences, none good, burned into Vespasian with sickening wrath. “Take him away,” he snapped.
Tern and Bram rose from their knees yet hesitated to touch their prisoner, curse them both. Vespasian sent them a look calculated to remind them that no True King had been crowned yet.
They recovered their senses. They jerked Fitzwilliam back, ignoring his loss of balance and leaving him to recover or be dragged through the dirt.
But before they could lead him away, a small child broke free of her mother—Vixen’s young Kit of the strawberry curls.
She ran to Fitzwilliam and grabbed his leg, her grimy cheeks smeared with tears. “Don’t leave us!” She looked over her shoulder to Vixen, who had rushed after her in a vain attempt to control her. “Mama, don’t let them take Sir Robin away from us!”
The battered man bent over her, his wide shoulders making the tot seem even tinier than she was. “Go along to your mama, little one,” he said, giving her a gentle smile and stroking her hair. “Such a brave, strong girl you have,” he said to Vixen, as she lifted the child into her arms and pulled her away, but not without a blush and a proud smile.
“If you were with the Fireborn army,” she said, “perhaps you could tell me of my husband?”
“He’s Fireborn?” Fitzwilliam asked, surprised.
“No. He was taken away after—after your men came and attacked us the first time. He has never returned.”
Fitzwilliam’s brow knit as if he were attempting to remember.
“His name is Coal Buckthorn,” Vixen pushed urgently. “Please, sir, if you know anything—”
Fitzwilliam looked aghast, as if remembering something horrible, indeed.
“We can’t keep our True King captive!” a man interrupted.
“We can’t keep him in chains,” another added, more loudly.
Vespasian felt his jaw clench harder. Keeping his face rigidly still, he tightened his free hand into a fist so tight it could have cracked a stone.
But now, at last, their crone stepped forward and relieved Vespasian of some of the burden of being the lone voice of reason. “Now is not the time for such talking.” Night’s gravelly voice brooked no nonsense. “Do as Vespasian said, and take him away. I call a meeting for tonight. Until then, we have much urgent work to do.”
“But—if he’s our king—” a woman said.
Night stilled her with a hard look.
Fitzwilliam left with his captors, his posture erect, as uncaptive-like as any man in chains could ever be, but he cast one more long, fearful look at Persephone, a look filled with confusion, pity, and grief.
But she was no longer looking at him. “No,” Persephone said. “No—he can’t be—he can’t be the True King!” She jerked from under Vespasian’s hand and lunged at Lark. “Why do you speak such lies?”
This drew gasps from many, but Night and Grebe merely watched the exchange with fathomless eyes.
“I speak only what my goddess gives me as truth,” Lark replied stiffly, and looked to Vespasian as if for defence.
“You believe this?” Persephone demanded of Night. And then she whirled again. “And you, my husband? Surely you don’t!” Her voice grew shriller with each question.
Ah yes, he thought brutally, she feels the bite of what might have been, had she held back and waited for this man whose life she had thought to share, had she not sacrificed her future for the greater good. But he refused to feel pity for the girl—the warrior—his wife. So she had her regrets. Didn’t they all?
Around them was much rustling as people slowly regained their feet, their fear palpable. They hadn’t trusted Persephone before her explosive powers had rained death and fire down upon their enemies in the horrifying battle the night before.
Now they feared her even more than they distrusted her.
With a broken cry, she took off running past the standing stones that had served as sentinel for an eon and more, away from the promontory where they all stood, down the narrow, rocky path toward the thick wood.
Night watched Persephone disappear into the trees, then shot Vespasian a warning look.
As if he needed direction.
He replaced his wand with an idle movement that—he hoped—belied the tension stretching him to the snapping point, and strode after her.
A babe’s cry broke whatever spell had held them all rapt. Normalcy returned, as Night resumed her place of authority, speaking to the women of food and to the men of fire, and bringing order back to chaos. Parents gathered children and fell in to follow Vespasian on the only trail back to their village to resume life in one form or another but never again as it had been before the enemy had pierced their wards and discovered their secrets.
He broke away from the path, even though the villagers trudged on. He followed the ragged trail of Persephone’s magic through oak and bracken and fern. She hadn’t bothered to hide her progress in any way, either because she was beyond thinking—which he highly doubted—or beyond caring, which seemed typical as well as likely.
She had cut through the heavy growth of forest and taken a direct route into the sacred grove.
This did not bode well.
Vespasian picked up his pace, seething with frustration that, yet again, he was scrambling after her and picking up the pieces of whatever destruction she heedlessly wrought.
A fearsome crack of rock against rock rebounded. He looked up, expecting to see a boulder crashing from the peak overhead, and took off at a full run.
But as he entered the grove to find a choking of dust and pebbles pelting down, he found no tumbling boulders and rocks, no danger from above.
The danger was much closer.
As close as the woman—his wife—before him, in the act of flinging a curse from her fingertips into the granite boulder she had already cracked in two like an egg, now gaping open as if for a hatchling to emerge.
Her second curse hit it with another loud crash, and the rock burst as if by explosives. Vespasian dropped to the ground, covering his face from flying debris that clearly dared not fall on the perpetrator, as she stood untouched in the calm, shielded centre of the maelstrom.
Her face twisted in pain, fingers curled and stiff like those of an ancient woman, she flung yet another curse.
Rutting hell! He dove through the shower of rubble and flung himself into the quiet centre beside her, cuts on his face stinging from sweat and blood. He felt a goose egg swelling above his left eye.
Her granite target was in small pieces now but had plenty of bulk to provide a release for her expulsion of—of what emotion? Loss? Angst? Puerile lovelorn agony?
“I am not out of control,” she said through gritted teeth, though her breath came in short gusts, and her hands trembled like aspen. She whirled to face him, daring him to claim otherwise.
He forced his voice to go silken, his posture bored. “I would never dream of saying you were.”
“This is a disaster!” she cried, clutching her middle and rocking forward and back on her feet, forward and back.
“Of course it’s wrong, my dear sweet girl,” he said, repeating Fitzwilliam’s words with mocking tones.
“Don’t call me that!”
“Or next you shall bring down the sky itself down upon my head? You, whose magical stores were all but exhausted, yet find it sensible to further exhaust them? As for this disaster—we have a True King. What possible disaster could there be in that?”
The shower of rock and pebbles had ceased, yet she made no move to put distance between them. Instead, she stared up at him, her eyes wide like a panicked animal. “You have to ask?”
She clutched her hands tightly in front of her, and he sensed the pain she tried to hide from him. Again, he noted her split lip and the wound on her hand. He would tell someone to heal her. For now, he leaned back against remaining slab of boulder with a negligent shrug. “You pine after the throne that would have been yours, had you only waited for your beloved?”
Her hand sliced across his cheek with a crack that snapped his head back.
He jerked forward. “You dare—”
“You dare! You think this is about a throne?” She whirled and sent another curse flying. This time, the boulder shattered into glistening splinters, embedding themselves in trees, soil, and everything in reach except—thank the merciful gods and goddesses—their own flesh.
“My thanks for including me in your ward, this time. So, if not a crown, it is the loss of the man himself that pierces you.”
“What are you?” she spat. “A lovelorn stripling whose pride is burning because you think the wife for whom you have no affection has affection for another?”
She swayed. Despite his stinging pride, he found himself readying a spell to cushion her fall.
But she caught herself on the only intact boulder within her reach. She hissed, “You are an ass, a fool, Vespasian Wyllt!” Her laughter stung him. “I never took you for such a dullard, to think such things mattered to me! And worse—that you consider my word is so inconstant, that the vows I swore meant nothing?” She shoved away from the rock and staggered away from him, her hair crackling around her head as if even now, when she could barely walk a straight line, she had not spent enough magical power for it to rest.
“Are you blind?” she continued wildly. “If Lark’s vision is true—if Robin—Robin, who is too good, too naive to rule, much less lead an army—if she is right, and he is the True King—” She broke off on a choked sob. “Not only is he too weak to ever challenge Sebastian—he would never dream of doing so. He doesn’t even recognise his evil. We will fail!”
Deep within, he wanted to drop to the ground and laugh until tears flowed, laugh the way he had seen others laugh but he never had. The feeling was so absurd and unexpected that he felt no compunction about shoving it aside and instead asked her a gentle, lethal question. “You mean, you have no faith in the prophecy that has marked us, lo these many years?”
“How can I, if this be prophecy?”
“My dear Mrs Wyllt,” he said, still gentle, still lethal. “What an exalted opinion of yourself you must have, if you think your approval of a prophecy matters to any but yourself.”
“I care not what your issues with the Fireborn Fitzwilliam are, though he has been identified as king—” He made no attempt to soften his sneer. “—without your approval.”
Her cheeks flamed.
“But need I point out to you the delicate situation he presents?” He waited. As he’d suspected it would, comprehension finally dawned.
She inhaled deeply. “The people believe it and welcome him.”
“To their unhappiness, indeed they do.”
“And we mustn’t do anything to pierce that belief.”
He didn’t know when it had happened, but her hair had settled and was now as sleek and smooth as that of a well-groomed hound. “And now,” he said, “you know how it feels to see the future of a people and the mission of one’s entire life bestowed on someone totally inadequate to the challenge.” This time, he let the laughter come. Instead of cleansing, it tasted bitter. “Now you even know how it feels to discover that the promised tool in your possession is an insolent, arrogant, ignorant chit who thinks she is above you and all you are sworn to protect.”
Her face drained of colour as she stared at him.
“Yes,” he said. “I believe you do.”
She turned, avoided his eyes, clutching herself even more tightly. Her words so weak, he found himself leaning in the better to hear, she whispered, “Did you hear her?”
“The goddess… the things she said.”
The words brought ice to his veins, spoken by this girl who would as soon scorn the goddess as obey.
“You didn’t hear, then.”
“When? What precisely did she say?”
She breathed a sigh of sheer relief that worried him. “Words meant for me, only me. Nothing that affects our war, or you. Nothing you need worry about.”
The last thread of his patience was gone. “What did she say?”
Her cheeks burned in her pale face, but in a voice flat and dull, she recited, “I lay this destiny upon you, woman, that by choosing honour over love, you will find one and not the other, and you shall know misery, and it will be of your own choosing.”
“Is that all?” He found it hard to breathe, waiting for the death knell of everything they fought for.
“Is that not enough?”
She averted her eyes, but there was no denying she was angry that he demanded this of her. “I lay this destiny upon you, daughter, that the True King will come, and he who had most reason to welcome him will revile him, and you will choose again whom you must follow.”
Choose again… after all of this, she might turn against them, still? She would choose again. Vespasian clenched his jaw, but her eyes were so carefully averted, he continued his silence, waiting, knowing there would be more. Were he to demand it, the crack of his voice might reveal how deeply he dreaded the revelation.
Finally, she turned her eyes to him, and they were dark and hollow in her face. Yet her voice was strong as she hurled at him the last words. “I lay this destiny upon you, child, that by your own choice, you will never know love.”
He studied her, not bothering to hide his relief. “Well, then.”
“Well, then,” she repeated bitterly. “I told you it had nothing to do with you.”
There was nothing else to be addressed in this moment, and he’d left the people too long to their own devices. Hells, they might even decide to free Fitzwilliam and anoint him and crown him and follow him into some sort of gods-be-damned Fireborn folly.
“If you’re quite finished with this exhibition, I must return to the village.”
She did not respond. Instead, she stared at his chest—at the open shirt—and the pouch that hung there, nestled against his skin. In her eyes was a hunger, one he recognised and shared.
He drew his shirt closed, tied it, barely restrained himself from clutching that pouch and the blood-writ prophecy in an effort to stop its slow throb. A throb of recognition that she was near, that the prophecy still awaited their touch…
“What would you have me do to assist?”
“Don’t be daft. Now is not the time, and this is not the place.”
She tossed her hair and shot him a disbelieving glance. “You thought me speaking of the prophecy? Then you are the one who is daft.” Then, she added in an almost helpful tone, “I was speaking of the village. How can I assist you?”
Her sudden change of attitude, this new effort to appease, did nothing to improve his outlook. So nonchalant, those words, but seeing the way she clutched the boulder beneath her hand, he remembered her all-too-slender body pressed against him as he supported her, as he provided the bone and sinew and strength she lacked while a death magic he’d never seen the likes of, with a power he’d never imagined, surged through her and into the night sky to fall upon the army brought there to destroy them.
The memory would knock the ground from beneath his feet, if he let it.
He must keep her busy and out of sight of those who eyed her with hatred and terror. “Simply remember the fine edge of the blade we walk, how cleanly and yet deeply it will slice if we make a false move.”
“For now, we must let them believe.” She took several steps back toward the village, then stopped to look back at him. “I was not out of control.”
As prickly as ever, to his relief. “I never said you were.”
“But you thought so.”
He didn’t bother correcting her.
Robin’s head spun.
Persephone. Married. But it had been mere days since she’d been in his arms! Hours since his soul had rejoiced at the sight of her, strong, brilliant, shining, even in those unseemly trousers.
He had tried to turn back, run back—just to catch another glimpse of her before they led him away, but the small, wiry rebel they’d called Tern had shoved him between the shoulder blades to keep him moving.
She couldn’t be married to that villain, simply couldn’t be.
And yet the smug gleam in Vespasian Wyllt’s eye, the thrust of his chin as she’d stood beside him, her hand on his arm—his brave, brave girl—spoke a truth he found it impossible to deny or doubt.
Then all thoughts of her had fled, as once again he’d felt the hard shove between his shoulder blades, and they’d broken out of the deep, emerald wood and into a village.
Oh, my goddess, no. Please, no. I beg of you. No.
He had tried to stop, but a sharp sting of magic blistered his back, kept him moving one step after another, closer and closer until finally it loomed in front of him, the round daub hut with a dark stain still on it. That dark stain of child’s blood could only still exist to build a thirst for vengeance and drive the rebels deeper into this bloody war.
And then instead of the stain, he saw the child in its mother’s arms, bleeding, dead, that beautiful child that even before he’d known, he should have known. It was so clearly a Fury child. Was it only knowledge that painted the child in his memory with the glossy black hair and porcelain skin of the Fury family? Not that it mattered. The horror still coursed through him that a child—any innocent child—had died in front of its own home, in what should be the comfort and safety of its mother’s arms.
Someone—he still knew not who—had lied about the child’s death in order to bring Persephone back here into the arms of the enemy, telling her it had been intentional, that Sebastian, their noble king, had ordered the slaughter of an innocent…
His vision blurred, and his eyes stung, and then he was shoved past the dark stain and into the very same hut, now his gaol. He was left alone with nothing but his memories and his questions and his guilt.
Behind his closed eyes he saw a battlefield.
Everything reeked of death and killing, even though it was only by daylight that the true extent became clear to him. The old man had led them, and Robin had followed behind with a boy named Capercaillie on his back and the small Kit in his arms. As dawn went from gentle grey to the softest glow of yellow, the path had circled the mountain, and a view of the plain opened up below him.
Grebe had stopped cold in his tracks and then hastily turned to guide the children into the trees. Many—most, Robin prayed—had gone without question and without noticing the view beneath them. Some had seen and had hastily run after Grebe, who had led them unerringly through the trees to a narrower path higher on the mountain. Robin caught occasional glimpses of the battlefield through the branches after that and couldn’t stop himself from looking for them, despite the sick rising in his throat as the full impact hit him.
The plain smouldered and stank of death. There was no life there, none at all. His mind raced as he attempted to make sense of what he saw—sometimes larger mounds, usually smoke rising as if from many small fires. As if—as if each man, living, breathing, greedy for battle, had burned to a crisp.
What horror could have happened? What evil? What twisted kind of power had Vespasian Wyllt created, to fell an army?
And what of Persephone?
What Darkness had overtaken her to make her loyal to such a cause, such a vile man?
Physically she seemed sound enough. But there was more than a body to protect. Was she unharmed in her spirit and her soul? Had Wyltt—Robin had tried to deny the possibility but once Sebastian awakened him to it, he couldn’t—had the monster harnessed her power?
And now came the new and unexpected and horrifying knowledge that it could be worse, even worse than anything of which he’d dreamed.
The monster had taken her to be his wife.
With Vespasian following, Persephone entered the village. She braced herself, yet she still flinched under the reactions of all who froze upon her arrival. Some watched her through slitted eyes, their resentment clear. Others quickly jerked their heads back to what they were doing, their fear equally obvious.
She propped herself against the nearest oak, her arms folded, hoping none saw the tremble of her body and allowed Vespasian to go ahead of her.
“Clary, Clover!” he said sharply.
Clary, the girl Persephone had first met as messenger at the London modiste and then as Earthborn rebel, strolled forward. But the girl who joined her looked nothing like her. Where Clary’s hair was frizzy and mousy, Clover’s was mahogany curls. Clary was plump and short. Clover was sturdy, in height like a moderately tall man. Never had Persephone seen two siblings so different, if siblings truly they were.
Vespasian pointed at the overlook, high above the village. “Take the lookout until mid-afternoon, when I send someone to relieve you.” The two women exchanged tense glances as he scanned the area and found a young boy standing alone. “Caper, go with them as messenger.”
“Do you expect an attack so soon?” The question came from a shepherd, his crook in his tight fist.
Vespasian flicked a hand negligently. “The self-proclaimed King of the Magi is running back home to lick his wounds. Had he a standing army waiting, there is no way he could have them here in less than a week.”
Many shoulders slumped with relief, and Persephone admitted her own heart felt momentarily lighter.
“However.” The word cracked the silence almost as a rebuke. “For us to remove our stores and our households would take thrice that length of time. We would still be on the road without having arrived at any destination. We must leave, but we do not dare assume we have even a week. Nor will we be able to remove everything. We must act swiftly, immediately, and—” He cast a glare in all directions. “—without question.”
The women and boy took off at a trot for the path that led up the wooded path to the peak of the mountain.
From that point forward, his posturing over, Vespasian seemed to give orders as quickly as the people came to him. To Grebe, Night, and Lysander, he gave instructions to use the stars, omens, and figures to calculate how long they dared take to make their escape before the king could return with a new attack.
He told a woman Persephone had seen cooking earlier to leave others with the day’s food preparation. He wanted her to figure their food stores for at least a month, and the minimum wagon space they would need to transport it.
He sent Tiger to take a group hunting for game to eat immediately, not knowing how long they would be traveling and unable to take the time to provide fresh meat for sustenance. Tiger nodded curtly and took off at a lope to snatch up a bow and quiver of arrows, his white-blond hair streaming behind him. With a cursory gesture, he summoned several others to join him.
Though his commands might have been met with surly cooperation if not open resistance before, his actions leading up to and during the battle had erased such problems for now. Whatever his faults, none amongst the Earthborn could marshal men and women with such efficiency and command as Vespasian Wyllt had done.
What has he forced upon you? Robin had asked. She knew she had to face him with the truth. That she had chosen Vespasian over Robin, not once but twice. And would again, if forced to.
Even if it tore her heart asunder to do so.
The world took a half-spin, and she closed her eyes against it.
“Am I disturbing your rest, Wife?”
Her eyes popped open with a sting of energy at that single word. Vespasian watched her expectantly, as did those rebels still awaiting their orders. A few even sniggered. “Is this how you address me?” she snapped. “I have a name.”
“Which I used twice without effect.” One of his black eyebrows arched, and he managed to look as bored and lethal as usual, though how he managed both with a single expression, she had yet to determine.
“My apologies,” she said, equally bored. She yawned extravagantly. “I was resting.”
“I suggested you pack the books for transport.”
Her spirits lifted. “Of course. I would be pleased to do so. Do they go in boxes of straw?”
“No.” The corner of his mouth gave a smug twist. “It’s a puzzle. I’m certain someone of your intellect can easily solve it.” He turned his attention to a plump little girl standing before him, clearly hoping for a task. “Show Bertrand where to store the potatoes.”
At that, Persephone realised he was finished with her, leaving her with a task not likely to be easily solved at all. She walked through the village, averting her eyes from the bloodstained wall of the hut where she’d slept with Lysander and his family during her abduction so many months ago—the hut that had remained an empty reminder since.
She couldn’t put it out of her head. The blood was Otter’s, sweet Otter’s, the child who had so beguiled her and who had fallen, a wicked sacrifice to the king’s evil plans.
She was almost past when she saw Bram slouched outside the doorway, strangely alert. He met her curious gaze with belligerence. Only then did she look past him and into the dark interior and see Robin—a glimpse of a bowed head of tangled hair, slumped shoulders, a man radiating despair.
She glanced back at Bram, raising her chin and defying his belligerence. Finally, he glanced away.
Whatever pangs of guilt she suffered over Robin Fitzwilliam, she would suffer them in private. She would not tolerate Bram’s disapproval.
She continued to the hut where the books were kept, along with tables, chairs, and supplies for writing. Everything was the way she’d last seen it, with the books on their two well-crafted bookcases. No boxes were present for packing, nor straw, nor sawdust, nor any other cushioning material to protect them.
Handling the books soothed her. Did he know? Did he feel the same?
She rubbed a heavy volume against her cheek. It smelled of dusty herbs, possibly the scents of leaves that had been pressed in it in the past. These scents brought her mother to her in a pang of sorrow and regret.
She was drawn to the beauty of the shelves, their aged oak sides carved with a tracery of leaves surrounding a rampant medieval beast that appeared to be a dog, perhaps the Cŵn Annwn, the dogs of the Wild Hunt? It probably wasn’t a gwyllgi, for those hounds of darkness were built like mastiffs, and this was a lean dog. Perhaps Gelert, the valiant protector of Llywelyn the Great’s infant child, believed to have killed the infant in an inexplicable blood-rage. Oh, how she had wept in her Papa’s arms when he told that tale, when he revealed that, after the Prince’s men had slain the bloodied dog, they discovered the dead beast that had actually attacked the child—the beast that Gelert had killed in that blood-rage as he defended his charge.
Hinges, made of brass polished to a high gleam, linked the bookcases. Brass was well-known as a protective metal, and these protections had been enhanced by magic; she felt them with her fingertips.
She circled the two bookcases, noting the wide wood bases that supported both. They were adorned with more carving, more tracery, this time words rather than images, but so heavily scrolled she had to crouch and finally lie flat on her stomach to get a better view. Even then, she could not decipher the runes or words, so ornate was the carving around them. Were these also meant to protect? She must ask Vespasian about them.
The hard earth floor should fill her nostrils with dust to make her sneeze, should cause her already aching muscles to ache even more, but instead, it offered a moment’s rest. Just a moment… that was all… She allowed her eyes to rest, as well…
Scraping footsteps approaching startled her. She sat up straight, clutching the edge of a shelf, and looked expectantly toward the door. She expected the steps to keep going, but, to her relief, it was young Bertrand, bearing a large jug of water.
“Nobody said you’d fallen!” He loped to her side, water slopping over the lip of the jug.
“Don’t be absurd. I didn’t fall.” Persephone pulled herself up and held out her hand. “Slow, slow! I need it more than the earth does.” She tried to take it from him, but he scowled.
“It’s heavy, miss. As you said, you need to drink it, not spill it.”
He set the jug before her, and she dropped back into the chair.
“The old crone—Night?—told that pretty one—the Seer?”
That pretty one. She was certain that would sting later, when she was able to feel anything beyond numb exhaustion. She did manage to hide that his admiration of the Seer pinched, but only barely. Since she’d brought him here on her flight from London, he’d been viewed with as much suspicion as she had been, not only because he was an outsider but because, like her, he was Fireborn. She’d considered them united in some way, for hadn’t she saved him from probable death by taking him out of the king’s reach? But he’d already shown the need to separate himself from her, and she supposed she couldn’t hold him in disdain for that. He’d been flung into a new life among enemies and an unknown future. She could scarcely blame him that he’d rather not be identified as friend of one the others despised.
Still… That pretty one. She snorted. “Her name is Lark.”
“Yes. The crone told Lark you looked peaked and needed water and wondered why Vespasian hadn’t already doused you good.”
He pulled a small mug from inside his shirt, and she considered hiding her reaction of distaste. “She’s such a nice lady,” he said dreamily. “Even to such as me.”
“Even such as you? Perhaps you find being Fireborn a matter of shame?” Persephone asked snappishly, the pinch growing tighter.
“It doesn’t win me any friends here.” He scowled.
“I may count myself a rebel and fight on the side of honour, but that makes me no less Fireborn, no less the daughter of my family or my forebears. Don’t cast away your heritage so cheaply. And whilst I’m certain you are as clean as anyone can expect a young man to be,” she said pointedly, nodding toward the mug that was still damp with his sweat, “it is considered polite amongst Fireborn and Earthborn alike to do a cleansing spell on a mug that hasn’t been stored properly before offering it for someone else’s use.”
She watched her barb hit its target, watched him perform the spell with a circle of a grubby hand over the rim of the mug, and finally accepted it with as much grace as if it were crystal offered by one of her sister’s servants. Not that Bertrand was a servant. What a puzzling thought. He had been a servant when in her sister’s household working as a stable lad in London.
He’d always been free. The Magi kept no slaves, nor did they impose servitude in any way. There was no difference for him between now and then. Except now, he thought Lark such a nice lady, just because she pretended not to hold it against him that he came from the Fireborn and from London.
So why did he seem more free here than there?
The room threatened to spin again.
She gave up on anything as complicated as complex thought. She drank greedily, hoping that Night’s guess had been correct and that it was water her body so desperately needed. She raised a hand and gently pushed the jug away. “Thank you. I need to let this settle, I think.”
“You shoulda seen him drink.”
“Lark took the big jug to him and refused to leave his side until he should drink it to restore himself.”
A cold knot of resentment formed in her chest. “I am sure he benefitted.”
“Once he drank, he poured it over his head. Said it works best inside and out, both.” He hefted the jug, weighing it. “Still, you shoulda got the big jug. Do you need more to drink, or do you think I should—” He raised it tentatively toward her head.
“At the price of your hand!”
“But you’re in worse shape than he is.”
The thought of water—even frigid water—pouring down her body suddenly seemed beguilingly wonderful. “Give it to me.”
He did, but the bratling’s folded arms and scowl clearly revealed he still thought he would have better done the dunking himself.
She filled her hand and splashed it over her face and throat, and yes, oh yes, the bliss was such that she simply had no choice but to raise the jug and let it spill down her, soaking her clothes and feeling like clean rain on parched earth.
“I’ll go get more,” he said, and without waiting for her to respond, left her wet, refreshed, and alone in the hut, still with a puzzle to solve.
The water had done its job, giving Vespasian strength he hadn’t noticed he was lacking. It had coursed through his veins like a revitalising tonic. It was just what he’d needed, despite his resentment at being interrupted when Lark had pressed it upon him, her pale blue eyes shining with caring and concern. She’d offered more and stayed close until he finally sent her on her way with a sharp word.
The herbals and medical stuffs needed to be sorted with an eagle’s eye and carefully stored, which was why it had always been Rue’s task. Rue, who had probably not touched any of it in weeks, not since the murder of her son. He closed his own eyes briefly, trying to erase the image of young Otter’s bloody, lifeless body. He gave his head a shake. Rue was still in no condition to be trusted with such a delicate task, nor was anyone else as qualified for it. He’d leave that task to Night to assign and most likely oversee.
He looked for anyone standing idle and saw none. He must keep everyone busy, push them beyond endurance after the battle they’d just witnessed.
Again, he remembered Persephone’s trembling body pressing against him with the power of a beast many times her size, until he wondered if even he had the strength to keep her standing. He remembered the torrent of magical death erupting from her body through the flute that served as wand, and the aftermath, oh goddess, the aftermath…
Again, and harder, the shake of his head. If he couldn’t keep his mind away from these things, how could he expect them to? And yet, he must. When he finally released them to rest on this night, he wanted them sucked of energy until they could do nothing but eat, hold their loved ones close, and collapse into dreamless sleep.
And then would come the meeting where he, Night, and Grebe finally combined their memories of the battle, their fears and projections of what the king might do next, and their wits to plot a way forward.
And Persephone. Of course, he’d include her, though the thought made him uneasy. She’d earned her place, but if she proved difficult, he’d—he didn’t know what he’d do. His muscles throbbed with weariness, and his mind found tight focus on the most immediate needs. What must be done now. This moment. It was no surprise that the girl was almost beyond the point of functioning.
He called out sharply to a group of men who had paused to drink before returning to the paddock to care for the cattle. He strode forward. “Have any seen Tiger and his hunters? Do we have meat for tonight?”
Their answers barely registered. Drive them to the edge of their endurance. Prepare for escape. Prevent foolish actions involving usurpers.
The second time she got down to eye level with the carved border on the bottom of the shelves, she set a lit candle on the earthen floor beside her and saw what she hadn’t noticed before. Barely discernible even in the brighter light of the candle, the narrow border seemed etched deeper than the carved area itself.
The delicate but deep-cut tracery border wound and curled in an ornate fashion that couldn’t possibly be anything but enhancement. It might simply be the purpose of an outline to enhance the carving it surrounded. Yet if that were so, why would it be so subtle as to be invisible unless one were on the floor with direct light?
She traced her fingertips around and felt a soft buzz, like the against her skin. Magic. Not quite a masking spell, and nothing ever associated with any Fury, or she would have felt kinship immediately and not had to work so hard to find it.
Earthborn magic, then? Most likely. She looked even closer, until her eyes burned with the tallow smoke. She waved the wisp of candle smoke away, then sent the rest of it following. It was toilsome enough to focus in this awkward position on the floor and with less than optimal light without adding smoke.
And then she spied a tiny wild rose carved in a Celtic style, the centre of which was a smooth round dot of dull metal.
She pressed it.
The drawer popped out so quickly, it almost struck her in the face. Its shape was lovely, not rectangular but ornate, following the scrolling edges of the design. Someone had built this specifically to protect these books.
Only after she sat up, rubbing the throb in her lower back, did she notice that the drawer wasn’t the only thing that had opened. Various rods of different widths and lengths jutted from the edges of one bookcase. The other had corresponding holes to receive the rods, making the two bookcases lock together as a closed box.
And in the drawer, three neat stacks of folded cloths, which must be for wrapping the books. These were the source of the magical buzz she’d felt. The protection they provided would go beyond sawdust or straw and probably did more than just protect the edges from physical damage. She tested one carefully with her fingertip and received no warning sting. The magic obviously wasn’t meant to keep her out, and that raised new questions. Was it not meant to keep any person away? Or was she safe because of her bond with Vespasian, and if so—was it her marital bond connecting her to him personally or a broader bond that recognised her as one of the Earthborn rebels and thus permitted to handle the books.
Or perhaps the books just knew they were safe with her.
She liked that idea.
Closer examination proved the shimmering cloths were separated by size, presumably for the size book they would protect. She wrapped each book in soft cloth, folding it as neatly as she could. She had to refold and rearrange constantly to get the books to fit back into the cases. They didn’t fit when sorted by size, nor by subject, nor by any other logical system she could imagine. They would only fit, she was sure, when she’d deciphered the puzzle-work, a challenge that pleased and soothed her more than she would have anticipated.
The task finished, the books fit perfectly, some horizontal, some vertical, all neatly stored with no extra space to allow them to shift. The two cases were joined by the hinges like an opened book. After she closed them, the rods on one side fitting perfectly into the holes on the other, it looked like a plain wooden box standing on end, no carving visible, nothing to indicate it held anything more important than cooking pots—not worthy of further investigation.
She’d done it, and she wondered if he’d expected her to. Would he be surprised or merely hand her another task? Worse, would he taunt her that it had taken her so long?
So long… Bertrand had promised her more water.
She sat on the floor again, resting her back against the box as she had rested against the rocks. Just as she felt a deep connection to the standing stones, she now felt connected to this box of knowledge and secrets. At her back, it felt strong and safe.
Her head floated somewhere higher than her body, and finally, she was able to let her mind drift. She thought back to the broken bits of rock and boulder she’d left behind in the sacred grove and wondered if the goddess would take offense.
Hadn’t she hoped the goddess would take it as insult; hadn’t she intended it as such?
She should fear tempting the goddess to more vengeance. But Elen already had taken her vengeance; what more could she do?
The goddess Elen’s words echoed in her head, taunts in that haunting, frightening liquid voice.
I lay this destiny upon you, woman, that by choosing honour over love, you will find one and not the other, and you shall know misery, and it will be of your own choosing…
But she had known that all along. How could her choice to leave those she loved, to marry someone other than Robin, to cast aside all dreams and thrust herself into this uncertain cause, do anything else but bring her misery?
She had known and had chosen anyway.
So why did the words of the goddess sting so deeply?
Vespasian dared speak to her of the razor’s edge, how clean and deep it cut, when her heart’s blood was pulsing out before him and he didn’t see.
I lay this destiny upon you, daughter, that the True King will come, and he who had most reason to welcome him, will revile him, and you will choose again whom you must follow.
Choose again? She braced her hands on the dirt floor to steady herself and blinked blearily, attempting to clear her vision.
There was no choosing again. She had chosen a husband, a choice that closed off all others. But the goddess had questioned her, and she had given her answer by taking her place at Vespasian Wyllt’s side.
He who has most reason to welcome him will revile him? Well, of course Vespasian reviled him. Even she, who could never revile her beloved Robin, reviled this choice. How could she not?
I lay this destiny upon you, child, that by your own choice, you will never know love.
Which could only be a cruel taunt, because in no way was it new knowledge. Taunt, and curse, and condemnation.
She sat up suddenly, grabbing a table’s edge to steady herself. Suddenly the floor didn’t feel restful. It felt like grovelling.
Curse Bertrand! Why hadn’t he returned? She needed the water most desperately. Now, even her skin ached with the wanting, feeling dry as parchment and ready to crack, even though it looked no different than normal.
Why should she wait? She had no reason to feel shame. She would go get her own water. Why hadn’t she thought of it sooner? Exasperated, she stood and took a step toward the door, from the dark shadow and into the sunlight that spilled across the dirt floor.
Cold mists clung to her. She shivered and then felt every tendon in her body soften, her bones melt. The ground flew toward her, but she couldn’t brace herself against the fall.
And then the collision with hard earth, the thatched ceiling swirling overhead in a sickening spin.
And then, nothing.
The straggly grey dog bristled at Vespasian’s side and then took off barking and snarling. Vespasian jerked his head up to see Tiger approaching, covered in blood, with Persephone unconscious in his arms.
The dog leapt with a snarl at the man with the white-blond hair. Vespasian blocked it with a well-aimed shot of magic from his fingertip, and the dog fell back, still bristling but no longer attacking. Its eyes stayed fixed on her still body.
Vespasian, too, lunged forward, a burning inside him. What had she done now?
Around the village, people stopped and stared. None moved to help, though most moved closer to hear.
Vespasian slowed to a more controlled stride, then stopped, his heart pounding, the urge to snatch her from the younger man’s arms so violent that only well-honed control—and exhaustion, to be brutally honest with himself—stopped him. Instead, he touched her throat. His pulse leapt at the feel of hers, the magical pulse steady and strong between them. “What happened?” he demanded.
Tiger’s arms were rigid with strain as he shook his head. “I was returning from the hunt and found her like this in the sanctum.”
Bertrand came running, his face a mask of horror and guilt. “I gave her water like I was told and she seemed well enough,” the boy said in a rush. “I meant to take her more but then—” He broke off, blushing. “—Lark requested my aid, and I forgot.”
Vespasian heaved a sigh, for show more than anything else. “I’ll take her.” Finally, he reached for her and felt the weight of her shift into his own arms. He held her close, swallowed hard. “What happened to you?” he asked, now that he could see and smell that the blood on Tiger’s body and shirt was not hers. He smelled only deer, mixed with Tiger’s own sweat and blood.
“I thought it dead and was careless.” Tiger touched his temple and winced. “It got me with its antler. The men are slaughtering it and will bring it in soon.” He looked back at Persephone. “She felt… spent.”
“Of course she is.” And he felt frustration that he hadn’t anticipated it. “How did you know about the water?” he asked the boy.
“Lark told me to take it to her.” The boy lifted a jug that wouldn’t hold even a half-portion of the water Lark had brought him.
“Get more water. Bring it to me near the boulders where she sleeps.” Where he’d spent his nights as well, since her arrival at the village, though he hadn’t thought of it that way before.
Vespasian realised he was clutching her to him like a mother held a babe. She was as limp as a rag doll and weighed little more. And yet, he felt her magic surge to meet his. Her long hair slithered, curling and twining around his arms in a sinuous dance of connection. It wasn’t her magic that was weak, but her body, which was why he hadn’t noticed earlier. The strength of her magic, the vitality of their connection, had deceived him about her physical strength.
Spent was a good word for it. He raised his head to call Rue, then snapped his mouth shut. This time the sigh was real.
This time, this moment, his mind failed him. He had no place to take her other than the boulders and no easy way to give someone else the burden of her care. But if he needed food, she did as well. If he needed rest, her need was even greater. And her body… he had to find a way to strengthen her muscles, even her bones, if such were possible. That was all. If she intended to wield a warrior’s power, she must have a warrior’s body.
For now, he just had to carry her to the blasted boulders.
Persephone shivered so hard that her teeth rattled with the chill, the cold drenching her so thickly it was a few moments before she realised it wasn’t just the chill from within her body that was causing the tremors. Vinegar was dribbling down her face, her throat, her bodice. “No…” she moaned.
“Wake yourself, and I won’t have to,” that surly voice grumbled near her ear.
She was in his arms, Vespasian’s arms, and he was dripping water—with vinegar, this time—on her to bring her back from her swoon. Oh, the horror of it all, that she’d swooned like some missish thing and for no reason that she could recall. One moment walking, the next falling, and now awakening in the most awkward of all places. She struggled to rise, but he held her firm. If he’d allowed her to, she probably would have swooned again. “Stop!” At least she could knock his hand with the dripping cloth away.
To her relief, he dropped the rag into the small copper bowl beside him and reached for a spoon.
“Not gruel.” Her stomach threatened to revolt, and she didn’t blame it. The mere thought curdled within her.
“Cease your complaining,” he snapped and forced the spoon between her teeth, his grip on her jaw so firm she couldn’t resist.
Salty broth filled her mouth, rich with herbs and mutton flavour. “More,” she said, for the first time looking up at his face in time to see him roll his eyes. She wanted to pull free of his grip again, but she wanted the broth more and tolerated his spooning it into her mouth until finally he ceased. Either the bowl was empty or his tolerance for the task exhausted.
“If I let you rise, can you manage, or are you going to collapse again?”
Still surly. Which would give her more satisfaction, springing from his arms and leaving him behind, or staying there, pinning him down with her obviously unwelcome presence? Springing seemed highly unlikely, and pinning was as unwelcome a prospect for her as it would be for him. She tentatively raised her head, then her shoulders. He supported her until she sat up straight. As the earth spun only slightly, she closed her eyes and took deep breaths, hoping to steady it.
His weary sigh shook through her. “Lie back again, and I’ll—”
She pulled loose from his grip and stood, though she braced herself with a hand on his shoulder. The earth was steady beneath her feet, and crisp air filled her lungs. Only the acrid smell of vinegar remained as an annoying reminder of her abominable weakness.
She looked around, startled. “We aren’t in the library hut.”
“You’ve been out for close to half an hour, near as we can tell.”
“We?” She felt a flush creeping up her body, replacing the chill.
“Tiger found you in the doorway to the sanctum—or in your parlance, the library hut—” he said with a vague sneer “—and brought you to me.”
One thought drove away all others. “Who else saw me?”
“Most everyone. If you don’t want people to see you swoon, in future don’t do so.”
“Don’t do so? As if I had any control over that, or would have done so if I had any possible way of avoiding it?” She pulled her hand away from his shoulder. “Whatever was I thinking? I’ll endeavour not to do anything so foolish again.”
She stared at him, startled. “How?” she repeated.
“Yes, how do you propose to avoid collapsing in future?”
“What kind of question is that?”
“You were being obstinate. I see. I thought for a moment you actually had a plan.”
“Oh, but of course.” She walked to the boulder and leaned against it for support. Thankfully, her steps had been steadier than she’d feared. She raised a finger for emphasis. “As of this moment, I plan not to collapse again. There. Are you satisfied?”
He gathered up the copper basin and broth bowl and such in one hand, aiming an insolent glance in her direction. “If that doesn’t prove sufficient for you, say the word, and I’ll assist your efforts and training.” He hoisted himself to his feet. “All you need do is ask.”
So. A plan was to be had, and he clearly knew what it should be. “I haven’t the patience for your childish games. If you know something I need to know, tell me.”
He widened his eyes in amazement. “Tell you? You, who disapprove of shortcuts to learning, who despised me for pouring knowledge into your brothers’ heads, want me to simply tell you something you should be able to work out for yourself?”
“You have to have been the worst tutor in England!”
“Ah, but I never was a tutor. I was hired to fill the position of tutor. I may have even represented myself as a tutor. I may have even provided references.” He flashed a smirk. “I lied.”
She stiffened. “Did you use mind magic on my parents?”
“I would not presume. Your father is a fearsome man.”
“Whatever were they thinking?”
“That their sons needed someone young enough to keep up with them, brilliant enough to stay ahead of them, and insolent enough not to be cowed by Fury attitudes. Finding someone with such a collection of skills along with a willingness to stagnate in the back of beyond with no visits to London proved more difficult to accomplish than usual.”
It made an odd kind of sense, yet she sensed held something back. “And you used mind magic on any legitimate competitors for the position.”
He placed an elegant hand over his heart. “My wife, how you wound me!”
Ah. A confession.
If she stood around much longer clinging to a boulder, she’d collapse again, a humiliation she refused to allow. “I require more sustenance. Actual food rather than that feeble broth.”
He gave a small bow. “Well done. You’re such an excellent student, my dear, you make up for my many deficiencies.”
She barely refrained from making a rude noise at him as he walked away.
He stopped and looked back. “Are you coming? Or do you prefer I carry you?”
She stepped forward, pleased that her exasperation gave her sufficient strength to follow.
Battles, fear, death, and destruction could rain down, but nothing stopped the food from getting prepared and served. At one sniff of the aroma of roasting rabbit and thyme, Persephone felt deep and abiding gratitude for such diligence of purpose and awareness of need.
“Despite your bravado, I advise you to stick to broth,” Vespasian said.
“Your concern is touching. I shall eat meat,” she replied and soon was seated on the ground tinker-style, with a huge bowl in her lap, full of rabbit meat swimming in fatty drippings fragrant with thyme and wild onions, and with enough salt to suffuse her mouth with delicious flavour. She didn’t even look up as someone put a mug of ale beside her on a flat-topped rock.
She’d gone through the rabbit and two boiled potatoes faster than any male within her view. There were benefits to being away from her mother’s sharp eye and quick willingness to point out breaches in etiquette.
However, she had greasy fingers to contend with. With no napkin, she allowed herself to surreptitiously lick her fingers, the savoury flavours suffusing her mouth with a satisfaction that went beyond any she could ever recall feeling at Court, and possibly even at Erinyes Manor.
She felt eyes upon her and saw Vespasian staring, his eyes hooded as he licked one of his own fingers clean. He tugged a handkerchief from his pocket and offered it to her.
Embarrassed, she gave a polite nod even as she declined and hid behind the mug as she drank deeply; her body growled its satisfaction and, cheeks burning, she replaced the empty mug and closed her eyes. What did her body need now? What did it want? It already felt stronger.
She recognised her problem when she felt the degree of her weariness pressing her down. Short of curling up in a ball in sight of all, she had no way to assuage her need for sleep. Well, then. She would simply go back to her boulders.
She had pushed to her feet when she realised that Vespasian still watched her attentively. He probably waited for her to fall over and embarrass herself again, which she refused to do.
A sudden disturbance on the path caught her attention.
Lily and Phlox, two women whose images would forever be branded in her memory as they’d been at battle—not as laundresses, as she’d first seen them, but warriors, amazing in their power and beauty—entered the clearing with a man twice their size between them. They had clearly overpowered and restrained him. Even though some magical means were probably used, the rope binding him and the bruises on his face indicated physical force, as well.
Persephone found herself smiling at his likely dismay at being trounced by women, controlled by women, and now, the captive of women. For he was obviously Ordinary. While all visible skin was clean, even from her place across the clearing she smelled the sour reek of a sweaty body that hadn’t bathed in days or longer. He’d attempted to cover the reek with perfume, and he had a patrician look about him despite his tanned skin, muscled torso, and callused hands like those of a common worker. His clothes mimicked the aristocracy, with tight-fitting trousers, a jacket that once might have been red but now was muddied with age and dirt, and an outrageously plumed hat.
“You find him intriguing?”
She jumped at the sound of Vespasian’s voice in her ear.
“I thought you too proud for the Ordinary.”
Before she could respond to his ridiculously mistaken conclusions, he’d crossed the clearing. She followed quickly, as did a good many of the rebels.
“Allow me to introduce myself,” the man said in cultured tones. He raised both hands, tethered together as they were, to doff his cap and bow. “I am Captain Sennen, formerly of Cornwall, known to all on the high seas as Lord Sinner.”
“Indeed.” Vespasian didn’t grace him with an introduction in return. Instead he aimed his remarks at the women. “Where was he?”
“His ship is in the bay, awaiting the mercenary soldiers he was promised gold to deliver here,” Phlox replied in a bland voice.
“Ah. That does present a bit of an awkward situation. I hope you were paid in advance, Captain Sennen.”
“Lord Sinner,” the captain corrected him. “Half in advance. Half upon returning them to Vlissingen.”
A Dutch port, then. Persephone couldn’t help but be impressed with the man’s ability to stand in bonds, stinking of his own sweat, and still manage to converse as if he felt their equal in status and freedom.
“I regret to be the bearer of unfortunate news, but the soldiers you await did not survive their battle.”
“Forgive my incredulity, but there were a great many of them.” Clearly, he had no connection to them. The grim news didn’t unnerve him. “Surely some survived.”
The captain’s brow knit in consternation. “None. That’s—that’s impossible. An entire army unable to retreat?”
“An entire army slain in battle, now feeding the crows.”
Perhaps an exaggeration, Persephone thought, since she was certain the bodies had been disposed of by magical means and weren’t mouldering on the plain beneath the standing stones. But she could no longer maintain the bland demeanour, the illusion of not caring, she who had created the deaths through her will and her gifts, and even now couldn’t think back without an overpowering sense of horror and guilt.
She was sure Vespasian and the others must sense the seething rage beneath the man’s skin, couched in polite words and nonchalance. Grebe joined Vespasian, his gentle countenance a reassuring counterpoint to Vespasian’s insolence.
As for her, she couldn’t bear to witness any more. She turned and walked away, leaving them both to work out this new complication. She couldn’t witness the captain’s shock and horror when he finally understood the truth, that none truly meant… none.
She made her way through the village. For once all eyes weren’t on her, but were watching the group in the centre of the village. A glance inside the women’s bathing hut found it empty, though several buckets of water awaited the next bathing session.
Glancing over her shoulder, she still found herself unwatched and ducked inside.
Within minutes, she’d shielded the entrance with the silence spell she’d learned from the old queen’s servant, and moments later, the cocoon of emptiness was complete. None could see her or hear her, and she couldn’t hear them. She eased into water that was too cold for comfort yet quenched something deeper in her, for all that.
The water lapped at her waist, sending gooseflesh over her body. A shiver rocked through her. And then, unable to do else, she succumbed to the water’s healing and the blessed, blessed sleep it brought.