Tethered Lives

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© Eric E. McClure

Chapter 1   Chapter 2   Chapter 3   Chapter 4   Chapter 5   Chapter 6   Chapter 6   Chapter 7 Chapter 8  Chapter 9  Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12 Chapter 13 Chapter 14 Chapter 15 Chapter 16 Chapter 17  Chapter 18  Chapter 19  Chapter 20  Chapter 21 Chapter 22 Chapter 23 Chapter 24  Chapter 25  Chapter 26  Chapter 27  Chapter 28  Chapter 29  Chapter 30  Chapter 31  Chapter 32  Chapter 33  Chapter 34  Chapter 35  Chapter 36  Chapter 37  Chapter 38  Chapter 39  Chapter 40  Chapter 41  Chapter 42  Chapter 43  Chapter 44  Chapter 45

 

Chapter 1

Xavier Sevet stood on the tall wooden scaffolding beside the lever that would send the criminal beyond the world knew. Taking no joy in the execution of the man who was caught with stolen goods in his possession and proof of his foul deeds afterwards, Xavier repeated the word ‘duty’ in his mind as he patiently listened for the last words of the priest’s prayer. As sheriff of Kedalpoint, he was tasked with keeping the peace and, as such, was responsible for carrying out the necessary punishments. Few had the stomach to send a man to his death, but Xavier was one who knew of the necessity.

Understanding he was to appear unmoved by the duty of his office, he clasped his shaking hand with the other behind his back. Today, he would see another death by his own hand. A hope welled up in his heart that the sudden drop would make the criminal’s death quick and painless as letting a man suffer was not his way. If all went well, if such a thing could be said about speeding a person’s death, he could return to the confines of his office and ponder the event no more.

At the end of the prayer, Xavier forced himself to face the small awaiting crowd below. With the many eyes staring at him, he weighed the duty of addressing the group of townspeople to that of the forced execution. He found them equally uncomfortable. Clearing his throat, he spoke the recited words.

“I, Xavier Sevet, Sheriff of Kedalpoint and representative of the Throne, do here by sentence to death Alexander Knoll for the theft, arson and resulting deaths of the Belmoot family. He is to be hanged in accordance of the law for which we all live under. By this law and its universal acceptance, this hanging is just. May the One show mercy on his soul.” Xavier turned away from the stares in the crowd and spoke to the silent man in the noose. “Do you wish to offer last words?”

He had seen many deaths by hanging. Most men wet themselves or called out for forgiveness or the help of a loved one, but Alexander Knoll was not such a man. The vile soul had taken lives and had not an inkling of sorrow for the act. The criminal’s eyes filled with hate and he spat in Xavier’s face.

Wiping his cheek with his sleeve, anger rose up in Xavier.

“Do it, coward,” Alexander hissed. “They will come for you as soon as you throw the level.”

Xavier nodded in understanding the man’s threat. He knew the hunted cult and thieves in the area would retaliate in some manner. “Let them come,” he countered. Without another word, he walked purposefully to the trap door’s level and kicked it forward with the heel of his boot. The expected gasps of the crowd followed quickly, but there was a small cry in the chorus of onlookers shortly after the initial shock.

“One be merciful,” the priest whispered.

Turning quickly, Xavier saw the empty space where the criminal once stood but it was the jerking of the hangman’s rope that raised the alarm within him. A hanging gone wrong. Without another thought, Xavier raced down the wooden stair, pushing the crowd aside as he hurried to the dangling man beneath the scaffolding. Wrapping his arms around the surviving prisoner’s thighs, he lifted the jostling body upward and quickly let his weight fall. The sickening crack of the bones in the neck could be heard by all but it was Xavier who felt the contortion of a spine through his gloves.

The crowd backed away quickly as he made to his feet. With a slow and cautious stare, he scanned the face of each soul that might pull a blade against him. His heartbeat continued to race as the people stared at him as if he had gone mad. None would come forward. Turning to the hanging body, he pulled off his glove and pressed his fingers to the man’s throat. Noting no pulse and the lifeless swaying of the corpse, he looked back to the crowd. “It is done.”

It was a rare thing for a man to survive such a fall but not so uncommon that Xavier didn’t know how to end the criminal’s suffering. The people of town had seen him hang a prisoner before, but their faces told him that they wished they had never seen such an event as this one. For a moment, Xavier wondered if they knew his actions were one of mercy then quickly doubted they cared. A murderer had been dealt with and that would be enough for them. How such events affected him would never cross their minds.

“Thank you, Sheriff,” a weak voice said.

Looking into the tear-filled eyes of the mother of the man he had just hung, Xavier found himself speechless and could only nod to her. What was there to say? What words of comfort could he offer to a woman who just witnessed the death of her only son? He had never been able to find such words that might console the heartbroken, so offered none.

Stepping aside, the two men in his employment lifted the criminal’s body and removed him from the noose. Together, the three men carried the corpse to the awaiting wagon and placed it in the back. As his men removed the restraints from the body, Xavier placed himself between the view of the corpse and the aged woman with pained eyes. “Forgive us, Mrs. Knoll. It is our duty to make certain.”

When she closed her eyes and bowed her head, Xavier looked over his shoulder to the young man in the back of the wagon. “Do it cleanly, Jeffers.”

With readied dagger, the young soldier placed his hand on the body’s chest. Sliding the blade between his fingers, he pierced the heart and withdrew the weapon quickly. As Jeffers moved away, the older soldier covered the body with a patchwork quilt and stepped off the back of the wagon.

Receiving the nods from each of his men cuing him that their tasks were complete, Xavier touched the woman’s arm. “I will drive the wagon if you wish.”

The mother of the dead man opened her eyes and peered at the covered cargo. Without a word, she move to the font and, using Xavier’s offer hand, climbed up into the seat. Wiping tears from her eyes, she gathered the reins in her dirty hands. “He just didn’t come back right, Sheriff. Couldn’t get them voices out of his head, is all.” She nodded at her words. “Just couldn’t live right.”

Xavier nodded. He understood all too well the pains carried home by those who had seen the very worse of humanity. When the woman whipped the reins and the wagon began to move, Xavier stepped back and watched the slow procession of a widow making her way home with the body of her child. He shook his head, wondering how many more women would lose their sons to the effects of ‘the after’. His own battle with the horrific memories of war had barely dulled and had left the noticeable sign of trembling in his hand during stress. The nightmares remained as well. Terrible memories brought up by some unrelated conversation had not ceased nor had the slow fading of the once vivid colors of the world. Xavier considered himself lucky, for a lack of any appropriate word. Like Alexander, there were many that could not shake free of the past and knew only an insatiable pain that haunted their days or fell to the unnatural desire of inflicting hardships on others.

“A kind offering to help Mrs. Knoll in her time of sorrow.”

Xavier turned to find the priest standing next to him. “You will follow and bless the burial, Brother Talas?”

“I will,” the priest answered quietly. “See that you take a moment to value the small kindnesses you have done in the world, Sheriff. Focus on that. There is peace to be had if you seek it.” He patted Xavier on the shoulder and left him to his thoughts.

Watching the wagon until it vanished over the hill, Xavier turned and noted several members of the crowd still lingered and watched him. With a glance at the scaffolding, he ignored them, not wishing to know their thoughts. Xavier wanted only solitude so walked to the heavy door of the jail house and entered. Seeing the two hire soldiers eye him, he shook his head, alerting them that he was in no mood to discuss what had happened. The familiar slow rise of depression began to make its way into his mind. Knowing he would be unfit for conversation, he entered into his office and sat at his desk.

Unsealing a scroll left untouched from the morning’s courier, he attempted to shift his thoughts from the deep melancholy that ebbed in his bones to something useful.

“Drink?”

He looked up to find his two men at the door. Xavier knew they would usually have a drink of ale in an attempt to set life back in order, but he did not wish to be consoled. Xavier opened the letter and scanned the words. “Hire two men you would trust with your life. Split them between you. Jeffers, you and one other will watch the Knoll farm tonight. Make certain those bastards do not disturb the grave.” Xavier looked to the older man. “Harris, you take the other man and watch the taverns for mischief. I will patrol the North Road tonight.” Feeling their stares, Xavier looked up. “Was there something confusing in my orders?”

Jeffers crumbled under the stare. “No, Capt. We understand.”

“Just thought you might—,” Harris began.

“No, I do not. And before you ask, I will not take a stroll around town just to be seen. The people will not find comfort in seeing an executioner.” He opened his coin purse. Fishing out two gold coins, he held them out to Harris. “Make sure the men you hire are right for the job.”

Harris stepped forward and took the coins from his hand. “A bit much for watching a grave and drunks fall out of taverns, Capt.”

“I want their full attention. If they fall asleep, clap them in irons and toss them in a cell.” Xavier noted the surprised look on their faces. “Mrs. Knoll needs to morn, not to deal with halfwits. Now, leave me to my work.” Xavier looked back down to the letter. “And close the door behind you.”

The men shuffled out of the room and left him in peace. Looking up to see the door close, he waited for a moment before sighing and leaning back in his chair. Running his fingers through his thick black hair, he began to rub his scalp. The pressures of his office, a position he never wanted in the first place, was eating away at him. Since his return from the battles against the uprisings in the Fifth Circle, he had imagined a quiet life was what he needed most. The thought of the particular night that changed his life, barged forward into his mind erasing any hope of finding such peace.

Listening carefully, he heard the two men leave the jail house. Cautiously, Xavier reached into the pocket of his jerkin and searched blindly with his fingers for the rolled piece of silk. Feeling the soft surface of the item, he pulled out the unusual purse with two open ends. A smile crept across his face as the memory of finding the answer to the secret of the remarkable item.

Looking back at the door, he held his breath, listening for any that might still be within the jail house walls. Hearing nothing, he carefully unrolled the purse on the desk and tapped the center. “Coal. Come,” he whispered.

Like the many times before, and as mesmerizing as the first witnessing of the event, the dimensions of the bag unnaturally stretched to twice its size and the familiar bulge in the center grew. His thin smile grew as the black mink stuck its head out one end of the unusual container. Before Xavier could reach for the crumbles of bread in the drawer, the animal scurried up his arm, across his back and down Xavier’s right side. In an instant, the animal was in the drawer sniffing out its usual treat.

“No jerky for you,” Xavier stated.

Not finding its usual meal, the animal raced back up Xavier’s arm and sat on his shoulder. Impatiently, it began to sniffed the air and at the man’s neck.

Xavier plucked the animal from his shoulder and set it on the desk in front of him. Using a finger, he scratched it under the chin and chuckled at the reflexive movement of its back leg. “I have you under control now, don’t I?” Receiving a nip at his finger, he retracted his hand. “Not in the mood for play? I believe I understand the feeling all too well. Perhaps we should indulge and share a small piece.”

Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a small strip of jerky and tore off a piece for his unusual pet. Coal, the magical being he had happened to receive upon the death of the warlock in his final battle, grabbed it with its teeth and rolled onto its back. Xavier smiled as it devoured the small meal. Pulling off another piece, he set it on its belly and watched the nimble creature arch its body until the morsel rolled to its mouth.

“A cleaver move. One I doubt has any place on the battle field.”

Coal rolled back and forth, moving the official papers over the desk. Quickly, the animal sprang to its feet and sat upright, looking at the door.

Xavier recognized the posture of the curious creature. Shoving the animal into the bag, he said the enchanting words. “Coal, be gone.”

The bulge disappeared as bag shank to its normal size. Xavier snatched up the silk purses and shoved it back into his pocket. Just as he removed his hand, he heard a company of steps come through the jail house entry and stop outside his door. At the sound of the knock, he rose from his chair. “Come.” His face fell at the sight of the young man that had made his living delivering discreet letters from the city of Andercroft. “Come in, boy.”

The messenger, who had said little more than a handful of words at any given time in the past, slowly approached Xavier’s desk and dug into his satchel. “Letters for you, milord sheriff.”

Xavier pulled a silver coin from his pouch and leaned forward to place the payment in the lad’s hand. “You’ve never told me your name.”

“Heath, milord,” the boy bowed and set the ribbon tied letters on the desk.

“How did you find the road from Ardencroft?”

Heath stood upright and nervously shifted his weight. “Dry, milord.”

Xavier felt the nervous nature of the messenger and could easily tell he was the cause of it. “Then I bid you safe travels on your return.” Picking up the bundle from the desk, he began to untie their binding.

“What…what did that man do?” Heath asked, his voice quivering with each word.

Xavier had not considered that the boy was in the crowd moments ago. With some effort, knowing his talents did not include long conversations, Xavier attempted to describe the situation in as few words as possible. “He robbed a family then burned their home.”

“How come his neck didn’t snap?”

“It happens on occasion.” He looked up to the boy and noted his reluctance to leave. Perhaps it was the hanging the boy had witnessed or Xavier’s sudden awareness that the roads grew more dangerous in his mind that the young man lingered. Xavier was not without pity. “I could have one of my men ride with you for a few miles if it would give you comfort.”

The young man shook his head. “Can’t afford to split the sum, milord. And word would get out that I wasn’t man enough to travel the road.”

“Man enough?” Xavier huffed. “Have you not traveled the road from Andercroft to Kedalpoint for the last few months?”

“I have, milord.”

Xavier stood from his chair. “Mr. Harris!” he called to the entry room. When his old friend came to the door, Xavier put the letter inside his doublet. “I will be riding west toward Ardencroft along with Master Heath. I will be back before midday.” His eyes flashed to the young man and noted the sense of relief in the lad’s face. In Xavier’s mind, perhaps a small ride would turn his mind away from the events of the morning as well as give the young messenger some peace of mind. The priest would approve of such a thing. He nodded to the young man and motioned with his hand toward the door. “Ready my horse.”

 

Chapter 2

The eastern road toward the city from the small town of Kedalpoint was one that Xavier least cared to travel. With a short mile of travel, the road would turn from a well-traveled pathway along the numerous farms of the valley into the temperamental road cut through the forest. Over the stone bridge, he rode next to the boy that frequently looked over at him and knew the signs of one who hesitated to ask a question. The twisting road down the valley and through the fields would feel much longer than it should. Crossing over the fork of the river that created the eastern boarder of his small town, Xavier remained silent until passing the last of the humble homes that sat at the town’s edge.

“Out with it.”

“It’s true?” the boy asked quickly. “What they say? Is it all true?”

Xavier sighed. “Be more specific in your questions, lad. What is it that plagues your mind to ask me?”

“You hunted Seethers?”

“I have.”

Heath shifted nervously on the back of his humble mount, unsure how far a commoner might question a person of office. “But you’re the squire of Kedalpoint.”

“By birth, but there is little difference between the two stations in life.” Xavier looked over at the awestruck boy. “Close your mouth, Master Heath. A gaping mouth calls for the attention of wandering flies.”

The boy’s avoidance of his stare pricked at Xavier’s insides. He knew the boy was only curious and questioned the stories he had been told. Reprimanding himself for his curt words, but found his ability for idle chitchat lacking. There was only the one path to resolve the situation and that was to offer the boy what he wanted. The story.

“Ask,” Xavier stated quickly.

“People say you killed a warlock,” Heath stated with hesitation. “At the Hollows.”

Xavier nodded. “Luck.”

“And then you came back and picked up bein’ sheriff.”

“It was needed. The previous sheriff was dead when I returned.”

Heath seemed to ponder his next question. “But why you?”

“Why did you choose to be a messenger?”

The boy shrugged. “Pa hurt his back and can’t ride anymore. Couldn’t let us starve. I had to do it.”

Xavier nodded. “Then you have defined both of our situations, Master Heath. A squire does not let his village go without a sheriff as a son does not forget his parent when in need.”

“Suppose you’re good at soldiering so it makes sense to do both,” the boy answered. “But…the people you killed in the Hollows were Seethers and the people here are just normal folk.”

“Seethers were just normal folk once. They thought they would play at the edges of right and wrong. Remember that in case you run across someone doing something they shouldn’t. And sadly, anyone can take such a path.”

“But Seethers are powerful, milord.”

Xavier shook his head. How many times had he heard those words? The mere mention of Seethers sent people scurrying away or changing topics quickly. In their minds, as once was in his, those that belong to the occult became something untouchable in power. “They are people, Master Heath, nothing more. Fouled by the enticement of the Dark One and drowning in self-empowerment. Powerful, you say? That is true, but the wicked are also distracted by the lust of such power and fear those who might take it away.”

“But they cast spells,” Heath rebutted. “They make people do what they don’t want and kill without carin’.”

The sheriff reined in his horse once they entered the covering of the tall trees and gathered his thoughts as the boy followed his actions. “Listen to me, boy, and listen carefully. Their true power comes from lies and rumors to keep good folk fearfully away. Trust me, Seethers bleed just like the rest of us but they will never pass through the Veil as you will. Focus on staying in the right and all will be well.”

Both turned as they heard the snapping of twigs and saw a lone rider crest the hill ahead of them.

“A thief,” Heath gasped.

Xavier watched the horsemen keep a steady pace toward them. From the outline of the cloaked figure, it was obvious to him that it was a woman. “Thieves rarely show themselves. It is only a brave woman traveling without an escort on the road.” His eyes focused on the image of the rider, gaining hints as to who the person was with each passing moment. “You can make your way home from here without reason for alarm.”

“Who is it, milord?” The boy stared at the woman.

Watching the woman ride a few paces into the forest and dismount, Xavier knew exactly who it was. “Some questions are best left unanswered or never asked, Master Heath.” Xavier’s examination of the female rider and her saddle had given him all the information he needed and he wanted the boy as far from her as possible. Digging into his coin purse, he tossed a coin to the young messenger. “On your way, now.”

With some reluctance, the boy left his questions unasked and nudged his humble work horse forward.

Waiting first for the lad to ride out of sight, Xavier dismounted. Tossing the reins over his horse’s head, he led the animal slowly to where the woman waited for him. The struggle within him to approach her made him question if the meeting would end in an argument or bewilderment. Neither settled well in the pit of his stomach.

“Escorting messengers?” she said in her typical lyrical voice.

“A moment of nerves on the boy’s part,” Xavier answered coolly. “What is it you want, Bella?”

The woman gently pulled away her hood and flashed a warm smile. “A name I’m rarely called these days, milord. How kind of you to address me with familiarity.”

Xavier had always found himself rather tongue tied around her. Though the world knew her as Isabella Nelstet, his mind recalled several memories that allowed him to address her far more informally. “I have duties to perform, milady.”

“Now it is milady?” she asked with a look of hurt. “I preferred, Bella.”

“If it will speed your answer, I will call you whatever you wish.”

Isabella tugged at the fingertips of her riding gloves and moved to a fallen tree. Sitting daintily on the edge, she continued her tease. “Anything?”

Xavier looped the reins of his horse around a branch and pretended not to have heard a word.

“I should not tease you. My apologies, Lord Sheriff.” Setting her gloves in her lap, Isabella watched him carefully. “You received my letter and came all this way to meet me in secrecy? That is an act of a gentleman.”

Reaching into his leather doublet, Xavier extracted the letters the boy had brought him. One by one, he looked at the wax sealed parcels.

“The one with the blue ribbon, milord.” Isabella smiled. “I see you have not had time to read it.”

“A busy morning,” he replied, singling out the blue ribbon. “What does it say?”

Isabella gathered her gloves in hand and stood. “Only a small request. I was told that you will have a family arriving at Kedalpoint tomorrow. I wished to ask that you keep them safe.”

Xavier broke the seal and read the letter. Shaking his head as he read her cryptic request, he looked up to find her gently brushing her horse’s neck. “What are these people to you?”

“A curiosity,” she replied seemingly uninterested. “I find it odd that people would travel to such a small town when Ardencroft is so close by. However, if watching over a family of four is too much trouble, I can find other means to accomplish the task.”

Knowing her to be the type of person not to let go of an idea, he sighed. “Who do you think will attempt to harm them?”

“No one in particular.” She turned and smiled, knowing he would give into her request. “I would hate for some unfortunate incident to occur and leave a blemish on your renown.”

“A very kind consideration, but there is always more behind your words and deeds.” Xavier took a step closer to her. “Tell me what you know of them so that I can be of a better service to this family.”

Isabella laughed. “Always the protector. Xavier. You are an enigma in this self-centered world. How dutifully you throw yourself into service of others? Some might find that a fetching quality in a man. You must be careful around certain woman.”

Xavier stepped back and eyed her as she moved toward him. She appeared to be made of the warmth of the sun with her carefully braided blonde hair and radiant blue eyes. Still, he knew how easily he could be burned by such fire. “Any information would be helpful if you wish me to pay special attention to the welfare of this family.”

She continued to move toward him, stopping only a step way. With the softest touch, she swept aside a wisp of hair from his brow. “They come from Hollowbrook and are hardly the type of people that know the wiles of this land. The father is a merchant and is looking to increase his dealings in furs. The others, women of modest society and quite unfit for traveling outside their secure world.”

“This merchant? You have had past dealings with him?”

“Nothing so sinister that your brow needs to be so furled.”

Xavier stepped back from her touch. “I will, of course, see to their protection. There are enough trappers in the area. I can help the merchant with that much.”

“Will the squire allow for such a thing?” she asked in astonishment.

“I will hear his offer. If it benefits Kedalpoint, I must consider the propose.”

Isabella nodded. “A wise decision. As for my part, I wish only that they are not met with brigands along the road or fall into trouble. I will, of course, pay for your trouble.”

Xavier turned away and untethered his horse’s reins from the tree. “It is my position to see to the care of every soul on the road to and from Kedalpoint, milady. I have no need to be paid for their care when it is my duty to see to it.”

Tossing the coin purse she had stolen from him, Isabella laughed. “An enigma, milord. You are truly that. But I worry you are losing your powers of perception.”

Stuffing the purse into his doublet, he looped the reins over the horse’s neck and put his foot in the stirrup. Lifting himself into the saddle, he offered her a nod. “I see you have not lost yours.” Xavier shook his head. “I will require a full explanation as to your interest in the family, but you may put that in a letter. The messenger boy needs more coin in his pocket.”

Isabella curtsied. “As you wish, milord. Who am I to argue with the Hero of Chatting Woods?”

Xavier did not wish to stay any longer with the woman from his past. With a nod to her and a gentle nudging of his heel to his mount’s sides, he made his way to the forest road and galloped back to his duties. A sense of ease did not come to him until he rode across the bridge to his Kedalpoint.

 

Chapter 3

Dust from the coach wheels blew by Anna’s open window as her family rocked and swayed along with the movement of their hired coach. With the occasional bumps in the uneven ground, their transportation rattled along the road taking them east. The conversation, as always, was dominated by her sister’s desires and the drama that frequently accompanied them. To Anna, this was the real blight on their travels to the small town. Determined to be more like her father, who completely ignored the constant back and forth between her younger sister and mother, she attempted to fixate on the changing landscape of the unique lands edging the mountain ranges.

Before her eyes, the rolling hills used for both farming and the grazing of cattle slowly changed into areas of patchy wooded acres. Anna breathed deeply, taking in the air that had changed the higher they acceded. Within a few hours of traveling from their last stay at an inn, she had her first real glimpse of the edges of the Capik Mountains and it had captured her imagination from that very moment. In an attempt to see more of the range that appeared as a backdrop to the world, Anna often stuck her head out the window to look past the coach driver and horses for a better view. To her dismay, the road followed easier routes that now blocked the scene with large trees blanketing the sky with their large leaves.

“You will catch a branch to the face and be scarred for life if you continue to act like a child,” her mother stated. “You’ll find it difficult to find a man who will look past a scar or one who would entertain your ridiculous curiosity.”

Anna turned to her scolding parent with disdain. It was one thing to simply warn her of low lying branches but the ever present mentioning of marriage had grown tedious. Fortunately, her desired coarse reply was interrupted by her father.

“Leave her be, Annette,” he said in his usual low timbered voice. “We are all tire from this journey and Anna will choose who she likes when the time comes.” His eyes turned to his eldest daughter. “But you would be ignorant to not adhere to your mother’s warning.”

She sat back in the leather coach seat knowing that any words she might have would be best kept to herself.

“Anna?” her sister, Brenda, scoffed. “Married?” She placed her lace gloved hand over her mouth to present an effort to hide her smile. “That’s not very likely, it is?”

Looking back through the window to the numerous trees and the ground that hinted to their slow accent, Anna bit the end of her lip in hopes it would be enough to stave off the words she had for her sister. It was enough for Anna to be the elder daughter of a successful merchant, but her circumstance fell short of society’s expectations. Her parent’s, having tried for several years to have their own children, had given up hope and had adopted her from an orphanage. Such things happened to many couples though rarely discussed in polite society. But the attempted disguise of being away from town for a year to concoct the illusion of having a child of their own had not worked. Adopted before her features where truly known, Anna’s raven-like black hair and blue eyes were in stark contrast to her more fair complected relatives. All of society knew the truth of her false lineage before the age of two. Later, the couple had a child of their own, heralded by many as a blessing for their kindness for snatching an unwanted child out of certain poverty and death. Thus, Brenda and Anna were sisters, but the differences in the way they had come into the world was often shown by smirks or sneers from those around them.

Anna had known, by the tender age of five years, her sister would always be considered the one legitimate daughter of Annette and Calvin Travene. Such a memory caused her to block out the conversation of some half-hearted suggestions within the coach of her future. Having had the practice of many years of melting into the background for Brenda to shine more brightly and holding her tongue as few cared enough to her what she might say, Anna ignored the opinions of her sister, as Brenda began to list suitable positions of men Anna might one day be promised.

“The cook at the last inn might have been someone that you might have made an arrangement with,” Brenda stated. “Or even the stable worker. She wouldn’t care he was twice her age.

“She is a Travene,” their mother counted. “I will not have her thrown at just anyone so you may attempt to marry higher than you ought.”

Brenda huffed. “She’s nothing but an obstacle in my plans. Marry her off to a farmer or a miner for all I care.”

“Enough!” Anna’s father threatened. “You will not say another word until we reach Kedalpoint. You’re incessant words put in mind to strap you onto the coach with the luggage.”

“You wouldn’t dare!” Brenda countered.

Anna quickly turned to see her father, a bear of a man, grow in anger and his face redden. She knew him to be impatient and recognized the look in his eyes. Brenda had pushed too far and, had she the common sense most people had, she should simply shut her mouth.

“But—”, Brenda began.

“Don’t challenge me, girl,” he steamed. “For two days you have done nothing but complain and lash out at your sister. I’ll go mad if I had to sit another day in a coach with you.” The burly man, fit to do the most laborious work in the world, pulled out his handkerchief and wiped the sweat from his forehead. “Child of mine, indeed. Spoiled to the core and as heartless as a viper!”

“Corbin, please,” his wife begged. Quickly taking his hand, she attempted a soothing smile against his rage. “You will do yourself a harm.”

His eyes glanced to Anna. She nodded slowly in her way of cautiously agreeing with her mother’s warning.

“It would serve her right to lose everything she holds dear upon my early death,” he grumbled. “Let’s see how she deals with hunger when she is without a copper to her name.”

Anna shook her head and looked away. The argument would die with those words as it had numerous times before. They had grown up with his stories of their grandparents eking out a living until their small business took root and thrust them into a higher social circle. The fact that Anna’s father brought it up so often made her wonder if it was the fear he had of returning to a state of near poverty or to warn them that a turn in luck could lead them to ruin.

As the trees floated past her window, Anna considered that perhaps this sudden trip was something more than what her father had stated. The plan to travel into one of the last circle of society, days away from their normal routine and environment, had come up very abruptly. The reason, as he put it in no uncertain terms, was to find trappers that might provide him a direct supply of animal skins from which he could turn a profit. Having known the man to travel on business before, Anna did not question his simple shrug when she asked why they were to come with him.

Perhaps business was not as good as he presented to the world. She knew enough of his vocation to understand that an object passed through many hands before a crate arrived at the shop undoubtedly added to the expense of the item. Cup, broom, linen or fur had an origin far from the shop only to end up on a shelf with a price marked up from the one offered to the original craftsman. Other men, with shops of their own, competed with them for the coin of patrons, but so was the way of business. Anna wondered if the trip was simply a way to create a more direct line from craftsman to shop or something more that she had once considered.

Her attention was pulled away from such thoughts as a small break in the tree line divulged a scene of the slow climb the coach had steadily made. Before her was a gap caused by a large fallen tree that had created a view of the green valley below. A smile grew across her face as a feeling of being a bird flying high above overtook her. Below, with a large river flowing between dotted plowed fields, an idyllic scene of small farms and a stone bridge for a simple road to cross came into view. Too soon, the break in the trees was covered with the large trunks of elm and spotted outgrowths of fir.

Saddened by the abrupt ending of the happy scene, Anna sat back in her seat and watched her mother’s skillful hands pursue her needlework. The woman’s hands were always busy as if they would disappear if they were not accomplishing something of value. Needlework, turning of pages of a book, placing flowers in vases were all common scenes to behold when watching her. Anna smiled when she considered the small woman’s walk not unlike the busyness of her hands. Quick and purposeful steps, ones she imagined that were needed to keep up with her towering husband. Anna had to look away as the image of the odd pair walking from coach to an event always made her smirk.

“Why do they call the outer circle the Elder Valley, Father?” she asked.

“Hmm? Oh! I suppose because it is rumored to be the origins of the settlements.” She turned to see the rare impish sparkle in his eyes. “And where the elves once lived,” he ended in a false whisper.

“Fairy tales,” Brenda huffed. “It probably got its name because there are nothing but old miners and even older trappers that live here.”

Anna ignored her sister’s comments. “Do you believe that there were elves here at one time, Father?”

“He certainly does not,” her mother replied. She huffed when another rut in the rough road caused her to bounce and miss her stitch.

“But it could have happened that way, couldn’t it?” Anna asked him.

Mr. Travene shrugged as he unscrewed the top of his flask. “I would imagine there are other reasons for the names in the lesser circles. Perhaps we might ask one of the locals when we—”

The large man’s words were broken by the sudden slowing of the coach and the loud objections of the horses. Their traveling vessel came to a stop as cries of men sounded outside the windows, causing Anna to immediately look to her father for an explanation. Noting his worried expression and the reaching of his sword, she knew trouble had found them.

“Down,” he cried. “All of you to the floor!”

Anna slid quickly from her seat in the same moment her mother was pushed down by her father’s large hand. Before she could utter a question, Mr. Travene opened the coach door and flew from view. Brenda sniveled then complained in a shrieking voice, but Anna had no time to pretend to be a caring sister. Pushing herself up, she stepped over Brenda to the sound of her mother’s demands to remain in place.

Free from the confines of the coach box, Anna witnessed a scene that left her standing in horror. Her father lashed out toward the coachman that was armed with a thick, polished wooden weapon. Beyond him, a man in a green cowl she did not recognize pulled a long sword from between an attacker’s ribs and swung his blade across another’s throat. Her hand raised to her mouth in an effort to keep herself from screaming.

Three, then four others came from the dense woods towards the man in green, yelling obscenities with weapons held high. Anna stepped back, not wanting to see the inevitable demise of a soul. Her eyes flashed back to her father who was kicked in the groin, dropping him to his knees. She was uncertain if her scream came before the sword that suddenly appeared from the chest of her father’s assailant. In wonder and fear, she back peddled away from the mayhem until she felt the urgent pulling of her mother to return back to the safety behind the door of the coach.

Tearing herself away, Anna continued to watch from behind the open coach door. She saw the man in green kneel by her father. Grasping her father’s belt, the stranger aided him to his feet and nodded to the heavy man’s indistinguishable complaints.

Anna scanned the road and found it littered with bodies. With her mother reattached, Anna yanked her hand away from her and hurried back to her father’s side. Her heart pounded in her chest as she hugged him once they were reunited. “Fool,” she cried, burying her head into his broad chest.

“How,” Mr. Travene coughed, out of breath and in pain. “How can I ever repay your kindness, sir?”

Anna looked into the dark brown eyes of the man under the cowl. His face was expressionless. No smile or frown made his neatly trimmed goatee change shape. His eyebrows, she half expected to edge downward in concern, sat straight as if he were unaware that anything out of the ordinary had happened. Anna unwrapped her arms from her father, ignoring the frantic calls of her mother. “You must tell us who we are indebted to.”

His eyes flashed to the large man. “Are you able to make it to the coach?”

Calvin nodded. “Just bruised my chestnuts. I’ll make a pitiful sight for an hour or more.” His eyes gazed on the dead figure on the ground. “The coachmen too?”

The hooded man ignored his question. “I will gather my horse and drive you to Kedalpoint.” Without another word, he turned and walked a few paces up the rocky road toward his mount. Stopping midway, he bent down, gabbed the wrists of one of the dead and pulled him off the road into the brushes.

“Come, Father,” Anna said softly. “He seems to know what he’s doing.” With a gentle nudge, her father turned, and they walked slowly toward to the two women peering nervously out the coach door.

Chapter 4

“Not a word came from the ruffian’s mouth?” Brenda asked, pulling a brush through her hair. “You stood there like a frightened deer. No wonder he didn’t tell you who he was. He probably thought you an ignorant fool.”

Anna ignored her sister’s attempt to disarm her. Washing the back of her neck in preparation for dinner in the main room below their simple rented rooms, she recounted the incident again in her mind. The man in green was quick and sure. Had he not told her father later he was the sheriff of Kedalpoint, she might have mistaken him for one of the thieves. He wore no emblem of his position, no pendant or sash, just the green-dyed leather clothing and the hood. Why so simply dressed for his station, she couldn’t guess.

The knock at the door and the appearance of her mother in the reflection of the mirror told her that it was time they were to go downstairs.

“You must hurry, girls,” her mother stated firmly. “After today’s frightening experience, your father is in poor spirits.”

“I am ready now, Mother,” Brenda boasted. “If Anna would stop day dreaming, we would already be downstairs.”

Their mother frowned. “None of your antics tonight, Brenda. I warn you. Your father is likely to send you off to a nunnery for all the complaining you’ve done on this trip. If you wish to make it safely back to your parties and friends, you had better keep your mouth shut tonight.”

Anna turned, dabbing her neck with a towel. “We’re ready, Mother.”

Without another word, Anna followed her parent out the door. As was customary, she looped her arm around Brenda’s and kept two steps behind their mother. Walking the short length of the hall that separated the rooms of the upper floor of the rustic inn, Anna could hear a lute being accompanied by a singer in the tavern below. Tonight, she thought, would be an adventure in itself though she feared the change and hoped not to be asked many questions by their dinner quest.

Descending the stairs, Anna found the only reason they could hear the lute and singer was that the makeshift stage was set next to the steps. As they crossed the crowed room, the music was drowned out by the numerous voices in the tavern. Feeling Brenda grip more tightly to her arm, Anna attempted hide her nerves by accepting the rough surroundings as if it were common place in her world. Showing fear of the unknown conditions would not be welcomed by her father and later she would be reprimanded by an angry mother. As instructed since she was a child, Anna lifted her chin and pretended her surroundings were nothing out of the ordinary.

A man in a semi-clean doublet hurried to their mother from beyond the bar. “If you will follow me, Mrs. Travene, I will show you to the table we have readied.” Receiving a nod from their mother, the man cautiously moved others out of the way and guided the party to a corner where a simple wood table had been set. Standing by the chairs, the man pulled out their seats one by one.

“We have veal or beef tonight, ladies,” the man said in a proud voice.

“We will wait on my husband,” their mother stated.

Anna saw the displeasure in her mother’s eyes as she addressed the innkeeper. The man must have noticed it as well as he nodded and scurried off into the noisy crowd of locals as they sat.

“Do not forget who you are, girls,” their mother reminded them. “You are not vagabonds roaming the land with no name.”

“Yes, Mother,” Anna replied. Looking over her shoulder, she searched for her father. When she spotted him bending down to hear the words of some unknown man beside him, Anna noted the change in his expression. She turned back to her family. “I don’t think the sheriff intends to dine with us.”

“Of course, he will,” her mother replied flippantly. “He must. We are in his debt and this diner was meant to be a small offering of thanks. Will not show, indeed,” she huffed. “A man in his position cannot afford to be so rude.”

Anna turned to find her father approaching. When his eyes caught hers, she knew that she was right. Placing her hands in her lap, a pose beaten into her since childhood, Anna sat upright and waited for her father to share the news.

“Should you not wait for the sheriff at the door, my dear?” her mother asked.

“He isn’t coming,” he answered in a grumble. Sitting with a grimace, he pulled the linen napkin off the table and laid it across his lap. Looking up, he waved for the innkeeper to come to the table. “Four dinners of veal and a bottle of wine.”

Anna watched her father out of the corner of her eye until the innkeeper hurried away. “Did he give a reason for not coming?” The quick warning of her mother’s eyes made her sit back in her chair and close her mouth.

“A pressing duty that would keep him from the luxury of dining with us,” her father grumbled. “Or so I was told by some young man in his employment.”

“Then we will find other means of showing our appreciation,” her mother stated. “The girls and I will visit the shops of this town in the morning and find something appropriate. A silver cup or something of the sort.”

Anna’s father was visibly upset and, even though the meal that was brought to them was very tasty, he said precious little throughout their dinner. When he had wiped his mouth and set aside his knife, he called for ale. Anna knew he meant to drink well into the night, attempting to sooth his pride or contemplate some business deal he intended to seek out. The idea of leaving him to his drink did not sit well with her.

“Is it true they hunt bear in this area, Father?”

“That is an unusual topic for dinner,” her mother stated.

Anna didn’t care what her mother considered appropriate for the table as she was more interested if he would pick up on her cue and find it amusing enough to play their game. When his eyes brightened a bit, Anna knew she had succeeded.

“Well,” he rubbed his chin as he peered about the room. “Feeling adventurous tonight, are we?”

She didn’t feel excited about what was to happen next, but if it meant their game of ‘talk to strangers’ would release him from his current depression, than she would make an effort. Slowly, Anna nodded.

Mr. Travene’s eyes continued to scan the crowd until settling on a few men across the room. “The group at the bar,” he stated. “One older than the two others. Go and ask if they know of any bear around.”

“You’ll do no such thing,” her mother warned. “Calvin, these games are indecent. I won’t have you ruin the reputation of our good name by having her parade herself in public like this.”

Anna ignored her mother. “One item of information for one silver.”

“I’ll go ask for a silver, Father,” Brenda chimed.

The large man shook his head. “I fear to know what you would do for a silver,” he warned. “No, the task is your sister’s. Alright, Anna. One fact for one silver, but it must be of some use.”

Anna stood, noting her mother’s disapproval. “Something simple. Just one.” Turning toward the crowd, she felt her hands nervously ball into fists. She had never been good with starting conversations though the game they played was actually of some benefit. Still, Anna feared the task. Moving through the crowd, she easily found the men her father had tasked her to ask a question. Before she opened her mouth, the three turned their heads towards her.

“Can I help you, Miss?” the oldest of the group asked.

She felt the nerves itch upward from her toes to neck. “I beg your pardon for interrupting your conversation.” It was as good as sentence to start with. “My name is Anna Travene. My family and I have just arrived in Kedalpoint and were wondering about the wildlife in the area.”

The older man nodded. “Name’s Gibbs, Miss Travene. These are my boys.” Both men, approximately her age nodded to her. “That your pa over there?”
Anna turned to see her father watching. “It is.”

“And he sent you over here?”

“He did,” she answered nervously.

The man chuckled. “Did the same to my boys when they were young. Got them used to talkin’ to people. Not many people to talk to out in the woods.”

Anna smiled. “Yes, that’s the idea of it. I was to ask if there are bear in the area.”

Mr. Gibbs scratched his neck. “You tell your pa that we trap for mink, beaver, and otter. If he’s looking for bear pelts, tell him most have moved further north.” He looked to the innkeeper wiping the dust off of a dark bottle with his apron. “Halvors! Seen Arkans around?”

The innkeeper shrugged. “Comes and goes, but keeps higher up.”

“That’s the man your pa will want to meet about bear pelts,” Mr. Gibbs stated. “Crazy fool of a man, but good at hunting bear.”

Anna curtsied. “Thank you, Mr. Gibbs. My father will appreciate the news.” Without another word, she hurried away. Rather proud that she had accomplished the task and having learned others used the same game with their children, Anna made her way back to the table.

“Well?” her father asked, well into his drinking.

“A man named Arkans,” Anna replied as she sat. “It seems, from Mr. Halvors, that he keeps to the mountains but occasionally comes to this place.”

Calvin looked down as he opened his coin purse. With a nod, he flipped her a copper piece.
Catching it between two hands, Anna chuckled looking at the lower-valued coin. “You already knew about the man called Arkans, didn’t you?”

“I meet with a guide to take me out to see him later this week,” he replied. “I said to find out something useful.”

Anna didn’t care about the coin. Seeing the smallest of grins on his face was enough and she achieved her goal of coaxing his thoughts away from the day’s troubles. Finishing her meal in silence, Anna knew she had done something right as he appeared more lighthearted and spoke of their stay as she finished her meal.

When their mother patted their father’s arm and rose from her chair, Anna and Brenda set their napkins on the table to follow her. Kissing his cheek in turn, the Travene daughters bid him a good night then accompanied their mother to the rooms above. Reaching the door, the young women offered the rehearsed wishes of favorable dreams to their mother. Anna closed the bedroom door quietly to the noise that lofted up to them and set the latch in place. Moving to her chest, she opened it and searched for her night gown.

“Absolutely the most barbaric place in the world,” Brenda stated. She fell onto the bed and stared at the low ceiling. “Over-cooked meat, wine as bitter as tree bark, and the table setting! Oh, don’t let me think on how ridiculous the mismatched plates were.”

“A fork is a fork. A plate is a plate,” Anna stated as she undressed. “Did you notice the other tables? In far worse shape than the one we sat at. I think it was kind of the innkeeper to seat us at his best table.” She slipped into her nightgown and pulled back the heavy blanket on the bed. Still thinking of the rustic place they found themselves in, Anna felt the need to defend it against her sister’s unfavorable view. “It was the best they could manage, so we should be thankful.”

Her sister huffed, sliding into bed. “You be thankful. I, on the other hand, will remain repulsed by the place Father has forced us to come to. Best that they could manage? A pitiful sight and worthless effort.”

Anna shook her head, knowing that nothing would sway her younger sister’s poor opinion. “I was sorry that the sheriff could not come. It seemed to hurt Father.”

“I suppose this sheriff is as crude as this town,” Brenda stated. “I will do my duty and help Mother find some gift, but I will not toss and turn in bed worrying about it tonight.”

“That’s rather callous, Brenda,” Anna replied. “He saved our lives and all you can do is fan it away like some ill odor. We owe him a great deal.”

Brenda sat up and attempted to fluff the simple pillow. “If he is a sheriff then it is his job to protect people, Ann. It is not worth building a monument for his efforts.”

Anna did not say another word. Leaning over, she blew out the burning candle on her nightstand and nestled under the musty smelling blanket. Ignoring the remaining muttering of her sister, she stared at the wall and considered the event of her day. In some small recess in her mind, the image of the odd fellow who had come to their rescue grew in her mind. Arriving in the very moment of their distress was a blessing. Anna said a short prayer of thanks before letting the next thought cross her mind. Pulling the blanket to her chin, she began to consider what one purchased to thank a stranger for saving her family until her body slowly succumbed to sleep.

Chapter 5

Xavier let the reins of his horse fall beside him. Touching his mount’s nose for it hold in place, he moved slowly away keeping his eyes on the ground. A few paces up the deer trail, he knelt and listened for any sound of creatures that may be stirred by humans passing by. He heard only the wind. Moving the small branches of a new-growth fir, Xavier noted the marking of hooves. Shod, but worn, the hoof prints told him only that the animal that walked along the path was in need of another pinning nail on its front left and that it carried a rider. He had hoped for more.

Gathering his horse, Xavier carefully guided the animal after him. The rocky soil made the terrain deceptively tricky to maneuver, but he did not want to miss a clue from horseback. The markings became exceptionally difficult to track as the rider had crossed the wide stream multiple times and ridden down its center a time or two. In the end, the prints brought him back to the river.

“Damn. Buying time by leaving false trails.”

The numerous markings, by his best guess, were made by a single rider that crisscrossed the river as often as time allowed him. The embankments of both sides were disturbed by the obvious attempt to hide the number of riders.

Climbing back onto his horse, he kicked it forward to hurry back to the earliest markings he had found. The attempt to track the rider took Xavier longer than he had hoped. Believing the single rider had masked much of his movement by using well-traveled animal paths, Xavier wondered if the man had been trained. Making his way up the slope to the road beside a commonly used wooden bridge, he reprimanded himself for not finding more answers. The rider was clever, he would give him that much. Once he had retraced his steps to the prints leaving the road, Xavier dismounted and studied the markings he first noticed.

“Too many tracks created at once,” he said in frustration. He looked down the road. “A minimum of three horses shown, yet truly only one rider.” Xavier wiped his sweating forehead and stared at his horse. “He stole the horses then rode to the river. Crossing multiple times with only the one horse, let loose the others, then rode up the deer trail only to double back to the river. What in all hells is this about?”

The animal shook its head and snorted then began to graze on the green grass along the roadway.

“It will take days to follow each of the tracks,” he sighed in frustration. Gazing up the road to his right, then turning behind him, Xavier knew the hoofprints on the road would be covered by normal traffic. “We must consider it a preplanned venture. Perhaps it is a matter of thinking of his actions in reverse.” He took a few steps along the road and searched for a print that might match the he had found on the trail. “One rider, multiple horses. Stolen horses, certainly. Within the night or morning hours,” he whispered to himself.

Finding no signs of the hoofprint he desired, he began to pace along the road. “Recently stolen horses. It’s nearly sundown and no urgent reports of them missing. What does that tell us?” he asked his horse. “Tells me that someone is either away or unaware of their property has been removed. We must go farm to farm to the east of the bridge and see who has been robbed.”

Moving quickly to the horse, he climbed nimbly into the saddle. With a swift kick, Xavier was on his way to the nearest farm. As the wind blew across his face, galloping at speed that would win most local races, Xavier imagined a map of the surrounding families and their land. The closest would be the Dieter family. His stomach knotted thinking of the poor family that could barely make ends meet. A loss of horses would certainly mean an end to their livelihood. The pinch of having to remove them from their land made him angry.

The closer he got to the small thatched roof of the farmstead, the more he hated to ask the very question that might mean their demise. In some ways, he thought, war was a more merciful demon than everyday life. Slowing as he reached the family’s small lane, Xavier remembered the Dieter family owned only the one large work horse, an animal that would not leave the impressions he had tracked. A wave of relief fell across him as the sight of the grazing animal and the two oxen within the confines of a split-rail fence came into view.
His mind moved to the next farm on the list. The image of the owner made his heart fall in his chest. “Mrs. Knoll.” Without another thought, he kicked his horse forward once again. Down the road he raced, not caring if both animal and man were hurt in the mad dash, as he began to fear the very worst. Whipping the horse to give all that it had, Xavier knew he must beat the setting of the sun and put his fears to rest. The poor woman had been through enough with the death of her son. Having her animals stolen would add insult to injury.

Nearly missing the turn to the lane to the Knoll farm and almost unseating himself as his
horse leapt over the small gate, Xavier barely slowed down in his race against time. Yanking the reins, the horse came to a sliding stop before the humble home, neighing in complaint. Xavier slipped off his saddle and raced to the front door, leaping the two small steps onto the porch. Attempting to catch his breath, he pound on the door and called out to the old woman.

Thinking it might take a moment for her to get to the door, he peered over his shoulder toward the barn. The fence gate was open. Worry of the woman’s health overtook him. Stepping back, he kicked in the door. Rushing inside, he slid to a stop as his eyes rested on the figure of Mrs. Knoll in a rocker before an unlit fireplace.

The warnings inside him had to be pushed aside. “Mrs. Knoll?” he asked, knowing deep inside that she would not answer. With hesitant steps, he moved to her side and knelt.

The cut across her throat was deep. Xavier had witnessed many deaths dealt in such a way. Bowing his head, he offered a small prayer for her passing and one for the growing anger inside of him. Knowing he must touch nothing to spoil any possible clues, he stood and let his eyes grow accustom to the fading light to scan for something out of place. His eyes caught the evidence of a minute trail of dirt leading from the back room. Following along side, careful not to disturb the evidence, he made his way to the hanging blanket that separated the rooms. His hand fingered the pommel of his sword, but he knew well enough from the woman’s injury the deadly event had taken place many hours ago.

Xavier, pulling the covering aside, saw the small open window and the bits of dried mud that lead from the obvious entry point of the murderer. Moving to the window, he peered out and saw the unearthed grave. “Bastards,” he cursed under his breath. His eyes fell to the simple window latch. Any thin knife could have slipped between the latch and the frame to open it.

Returning to the humble main room of the simple home, he took one last look at the woman in the chair. She was in her nightgown. The blood around the cut and on her thin clothing had been dry for hours confirming his original thought the murder had happened in the early morning hours. Shaking his head, he knew there was only one more thing to look for.
It was a custom, as odd as it had always seemed to him, that farmers would welcome luck by placing their coin purses in a red vase or a small tin on the mantle. Walking to the rose colored glass piece on the hand-hewn half log sticking out above the fireplace, he picked it up and tipped out its contents into his open hand. The simple bag of coins rolled out. Only caring that it still existed in the vase, he set things back as they were.

Xavier left the house and sat on the edge of the porch to work through his thoughts. “Not a robbery nor a simple murder,” he said to his horse. “I fell for the ruse and spent all day looking for stolen horses that do not matter in the least. They grow bolder.”

The animal did not seem to care. In a sad truth, with so many oddities and deaths from the war and afterwards, few would care about Mrs. Knoll. The war had taken the hope of many away and gave back only melancholy and a lack of compassion. Tonight, he had witnessed yet another example of the horrid work of Seethings; foul people who cared only for power under the influence of a foul whisper that they had invited into their hearts. They had taken the body of the criminal he had hung in the name of justice. He knew what unnatural purposes they had for it.

Standing, he moved to the side of his horse and stuck his foot in the stirrup. Lifting himself up and tossing his leg over, the sheriff set himself in the saddle. “There will be other deaths to follow,” he whispered to himself.

Knowing that he would need to inform the priest, he turned his horse and rode slowly away.

Chapter 6

The cool of the morning blew through loose strands of Isabella’s hair as she stood a few feet from the open window that looked out upon the city street. Though the sun crept higher in the sky with its brilliant display of owning the sky, distant clouds in the north hinted that rain would find its way to Ardencroft. The rain was often a welcomed friend to Isabella. To her mind, the falling drops would sweep away the growing odor of the small city and refresh its appearance. She only hoped the rivers that bordered the castle and the population around it would not flood and leave the sewers reeking of river mud and human waste.

“Yes, do come and rinse the filth of this city,” she whispered. “And take away my troubles, as well.”

Though a happy thought that such a thing could be achieved, Isabella was a very practical woman and knew she would be the one to set things right in her life. Turning on her heels, away from the open window and the world outside, she moved to the table with the letters that had arrived the previous day. There was nothing she considered intriguing among them, a few invitations to parties or tea with other women of her status. Those messages that she truly cared about would not be written and sent by messenger but replied by the use of a secret herald. Personal matters were always best left unwritten.

“He would disapprove,” she whispered aloud. The thought of the man from her past and their recent meeting brought a small smile to her face. “Untrusting and somber. How much you have changed, Xavier Sevet.”

Looking up at the one book that meant anything to her, Isabella’s body moved without thought to the white binding of the book sitting among the other titles. With a need she did not care to feel, Isabella retrieved it carefully from the shelf and opened the leather cover. Gently, she touched the pressed flower that sat hidden within and struggled against the memories attached to the simple object. The offer of friendship and the growing feelings of a man from her past had been kept safely locked away in her heart, though few believed she had such a thing. It was her secret, one among many, that could be used against her continuing to live her vicarious life.

The delicate tapping at the door gave her just enough time to close the book in her hand. Looking up at the entering maid and smiling at her simple curtsy, she reached out with her hidden talent and listened to the servant’s thoughts before the words came from her lips.

“Lord Chieve is just outside. He wishes to know if your ladyship is available to speak.”

“He wishes to speak with me, you mean,” Isabella corrected the new servant’s words.

“Yes, milady. I meant those words.”

Isabella had made other plans for the morning, but she wondered what the man might have to say. The wealthy, middle-aged man had found her attractive and she had found his information about others as appealing. “Please invite Lord Chieve in. I am at my leisure.”

The servant girl dipped in her curtsy once more and left the room quickly, shutting the door of the Sitting Room a bit more harshly than Isabella cared for. Setting the book back in its place on the shelf, she moved to a chair, sat carefully at the edge and evaluated the state of her dress to receive company. A moment or two passed before the tap at the door came and she rose to meet the man as he entered.

“Milord? What a pleasant surprise,” she offered the nervous looking man. Carefully, Isabella touched his mind for his thoughts and nearly gasped at what was foremost in his thinking. By the Veil!

“You honor me with your acceptance of my visit, milady. I trust that I am not inconveniencing you by arriving without an invitation?”

“Well, it so happens that—”

“I came to ask after your father’s condition.”

Isabella knew his true reason but was quite taken by surprise, something she disliked immensely. “My father’s condition is the same, milord. The priests have assured me that they pray for his suffering to end and that he has solace in knowing he will be welcomed in the heavens when the time comes for him to leave us.”

“A great pity that he has not found the path to recovery.” Lord Chieve stepped slowly to a chair. “May I?”

“Please,” Isabella stated hesitantly and returned to her seat. “Do you come with news of a new medicine I have not heard of before?”

The man shook his head. “I fear that I have nothing to offer on that point, but I would like to speak to you on another that may give your troubles some relief.”

“You are most kind, milord, but I fear you are not aware of my strength and desire to continue in my father’s business affairs. These are my constant companions through this troubled time but I am certain they will see me to the end.”

Lord Chieve nodded. “Of course. Your interest in your family’s business is a great comfort to those that rely on the handling of their investments and the coin trade, as a whole. But I wonder if there is not another means to heal the hurt of a passing.”

“How do you mean?”

“If…if milady found a partner in life, I believe it would be a welcomed relief to your father before his death and to those that he has dealings with.”

Isabella did not need to read his thoughts nor hear more of his explanation. “And you believe you are the right man for me, milord?”

“Indeed, milady!” His eyes widened with exuberance. “I could stand in your place in your family’s business. Men prefer to do business with men, as everyone knows. And there is the matter of your reputation. No one would continue to gossip about your alleged intrigues with married men.”

Isabella’s blood began to boil. The man had taken one too many steps to defend his point. Like a refined actor on the stage, Isabella hid her outrage of being counted as a senseless woman who needed such a man or could be played with hidden threats. “You are most kind to single me out among all the many faces in the city, milord. Still, I find it difficult to believe your wife would be inclined to share a husband, even if it were a legal thing to do.”

“The pestilence has taken hold of her,” he objected hopefully. With eager eyes, he ogled over her like young suitor. “The physicians have told me she is unlikely to survive, much like your father, but I have discussed the matter with my sister and have found her opinion matched my own. It would be an advantage to have our families intertwined. The Chieve family owns many mines and would be a constant provider of ores needed by your father’s business partners.”

Isabella sighed inside while smiling kindly to the man seated across from her. Word would spread of her adoptive father’s condition not improving. More offers of marriage would certainly follow. “You flatter me and have given me much to think about, milord. Please forgive me, but I must seek the approval of my father as it is his right to council me in such matters.”

“Of course!” The man stood quickly. “I will await your answer with all eagerness, milady. Please make certain that you convey my understanding of your situation to your father when you speak to him. I am sure he will see the reasoning in my offer.”

Standing, with hands daintily clasped together in front of her, Isabella bowed her head. “I will make the most promising argument in your favor, milord.”

With a quick bow and a flash of a joyful smile, the man backed to the door. “I will see myself out, milady. You have indeed given me much hope for a happy future.” Turning, he escaped through the door and closed it behind him.

Isabella rubbed her forehead, feeling the pounding of legal issues that would soon knock at her door. With numerous options racing about in her head, she slowly went to the door and opened it. Passing through house servants that bowed and curtsied, Isabella climbed the stairs with a single purpose. Perhaps there was a chance her father’s condition had improved, an odd hope against all that she knew.

Carefully opening the door to her parent’s room, she peered inside to find him lying in bed with his eyes closed. Isabella wished she could find a way to communicate with him openly without stepping past what might be acceptable. Like a thief, she sneaked into the room and quietly shut the door behind her.

Even from the doorway and proving more valid as she approached the bedside of her ailing parent, she knew his end was near. Isabella knelt beside his large bed and gently took his hand when she reached his side. To read the mind of an ailing person and especially one so near death was dangerous though she wished to know what advice he might give her. Knowing her limits, she whispered in hopes that she might have one last conversation with the man who had rescued her from certain poverty.

“Father?”

The man sighed, then opened his eyes. He blinked as if staring into the sun, though the heavy curtains had been drawn and the light in the room was very dim. “Child.”

“I know that the physicians have warned me not to bother your rest, but I need to hear your words.”

Slowly, the man’s head moved in a careful nod.

“They will take everything from us when you are beyond the Veil. A man has proposed to me, but I…I do not want to be his bride.”

“Xavier?” the man asked, closing his eyes once more.

“No, that is in the past, Father. Your mind must be wandering,” she smiled. “Another man has come today. He will be without a wife soon and has planned to replace her with me. But…the Throne will not let me keep what is ours if I continue to refuse this man or another. What am I to do?”

“I had not planned to leave this world without you marrying, child.”

Isabella smiled though her heart ached from the sight of his passing health. “You could not foresee it. Not even I can predict the future. Mother’s mind is lost and I have no one I can truly trust. Help me. Tell your daughter what she should do before your passing.”

She watched his eyes wander to the bedside table and his hand feebly attempt to reach out for the small box that sat on top. “You want your medicines?” She let go of his hand and picked up the box. Setting it on her lap, Isabella opened the gilded wooden container and glanced at the vials of medicines. “Which do you need?”

“In the…bottom. Under the lining is a ring.”

Isabella carefully removed the vials and found a bump in bottom of the velvet lining. Searching with her fingers in the dim light, she found one of the sides would give way. When she peeled back the lining, an iron ring could be seen. She removed it and handed it to him. “I have never seen this ring before. Did it belong to your wife?”

The man gave out a weak chuckle. “Your father has outsmarted…the most vicious of souls before. I will do so again.”

She watched him bring the ring to his nose and smile. “I don’t understand.”

“The..ring will make the heart beat…the chest will rise and fall.”

“It will keep you alive?” Isabella was familiar with oddities, but had never heard of such an object.

Her father shook his head. “I will not be here to see its working.” His smile broadened. “I will fool them all….but only for a time.” He looked at Isabella with worried eyes. “Twenty days….no longer.”

Isabella’s eyes grew large. “It will kill you?”

“I am a whisper away from my time. They will not know I am gone. You need time. My gift to you.”

She shook her head. “You will not hasten your departure.” Tears filled her eyes as she reached out to take the ring from him. She was too late.

The man slipped the ring onto his finger and smiled. “I will fool them all, child.” With a slow sigh, her father slipped from the living world before her eyes.

Chapter 7

Shuffling through the numerous letters and wanted posters on his desk, Xavier glanced for any hint of an uprising that might be within the stacks. The murder of the humble woman on the edge of his land combined with the attack on the family from Hollowbrook seemed completely separate yet he would not set aside the idea that they were somehow connected. Finding nothing that appeased his intuition, Xavier collapsed in his chair and stared at the ceiling.

“Why would she care?” Xavier asked himself thinking of Bella’s request. “Of all the people in the world, why would she be so interested in a merchant family?”

Running his hands through his long hair, he began to feel the mental strain turn into a headache. Though he desired the events to be separate, the fact that a shadow from his past had reentered his life appeared to hold the events together in some unknown tethering. He retraced accounts of his past, hoping for some clue but found memories entangled with emotions he thought better than to trifle with. If there was indeed a connection, it would be most likely with the merchant himself or the business he made his livelihood. He shook his head.

“Even in this, Bella drags my mind through thistles. What could she want with this family? Perhaps it is the business aspect of the situation. Has she now found a desire to be involved with the trading in furs?” He chuckled at the thought of the elegant but cunning woman he had known. “Fur trade, indeed. Her only interest would be to wear the furs in front of others to show her status. No, not the trading of furs. It must point back to her unusual request to protect the family.”

Xavier began to wonder if he was not simply a part of some elaborate scheme. She had not written a letter to him to tell of her thoughts nor had she sent a messenger with some note, nearly impossible to decipher. The thought of being used as a pawn for attention or some backhanded way of playing with his emotions drove him to anger. He turned to his trusted friend standing quietly in the doorway.

“I would like you to do something for me, Harris. There is something not quite right about all of this. I include her family in this feeling.”

“What do you want me to do, Capt?”

Xavier stood and stretched. “I would like you to contact your friend. Ask him to seek out information about this family from Hollowbrook. Anything. No matter how small or insignificant it may be. I do not want to fall for tears and smiles if something is amiss.”
“Bry is a rough sort of man, Capt,” Harris stated. “Personally, I wouldn’t want the type of information he’ll try to dig up.”

Xavier knew that Bryan Millsand was a shifty character even before he forced him to leave Kedalpoint. “All the same. Write the letter and send it quickly. I do not want this question to linger unanswered.” In the back of his mind, he also questioned what facts Bella had not given him.

“Are you sure, Capt?” Harris questioned. “He drinks and runs at the mouth. Anything he finds might go to a higher bidder. Perhaps you might just sit down with her and see if you can weasel out a few hints.”

“I can’t trust her. We will take our chances with the drunkard.”

Harris took a step forward. “We’ve known each other for a long time, Capt. You know I have your best interest closest to my heart.”

Xavier thought back over the years and nodded to the words. “You have been like a member of my family, Harris. I may bark orders like I did in years past, but I do admire you and count you as my only friend.”

“Then let a friend offer a spoonful of advice. Contact the woman of you past and make amends. To see you toil without goal is like watching a fish out of water. Go to her. Speak from the heart and see what can be recovered.”

Xavier stared him in the eyes. “She was the one that left to marry another.”

“But the marriage did not occur,” Harris reminded him. “Is she not still in Ardencroft? Couldn’t you ride to the city to see if there are feelings left to rekindle?”

“Those days have long died away. She did not fight her father’s wishes to be married to another nor did she come to Kedalpoint on my return.” Xavier shook his head. “It is far too late for such things and I will not revisit the folly of my youth. My position and purpose is clear. I will help those that I can and give my life to the service of it.”

Harris bit the end of his lip. “Beg your pardon, Capt, but you sound like your father.”

“He would have agreed. There is only duty and—”

The sound of a door opening cutting off his words. Xavier’s eyes caught the nervousness Jeffers’ face as he led the black-haired woman into the room.

“Miss Travene?” Xavier stated in surprise.

The woman looked back to the young soldier and nodded. “Thank you, Mr. Jeffers.” Her eyes were wide when she readdressed the sight of Xavier. “Diner, Sir Xavier.”

“I beg your pardon, Miss Travene?”

“Dinner, Sheriff. My family would like to express their gratitude for your help the other day.”

He felt cornered and wish to snatch up his sword as if he were being attacked. His legs struck the chair as he stepped backward. Grabbing the back of the seat before it toppled, he turned back to the nervous woman. “I fear I can not accept. My position does not allow for—”

“For you to eat?” she interrupted. “You did not come dine with us the night you escorted us to Kedalpoint. Now, you are claiming, you can not be torn away for an hour from your duties to eat with us?”

He shook his head. “You misunderstand my meaning, Miss Trav—”

“Eight is when we dine, Sir Xavier. I’m certain you know where we are staying.”

“At the Three Coaches Inn, of course,” he nodded. “But tonight I must—”

“Avoid us once again?”

Xavier grew frustrated with her constant interruptions though he found himself off balanced by her insistence.

“We’ll ride the North Road for ya, Capt,” Jeffers stated, looking over to Harris for support.

He felt himself grow impatient with the situation. “I have duties and so do you,” he scolded the young soldier. Turning to the woman, he bowed his head in apology. “Please express my deepest regrets to your parents, Miss Travene, but I—”

“Eight, Sir Xavier,” Anna stated. She turned on her heals and pushed her way through the wide-eyed men.

Xavier was speechless and looked to Harris for some sort of explanation of what had just occurred.

“Looks like Capt just got himself captured by the enemy,” Jeffers stated with a grin.
Before Xavier could counter, Harris chuckled and pushed the young man backward as they quickly left the room, closing the door after them.

Chapter 8

The busy tavern inn hummed with activity. The lute player sounded a jovial tune while men laughed and talked in small groups that made the room buzz with incomprehensible chatter. Anna sat at their usual table with her hands in her lap. Unseen by others, she nervously picked at her fingernails and watched, between the gaps in the crowd, her father stand near the door waiting for the arrival of their guest.

“You did tell him we dine at eight, didn’t you?”

Anna nodded to her mother, not taking her eyes from the large man by the entrance.

“I doubt he will come,” Brenda stated in her typical all-knowing way. “He will keep us waiting until we have withered with starvation and then give some excuse not to come at all.” She gave out a displeasing huff and examined her dress. “All that poking around in shops will come to nothing. I doubt the man knows how to use a cup.”

“He did accept our invitation, did he not?” Anna’s mother asked her eldest daughter. “You did hear him say that he would join us?”

Anna fidgeted in her chair, feeling anxious from the demanding look in her mother’s eyes. “I told him we would eat at eight.”

“Yes, but did he say that he accepted the invitation?”

She looked away. “It’s very warm in here, don’t you think?”

“Anna Travene!” her mother reprimanded her in a half-restrained tone. “Tell me he agreed to meet us tonight for diner.”

Biting her lip, Anna forced herself to look back to her mother. With a small shrug, she felt the full course of embarrassment. “I think he will.”

“Hells, Mother,” Brenda balked. “She didn’t even ask him!”

“Be still, Brenda and mind your tongue,” Mrs. Travene stated firmly. “Anna. Did he or didn’t he accept the invitation?”

Anna glanced quickly at her father. There, like a prayer being answered, was the sheriff holding a conversation with him. “He’s here. Just as I thought.”

Each lady at the table glanced over to the door.

“You would have had a great deal of explaining to do to your father if he hadn’t,” her mother warned. She turned with a smile as the men approached the table. “Ah, Sir Xavier! How kind of you to set aside time to dine with us.”

The man in the fine black jerkin bowed to her, then to the others at the table. “A privilege.”

“Yes, yes,” Mr. Travene stated. “Since I did not have the opportunity to introduce my family on our last meeting, allow me to do so now. This is my dear wife, Mrs. Travene.” Waving a hand toward Brenda, he smiled. “Our youngest, Brenda and I believe you have had the honor of speaking with Anna this morning.”

Xavier bowed to each, but his eye rested on Anna. “Your eldest daughter was kind enough to convey the invitation.” Noting Mr. Travene wave him to the open chair between his daughters, he took his place at the table.

“How does roasted beef sound to you, Sir Xavier?” Mr. Travene asked in a hopeful voice. Seeing the sheriff dip his head in acceptance, he smiled broadly. “I have been told that this establishment specializes in stewed elk, but we have not stayed under this roof long enough to sample it as of yet.” The large man nodded happily to his words.

“Yes,” Mrs. Travene added. “We hear very good things about the cook at the Three Coaches Inn. Do you dine here often, Sir Xavier?”

Anna glanced to her side at the well-dressed man to find him only shaking his head in response to the question. Not one for talking. She pondered what conversation topic would coax him into a discussion. Looking at her parents who only nodded and smiled, she knew something had to be said. “Do you imagine it will rain, Sir Xavier?” Anna flinched at her own words, knowing weather was the most benign topic to be discussed.

“Perhaps,” he stated.

And not one for small discussions at the table either. Anna felt herself grow more nervous and blurted out the first thing that came to her mind. “We bought you a gift. Brenda?”

Her sister looked at her as if she had said the most outrageous thing. Shaking her head violently, Brenda turned to her mother. “I thought Anna was to bring it.”

Anna flushed with embarrassment. “Excuse me, Sir Xavier,” she said. Taking all the blame for her sister’s lack of attention, she stood from her seat. “I won’t be but a minute, Mother.” Nodding in appreciation to the sheriff rising from his chair, Anna quickly moved through the crowd and toward the stairs.

Cursing her sister under her breath, Anna climbed the steps and hurried to her room. Once inside, she snatched the silver goblet off Brenda’s bed and hurried back downstairs. Most of the men standing in her way moved with a either a look of curiosity or a nod of respect, clearing a small path for her return to the table that had their dinners readied.
A bit out of breath, she sat and presented the man with the gift. “It isn’t much.”

A small hint of a smile touched the edged of his lips. “A very kind offering.” He turned to her parents. “I am humbled by your generous gift.”

“You locked the door, didn’t you?” Brenda asked her sister.

Anna thought back and shook her head as she sat.

“What’s this?” Mr. Travene asked.

“Anna didn’t lock the door to our rooms,” Brenda balked. “We will be lucky to have furniture once someone finds the door unlocked.”

To her hidden amusement, Anna noticed the sheriff smirk before placing a forkful of meat in his mouth. “Once they see us with the sheriff?” she asked, “I imagine they will put it all back.” Anna hoped the words came out right.

“Girls!” their mother stated sharply. “Hardly the proper conversation to have in front of our guest.” She turned to the sheriff and offered an apologetic smile. “We seem to be out of sorts today, Sir Xavier. You will forgive us, won’t you?”

“Of course,” he replied quietly.

Anna looked about the table as she ate. Biding time while eating might work for a while, but she knew it would not be enough. Setting her fork aside, she reached for the bread only to run into the sheriff’s hand attempting to do the same. Anna felt a small tingle at the touch and retracted her hand quickly. “After you, Sir Xavier.” She saw him remove his hand and shake his head. Understanding it to be a sort of apology, she smiled and took a piece of bread. Looking up at her father, she begged with her eyes to have him start some new topic to be discussed to fill the awkward silence.

“Sir Xavier,” he began. “Have you lived in the area for very long?”

The man froze for a moment, then slowly reached out to the bread board. “Most of my life.”

“And family?” Mrs. Travene asked. “Do your parents or siblings live nearby?”

Anna saw him recoil slightly to the questions. She found it odd he simply shook his head and paid attention to his meal. A shy sheriff? It didn’t seem to fit the fighter she witnessed on the road. “Relatives of any sort?”

“A distant cousin, in Ardencroft,” he replied quickly, then spread jam lazily across the surface of his bread.

Brenda sighed. “Perhaps the rest simply got bored and left.”

Anna saw the outrage in her father’s eyes. She searched desperately to find another topic to cover her sister’s uncouth comment. “Bear!” All eyes at the table flashed to her. “I mean to ask, do you see many bear around, Sir Xavier?”

The man’s eyes appeared to show him a bit lost for a moment, then softened. “Very few, Miss Travene.”

“It’s a wonder that they haven’t eaten every last person in this town,” Brenda stated.

Mrs. Travene stood quickly from her seat. “Forgive us, Sir Xavier. I believe our youngest daughter has symptoms of some ailment. She obviously does not look well.”

The sheriff rose from his seat as Anna watched the deadly glare her mother shot toward Brenda. There would be hell to pay for her sister’s usual antics, but it would not be done in public.

“Perhaps, I should leave,” Xavier stated.

“Please, Sir Xavier,” Anna stated placing her hand on his arm. Her eyes watched the quick removal of her sister. “You won’t get out of this that easy.” She turned to her father for help.

“Our youngest was not found of the idea of taking this trip, Sir Xavier,” Mr. Travene stated honestly. “It appears I have made a mistake in forcing the issue. Would you mind if I order us something a bit stronger to drink?”

“I am to patrol the roads tonight, Mr. Travene.” He sat and took a sip from his glass. “But do not let me keep you from your desire.”

Anna noticed a small easing of the sheriff’s manner. “Then I will keep you company while Father drinks.” The reappearance of a small grin on his face told her she was on the right path for making him more comfortable. “I know I was a bit demanding asking you to come here tonight. I get flustered sometimes.”

“No apology is necessary,” he replied quietly.

“Well, I didn’t want you to think that we didn’t care about what you have done for us. We really are in your debt.”

His eyes moved to the large man waving to the barkeep to get his attention. “It is my occupation. There is no—”

“No, you saved us on the road,” she interrupted. “Don’t belittle it. We know what might have happened to us if you hadn’t come.” She glanced toward the stairs. “I wish I could tell you that was the reason Brenda acts the way she does.” Anna leaned closer to him and whispered. “But the truth is that she’s always been obnoxious.”

The sheriff hid his grin behind the sipping from his glass. He nodded in smallest of gestures.

Anna watched her father lift a large mug of ale to his lips and drank deeply. For a moment, she worried it would be another late night for him at the bar. She eyed him, hoping that her stare would be caught by his glance and her concern understood.

“What would you have done, milord?” Mr. Travene asked, wiping his lips with his sleeve. “Leave a wife and daughters at home or bring them with you to see to business?”

“I fear I don’t have the experience to give advice on such a matter.”

“Gut reaction then,” Mr. Travene said with a shrug and drank again from the mug.

Anna saw the sheriff move slightly in his chair. From her viewpoint, she noticed he rubbed his hands together beneath the table. “We are rather odd, Sir Xavier. Father and I tend to ask many blunt questions.”

“And think for a bit, then ask more of them,” her father added with a chuckle. “Come. I would like to know.”

“I believe that your youngest daughter will only cause you more trouble than its worth,” the sheriff stated softly.

Mr. Travene nodded. “But if I had left her behind, I wouldn’t know what trouble she had caused back home.”

“I believe Mrs. Travene would—” Xavier began.

“Would encourage it,” Anna finished for him. “Brenda has quite the social circle that Mother takes pride in. Several of the men would like very much to whisk my sister away.”

“She’s too young and naive,” Mr. Travene stated. “Runs off at the mouth and complains at the drop of a hat.” He shivered. “I do pity the man she marries, but its much too early for that sort of talk.”

Anna smiled and turned to the rather bewildered man beside her. “Brenda is—”

“Careful, girl,” her father warned.

“I was going to say,” Anna continued, “that she is nearly nineteen and all of her friends are already married or spoken for.”

“Promised at nineteen is hardly unheard of,” the sheriff stated appearing more interested.

Mr. Travene finished his ale and waved toward the bar for another. “That may be so, but Brenda does not act her true age. Knowing this, would you leave such a girl behind?”
Anna watched the sheriff as he apparently sifted through his thoughts.

“If I may be so bold, Mr. Travene. I do not think that I would have much choice in the matter. Removing her from her social circle may have worked in her earlier years, but her personality is such that she is likely to run away from home or from this place. I do not see how one could avoid it. Though I would make certain there was no void in my relationship with her as one should not cut ties with family members.” He looked to Anna, then back at his half empty glass of wine. “But as I stated, I have no experience in such matters.”

At the clear opinion given, Anna looked at her father and saw his eyes sadden. Without a doubt in her mind, the stranger had completely summed up her own thoughts and noted they had touched her father.

“You speak rightly, milord,” Mr. Travene stated. “I have done all that I know to do and dragging my children here is just an act of an old man not wishing to let go.” He turned to Anna. “I hope you will consider staying here with your father?”

The prospect of being separated from her mother and sister made her heart leap. “Are you giving me the option to choose?”

“You’re twenty one, girl,” her father stated. “Of course you have a choice. I have no doubt that when I get back to my room your mother will demand to take Brenda back to town. Should you wish to stay, we would need to find someone that might act as a lady’s maid or something of the sort.”

She could not hide the smile on her face. “Well, if it would keep you from being lonely, then I think I should stay with you.”

“The matter is settled then,” her father said. He turned with a grin toward the quiet sheriff. “It appears you are not rid of the entire family just yet, milord. More wine?”

Chapter 9

Isabella left the protection of the carriage and hurried through the rain to the awaiting open door of her home. The servants greeted her as she entered and quickly removed her wet cloak.

“A Master Tarns is in the sitting room, milady,” announced one of her household staff.
Isabella was in no mood to entertain another offer of marriage having just made excuses to leave a dinner party that was poorly disguised as a trap to marry another. “Tell Master Tarns that I have just come from dinner and am feeling very tired. I will attempt to make amends at a later date.”

“But he’s in the sitting room, milady,”

“So you have said,” she rebutted. “Now, go do as I say or you will be forced to find other employment.”

Isabella’s eyes looked up the staircase. The image of her dead father laying preserved yet appearing still within the world struck her at her core. “I will retire to the library,” she stated to the staff and purposefully walked down the hall.

Entering the room quickly, she shut the door and sighed. There would be no end to the hounding of men. Each had come after her once they heard of Lord Cheive’s misfortune of catching the pestilence from his wife. “Wolves,” she huffed as she marched across the room. Tonight’s event had set her aflame and Isabella was not about to become easy prey. Stopping before the table with several bottles of unique and expensive spirits, she searched for the one most likely to take away the chill and enable her to sleep deeply.

“Milady?” a young man’s voice called from behind her.

Isabella jumped at the voice and spun on her heels.

“I wish to—”

“Out!” she screamed.

“But if you will hear words spoken from my heart, you will know that I am the one for you.”

Isabella gritted her teeth. “How dare you enter this room unannounced, Mr. Tarns! Go and profess you love to some tavern wench willing to hear.”

The young man began to step forward. “I have only your name written on my heart, milady. If you will but allow yourself to hear the music that plays for you—”

Without another thought, Isabella grabbed a bottle from the table and threw it across the room, smashing against the wall mere inches from the young man. “Out, damn you!”

The wide-eyed man quickly back-peddled through the open door, tripping over his feet during the hasty exit from the room. Several maids appeared with worried faces and saw the mess she had created. Appearing like a stag caught in the light of a coach lamp, Mr. Tarns stared in bewilderment at her. Isabella felt only a brief sense of shame having lost control of her temper and watched the young man climb to his feet and rush away.

“Leave it,” she said in a commanding tone to the servants. “It will wait.”

The maids, knowing their mistress to be in no mood to be persuaded, hurriedly left the room and closed the doors.

Isabella plucked another bottle from the tray and a heavy crystal glass. Hugging the items, she moved toward the warmth of the fireplace and collapsed in an over-sized leather chair. Unstopping the bottle, she poured the amber colored liquor into the glass and noted her hand was shaking. Frustrated that she had fallen victim to an obvious trap by a so called honorable man, she set the bottle on the floor next to her and drank deeply from the glass. The spirit was surprisingly strong causing her to cough as it burned the back of her throat.
“I cannot even drink from a cup without being attacked.”

In an attempt to recover her nerves, she set the glass aside and tucked her legs under her. Rubbing her temples, Isabella forced the ridiculous yet formidable situation she found herself from her mind. Fatigue began to settle in as her heartbeat slowly made its way to an even beat. “Fools. They are all fools,” she whispered to herself. “We will outsmart them in the end, Isabella. Just calm yourself. You must remain calm.”

In the back of her mind, she heard muffled and diluted thoughts of another. Knowing she was no longer alone, she rubbed her forehead and sighed. “I know you have heard every word.”

The secret door, hidden as a set of book shelves, eased open behind her.

“Focus your mind and share what you know,” she continued, feeling more tired as the moments passed. “I cannot tell you how little patience I will have for bad news.”
The figure inched his way out from his hiding place and glanced around the room. “I came as quickly as I could.”

“And?” she asked, unwilling to exert herself to read his thoughts.

“A man was found in the alley of Hollowbrook. He had spent time in a tavern unfit for rats yet seemed quite at home there until he met another man who had questions for him.”

Isabella knew this was her most trusted informant’s way of separating himself from that what he had heard or been involved with. “And what did the first man say?” she asked wearily.

“He spoke of a merchant that had once sired children with a woman that was not his current betrothed.”

“Damn.” Isabella looked up at the masked figure. “And did this man know the whereabouts of the children?”

“Only the one for certain, but the man believed he could follow clues back to the mother of the children and tell his employer about the forgotten child’s place in the world.”

“And will he?”

“The questioning man felt that too much was known and that word would spread from his lips should coin be involved. His fears were affirmed when the drunken man offered more information if the price was appealing.”

“Was he paid?”

“In steel.”

She looked to the fireplace and shook her head. “Murder was not an option in the instructions I gave you.”

“Nor the fact that two others heard the same tale. Their deaths were required to contain the spreading of the secret.”

Isabella nodded. Such was the way of her world. Nothing promising could see its rightful end unless a coin purse or dagger was involved. But the news of Xavier’s spy dying with the news he sought was unsettling. He would not forgive her for it. “What else?”

“The merchant father is in debt. The sum is far more than what was originally thought.”

Isabella picked up her glass and carefully sipped the warming liquid. “He isn’t interested in a new source of pelts then,” she thought aloud. “He is attempting to flaunt his daughter in front of the sheriff in hopes of finding some way to pay off his debtors. I wonder if the sheriff has figured that out for himself.”

“Unlikely. He has not had enough time nor does he know of the history of the family.”

Isabella pushed herself out of her chair and walked to the tea tray on the service table. “He must not know. Not yet.” She rubbed her neck, wishing the fatigue would simply drift away. “It should be from my mouth that he hears the truth. I owe him that much.” Isabella crossed back to her chair and picked up the bottle, with another troubling thought making its way to the forefront. “The city is swimming with vandals seeking the Throne’s approval, as well. Another noble wedding is surely in the making and that will provoke the Throne to action.” She turned to her informant. “You realize what another noble wedding will amount to?”

The man bowed. “The baron will try again for an heir and the woman will die like the others.”

“Hang the baron,” she said softly. “I’m worried what it will mean to those who live in Ardencroft and Kedalpoint.”

“Forgive me, milady. I understand your meaning, but if you are so concerned with such events, I would urge you to act quickly.”

“Too many eyes watch me now. I cannot trust even the smallest slip of paper to reach Xavier before it would be intercepted.” She stroke the bottle as her mind turned to another subject in her mind. To have her sister unknowingly travel to a place so near to her brought many mixed feelings. “Is she pretty? I have always wondered.”

“Milady?”

Isabella shook the thought of her sister from her mind. “Nothing. I ask you to keep what you know hidden for the moment, but I have the situation of my father and these offers to wed to deal with first.”

“There is an easy solution for that matter, milady.”

Her eyes searched his. “Easy, but not to my liking. I have loved once. That, I will freely tell you, but I will not throw myself into the arms of another simply to secure my future.” Isabella noted his head make a small gesture in understanding. “Now, tell me. Did a shadow find his way into the rooms of Lord Cheive’s home?”

“It was not by my hand. The Sisters of the Red Leaf, if my sources are correct.”

Isabella’s ears perked at the mention of the name. There were many cults and other factions that simply sought the coin from the royal purse. Why this particular sept of dangerous women would seek out the businessman, she couldn’t say. “Poisoned, was he? I fear it would be improper to send a letter expressing my gratitude.”

“A most indelicate means of showing appreciation.”

“I doubt it was my interest that they did this. As to what they have planned for Ardencroft, I will need to steer my sister away from.” She looked at the man and saw him nod. “What do you hear in the streets that are unsettling?”

The man shifted from the shadows to peer out the window. “Preparations for storms without names. All vie for the chance to be of some use to the Throne. Factions of peddlers, dangerous men with eyes that glow at the prospect of riches, those with talents with words or blades. Many yearn for the power an empty barony would create.”

Isabella could not agree more. It seemed to her that very few in the city were not connected to some faction that wished to be rewarded or to be in control of the city and its holdings. “I find it more difficult to steer clear of these nameless storms. I have enough difficulty keeping myself under a dry roof.”

“Such is the way of things…for now.” The man moved closer to her. “Pity you could not simply change the past and have been born a man.”

She chuckled at his jest and sipped from her glass. “Yes, a great pity. And you? How will you weather the storms when they come?”

“A shadow is always the best place to seek when trouble comes, milady. Perhaps…” The dark man paused, choosing his words carefully. “I have never given my opinion when it was not connected with business. Still, if you will hear, I believe you swim in waters that threaten pull you deep into its depths. Can you not find an island to hide yourself away?”

Isabella felt the need for sleep grow quickly as her body warmed from the drink and fire before her. “There is no such place, my shadowy friend,” she replied as she sat.

“The care of friend? A love, perhaps?”

She turned to the quiet man and shook her head. “I have no such friends. As for love, that option has long passed. Those in Kedalpoint think me as nothing but a loose woman who has treated their sheriff poorly in her youth.” She shrugged. “Perhaps they are right in one sense, but those in Ardencroft keep an eye on my movements and have never trusted me. These marriage proposals are nothing more than a desire for my father’s wealth.”

“Then, milady, I offer only this. You must find a shadow and slip into it as others will surely seek you out. Shadows have served me well. It will come at a cost, but should you desire it, you would live much longer. In truth, the shadows may be the only option left to you.”

Isabella rested her head against the back of the large chair and closed her eyes. Slowly shaking her head to his words, she welcomed the coming sleep. “I will see this to its end.” Isabella smiled. “Besides, my friend, I am afraid of the dark.”

Chapter 10

Anna found herself in a very unusual predicament. Wandering by the small shops as she had done daily since their arrival a place at the foot of the growing mountains, Anna could not shake the need to have someone to talk to. Her mother and terrible sister had left for home following the unpleasant dinner. Her father had ventured upriver in search of the elusive Mr. Arkans only a day ago, leaving her to her thoughts and eating alone at the inn. Though she enjoyed the picturesque scenery of the valley and the outline of the distant peeks of the Capik mountains, Anna knew she was lonely.

Again her eyes glanced toward the stone jail house and considered the plan she had devised while eating breakfast. Knowing herself to be shy and a bit socially awkward, Anna found that she had only to two choices. She could remain alone or muster the strength to visit the man who seemed to share in her inability to speak with strangers.

She was only half aware that she had crossed the main street and heading in the direction of the jail when she realized her movement away from the stores. Peering quickly over her shoulder, she noted clusters of people staring at her. The locals, who often walked the streets in the cool of the morning hours, looked away quickly when their eyes met hers. They will gossip for sure. Don’t listen to them, Anna. More concerned with her father’s reaction than the opinions of the people of Kedalpoint, Anna continued to make her way toward the stone structure beside the shade of large elms.

“I’ll only see if Sir Xavier might show me around town”, she said to herself in a whisper. “Father wont mind. He seemed to like the sheriff. Just a small tour, perhaps.”
Coming to the iron braced wood door, she stopped and considered what she might say to the quiet man to coax him out of his hole. A smile crept across her face as she thought of the event of their first conversation. Not so nervously this time, Anna. And not so bossy. Breathing deeply to settle the growing butterflies in her stomach, she knocked on the heavy door. Anna jumped when the small window behind iron bars popped open.

“Miss Travene?” the young man asked in astonishment.

“Yes, Mr. Jeffers. I wondered if I might have a word with the sheriff.” She saw his eyes widen.

“He ain’t here.”

Anna felt a bit disappointed, but didn’t wish to leave the task half done. “I see. Well, perhaps you would pass a message to Sir Xavier from me? I only wished to ask if he might—”
The young face behind the iron cage moved aside and a set of older eyes squinted back at her. “Miss Travene! Just a moment.”

The small door shut and numerous locks turning could be heard. With a small squeak of old hinges, the heavy door opened to a welcoming man with Jeffers peering over his shoulder. “Come in, Miss.”

“Thank you,” she stated with a smile and entered nervously into the cool stone room she had seen once before. “Mr. Harris, is it?” she asked.

“Harris will do, Miss Travene,” he replied, shoving the young man back with his hand. “And just Jeffers, for this one.”

Anna gave them a short curtsy out of respect. “Thank you for inviting me into your… place of work. I don’t mean to intrude.”

“He ain’t here,” Jeffers repeated.

Harris smacked him on the shoulder with the back of his hand. “Why don’t you go and fetch us some water from the well?” He turned back to the woman in front of him with a smile. “You wont mind drinking tea from a tin cup, will you?”

“Tea?” Anna smiled. “That would be lovely, Mr. Harris. But I don’t want to put you to any trouble.”

Jeffers waited until he saw the warning in Harris’ eyes. He quickly snatched up a kettle from the hanger by the fireplace and excused himself.

As the young man passed her, Anna noticed the disgruntled face. “Honestly, Mr. Harris, I only meant to ask if Sir Xavier might join me for dinner or for a tour of the town. Father is away and I don’t know many in town as of yet.”

Harris smiled and waved her to one of the simple chairs around a thick table. “The lad was right. Capt isn’t here, but that doesn’t mean we can’t entertain you while you wait.” He shrugged. “That is if you don’t mind chatting with us.”

“It would be a pleasure, Mr. Harris.” Anna sat in the chair feeling rather proud of herself for holding a normal conversation and watched the man gather cups from a cupboard. “You won’t be in trouble on my account, will you?”

The man chuckled. “Well, as I see it, you’re a guest so Capt will just have to set aside protocol today.”

“Protocol?”

Harris turned setting three cups on the table and moved a few wanted posters aside. “No one is supposed to be in the jail house except prisoners and us.”

Anna felt ashamed that she hadn’t considered that she truly was trespassing. “I should leave then.”

“Would like you to stay a while, if you have the time,” he stated. The honesty in his eyes reinforced his request. “Jeffers needs to be around women to get over that awkward stage and I, for one, could use conversation that did not deal with hunting down criminals.”

“And you won’t get in any trouble if I have tea here?”

“A little trouble never hurt anyone,” he smiled as he sat. “Now, tell me. What do you think of Capt?”

Anna chuckled. “Shy would have been my only comment had I not seen him fight on the road to Kedalpoint.”

“Quite, is the word for it,” Harris corrected. “He’s in his head most of the time. Suppose that comes with the job.”

“But I think shy as well,” she added kindly. “He didn’t seem to want to come eat with my family and said very little until my mother and sister left the table.”

He shrugged and looked up when Jeffers came in with a kettle full of water. “Well, he wasn’t always shy, Miss Travene.”

“Who? Capt?” Jeffers asked. The young man hung the kettle on an iron arm and moved it over the flames. “Used to sing those little songs and tell us about the things he learned in books. Even told me of a girl he used to court.”

Anna could not believe they were talking about the same person. “That doesn’t sound like the man I met.”

“War does things to people, Miss Travene,” Harris stated solemnly.

“Capt,” she repeated the name. “He was your captain in a war?”

Jeffers stood and nodded. “Best leader there ever was, Miss. Saved Harris and I more than I care to remember.”

“That’s the truth of it,” Harris stated. “Doubt you heard of the uprising in Resette.”
Anna shook her head.

“Well that’s cause no one was supposed to know of it, but its a place every soul in this town has heard of.”

“A secret war, Miss Travene,” Jeffers commented with a seriousness that did not seem to fit a young man.

She had to admit she was curious. “Is it something you can tell me?”

“You can’t say nothing to Capt,” Harris answered. “See, the baron came riding up into town one day with a hundred men. They were all in armor and marched like they were the Throne’s Army. Capt told everyone the baron promised each man twenty gold for two weeks of fighting.” He chuckled. “Two weeks for twenty gold pieces, Miss Travene. Can you imagine? Every man in town leapt at the offer. Seeing that the baron is Capt’s cousin, Capt had to join no matter who else jotted down their name.”

Anna tapped her chin and nodded. “Sir Xavier did tell us he had a cousin.”

“A lying one,” Jeffers stated flatly. “Two weeks was two years.”

“Doubt the baron figured as much, lad,” Harris stated calmly. “Bet he never wants to think on it like the rest of us.” He turned back to their guest. “See, it wasn’t just some town that wanted some freedoms or the like. It was pure evil we fought.”

“What do you mean?” she asked. It was clear in both men’s eyes that something very wrong had happened in this place she had never heard of before today.

“Seethers,” Jeffers said in a whisper.

Anna laughed. “Gentlemen, you win. You had me completely fooled with your story right up to now.”

“Ain’t lying to you, Miss,” Jeffers stated quietly. “We saw them. Clear as day.”

“The lad’s right,” Harris stated. The kettle began its growing boil causing him to nudge the young man to take it away from the heat. “Jeffers and I saw it all. The first time, we were attacked in the woods. Trees came alive and snagged us up with branches and roots. Killed all of a troop of twenty but us three. Capt was the one that killed most of them foul beings that night.” He looked over at Jeffers. “The boy was twelve, our banner carrier. I saw him tripped up by something around his feet, and when I ran to him, a branch came out of nowhere and knocked me off my feet. Then Capt came running over and hacked the root that was strangling Jeffers.”

“Still have nightmares about that,” Jeffers stated nervously. “Still hate the woods at night.”

Anna shook her head. “Impossible,” she said.

“Thought that myself before I saw it, but it happened most nights,” Harris said. “They would whisper in the wind at night. Make you fear to go to sleep. Then after a few days, when you were bone tired, they would attack. Flocks of ravens swooping at ya, roots coming up out of the ground, poisonous snakes crawling into camp, and even taking over the bodies of dead people.”

“What?”

Jeffers began to fill each tin cup from the kettle. “Their eyes glowed. Had to burn the dead or they came after ya the next night.”

“Wet myself on the first sight of that, I don’t mind telling you,” Harris stated flatly. “Didn’t dare run away. They would hunt you down like a dog. So, that’s how it was. A nightmare that lasted two years is the way I can describe it.”

Anna shook her head.

“You can ask anyone in the village, Miss,” Jeffers said. His eyes were large and honest. “Only Harris and I know what happened in the end, but almost every man over twenty that came back knows what it was like to fight them.” He hesitated for a moment, turning his steaming cup. “Some didn’t come back at all, really.”

“What do you mean?” Anna asked.

“I told ya, war does things to people,” Harris answered for him. “Some minds just can’t get rid of it. Even Capt can’t sleep through the night. Most that lived came back and took to drinking or went up into the mountains to hide. Others just went mad.”

“Like Eric Lowe,” Jeffers nodded. “He was nice to me before the war, then evil as black pitch after a year of coming back. Started killin’ people’s animals at night then it got really bad. And he weren’t the first or the last.”

Anna sat back in her chair, staring at each man in turn. The tale they told sounded like a frightening story from a book, but the proof in their eyes was undeniable. She felt her hands shake and clasped them together. “I will tell Sir Xavier if you are lying to me.”

“You can ask Brother Talas, if you don’t believe us, Miss,” Jeffers offered. “He was there too.”

The door to the jail house opened, causing Anna to jump in her seat. Turning quickly, she saw a curious look in the sheriff’s eyes.

“Miss Travene?”

Anna attempted to push all that she heard from her mind. If there was even a hint of truth in the men’s stories, she had promised not to say a word to him. “Sir Xavier.” She forced a kind smile on her face though her mind saw in him in a different light. “Would you come dine with me tonight?”

She saw his eyes glance from one man to the other. “I have important issues to—”

“I understand,” Anna said quickly. “It was just on a whim that I thought you might have time.” She stood from her seat and looked at the soldiers at the table. “Thank you for the tea, gentlemen. I hope I didn’t keep you from your duties.” All were quiet, a signal in Anna’s mind that something was being communicated between them and that it was time for her to leave. “I hope you have a pleasant day,” she added and moved to the door.

“Miss Travene,” Xavier said. “I am very sorry not to be able to join you tonight. There are—”

“Please don’t worry, Sir Xavier,” she replied. “I understand you are a busy man. Good bye, gentlemen.” With a quick curtsy, she exited through the open doorway.

Anna headed for the safety of the inn feeling the need to lock herself in her room until she could manage to think through all that she heard. In her quick retreat, she noticed that the small smiles on the faces she had seen from the locals had disappeared. She hastened her pace toward the inn until something grabbed her arm. Anna squealed in fright.

“My apologies, Miss Travene,” Xavier stated. Letting go of her arm, he quickly clasped his hands behind his back. “I did not mean to frighten you.”

Anna smiled faintly, attempting to regain her composure. “Forgive me, Sir Xavier. I feel that my nerves are tied in knots today.”

“I meant only to ask if you will be dining at eight.” He offered a small smile. “If the invitation is still offered.”

Relief flooded her body nearly to the point of fainting. She smiled back at him. Seeing a look of concern wrapped in an awkwardness, Anna felt a sort of connection to the man she could not explain. “Yes, Sir Xavier. It is, indeed.”

Chapter 11

Looking over the rim of her glass at the sheriff, Anna sipped her wine quietly and searched for something to say. The meal, unlike the first they ate together, was a more simple fair of stewed meat, yet wonderfully flavored. The conversation was stilted, yet for her part, she was thankful he had agreed to the invitation.

Noting his quick glance up at her, she smiled kindly, then turned to the familiar crowd that occasionally looked at her along with a whisper to a neighbor. Anna understood that she and their sheriff made for interesting conversation. She only hoped that it would not make its way back to her father. The very idea made her nervous.

“They will look over us less often if you stare them down,” Xavier stated.

Anna chuckled knowing she could hardly look them in the eye. “I have done something to upset the people of Kedalpoint, Sir Xavier. Will I be cast in irons and spend the night in prison?” She turned to find a small grin on his face and a feeling of calm flow through her. “You don’t seem to mind it though, do you? Their stares?”

Xavier shrugged and dipped a small piece of bread into his bowl. “I have become used to it, I suppose.”

Noting his dipping of bread into the last of the soup, she chuckled. “A noble who sops?

Perhaps that is a military custom you have acquired?”

His eyes fixated on her as he chewed. Swallowing and reaching for his glass, Xavier nodded. Looking to his side, he seemed to examine each soul within the loud tavern. “I assume by your quick retreat and the concern on the faces of my men, that certain subjects were brought up in my absence.”

Anna hesitated to respond. She had no desire to put the kind men on a path of trouble.

“Your lack of an answer is enough.”

“You must not blame them,” she asked more than stated. “They entertained me with stories—”

“Facts, I imagine,” he interrupted. Looking again at the crowd, he stared at each until they turned away. He gave out a small sighed. “Miss Travene, would you accompany on a small stroll about town? Tonight the stares seem more annoying than usual.”

Anna smiled. “Aren’t you afraid people will get the wrong idea?”

“Only your family’s good opinion matters.”

“Well, I would beg to differ if I didn’t agree,” she teased. “But I believe there are a great many opinions that should matter to a man of your position.” The idea of a stroll with the calming man agreed with her. “Since I am not fifteen, my father has the utmost confidence in me and everyone seems to be afraid of you, I’m willing to take a risk.”

He nodded as he wiped his mouth with a napkin and set the linen on the table. Rising from his seat, he moved behind her and pulled Anna’s chair out as she rose. Leading her through the crowd of onlookers, they left the inn with little effort. Anna was surprised that, once outside, he offered his arm to her.

“Such a gentleman, Sir Xavier,” Anna said with a grin. She took his arm and began to casually stroll down the street. “Where should we walk to first or are we to just walk in any direction as long as we can be seen?”

“You seem to be in rare form tonight, Miss Travene,” he said quietly. “Is there cause for your ease?”

Anna shrugged, hiding her smile by looking to the stars. “Does there need to be?” She turned and saw he did not look around for others as she might have guessed. “And you are more talkative now we are away from others. Is there a reason for that?”

“You are easy to talk to, Miss Travene,” he admitted. “You do not stare at me. The people of this town have always done so.”

“Perhaps they are curious what you are thinking.”

“Rather, curious of what I know about them and what I mean to do with such information,” he said. “They look at me in such a way that I can feel their fears. As if I cared about such smaller matters.”

Anna imagined that it would be difficult to be in such a position. “I wasn’t sure how to talk to you when I first met you,” she admitted. “Sir Xavier, the sheriff of Kedalpoint. I was uncertain if you were some untouchable noble or perhaps a wealthy brat of a man.”
Xavier chuckled quietly. “And now?”

“Well,” she began, pondering her words. “This morning, I thought you were shy, but it appears that you are simply ‘in your head’, as Mr. Harris put it.”

“Perhaps a bit of both.”

“I understand what it’s like to live inside one’s head,” Anna said. “I truly do. I guess I learned it when I was little. My parents are not especially fond of me, you see. When Brenda was about five or six years old, I knew that I wasn’t particularly cared about so I just found another way to entertain myself.”

“That seems a very tragic story, Miss Travene.”

Anna sighed. “I don’t mean for you to feel sorry for me. It’s just that not every family is closely tied. I do care for them and my father and I have grown closer over the years, but we aren’t what people believe.” Approaching one of the bridges on the outskirts of town, she looked up at him. The man seemed intent in listening to her, which made her blush. “But that is enough about me and my problems, what about yours?”

“My family or my occupation?”

“Either, I’m a good listener. I’ve been practicing for years,” she chuckled. “I’m told your cousin is a baron.”

Xavier nodded as they moved to the middle of the stone bridge. “A distant cousin, yet all the family I have left.”

“Do you meet often or maybe write to one another?”

He guided her to the side of the bridge and looked up at the moons. “Edicts and wanted posters is all that is sent. Not as we once communicated.”

“Not since the war?” she asked timidly.

Xavier looked at her for a moment before nodding.

“It’s true then, what your men said about the uprising?” She saw in his sudden avoidance of looking at her that at least some of the story had truth to it. “The secret battle?”

“Mr. Harris has a loose tongue,” he replied.

“And the Seethers?”

He would not look at her, brushing the toe of his boot against the gravel.
Anna was not sure if she wanted to hear all that had happened. It was a horrifying tale in the first hearing and she wondered if she hadn’t already pried too deeply. Still, she was curious. “May I ask, Sir Xavier, what it was that only you and your men saw at the end?”
“At the end?”

“Mr. Jeffers implied that only they were with you at the end.”

Xavier breathed deeply. “And my cousin, but somethings are not so easy to tell.” He looked at her with a hint of warning. “Somethings should not be told at all.”

“Secrets are unnatural, Sir Xavier,” she said softly. “I think that is why they are so hard to keep…because you are trying to hide truth.”

“Some are very dangerous truths, Miss Travene,” he said.

“All the same, its a lie to keep it hidden.” Anna thought for a moment as to how to continue. “Isn’t there anyone that you might talk to so you don’t have to carry it alone?”

“Brother Talas is enough.”

The heaviness of what was in him showed on his face. Anna knew what it was like to carry a secret and hated seeing another suffer as she had. The man, who she had only known for a week, appeared tormented with an event in his life. Perhaps it was the dark of the night or the sound of the water that might mask their voices that caused Anna feel safe. The desire to show him the one thing she had not shared with another soul grew large within her. “Sir Xavier, may I borrow your dagger for a moment?”

A smile began at the edges of his lips. “My dagger, Miss Travene?”

“If you please,” she asked nervously, still attempting to understand why she was about to reveal her secret to him. When he unsheathed the knife and handed it to her with a warning of its sharp blade, she knelt to the stone surface of the bridge.

“I have never shared this with anyone,” Anna stated, half believing what she was about to do. “You seem to carry secrets, so perhaps you are the one I can share my own. Promise, you won’t judge me, will you?”

The sheriff watched her for a moment, then bent down beside her. He nodded. “What is it you want me to see?”

“I don’t know how,” she began as she set the blade on stone, “but I can do something odd. Since I was a child.”

“Odd?”

She nodded nervously. “Promise you will not be alarmed. If the stories your men told are true, then you have seen unusual things before. Am I right in saying that?”

Xavier kept still, his stare firmly on the blade.

Anna closed her eyes. With an outstretched finger, she made one slow circling gesture with her hand. Opening them, she peeked at the man next to her. “Pick it up.”

The sheriff watched her closely. His eyes seemed to search for something in hers. Then, without a word, he reached for the dagger. It would not budge to his touch. Xavier’s eyes became larger. Standing quickly, he stepped back from her. “But you are not a Seether!”

“No,” she said nervously. “If I were and after hearing that you killed so many, do you think I would honestly unveil myself to you?”

He shook his head in disbelief. “Perhaps you know how to shield yourself and are attempting to lure me into an enchantment.”

Anna stood and slowly took a step backwards. “No! That isn’t the truth. I thought you would understand.”

“Understand?” he asked. “I spent two years hunting down your kind. Hundreds of men killed in the most horrific way by such people.”

“I not one of them, Sir Xavier,” she begged, tears growing at the edges of her eyes. “You of all people would know a dark soul.” Anna bent down and snatched up the knife by its blade. “Look!” she said nervously, holding out the dagger in her open palm. “Its silver isn’t it?” With the other hand, she pulled out her necklace and held it up for him to see the dangling pendant. “Blessed silver like this. Its the sign of the One. No person in a cult would dare to have something like this, would they?”

Xavier stepped back. Shaking his head, he attempted to make sense of it all. The soldier in him screamed to cut the woman from the living world, but he could not do it. The tears falling from her eyes appeared real and he could not account for how someone who had sought the Dark Path could touch such items. “Perhaps,” he began to think out loud, “by your birth? Do your parents have such talents? Answer me quickly!” he demanded.

Anna backed away until the stone wall of the bridge kept her from continuing. The sheriff stared at her in such disbelief that it stole away any strength she had. Anna shook her head. “I am adopted, milord.” With her sleeve, she wiped her eyes quickly.

“No,” he countered quietly. “You have hints of your father’s features.”

“That’s impossible.” Her voice trembled in her reply. “I’ve known for years that I’m not truly their own.”

He touched his brow as he stared at her in wonder. “The shape of your eyes.” His voice fell to a near whisper. “Smallish ears.”

Anna set the dagger down on the wall and slid away from it. “Luck of the picking by childless parents.” The trembling of her body grew as she saw his eyes lose their brightness and his stare become cold and hard. “Please, Sir Xavier, you must believe me. We will leave your town without word. Let my father and I leave this place when he returns tomorrow and I will make certain we will never come back. Father will listen to me. I beg you!”

The man stood in silence. She could not tell if he would grasp for the knife and kill her or perhaps throw her in prison only to be burned on a pyre. Her whole body began to shake as she realized the childish mistake she had made.

But he did not arm himself nor did he clap her in irons. The stunned man turned and simply slipped into the darkness, leaving her weeping on the stone bridge under the twin moons.

Chapter 12

Turning a silver coin between his fingers, Xavier sat at his desk and mulled over all that came into his mind. Having not moved from the chair the entire night, he felt the muscles in his back beg him to stand and stretch. He set the coin on the desk and slowly stroked the black mink that slept on the desk. He had seen many oddities in his life, one of which lay outstretched before him, but Xavier could not account for the happenings of the previous night.

Dipping his chin to his chest, he closed his eyes and let the scene replay itself in his mind. From the unmovable blade to the silver necklace with the sign of the One to the fear in the woman’s eyes to the torment in his own heart, each plucked at his mind. Xavier could not have killed her like the many he had before. There was something that stayed his hand. Perhaps it was that she had hidden her gift, or so she had said, only to show the one man that had made the slaying those that sought out the dark a near art. She was either brave to trust him so or playing at some game.

Xavier rubbed his temples, contemplating the reason for her to do such a foolish thing. He felt no tingle from an enchantment and heard no words uttered when she demonstrated the spell. There was no accounting for it. Though a part of him wished it had been like before, seeking the fallen and killing them as quickly as he could, the more contemplative side of him said it was as simple as the woman had stated. He sighed, not knowing what he was to do.

Coal, the magical pet he had discovered years ago, fidgeted and opened its eyes. Licking its lips, it rolled over onto feet and sniffed the air. Soon, it was handed the breakfast it desired and happily held the strip of dried meat between its paws while its master rested his head on the desk.

“Perhaps, she is like us, Coal,” he mused. “Or perhaps a gift passed through blood that I we have heard rumors of?” He breathed deeply. “Too many questions. We need facts. The priest would know the truth of it, wouldn’t he?” Xavier lifted his head and rested his chin on a closed fist. “But should she not be aware it, under some type of—. No, it must be as we think. She has no idea of how it came to her, but we see clues do we not? Father’s features though subtle and more feminine. She is Mr. Travene’s daughter by blood, but not related to the one she calls Mother.” He slowly sat upright and rubbed his back. “Miss Travene must have had as difficult a night as we if she had put that together in her mind.”

He watched the animal tear the strip of jerky and eagerly chewed with its mouth open.
“What do you think we should do with this information?” he asked the content animal. “Let them leave with hints of our secrets? Threaten them?” Xavier shook his head remembering the woman’s tears.

“Join us?” an older man’s voice came from the door.

Xavier looked up to see Harris with two tin cups that gave off wisps of steam. “You’ve been listening at the door.”

The soldier gave him a shrug and walked into the room. Setting the cup in front of his captain, he scratched the mink’s ear then sat in a chair. “Trained by the best.”

Xavier huffed at the compliment. “I….we cannot do that to her.” He sat up and wrapped his hands around the cup. “If she is as she thinks, then it would be better for her to leave believing we will strike her down. The woman is smart enough to know to keep what she has heard to herself.”

“She’s no Seether, Capt,” Harris stated flatly. “I know enough to see that. And after hearing your words, I’m wondering if that isn’t why that family was attacked on the road.”

“I fail to see the connection,” Xavier muttered as he scratched the Coal’s head.
Harris looked behind him at the open door. “Maybe they were after her.”

“Their attackers were tormented, wild men that broke in the war, not Seethers.”

With a shrug, Harris sipped his hot tea. “Maybe. But there’s something odd here, Capt. How is it you rushed out of here like you were on fire and ended up right at that family’s coach?”

Xavier understood the man’s meaning. The alerting humming in his ears was one of few abilities he had acquired after killing the warlock. Oddly enough, the strange sense had lead him directly to the attack on the road without a Seether in sight. Though Isabella had told him of the family’s travels, he had no idea when they would arrive in town or be on the road. From the very night that he had gained his odd abilities, he had never understood them. “It usually does not work in that fashion.”

“But it did that day. That family would have been sliced to pieces and you would have spent the day burying was what left.” Harris leaned forward. “Does she make a humming noise like the others?”

“No.”

“Her family?” Harris asked in a cautious whisper.

Xavier shook his head. Nothing had signaled to him that any member of the Travene family had anything occult about them. The youngest daughter was a spoiled brat and the mother was simply one who put on airs to appear wealthy and noble. The father, to Xavier’s mind, seemed like a man that wanted a bit of peace and quiet or perhaps an excuse to leave town. When he came to Anna, Xavier was at a loss.

“Here’s my copper and a thought,” Harris said. “Treat her as if she was like yourself and see that she doesn’t prove to be just that.”

“A rather dangerous game to play,” Xavier stated.

“If she is some kind of Seether, you’ll run her through and burn the body like all the rest. If not, well, then maybe you’ll make a friend other than an old soldiers and a boy.”

The man’s voice was direct and painfully honest. Xavier knew Harris to be so when facts were laid in front of him. Sighing, he found that the advice was sound enough to at least begin with. “I confess I did not recognize Alexander as a Seether for many months, though he was not a particularly talented one. Perhaps I am losing me edge. Still, I thank you for your advice, Harris.”

“Should have come to me with it last night,” the man said as he stood. “Would have saved you a night in that chair. I mean, if you actually slept much anyway. Go see the priest and set your mind at rest, lad.”

Xavier nodded his appreciation and to the acknowledgment of the joke. Calling for Coal to return to its ethereal home, he rolled the purse up once the animal had disappeared. Placing it in his pocket, Xavier pushed himself up out of his seat. “I’ll start with the priest, then.”

Harris shrugged. “If nothing else, it will show her that you are considering her honest.” He began to leave the room, but stopped at the door. “She’s a pretty witch if nothing else.” He turned with a smile. “That’s worth something.”

He began to shake his head at the jest, but stopped. Yes, she was an attractive woman, but that fact caused him concern. Xavier worried such a thing was the cause of his hesitation to act on his duties as a sheriff. If he was to make the type of decision that was right, he wanted to know as much as possible. “Brother Talas will give us what we need.”

Chapter 13

The colors in the room slowly brightened from the shafts of light through the simple window curtains. Not having taken her eyes off of the window sill the entire night, Anna pulled her blanket up under her chin, wishing the morning had never come. All the considerations of fleeing and escaping the sheriff’s grasp had met with dead ends. Her father’s return would not keep her from a cell, the end of a rope, or worse. Her mother and sister would not know of her fate until her demise had been seen to. No one in town would stand in her defense once their leader had told them of her secret. Today, as terrible as it was to consider, was the end.

Anna rubbed her tired eyes, unable to produce tears that hadn’t already been shed in the night. She wished for courage, prayed for it, but felt helpless and abandoned. Over and over again, Anna wished she could understand why she had divulged her secret to him but found nothing that truly explained it. Pride? A desire to brag and prove that she understood what it was to be alone? Her head shook slowly to each question. It was too late to find any answer as in any moment he would come with his men and she would have to face her so-called crime.

Pondering such an end, a small swooshing sound came from behind her. Imagining it only to be breeze beneath the door, Anna turned over and nearly screamed at the sight before her.

“Please,” Xavier whispered. He raised his finger to his lips.

Anna pulled the blanket around her. “How did you—”

“Certain…talents.”

Her eyes glanced at the door latch and found it was still in place. Turning to face him, attempting to be brave, she lifted her chin. “You break into rooms?”

Holding out his raised palms, he took a step closer. “I was not prepared to know of your abilities last night.”

Anna nodded, but scooted back to the headboard. “And?”

“And I believe the hours since have given me time to think through the matter or at least a mind prepared to hear facts.”

A small glimmer of hope began to grow in her heart. “So you aren’t going to kill me?”

The man walked silently between the two beds in the room to the window. Standing beside it, he moved the curtain with two fingers and peered outside. “Are you proficient in climbing?”
Anna shrugged at the odd question. “As well as the next. Why?”

“We need to travel to the chapel to see Brother Talas,” he answered, concentrating on the back of the inn. “There is a small drop to the lower story from here. Move to the crux of the roof line and lower yourself to the ground. You must make certain you are not seen. Can you manage that?”

She considered the height and assumed it was possible. “Do I have a choice?”

Xavier moved away from the window to the corner he had once stood. Lifting the strap of a satchel over his head, he tossed the bag onto the bed at her feet. “Some of Jeffers’ things. You will need to dress like him and hide your hair. A cloak would be a good choice.”
Anna kept one hand firmly pressing the blanket to her chest and reached for the satchel. “You want me to dress like a man? For what purpose?”

“We will be riding. Most will be up soon, so you must hurry. I will be waiting with horses on the trail that runs behind this property.” He walked to the door.

“Wait!” she said in the loudest of whispers. “Someone will see you leave my room.”
Anna saw a small smirk on his face before he lifted the lock without a sound.

“Hurry, Miss Travene. I suspect we will both learn something about ourselves before the day is done,” he said and left the room.

When the door closed without a hint of a squeak, Anna was not sure what she should do. Opening the satchel, she saw the clothing. “If I am to die, then it won’t be dressed up as a boy.” Shoving it aside, Anna uncovered her legs and got out of bed. No, I will look my best and be brave about it. If nothing else, I’ll make a pretty corpse if I can manage it.
Though she wished for more time, Anna dressed in the best that she had with her. In the very short moments that passed, she faced the window and latched the clasp of her cloak around her neck. Hurrying to my death or to my freedom? I have lost my wits. Opening the window, she gathered her skirt and lifted a leg over the side. Looking back at the satchel, she wondered if wearing men’s clothing was not a better choice. With the sun rising quickly, Anna took a hold of the sill and pulled her other leg through the opening. With her weight fully on the ledge, she managed to close the window while grasping the edges of the frame. An approving smile crossed her face for the accomplishment.

Looking down, the small drop the sheriff mentioned appeared much larger. Attempting to ease herself to the roof of the first story of the ‘L’ shaped inn, Anna blindly searched with her left foot for a toehold below her. She felt nothing. Suddenly her hold of the sill failed. Slipping over the small ridge, she fell onto the roof below and rolled. Desperately grasping for anything that might slow her fall, Anna slipped off the lower roof. She landed with a muted thud in the overgrown glass, nearly knocking the air out of her lungs.

Slowly getting to her feet, searching around her for anyone that might have seen her fall, Anna dusted off her backside. Seeing no one, she hurried past the well and found a small path that lead away. In little time, she managed past the brambles to the man awaiting her with two horses.

“I said to change,” he said with a frown.

“I am not a man,” she shot back in defiance, finding a bit of strength left in her. Looking to the horses, she walked confidently toward the nearest animal.

“We must ride at a gallop,” Xavier reprimanded her as he followed. Bending slightly, he made a step by clasping his hands together when she reached for the saddle. Her covered knee bent into his hands and he lifted her into the saddle. “You will not be able to maintain your seat. You will have to ride astride.”

Anna looked at her dress, cursing herself for not wearing the trousers. “Look away.” When the sheriff huffed and turned, she hiked up her dress and threw one leg over the horse’s rump. It was not an appropriate way for a woman to ride and felt very unnatural. “I as ready as I can be,” she said as calmly as she could. Setting her toes into the stirrups, Anna nodded to him when he turned.

He mumbled something as he moved to his horse and skillfully mounted. “Come,” he said and nudged his horse down the path.

“Come?” she whispered to herself, moving her horse forward to follow. “As if I were a dog to be commanded.”

Following the sheriff along the winding path, they were soon away from the buildings of Kedalpoint. He said nothing to her, making Anna very uncomfortable. Down a hill, back up another, Anna followed until they came to a wide stream. Watching him enter, she pulled back on the reins.

“Why are we going to see a priest? Are you going to make me drink blessed water to prove who I am?”

The man stopped a few paces into the water and looked back. “Brother Talas is a trusted friend. If you are as you say, he will know.”

Anna eyebrows narrowed at the obvious answer. With the flowing water ahead, she examined the slow stream. “Is it deep?”

Xavier shrugged. “It will wet the seat, but if you hold onto the mane—”

“Have you any idea how heavy a dress is when it is soaked through?” she asked. “I will be pulled under and drown—”

“Hence Jeffers’ clothing that I brought and you refused to wear.”

Anna moved her horse forward, leery of the water but not about to let him win the argument. Headstrong. I’ll drown for it. Little by little the water rose around her. As the current brushed up against the body of her horse, the chill of the water rising around her legs made her push quickly forward. She looked up and saw how the sheriff kept the reins in hand while grasping the mane. Anna quickly did likewise and closed her eyes, hoping that her horse did not need any type of instruction.

The short sensation of the mount nearly floating made her grip the mane more tightly. She pressed her legs harder against its side, hoping that the shore would soon be under the animal’s hooves. The water rushed up under her and the weight of her dress grew by the second. Fearing that she would be soon swept away, Anna opened her eyes at the same time her mount climbed the embankment several yards away from the sheriff.

“Are you alright, Miss Travene?”

Anna hesitated to answer. She wished to swear at him and tell him what it was like to have cold water up a skirt, but she answered with a short nod. The man, who seemed content with her situation, turned his horse. With a kick, he began to gallop away.

Riding uncomfortably fast, she managed to follow without too much trouble. For several miles they rode through fields until they came to a road. Only then did he slow to a trot and look back to her. Catching up to him, she slowed her horse, coming alongside.

“Did we have to ride so fast?” she asked breathlessly. “Couldn’t we have used the road in the first place?”

Xavier peered over at her. “It is safer if you are not seen.”

Anna covered her head with the hood of her cloak. If he intended to take her to a priest in secret, then running into someone on the road would make all the discomfort she had gone through worthless. “Safer? What is it that would cause us danger?”

The sheriff nodded up the road. “To state the obvious, being seen riding to the chapel will give birth to many topics of gossip. However, should you be some type of witch, the priest can explain the hazards better than I.”

She followed his eyes to the stone chapel up ahead. Sitting back away from the road, facing the rising sun, it appeared welcoming to any who might travel by. The mention of the priest made her wonder just what it was the sheriff had in mind, though Anna wished for nothing else than to remove herself from the wet saddle and wring out her dress.

Turning up the small lane, they approached the sacred building at a slow even pace. Looking around her, Anna noted the large, well-tended garden and the small thatched stable. No person appeared on the grounds, leading her to believe that the chapel was run by a single priest.

Anna followed as Xavier rode to the stone steps and came to a halt. Swinging his leg over the horse’s neck, he slid off the saddle and firmly planted his boots on the ground in one continuous motion. Anna watched him loop the reins around a post and move to her side.

“What is it you want the priest to do to me? A test?” she asked.

“Clarification,” Xavier stated, holding out his hand to help her from her saddle. “Swing your right leg behind you.”

Anna considered the movement and agreed it would be a less revealing way to dismount. When she felt his supportive hand around her arm as she got off the horse, Anna noticed he let go quickly. He doesn’t trust to touch me.

The large wooden door of the chapel opened, revealing a robed man in his middle years of life. “Xavier?” he asked, protecting his eyes from the sun. “This is unexpected.”

“We are in need of your…services and discretion,” Xavier stated.

The priest looked to her. “A secret marriage? You know that I believe a couple should have a honest engagement.”

Anna chuckled as she attempted to wring out her dress. Xavier, however, looked horrified.

“No,” the sheriff said quickly. “I need you to proof her.”

The priest looked again at Anna and smiled. “Can you not tell?”
She dropped the edges of her dress and glanced at Xavier. “You can tell if people are Seethers?” Placing her hands on her hips, she eyed him. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
Xavier looked away from her scorn. “She has shown me that she can change the weight of an object.”

The priest tapped his chin. “Yet she stands on blessed ground.”

“She is wearing shoes,” Xavier stated.

Anna huffed and walked to the steps. Sitting down, she began to unbuckle her wet, now ruined, shoes. Tossing the first one to the sheriff, she sighed. “Don’t you think I’ve tried this myself? Turn around.” Beginning to lift the hem of her dress, the two men quickly turned away. Unrolling her stockings, she set them aside and stood barefooted on the steps. “See?”

Xavier turned to look at her feet on the stone. He slowly nodded. “Could she have received the…ability through blood of a parent, Brother Talas?”

The priest shrugged. “Perhaps. Your gifts where received in an odd manner.”

“What gifts?” Anna demanded.

Brother Talas grinned and nodded. “Yes, perhaps a discussion best had in the sunlight. I believe I should fetch us something cool to drink while you two share with one another.
Yes, a very good idea, I think.” The priest chuckled to himself as he hurried inside the chapel.

Anna stared at the sheriff. “You can do things like I can? And you thought I was the Seether?”

“I was not certain that—”

“I spent the entire night thinking you were going to burn me at the stake!”

Xavier stepped back with his hands held up as she stood. “I did not know for certain, Miss Travene. I have the wellbeing of a town to think of.”

Anna began to pace across the stone steps and suddenly stopped. “Crossing the river, you thought I would sink like a witch! You were testing me!” She spun as she heard the priest walk out of the chapel caring a jug and cups. “And I suppose that is blessed water. Another test?”

“All of our water and food are prayed over,” the priest replied with a smile and continued to the steps. Filling each cup, he looked from one face to the other. “I see things did not go smoothly while I was away.” He handed Anna a cup which she hesitantly took. “You can gift weight to items. He can move through the air quickly.” The priest turned and offered a cup of water to the sheriff. “Xavier received his abilities through killing a warlock as the fiend was attempting to curse him, where you have no understanding of the source of your skill. Do I understand the situation correctly?”

Anna looked away. Torn between the anger of being treated like a fool and the growing relief of someone opening discussing her secret, she picked up her stockings and wrung them out.

“So, Sir Xavier,” the priest began, “what is it you wish me to proof? Do you not have your answer right in front of you?” He held out his hand to Anna. “Come, child. Let us find something suitable for you to wear while your things dry in the sun.”

Cautiously, she took his hand and stood. Anna looked to the sheriff. “What of Sir Xavier?”
The priest hesitated before glancing at the man standing before the stairs of the temple. “He may stay outside and soak up the sunlight and regain some sense of reason.”

Chapter 14

Stepping over muddy puddles in the alleyways, Isabella made her way through the less than desirable sections of Ardencroft. With the hood of her cloak pulled low, she glanced up only when necessary to maneuver her way around makeshift tents and those selling simple wares or grabbing at her dress with hopeful hands outstretched for free coin. It was a poor neighborhood of the city, but there was a more desperate place that Isabella now made her way toward. With a dagger within easy reach inside her sleeve, the calls for her attention were less frightening and more easily ignored. She had traveled the path before and had grown immune to most of the more rancorous activities that took place in the forgotten neighborhood known as The Trough.

Yet, despite its foul air and equally depressing state of the people, the wealthy lady determinedly continued her effort through the streets and alleyways until she approached the edges of the city and its least favored docks. Glancing upward to the cries of seagulls that would hush with the falling sun, she took heart in knowing that it would not always be necessary to visit the small shack that was home to her ailing mother.

With this in mind, Isabella gathered one side of her hood and pulled it closer to her face to mask any hint of her face to others. It was dangerous enough for her to have sought out the clues that had once led her to the shack, but to return numerous times would create a path to her secret that others might stumble upon. Her pace slowed. Having to cross a muddy road forgotten by most that ended abruptly at the river’s edge, Isabella glanced around her as she made her way through the muck to the shack on the other side.

Flicking the simple wooden latch and ducking through the door as she entered, she quickly took account of the bowl on the table and the small fire. Isabella shut the door to the outside world as if it would hide her secret.

“Feet and toes, nose that grows,” a weak voice came from the withered woman in the corner.

“You should be in bed, Mother.”

Moving to the table, she set the small sack of apple and cheese down and sniffed the air. The smell of broth lingered in the room and her eyes moved to the small pot over the fire. “Have you been fed?”

“With spoon and fork. Soup with pork.”

Isabella shook her head to the answering rhyme and the growing dementia of her mother’s mind. Pulling back her hood, Isabella went to the small pot and peered into it. The soup had potatoes and carrots, sufficient to ease her mind that those that she had hired indeed where fulfilling their part of the deal. With a wooden spoon, she stirred the contents and noted the meat, much to her satisfaction. There were many scoundrels to be found in the area, but she had made a wise choice paying the young girl from the alley to tend her mother. Lifting the spoon to her lips, she sampled the soup and found it bland.

“You did not eat a great deal. Are you still hungry?” She looked over her shoulder to find the woman seemingly lost in thought. To Isabella’s eyes, the woman was wasting away. “You must eat, milady.” She filled a bowl and walked over to a stool that stood beside her mother. “A few spoonfuls? For me?”

The woman looked at her with questioning eyes. “Who are you?”

“No one of consequence, milady. Now, open your mouth and see if you think this needs salt.”
With eyes that did not leave her, the woman did as she was told and allowed Isabella to feed her a few sips from the bowl. “You have pretty eyes, my dear.”

“Like my mother’s,” Isabella said, offering her another bite.

The woman shook her head at the sight of the offered spoon and slowly lifted an old hair brush.

Isabella nodded, having seen before the woman’s attention so easily diverted. Setting the bowl aside, she took the brush from her mother’s weak hand and began to pull it gently through the tangles. “A beautiful brush, milady. Where did you come by it?”

“A gift,” the woman replied. “From a gentleman.” Her eyes left Isabella and turned toward a scene that only she could see. “Large and perfect. Gentle and caring.”

Isabella hid her displeasure of hearing half-remembered thoughts of a man who had abandoned them. “A very nice gift.”

“A remembrance for a lady love. That’s what he told me.”

“You have taken good care of this brush.”

The woman smiled. “He would be upset if it wasn’t. Did your love give you a brush like mine?”

Isabella flinched. The question touched on feelings she did not care to discuss. A change in subject or redirection would be her best defense. “My father has given me many gifts. Do you remember your father, milady?”

Her mother looked to the dim corner as if the answer was somehow found there. “A fisherman, I think. I like the water so he must have been a fisherman.” She nodded to her answer. “But do be careful of the river, my dear. Rains bring quick flows. The ferryman will take you across if the water is fast.”

“I will make certain to remember, milady.” Isabella handed the brush back to her and watched her Mother hug the object as if it were the most precious thing in the world. “I fear I must leave, but I will come again soon to check on your health.”

“Yes,” the woman nodded, still gazing to the corner. “Tell Father I like his soup. The boys will tease but mother knows how to shoo them away. Shadows can be giving.”

Her scattered thoughts had bothered Isabella from the moment she had found her in the alley. Determined not to show her emotions, she stood and raised her hood. “Is there anything you need? I will bring it when I return.”

“Rings and promises. Lilies for death. All is not lost when each must rest.”

Isabella could not force herself to stay another moment and moved to the door.

“Good bye, pretty girl,” her mother said softly. With faint words, she began to sing a tune.

“Until we see each other again, milady,” Isabella replied. With a need for the revitalizing of the night air, she quickly left the hovel and scanned the darkening sky before considering the soiled passageways through the city back to her home. Grabbing the edge of her hood to cloak her face, she ventured across the muddy road and into the sparsely populated alley and fought the thoughts that flooded her mind. She hated the dark and the images that it seemed to conjure.

Pressing forward, ignoring the lurid inner thoughts of drunks she could hear in her mind and the cries of hungry children that followed her, Isabella made her way quickly through the familiar neglected world toward the more respectable areas of the city. She blocked as many of the numerous thoughts of beggars and wide-eyed street urchins as possible, keeping her mind on the comfortable rooms of her large house and the meal that was sure to be readied for her. Turn by turn, taxed by the cries of the heartbroken, Isabella continued her quick pace until she was suddenly caught by a single sinister thought from another mind.

Attempting to pull the dagger free from its hiding place in time, the strong arms of the ruffians grasped her arm and pulled a foul smelling sack over her head. Swept off of her feet, she screamed for help but found the many thoughts of those around her fade with accompanying sounds of people scurrying away. The odor of the bag made her gag. Isabella attempted to gasp for air as her body was thrown over the back of a tall horse. No, not a horse, but a shoulder of a large, bulky man. She attempted to regain her composure and read the man’s thoughts but there was only the thoughts of her capture in his mind. Kicking her legs, hoping to throw him off balance resulted in her rolling off his shoulder and slamming against the hard stone surface of the alley.

“You’ll crush her,” barked a deep voice. “I’ll get her dagger. You go on!”

Isabella’s mind sought out the source of the voice and had just enough time to grasp a glimpse of a dark passage before it too went blank. Feeling herself entangled once again by strong arms, she lost her footing as she was pulled down stone steps, scrapping the backs of her ankles as she was dragged. Digging her nails into the arm of her capturer did nothing as she continued to be pulled away. Her cries seemed to echo against stone leaving a hollow feeling of helplessness in her as each moment leapt to the next.

Franticly, she wiggled only to find the mute man’s grasp tighten like rope around her body. Her breath was forced from her lungs as her ribs threatened to crack under the pressure. Unable to free herself, her mind reached out for any thoughts around her as her own began to imagine her demise.

A heavy door creaked open while she found herself unable to breathe. Dragged inside, Isabella felt the release of her bounds and fell to the floor. Gasping, she struggled to pull the bag from her and quickly found herself in a dim, candle-lit room before a masked figure seated in a chair. Tossing the foul bag aside, she scrambled to her feet and attempted to back away.

“What is the old woman to you?” the female voice behind the mask demanded.

Isabella knew she had been followed. “A kindness,” she lied quickly. “Who are you that dares treat me like a commoner!”

“I will ask you once more. What is the old woman to you?”

“She is no one. A helpless woman. A charity I took interest in.”

From the darkened corner, came another feminine voice. “She lies.”

Isabella reached out with her mind to one masked face to another. No thought was in them. “It is a virtue to aid the poor. Now, tell me the names of those that so desperately wish to hang in the square for such an assault?”

“She will not bend,” stated the feminine figure in the corner.

“Then she will be the cause of the old woman’s death.”

Isabella froze. “You will not lay a finger on that woman! She is helpless!”

“It matters not. Tell us what we want to know and you may go on your way.”

In her mind, a whimsical male presence entered her thoughts. The chill of iron touched her forearm under her sleeve. Another thought followed. A shadow was near. A hope for escape. She turned behind her and found nothing but a bolted door.

“No one will come to your aid,” one of the women stated firmly.

The feeling of the cold metal object forming gave her a new hope and growing strength. Isabella turned back to her captures. “But who will come for you?”

The masked figures rose quickly, but not before the dagger slipped into Isabella’s hand. Launching herself forward without warning, Isabella plunged the knife into the masked woman’s chest. The figure’s scream echoed in her mind as Isabella yanked the dagger out of the body and turned quickly to her other capturer.

The robed figure raised her hands and forced them forward as if pushing against a wall.
Swept off her feet, Isabella was blown by a blast of wind that sent her toppling to the stone floor. Rolling to her back, she scrambled to her feet as the woman raised two fingers and rotated her wrist. The image of fire entered her thoughts from the obvious sorcerer and flames burst forward from her capturer’s hand.

Ducking aside just as the flames licked the side of her face, Isabella screamed in pain then rushed the masked woman. In the blink of an eye, a dagger appeared in the woman’s hand, but too late to counter Isabella’s rage. Blind with anger, Isabella tackled the woman and repeatedly stabbed the masked figure. Over and over again, she thrust the weapon into the convulsing chest of her capturer until the screams in her ears and mind fell silent.
Isabella’s lungs seemed to stop in mid gasp. Trembling at first, her body became numb and no strength could be found. Dizzy with lack of air, her eyes rolled backward as she fell to the ground beside the dead body. Like a fish pulled out of the water, Isabella lungs would not fill with what her body needed. She heard only the thumping of her heart in her chest and an urgent thought of a man coming to her rescue as she feinted.

Chapter 15

The throbbing in her head kept beat with her heart. Opening her eyes, Isabella rose her hand against the shaft of light that entered between the folds of closed curtains. Muscles in her arm ached in pain as she covered her eyes. The tip of her thumb touched a sticky substance, creating a stinging sensation as it grazed her cheek. Jerking her hand away, the reality of the near death experience rushed into her thoughts. Pushing herself up from the bed, a woman screamed and dropped a tray.

The servant froze in place for a moment, staring her squarely in the eyes before dropping to the floor and gathering up the plate and scattered food off the floor. “Forgive me, milady!”

Isabella breathed deeply attempting to control the shock of the moment. She searched the room around her in disbelief that she found herself in the familiar surroundings of her bedchambers. “How?” she uttered quickly.

The servant rose, balancing the silver tray and pieces of shatter porcelain in her hands. “You arrived in a carriage, milady. Do you want me to call a physician?”

Her hand rose again to her cheek and timidly touched the salve that had at some time been smeared over a burn. “Who brought me home?”

“A man. He said you had slipped and fallen into a candelabra.”

Isabella’s mind raced back to the last thing she remembered. The memory of violently attacking another reappeared in her memory. “Where is this man?”

“Gone, milady.”

Isabella grew impatient. “Did he give you a name?”

The servant woman took a step back in alarm.

“Quickly, Harriet!” Isabella demanded. “Who was this man?”

Harriet shrugged and shook her head. “I don’t know, milady. He carried you in through the door and up to this room. He gave us a small jar and told us to apply it to your burns.”

She nodded to her words. “And to let you sleep through the night.”

Isabella pulled the covers away, finding herself in her nightgown. “Then what? Think Harriet. What did he look like?”

“He wore a mask, like those people wear to a ball.”

Her mind grasped at questions until she realized her folly in asking the shaken woman what she wanted to know with words. Reaching out with her mind, she felt a pounding in her head but searched the servant’s thoughts. She found only worry of being removed from her post. Relax Isabella. She’s frightened. Breathing deeply, Isabella closed her eyes and did not open them until she had become calm. “I am not angry with you Harriet. I only wish to know who I owe a debt of gratitude.”

“He didn’t give his name, milady. Just instructions how to tend your wound.”

Isabella knew that she had flustered the woman too much to gain anything more. “Thank you. You may go now.”

“I will come back with your breakfast.” With a short dip at the knees, the servant hurried toward the door.

“No,” Isabella heard her own words slip out of her mouth. “I will take breakfast in the library.”

“Very good, milady,” Harriet replied and left the room.

After dressing and being made as presentable as possible as the red burn on her cheek would allow, Isabella ventured downstairs and entered the library as if nothing out of the ordinary had changed in her life. Though her mind raced with many questions and the staff gently suggested the library would not be a proper place to eat her morning meal, she waved off any objection and found the room to be suitable enough for what she desired. Left to herself, with the sun lighting the quiet room, Isabella took out a piece of parchment and quill to begin her recounting of the events of the prior evening.

The day passed quietly by with diligent notes written and many moments of sitting with her eyes closed to grasp any stray bit of information her mind might have captured from the night before. It was near mid-afternoon when she set the quill aside and looked over her notes in earnest. The few facts she was able to put together looked painfully meager compared to the growing number of questions she had. Still, it was a beginning.

Laying the paper before her on the desk, Isabella let her mind return to the unknown man that had brought her home. The idea of a stranger finding her seemed unrealistic as her last memory was of a room below the city streets in the poorest section of town. Had the stranger been a part of her ordeal, he would not have brought her home. She had to imagine that she was found by others after her ordeal and the man was summoned. As odd as the situation sounded in her mind, it held more weight than others. To find a woman dressed in clothing above the station of anyone in the area would draw panic. Anyone who had gone to the city guard would have been questioned and she knew The Trough did not contain those that would happily call such men into their lives. Isabella thus discounted all the men that lived in the shabby neighborhood.

Isabella was deep in thought when a knock came to the door and her man servant entered. “Forgive me for the interruption, milady.”

She looked up quickly and pulled the piece of parchment off the desk. “What is in Gerald?”

“A Mister Nelling and his son. They wish to seek an audience with your ladyship.”

Isabella’s heart sank. There would be only one reason for such a visit and she was in no mood to hear the advantages of marriage with either party. As she opened her mouth to have the men sent away, the reality of her situation kept the words from forming on her lips. There would be others to follow. She may send all suitors away, but the days pealed away from her father’s disguise. Soon, she would be out of time and out of options. Painfully, she nodded.

When Gerald slipped away, Isabella stood. Feeling she was about to be sent to the gallows, her hand slipped the parchment into a drawer and moved to her usual place before the grand fireplace. Cupping her hands together, Isabella stared at the closed door and breathed deeply. She was the daughter of a wealth and well-respected man now visited by two men she knew little of. To hear them out and keep her poise, she could go on with her life when they left and consider her more pressing needs later.

Gerald reappeared and announced each man as they entered the ornate room. She curtsied in a respectable manner and watched their faces for any hint of their character. Oddly enough, she found the elder pleased and the younger man nervously scanning the room. “You honor me with your visit gentlemen. Would you care for refreshments?”

Mister Nelling continued his smile as he bowed. “Thank you, but no. And it is you, Miss Nelstet, that has done us the honor of allowing a brief visit to your welcoming home. This,” he said with a wave, ”is my son, Carlos, whom I’m not certain you have met.”

“I have not had the privilege,” Isabella remarked. “Welcome to my home, Master Carlos.” She waved them to the long sofa. “Please. Do sit.”

As the men walked forward and took their seat, Isabella glided to a chair and sat expectantly on the edge. “How might I help you gentlemen?” Her eyes caught the stare of the man near her age staring at her cheek. “It appears that the length of my gown was a touch too long. I fell into a lit candle. There is no end to my clumsiness though it should entertain some.”

“You’re burn will heal well, I’m sure,” Carlos stated nervously.

“I do hope so, Master Nelling, but I am thankful my father will not see it. He worries a great deal.”

The older man nodded. “And to your father’s health. Does he improve, milady?”

Isabella shook her head and offered an appreciative smile. “He is all the family I have ever known, Mister Nelling. It is difficult to know that his welfare does not show signs of a quick recovery.”

“A dreadful ordeal,” Mister Nelling stated with all sincerity. “We will light a candle at the temple for him.”

“Of course, we will,” his son agreed eagerly.

“I am humbled by your devote witness and your kindness to this family.” Isabella noted both appreciated her words. As a second nature, her mind listened to their thoughts. A proposal of a different sort sat eagerly in front of each. “Was there something that you required of my father today, Mr. Nelling?”

He nodded quickly. “I have heard that your father has supported artisans in the past, milady. My son and I are craftsmen of a sort and have designed a mechanical device that would enable you to stamp coins for the Throne in a quick and efficient way.” He looked to his son and motioned for him to reveal their idea.

Carlos reached into his jerkin and unfolded a piece of parchment. “We have named it the Nelling Device.” He stood and handed her the document.

Isabella’s eyes studied the design and quickly noted its promise. “This is a large weight that stamps the coins, I assume.”

“Indeed, milady,” Mister Nelling said. “The device would stamp five coins in a single fall of the weight. If properly done, it would produce many times what an average man could create. Two skilled laborers could replace an army of men.”

She nodded, understanding their claim. “But how is the weight lifted?”

“The power of the river, milady,” Carlos answered. “The weight is pulled upward with the use of a waterwheel and numerous pulleys to account for the counterweight. Once it is in place, the molten ore is dabbed on the dies and the stamp is released.”

Isabella handed the diagram back to the younger man. “You would require a mill and such structures are not cheap to erect.” Both men fell silent. It was not difficult to manage what they had come to ask. “Or remodel a grain mill that my family may have invested in,” she finished. “Is this why you have visited today? To inquire if my family would fund your venture?”

“It is, milady,” Mister Nelling stated with a bow of his head. “If my son and I were to construct this device for you, its success would be known around the lands. Others that have been granted the right to cast coin for the Throne would want such a tool as well.”

Isabella attempted to ignore their excited thoughts. “Perhaps. And what percentage of the sale of other devices would my family receive?”

Mister Nelling rubbed his hands together nervously. “Thirty percent is our request.”

“And the cost of building and the sale of such a device?”

“A thousand to build,” Carlos stated. “Two thousand for those that wish to buy a device.”

Isabella looked toward the window and contemplated the deal. “There are three families in the Fifth Circle that have the right to mint the coins your speak of. Another two in the Second and, of course, the Capital Bank. At best you would find that you have an income from the sale of your inventions. I grant you that it is a sum to be proud of, but I fear there are other considerations that you have not addressed.”

“We have been dutiful and fair in our offer, milady,” Mister Nelling said.

“I mean to say, gentlemen, there is more to be made. Should all of the families purchase your device, then the income is at an end. You would be better served to have a lasting monthly income than to sell the device outright. We would also be assuming that each family would make the purchase. Perhaps, you might consider raising the price of building the device for the other families. My thought is this; offer that each pays for half and add the condition of a monthly sum to be paid for the honor of having such an item. Of course, you would share a small percentage with my family.”

Mister Nelling smiled. “That is an impressive idea.”

“You flatter me, sir. But I believe that you should be slow in offering each family this opportunity. Deal only with the families of the Fifth Circle and let the others learn of your device. When they approach, the price will need to increase two fold. In the end, gentlemen, you will become very wealthy men for a time.”

“For a time?” Carlos asked. “If we are to given a monthly sum and our devices sound and strong, why would there be an end to it?”

Isabella wished she could offer a more encouraging answer. “Because, Master Nelling, the Prince will inevitably pass a law to limit your reach. The Capital is the center of our world, or so most think, and all that we have is at the grace of the Throne. The Prince will call your monthly income unreasonable and state it unlawful. I would estimate three years before the eyes of the Capital turned toward your success.”

“A cruel thing for a man to invent a device only to have its profits taken away,” Mister Nelling stated in disgust.

“True, but an expected fact,” Isabella said. “Still, if greed is kept measured with the understanding of the inevitable, you will be very wealthy men. I assume you do not have a working device and have come to me for the coin to construct the first of its kind.”

Mister Nelling nodded. “That’s the truth of it, milady.”

“Then let us agree on this. I know of a mill that would be a benefit to my family even if the plan fail should fail. A furnace will need to be built at the sight, but I believe that will be no trouble. You will build your device with the coin our family will provide and, should it work, we will set a contract between us at that time.”

Carlos bit the end of his lip and looked to his father. “Well?”

“Don’t rush me, lad. It is poor business to hurry into things.”

Isabella smiled. “And yet offers have their time limits.” She stood up from her seat, a signal that their meeting was at an end. “Sleep on it, gentlemen. You know where I am when you have come to an answer.”

Both men rose quickly. With humble bows, the father and son thanked her for her time and promised to give her an answer soon.

Isabella continued her cordial smile until the door was closed behind them and she was once again left to herself. Turning to the small flame in the fireplace, she found that she was rather pleased with herself, but her thoughts turned quickly back to the more dire situation of the night before. She sat back down in the chair and considered how odd her life had become and the possibilities of surviving it.

Chapter 16

The priest rummaged through chests and browsed through books from the tall shelves. Brother Talas pulled on the biding of a rather large tome and blew across its leather surface sending a small puff of dust into the shafts of sunlight through the window. Covering his cough, he added the book to the stack on his desk. “I am not the best keeping things tidy,” Brother Talas stated as he opened the large tome. He glanced up at Anna and gave her a quick smile. “A fatal flaw in character, I imagine.”

“I doubt the One will mind if you have been busy with more pressing services.”

“A very kind excuse, but a flaw is a flaw, none the less. We are not to neglect the small items in life.” The priest moved to his chair pulling a open book along with him. “Perhaps we should start with when you notice your ability.”

Anna thought back, scratching her neck against the woolen robe that she had changed into while her dress hung to dry. “A few years ago?”

“And this event happened out of efforts to cast a spell?”

“No!” she objected. “I was sitting in my room wondering why things stayed on the ground. When I went to pick up a quill to write down my question to ask a tutor, I found I couldn’t lift it.”

The priest turned the pages as if searching for some particular description. “Hmm. And how would you describe your emotions at the time of this event?”

“Bored.”

The man chuckled. “Fair enough. The reason I ask is that when one comes of age, emotions are often at our surface and far more vivid. Anger, joy, frustration, sadness and the like. This could be the trigger for something that has lain dormant within you. I had wondered if there was a connection of your revealed skills to when Xavier killed the warlock. I am attempting to find clues to which was the source.”

She reflected back, attempting to gather more about the moment she had apparently made the quill too heavy to lift. Of course, the situation itself scared her so much that she had never spoken of it to another. Was I bored? The event seemed to grow in her mind as small scenes of an argument with her mother began to fill the previous moments to the first event. “My mother was very cross with me that day. I was not prepared to hear her declare that she cared for Brenda and not at all for me.”

“I believe that would be enough to draw something out that was hidden,” he stated. Turning the book around on the desk, he placed his finger at a list on the page. “Do any of these actions or events seem familiar?”

Leaning forward, she began to read. “Loss of parent or near relative,” she read out loud. “No, my adopted parents are both alive and I do not remember my grandparents.” Anna looked at the next three statements and shook her head. “I have never killed an animal out of spite, never drawn symbols that I did not understand when upset, nor kept specimens of dead things hidden from others. These are rather morbid items, Brother Talas. Had I done any of these things, I would have run to the nearest temple.” She watched him continue his search through the tome. “Brother Talas? What did the sheriff mean by not wishing for it to happen again?”

The priest looked up at her. “When did this occur?”

Anna hated to admit it, but found she had been listening to the conversation outside the door as she changed her clothing. “I’m sorry. I couldn’t help—”

“Xavier!” the priest called, looking past her into the sanctuary.

Anna feared she had done something to sway the good man away from his kindness. When she turned, Anna saw the sheriff casually look in from the doorway.

“I would like you to pick a place in the sanctuary to stand.” Brother Talas stated “Quickly, if you understand my meaning.”

She saw the man nod and leave the doorway.

“My child, where is the sheriff?”

Anna turned to see his inquisitive eyes. “You want me to go find him?”

“No, I wish you to tell me where you think he is.”

She shrugged. “Behind one of the pillars, I suppose? Near the offering box?”

The priest looked to the doorway again. “Xavier, please bring me the closest object to you. Quickly, please.”

Turning in her seat, she saw the sheriff enter the room with a gilded box. When he set it on the desk in front of the priest, Anna saw both men were staring at her. “A lucky guess,” she offered.

“I think not, child,” Brother Talas stated. “Miss Anna, close your eyes. Xavier, hold out your hand.”

“Is this one of your tests?” Xavier asked. Noting the priest’s impatient look, he followed the instructions.

As soon as the Anna’s eyes were closed, the priest placed a quill in his hand. “What is in the sheriff’s hand, my child?”

She shrugged. “A quill?”

“Bonded!” the priest exclaimed with a smile. “Oh! My apologies”, Brother Talas stated seeing Anna nearly falling from her seat. “But, how marvelous! I do wonder at why it has happened?”

“What?” Anna asked, watching Xavier set a quill on the desk.

“You have made a mistake,” Xavier stated with a frown. Looking to Anna and back at the priest, he shook his head. “It would be a death sentence to anyone who—”

“Bonded, my dear,” the priest replied to Anna with a look of whimsy. “It cannot be anything else, could it? You knew what he held, heard his words from behind thick closed doors and very specifically knew where our sheriff was standing in the sanctuary.” He chuckled and patted the box next to him. “And knew what he stood beside.” He turned to Xavier. “Can you locate her as she has demonstrated?”

Xavier stood quietly for moment then shook his head.

“Pity” Brother Talas stated. “I have read something similar about the bond between twins. In this, I image it is more like two pieces, unequal in size but making a whole. You’re lives together should make for interesting observation.”

“Our lives together?” Anna asked in a worried tone. She looked at the frowning sheriff and noted his disapproval. “You don’t mean to say—”

“It’s not possible,” Xavier stated firmly.

“Gifts she had as a child but only realized perhaps on the very day you ran your sword through the warlock, Xavier.” Brother Talas turned back to Anna. “You have abilities that you have command of, but cannot explain. Xavier is similar. The origin of each is perhaps different, but I believe that you have found one another for a purpose. The pair of you are attached by something. I would prefer to think of it as a blessing to aid one another.”

Anna stood up slowly. Shaking her head, she began to back away. “I only came to prove I’m not of some perverse cult. To save—”

“And you have done so, child,” the priest interrupted. “And have inadvertently discovered something more.”

She continued to move backwards toward the door. “But we have never met before I came to the town.” Anna felt panicked. “This can’t be true.” Turning quickly, Anna raced out the door and into the sanctuary. Gathering the long robe in her hands, she hurried up the aisle and pushed open the large doors of the chapel. Into the morning sunlight, she ran as far and as fast as she could.

* * *

In the shade of a large elm on the grounds, Xavier found her sitting at the edge of a pond. With little to say or offer her in hopes of making the news more palatable, he cautiously approached with hands held behind his back. Her feelings had to be similar to the depressing awareness he knew after the fateful battle. No, he considered, it would be more than that. With the word ‘bonded’ uttered from the priest he trusted with friendship and his life, Xavier imagined there were a great deal more feelings and fears she held than he had encountered with the leader of Seethers.

She did not turn when he came to stand behind her. If she wished him to leave, he would honor the request, but she would need to hear his thoughts before. Xavier moved next to Anna and sat. For a moment, he too, watched the ducks swimming in the shallow pond.
“I’m sorry,” she uttered softly, wiping away the last of the tears with her sleeve.
“There is nothing for you to apologize for. I am the one who must offer some words of regret in hopes that you will forgive me.”

“It isn’t your fault.”

The pair sat for several moments as the sun made its slow ascent higher into the sky. The ducks flew away in a rush and the water rippled outward to the shore until it lay still, reflecting the small clouds that passed by overhead.

“I live a complicated life,” Xavier whispered. “Not one I had hoped for when I left with all the others.” He looked down and pulled a blade of grass. “I imagined I would be home quickly and find some sort of life that would leave me to peace and quiet. Perhaps even…”

Anna looked up and slowly scanned the tall grass and the ever present scene of hills turning into taller peaks of mountains. “I don’t know what to tell my father.”

Xavier nodded. The life that he had once had was shattered like her own. Unlike hers, his parents had died when he was away and he didn’t need to find words to explain his change. “Forget what the priest said. We will return to town, but first allow me to show you a way to protect yourself.”

“I’ve changed. I can hear your footsteps, milord,” she whispered. “I feel things, know things, that I didn’t before. And it’s growing. I even knew you when you began to walk toward me from the chapel.” Anna wiped the tear from her eye. “I’m cursed. We are cursed. I tried to run away only to feel a pull back to this place, forced like a rope was around my waist…back to you.” Anna looked at him. “The priest was right. We are tethered in some way.” She shook her head and looked up into the sky. “Return to town? What welcome do you imagine I will find when my family learns the truth? Even if they accepted me, how can I go home if I can’t even be down a short lane from you?”

Xavier shook his head and remained quiet.

“How are we to live like this? How can I possibly explain this to my family?”
The sheriff stood and moved toward the edge of the pond. Lifting the blade of grass for her to see, he handed it to her. “Make it heavy as a pebble and toss it in the water.”

Anna sighed. Taking the blade of grass, she flicked it. Naturally, it should have fallen instantly to the ground. Instead it lofted into the air, over Xavier’s shoulder and dropped in the middle of the pond with a splash.

“You understand how that works.”

Anna nodded. “I made it heavier. It’s no different than your dagger.”

“I did not know that was possible, nor do I understand how you knew where I was in the chapel. I do not have such skills.” Turning, he looked across the pond to the other side. “I am able to do some things, however. Let me show you something that, if you can accomplish it, might be of use to you.” Closing his eyes, he felt the wind in his hair. The world raced past him until he knew he circled the pond in three quick blinks. Opening his eyes, he looked to the woman across the water. Xavier pointed to the place next to him. “Blink your eyes at different points ahead of you as you move around the pond until you stand beside me,” he called. “Do not cross the water. Only around it as if you ran along its edges.”

Watching Anna sit for a moment, he wondered if she would be able to separate her depression and set things aside to attempt the offered challenge. When she stood, a small smile crossed his face. She was brave and focused, far more so than he imagined was in her. Before he could utter a word, Anna ran into him, knocking both of them to the ground.
Xavier could not help but laugh. “You are faster than I am.”

She rolled off him and stood quickly, brushing herself off. “I did it!”

“You did, indeed.”

“How did you know I could do that,” she asked, looking back at where she had once stood.

Xavier sat up and propped himself up with his elbows. “A guess.”

Anna’s smile failed. “I can’t read your mind. How could I know how to do that?”

“I do not have any answers for you.” He began to pick at the grass beside him. “You say you tried to run away, but were forced to return? When you ran from the chapel I felt an undeniable tug to follow. A painful tearing of my insides that would not be relieved unless I moved in your direction. I do not know what to do with such information, but it is fact. Just as you have skills I don’t understand or can mimic. Facts are facts.”

Anna sat down. “I’m frightened by this. My head feels heavy and I’m tired. All of this is not natural, milord.”

“In truth, I am uncertain how to judge this as well. You say you are frightened by this life. I tell you are right to fear it, but perhaps we could help one another and set aside some of the assumptions of the priest for now.”

“Could be we be friends then?” she asked hopefully. “Not in public. I know you have title and obligations, but…could we be that to each other? Like a secret between us?”

“I would like us to find peace in a friendship. Together we might find a way to break the tie between us.”

“I don’t want this life,” Anna admitted honestly.

“Nor I, Miss Travene. It causes many undesired effects.”

Anna heard the concern in his voice. He seemed to dislike the idea of their unnatural bond as much as she. “I don’t understand how this happened, but I will try to do my part.”

Xavier stood and held out his hand. “First, let us see how far we can be apart. It is better to be aware of it than to have that uncomfortable feeling take us by surprise.”

Taking his hand, Anna climbed to her feet, feeling a bit better. “A good starting point, I agree.”

To his amazement, she was quick to see the logic in his suggestion. For the first time, he
found someone who not only understood his situation but shared in it. To his mind, the priest was correct in saying their lives together should make for interesting observation.

Chapter 17

 Listening to the clatter of hooves on cobblestone and the creaking of the wheels of her carriage, Isabella sat away from the windows where no person passing by might see her. Her coach would be enough to hint at the occupant inside and she had no desire for the gossiping masses to see the rose red burn on her cheek. Vanity or not, Isabella would avoid all unnecessary contract and go about her business in the attempt to calm the nerves of those who had business with her father. The end of her father’s trick was drawing near and an effort to quickly set her resolve steadfastly in the minds of the family’s partners was the utmost importance.

The near-death experience and the image of a parent that lay visibly comatose in his bed forced her thoughts to and fro. She sighed and considered her current affairs as her coach crept through the city’s busy streets. The nerve racking event of taking lives and nearly losing her own had undoubtedly had an effect on her concentration. Had that not been enough, Isabella’s father that had seen his end and had decided it would be in her best interest to use an item to hide his true state of being, left her need to morn in limbo. The pairing was enough to give her a headache, but such was her life and she concluded that there would be no hiding from either fact.

To set such topics aside, Isabella decided it would be best to visit the home of one of the mine owners her family had business with. To her mind, she had to make certain the bond between them had not been strained due to her father’s condition. Isabella would need to act as if her parent still lived which made her stomach queasy. To add insult to injury, with his last breath she found herself in a situation where she must accept the most promising of marriage offers in order to maintain her life style and status. To play the part of a pretty ornament at a man’s side was just as displeasing as her current situation.

When the coach slowed to a stop and the front gate of the stately home came into view, Isabella set her mind on the task at hand. The meeting would require only an offering of a calming and warm smile along with a look of interest to what would be said to her. She knew she would need to hide her thoughts to the best of her ability while searching through those of the man who had invited her to tea.

The coach stopped and was greeted by a member of Mr. Dremer’s staff. With as much grace as she could muster, Isabella slipped into her role of a kind and intelligent member of a wealthy family. A lift of her chin and straitening of her back, she took on the role with ease. Knowing her mind, she exited the coach and followed the servant to the door where the man she expected inside was waiting for her arrival.

“Milady,” Mr. Dremer said with a smile and a bow. “How good of you to come on such short notice. I do hope you will forgive such an abrupt request.”

Isabella curtsied. “I am honored to be so singled out, Mr. Dremer. I know you to be a very busy man.” She followed his lead into the home. With brief glances, she memorized the interior as they moved to the drawing room. To her hidden surprise, several others were within. “Gentlemen,” she said with a nod of her head as they stood. “Please sit. Do not make yourselves uncomfortable on my account.”

Most returned to their seats, while a man in his thirties she did not recognize, moved to the drink tray and studied the assorted bottles.

“Forgive me, Miss Nelstet,” Mr. Dremer began. “Several of your father’s business partners were inclined to speak to you and I thought it best to have such discussions in a casual setting.”

Isabella smiled and took her seat. Within moments she knew that each feared the time when her father would die and, more importantly in their minds, who would control the assets of her family. “I fear that I am not my best today, gentlemen. You will forgive me for not staying long. But please, speak freely as I am not one to value secrets.” Their faces hardened and their thoughts seem to retreat. “I imagine you are here to state your concern over the investments that my father has made in your businesses. As I see it, each of you own mines, mills and shops that owe my father a debt of gratitude for improving or establishing your way of life.”

“Each of us owe a great deal of gratitude to the past favors of you father, milady.”

Her eyes leapt to the man in neatly trimmed beard and the bulging belly. “Past, Mr. Enat? Did you expect something more than the sum you were given when you required the silver mines of a few of your competitors?”

He looked away quickly, but another spoke in his place. “The deals we made where with your father, Miss Nelstet.” The stout man reached into his jerkin and produced a legal document that had been folded several times over.

“I am well aware of the promises each of you have agreed to and how much is still owed. As well as the percentages that continue to this day to be paid to my family, of course.”

“To your father, you mean,” Mr. Enat stated.

Isabella smiled as she recognized the fear of the others allowed Mr. Enat to speak for them. “I see. So it is your opinion that such promises are forfeited on the event of my father’s death.” She nearly lost her smile as their thoughts spoke of certain success. “However, you have overlooked an important fact, gentlemen. My father did not sign the agreements you have made.”

Mr. Enat’s eyebrows narrowed. “What foolery is this?”

“None, I assure you,” she replied kindly. “Look for yourself. Each have a copy of the agreement made when the deal was struck. Is my father’s signature on any of them?”

Each of the men skeptically evaluated the parchments they believed were in their favor. Their eyes told her the surprise and truth of what she implied.

“The agreements are all marked with a family crest embossed into wax.” She pulled off her glove and held up her hand to show them her ring. “Like this one.”

The men began to grumble and their thoughts wavered from fear to anger.

“Gentlemen, please do not force my hand in this matter. My father saw great promise in each of your hopes and dreams. The terms were set before you which each of you agreed. My father then laid out the necessary funds to give you the opportunity to seek new fortunes.”

“From your own words, it was our father did this. Your name is nowhere on this document, as well, Miss Nelstet,” Mr. Enat griped.

Isabella knew she had one other card to play and was not about to be cornered opportunists. “I speak for my family, sir. My family is one third owner in your ventures, Mr. Enat, as well as those holdings each of you have. But perhaps you find the terms too sever now that you have gained your wealth and wish to reconsider? I hesitate to remind you of the law which has certain provisions for the protection of a partner.”

The men looked to one another, but it was the unknown man in the background that spoke for them. Sniffing the crystal stopper from one of the spirits, he seemed nearly oblivious to the conversation. “A partner of a business that holds a third of the rights of a business has the following options. He…or she, in this case, may sell the rights to another, have the other shareholders purchase her rights, or,” he said with a grin, “declare the business dissolved entirely and its assets forfeited to the baron.”

“No one has such rights!” Mr. Enat shouted.

“Calm yourself, sir!” Mr. Dremer objected.

Isabella began to put her glove back onto her hand. “I had feared something like this might happen one day. Father has been a generous man his whole life and one had to consider there would be some that would pray on his failing health. This is why I sent word to the baron and was happy to hear of his promise to support my rights.”

Mr. Enat scowled at her. “Calculating snake!”

Her eyes glanced to the unknown man who had shown his knowledge of the law. “I wonder, sir. Do you have interest in mining?”

The man shook his head and turned his attention back to the bottles on the tray.

Isabella shrugged. “Pity. I do hear that there will be many available once certain individuals are summoned to the castle should this matter be pressed further. You may wish to reconsider as they would be a very good bargain.”

Mr. Enat seethed. “You do not threaten me, Miss Nelstet.”

She set her eyes squarely on the large man before her. “Did you think for a moment I would be cornered like a small mouse?”

Mr. Enat looked to the others. “What are you to say about this threat? Each of you must agree this is coercion!”

“It sounds to me as if this was some attempt to strip her family of its purse,” the man at the tray stated. “A hanging affair for one to be convicted of such a crime. It appears that you have been outwitted, sir. Continue your business with this fair lady or face a baron who agrees with her.”

The group of men launched from their seats to restrain Mr. Enat from throttling the unknown man. Though it took the majority of them to subdue the heavyset man and drag him from the room, Isabella did not move. With Mr. Dremer escorting the others out, bursting with offerings of a peaceful end to the meeting, her eyes settled on the man who had come to her defense.

“And who do I have the pleasure of thanking for his gallant words of support?”

The man smiled and set his glass on the table. “You did not need help, milady, so you owe me nothing.”

Isabella liked his smile and found him oddly curious. A quick attempt to reach into his mind for his thoughts only supplied her with a sense of whimsy. “Forgive me, but I cannot match your face with a name.”

“Is that so important?” He set his glass aside. “I am simply a representative to another’s fortune. But, if I may be so bold to ask, did you truly go to see the baron before this meeting?”

“You wish to see my cards laid out on the table?”

The man chuckled. “Forgive me. Your secrets are rightfully your own. However, I do hope that you had made up the story entirely in the moment.”

Isabella was intrigued. “You will have to come to your own conclusions on the matter, milord. I would like to know what conclusion you have come to when you have finished ponding. Until then, surely you will give me some name that I might tell others of your gallantry.”

A broad grin crept across his face. “I did nothing.” He bowed deeply. “Good day to you, Miss Nelstet.”

She watched him leave the room and could swear that he had a sparkle in his eye at his last glance at her. “What a clever man,” she whispered to herself. The way he left her wondering and that not a single hint of a clue of who he was made her very curious. As Mr. Dremer entered the room, looking very nervous and thinking of the many honest apologies he wished to offer, Isabella found the comparison to the stranger greater than night and day.

“Forgive me, milady. I—”

“I have no issue with you, Mr. Dremer. Your generous nature was used against you by others. I wish I had a tenth of such a heart as yours.” She heard the sigh of relief in the man’s thoughts. “But tell me of the man that drifted in the background. Who is he?”

Mr. Dremer scanned the room and then behind him, half expecting the man to be near. “He said that he had the business with you like the others so I simply let him join the party. He gave me no name, milady.”

Isabella smiled. “He left none with me, as well.”

Making her excuses to leave with a calm and pleasant demeanor, Isabella exited the house feeling rather proud of herself. With the businessmen scrambling to seek legal advice to find some means of countering her, she contently climbed into her coach with the single thought of the unknown man that had supported her rights among the others. Feeling the coach lurch forward and the familiar clacking of shod horses in her ears, Isabella let her thoughts run through the list of those she might associate his face. She chuckled to herself when the coach neared her home and she had exhausted each name on her list.

The doorman greeted her when she arrived with his usual smile. A friendly sort of man that she had known through the many years of her life. He certainly wasn’t the man at the meeting, nor the butler that met her once she entered her home. The thought of her grasping at straws was like a poorly told joke as she made her way into the drawing room to find the nameless man, himself.

“I was not expecting guests,” she said with a smile that matched the whimsical event. “But in your case, I will make an exception.” Isabella turned and closed the doors. “Odd that you were not announced though.” She turned and reached out with her mind only to find a very familiar lighthearted chuckle in his thoughts. Isabella gaped at the man sitting in a chair. “You!”

“Me. One of many faces, but the same man.”

Isabella laughed. “And I had begun to think you had none behind that mask.”

“One mask for another, I assure you.”

Walking to an open chair, she sat and stared at the familiar face. “A man who wears many faces. I must admit I’m impressed with your use of magic. But tell me, what do I owe for the pleasure of your company and in daylight, no less?”

“Mere curiosity, milady.”

Isabella shook her head. “Nothing more?”

“Your audience at the tea party contained a member that is sought out by another. I made it a point to find the connection, should there be one.”

“And was there?”

Her informant shrugged. “A simple ploy to have you relinquish rights to a business that has unseemly ties to it. An interested party wished to have your share of the business. It appears there is little more than this.”

Isabella reached out again with her mind and found the sound of echoed laughter in his mind. “Perhaps I should employ another spy to learn of this other partner.”

“Little need, my lady. I tell you freely that it is Mrs. Enat that has kept her eyes on her husband’s accounts and has seen something she wish she had not. Little does she know what other dubious debts he has.”

“That sounds familiar. I pity the wife that she must be tied to such a man. Which debts does Mr. Enat have?”

“Does it matter?”

Isabella smiled. “I suppose not. Today, I feel vindicated and stronger for holding my ground. Perhaps I should simply sell my rights to Mrs. Enat in order to help her do what she wishes. I have to admit, I’m leaning toward the notion to do so.”

“For amusement?”

She nodded. “It is as good a reason as any other in this mess. Does she have enough coin?”

“She does. The Mrs. Enat assured me that I would be handsomely paid if I could manage to acquire your holding in the business. However, I will split the coin she has already laid out if you do not sell.”

“Which investment and at what price?”

“A handful of silver mines off of the Crooked River branch. She is under the impression that having a controlling interest in these mines will give her a pain point to strike at a man with less than impressive skills in hiding a bill at a brothel.”

Tapping her lip as she turned and looked away, Isabella toyed with an idea in her head. “And why do you wish me not to sell my family’s stake in these mines?”

The man laced his fingers and rested them against his chin. “My reasoning is a matter of the heart. The woman is making a poor attempt to lure her husband into a trap that will fail.”

Isabella laughed. “You wish for her to buy the brothel instead then close the business.”

“It was a passing thought.”

“I did not take you for a man who would emotionally invest himself in such matters.” Isabella studied the frown on his face. “Then it is solely for the purpose of this woman that you would lose coin to aid her? You have me questioning your motives, sir. Could it be that this woman has caught your eye? Tell me, what outcome do you wish to find in all of this?”

“Redemption for Mrs. Enat.”

“A dangerous play of your hand, my shadowy friend. The woman is sure to be hurt in the end as her husband will simply visit other establishments. She would be better to have him found out and have her case heard before the baron.”

He stood and clasped his hands behind his back. “And who says she will not do that very thing?”

Isabella shook her head. “You mean to be the instrument of the man’s downfall. Could it be that the shadow has feelings for the married woman?”

“I assure you, I have no such feelings.”

“You cannot fool me, my friend. No one takes such things under wing for their own amusement. What is the woman to you?”

“A victim.”

“Morals?”

The man shrugged. “I have many. Do I not look after your situations with the same interest?”

Isabella became very still. “I see. So you find me a victim as well? Of what, might I ask?”

“Life, milady.”

Chapter 18

 As the many nights before, Isabella’s dreams were troubled. Faded and distant scenes of her father’s crypt floated in and out of the darkness. The sense of loss and the fear of being alone surrounded her like murky waters that threatened to drown her. Visions of turning from one hope to another endlessly turned in her mind. Unable to move forward or away, she watched as hopeful possibility after frightening scene circled her. The dream tormented her with the sound of a ticking clock that grew ever louder in her ears. Feeling a touch to her cheek, she suddenly awoke and shifted away from the out stretched hand.

The figure sitting on the side of her bed slowly retracted its arm and lifted a small round object in the dim light of night. “A salve,” the voice stated in a whisper.

Isabella recognized the calming voice though her heart continued to race. “How did you get in here?”

“From the shadows. Where else?”

Isabella looked to the bedroom door, hoping no servant heard her words, then back to the informant. “You have overstepped your rights,” she stated firmly.

The figure nodded quietly. Taking her hand, he gently placed the chilled glass jar in her palm and stood. No sound was made as he moved into the darkness of the room.

“Wait,” she whispered. Seeing him pause, Isabella attempted to gather her thoughts. “You were the one who found me and brought me home the night of the attack.”

“Yes.”

Isabella gathered her robe from the end of her bed and wrapped it around her. “I am thankful.”

“A necessary precaution.”

She was not about to let him so easily dismiss her nor was she to let him go without filling in the missing pieces of her memory. “How did you know where to find me that night?” When he did not answer, she grew more focused in her thoughts. “Have you been following me so closely?”

“Of course.”

“I do not pay you to spy on me.” She pulled back her covers and slipped out of bed. Pulling her robe closed, she approached him cautiously. “What do you know?”

The man turned and stared at her through his mask. “More than most, milady. It is the gift of living in the shadows.”

“But you did not come to my aid when I was attacked.”

“Did you need my help?”

She wondered if the question resulted with a smile behind the mask he wore. “In the end, yes.”

“And in the end, a simple dagger was all I provided. A point I would suggest you consider before venturing out again. You should not leave witnesses as you had that night.”

Isabella cringed as the memory of her captures came to mind. “Can they be paid off?” The dark clouding of his mind told her he was attempting to hide something. “You killed them.”

“I would have left them be had you not created the two corpses in the lower chamber.”

“I had to. They would have killed me.”

The figure shook his head. “They asked of your connection to the woman you visit. You told them lies.”

“To protect her.” Isabella recounted the scene in her mind. “The women had a threating aura. I could not read their minds. When I refused them, they…they—”

“Did nothing. It was you, milady that struck the first blow.”

Isabella shook, knowing he was right. She knew she drew the dagger and attacked the masked women. Searching back, shame swept across her mind. “I…thought they were going to hurt me.”

“And you lashed out. A dangerous thing, to attack without thought.”

His words felt like a lecture. “And where were you? Listening at the door? Gathering information to sell to another while I was nearly killed?”

“Handing you what you wanted most. A blade.” The man turned and began to walk to the corner.

Isabella followed, feeling a need to keep him in sight. “Where are you going?”

“Elsewhere. You are a pitiful sight when you are headstrong.”

“How dare you!” she said, moving to a chair beside the fireplace with dying embers. Isabella knew of her temper. If she wanted to gain information, she would need to rein in her emotions. “Sit. Please. Sit for a moment. I will pay for it, of course.”

“And you will be rational?”

Isabella nodded though she hated to be treated like a child. She needed answers and would put on a false smile and bare it if she could get them from him. “I will act as I am, but will attempt to be calm. Will you be more civil and refrain from speaking to me like an irate parent?”

The man was quite for a moment as if pondering something in the dark. “What answers do you require?”

The question was fair enough, though annoying as she had many things she wished to know. Considering her most pressing need, Isabella focused on her mother and the secret she was meant to be. “The woman I visit, has she come to harm?”

“Your mother lives and will remain untouched.”

Her secret so openly spoke of left her stinging. No one was to know of her. “Remain so? Have you set guards around her?”

“Of sorts.”

More questions. His answers always left her with more questions. Still, the man had never failed in the tasks she had set for him. The guards or whatever he had put in place would be enough for the moment. Her mind leapt to her next concern, and oddly enough, it was another secret she had hoped to keep to herself. “My father—”

“Adopted father,” he corrected.

“Yes,” she agreed, knowing that was common knowledge. “His health is failing.”

“He has no health at all, milady.”

She should have guessed that the man knew more than she had guessed. “You are one who appears to know much. Perhaps you understand that my time is running out and that the world will know of his demise soon enough.” Seeing her informant remain still, Isabella took a leap a faith and gave her thoughts words. “Can it be lengthened?”

“You wish to prolong the disguise.”

“I do not have a choice, Shadow. As soon as the physicians note his last breath, I will lose all that I have. Surely you know that.”

The man took a step closer. “End your folly and make a new life elsewhere.”

“Then what would you suggest I do? Marry some rich nobleman who will treat me as a child or a pretty vase to be admired?” She shivered. “No, I will not be forced from this city.” She looked at the darkened corners of the room. “I need your thoughts. There is no one else I can speak of such matters with. Tell me your opinion.”

“On which matter?”

“All of them. I have only my own ideas and would be willing to pay for alternatives.”

The man moved closer, allowing himself to come into the soft glowing light. Stopping at the back of a chair that faced her, he looked at the door. “You haven’t the time or the coin for such things, milady.”

“Then I will use the time I have and I will pay for what I can afford. My father has many assets that I could offer you in place of coin.” She saw he appeared unmoved by her offer. “Assets that you could sell to others, if you wished.”

“Ask and I will set a price.”

Hoping the assets of her father’s array of businesses would suffice, Isabella agreed with a nod. “Tell me your thoughts on the protection of my family.”

“Which member?”

Isabella knew that the man was aware of all the members of her family. “My mother.”

He shook his head. “The disease of her mind has no cure. I have sought medicines on your behalf. It is an ailment that cannot be fought and won. This, I will only charge two hundred gold.”

Isabella hated his words, but knew well enough through her visits and seeing the slipping of her mother’s mind hasten. She could not disagree with his assessment. “Fair enough. How long do you imagine she has left?”

“You will find yourself without parental guidance very soon.”

“The end of the month?”

Nodding, the man looked back to her. “Another two hundred. What else do you wish to know?”

“My sister?”

“She is with your past lover. She appears to be within a ring of safety should she keep close to him as her powers grow. They send small ripples but are unnoticed by others. Should the pair stay within the community the sheriff oversees, they have a greater chance to remain unharmed. Both of their secrets are still safe from those who have greater aspirations. Two hundred gold more.”

His note of her past relationship with Xavier stung deeply, but she could not shake the small hints of the ripples. “Xavier has gifts?”

“The price of such a—”

“What do you want for it?” She attempted to seek his thoughts and found only the typical whimsical tune without words. “Five thousand?”

“The tower on the hill.”

Her thoughts ran through her father’s many business holdings and found nothing at first. At the end of the list, she could think of only on place that could be described in such a way. “Xavier’s family home? It isn’t mine to give.”

“Promise it.”

Isabella could not imagine why he would want such a thing. “You have not heard my words? The Sevet ancestral home is not mine to give.”

He remained still.

She shook her head. “He will never leave his duty to that tiny town nor would he ever consider selling his rights. It was the place of his birth.”

“Should you ever have the opportunity, you will promise that it will be handed to me and that you will do all in your power to keep it so.”

The odd request felt like a betrayal and she could not fathom why the shadowy figure would want a dilapidated tower that she was certain Xavier would never part with. Still, if it was only the promise of something that would never occur, she could not help but agree to give up something she would never own. “Agreed. You must understand that I will never have possession of it.”

The man nodded. “The price has been agreed to then.” He appeared lost in thought as he stared at the small embers in the fireplace. “The sheriff, as many know, once killed a warlock.”

“Everyone within a hundred miles knows of the tale.”

“What is not known is that the man was cursed in the moment of the warlock’s death. The sheriff has certain skills of which the warlock had. The first of which is the ability to move through the space between points as I have seen you do.”

Isabella blinked in her astonishment. “He’s been cursed?”

“Yes, but to little effect. His ability aids him in his work. No more than that. He is as he was, by all other accounts.”

She had no difficulty imagining that her past love had been so pig-headed as keep such a thing from her. “Then my sister and Xavier are out of reach of those that could harm them.”

“No one can make such a claim, but the pair you speak of will have a greater chance of survival if they stay together and keep well away from here.”

Isabella noticed she was wringing her hands, but didn’t care. “I have made that almost a certainty. Still, I will do all I can to have them marry. The spelled coin I gave Xavier keeps them bound for a time, but I cannot do more than that. Once married, the enchantment will be gone.”

“Is that what you wish? The pair to marry?”

“Her father is nothing short of filth. His plan is to essentially sell my sister for his gain but he has not considered the possibility that they already would be forced to be together. Their tether will force them to bond and they will be stronger together than apart. Xavier’s past affections for me are gone. It…they will be a good match.”

The man slowly made his way around the chair, and for the first time in her presence, appeared to search for words. “And you, milady. You must know that you will not see the end of the year if you continue on your current path. Since your slight against certain powerful families, the killing of the acolytes in The Trough and your father’s failed health, the wolves will come for you.”

Isabella nodded. “I have made my mistakes and the enemies I have are of my own making. Anna must have mother’s gifts as I have only the slightest hint of abilities. It is more important for her to live than I.”

“Your demise may come sooner than you imagine. The two in the lower chamber that you killed were mere apprentice. You have marked yourself. Their sisters will certainly want revenge.”

“I have no intentions of making myself easy prey,” she answered through gritting teeth. “I will find the means to strike first, but I need father’s condition to last to gather all the funds it will take.”

“Hired men will not help you against their magic and spite.”

“Then it is against Seethers I fight?”

The man shrugged. “Does it matter?”

“What is your price to help me rid my enemies from my life?”

The dark figure stood perfectly still. “You have too many.”

“Then to keep me alive until my sister and Xavier are safe.”

To her amazement the man slowly began to pace before her once more. She had never seen him on such an edge. When he stopped, she knew the price would be staggering.

He pulled off his glove and stretched out his bare hand. “As you see, I am flesh and blood, milady. Skilled as I might be, I do bleed. What you ask for, I may not have blood enough for.”

Isabella nodded. “I understand.” She considered that her time in the world might be shorter than she imagined and shrugged at the inevitability of her demise. She rose from her chair and moved to the fireplace. Moving a piece of trim below the mantle, a small click sounded with the opening of a hidden space beside her. Reaching inside a secret compartment, Isabella grasped the purse within and held it up for him to see. ”White diamonds,” she stated. “Hear my terms and weigh the idea carefully in your mind. Should you agree, they are yours.”

The man from the shadows slowly moved toward her. “I am listening.”

A small hope grew in her mind. “I will be honest and open with you, but you must be the same with me. Nothing said here can leave the room.”

“Agreed.”

Isabella pushed the secret compartment closed and took a careful step toward him. “Can you change your features into anyone?”

“Most. Some with effort and pain. Why do you ask?”

“I am attempting to set a certain plan in place. I will need help from a very skilled individual. One I can trust.”

“Is there such a person, milady? A person that you can trust?”

Isabella nodded. “Perhaps a man that has been by my side for three years and knows more about me than I care to admit.”

“What is it you wish to do?”

“My plan has a few parts, like a play.”

The man nodded. “Act one?”

“Would the women that I…would they have killed my mother?”

“Very likely they would have attempted to drain her of her abilities once you were under their control or influence.”

Isabella thought as much. “A deadly thing to play with a woman with so much power who is not right in the mind.”

“I agree. They would have found that the madness would spread along with any shedding of her gifts. Is this first act to allow them to attempt such a thing?”

“Havens, no,” she stated. “But they must be dealt with. Act one is their demise. Word will spread and perhaps it will give others second thoughts about coming after me.”

The man chuckled. “If one succeeded, I would agree. However, it may make others more determined to be rid of you. Is there an Act Two?”

“There is, but I have divulged a plan that you could easily sell to others. You are a businessman of sorts. Give me something in return. Something of equal value.”

“Such as?”

“I have known you for three years but do not know your name.”

The man shook his head. “The value of that is far greater than a plan that has not been carried out.”

Isabella shrugged. “Then give me something befitting the information you have of me. Have you always been one who uses the shadows? Are you some type of Seether or magic user? Remember, white diamonds hang in the balance of this discussion.”

“The abilities came to me by chance. I am no Seether. That is of equal value to words of a future plan. What is Act Two?”

“A false marriage.” Isabella could hardly believe she was uttering the plan.

“Whose?”

She shot him a knowing look. “Yours and mine.”

The man looked to the fire.

Behind the mask, Isabella could see only the man’s eyes yet could feel the tension in in his body. “In name and legal documentation only, of course. I do not care what you do as long as you play the part effectively. Everyone must believe it to be true. You do not happen to be married, do you?”

The man shook his head. “I am alone in such things.”

“I see,” Isabella stated, attempting to hide the growing hope inside her. “Now, it is your turn.”

“I have already shared that I am not married. The fact that you would attempt to find someone who would marry you is not outside the obvious. The idea of marriages of convenience was not invented in this discussion.”

Isabella nodded. “Fair enough.”

“Is there a final act to this play of yours?”

Isabella nodded. “Yes, but I cannot tell you that part.”

The man laughed. “You wish me to agree to terms that I do not fully know? No sane person would agree to this.”

“Perhaps,” Isabella stated. “Still, in accepting to the first two of the conditions, it would be to your benefit. You would rid the city of a danger and would become a very wealthy and powerful man.”

“But to what ends, milady?” the man asked. “Having completed the first two acts, I would have made myself a target for the avenging branches of that occult and married a woman that does not care for me. Can you not see how even the promises of wealth lacks luster in such light?” He turned back to the fire. “I tell you truthfully, I have grave concerns for the third act if this is what has been offered thus far.”

“What is it you want in exchange?” Isabella hoped his answer would be within her ability to give.

The man stood. “I will consider your first two acts. To manage the first will take planning and time.”

Isabella was actually hopeful in hearing he at least would consider her idea. “I have a thought for the riding of the occult that wishes to harm my mother. It is brutal, mind you, but I believe it will be the most effective.”

He seemed to ponder the idea. “The spells that I believe you elude to will take special instruments. I will not be able to gather what is needed in this city.”

“But you can manage it, can’t you? I can hear the listing of items needed in your head.”

“I will return in a few days,” the man said. “Then we will see if ‘Act One’ of your play will see the light of day.” He bowed deeply. “Until then.” The masked man walked to a corner of the room, vanishing in the shadows.

Isabella smiled as a new hope of achieving the impossible settled in her mind.

Chapter 19

Xavier flinched at the sudden tugging from within his body. Looking up from his breakfast plate to the pair staring at him, he shrugged. “I ate too quickly, I imagine.” Since returning from the chapel and beginning the awkward yet needed discussions with Anna, Xavier kept their bond a secret fearing that it might be used against them.

“Going to see the woman this morning?” Jeffers asked.

“What woman?” Xavier asked firmly. Seeing the young man flinch at his over-reaction, he shook his head at the fatigue he felt. The situation was eating at him and Xavier knew it began to show. The boy was curious about Miss Travene, nothing more. “I have not made such plans.” As Harris smiled, Xavier wondered how he would keep his distance from the woman without the town making certain assumptions. He knew they would need to find excuses to be together. “She has shown an interest in what we do though, with her sharp mind, it is only a matter of time before she understands our work fully. The townspeople may not think there is evil about, but Miss Travene will not be fooled much longer.”

Harris chuckled. “Well, I don’t mind Miss Travene visiting. And I can tell Jeffers has no objections the way he gawks at her chest. Still, it’s not a healthy thing for a woman to get mixed up in this.” He shrugged and stabbed the thick porridge with his spoon. “Maybe if she could cook, we could—”

“Miss Travene has better things to do than cook for you, Harris,” Xavier countered. The words were more brash than he intended, but the unnatural pulling from within was becoming painful. “I think that we might keep her awareness at bay a while longer if I showed her the more boring aspects of our occupation. Perhaps she will lose interest.”

“Like mucking out the stables?” Jeffers asked. “I could show her that.”

Xavier shook his head. “Much too obvious. If we give her mundane tasks to do such as cleaning stables, she will catch on to our desire to keep her at arm’s length. We must play our hand well so that there are no insults to deal with. Her family’s wealth is tied to the fur trade so I believe I may have her accompany me along the river to check on the trappers.”

“Careful she doesn’t get too attached to you, Capt. She’s gonna have to leave here eventually.”

“I will take care in that, Harris,” Xavier stated. “We will not be able to keep up with our usual pace if I am so preoccupied so one of you will need to stay in town and the other to patrol the road while I am away.”

Jeffers sat up. “I’ll do the patrol, Capt.”

“Like hells, you will, boy,” Harris grunted. “You’ll go farmhouse to farmhouse looking for a pie in the window or wile the day away telling tall tales.” He turned to Xavier. “I’ll mind the roads today.”

Xavier nodded. Knowing the young man felt disarmed with Harris’ words, he felt perhaps he could ease the bruising. “Jeffers, I want you to visit the businesses today. Let them bend your ear with complaints and gossip.”

The young man appeared to like the idea.

“It is not an invitation for you to spend all day at the task, but do not rush the job,” Xavier instructed. “Stay long enough to show we are concerned with their worries. When you come back, I want a written report of what you have found out.”

“Like a real report?”

Xavier eyed him. “As good as any you have seen Harris put together. If you are going to grow in this trade, you had better get used to reading and writing reports.”

“Ain’t that the truth, Capt.” Harris agreed. “I got one I just did, lad. Look it over and make it look like mine.”

The young man nodded happily. “You can count on me!” He stood up from the table and snatched up a messenger bag. With lively steps, Jeffers left the jail house.

“Nice thing you did there, Capt.” Harris said. “That woman’s kindness putting you in a better mood lately?”

Xavier ignored the question and rose from his chair. Carrying the bowl to a small table, he set it down and walked to his office. “The priest told me that Mrs. Knoll would not let him bless her son’s grave.”

“Hard thought to consider that old woman as a sympathizer,” Harris replied. Standing and moving toward the office, he stopped and leaned in the doorway. “Doesn’t feel right.”

“We need proof of either possibility. I have a feeling there is something that links the murders and is hidden away with the deaths.” Xavier opened his desk drawer and palmed the rolled silk home of his unusual pet. “If she was helping bandits, I want to know. If she was part of a cult, I want to know. Speculation is getting us nowhere. She knew something that caused a knife to cross her throat. Find me facts, Harris.” He closed the drawer and looked around the office as if he had forgotten something. “Your idea last night of taking Miss Travene on a small outing was clever. Other than a ride along the road, what do you think might entertain a lady as curious as our Miss Travene?”

Harris scratched his head. “Well, you could take a bow and teach her to shoot?”

Xavier had not considered how such an idea would easily disguise teaching her how to protect herself. “Daggers,” he said with a smirk. “How many ladies sitting at tea can boast of knowing how to throw a dagger?” He suddenly flinched, and swore under his breath.

“Maybe you got a hole in the making in that stomach of yours.”

“Maybe that is due to the poison you call porridge,” he countered. “I only need to move around instead of sitting in a chair looking over wanted posters all day.” Xavier nodded at his own words. They sounded true enough. “Hold down the castle and eye that young pup of ours to make sure he doesn’t run off at the mouth today.”

Harris stood at attention as Xavier passed by. “You can count on me, Capt. You just make sure that poor woman doesn’t get the wrong idea about you. I don’t like the idea of her with a broken heart.”

Xavier opened the door. “You can be certain my view is the same on the matter,” he said and left quickly.

Four paces away from the jail house, the tugging began to ease. Out of curiosity, he began to count his steps to gauge just how far they could be away from one another without the pangs. Comparing their testing of the unnatural connection they learned of at the chapel, he quickly found the distance was identical and was thankful that it had not shortened. Crossing the street and nodding to those that watched him, he wondered how he might bring up the idea of riding together and have it acceptable to her father. Before Xavier made it to the steps, the door to the inn opened. There he saw Anna with Mr. Travene.

“Milord Sheriff!” the large man said with surprise. “We were just on our way to see about a horse for my daughter. She has been talking about your ride together since we woke.”

With a quick glance, he noted her smile. Another gift? He had not spoken of his intentions to ride along the road to her. “It is very generous of you to allow your daughter the opportunity—”

“Ha!” Mr. Travene laughed. “Wouldn’t be able to deny her the way she has carried on about it. You will take good care of my daughter, won’t you? I only have two, you know.” He pat his daughter’s arm. “And it is you I should be thanking, sir. I was looking for an excuse to simply rest my backside after traveling.”

Xavier nodded. “There is a mount for Miss Travene at the stables of the jail house. Not a refined animal, but one I believe she will feel comfortable riding.” He turned to the woman with a small smile. “Shall we venture up the road, Miss Travene?”

“Anna, please, Sir Xavier,” she replied. “I feel like I’m being treated higher than my station when called Miss Travene.”

“A generous offer,” Xavier stated.

When Anna had given her father a quick kiss on the cheek and a warning not to drink the day away, Anna stepped down from the porch and took Xavier’s arm.

“Must you pace all night?” she whispered to him as they walked together.

Xavier smiled. “It is a habit of mine when my insides are being pulled apart.”

She sighed. “Well, you kept me up half the night, but I put it to good use.”

“Is that so?”

“Yes. I practiced moving quickly around the room.”

He chuckled imagining the scene in his head. Coming to the stables, he opened the half door and escorted her inside. “I believe you remember this horse.”

“We aren’t going through any rivers, are we? I had to lie to my father and tell him I slipped into the stream to explain the smell of the dress.”

“No streams,” he answered, saddling the horse. “I thought you would be interested in learning to throw a dagger.” He looked over his shoulder to see her shrug. “The skill has been a use to me, though I am very curious as to how you knew of my plan to take you riding today.”

Anna moved to his side. “I don’t think we should talk about this, here.”

Her eyes had concern in them. Understanding that she was leery of such discussions, Xavier nodded and cinched the saddle. Gathering the reins in hand, he offered them to her and looked to saddling his horse.

Holding any discussion until they had crossed the bridge, the pair lead their horses behind them. Well away from others, they found themselves slowly walking the road that had brought her to Kedalpoint. Xavier was happy that she began their first conversation, though he was not sure he cared for her choice in topics.

“They stare at us constantly,” she said softly. “And we can’t seem to be further away from each other than down the street.”

He stared ahead, wondering what it was that she wanted him to say. “I have grown use to their stares. You will too, I imagine.”

“It isn’t just the stares, milord,” Anna remarked. “They whisper things. Inappropriate things.”

“Such as?”

She looked over at him. “Do you really want to know what drunk men say about you in the late hours of the night?”

“I assume you have discovered a new gift as you do not seem the type of woman to spend all night in a tavern.”

“Quite right!” she stated excitedly. “As soon as you left me after our return from the chapel, my ears began to ring. Soon enough, I found I could hear conversations that were not in the least close to me. Unfortunately, they aren’t very interesting.”

Xavier considered that the advantage of his new friend may be more useful than he thought. “I imagine so. I have made it a habit to avoid gossip. However, I imagine you have heard how I am the cause of their misfortune.”

“Nothing like that,” she chuckled. “They claim you have killed a hundred men and they are the safest of any town in the Fifth Circle because of your reputation.”

“You are trying to flatter me. I doubt such things are said.”

“With this new ability, I couldn’t help but hear every word of it. You didn’t have to listen to them while lying in bed feeling pulled half apart,” she countered. “The trappers think of you as some good omen. From the way they spoke, you will have some type of monument to you built in the center of town.”

“Anna, they think of nothing but the fact that I led half the men of the town to their deaths. And they would be right to have such opinions.”

Anna stopped and lifted herself up into her saddle. “You’re wrong.”

Xavier wished to change the subject. “As for the staring, I have hopes that we might do something about it today. With practice, we might learn to stretch the distance between us. I failed miserably when I first attempted to use my skill in moving from place to place and fighting at the same time. Now,” he looked over to her as he climbed into his saddle, “I am quite good at it. Simple practice might be the key to it.”

“I saw you attack the man that was after my father,” she commented as she nudged the animal forward.

“You noticed when the bandits attacked your coach?”

Anna nodded. “I didn’t understand until you showed me how you could move around the pond. It made perfect sense after that.”

For some time the pair road in silence. It was only after they had an easy mile between the town and them that Xavier pulled back on the reins and came to a stop. Stepping down from his horse, he led it to a tree and looped the reins around a low hanging limb. “Let us start with the use the daggers for now.” Digging into his saddlebag, he produced two thin blades.

“Why throw them?” she asked, tying her horse next to his. “I want to show you something.” Anna held out her hand.

Xavier carefully handed a dagger to her.

Anna turned as she laid the blade in the open palm of her hand. Like an arrow, the dagger flew through the air and sank deeply into a nearby tree. She turned to him with laughter in her eyes. “It works with butter knives and forks too.”

It took Xavier only a moment to understand how she managed it. Their unusual bond allowed for him to understand that she had combined simple abilities into the single act. To his understanding, she first had to have made the item light as a feather. Blown off the palm of her hand, she must have found the means to push it through the air. Finally, before the dagger struck its target, she let the item regain its natural weight. It was so simple Xavier had to reexamine the procedure. Though he knew he could not cause the same effect, he found no flaws in the process.

“You showed me how to move through a distance,” she quipped. “It isn’t that different, is it?”

Xavier smiled. “I may have a simplified understand how such a thing can be done, but I am certain I would not be able to achieve it.”

“Well, as a thank you for demonstrating the skill and an apology for keeping me up all night forcing me to try such things, you will count to fifty and meet me up the hill.” She began to walk into the forest. “Fifty. And I will know, milord, if you are cheating.”

The sheriff watched the changed woman make her way through the trees. To his eyes, it was if she were an entirely new person from the woman he met on the road that fateful day. Her confidence and ease of speaking to him as if they had known one another since childhood, dumbfounded him. Xavier shook his head at the wonder and remembered to count.

When he had reached the desired number, he gathered the reins of both horses and followed the internal pull in her direction. Pushing branches aside and climbing the hill away from the road, his curiosity grew. Through the thick sheltering of low branches, Xavier came to a halt at the scene of Anna lying on a blanket in the shade of a tree. “You learned to create blankets, as well?”

“Pinned it under my dress,” she said with a smile. “Now, you stand guard and let me sleep.”

He chuckled as he was both impressed with her ingenuity and the grin she had as she closed her eyes. “Pacing for napping? Is this your way of evening a score?”

“Yes. Make sure nothing crawls its way towards me. I hate spiders.”

Once Xavier was certain the horses were tethered securely to the tree, he walked over to the blanket and sat. Resting his back against the tree, he took in the view of the valley below. With the soft cool breeze, the situation was rather idyllic. He glanced at the peaceful-looking woman. “What, may I ask, has brought on this change in you?”

“Acceptance and lack of sleep,” she whispered. “Now, hush and let me rest.”

Xavier noticed a satisfied smile creep across her face. Nodding to her notable accomplishment, he sat back and took in the happy scene of the valley. With a sense of calm he had not felt in many years, Xavier simply sat and watched the world as the day pass by.

Chapter 20

 The night frightened her, but Isabella’s need to see her mother had grown too great to deny. With adversaries closing in like circling wolves, there was only one that she felt pulled toward. If her days were numbered and the man of the shadows could not achieve the goals she had set before him, saying goodbye to her mother would be comfort enough to see the end of her days.

Sleeking through the alleyways, stepping over those sleeping under dirty blankets or passing by figures huddled by walls under anything that might offer warmth against the night air, Isabella made her way to the hut that contained her mind-struck parent. Covering her face, though she assumed the shadowy man’s spies and others were watching, she stealthily made her way across the dirt road to the dilapidated home. Without a knock, she entered and closed the door fearing the night air would be harmful to the weak woman.

With only the small fire to light the interior, Isabella removed her hood and stared at the frail figure lying in the simple bed.

“Come,” her mother said. With withered hand, she beckoned her visitor to come near. “I have waited.”

Isabella moved to her bedside and sat on the simple stool she often used when feeding her invalid mother. “I am here.”

“My thoughts are jumbled tonight, I’m afraid. I see past and present as one, but I have your answer shadowy one.”

“There is no need to talk. I came to see if you were well or in need for anything.”

The woman smiled. “You must come out from the shadows. You must embrace the light the warlock attempted for you never to find.”

Isabella shook her head, knowing the woman was not in her right mind. “There are no warlocks here, Mother.” Seeing the sweat on her forehead, she turned to look for a rag and a pitcher of water. Noting a clay ewer, Isabella rose from her seat.

“Warlock King,” her mother whispered. “A heavy price to pay.”

Isabella wondered if she was not recounting a fable.

“A dividing spell but gone awry. One to live in light, the other to the shadows.”

Isabella dabbed a small piece of cloth into the water and wrung it out on the plank floor. “You are delirious, Mother. Think on happy thoughts, not warlocks and foul things. With hope, our situation might be made right.” She hesitated. “If I can manage it, we might find a home together.”

The frail woman shook her head. “No. You cannot hide any longer, Shadow Man. They cannot hope to win without you. Take heart. Sacrifice all that you have. Light must win out.”

“Calm yourself, milady.” Isabella said as she returned. Folding the cloth, she pressed it gently on the woman’s forehead. “Dream of good things…” Her mother’s words had been like a howl in the night and struck at her heart as the name came to the forefront. “Shadow Man? Has a man come to see you?”

“I have taken away the blindfold.”

“What blindfold, Mother? What are you speaking of?”

Her mother sighed. In a few deep breathes, she slept peacefully.

Isabella wished to wake her mother, but did not dare steal any rest that might keep her in the world for a moment longer. Gently, she wiped the sweat from the woman’s face. She was feverish and it frightened Isabella. In that moment, she felt alone.

“You are not alone, milady.”

She turned quickly to find her shadow friend standing in the corner of the simple hut. “You have spoken to her.”

“I have. Many times.”

Isabella searched his eyes behind the mask and saw pain. “She said she had your answer. What did you ask?”

The man was silent.

“Mother mentioned a warlock king and a heavy price. Have you been cursed?”

“Yes.”

With many questions coming to her mind, she shook her head as if sorting them into order. “You killed a warlock like Xavier?”

He shook his head. “The…the same warlock, milady.”

“But Xavier—” she began when the sudden realization of who the man was. “It isn’t possible. Xavier is in Kedalpoint.”

“A part of him.”

Standing, Isabella slowly approached him. “One to live in light, the other to the shadows. That is what she said.”

The man stepped backwards. “Do not approach me, Miss Nelstet. I am for the shadows. There is nothing you can do for me.”

“How can this be?”

“The curse, milady. When I…we ran the warlock through with steel, he uttered a curse so foul that the words were like the screams of the hells in my…our ears. We were torn in two.”

“But, you cannot be the man I knew. He’s bonded to my sister!”

“He is. The other half…is here.” He took a step forward. “And have been for years.”

This time, it was Isabella that stepped backwards. “You are playing an evil trick. A person cannot simply split in two.”

The man nodded. “I tell you the truth. Test me.”

“What?”

“We had many memories shared together before you left me. Test me.”

Isabella shook her head. “You are a spy. You would have found some means to know enough of my past to—”

“The hayfield. The river when you cut the bottom of your foot and I carried you to the apple orchard. The silk ribbon you gave me before you left.”

“No. You paid someone gold to gather such information.” She took another step backwards as the shadow man removed his mask. Before her, stood the very image of the love of her youth. Shaking her head, Isabella refused to believe him. “How dare you use your tricks to deceive me!”

The Shadow Man slowly retreated, pulled a chair from under the table and sat. “It is me, Bella. Part of me, anyway. You asked for balance about what we know of each other. I now have it. When my sword pierced the warlock, he cursed me. I was shot like an arrow through the walls of the tent and into the mist. I must have blacked out as I found myself near a stream in a field when I came to. I saw the last of the battle and then the men that exited the tent. Harris, the boy, my cousin and…myself.”

Isabella felt trapped by her desire to run from the madness that seemed to effect all in the hut and the small inclining of hope. “A story. No, more than that.”

“I told you the scandal of my cousin and the house servant. You showed me how to fold paper into boats once and spent the entirety of the day racing them in the river. Who would know such things?”

“I don’t know at the moment, but you are a spy by trade. Perhaps you are nothing more than that, trying to coax me into giving up something.” Isabella shook her head. “You could not be him.”

“The man who promised not to look at another? The man who offered to run away with you to the Sixth Circle so we might make a new life together?” He bowed his head and dung into a pocket. He removed a length of blue silk and stared at it. “The first and last woman I have ever been with.”

A small tear gathered in the corner of her eye. “You are a cruel man, whoever you are,” she whispered. Try as she may, Isabella could not shake the possibility of what he said. She had seen many strange things in her life and felt a desire that this might be another. “You are doing this to excuse your part of our plan. Yes, that is the truth.”

“The instruments were gathered. The spells cast. The coven burns and sends plumes of smoke as we speak.”

Isabella stepped backwards. “I break our deal. You will receive your reward, but that is the end of it. Take your lies and never return.”

“I will not shy away from our agreement and I will not leave you to fend off those that come for you. I am who I say.”

“If you are Xavier. Then bring me my ring.” She sighed at the foolish errand that spewed from her lips. The ring was tossed in the farmer’s well many years ago in her frustration with Xavier. The task was impossible and would only prove that he was a chameleon. “If you have any pity in that foul heart of yours, you will leave me to my dying mother and give me peace.”

The man stood and placed the silk choker on the table. Then, as quietly as he arrived, he stepped into the shadowy corner and disappeared.

Chapter 21

 In the noisy Three Coaches Inn, Anna watched the frequency at which the crowd turned and looked at her. For several days since the beginning of her outings with Xavier, the townspeople took greater interest in her and she had no doubt what discussions they had between them. With the slow but progressing command of her new abilities, Anna found she could sort through the jumbled conversations in the room. She noted quickly that discussions of her possible romantic link to Xavier had mixed with the subject of the sheriff’s cousin and an upcoming wedding.

“Don’t let gossip bother you, girl. There is nothing improper about having a friendship with the sheriff.”

Anna’s attention returned to her breakfast partner. The gossip that her father wished her to simply ignore had grown into scandalous talk. A small part of her wondered if she wasn’t envious of the woman they thought her to be. She pushed away such thoughts, fearing that perhaps someday Xavier would find he could read her mind and learn of her growing interest. “Do you imagine there will be many people who will attend the baron’s wedding?”

“I do not,” Mr. Travene stated. Sipping his coffee, he flinched. “Damn hot.”

“Blow on it,” she commented offhandedly. “But, do you think the baron will invite people from outside of his land to the celebration?”

He smiled. Pulling out a flask and adding the liquid to his coffee, he shrugged. “Such as our good sheriff?”

“They are cousins,” Anna stated flatly. “I’m sure Sir Xavier will attend.”

“And that bothers you?”

Anna wished she could read his mind. “What are you suggesting, Father?”

The man held up his hands in defense. “Only that you seem to have taken a liking of the man and that perhaps you worry the time apart might dull his affections.”

“You too?” Anna sighed. “Sir Xavier and I are friends, nothing more.” She turned to the men who were watching. “Nothing but friends,” she repeated to them.

The men quickly turned and spoke in hushed voices, all of which she could hear.

“That was uncalled for, Anna,” her father said stiffly. “You will remember your upbringing and not bring shame on our—”

“Yet you let them talk about me,” she counted, feeling hurt that he had not come to her in private to have such a discussion. “You are no better than all these people who have nothing to do than to spread speculations.” Seeing his eyebrows furl, Anna felt poorly about her hasty words. “Forgive me. I…it is that time for me.”

“Oh! I see,” he said. Mr. Travene’s eyes softened. “Perhaps you should go lie down. Do you need a physician?”

Anna hated that she had lied with such an excuse and ashamed she could not think of a better way to take the sting out of the conversation. “I’m well enough. Perhaps later I will go for a walk.”

“Then I would suggest you avoid the jail house if you wish to be thought of only a friend to the sheriff. Perhaps making other friendships in town would be to your advantage. Female friends, though I see nothing wrong with befriending the sheriff, myself.”

“Maybe you’re right, Father,” she stated. Anna had no desire to stay away from Xavier but, in the same breath, she agreed with her father’s reasoning. Still, her immediate thought was how the sheriff would be able to attend a wedding without her. The bond between them could be stretched to no more than a hundred feet, nothing like the miles it would take should he have to leave. She reflected on a small idea she had thought of earlier. Though it would not fix the problem of the wedding, it was a plan that might, for a time, keep her nearer to the sheriff without being forced to return home.

She breathed deeply, unsure this was the right time to bring the subject up. “Father, if I had been a son instead of a daughter, would you have given me a part of the family business?”

“Yes, but that isn’t my—”

“I understand the law, Father, but I would like to suggest an idea I have.” She sipped her tea and looked to make certain no one was listening. “Let me stay here and act as a purchasing agent for you. I’ve been to every sale and in every warehouse with you since I could walk. I could find the right people and make sure the quality of furs are right for your stores.”

Mr. Travene shook his head. “Though I sympathize with your current womanly ailment, I cannot agree to such an idea to make you feel any better. It simply wouldn’t be proper, Anna. I know you understand the trade, but there are expectations in the world of doing business. It is done man to man. No, it wouldn’t work. No daughter of mine is going to—”

“A daughter of yours, but not mother’s,” Anna said softly. She saw his eyes widen at her words. “I don’t need to know the particulars of your past and I’m not asking you to explain, but you know the reason I can’t stay in the same house with Mother much longer. It would be easier this way.”

“I will not cast you aside for a temporary lapse in my judgment,” he stated. “You are my daughter, no matter who you call ‘Mother’. No, Anna. If you must leave the house, then we will find a proper match.”

Anna smiled. “But I have just given us a plan that would work without too much trouble. I’m like you, Father. I prefer to be in the wilds than in town. Each day, I grow bolder. I can live here.”

“You would be unattended,” he countered softly. “Do you imagine these people would not gossip even more about you?”

“There are plenty of women who own shops here. If you had the funds, I could begin a small place where local trappers could sell their pelts to me. In time, it would be a benefit to the family; to Brenda and her future husband.”

“What future husband?” he huffed. “Some idiot that thinks himself prettier than she? Why would I give him the business instead of you?”

“The law,” Anna stated plainly. “You said it yourself. Still, if you would use my dowry money to help me start a small business, we could do very well. Isn’t new business the reason you came here? To find the best pelts and not to be fleeced by middle tradesmen?”

Mr. Travene sat quietly and turned his cup between his hands as he thought. “I will need to think on this, Anna. I won’t pretend that the idea doesn’t have merit, but there would be many obstacles in the way for such a plan to work.” He looked to his side. “It is a rough part of the world to live and I do not like the idea of abandoning you here.”

“I’m not the same person I was before we came,” she reassured him. “But please do think on it.” She turned her attention quickly to the door, felling Xavier nearing the inn. “And don’t say anything to the sheriff until we’ve talked more about it.”

His eyebrows rose. “The sheriff? Why would that be a concern?”

“Just promise,” she asked. Anna found herself sitting upright and looking out of the corner of her eye at the door. In the back of her mind, she wanted to be the one to discuss the idea with him first. Xavier certainly knew the area and might appreciate her efforts to be mindful of their situation. When the sheriff entered the inn, she looked back at her father. “Just between us, promise?”

The man nodded and turned to follow the direction of her stare. He chuckled. “I didn’t know you asked him to join us.” Mr. Travene held up his hand to signal the sheriff as to where they sat. Turning in his seat, he smiled at his daughter. “We should have waited to eat.”

She shook her head, watching Xavier approach. Without checking her words first, Anna voiced her thoughts. “He’s already had breakfast.”

“Is that so?” he asked. “And how would you know that, child?”

Anna ignored him and greeted Xavier with a smile. Though happy enough to see the man in his cloak and deer skin leather, it was his proximity that made her body seem to calm, both facts she kept to herself. “Sir Xavier! Have you come to have tea with us this fine morning?”

Xavier stopped when he reached the table and pulled back his wet hood. “Fine morning? It is raining, Miss Travene,” he grumbled, shaking out his cloak.

“Do sit, milord, and join us,” Mr. Travene offered. “My daughter and I would be honored. If you have not come to see us, then perhaps you might join us for a moment and let us ask you about the western ridge?”

The man pulled out a chair, letting the back legs scrap against the stone floor.

He didn’t sleep a wink last night. This should prove to be an interesting conversation. Anna waved to the barkeep. “Tea?” Catching Xavier’s eye, she smiled letting him know that she was all too aware of his constant pacing through the night.

“I will refrain today, Miss Travene,” he answered in a weary grumble.

Mr. Travene, feeling the understanding between the pair was something he had rather not know of, nodded in thinking the man had simply drank too much the night before. Reconsidering his thoughts on asking the man’s opinion of certain trappers, he decided to let the man lead the conversation. “Might I ask what is the special occasion that brings you to us, sheriff?”

The nobleman looked over his shoulder at the barkeep coming to the table with a cup and small kettle. Watching the man set the items before him, he shook his head at the innkeeper’s asking if he needed anything else. When the barkeep left, Xavier hesitantly poured himself a cup.

“You can speak freely. You are amongst friends,” Anna stated, noting the small tremor in the sheriff’s hand.

Xavier sighed. “Mr. Travene, I have come to humbly ask your permission…to ask if you might allow Miss Travene to accompany me to Ardencroft.”

“I am honored you would single out my daughter, but she—”

“Would only be too happy to help a friend in need,” Anna finished for him. “I don’t have the proper gowns with me, Sir Xavier, but maybe when we arrive, I could find something suitable.”

Mr. Travene cleared his throat. “Anna. I haven’t given my permission yet.” He turned to the sheriff with a questioning look. “She cannot go without an escort and her mother is not here to see to that. There is also the matter of the expense of the occasion.”

“My cousin will see to having several women around her at every moment of the day, Mr. Travene. I assure you that he is rather particular about how he is viewed as a ruler.” Xavier looked to Anna. “The expense would be mine, if you are able to attend.”

“Of course!” Anna chimed.

“Anna!” her father exclaimed.

“Would you truly turn down a request from the very man who saved your family from bandits?” Anna smiled at her father. “Think of it, Father. It might be a means to increasing your business acquaintances.”

The large man lowered his eyes. “I don’t mean to sound impertinent, Sir Xavier, but there is already talk of you and my daughter. Can you not see how such an event might embolden the talk?”

“I can,” Xavier stated solemnly. “Is there a way that I can ease your thoughts on the matter and give your daughter permission to be escorted to my cousin’s wedding? We would return as quickly as allowable. I have a town to look after and will not be able to stay in the city longer than the wedding itself.”

“Just say yes, Father,” Anna stated. “How many women get such a chance like this? And it wouldn’t cost you a copper.”

Mr. Travene sighed. “Well, I do have more business to attend to in the area and it would give me comfort knowing others will act as attendants.” He eyed his daughter. “You will not say a single word of this to your mother and will represent our family well.”

“Promise,” Anna beamed. She turned to the tired sheriff. “When is the wedding?”

“A little more than two weeks.”

“Perhaps a gown could be made here, Father,” she stated more than asked. “There are at least two seamstresses here in town, but I would need to know what is appropriate for such an event. I’ll purchase the traveling clothes myself.”

She saw her father begin to object, but knew Xavier would beat him to it.

“I would be indebted to you, Miss Travene,” Xavier said quietly, “But I must be permitted to fund such an expense. Your father has done me a great service by allowing you to attend,” he said, nodding to Mr. Travene. “And it would inappropriate to burden a family due to my need.”

Anna shook her head, feeling slightly offended. “We can afford it, Sir Xavier.”

“I’m certain you can, milady. However, the baron will press me on such matters and will compensate me regardless if you purchase the things you need or if put on my account. I would ask that you allow me to show that I have done the honorable.”

She did not like the idea of being in debt to him.

“Perhaps a truce?” Mr. Travene stated. “Anna will pay for her traveling clothing and you, the gown to be seen in at the ceremony.”

The pair looked at each other. Like two stubborn mules they both slowly nodded to meeting in the middle.

Chapter 22

 Xavier paced in his office, crumpling the letter from Ardencroft in his hand, thinking through his cousin’s plan to be rid of the Seethers that infested his would-be city-state. It was not entirely a poor plan but one that left questions of numbers and advantages. Since their return from battle, the only communication with his odd cousin was that of reports and ideas often disguised as common wanted posters. Using the word ‘venomous’ to signal the person was of the occult, Xavier had scoured the posters for such a clue and reported back, in code, that the wanted man was either not seen in his land or “fang-less” to refer the criminal that was caught was not a Seether. Now, as a last resort, the baron felt there would be no time better than to gather those who would see him fail into one place and be dealt with.

“Are we not training today?” Anna asked, breaking his concentration.

“I beg your pardon?”

She set her book down on her lap and crossed her arms. “You’re not still pouting about how my ability to push is greater than your strength, are you?”

Xavier’s mind recounted the unexpected force of air she had magically sent toward him when training in the woods the day before. In his best estimate, he flew nearly ten feet in the air only to land in the nearby stream. It was impressive, though unnerving. Shaking his head, he stopped at his desk and rummaged through a pile of letters. “Unfortunately, we must wait for a special envoy that I am certain will come today,” he said. Finding the letter he sought, Xavier handed Anna the note for her to examine.

Anna snatched it from his hand, giving him a curious look. “I bet you are simply licking your wounds and stalling.” She chuckled and looked over the words on the single crumpled page. “This is from your cousin?”

“It is,” Xavier said, beginning to pace once more. “He is playing a very dangerous game. He means to bring his enemies to him instead of hunting for them. Perhaps, it isn’t the worst of plans but—”

“Not the most clever,” she finished. Anna did not need to look up to know he agreed. “Are there so many of the occult that he fears them in his land?”

He stopped. “Anna, though few are aware of it, there are those that believe they can control the chaos of the world. They seek the power, slowly at first, hiding their curiosity in the gifts they were not meant to have. Little by little, they either step too far and quickly repent, or their desire grows stronger until they are lost forever. Since we are bonded, it would be foolish of me to hide that there are many such people in the world and even of the first group around us at every moment of the day.”

Anna put down the letter. “Has Brother Talas told you this?”

“He didn’t need to. I feel it.”

Her eyes widened with the realization that what she had felt was not from an overactive imagination. “The humming in my ears.”

Xavier was happy Anna was so clever and that she had grown to know the sensitivity he had. “Yes. I believe it has something to do with the power they have absorbed, but I can’t be certain.”

“Mrs. Flip?”

“Yes, but it is faint,” he answered. “It is well known that she fancies herself a kind of mystic.” He turned to her with a raised eyebrow. “But I know she is just playing at the edges of the occult. The last visit from Brother Talas had quite the effect on her.”

Anna smiled. “I can imagine. But why is there still a hum in my ears when I visit her shop?”

“She hasn’t given up hope that she can’t play both sides of the rule. We will deal with that when we return if the priest is unable to change her plans.” He shrugged. “Perhaps she would listen to you.”

A knock came to the door. Xavier went to his desk and sat. “Listen carefully to this man’s words.” He turned his eyes from Anna to the door. “Come!”

The door opened to an elaborately dressed man, who entered and bowed before the sheriff. “Sir Xavier.”

“I am, herald,” Xavier replied. “What is your message?”

The man looked at Anna.

“What you have to say, you may say in front of this audience alone.”

The man in his late forties, bowed once more. “My master says this. ‘Sir Xavier, Hero of Chatting Woods, Victor of the Burrows of Sin, Black Cloak, Witches’ Bane—”

“I thank you for the titles, but proceed to the message.”

The herald looked disgruntled. Nodding to the request, he apologized with a bow to both Xavier and the woman he had not met. “Come, dear friend, for we must meet. Venomous asps surround and it is time for their judgment. My play is false but unknown. Come and bring silver and spite.” He bowed once more at the end of his words. “Thus says the sender.”

Xavier stood and moved to a small table with wine. “Will you have refreshments before you return to your master?”

“I cannot, fair and noble, sir. I am to return immediately with your honorable reply.”

He poured two glasses. Walking to Anna, he handed her a glass. “You do your office great honor, herald. I send you forth with this. There will be no tarry in the gathering of two clouds. Two will approach, bringing fear and trembling, but none will escape. In black of old, two as one. The Hunter and the Enchantress are at the ready.” He sipped from his cup and nodded to the herald. “This is my reply.”

The herald bowed. “Blessings be upon you, Sir.”

“Speed and health to you, noble herald,” Xavier turned away from him, indicating nothing more would be said. Waiting to hear the heavy door of the jail house close, he sat and looked at Anna.

“How elegant a message, Xavier, but an enchantress?” she asked in amusement. “A bit of an exaggeration, don’t you think?”

“Nobles love titles as much as those who don’t have them.” Xavier smiled at his message. “He will understand well enough, but that brings me to something we must discuss. My fool of a cousin is to marry a woman he believes is a Seether. His plan, as well as I can make out, is to bring others of the occult close and have us identify them for what they are before the wedding.”

Anna’s face fell. “I’m guessing we will not be dancing.”

Xavier felt ashamed. Anna had been the only woman he had dared to be close to for many years. Her look of disappointment bothered him. “We could stay for the ball.”

Anna crossed her arms and shook her head. “You promised Father that you were talking me to parties and that I would be chaperoned by other ladies.”

“I did,” he mumbled. Attempting to think of a means of appeasement, he tapped his chin. “We will arrive in the Old Black. Such a thing will help your father’s business as you wish. Those that see it will want to be associated with the stories and those that have the right to wear it.”

“What is the Old Black?”

“Leather armor dyed in deepest of black,” he answered. “Perhaps not the elegant gown you imagined, but it is known to command the respect it deserves. Investors and business owners are likely to flock to you and be seen with you. The Seethers, on the other hand, will recognize it immediately and will avoid a direct fight. This will give us the edge as we will hear the humming at a safe distance and know who is playing false.”

Anna chuckled. “You want me to dress in leather armor? Xavier, you can’t be serious.”

“You will need to move freely if we encounter opposition,” he stated. “I have seen women fight in battle and none wore gowns.”

Anna stood, with arms still crossed, and began to roam the small office. “What do enchantresses wear?”

“There are no such people. I thought that the title might give you the appearance of something not to be toyed with. If trouble does cross our path, those that see your skills and in the Old Black will not think of you as a Seether but an alley to my cousin. As for dresses, we will need to travel by horseback and it would not look proper—”

“Now you are concerned with appearances?” she asked sarcastically. “So, you wish me to show up to a place that will be swimming in silks and lace wearing black leather armor fit for a man. I will only say this once, Xavier. Absolutely not.”

She was obviously not keen on the idea and Xavier remembered the battles of his past. “Silks offer no protection. Dresses are unfit for horseback at speed.”

“I will agree to the color black, but the rest you will leave to me. If you are going to lie to my father and deprive me of enjoying all the wonders of a noble wedding, then I believe you are quite out of opportunities for putting forth suggestions.” She went back to her chair and snatched up her book. “Leather armor,” she huffed. “I can do better than that without looking like some hedge knight.”

With that she left the office and the jail house. Xavier, on the other hand, sat in his chair, frustrated, and questioning his entire plan.

Chapter 23

 Isabella walked down the street recounting the list of things she wished to accomplish. With the man who claimed to be her love from the past noticeably absent from her life, the task of gathering all rumors and plans of the many factions in the city had become far more difficult. If he was to play games with her emotions, Isabella considered, then she would simply discount the information that he had once shared or confirm such things herself. He would not have the last laugh at her expense.

Turning up Bond Street, an affluent section of the city, Isabella had to focus on one task at a time. To visit a friend would not look out of the ordinary though her true purpose was of a questionable nature. Taking tea in the morning room with her old friend and offering small talk until the servants became too bored to listen, Isabella would set her gifts to the task of gaining the information she desperately wished to know. The effort would need to be done gently as she had no desire to make her friend uncomfortable.

In a matter of a few blocks, she stood before the door and rapped the brass handle against the painted door to alert the staff within. The door opened quickly.

“Ms. Nelstet,” the house servant stated with an enormous smile. “Mrs. Kelling wasn’t expecting you!”

Isabella was surprised at the meeting, but hid her wonder behind a kind smile as she entered the decorated entry hall. “It is very good to see you again, Sybil. I wonder if I may simply go and see my friend and leave you to your duties?”

“Unannounced?”

“I don’t wish to interrupt your morning tasks and I know the way to the morning room. I wish to surprise her.”

The servant woman looked behind her to the room in question. “I…would that be indecent?”

“Not between friends,” Isabella stated. “Besides, you have already told me that she isn’t expecting me. Mrs. Kelling has caught me off guard before and I wish to even the score.”

The reluctance in the woman was obvious, but the hint of a smile told Isabella Sybil was about to bend to the idea. “Don’t tell her I had anything to do with it.”

“Not a word.” Isabella unclasped her cloak and handed it to her. “It will be just between us.”

Sybil’s smile broadened. “Your ladyship was able to sneak past me while I set your cloak aside?”

“The very thing,” Isabella replied. Without another word, Isabella walked past the servant and toward the front room. With the briefest of efforts, she touched the mind of the woman and found that Sybil was amused that ladies played such tricks on each other. Of course, such things were not done by women in her social circles, but a servant wouldn’t be aware of that fact. Without knocking, Isabella entered the small room and smiled at the sight of her friend taken by surprise.

“Bella!”

“Did I frighten you, Lisa?”

With laughter, the woman nodded and held out her hand for Isabella to join her. “You are sight for sore eyes, Bella. I wondered if you wouldn’t come see an old friend sooner or later.”

Isabella walked to the small table and kissed Lisa’s cheek in greeting. “You know I’m rather forgetful. I apologize for the late and unannounced visit.”

“You forget nothing, Bella,” Lisa stated with a smile and waved her to an open seat. “I can tell you have not slept well. Is your father’s health so poor that you don’t believe you have much time?”

Isabella nodded. “It has been taxing of late.” She took her seat beside her friend. “That is part of the reason I wished to come see you.”

Lisa shook her head. “We have known each other for far too long for that. It’s pointless not to come out with what you want.” She picked up the teapot and poured a cup for her friend. “What is it you need, Bella?”

Isabella had forgotten how easy it was to talk to her. Though often separated by their daily lives, Lisa had always been a person who she felt most at ease to speak with. “I wished to ask of what is being said about me in your circle of friends.”

“The typical,” Lisa shrugged, setting the teapot back on the table. “Things do not change all that much over time.”

She was hiding something. Kind as Lisa was, the lack of compassion normally found in her words was a warning. “I see. Then perhaps I might ask something else from you?”

“I think you should marry James’ brother,” Lisa commented. “He isn’t the wealthiest of men, but has a kindness that you are missing in your life.” She looked into Isabella’s eyes. “The type of man with a reputation for being a good soul in a harsh world.”

Isabella touched her thoughts and found Lisa’s opinion rather staggering. In blatant form, her friend thought that the rumors of Isabella’s flirtatious nature had grown to be an irreconcilable mark. “He is too good for me.”

“But all the more reason to give him the opportunity to propose,” Lisa stated. “I don’t want you to feel uncomfortable around me, but the talk of your future has been on many lips.”

“I hold your opinion above all others,” Isabella replied. “And it is your thoughts that if your brother-in-law were to marry me, I would be thought of in a better light?”

Lisa’s smiled faded. “There isn’t a woman in this city that doesn’t fear you will sway their husband from their home, Bella. This constant ‘will she or won’t she’ has set most on edge.”

Isabella chuckled. “I am used to people thinking I do nothing with my days other than plan to pluck a man from his family. They are being ridiculous.”

“You know as well as I that reputation is everything to families. If you married George, his good name will soon cover any ill opinions other’s might have of you.”

“And that is important to you?”

“Of course! Why would I want people thinking poorly of my childhood friend? But I see in your face that you don’t care as much as I do, nor are you likely to consider George as a partner in life.”

Isabella felt uncomfortable. Lisa had known her too long not to notice every hint of her thoughts. “Then tell me what you would do?”

“I would marry for love and I have done so.”

“And if you were me?”

Lisa sipped her tea and dabbed her lips with a cloth. “You have always had a strength that I have never had. How could I advise you to do anything?”

“I value your opinion.”

“Bella, you have never listened to a single bit of advice I’ve given you in all the years we have known—”

“I will listen to what you have to say.”

Lisa shook her head. “You won’t like it, Bella.”

“Tell me.”

With a deep sigh, Lisa nodded. “I would find another place to live out my life.”

“Leave Ardencroft? Why?”

“You are dear to me, but you have used up all that is good in this place. People either believe you are a woman of ill repute or a tease to gather all under your power. Some have even suggested that you have had liaisons with the baron.”

Isabella laughed. “That would the very last thing I would do. Still, I won’t run because of what people might think I am.”

“Then do it for me, my dear.” Lisa looked up and took in the scene through the window. “Ardencroft is not as it used to be when we were children, Bella. And it hasn’t changed for the better. There are…influences that have changed the very air that we breathe. Should you continue to play this role of yours, someone will eventually tire of it.”

“Someone? Such as?”

“Women who hate you and who suggest you are something you are not.”

Isabella sat back in her chair. “There are rumors of such things? Is that what you are attempting to warn me of?”

Lisa nodded slowly, not taking her eyes off of Isabella. “You must find another life, Bella. You will be branded as something terrible and, because of your past, no one will be able to save you from it. Leave Ardencroft. Find someone you respect and fill your life with happiness.”

“Respect?”

“I am your friend, Bella, and I know you as well as any other, if not more. There was a man you respected once, you told me as much.”

Isabella shook her head. “That is in the past.”

“Then find another. You have a free spirit. Go and seek a life away from this place. You have such courage.”

“There are certain things I must do before entertaining such a thought. Perhaps when my father meets his end, I will—”

Lisa frowned. Taking Isabella’s hand in hers, Lisa looked deeply into her friend’s eyes. “My dearest friend, I fear that would be too late.”

“James has told you something. Tell me.”

Letting Isabella’s hands slip from hers, Lisa straightened in her chair. “New arrivals.”

“People come to Ardencroft every day.”

“Not in these numbers,” Lisa countered softly. “James has been tasked by the baron to look for new faces and to note their activities.”

“Why would the baron care…He fears an attack?”

Lisa shrugged. “As much as James has told me, the baron is very interested in who is visiting of late. To my mind, it would be that he thinks there may be an uprising from a hidden faction or the like. Why else would he have James ignore his usual duties and count heads?”

Isabella considered her words. She did not need to touch her friend’s mind to know her concern. “Perhaps it is the wedding that has set the baron on edge.”

“Perhaps.”

“Now it is I who must remind you of our years as friends. I can see you are not convinced.”

Lisa smiled. “In all honesty, my dear, I’m convinced only that we are witnessing change in the air and I fear the worst should storm clouds gather around our city.”

“James has noticed something in the new faces, hasn’t he?”

Her friend offered a hesitant nod. “Promise me you will find a way to leave.”

“What type of activity has James noticed?”

“Only the odd disruptions in the streets and an occasional face lost in the crowds.”

“What kind of disruptions? Brawls?”

Lisa shook her head. “He will not say, but I think he would not be concerned with ordinary disagreements. James is a cautious man, not quick to make assumptions. Still, I can see it in his face that something is not right.”

“Do you want me to inquire—”

“You must not. I have told you this in confidence to demonstrate the need for you to change. If you will not seek out the protection under George’s roof then I think it best for you to leave as soon as you are able.”

Isabella smiled. “You know I do not scare easily.”

Lisa sighed. “Then do you must promise me to take very great care. I feel we will all need to be on our guard in the near future.”

Chapter 24

 With sunlight streaming through the window, Anna turned from one side to the other, pondering if her attempts at creating a look that would both portray her as a magic-user and an elegant woman had succeeded. Having spent days pouring over books of fashion from shops, gaining hints of women in battle from the patrons in the tavern and eying old paintings when invited to dine with the wealthier clients her father had met, Anna had pieced together an ensemble that she believed would suit her needs.

The black and deep blue hues in velvet that intertwined within the bodice of the outer dress presented a regal look. Sleeves, fitted, but loose enough for her to both wave a sword or motion for a casting a her innate gifts, were a dyed lace over long, thin strips of leather. She shrugged at the certain complaint Xavier would have as it would provide little protection. The lacing down the front ended her belt. With a silver buckle to set off the darker colors, the belt she had commissioned was for small pouches rather than holding anything up.

Looking at the woman in the mirror, a smile came to her face as she had incorporated an old, but useful technique. Overlapping edges in the front and back of her shirt hid the slit up to her upper thighs allowing her to ride a horse astride as men do. “That should please him,” she whispered to herself. Beneath the skirt, she wore form-fitting black trousers made of supple deerskin. Pulling the seams aside, she looked at the black knee high boots and the twin thin-bladed silver daggers held in place by leather straps around her thighs. “Old Black with elegance. Beautiful yet dangerous,” she mused out loud.

In all, Anna was very pleased with what she had managed to accomplish in both design and keeping the tradespeople unaware of what she had planned for the separate pieces. Still, the woman in the mirror looked very little like the one she once recognized. In her heart and mind, she was still the shy daughter of a merchant from Hollowbrook. However, the figure in the mirror appeared clever, mysterious, and, in her opinion, an elegant woman of the world. She had questioned if she should show her natural curves and had, after much debate within herself, settled on the fact an enchantress should be something to be out of the ordinary. As she pondered the reflected image, Anna worried that the woman in the mirror would one day over take her true self.

Pulling on the beautiful soft leather gloves trimmed in silver treading, she was also concerned about the effects of one last test. Anna had made certain, sneaking out of her room at night, to test all aspects of her creation save one. The old man who had designed the gloves for both riding and daily wear had skills far beyond what she had seen in the city. The thought of such beautiful work being damaged had been, strangely enough, foremost in her mind for the few days. With a deep breath, she pulled one of the thin blades from the sheath on her right leg. Attempting to reassure herself that she could manage the spinning blade slightly above the palm of her hand, she sat the dagger in place. Slowly, with careful effort, the blade rose and spun above her open palm. Watching the deadly weapon travel from finger to finger, Anna slowed the blade and kept it on end. Quickly placing the dagger back in a sheath, she examined the glove and sighed in relief as no trace of the event could be found.

Anna sat on her bed and looked once more at her reflection. With braided hair and the ceramic hairpiece in the shape of a small sprig with flowers above one ear, she knew she had accomplished what would set her apart from the rest, but at what cost? Xavier had suggested she take on the attitude of a calm and calculating fairytale sorceress. Breathing deeply, she attempted to make herself appear above all. The image reflected the high-browed noble she imagined. It did not suit her.

“Anna?” her father called with a study tap at the door. “Are you ready?”

She nodded to the woman in the mirror and knew she was not truly prepared for such a venture. “A moment, Father.” Pressing her hand against her nervous stomach, Anna rose from the bed and hesitated when she reached the door. Breathe, Anna. A new life needs a new strength. With confidence brought on by hope, she unlatched the lock and opened the bedroom door to an astonished man.

“By the Veil!” he gasped.

Anna took a step back into the room. “You think it’s too much of a change?” Nervously watching his eyes as he entered, Anna was certain he would chastise her for dressing above her station, but he simply shook his head.

“Anna, child, I have known for many years you were a beauty, but this dress…I don’t…I think.”

“You don’t like it, then?”

“I don’t have the words, my dear.” He stood in the room simply mesmerized. “You look like a woman.”

Anna relaxed and laughed. “I have been one for some time, Father. But do you think I have overreached?”

Mr. Travene smiled and walked to her, taking her hands in his. “I believe it is a stunning traveling dress and you look absolutely beautiful. I especially like the accent jewelry in your hair.”

Touching the delicate piece by her ear, she grinned. “You really like it? I am to appear to be a match to Sir Xavier so I—”

“You did very well, my dear,” he reassured her. “But I dare say you have hopes that the sheriff approves more than I.”

“It isn’t for him, Father,” she lied as convincingly as she could. “We will be surrounded by more lace and silk than I could ever imagine. I’m not sure if this isn’t a bit—”

Her father kissed her cheek and stepped back, admiring the happy view of his child quite grown up before his eyes. “Do not change a thing. Still, I doubt the sheriff will take his eyes off of you.”

“Sir Xavier and I are friends, Father. We’ve had this discussion before.” Anna went to her bed stand and picked up her hairbrush. “Nothing more, as I told you weeks ago.” She put the brush in a saddlebag along with her belongings and closed the flap. Since Xavier’s first visit to dine with them, her father, like most of the town, had quite settled the matter of her growing interest. Anna had heard every suspicion and had to appear ignorant of their opinions when others were near. Others would never understand her bond nor her friendship with their noble.

“That was a while ago,” he said. “Has it become something more? If so, I do wish to warn you that nobles marry within. But, if it’s your true desire—”

“There is no worry about that on my part and, as you say, we are from different social circles. I am simply accompanying a friend…who may be the cause of heavy steps coming up the stairs now.”

Her father chuckled as she had been right on more than one occasion in her assumptions. Looking behind him, he waited until the man appeared. “Sir Xavier! What do you think of the view of your traveling companion?”

Anna bit the end of her lip. He had better like it! I don’t have anything else to wear. “Does this suit?” she managed to say. His smile told her all she needed to know. Xavier’s eyes seemed to brighten and the normal subtle facial expressions he was well known for faulted with the grin.

“Enchanting, Miss Travene,” he stated and held her stare for a few lingering moments. “But is it functional?”

“Functional?” Mr. Travene asked, turning from the noble to his daughter.

Anna nodded. Pulling the deceptive split in the skirt aside an inch or so, she looked quickly at his reaction. Fortunately, it was the one she hoped to see, and a small blush to match.

“Anna!” her father exclaimed.

“I have clothing under it, Father,” she hushed him. “We are to ride by horse and I doubt you would like to add a lady’s saddle to the already growing cost of this trip.”

Mr. Travene nodded quickly. “Indeed. You are quite right to be so sensible.” He turned to the sheriff with a look of humility. “I do not wish to burden you with all the expenses of this visit, Sir Xavier. Please know that Anna has funds of her own.”

“You are too kind, Mr. Travene, but it was by my request that she attend this social event. If time permits, perhaps we might visit a few shops where she could purchase something to remember the occasion. She is to find a gown, after all.”

Anna was pleased with the idea of finding unique souvenirs. If nothing else, she would enjoy the chance to slip into a shop or two and find something nice for her family members. “Is there something you might want me to find for you, Father?’

“No,” Mr. Travene said with a smile. “Just be on your best behavior and represent our family well. That will be more than enough for me.”

Anna noticed a scroll in Xavier’s hand. “Is that for me, milord?”

Xavier suddenly remembered the token of appreciation he had brought. “A small gift of thanks to your family for allowing me the honor of your company.” He turned and handed a bewildered man the scroll. “A map, of sorts, to a man I believe will be able to provide a few of the bear pelts you are looking for. He is a quiet fellow, but trustworthy.”

Anna smiled at the happy grin that crossed her father’s face.

“I cannot begin to thank you—” Mr. Travene began.

“There is no need. And, in all honesty, my name cannot be used in your transactions. The business arrangement you come to will be between the two of you.” He turned to look at Anna once again. “As for your daughter, I doubt Ardencroft will forget her when we return to Kedalpoint,” Xavier stated proudly. He looked around the small room and noted her saddle bag. “We are rather late in our start. Are you prepared to leave or do you need more time, Miss Travene?”

“Quite ready,” she replied with a calm voice. In truth, she had a bit of trouble not being overly excited for the change in pace. Snatching up her saddle bag, she handed her belongings to her friend’s awaiting hand. Turning to her father, she gave him a lingering hug and a smile. “You will promise to take care of yourself?”

“I will, my dear. Just make certain you are careful trying all the foods the banquets have to offer. Some things may not settle well.” He slowly pulled away and gave her a kiss on the forehead. “Do enjoy yourself.”

With a quick nod, she followed Xavier out of the room and down the stairs. The hushed words shared between the patrons in the tavern where nothing compared to those of the onlookers at the doors of shops or walking along the street. Anna attempted to ignore them, a skill she had been practicing for some time now, but the subject and words were undeniable. They thought she and Xavier made a perfect match, though she wondered if they were correct. The more sociable changes in Xavier were the first to be mentioned, followed by how such things must be attributed to her. If this was the extent of their gossip, Anna felt she would have been more accepting of their discussions. But that was not the end of the topic. Talk of a pending secret wedding between them or that she and Xavier did not show a loving affection for each other meant that they were related in some fashion. The other comments were simply vulgar and she let them lie.

Anna nodded to Xavier as he held her mount and positioned the stirrup for her ease of saddling the horse. As soon as she lifted herself into the saddle and situated in her seat, she heard the hushed gasps as she rode astride like a man. Taking the reins, she lifted her chin in defiance and waited patiently for Xavier to climb onto his horse. Seeing him nod and gently nudge his animal, Anna followed alongside of him. Not a word was uttered between them until the cobblestone streets gave way to a dirt road to Ardencroft.

“Were they less vicious in their gossip?” Xavier asked. Turning to see her frown, her eyes fixated on the road ahead, he understood what answer Anna had wordlessly given. “They will always talk, Anna. There is nothing one can do—”

“They can talk all they wish about me,” she interrupted. “I object to their assumption that Father is oblivious to our so-called love affair and secret marriage.”

Xavier sighed. “Then they are fools with nothing better to do than to make up stories.”

“But Father thinks of us as they do,” she said quietly, “and he is no fool.” She shook her head. “It will go on like this as long as I’m in Kedalpoint. I might as well get used to it.”

“I am sorry for what our situation has put you through,” Xavier stated. “If there is something I could do or say to the people, I will—”

“It would only reinforce their suspicions, Xavier.” Anna sighed and looked at the passing land. “It would easier if you were married.” She turned quickly with the thought in her mind. “Why aren’t you?”

The sheriff laughed at the sudden question yet felt at ease speaking openly with his new friend. “What life could I offer, Anna? You of all people know what my days are made up of. Can you not imagine why I would not put someone I cared for in such danger?”

Anna hated to continue the theme of their discussion, but her inquisitive mind would not allow her to remain silent. “Is someone in the town you feel something for?”

“No,” he answered quietly.

“But if there were, couldn’t you leave with her and make another life?”

Shifting uncomfortably in his saddle as they rode on, the sheriff looked over and found her eyes squarely on him. “You know the answer to that. It is as impossible as—”

“I don’t believe that,” Anna replied. “The danger for a trapper isn’t any different than the life you live. If she cared enough, she would understand how that is part of the choice. And there is nothing that states you must live here.”

“There is, in fact. My family has been here for many generations.”

“Should that matter? I mean, if it meant your happiness?”

Xavier shrugged. “A person with ties to certain families, such as myself, aid the town. To leave would be to sever that link and they would suffer from the lack of coin.”

“Coin?”

“I have my family’s funds, as well as the land, but also the responsibility as a steward to Kedalpoint. As such, I am to support the chapel and the town. Can you imagine what harm would be done if I followed through with what you are suggesting? Vandals and the very worst of the world would slither in as soon as I left.”

Anna considered his words, finding the situation in her mind quite different than when she had started the change in conversation. “Then she would need to be from Kedalpoint or willing to join you here.”

He shook his head. “What noble woman would entertain living in such a small grouping of farms?”

“I don’t see what is so wrong with Kedalpoint. The views are breathtaking, the forests are lush and thick, and the rivers are beautiful.”

“Sentiments that are not shared by others.” He looked around him and smiled. “It is beautiful here and I agree with you on the finer points of this land, but nobles are accustomed to certain advantages that a town along a leg of the Capek Mountain cannot provide.”

“Such as?”

He turned his head toward her. “You, of all people, can answer that.”

Though it had been several weeks since leaving Hollowbrook and her rather comfortable life, she had forgotten that she was only a visitor to the town. Anna thought of the things she might miss if her father set her up in business. “Things can be sent for, though I would miss having a library.”

“You are overly accepting, Anna. For you, shelves of books might be the only thing you might long for, but for the ones I speak of, the list would be much longer.”

“Then they don’t belong here,” she countered. “If they would rather stare at large blocks of stone and visit shops all day, then let them stay where they are. But surely there are women that would enjoy a life out here. Has there not been someone in your life that would value all that you can offer?”

He did not answer. Xavier was quiet and appeared content to evaluate the state of the road than to reply. To Anna, she imagine it was either his way of ending all conversation or considering her words as they continued their way lower into the valley.

“Xavier,” Anna broke the silence between them with a worry she hadn’t spoken of. “I don’t want to kill anyone.”

“We are to be my cousin’s eyes and ears. Nothing more. Should trouble arise, there are guards within the castle walls who are paid to take care of such issues.”

Anna studied his face. “You don’t believe that. Your voice changes when you are trying to hide something.” Riding quietly to the sound of the light thudding of horse hooves on packed dirt, she knew by his silence she had touched a nerve. Their unusual bond had grown with the time they had spent together and Anna had seen his mood swings for better or ill. She wondered if the link wasn’t the reason that she began to pace at night as he did. Still, there was a part of her that wanted privacy and understood he was still the same man she had first met on the road to Kedalpoint.

“Did you happen to notice the farmhouse with the shabby barn we had past?” Xavier asked. “A woman lived there with her son. She was kind and forgiving, yet someone raked a blade across her throat and dug up the body of her son; a son that I hung for his violent acts.” He breathed deeply. “The assassin has eluded me for nearly a month.”

“You can’t blame yourself for the death, Xavier.”

“But I can, milady. And I should.” Xavier stated. “As I have said, I am the protection those in these lands rely on. Though I have given my life to the pursuit, evil springs up at every turn.”

Anna shook her head. The description of the murder made her chilled despite the bright sunlight, but the opportunity to hear him speak of his hidden thoughts were more valuable to her and she would not shy away from the topic. “You can’t be everywhere. People must not rely on you for everything, but I will help you find this person if you wish.”

Xavier blinked after staring for a silent moment. “You have changed, Anna.”

“A bit braver maybe, but I haven’t changed all that much.”

“Perhaps I am simply learning more of you.” He looked ahead. “The day the bandits attacked your coach, it was you that came to your father’s aid. You did not cower inside like your mother and sister, but rushed out of the safety of the box, unarmed. I admire your love for your family.”

“It’s nothing others don’t have, Xavier.”

“Then, you come to me in my office and demand that I attend a dinner, forcing me out of my office. Later, you trust me with a secret that you have shared with no other.” He smiled. “And now, attending a wedding and offering to help me find Seethers?”

Anna smiled. “Impressed?”

“Very much so,” he replied. “You grow in strength and skill daily, yet it took years for me to learn only a few tricks and a war to build up such bravery. Your acceptance of the situation has been remarkable to say the very least.”

“I thank you, milord,” she chuckled. “But honestly, Xavier, you paint me as someone who has no fears. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Talking to strangers still makes me nervous. I can’t come to terms with what my life is to be full of—”

“Killing Seethers?”

Anna chuckled. “I thank you, but you may have that lovely privilege. I want something more simple in the end. Running a merchant shop for Father would be ideal.” She imagined what such a life would be like and it certainly appealed to her.

“So you have made no other plans?” he asked. “No desire to visit other places in the world?”

“With you connected to me?”

Xavier nodded.

“I don’t see how that’s possible, now. You have Kedalpoint to attend to and we seem to have a slight issue with being very far apart. But, I like Kedalpoint very much, so there isn’t much to discuss on the matter when you consider it in that light.”

Coming to a fork in the road, Xavier pulled back on his reins and came to a slow stop. “I think it is a very great concern, Anna. Consider the future and what you will give up.”

“Such as?”

“I doubt very much that you could find a husband so obliging as to allow you to spend so much time with the town sheriff.”

Anna shrugged her shoulders. “Marriage? I have no such plans.”

“Perhaps, one day, it will be before you and all that you want.” He stared at her for a moment, attempting to find the right words. “I do not want to be the source of pain for you. I cannot reason how at the moment, but we must find a way to break this bond.”

“Have you tired of me or have you set your thoughts on a particular woman?”

Xavier simply shook his head. “I am attempting to be understanding of your needs.”

Anna gave him a wink. “You don’t need to worry about me, Xavier. I’m not made of glass. We will make do. I’ve learned over the years to be rather resilient. Come, we’ll be late for the wedding.” Nudging her horse forward, she took the lead down the road, hiding her own concern for the same future he spoke of.

Chapter 25

 The light drizzle threatened to become a downpour, but the unusual travelers made their way to outskirts of Ardencroft by evening without event. Anna found her eyes wandering from shop stands to the humble homes that sat outside the large protective walls of the city. She wondered how such a place had escaped being mentioned by her father. Brimming with curiosity, she rode quietly beside Xavier and took in what the little light of the night would reveal. Thatched roofed homes gave way to taller wooden structures the closer they approached the massive walls and the many lights from the buildings and castle that lie within the inner city appeared to sparkle in the rain.

“Anna,” Xavier whispered.

She turned quickly, being pulled from her thoughts.

“Remember, quiet and aloof,” he said.

Anna nodded to the reminder of how she might play the part of an enchantress. When he veered to the left toward a two story wooden structure, she caught sight of the carved sign that hung near its door. “We aren’t staying at the castle?”

“Too many eyes,” he replied. “The fewer the onlookers, the better. I informed my cousin that we would prefer to be outside the walls. Even to this small inn, news will have spread quickly enough of your title, so be prepared for many questions.”

She smiled. “Anna the Enchantress? Who wouldn’t want to come gaze upon such a person?” Anna chuckled at the image in her mind.

“We will use Lady Anna from Telest for this visit.”

“Where is Telest?”

Xavier grinned. “It does not exist therefore yours to create.”

Riding toward the inn, Anna saw a young boy half asleep at the door. Following Xavier’s lead, she came to a halt next to the overhanging roof and waited to be handed down. Like clockwork, the boy sprung to his feet and took the reins from Xavier. Moving to her side, Xavier held her mount and offered a hand to her without a word being said. “I can manage,” she replied in a monotone voice, testing the sound of her new role.

“As you wish, Lady Anna,” Xavier said with a bow.

Shifting her weight to one side, Anna swung her leg over the back of the saddle. Stepping down from the stirrup, she immediately felt the muscles of her legs less than cooperative. The hours in the saddle and riding in the unfamiliar fashion had left Anna’s thighs and backside riddled with sharp pains. With a stiff upper lip, she ignored the aches and took Xavier’s arm to be escorted inside as if nothing in the situation was out of the ordinary.

The Crooked Swan Inn was much more pleasant inside than she imagined. Though rougher than some that she had seen before, the floors were scrubbed to a sheen and the conversations from the few patrons lower in volume. The man in an older but tidy jerkin met them not three steps away from the door once they entered.

“Sir Xavier, I presume?” the man asked humbly.

Xavier nodded. “You have our rooms ready?”

“Indeed. I am Mr. Opit. We have anxiously awaited your arrival since yesterday, milord. Once we received word of your coming, the staff has been hard at work to make certain your stay with us is a memorable one.”

Anna pulled back the hood of her cloak and turned to find the boy who taken their horses to the stable standing quietly behind them with their saddlebags over each shoulder. The innkeeper appeared happy with the boy’s quick work as she turned to see a smile on his face.

“I will show you to your rooms, personally,” the innkeeper stated with no small amount of pride. Snagging two keys that hung on a copper ring from his leather belt, he bowed to them. “If you would be so kind as to allow me to show you the way.”

Anna dipped her chin when the man looked at her. She nearly smirked when he seemed to blush and turn toward the stairs. Holding Xavier’s arm, Anna climbed the stairs to the soft melody of the lute being played in the gathering room. Anna had expected a stay at the castle but felt a comforting familiarity in their new surroundings. At the very least, she knew they would not be separated and spend the night feeling torn in two.

Watching the innkeeper unlock the door and step aside, she entered the dark room. Having discovered the ability before and in the habit of doing so, she unconsciously waved her hand and lit all the candles in the room with one motion.

“By the Veil!” the innkeeper gasped.

“Enchantress, Mr. Opit,” Xavier stated calmly. “Are my lodgings across the hall or next door?”

Anna blanched at the act she had done in public and kept her back to the crowd to hide her reaction. Biting the end of her lip, she had no desire to see what harm she had done. As the boy cautiously came into view and set her saddlebag on the comfortable looking bed, she saw the wonder in his eyes. “Don’t be afraid,” she said quietly.

The boy stood motionless, staring at her as if nothing else in the world could pull his attention away.

“What is it?”

“Never seen an enchan—enchanter before, milady.”

Anna nodded attempting to stay in her role. “That is a good thing, I reason.” Noting the men had crossed the hall to another room, she felt she would attempt a small alliance with the boy. “What is your name?”

“Miles, milady,” he answered nervously.

She opened her coin purse and handed him a silver piece. “This is for helping me, Miles. I will remember you and enchantresses have very good memories.”

The boy looked at the coin and smiled. With a quick bow, he began to scurry from the room.

“Miles? Does the inn have a wash room?”

“It does, milady. Want me to have Julie heat water for you?”

Anna nodded. The thought of soaking away the aches beckoned to her. “And what of a meal? Is it too late for your cook?”

“He’s been making all sorts of things for your visit, milady. Tarts, breads, and has been basting a spit of duck too.”

Her stomach growled. “Have this Julie person make my bath ready and tell your cook that Sir Xavier and I will dine in my room. Can you remember all that?”

“Of course, milady.”

“Do it quickly and I’ll make certain you have another silver in your pocket tonight.”

The boy’s grin warmed her heart. With a quick bow, he shot out the door, nearly running into Xavier.

“Was he frightened away by enchantress magic?” Xavier asked.

“Inspired by silver,” Anna stated. “We will dine in my room, if you don’t mind.”

Xavier shook his head. “Am I to understand you have ordered our meal already?”

“And a bath for myself,” she added with grin. “Go and get cleaned up. I won’t be long as I’m absolutely famished.” Her eyes caught the appearance of a young woman at the door. Mentally settling back into her role, she nodded to the maid. “Are you Julie? The one Miles spoke of?”

The young woman curtsied. “I am, milady. We’ve been keeping the water warm so it will be ready when you wanted it. If you’ll follow me, milady.”

Anna turned to Xavier. “Shall we say half an hour?”

“As you command.”

Without another world, she looked to the servant and then to her saddlebags. When the servant gathered Anna’s things, the young woman curtsied again and left for the washroom. Anna gave Xavier a wink as proof she could be two people at once before following the maidservant.

As promised, her bathing took very little time. Though she did not wish to leave the soothing water that eased her aching muscles, her empty stomach was a force she could not deny. Dressed in her nightgown and covered in her new robe, Anna followed the servant while quietly inhaling the smell of roasted duck all the way to her room. Inside, she found a Xavier, dressed in an untucked white shirt and trousers, rising from his chair to greet her.

Xavier nodded to the servant, who curtsied with an armload of Anna’s traveling clothes to be washed. “We will ring if we need anything.”

When they were alone, Anna hurried to the table and sat. Gazing over the meal, she said a prayer of thanks and reached for the bread. “I could eat a horse.”

“I am sorry we didn’t stop on the way, but it was important that we made it before the day’s end.”

Pulling off a chunk of bread, she handed it to Xavier. “We had the cheese and bread you brought. I thought eating in the saddle was interesting and satisfying enough but seeing this duck, I’m sure I will eat it down to the bone.”

Xavier agreed and stuck his fork into the meat.

Anna had to keep herself from eating too quickly. Xavier was her friend, but belching in front of him was not something she wanted. Pouring the wine in both their cups, she looked up to see him as hungry as she. “Did they feed you well when you were a soldier?”

He swallowed. “Not well at all. It was one of the many things I looked forward—” His words dropped off as he turned toward the door.

“They are all downstairs except for Miles. He’s sitting at the top of the stairs.”

Xavier chuckled. “I know you can hear conversations, but have you developed a way to scry?”

“Scry?”

“See things that are very far away or places which you cannot see with your own eyes.”

Anna smiled and shook her head. “He’s humming.” She took a sip from her glass. “Have you never learned how to hear like I do?”

“No. Though I admit it would be a nice ability to have.”

“It’s not a wonderful gift to have all the time,” she stated.

“What are the men talking about down stairs?”

“What do you think they are talking about? Xavier, you can’t be so thick as that.”

Xavier attempted a small apology before turning to his plate. “I suppose it might look as if we are more than traveling companions to some.”

“Most,” she said and put another forkful of duck in her mouth.

“My humble apologies, Anna. I thought that having the inn to ourselves would keep prying eyes at bay and a quick exit should we need it. I had forgotten that it might lead to unwanted gossip.”

“You mean it didn’t cross your mind that it might appear that I’m some woman you wanted to woo. Enchantress or not, people have already started talking about us. Honestly, Xavier. You make me wonder if you ever considered what people think.” She shook her head.

He set his knife and fork down. “I am not used to—”

“It doesn’t matter. You are the great Seether hunter and I’m some sort of sorceress. People will never understand and will talk even if they did.”

“You’re angry with me?”

She sighed. “Tired and sore. But remember tomorrow not to make me look like some mindless princess that follows your every whim.”

Xavier said nothing, returning to his meal. For a moment, Anna wished she hadn’t said the words, but she knew they were ones that had been growing within her. “I know we are attached but you aren’t the one who has to listen to all the talk it leads to. It is one thing to visit your cousin’s wedding together but to have an entire inn to ourselves makes it appear we are something much more than friends. Can you understand how that could be true?”

“I do, Anna,” he said quietly. “I will make certain there are no misunderstandings.”

Anna put her fork down and looked at the man across the table. Though he appeared to be sorry for his actions, there was something in his eyes that did not truly understand why. In that moment, she considered it was his position in life that taught him to distance himself from the care of what others thought. Though he certainly did not share the same upbringing as she, Anna discounted the notion. No, she had grown to know him well and had misunderstood his feelings. “You are as uncomfortable about sharing this inn as I am.”

“Without saying.”

“Then it is I who should apologize. I didn’t think before I—”

“Nor, I, Anna. I am standing on new ground having you with me. I fear I am slower to accept changes than you and I confess that I haven’t found my footing in our new life.”

Anna felt a sense of relief hearing his words. The man, to most eyes, was a rock of a figure yet he stated openly to her that he was as human as the next. “Your secret is safe with me, milord.” With a kind smile, she selected a roll from the plate and handed it to him. “At the very least, with your room only across the hall, we should be able to sleep well.”

Lifting his glass of wine, he gentle tapped the edge of hers. “To proximity and simple joys.”

Anna chuckled and, for the moment, her troubles seemed to fade away.

Chapter 26

Standing before the bedroom window, Xavier watched the early signs of the sunrise. Dark slate roofs took on a blue hue and the grey smoke from numerous chimneys began to loft upward with new life into the sky. The whitewashed walls of the timber and stone buildings near the city walls reminded him of his first visit to Ardencroft as a child. A smile crept across his face as he recounted the eye-opening experience of riding through the city in the family carriage, nose pressed against the glass to see every possible scene the new surroundings had to offer. It was a wondrous time in his life. A doting mother explained the differences between the country life he knew so well the constant motion found in such a city and quickly answered every question that he uttered. The excitement of such a time, he could nearly retrace, but the happy memory and emotions within slipped away with the rising of the sun.

The morning reminded him that time had passed and he was no longer the boy who marveled at the sight of fortresses or castles. That season of wonder had withered many years ago. Now, he was a man, left to his own successes and failures with responsibilities few could understand.

His eyes scanned the roof tops of the awaking city until they fell on the castle itself. Ardencroft castle. Introduced at a young age, he could count the memories he had within the walls. In truth, Xavier could easily state that he grew up with his older cousin, Patrick, now the ruler of the small city. Like all childhood friends, though years apart in age, they were different but linked with a common thread that would either bear the test of time or snap completely under the strain of it. Xavier had come into his role as lord of a manner not unlike his cousin. Patrick had become a baron at the age of twenty seven after the strange and unexpected death of his parents. For himself, Xavier would not carry the title of ‘Sir’ until the fateful deaths of his own parents while he was away fighting for his life and the lives of others. A part of him was jealous that Patrick had the blessing of time, at least several years, to ease into his role. His cousin, nearly ten years his senior in age, was comfortable and at home with his lot in life as Xavier felt he was given only moments to find his footing with the expectations of nobility.

He sighed at the memory of the sudden thrust into his role. At the age of twenty one and barely understanding the full extent of his future responsibilities, the call to fight the would-be warlock king tore him from his quiet life. Unable to refuse service, Xavier, like all the others, were tossed into a nightmare that he knew he had never truly recovered from. Balls and celebrations were cast aside for steel and mud. Smiling faces in joyful settings were replaced by the horrified looks of a man or woman he had run his sword through. Wine for spilt blood. Jovial banter for barked commands. Cheers for agonizing screams. He had been stripped of all frivolity with a promise of returning in a few weeks yet suffered the reality of two years of death and pestilence.

Noting his hand beginning to shake, Xavier clasped his hands behind him, a ruse he had learned after his first battle and now a habit. Unable to account for the unending desire to pace after a horrific night of fighting, he had quickly learned repetitive motion eased his body enough for him to think more clearly.

His mind slipped easily back in time to the first of many events that infected his dreams. The banner-carrying boy’s screams echoed in his ears as he had wildly cut away the vines that had wrapped around the boy’s body. Xavier could remember the wide-eyes of Harris as he hacked his way through dark foes with axe in each hand, coming faithfully to his aid. Yet that was only the first fight. Then, after countless dismemberments from his own sword, the fear left and he became cold and spiteful against those that haunted his nights. Months later, with still more bloodshed on ground and heads bashed against walls, he became numb. After the first year, unknown faces looked to him and called him Captain then followed him into the darkest of hells, yet his hand would still quake when the victory was achieved and the camp grew quiet.

“Bastard,” Xavier whispered as he stared at the castle towers behind thick walls. His cousin had not been the source of the war, but it was Patrick that had pleaded with the Throne to be the one to rid the ruler of the Seethers.

Xavier sat in the chair he had placed before the window after his dinner. Rubbing his tired eyes as the sun rose, he wished that he might have run from the call to war no matter what it had brought him. Now, he hunted the last of the hidden occultist and attempted to counter the deadly acts of those men that had left for war with gentle hearts and came home broken in mind. Xavier ran his fingers through his hair, counting the number of those he had hung or slashed through since his return to the once peaceful town. He was not the same man, nor was he alone in his pain, as he knew the hidden war had touched all that had fought within the span of those two dreadful years.

Sitting upright, stretching his back, he imagined the words his parents would offer. ‘Duty is self-sacrifice. Honor is to sacrifice humbly,’ his father would say. Xavier nodded to the memory of the repeated words he had heard throughout his childhood. His mind wandered as it attempted to imagine what his mother might say. She had been so quiet, yet her words held a special weight when uttered. He smiled when he settled on what those words would be to him now. “Do not forget the needs of the woman,” he said aloud. “And you would be right, Mother, as you always were.”

He looked over his shoulder at the closed door, imagining the woman who had burst into his life, now peacefully sleeping in her bed. Jeffers and Harris were much easier to have depend on him, though that relationship was forged during the war. Now he was tied to a woman he hardly knew. “Beautiful,” he whispered. He could not deny it, still she was very different than the women who once pursued him before leaving for war. “Intelligent,” he added. “Moody? Perhaps I simply don’t understand her and I do tend to be the cause of her sudden changes. She is quick enough to point such a thing out to me.” He thought more of the woman’s characteristics. “Honest. Open. Brave. Accepting.” He shook his head. “And somehow tied to me like a rope that will not break.”

Xavier stood and began to pace as his conscious began to get the better of him. “I could not come here without her. What choice did I truly have,” he reasoned. “Still, it is nice to have a friend who understands the gifts…or curses.” Xavier looked at the door before turning and pacing back to the window. “I wish I had sisters. Perhaps then I would be more deft in handling her changes. Still, she was right. I have made a mess of things here. I cannot take back what I have done, but I can at least be attentive to events that may portray her in an unfavorable light.” He stopped. “Perhaps there is some gift I could offer her to show my sincerity in changing?” Xavier began to pace again. “She wanted a gown,” he said with a shrug. “Too late to have one made now. Still, I could ask her to dance at the ball, I suppose.” He shook his head. “But that would mean not keeping our attention on our work.”

Coming to the chair, he flopped into the seat and stared out the window to the growing light. “Confusing, yet lovely, Anna Travene,” he whispered as he rubbed his fatigued neck. “You have already changed a hardened man.”

Unknown to him, across the hall with soft blankets pulled up to her chin, lay a smiling woman who had heard every word from his lips.

Chapter 27

The carriage sent from the castle was the most luxurious Anna had seen. Soft black velvet cushioned seats that hid the effects of rough cobble stone streets were imprinted with a coat of arms she assumed were the baron’s. The windows, framed with material that allowed one to see out while the sunlight hushed from its brilliance, were weighted with a series of small golden-threaded tassels. Had she traveled from Hollowbrook in such a coach, Anna imagined the trip would have been far less taxing even with her step-sister’s constant complaints.

“Lady Anna, I fear you will find my cousin less than impressive.”

Anna turned away from the tall wooden buildings that passed by her window to the disappointed face of the man in black-dyed clothing. She smiled at how well he looked in his leather jerkin and neatly trimmed facial hair. “I won’t hold that against you, Sir Xavier,” she replied with a chuckle. “No one can choose their family members. I know that fact very well.”

“You are too kind, but I mean it as a type of warning so your act will not be disrupted.”

“I know my part, milord,” she replied looking again out her window. “I have practiced lifting my chin, answering with few words and observing what is around me. There’s nothing to fear. I know our plan.”

The man shifted his sword so he could turn toward her. “I have no doubt in your abilities, milady, but he might come as a shock to you.”

“Is he deformed?”

“Only in his mind. He will smile in one moment and rage in the next. When he sees you, he will most likely flirt in front of his bride.”

Anna nodded. “I believe I can manage a flirting man, milord.”

“It is most likely that he will wish for a private audience with us and request that we speak to the woman he means to marry tonight. I am hopeful we find this woman to be perfectly normal, if not more intelligent and strong willed.”

“Why do you hope for her to be that way?”

“She will be his third wife. The others did not fare well.”

Anna studied his face. It was clear he was concerned. “You don’t mean to say the baron murdered them?”

Xavier looked away. “No. They both died in childbirth. He thought himself cursed after the second death. I had always assumed that is why he took up the Throne’s cause for squelching the uprising.”

“Why marry now?”

“I am not certain he means to go through with it.” Rubbing his gloved hand that trembled, Xavier sighed. “This, in my mind, is nothing more than an attempt to bring all those that might do him harm into one place. For him to request our presence only validates the thought. Had he not been my cousin—”

“He is family,” Anna interrupted gently. “I understand, Xavier. But what if we find there is not real threat? Will he still marry her?”

Xavier shrugged. “I doubt he has considered such an event. His summons tells me he is quite certain of his situation. For that, we will keep our eyes and ears open to the possibility, as unlikely as it is.”

“He is fortunate to have such a cousin.”

“One he has used to his advantage more than once, milady,” he replied. “Remember to bow your head at the meeting and not to curtsy. Show him you are his equal and not to be toyed with.”

She watched as he turned to the window. To Anna’s mind, Xavier seemed torn between a life he wished to lead and the other that demanded his constant attention. She hid her smile as he appeared quite ‘in his head’ and appreciated the man who pondered things quietly as she often did. They were similar, and had it not been the unique bond between them, Anna found it easy to imagine they would have been friends in ordinary circumstances.

Their travels through the remainder of the city and the last wall that protected the towering castle on the hill were done in silence. With each lost in their own thoughts, the coach pulled into a large courtyard once they had driven through the last gate. Coming to a halt, Anna saw the quick, wordless nod of Xavier to confirm they were to begin the act they had planned. The door to coach was opened by a man in purple tabard.

Anna took a deep breath as Xavier exited the coach and held out his hand for her to take. You can do this, Anna. She inspected her clothing and, when approving of the condition of her unique traveling dress, rose to accept Xavier’s firm hand. Stepping out of the carriage, she desperately fought the urge to look around her. She was to be a person who was impressed with nothing and able to be courtly in her speech. It would be difficult enough not to wonder at the enormous structure or marvel at the line of servants that stood outside the massive doors to welcome them.

“The Baron offers his apologies for not greeting you at the door, Sir Xavier,” the servant stated, “and wishes for your lordship and Lady Anna to join them in the banquet hall.” The man bowed deeply. “If you will kindly follow me.”

Xavier looked up at the walls before turning his attention to the servant. To Anna’s hidden surprise, Xavier did not offer an arm to escort her, but motioned for her to follow beside him as her equal. Lifting her chin, she walked forward and up the marble stairs through the opening ornate doors into the castle.

Constantly reminding herself of her part, she refrained from dwelling on the beautiful floors as they entered. Ignoring her surroundings would be difficult, as Anna noted the elaborated carpets, silken banners and fine woodwork of each room they passed. A part of her wish desperately to have her father with them as he would have been so taken by the sights of wealth.

From the noisy room ahead, she had no doubt that it would be a challenge to focus on any particular conversation. When the doors to the noisy dining hall were opened to their approach, Anna continued alongside of her friend and attempted to make the image of the noble enchantress in her mind come alive. The hall became still when they were announced, much to her hidden amusement.

Anna’s eyes latched onto the sight of the front table. As she walked with an air of nobility, she studied a tall man wearing a crown as he stood from his seat and smiled. With all eyes on them and the bubbling nerves in her body, reaching the garland and silk decorated table before the many rows of guests seemed to take hours.

“My dear cousin and Lady Anna!” the noble called out so all could hear their titles. “We are humbled by your acceptance to join us in our happy hour!”

Anna remembered to nod her head to the greeting.

“Your offer was a kindness. Both happily accepted and eagerly awaited, milord,” Xavier stated.

“You are the one who is too kind, cousin,” the baron stated with an authentic appreciation. “I now have the pleasure of introducing to you Miss Celia Yelm, the future Baroness of Ardencroft.”

Anna nodded her chin to the lovely yet timid-looking woman who stood beside her future husband. Her thoughts raced to Xavier’s desire that the future duchess would be a stone of a woman and wondered if he wasn’t disappointed in what he saw.

“An honor to finally meet you, Sir Xavier,” the woman stated nervously. “And you, Lady Anna. I am quite in awe of a woman of your beauty and gifts.”

“I am a small wildflower compared to the bouquet of roses before me, milady,” Anna said assuredly. The practiced words flowed from her mouth without a hint of trouble. The smile and small blush in the woman’s cheeks told Anna she had done well with her words. The soon-to-be duchess dipped her head in appreciation which made Anna a bit please with herself for creating the compliment.

“We thank you for your words, Lady Anna,” Celia said. “Lord DeTreat and I welcome you to our happy moment and wish for you to join us at the table.”

“Yes!” the baron stated joyfully. “Please so us the honor!”

A servant appeared by their sides and motioned with a bow and elegant wave of his arm to the empty seats at the end of the table. Mimicking Xavier’s actions, Anna slowly nodded to the noble couple then followed her escort to the chairs. Attempting to appear as if it were an everyday occurrence, Anna stood near the chair and awaited assistance. The servant pulled the chair out from the table and stepped aside for Xavier to help Anna to her seat. As the sheriff sat next to her, Anna felt a sense of relief, knowing she was no longer the center of attention.

“Superbly done,” she heard Xavier whisper.

The welcomed compliment made her swell with pride. Turning her attention to the fine dinnerware, Anna pretended not to hear the reassuring words and looked to the meal that was brought to them. Fearing her stomach would growl, she picked up her goblet of wine and took a small sip. She was thankful for past dinners that she had attended, but the shear vastness of the hall and number of people made her question if her dinner etiquette would be enough to fool all within the room.

“It was very generous of you to make the bride the focus of attention, Lady Anna.”

Anna looked to find an elderly woman seated next to her smiling. From the small hints of worn threads around the woman’s collar, she wondered if the dress was not one that had been refitted for her.

“Forgive me,” the woman added. “I am Hazel Ateel, the grandmother of the bride.”

“A great pleasure, Mrs. Ateel,” Anna said. “Your granddaughter appears to be a very kind soul.”

Mrs. Ateel beamed with pride. “A bit nervous, but how could she not be on such a day? I think she worried more about greeting you properly than to be seated in front of all these people.”

“I felt very welcomed by your granddaughter’s words, Mrs. Ateel. She has no reason to have any concern over my addition to the party.”

“But, milady, you are the first enchantress this city has seen! You can imagine how she might fret over her words and shed a poor light over her upbringing and the name of her family?”

Anna nodded. She had wondered herself how she should represent the vocation. “Please inform her that I have not been so warmly greeted and will often remark on her beauty and gentle nature upon my return.”

Mrs. Ateel smiled. “Another generosity you have shown our family, Lady Anna. I’m sure your words to her will set her mind at rest on certain rumors.”

“Rumors? And what would be the topic of such talk?”

The woman looked away and shyly eyed the guests at the lower tables. “Forgive my foolishness. I meant nothing by my words.”

Anna turned to Xavier, whose attention was divided between his dinner and the loud man next to him. It appeared she was to be on her own in this. Taking a small sip of her wine, she returned to face the elderly woman and smiled. “You have no fear of offending me, Mrs. Ateel. Please, tell me what is being said.”

“Begging your pardon, milady, but—”

“I would like to know what you have heard, Mrs. Ateel, but please do so quickly and quietly if you have concerns of being overheard.”

Mrs. Ateel looked at the lower tables again. “There’s been some talk of why you were invited, milady. Some said that it was to tell the baron that she was unfit to be a his wife.”

“Utter nonsense. And other rumors?”

“Others say that you have your own interests in the baron.”

“Another ridiculous notion,” she huffed. Remembering she was to be more aloof in her role, Anna could not expound her displeasure of the typical gossip that had grown out of guessing than rather than knowing. “I am here as a guest, Mrs. Ateel. Nothing more, I assure you.” The woman’s relief was obvious to her. The sigh and quick flush of color in her cheeks told Anna that the mere mentioning of the rumors had embarrassed her. “I thank you for your openness. Such rumors always die away when truth shines on them.”

Fortunately, little discussion was needed after that. Anna ate in peace for a moment before Xavier whispered in her ear. His breath tickled her neck and an unexpected feeling arose from within her.

“Did you hear my words?” he whispered again. “Are you feeling unwell?”

Anna turned to him and smiled. “I wonder if it would be forgivable for me to get a bit of fresh air?”

Xavier glanced over his shoulder and waved two fingers to summon a servant. When the young man lowered his head to hear Xavier’s words, Anna listened. “Please inform the baron that Lady Anna and I beg his forgiveness for leaving this pleasant table and will be in the library should he need us.”

“Of course, milord,” the servant stated nervously. “Do you wish me to find an attendant to escort you to the library?”

“There is no need. I know my way.”

The young man bowed again and quickly disappeared to carry out his task. Anna followed Xavier’s eyes to the baron who was being informed of their intent. Seeing the noble nod, she felt Xavier touch her hand before rising from his seat. Though she heard the quiet questions from those at the table, Anna rose with elegance and took Xavier’s offered arm. Paying little attention to the continued stares, she was caught off guard when the baron announced that deserts would be served on the lawn as they exited the room.

“He means to meet us in the library,” Xavier whispered.

Anna gathered as much from the announcement and offered a simple smile. Though she found it rather obvious he wished to talk to them, a part of Anna wanted a small amount of time to herself. Maybe it’s for the best. Perhaps a forced conversation will take my mind from Xavier. Anna feared her cheeks had reddened at the sudden romantic thoughts of the sheriff.

The crowd began to stand from their seats and make their way down a long hall to the outdoors, as she and Xavier left in a different direction. With a few lasting murmurs and bits of gossip brewing due to the change in dinner plans, Anna followed Xavier’s lead to a pair of large doors attended by more house servants.

When the grand doors where opened for them, the sight of the library with its glowingly polished shelves and countless books took Anna’s breath away. She immediately understood that the baron was not afraid to demonstrate his family’s wealth with things other than beautiful carpets and fine wines. Escorted to a lovely sofa, she sat and noticed the servants quietly disappeared behind the closing doors.

“Was the hall too warm?” he asked. “I could open the windows if it would help.”

Anna turned to see the concern in his face. “No, Xavier. I’m well.”

“Perhaps tea might be—”

“Xavier, please. Just give me a moment to collect my thoughts.”

Anna breathed deeply. She was frustrated with herself. In her mind, she had only to nod, eat and keep conversation to a minimum of words. The bride-to-be gave off no humming to her ears or any other in the grand hall. Feeling as if she had accomplished her simple mission, she could not shake the embarrassment for having to leave the hall nor the feeling the moment Xavier’s breath touched her neck. Feeling the part of a young girl with a crush on a boy, Anna felt uncomfortable with Xavier so near to her, a ridiculous notion having had spent so many days in the man’s presences and thinking him as a friend. But it was his private words said in the early morning that came to her mind that caused her heart to stir. Combining this with the moment of his lips so near to her neck, she had nearly fallen to pieces.

Her eyes glanced upward and found him pacing by the slender glass doors that lead out to a small private garden. He looked handsome, she could not deny it. Anna looked to her hands that were clasped tightly together and sighed. Even her hands gave away her unexpected feelings. Was it the talk of marriage from her father or the gossip of those in Kedalpoint? Were these the roots of the change in her? She couldn’t tell.

The doors of the library opened. The sight of the baron made her feel more comfortable, perhaps even stated that it gave her an excuse to think of something else other than her emotions. She rose at his approach and nodded to his bow as the baron came to a stop before her.

“Lady Anna,” the baron stated proudly. “I am beside myself that you should join my cousin in your visit.”

“You were kind to allow it, milord,” she replied. Not knowing what else one said to a man in his position, she simple sat back down on the sofa.

The baron seemed not to notice her uncertainty and turned to Xavier. “You told me precious little of your acquaintance, Cousin. But I believe I understand your desire to provide a brief reply. Things, as we know all too well, are often not what they seem.”

Xavier moved to the baron and bowed. “All too well,” he agreed. “Allow me to be brief once more. For my part, I find no evidence of the concern you may have had about your future bride.” He turned to Anna. “Would your ladyship agree?”

“Completely, Sir Xavier,” she said, forcing herself back into her role. “I gathered no hints of gifts nor heard any talk of sinister plans at the dinner.”

The baron’s eyes widened. “None at all, milady? Not even the smallest of clues that she or her family are not as they seem?”

“None at all, milord,” she said as unemotionally as she could. “Such things cannot hide from my senses.”

“Well!” he said cheerfully. “It appears I have nearly made a terrible mistake, one that I can only beg your pardon for drawing you away from your lives.”

Xavier shook his head. “We are honored you have invited us to come. I have not ventured far from Kedalpoint for some time and it is good to see you in such fine health.” He placed his hands behind him and moved to a chair beside the sofa. “But tell me, what will you do now that you know the facts of your situation?”

The baron shrugged. “Marry the girl, what else?”

Anna watched Xavier and noted a constrained smile appear on his face.

“As easily as that?” Xavier asked. “You thought her a Seether not a moment before you had two to say she was not.”

The baron shrugged. “Perhaps…I was being a bit paranoid. You understand that I had to be certain of the situation. And can I be blamed for wanting my only relative to be at my wedding?”

“Of course, not” Xavier stated. “I am happy that all is in place for your future and am glad for the opportunity to attend your wedding.”

“There!” the baron exclaimed with a broad smile. “My grumpy cousin is happy. I could not ask for a better wedding gift. But I do not exclude the chance to meet you, Lady Anna. If I were a wagering man, I would bet that you are the one to thank for the change in my cousin.”

Anna fought with all her strength not to show her inner joy in hearing his words. “Sir Xavier is his own person. It was he who asked me to join him and come to your aid.”

The baron folded his arms and smirked. “Perhaps, but you do intend to stay for the wedding, do you not?”

Anna looked to Xavier. “He promised me a dance, milord. It is my claim on this trip.”

“Ha!” the baron exclaimed with a clap. “You have found his weakness with ease. I imagine it is a power enchantresses have. Should you manage to pull my brooding cousin to the center of the floor, I will reward your handsomely, Lady Anna. Often, people are intimidated by large gatherings in grand homes. But should you dance with my cousin, I am certain others will happily join in festivities.”

“Then it will be our pleasure,” Anna answered for the both of them.

The baron looked from cousin to enchantress. “No, milady. I believe the pleasure will be all mine.”

Chapter 28

Sitting at her father’s desk, fingering the ornate invitation to the baron’s wedding, Isabella listened to the man that stood before her. Mr. Cavine was a good sort of man and rather good informant, but she missed his better. Of all the movement of the city, it was her shadow friend that she trusted most or had.

“Milady?”

Isabella snapped from her lingering thoughts to the cobbler-turned-informant. “Please go on Mr. Cavine. I am listening.”

The man bowed his head. “That’s as much as I know about the new tradesman.”

Leaning back into the chair, Isabella considered if the information he had offered was of any real use. Though it seemed nothing more than gossip, she would pay him if only to keep his interest high in the effort to help her. “Very well, Mr. Cavine. If you have no other information for me, then we might consider today’s meeting at an end.”

“Sorry there ain’t more, milady,” he offered. “Other than the wedding and the baron’s cousin coming, there ain’t much—”

Isabella sat upright. “Cousin? The sheriff from Kedalpoint?”

“The very same, milady.” The man shifted from one foot to another. “Arrived the other night with an enchantress. Assumed you knew all about that since it’s the talk of whole town.”

She relaxed her posture, unhappy with her telling reaction. “I have heard gossip of such things, but I have not heard more than that. Perhaps you would be kind enough to tell me what you know.”

“They came in the rain at night. Staying at an inn outside the wall.” He shrugged and lowered his head. “That’s all I know.”

“Do not fret, Mr. Cavine. I have others that know as little as you about the pair. You have done me a small service today and I appreciate your aid.”

The man looked up with hopeful eyes. “I nearly forgot! The other day, I had two women come to my place. They asked what was the style for weddings in this part of the country.”

“I imagine they only wish to fit in with the ceremonies. It is not every day that a baron marries, though ours has done so twice before.”

“Aye, but it was the part where they said ‘this part of the country’ that took me by surprise. “Would someone from Ardencroft say such a thing? I don’t think so, milady. Only some visitor.”

Isabella smiled at the obvious conclusion. “There are many visitors invited to the wedding, Mr. Cavine. We cannot assume much more than that, can we?”

“Maybe you’re right, milady. Just happened to prick at my thoughts is all.”

“And I appreciate your acute senses to notice changes in this community. Though it is likely a pair of ladies who do not wish to embarrass themselves, perhaps we should make certain of it. Do you happen to know their names?”

Mr. Cavine looked back down to his feet. “I’m sorry, milady. They didn’t say.”

“Then I ask only that you keep a weather-eye out for these ladies. Should they come to you again, a simply note left with my doorman will suffice.” Isabella stood. “A very pleasant day to you, Mr. Cavine.”

The man bowed quickly and back-peddled away from the desk. “A good day to you, milady.” With that, Mr. Cavine left the room quietly.

Waiting until she heard the front door open and close, signaling Mr. Cavine’s exit from her home, Isabella called for her maid. In moments, the servant entered and gave a quick curtsy.

“Harriet. I wonder if you might lend me a dress of yours to go out into town in?”

The maid froze. “But, milady, I don’t have any fine dresses as you have. I could have Alexander go and fetch a dress maker or—”

“I don’t want to make a fuss. Just something you would not mind lending for the day.” Isabella chose her words carefully. “You see, I am to visit a friend that is ill and I would not like to make a scene.”

Harriet nodded. “I understand, milady. I will go and fetch something.”

Isabella smiled as the servant hurried out of the room then wondered if she had played her hand correctly. The reason for her disguise seemed sound enough, but she was acutely aware that servants gossips with those of other houses. Isabella could not think of another way to sate her curiosity.

By late afternoon, Isabella slipped out of the house in her borrowed dress and into the alley that separated the finer homes of Ardencroft. Keeping her head low and close to groupings of people, she made her way through the streets and back ways toward the main city gate. As Isabella moved, she kept a count of the guards that she passed and found the patrols more frequent but the grouping of armed men the same in number, a fact she had assumed before leaving the confines of her home. In better part of a half hour, she reached her destination.

Looking for some excuse to be wandering the streets, Isabella noted an apple vendor and made her way to the tired looking man who was busy rearranging his paltry inventory. “A good day to you sir. Would you pick your best for me?”

The vendor looked up and offered a weary smile. “You ain’t gonna see no one, Miss.”

“Who?”

He chuckled and bent down to fetch an apple for her. “All day long, I’ve been having people come to my humble cart asking for an apple as they walk back and forth for a glimpse of the pair.”

Isabella acted the innocent patron. “I don’t know what you are talking about, sir. I only wished for something to eat.”

“And chat while gazing at the inn,” he added. “Well, you won’t be the last. People been at it all day.” He shined the apple against his apron and handed it to her. “Have to be honest with you. The next patrol will force you to move along.”

“Just for eating an apple?”

“Oh, come, Miss. I knows you want to see the sheriff and that lady he’s got in there. But you’re too late. They left in a carriage this morning. Bet to go to the castle.”

Isabella paid the man his coin in return for the apple. “I suppose you think I’m foolish to be like the others.”

“Nah. It’s not often you see something like this.” He looked over to the inn and pointed. “Seeing you’d be the last of my customers, I’ll tell you what I’ve seen since you missed their parting. It ain’t much, but it will be something to tell your friends.” He turned and rolled a small barrel out for her to sit.

Isabella dipped her chin in thanks. “That is very kind of you. You won’t get in any trouble will you?”

“Can’t see why I would. People been parading up and down this street and making up their own stories when they ain’t seen nothin’.”

Isabella turned to the inn and began to wonder aloud. “It’s odd that they would stay here.”

“A good enough inn as any other, Miss,” he stated. Grabbing an apple for himself, he leaned against the cart and nodded. “But I get what you’re thinkin’. Why don’t they stay with the baron?”

“Privacy, I imagine.”

“And privacy they got. Ain’t another soul in that building that doesn’t work in it or the pair, themselves. Suppose that none would dare set foot in that place if not invited. People are curious and have tried to get a peek inside, but they are shooed away. The innkeeper runs a tight ship.”

Isabella agreed. To keep so many onlookers away must be keeping the man very busy. “I expected guards posted at the doors.”

“I would think so too, but not one of them has set foot inside.” He chuckled and bit into his apple. “Don’t think they are the kind that needs guardin’,” the vendor stated with a mouth full.

“I imagine you’re right. What does she look like, this enchantress?”

The man wiped his mouth with his sleeve. “Just got a quick look. Wore a black dress. It kinda matched what the man was wearin’. She wore one of those fancy cloaks. Didn’t see much. They got in the coach in a hurry.”

Isabella smiled. “Old black,” she said quietly to herself.

“Pardon?”

“Oh, nothing. Just wished for a glimpse as you have guessed. I suppose I’m just waisting my time and yours.”

The man gave her a knowing smile. “Ain’t nothing wrong with wishin’, Miss. This is something special, the wedding and all. Not gonna see the likes again.”

Isabella stood and looked up to the windows of the storefront. “You live here?”

“Not this week, Miss. Rented out the room above to those like yourself hoping to get a peek at the couple.”

“Must make a profit when you can.”

“Aye!”

“Well, I’ve certainly taken up enough of your time.” She took a few more coins from her purse and handed it to the vendor. “I thank you for the story.”

Taking the coin in hand, he shook his head. “It weren’t all that much, Miss. Can’t take your coin for just a bit of nothing.” He glanced over his shoulder. “The man that took room upstairs is off into town. Tells you what. I’ll be on the lookout and you goes upstairs. Maybe you can catch sight of something from the window to tell your friends.”

“I don’t think that would be proper.”

“Proper for the coin you give me.”

Isabella looked to the inn then back to the man’s eager look. “Just for a moment. You’ll be sure to single me if he should come back. My pa would whip me sideways if I was caught.”

The man fished out a key from his pocket. “Promise on all that is, Miss. I will make sure no one catches on. Besides, I’m worried he might not be caring for the place and you could set my mind at ease if you take a look.”

“Set your mind at rest, sir. I would be only too happy to help. You are certain the man traveled into the city?”

“Saw with my own eyes. Don’t know when he’ll be back, so you’ll have to be quick about it.”

Isabella looked up to the window again and nodded. “Give me the key, sir.”

The stairs up to the room creaked a bit more than she would have liked, but Isabella took care not to make too much noise. At the door, she wondered why she was following along with such a silly act as she had little interest what a view from the room would offer her.

Setting the key in place, Isabella unlocked the door and opened it slowly. The room beyond was of nothing remarkable. The simple furniture could very well be seen in any other room in such sections of town. The bed was made and room tidy enough, yet it was the chair at the window that seemed a bit off. Moving across the room to see what a person sitting there might see, she ran into something without form. Stepping away, she looked into the open space in wonder. Carefully, she held her hand out before her and reached forward. Her hand touched something invisible no taller than her waist.

Isabella turned back to the door and listened for any hint of someone being in the house. Satisfied she was alone, Isabella gazed at the space of the unseen item. With whispered words, she waved her hand before her in a slow, sweeping gesture. “Reveal yourself.”

The object before her slowly materialized before her eyes. A simple stand that might hold a vase appeared holding two scrolls. With an unnerving desire, she quickly unrolled the first revealing a simple layout of the baron’s castle. Fearing she might be discovered at any moment, Isabella opened the other and scanned the list of times written in faded ink. A small tingling came to her fingertips. The scrolls were warded.

Without thought, she made a large arc with her hand and placed a shielding spell over the room in hopes that the magical alarm attached to the scrolls had not yet sent their warning. She was too late.

The energy that entered her body gripped her lungs. Turning, she saw a man in a plain clothing with outstretched hands.

Isabella fell to her knees under the pain.

“Who are you?” he demanded.

“No…no one, milord,” she managed through difficult breathes.

The man stepped closer. “Lier! I’ll ask only once more. Who are you?”

Isabella’s head began to ache as the spell built in intensity within her. “I am no one!”

“Then you will not be missed, will you?”

Her mind scrambled for a possible escape. “Please!” she called out. “I was sent to help!”

The man walked confidently to her and grabbed her chin to look into her eyes. “You lie!”

The idea came so quickly to her, Isabella barely understood what she was doing. Grabbing his throat, feeling her hand slip past protection spells, Isabella dug her nails deeply into his skin. The spell within her dropped away. Without thought, she circled his face with her free hand. “Restrict!”

The magic user pushed her away and fell backwards. With silent screams, he tore are the invisible bubble around his head.

Isabella got to her feet and forced her gift to focus on maintaining the spell. Forcing her hands outward, she intensified the spell with all that she had in her.

The man’s body wretched this way and that as he attempted to escape the unseen. Twisted on the floor, with eyes bleeding, the man thrashed, but Isabella did not relent. With the softest of sounds, she heard a snapping sound and all movement of her attacker ceased.

Falling back, she sat staring at the man and attempted to catch her breath. Questions flooded into her mind. Who was he? What purpose but to attack the baron could he have? Most importantly, which of the cults did he belong to?

Wiping sweat from her brow, Isabella attempted to reason how she might warn Xavier and her sister. Using the table beside her, she stood and wiped the dust from her borrowed dress while thinking of possible ways to the castle and more importantly, to those she wished to protect. With a quick dispelling of the silencing of the room, she turned and went to the window to see if any outside had heard the commotion of the attack. The world seemed oblivious of what had happened as people slowly passed by, glazing at the inn she had been so interested in earlier. Then, her eye caught a small shimmer of light. It was the street patrol.

Isabella’s mind sparked into action. The patrol could bear witness of the attack and alert the castle. Picking up the hem of her dress, she hurried across the room taking only the briefest of moments to glance at her dead assailant. Down the stairs she flew and out the door to the vendor and the approaching patrol.

“Captain!” she cried out.

“What’s happened, Miss?” the vendor asked in a panicked state.

The guards came running to her as she attempted to catch her breath.

“What goes on here?” the leader of the patrol asked.

Isabella pointed back to the store. “A man! In the room upstairs. He attempted to murder me.”

The captain gave a quick nod to his men and watched them file into the store. Taking Isabella’s shoulders, he peered into her eyes. “Catch your breath, Miss. We’ll sort this out.”

“I hit him,” she said, panting. “He fell. There is blood everywhere.”

“Calm yourself,” replied the guard. “The city guard will take care of this villain. Tell me, is the man still upstairs?”

Isabella took a deep breath and nodded.

The captain looked upward to the sound of an opening window. “Do you have the scoundrel?” he called up to the guard in the window.

“No on here, Captain,” the guard replied. “Nothing but a room.”

Isabella turned to see the captain’s questioning look to his companion. “A blood trail?”

The man ducked back inside for a moment before sticking his head back outside. “Clean as a barracks.”

The vendor hurried inside as the captain return his attention back to Isabella. “What are you playing at? We have honest work to do. Think teasing the baron’s soldiers is something amusing?”

Isabella looked back to the open window. “I swear it on the life of my parents! A man attacked me upstairs. He has to be there!” As the guards filed out of the shop, each gave her a look of disgust.

“Look here, Miss,” the captain stated firmly. “This little act of yours could send you to a chilly cell. I suggest you take your need for attention elsewhere. We have a proper job to do and can’t be bothered with the likes of you. Now, get yourself out of my sight before I haul you in.”

“But there—”

“Be off!” he command. Turning to his small troop, he walked to the center of the street and waited for his men to fall in behind him. Barking a command to follow, the troop began their match toward the main gate.

Isabella hurried inside and up to the room above. There, standing in the center of the room, was the vendor with a very happy look.

“Thought I was being nice to you by letting you take a peek and this is how you repay me?”

She studied the room quickly, finding nothing out of place and certainly no body lying on the floor. “I swear to you, sir. It was no story I told. There was a man and he attacked me.”

“Give me the key,” he said in a low tone.

Hesitantly, she did as he asked. “But I saw parchment with some plan of attacking the castle.”

“Hate to see another victim of the baron’s love, but this ain’t the way of going about it. Got your story to tell your friends now, don’t you? Get out and don’t come back this way again.”

Isabella knew that her cards had been played out. Offering a small dip of a curtsy, she left the room and the store quietly. Though a few onlookers had shown up to see what the commotion was all about, she shrank from their questions and hurried away to the first alley she could find beyond the wall. When far enough from possible onlookers, she used her magic to shorten the trip back to her home all the while wondering how it was possible that the scene of her attack had been cleansed and how she could possibly get word to the castle.

Chapter 29

Looking upward into heights of the vaulted ceiling was a helpful distraction from the woman next to him. The craftsmanship of the heavy timbers had not impressed him in his earliest visits to the castle, but later, when he had at least visited grand homes other than his own, Xavier found the construction of the massive hall they stood in to be a singular marvel in architecture. The beams, cut from enormous stands of growth found far to the north, had proved their strength through the ages. In this moment, Xavier wished he had such strength to avoid looking back to the intoxicating view of the enchantress.

With the wedding ceremony completed without disruptions, Xavier found himself in the most uncomfortable position he had been in for many years. A ball. Though he assumed there were many in attendance that had not been to such an elaborate gathering, Xavier was quite certain he was the most nervous. He had somehow promised a dance with his new friend and, since that time, had grown to appreciate her in a different manner making it all the more nerve racking.

“How were they able to decorate so quickly?” Anna asked.

Xavier reluctantly looked at her, fearing he would make a fool of himself with any answer he gave. He would need to keep his answers short. “The baron employs many servants in the castle.”

“Still, it must have taken more time than an afternoon to transform the room.”

He nodded. It was indeed a feat. The delicate flower arrangements that hung from each of the sconces must have been prepared early in the morning hours. The long banners of yellow silk that draped from the rafters to the floor where works of ropes and pulleys, but he still had to admit it would have taken a great deal of effort to transform the room. Most of the tables from the dinner had been removed while others were freshly covered with new linen and decorated with numerous platers of bite-sized foods. What amazed him most the baron’s use of the enormous glass bowl that held a delicious drink for his guests.

“Are you thirsty, Xavier?”

Snapping from his staring at the memory of the large bowl to the beautiful woman, Xavier quickly shrugged. “Are you?”

Her eyes seemed to shine with joy and laughter. “Not at the moment, milord, but you seem as fascinated with the punch bowl as much as the ceiling.”

“It is a rather impressive feature with an unusual history.”

“Is it?” she asked with a smile. “It is very large, but a celebration bowl all the same.”

Xavier shook his head. “It is ancient, in fact. Though my uncle told others it was made for his father’s wedding, I believe it is much older.”

He watched her lovely eyes study the scene of servants filling the bowl with ewers. “What makes you think that? It is the largest I have ever seen but ancient?”

“I was a ward of my cousin for a short time when I was ten. Our parents traveled to the Capital and left me in the care of Patrick. Given we were surrounded by staff and he, several years my elder, it was thought that I was secure in his care. Both of us being the only child of our parents, Patrick looked at me as a younger brother and wished to entertain me.”

Anna turned to look at him with raised eyebrows. “Continue, milord.”

“We had the servants place the bowl in the library. It was Patrick’s opinion that we should fill the bowl with water then catch fish from the river to add to it.” Xavier felt the thin smile cross his face. “He then let me sit inside it and I played with our catch until my fingered wrinkled. I was too young to think of any reason other than to entertain a cousin that he would do such a thing.”

“Was there another reason?”

Xavier nodded and blushed at the memory. “Having had trouble sleeping that night, I came downstairs and heard laughing from the library. Of course, I investigated.”

“And?”

“Let us just say that a man and a woman can easily fit in that bowl.”

“Oh!” Anna laughed, covering her outburst quickly. “So you were the excuse to his plan.”

“I often am, milady, even into my later years. But as to why I think it is very old was due to the fierce beating I received over the use of the heirloom. It was not that my cousin found another use for it, but the simple fact that it was used at all.”

“The staff told of your cousin’s exploits?”

Xavier shook his head and looked away. “There was no need. The library floor is currently covered with carpets due to the watermark permanently left behind in the wooden floor. It was clear enough what had occurred in their absence. My mother was beside herself that I had any part in the event. My father, even less pleased, spoke of the value of irreplaceable family heirloom. His mentioning of the bowl being a war treasure led me to understand it had been in the family for easily five generations.” He bit the end of his lip, still feeling the shame of their childish actions. “Lady Anna, I believe the large bowl was made by eleven hands.”

Her stifled gasp told him she understood perfectly. Few relics of the suspected older race existed and he and his cousin had decided to misuse one of them.

“But, how did they both fit?” she whispered, leaning toward him.

Xavier forced the memory from his mind as it easily led to others he did not care to think on. “Not well,” he replied quietly. “Though they did not seem to care.” Xavier regretted that he had shared the moment and attempted to look for signs that the newly married couple would enter soon.

“I don’t think I wish to drink from it now,” she said.

He could not help but nod. “Nor I, Lady Anna.”

The sudden blaring of the two trumpets made him flinch. With a loud calling of the herald for their attention, Xavier felt relief that he would no longer have to think of the punch bowl and the memories it held. Dipping his head in a bow as the noble couple entered, he attentively watched the pair make their way to the two throne-like chairs at the end of the hall. Unfortunately, their lack of sitting returned Xavier’s thoughts to his original concern.

“My dear friends and family!” the baron announced over the whispers of the crowd. “Please accept our deepest appreciation for your attendance and hope this night will be a joyful moment in your remembrance.”

Xavier smirked. If there was one thing he could not count against his cousin, it was his skill in acts of gratitude. He quickly looked at the glowing bride wearing her new coronet and hoped her life would be much longer than the others before her.

“Come, my dear,” the baron stated with out-stretched hand. “Let us have the first dance on our blessed day.”

The long carpet that reached from door to the raised chairs was rolled up quickly by four servants. Xavier’s heartbeat quickened as the lute and strings began to play and the happy couple moved to the center of the large room. Feeling the crowd begin to press closer to the edges of allowable space for a better view, he knew that in moments the couple would step aside and allow members of the family to join them.

The tremble in his hand reappeared. With near catlike reflexes, he clasped both hands behind his back to hide them. Forcing his eyes to focus on the dancing couple, he attempted to breathe slowly and quiet his nerves. Soon, much too soon to his liking, the noble couple bowed to one another. Reaching outward to his direction, the baron invited him to join them. Xavier knew there was no escaping the situation. With a deep breath, he offered his hand to Anna and escorted her to the center of the room.

Bowing to the newlyweds, he nearly cringed when the music changed from the happy and energetic tune to long, drawn out, melodic tones. Knowing the dance from his childhood and fearing it to be as long as he remembered it, Xavier turned and bowed to the concerned-looking woman.

“I don’t know the steps to this song,” Anna whispered.

Xavier took her hand in his. “Hand on my shoulder. Count to four, there is nothing more,” he recited his childhood instructor’s words. When she placed her hand on his shoulder, he set his hand gently at her waist. “Follow the lead of my hand,” he whispered. With that, he slowly guided her through the repetitive steps of the old dance. He smiled as she quickly followed without a misstep and saw the sparkle return to her eyes.

Moving across the floor, he recounted that the tune lasted longer than most and knew it was meant for a dancing pair to hold conversation within its time. With only the two choices of looking at the crowd or more appropriately at his dance partner, Xavier felt himself succumb to the enchanting eyes staring at him. Through nerves, he fought to find a comfortable subject to begin with.

“Thank you, Xavier,” she said to him.

His heart beat faster and was appreciative of his partner. In the very least, Anna was enjoying herself. “I am far from the best of dancing partners, so I should be the one to thank you for covering my failing steps.”

She laughed. “Would you like to hear the discussions about us from the crowd?”

“Perhaps in a year or two,” he joked. “What can they possibly expect from a sheriff?”

“You are being appreciated for more than your dancing by the three women next to the door. But I must tell you, I have had several comments made about my figure to match your admirers.”

Xavier smiled. “I have no doubt that you are watched by more than those who admire the new baroness.”

She shrugged. “Perhaps.”

Xavier shook his head. “No, Anna. You are—”

The thundering clap threw him to the ground with a brutal force. Shaking his head to regain his wits, Xavier looked up and immediately recognized the growing thick black fog from attacks in his past. Scrambling to his feet, he reached into his leather jerkin and pulled out the hidden dagger. With a wave of his hand, he forced the fog around them to rush away, leaving the scene of three armed guards rushing toward them clearly in view.

“Kill them!” he heard a woman cry out from the crowd.

“Mud,” Anna called out as she dropped to a knee and touched the floor. In an instant, the guards floundered in thick, waist-deep mud that suddenly appeared under their feet.

The blast of wind that rushed past his ears, he knew well. Anna was in the fight.

With a blink, he transported to the side of the first guard that appeared to make his way out of the mud. Pulling the dagger across the man’s neck, he felt a second wave of a spell being cast. Turning quickly, Xavier thrust his weapon up under his next attacker’s arm and pushed the blade until it sank into the man’s armpit. With a twist of the blade, the tip of the dagger pierced the lung.

Out of the corner of his eye he caught the effortless movement of Anna racing toward the Seether in black robes. Forcing the third guard to topple over with a quick poke of his dagger behind the guard’s knee, he rushed to her aid. With a blink he was behind the assailant. The screams of the crowd were suddenly hushed by the heavy beating of his heart. Mustering all the strength he had, he lunged forward with the dagger, hoping the blade reached the Seether’s heart. Before the tip of the blade touched the woman, she vanished.

Scanning the room quickly, he searched for Anna and the witch. Seeing neither, he yelled for his scurrying cousin to hide. Then, as quickly as the Anna and the Seether had vanished, they reappeared. The witch struggled to push away Anna’s dagger that lie inches from her throat.

Teleporting across the room to be at her side, he crashed into an unseen barrier. Staggering from the impact, he fell backwards onto the floor and helplessly watched the two women fight for their lives. He had seen it before, countless times, in both the dark shadows of the burrows and in the mists of green fog that surrounded a counsel of witches. Only one would live.

“Anna!” he yelled, scrambling across the floor towards them. His mind raced for a way to get through the barrier. He could think of only one. At the top of his lungs, he called desperately to her. “Stone to water!”

In her rushed state, the area Anna transformed was larger than he imagined she intended. The women, along with ten or more guests, plunged into the magically created water. Racing to the edge, he readied himself to dive into the created pond and under the invisible barrier. A blast of water leapt from the pool, spewing bodies onto the reappearing stone floor. The women continued to struggle, rolling across the wet marble.

From the sudden dispelling of her attempt, Xavier knew there was another Seether in the room. Turning to find the assailant’s accomplice, he caught sight of a woman in a gown push through the crowd toward the open doors. He blinked and reappeared feet from the fleeing woman. Leaping, he tackled her to the ground. With a raging desire to end such assassins, Xavier raised his dagger to plunge into the witch’s back. As the blade came down with a heavy force, it evaporated in his hand causing only his fist to strike her. It wasn’t enough. The Seether cried out. The witch was agile and managed to knee him in the groin.

Rolling over in pain, he screamed in rage as the woman got to her feet and raced for the door. Recovering to his knees, he searched desperately for a weapon. How it came to his hand, he did not know, but a four shards of window glass appeared. With all his might, he threw it at the fleeing assailant. Astonishingly, they flew true to their mark and penetrated so deeply into the back of the woman, she took only one step before collapsing to the floor.

People rushed past him, frantically seeking the exit. As he got to his feet, Xavier turned back to where he last saw Anna. Seeing the red blood on the white marble floor, Xavier shoved the frightened mob aside. It was then that he saw her. Sitting in a pool of blood next to a body, she wavered. Hurrying to her side, Xavier dropped to his knees and held her to his chest. “Thank the One you live!”

Her heavy breathing and violent tremors were hidden by his jerkin as she hugged him. Pulling her gently away, he scanned her for injuries. “Are you hurt?”

Xavier watched as she looked at her sleeve to the cut across her arm. Pulling a handkerchief from his pocket, he pressed it against the wound. “Any others?”

She shook her head in a dazed fashion.

Glancing upward, he saw the quick arrival of his cousin and the new baroness.

“Does she live?” the baron questioned in a panic.

“Yes,” Xavier said in a steely voice. The bodies of the attackers lay strewn on the floor. The hate from the fight welled up in him. “You got your wish. Now, leave us,” he hissed.

His cousin spent no more than a moment looking into his eyes, before nodding. “Yes. Yes, of course. Come, my dear,” the baron said quietly, taking his wife’s hand. “We must let them be.”

The messy hall emptied as Xavier held his fainting partner. Wrapping his arms around her, he pressed his cheek against the top of Anna’s head and whispered a thankful prayer for her survival. They had managed the attack, but Xavier knew nothing would be the same for the woman in his arms.

Chapter 30

Pacing the length of the inn’s narrow hallway, Xavier attempted to distract himself by counting his steps in his mind. It was little help. He knew the physician sent from the castle would do his best but also understood there was another part of a person that needs tending to after a battle. Ignoring the request of his cousin to stay within the protective walls of the castle, Xavier believed the best place for Anna’s recovery would be somewhere she felt most comfortable. Until he knew more of the extent of her injuries, the inn would have to suffice.

Hearing the door to Anna’s room open, he spun on his heels and quickly covered the distance between them.

“She is out of harm’s way, milord,” the physician stated. “Though I believe you are in error for keeping her exposed in this—”

Xavier shoved the man aside and closed the door behind him.

The sight of Anna sitting up in bed in her robe, holding her knees to her chest, brought many memories back into his mind. He had seen many break from the trauma of killing another and knew from personal experience such a pain did not leave easily or at all.

“This is what you do?” she asked with tearful eyes. “You search for such people?”

Her shaking words touched something inside of him. Nodding at her summery of his life, he took a careful step toward her. “I brought something that I believe will help,” he said softly.

Her redden eyes looked down at her knees. “The physician has already brought—”

“Not medicine,” he said. Moving slowly toward the bed, he questioned his prepared words. Shaking his head as he found he must speak from the heart, he moved closer. “May I?” he asked, pointing at the end of the bed.

Anna wiped a tear from her eye but remained silent.

With a kind smile, he nodded his appreciation and sat. Rubbing his hands free from the nerves that still itched from the fight, he recollected a memory he wished would have faded away. “The night of the last battle I fought, I volunteered to be the one to lead the assault, but Patrick believed it was his time to be the hero in the story. I knew he would fail as he fought each battle as if his enemy were trained men from a typical army.” He looked to her and shrugged. “So I disobeyed his orders.”

Xavier reached into his pocket and brought out a rolled piece of material. Turning it slowly in his hands, he sighed. “Harris and Jeffers had been with me throughout the battle up to that point so naturally they secretly followed me through the forest and down a small deer trail that led to the warlock’s tent. I was so focused, so…numb that I did not hear them. How they managed to get through the enchantments, I still do not know, but they managed, as I did.” His hand began to shake. “I will not forget the hate in the wicked man’s face when I ran him through.” Xavier turned to see her watching him. “A part of me that died with him. Something torn from my very being. I feel its absence still.”

“But you killed the warlock,” she whispered.

“And felt nothing for it,” Xavier replied. “I was celebrated as the victor, the witch hunter that could not be defeated. I let them talk and boast of my killing because there was so little to smile about in those days.” Xavier nodded at his words as the images of the events of the past sharpened in his memory. “When the warlock died, I was alone. The burst of energy when the blade pierced him threw me to the floor like a weak child.”

Anna exhaled slowly. “I felt something like that.”

“Yes, I do not doubt it.” He rubbed his hands together as the memory of the life changing moment replayed before him. “My cousin rushed in. Harris and Jeffers were already there. They shouted but my ears rang so loudly that I could not tell what they were saying. I only sat and watched as Patrick pointed to different places in the tent. Slowly, I understood what he was doing.”

“What?”

“He was ordering Harris and Jeffers to search through the warlock’s belongings. I don’t imagine he was looking for anything in particular, but he was very upset with me for reaching the warlock first. My cousin and Harris went through the chests and papers quickly, but as I sat there, regaining my faculties, I noticed Jeffers had not moved from the entrance of the tent. The boy simply stared at the warlock’s body.”

Anna shifted in bed and wiped another tear from her eye. “He was afraid?”

Xavier nodded in reply. “His eyes would not leave the warlock’s hand. Seeing the ring on the dead man, I told him to take it. A war prize, but he would not approach the body. Numb and dazed as I was, I removed the ring myself and handed it to him. It took more than a few moments to convince him that it was a permissible thing to do in a war.”

“And you took this piece of cloth as your treasure?”

“It was thrown at me,” he said with a growing grin. “Patrick was not pleased that I gave Jeffers the jeweled ring. His moods change quickly and my gifting away the ring to a boy set him on fire. I wanted nothing, only to return home and forget all that I had done and seen. When I explained that the ring would come out of my share of the loot, Patrick tossed this in my face and commanded me to leave.”

Xavier shifted on the bed so that he faced her. “It was meant to be a sarcastic gesture, even a decision out of spite, but the cloth turned out to be something very valuable to me.” Taking the purse, he turned it inside out. “It’s harmless, but I believe you will appreciate why I value an old torn purse.” Placing his hand on top of it, he uttered the words. “Coal. Come.”

The center of the purse twitched under his hand and edges elongated. Before both their eyes, a bulge appeared within the worn personal item. Xavier removed his hand and reached into his pocket. Pulling out a piece of dried meat, he slowly tore it into smaller pieces and set them next at Anna’s covered feet. “It will be hungry, but cautious to your unfamiliar scent.”

A pink wet nose appeared out of one end of the enlarged purse.

“Its name is Coal,” Xavier said, grinning at the slow appearance of his pet.

Anna bit her lower lip as a smile grew on her face. “That is where the ferret hairs came from.” She cautiously held out her hand to the leery animal.

“Hair?”

“On your sleeve or in your beard,” she answered, not taking her eyes off the wonder before her. “Oh!” she laughed as Coal nipped at her fingers. “She must be very hungry.”

“A bottomless pit of hunger, yet never grows fat.”

Anna picked up a bit of the dry meat and held it to the black ferret. “Coal?” she asked with raised eyebrows as the pet happily ate the treat. “Not the most original name, milord.”

Xavier was happy to see the slow return of her usual cheerfulness. “Perhaps not, but I was not to one to name the creature.” He picked up the bag with two open ends. “Its name was sewn into the material.”

Coal scurried up her covered legs and up Anna’s arm, stopping only to sniff her neck. Anna laughed. “I suppose you are forgiven then.” Removing the curious animal from her, she set it back down next to the food. “Was Harris given anything?”

“Yes, a pair of brass candle sticks.”

Anna furled her eyebrows. “That seems precious little.”

Xavier nodded. “I agree. However, when we returned I wished to make it up to him, and to the boy for all that I had put them through. I felt an obligation…no, a need to have them cared for. When we arrived, the town had been without a sheriff and things had gotten out of hand with my parents lying in their graves. Since the sheriff was dead, I decided to use my skills as a solider to temporally fill the position. Of course, I employed Harris and Jeffers to be my assistants believing the livelihood would benefit them.”

“It suits you, Xavier,” she said, petting the unusual ferret. “Being a sheriff.”

Xavier shrugged and handed her another piece of dried meat. “What I did not expect was that I could not return to the way I once was. The war had taken something from me. Many were the same, though not all acted out or hid away as I often wish to. Some could not bear the pain and left this world by their own hand. Others became violent or rather, remained violent. Still others shunned the world all together and hid in the mountains.”

“And you?” Anna asked meekly.

“Left numb,” he answered quietly. “Immune to everything other than a hatred for Seethers or those that hurt others. Later, after many conversations with Brother Talas, I was enough of a person to be able to hold small conversations and use my skills to aid the town. Still, I do not sleep well nor seem to be able to rid myself of a trembling hand.”

Picking up the animal, Anna nodded and stroked her cheek against its fur. “She smells of wood smoke.”

“I have not managed to decipher how that is, but I can tell you Coal’s scent, size and desire to eat never changes.” He stroked the back of the animal. Pushing the bits of meat into a small pile on the bed, he stood and dusted his hands. “If it becomes obnoxious, say ‘be gone’, using its name first.”

She set the animal down by the meal. “But don’t you need—”

“Coal is in capable hands, Anna,” Xavier stated. He walked to the door and turned the knob.

“Xavier?” she called softly. “Thank you.”

He was not sure what words to use in reply. Knowing the animal’s therapeutic presence would take away some of the sting of the events, he bowed to her and left quietly.

Returning to his room, he found it unusually empty though nothing had been touched or removed. Moving to the chair facing the window, Xavier sat and pulled off his boots. His eyes moved to the bottle of wine and empty glass on the table next to him. With a sigh and a quick pinching of the wick, he extinguished the candle that lit the room. Gazing at the moonlight that draped across the tiled roofs of Ardencroft, he pondered the small, happy feeling pushing away the familiar gloom in his heart.

Chapter 31

For days on end, Isabella struggled between the emotion of the closing of her father’s false life and the unwanted attention of men that wished to have her family’s fortune. Each morning she rose from her bed, a proposal or threat came in attempt to dislodge her from the life she so desperately wished to keep. If matters had not been troublesome enough, attempts on her life, poison mixed in her tea and a runaway carriage, had nearly succeeded. What the world didn’t know was that Isabella was made of a strength few had.

It was on a rainy morning that she found herself alone in the library, thinking of her lost friend. Slowly stirring her tea, Isabella knew she could not hold out much longer on her own and began to question if she should have simply played along with the Shadow Man’s lie. “Would it have been such a terrible thing, Bella?” she asked herself. “He could appear to be anyone and…he was a friend.” The peals of the thunder and bright flashes of lightening made her wish to simply curl up in bed and await some end, but there were more pressing issues to be resolved.

With the attack on her sister’s life by some unknown group, Isabella could not give in. Keenly feeling the absence of the man who brought her news of nearly every person from Ardencroft, Isabella considered ways that she might discover who would attempt such an attack on the two people she cared for. Pondering such a possibility, she spooned in a small bit of sugar and let her thoughts drift back and forth as she stirred.

“You use too much sugar. You will certainly grow fat,” a familiar voice stated.

A smile crept across her face at the familiar sound of his words. Isabella controlled her excitement and pretended not to care that her friend had returned. “I suppose you grew tired attempting to bribe every farmer with a well just to find the ring.” She did not turn when a gloved hand stretched pass her and set a gold ring on the table. She quickly picked up the item and inspected the inside. Her heart beat quickened as the initials ‘I.S.’ appeared as she turned the ring. “You used magic to find the ring.”

“I used magic to create a light under the water so I might find it in the murky waters of the well. The Palton farm has not moved.”

Isabella could not deny that the facts began to make her believe his story. She turned to watch him take a seat by the fire. “And am I to believe it took a man of your talents so many days to travel to Kedalpoint?”

“I needed the time to think, if you must pry, milady.”

She shrugged, though she had several memories of Xavier saying those very words. “And what was this great question that you had to ponder, milord Shadow?”

“You.”

“I am flattered that I, being one of many women in the world, might keep his lordship preoccupied for so long.”

The man shook his head. “It would take a lifetime, milady. But there was also a need to glance at the past. I visited my family’s estate. The other half of me has let the wilds claim most of it. Finding my parent’s tombs, I did not have to reason why he has no desire to live there.”

Isabella was intrigued. “He left it to ruin? That does not sound like the man I knew.”

“It could be restored. The tower was made to withstand attacks from man and nature. Perhaps it was the war that he cannot face what our family land means to him. Had I not desired to seek the resting place of my parents, I might have done the same. His heart and mind are obviously overwhelmed.” He rubbed his hand and offered her a quick glance. “I was glad to see that that he could still fight. That was a wedding reception few could forget.”

“You were there? My servant said that my sister was hurt!”

“Anna is well. She fatigued herself during the fight. She is a novelist and unfamiliar with her limits.” He paused as he thought back on the moment. “You would have enjoyed the scene, I think. They were something to behold. All eyes shifted away from my cousin and his new bride to the pair.” He chuckled. “When they began to dance, I was as nervous as he. We have not danced in a very long time. But then I felt the presence of three enter the back of the room. When the sorceress called out, I helped only when needed so that I would not be known to them. In the end, my only contribution was placing broken glass in Xavier’s hand.” The man returned to rubbing his hand. “The land will fill of their deeds, Bella. You understand that their victory will only bring larger wolves to the fight.”

Isabella’s smile faded. “I do. And you know they cannot best most of them.”

“Together and on their field of choice, perhaps. If the pair should keep to familiar ground, it would take many to take overcome them. Your sister’s skills grow quickly and together they are fearless. Let us not forget that my other half is an acclaimed hero for what he had done in the past.”

She laughed. “Did you just give yourself a compliment, milord Shadow?”

A grin appeared on his face. “Perhaps.” He turned to her. “And what of your troubles, milady?”

Isabella rubbed her neck. “The same, milord. Wealthy suitors and would be assassins. I did manage to find a spy in the midst of my informants, though I had thought her above lying.”

“Is that not what spies do?”

His simple jest made her feel very much at ease. “Spying for me is one matter. To spy against me is quite another.”

“I cannot know the minds of all of those in the city.”

“I’ll excuse your oversight just this once,” Isabella said with a whimsical tone. “However, while you were traipsing around the farmlands looking for my ring and pondering life, my talents have been put to good use. Did you know the baron has two men in the cells of his dungeon that had plans to steal from his vaults.”

“How did my blundering cousin manage to find out about the thieves?”

“I told him, of course.”

The conversation paused and the room felt heavy with the issue of the distance between them. For Isabella’s part, she found their small conversations much more meaningful than before he had left. She was surprised that he had returned at all but it was obvious to her that her heart was lighter and that the future held promise.

“Is there nothing I can say to prove to you that what I say is true?” he asked.

His words struck her heart. Though her mind fought it, the growing need for him to be the man she wished began to take over. With the ring in her hand, she rose from her seat and moved to stand in front of the image of the man she once loved. Looking into the brown eyes of the unmasked man from her past, she felt a desire to simply accept his words and let the future bring what it may. He had been there for her during troubled times, she knew that well enough, and even if he was some villain or the delusional mage she assumed he might be, would it really matter? She could not decide. “Perhaps, I could think of the one thing that no one but Xavier knew, but I cannot think clearly tonight. Too much has happened and my fate closes in on me like a wolf that stalks prey.” She shook her head. “But I tell you this, my shadowy friend, I wish your words were true.”

“You snort when you laugh too hard. You have a birthmark under your right arm and a scar behind your knee. You love cider more than wine. But all of this might be found out by observation or gathering information.” He nodded. “Forgive me for not seeing your dilemma more clearly. It was selfish of me to press you the last time we were together. You are a bird that must be free to fly and I am a cage to you.”

Despite herself, she reached out and touched his face. “You were never a cage. You were my open sky. It was my father that shut me away.” Intoxicated by his tender words and the hope that he was indeed the man she wished, Isabella set aside her cares and kissed his lips. Seeing his impish grin, one that brought many happy memories to her, she took a step back. “But you know I will hunt you down if you are lying to me.”

The man chuckled. “I would have it no other way.”

Isabella turned the ring in her hand. “I know that you have completed Act One of the play. What do you say to the next?”

“I am, but as hard as it is to fight my desires, I believe we should wait a while longer.”

“Are you waiting for me to beg you to marry me? That is rather ungentlemanly of you, milord.”

“No, I would marry you in this very moment. It is the timing of it. We must create a character for you to marry. There should only be one Xavier Sevet in the world and I am willing to give the name to the other if we can be together.”

Isabella shrugged with a grin. “You must be a wealthy man with title. No one would believe my father would agree to anyone that wasn’t a noble.”

“And an impressive one at that or have you forgotten your father’s objection to my status when I courted you?”

She laughed. “Courted? A month of secret meetings and stolen moments of tenderness?”

“That was the past and I was not the man I am now.”

“Father asked about you before he put on the ring.” Isabella said quietly. “It’s true. I’m certain he would have given his consent if he was still in the world.”

He looked at the ring in her hand. “If he found a place in his heart to say such a thing, then I owe it to him to honor his life in some manner.”

“You already have. Protecting his daughter and making her stand up for what she believes in would put a smile on his face.” Isabella slowly paced in front of him. “If everything can be accomplished, we could make a new life. Couldn’t we? I hate the idea of leaving this city, but if Xavier and Anna were safe, I’ve settled on the idea of going away.”

The man gazed at her in wonder. “You would never leave.”

Pausing for a moment, Isabella smiled. “If there was a promising position elsewhere. We could lead new lives under different names. That would be an adventure worth seeking out.”

“If I may, we should consider a name that is common in its use yet one that you will feel easy to use and remember. The ring you carry has the initials I.S.”

She disagreed. “Not too common though, and the letters were to be my future initials, not yours.” Isabella thought for a moment. “I’m found of the name Iora.”

“An old and beautiful name, milady. And our last name?”

Isabella walked over to him and sat in his lap. “Iora Stonewolf.” She looked into his eyes as she wrapped her arms around his neck. “What do you think of it?”

He smiled as he nodded to her. “Stonewolf is not a common surname.”

“Then your family must have their origins far from this land.” Isabella grew to like the idea of being far away. “Yes, across the ocean. A small island nation where the sun is warm and the terrain is rugged but breathtaking.”

“In Oscelet?”

“Of course! What woman would turn done the chance to live on lush green islands?”

“And my title?” the man asked.

“Nothing that will raise suspicion of others,” she replied. “A lord, for certain. A baron or duke would stand out in the land but even the smallest title would give us leverage if needed. But what of your name? I’ve become too accustom to your name and I am sure to make a mistake if it is something too unusual.” She thought for a moment. “Xander?”

He smiled. “Too similar to the truth, is it not?”

“But one I would remember, milord.” Isabella contemplated the changing of names then nodded. “Lord and Lady Stonewolf. Yes. It is exotic and has a sound of power and a warning to it.”

“Yes, milady,” he laughed. “It matches us very well, indeed.”

Chapter 32

Anna lay in bed, stroking the soft fur of the sleeping ferret beside her, wondering about her future. Two days had passed since the attack. Many gifts and well-wishes had been left at the inn for her. Though she appreciated the kindness of others and concerns for her welfare, Anna spent most of her time considering the inevitable return to Kedalpoint. She sighed aloud as she sat up slowly in bed, attempting not to wake the ferret. Looking to the sunlight through the open window, Anna considered that word would reach her father before she could speak to him.

Then there was the matter of the growing bond between her and Xavier. As the days passed, Anna had spent a great deal of time with him, enough time to prompt many new tales, gossip she could hear from the conversations from those who passed by the inn. She enjoyed his company but the growing desire to be more than friends, more than counterparts, grew quickly. Now, instead of being able to simply chat with the man, her words seemed jumbled and conversations more difficult to begin.

This morning, like those before it, he would bring breakfast from the inn’s kitchen and wait on her. A few words of greetings would be uttered when he arrived. A short list would be read of the people who had left messages with the innkeeper wishing her well or admiring the acts of a night she would rather forget. Then they would sit at the table, say little and eat quietly all the while she would hunt for some topic that had no tie to their future. Later, he would read to her while she secretly attempted to gather her emotions and piece them together. Something had to change if she wished him to be more than a friend.

Hearing his footfalls up the stairs, Anna reached for the enchanted purse and nudged the animal from her sleep. After Coal’s drawn out stretch, it rolled on its back and attempted to get comfortable for another hour of sleep. “Up, little one. Xavier won’t be happy to see you still out of your bag.” Anna nudged it again until the animal rolled over to its side. “Coal, don’t make me force you.”

The tap at the door and the entrance of the man left her only to shrug at his frown when seeing the animal. With the tip of his boot, he closed the door to the outside world. “You let it sleep outside its bag again?”

Anna nodded. “I’m not firm enough with her, I suppose.” She turned to find Coal lying on its back with its tongue sticking out the side of its mouth.

“It looks like a drunkard when it sleeps,” he stated, putting the tray on the table.

“Why do you call Coal, an ‘it’?”

Xavier shook his head. “What do you call an animal that happens to come out of an empty purse?”

“She,” Anna answered with a thin smile. “Didn’t you know only certain ferrets can be this color and they are always female?”

“No, actually,” he admitted. “A topic that did not come up in my education.”

Anna scratched Coal’s belly. “Well, there are red ferrets, of course, as well as white. But black is very rare. You will need to keep her hidden as her coat would fetch a good price.” She turned as she heard more footsteps. “Someone is coming.” Anna quickly grabbed the over-sized coin purse and shoved the animal in. “Coal. Be gone.” When the lump under the material disappeared, she looked to Xavier.

The man nodded and went to the door. Not waiting for the knock, he opened the door slightly. Anna listened to the servant tell him that something had come from the castle and a letter along with it. Seeing Xavier taking a saddlebag from the servant, she heard the servant make his way back down the hall. “A saddlebag?”

“A heavy one,” Xavier stated, closing the door. “A gift. Or a reward, I imagine.” He walked to the bed and set the saddlebag on her lap. “It will depend on how you choose to look at the offering.”

Anna felt the weight of it on her legs. “Why reward us? Surely they know we were the targets and not them.” She looked up to see his surprised look. “I’m not without a brain, Xavier. The witch screamed ‘get them’ and attacked us, not your cousin. It wasn’t difficult to figure out.”

He nodded and looked at the letter in his hand. “Would you like for me to read it out loud?”

She didn’t care and began to untie the binding of the saddle bag.

“An elegant hand,” he stated. “It reads, Sir Xavier and Lady Anna. Please accept this small token of appreciation. It falls well short of what is owed to you for the great feats of skill and love that were shown at the wedding banquet, but the baron and I will soon find a more fitting way to express the fullness of our gratitude. Until such a time can be found, we hope that this will find favor in your eyes and know that we will speak glowingly of your deeds when we reach the Capital. Please forgive our leaving without saying a word, but we must leave in secret.” Xavier chuckled. “Please find within the saddlebags the appointment and key to the residences.” He turned the letter over. “It is signed by the new baroness’s hand.”

Anna looked inside one of bags. “There are smaller bags in here.”

“Gold,” Xavier stated and set the letter on her lap. “I believe that will please your father.”

She retied the flap. “That is something that I wanted to hear your opinion on.”

“Coin?”

Anna smiled and shook her head as she moved the heavy bags off her legs. “No. My father.”

“You wish to send him word,” he stated.

“I imagine he has already heard a great deal.”

The man agreed as he turned to the table. Picking up a plate, he returned without a word and draped a napkin across her lap, then set the plate down. “Your thoughts on the wording of your letter?”

“None,” she answered frankly. “I haven’t a clue what to write to him because I haven’t any idea what I am to do.”

Xavier moved to the table. “Your future,” he said quietly as he sat in a chair.

“Yes.”

“My father,” Xavier began, ”objected to any emotion driving one to an answer. Perhaps, you should separate the parts of your problem and consider them analytically.” He placed a linen napkin across his lap.

“Will you help?”

Xavier sighed. “I am not the best—”

“But will you help?” Anna interrupted. After a hesitation on his part, she began with the most obvious problem once he nodded. “Word of what happened at the wedding would certainly include our names.”

“The hunter and the enchantress?”

“Yes,” she stated, “but you have told your cousin I have a title, milord. Of course, I do not have such an esteemed thing.”

“You do, in fact. There is a letter of proclamation stating your honorary title and a small house within the walled city that belongs to you now.”

Anna laughed.

“It is true,” he stated honestly then turned to evaluate his breakfast. “I asked my cousin to recognize your title and he has done so. There must be a note or something bound with a ribbon and wax seal in the saddlebag. The baroness hinted as much in her hasty letter.”

“You’re teasing me.”

Xavier shook his head and picked up a roll. Tearing it in half, he began to spread butter across one of the halves. “I also considered the situation I have put you in and attempted to do something about while you recovered.”

Anna looked at the saddlebag and slowly reached for the buckle to the other leather compartment. “A house?” Her fingers unbuckled the flap and moved it aside. Inside the bag was a scroll tied with two green ribbons with an iron key attached. Pulling it out, she looked at the scroll. “Do I unseal it?”

Xavier said nothing and continued to eat.

Her eyes widened as she broke the seal and unrolled the official document. There, at the bottom, was an imprinted seal and a scribbling of what she assumed was the baron’s name. “But this is far too much. I only—”

“Saved his life and that of his bride,” Xavier interrupted. “It was the very least he could do.”

“But the gold.”

“Yours, as well, Lady Anna,” he stated and bit into the other half of his roll.

Anna could not believe what she had in front of her. “Xavier, this is too generous of a gift!” She looked at the saddlebags and could only guess at the sum inside. Her eyes fell on the man at the small table. “What of your reward?”

“It would be unfitting for my cousin to reward me, milady.”

She didn’t care for the sound of what she heard. “You came all this way to prevent a possible attack, killed several when it actually happened and you think you deserve nothing for such a task?”

“He is my cousin,” Xavier stated calmly, filling a wine glass. “Nobles do not reward nobles as it appears to be…crude.”

“Crude? What nonsense is that? Had the Seethers and those men killed us—”

“Nonsense or not, that is the way of it. And now that you are a noble, honorary or not, you must abide by the same ridiculous rules that I must.”

Anna shook her head. “I don’t want to change. And I don’t what to kill anyone.”

“Nor did I, on both accounts,” he replied. “As for the house, I have enough of an understanding of your personality to know you would not wish for a family to be displaced. I told them that a small house would be preferred, if available. Fortunately, one was empty so you may rest your mind on the matter.”

“Xavier, what am I to do with a house a day’s ride away from you when I can barely be down the street?”

He ignored her question. “I believe it to be a home you would appreciate, not on the square but near enough. The new baroness did not like the idea of its location but I convinced her that an enchantress needs privacy as well as quick access to the main gate. She thought it sounded reasonable though I made the tale up as I went.”

“But you received nothing,” she said.

“I have, simply in a different manner of speaking.” He sipped his wine and nodded to her food. “You should eat something before it becomes cold.”

Anna picked up a slice of bacon. “What reward did he give you?”

“An opportunity to be forgiven.”

“Forgiven?” she asked, sticking the food into her mouth.

Xavier smirked. “I took his victory away several years back when I killed the warlock.”

“So you have saved him twice.”

“That is not how he sees it. However, with the silencing of the Seethers around him, he cannot complain about losing the opportunity of striking the last blow without remembering we came to his rescue.” His eyes glowed. “We are now even in his mind and my own.”

Anna huffed. “So you came here only to find a way to settle a score?”

“No, he is my cousin. The only living relative I have. The opportunity to have him believe I saved his life when we were the actual targets counters his thought that I had stolen something away from him when my actions actually did save his life.” He wiped his mouth with the linen napkin.

“Such nonsense,” she said as she picked up her roll.

“Perhaps, but it has all served you well enough. Now, what other problem can we employ my father’s problem solving lessons toward?”

Anna smiled though Xavier was completely honest in his question. “Our bond, or tether, as you like to call it.” She bit into her roll and waited to see his reaction. Anna covered her smile as it did not seem to affect him.

Xavier shrugged. “I have considered that question as well. We have only the three options, as I see it. Either you find the means to stay in Kedalpoint, we stay here or I travel to Hollowbrook with you.”

“You would move to Hollowbrook? You can’t be serious,” she laughed. “Honestly, Xavier. You can’t give up home and position. It means too much to you. No, I will pressure Father into having me act as a type of agent for his business in town.” She tapped her lip with the back of her fork. “Or perhaps you might hire me.”

“Hire you?”

Anna nodded. “You hired Harris and Jeffers. Maybe I could be of some help?”

Xavier hesitated before cutting his boiled eggs with the side of his fork. “I do not think that—”

“What? Not strong enough? Or do you object because I’m not a man?”

He set his fork on the edge of his plate. “Let us be frank, milady. I have placed you unknowingly in danger once and I am not about to do it willingly again.”

“I have given this some thought as well, milord. You know what I can do and we have our bond to consider.” Anna crossed her arms. “I don’t want to kill anyone ever again but I can avoid that with you around. We could be together this way and no one would have reason to gossip.”

“They would gossip even more if you were in my employment.” He picked up his fork and considered his eggs again. “I have had enough of the gossip I have already been forced to listen to.”

Anna smiled. If only you have heard what I have. “What are people asking you?”

Xavier shook his head and began to eat.

Anna frowned. “Would you like to compare what you have heard to the gossip I have?”

His eyes glanced upward briefly as he chewed.

“Well,” she continued, “I have heard many good stories, milord. In one conversation, I was your partner in hunting witches.”

“Not far from the mark,” he stated quietly with a shrug.

“Another,” she added, attempting to not to be emotionally tied to her words, “was that I am your hired prostitute, as everyone knows all nobles have.”

Xavier shook his head. “Few have such things,” he corrected. “And only in the Capital. An obvious jealous remark from someone who has been jilted or completely bored with their own life.”

“Then there is the secret marriage.”

He cracked a smile. “Yes, a number of enchantresses can be found in my romantic history.”

Anna felt a small deflating within her. “Is that such a humorous thought?”

Xavier looked up quickly. “No, I…mean to say, simply spending time with a person is no reason for such talk.” He turned his attention to his plate once again.

“Is this your way of stating that you have no interest in marrying someone?”

He would not look up at her. “We have had this conversation before.”

“Xavier,” Anna stated firmly. “Are you saying that I am not pretty enough?”

“Of course not.”

“Then what is it? What could you possibly find so offensive about a marriage?”

Xavier sat back in his chair. “There is nothing offensive in it though it would be a heartless thing for me to do. Anna, I am a hunted man who hunts criminals and those that would do harm to others for their own amusement. As I have stated before, it would be selfish to bring another into such a life.” He looked at his hands. “I live in the barracks of jail house at the center of town so I can be near those that need my protection. Where would we live? My family home?”

Anna shrugged. “Where is it now?”

“A few miles from town,” he answered.

“Could you not purchase or even build a home in town? Honestly, Xavier. You make marriage sound like an impossibility. I grant you that it is a kind thought to protect someone from pain but a long life is not promised to anyone. If I understand the dangers, then you should at least consider that it is worth pursuing. Is the possibility of happiness such a foreign idea that you will discount it all together?”

“And will you consider the advice you have just given?”

Anna considered her fervent words and found them more hollow than she expected. She had thought of her own life with another only once before. Marriage, in her opinion, meant a lack of freedom. “We could find a way to make such a thing work.”

Xavier exhaled slowly. “Perhaps we should simply agree that our situation does not allow for such a luxury.”

She looked down at the letter in her hand. The baron and baroness of Ardencroft had given her a home, title and gold, but each felt of little value. Something had slipped away from her, making her feel uneasy. Watching Xavier stare out the window, she knew all too well an opportunity was lost.

Chapter 33

Anna shielded her eyes from the sun hoping to see more clearly to direct her horse away from the numerous people flowing through the outer gate of Ardencroft. The constant movement of pushcarts and wagons made for slow traveling into the inner market square where, to Anna’s eyes, all of those who lived in the city were traveling against their movement. With frequent pulling of reins and small nudges of the horse with her heels, their labored travels toward their goal began to grind on Anna’s nerves. Had it not been for the chance to see the city from horseback rather than carriage, Anna knew she would not be so patient.

Following a mule-pulled wagon, Anna smirked as the flowing crowd parted as if the wagon was a large bolder in the middle of a river. “It seems we are swimming upstream, milord.” Anna peeked at the man who had said very little since leaving the inn. “Did the breakfast not suit you, Sir Xavier?”

Xavier rode forward without a word.

“Did I upset you with my words?”

Her companion looked around and shook his head.

Anna knew something was bothering him. Though he was normally grumpy in the mornings, she had spent enough time with the sheriff to notice that he was in a particular mood. Thinking back on their morning conversation, she assumed it was her questioning of his lack of desire to become close to another. Perhaps, Anna considered, she had pushed him too far and too frequently on the matter. For her part, it was enough to enjoy the memory of his assumed secret words describing her as lovely. The thought made her smile. “Are you certain that the house was not occupied?”

“I am,” he replied.

“And no one was forcibly removed for my sake?”

He only nodded.

Running quickly out of subjects and noting his lack of enthusiasm to speak, Anna relented to simply letting things lie until they reached her new home. She was, of course, very interested in visiting the gift from the noble couple so set her mind on memorizing any landmark to find her way back through the busy streets.

In some manner of speaking, the city was a larger version of her home town of Hollowbrook. Streets from either side ran into and joined the wider main road that passed through the main gates and toward the center of the city. Her eyes glanced quickly at the wooden signs with emblems that identified each shop by name and purpose. The many stores that were able to specialize in one category or another was something she wished to remember and report back to her father. Far more than what could be seen in Hollowbrook, the stores appeared busy from the time of their opening and none seemed without a type of cue at the doors.

“Ardencroft is certainly a merchant’s dream,” she stated to herself aloud.

“It is a hub.”

Anna was happy that she had at least found one topic he appeared to show some interest. “A hub? In what way, milord?”

The nobleman shifted in his saddle, obviously bothered by the crowd and slow pace. “It is the center of the barony. As with most cities, it is a center of protection, trade and entertainment for those that live nearby. A castle or tower has always attracted others.”

“Of course, but Hollowbrook is a city and does not see this much morning congestion.”

“Your city has other populations within half a day’s travel from it. That is not the case with most places in the Fifth or Sixth Circle. Here, Kedalpoint is the nearest town to Ardencroft and it is, as you know, difficult to reach in a single day by horseback.”

Anna nodded in understanding the distance they had covered. “Hence, the coach inns along the main roads.”

He only nodded before pointing to a sign ahead of them. “Remember that shop. It is a place that sells linens and is called The Fine Stitch. This is the turning place toward your new house from the square.”

“The square?” Anna asked. Looking ahead, she only saw a sea of people and the large stone memorial tower she had noticed before. Her eyes widened as she realized that the square was many times larger than the one found in Hollowbrook. “It must take up the size of three city blocks.”

“Perhaps a bit more,” Xavier said with a shrug. “I assumed you would not wish to live on the square itself.”

“You assumed correctly,” Anna stated firmly. “Who in their right mind would wish to wade through all of this every day?”

“Approximately the entire population Ardencroft minus those that wish to live in the castle itself.”

Anna shook her head. “I don’t see the advantage of living in a barrel with so many fish.”

“You are not the type of fish that would, milady,” he remarked. “However there are plenty of those that would sell an estate to be so close to my cousin and live near the places he might be seen. Fortunately for you, this street,” he nodded as they turned, “has multiple connecting avenues so that you may make your way around most of the busy activities.”

Anna followed his movement and turned down the street with the tall buildings of the city’s center falling away to three level homes that touched each other on either side. “Apartments?”

Xavier chuckled, taking Anna by surprise.

She studied the buildings again and noted the single door and lack of stairs leading to the balconies above. They were, by her accounts, large enough to be boarding homes for several families, but his reaction told her she was to believe they were homes of a single family. She quickly began to worry that the baron had given her far more than what she had considered. “Sir Xavier, I could not possibly—”

“The next intersecting street contains more humble homes,” he interjected quietly.

The man was correct, in a manner of speaking. As the number of people traveling toward the center of the city dwindled as they rode slowly down the street, the homes became slightly more in a shape and size of a single residence that Anna had seen in the more prosperous streets of Hollowbrook. She turned to make certain that Xavier had not played a trick on her, yet saw his small smile fail. “What is it?”

“It appears you have a visitor,” he replied in a monotone voice.

Not knowing which of the homes, for a lack of a better term, had been given her, Anna searched for the places that might show visitors. With the number of coaches along the street, this proved impossible. It was not until Xavier reined in his horse and nodded to the three-story, slate shingled home that she had the slightest clue.

“Her name is Lady Isabella Nelstet,” he said quietly as he quickly dismounted.

Anna looked at the black cab with the two beautiful sorrel horses. “A friend?”

Xavier gave her only a look of exhaustion as he came to her side and offered a hand.

“Ah,” Anna stated, imagining there was a history that still had unfavorable emotions attached. She stepped down from her horse, feeling his supportive hands on her waist. “Shall we tease her with gossip.”

“I think not. She will know the truth before you try to spin a tale.”

The woman that exited the cab was far from Anna’s desire that she be lacking in appearance. With a dress of green silk and velvet, the smiling lady that left the compartment was truly an example of elegance. Watching the noblewoman approach, she quickly recounted the forced role of an enchantress.

“A very kind gesture, milady, to leave the cool of a stately home to welcome us,” Xavier stated when the elegant woman came to them.

“Sir Xavier,” Isabella nodded with a small yet refined curtsy. “I hope that I am not intruding on your time.”

Xavier cleared his throat. “We were…May I introduce to you, Lady Anna of —”

Before Xavier could finish, the noblewoman gently embraced Anna and lightly pressed her cheek against Anna’s. After kissing the air beside each of Anna ears, Isabella took her hands within hers. “Simply adorable, Xavier. How in all that blooms did you find such a creature?”

“Lady Anna, may I introduce, Lady Isabella Nelstet?” Xavier stated, ignoring the woman’s comments.

Anna glanced quickly at Xavier and instantly recognized his discomfort. “I am in your debt for the compliment, milady.” Turning back to see the radiant smile of the blonde woman, she also noted the woman’s eyes also glanced toward Xavier.

“Compliments of such natural beauty are hopelessly easy to offer—”

“Shall we go in?” Xavier interrupted.

“Yes,” Isabella stated with a gleam in her eyes. Wrapping her arm around Anna’s, she began to walk toward the front door. “I was worried, Lady Anna, that you have been deprived of the proper company of women of your station. I doubt, as noble as Sir Xavier is, that he can provide such company.”

Anna was not certain what to make of the situation but heard the teasing of her traveling companion quite easily. “He has been, as you suggest, the perfect gentleman, and I am fortunate to have found favor in your eyes, milady.”

“Key,” Xavier stated once he had reached the door and held out his hand to Anna.

Isabella smiled. “Not the most favorable company in the mornings, is he?”

“Key,” he repeated.

Anna removed the key from her purse and handed it to him.

“You must not carry her over the threshold in front of the driver, Xavier,” Isabella stated. “Your secret marriage to Lady Anna will not hold fast in light of such a display.”

Anna saw the look he gave to the woman as he opened the door. It was one she had not seen Xavier make before and wondered what it might have meant.

The interior of the home was surprisingly grand compared to her expectations. The entrance was a hall that had an impressive staircase that climbed to the floor above. To each side, opened doors displayed a large dining area and a type of sitting room. Anna wandered into the seating area and found it filled with furniture covered with dust sheets.

“I will open a window for us,” Isabella stated as she followed her into the room.

Anna blinked as the sudden light entered the room when the noblewoman pulled back the curtains.

“Xavier,” Isabella said with a frown. “Don’t just stand there. Uncover the chairs and sofa so we may sit.”

“Perhaps I—”Anna began.

“It is your home, Lady Anna.” The noblewoman smiled and shook her head. “Allow your friends to help you become acquainted with it.” She gathered one side of the curtain and used the hidden loop to pin it aside. “It may come as a shock to you, milady, but I am rather familiar with most of the homes in this quarter.” She moved to the other side of the window and repeated the process of allowing more light into the room. “Xavier finds it of little importance, but I have found such knowledge very useful.”

“Useful, Lady Isabella?”

“Oh! Please call me Bella, my dear.”

Anna looked back at Xavier as he uncovered a chair and began to fold the covering. “How is knowing the homes useful to you, Bella?”

“Ley lines,” Xavier stated in a tired voice. Setting the folded covering next to the chair, he moved to the sofa to remove the thin sheet.

Isabella laughed. “Not all things are evil and out to attack you, milord, though one should always be leery of oddities.” She turned and walked toward a covered chair. “The dust will certainly make for interesting gossip when we are seen leaving this house.”

“Enough, Bella,” Xavier grunted. ‘What is it you want? Did you come to inspect a home you were not familiar with or to torment me?”

Isabella smiled and turned to Anna as she folded the covering of the chair. “He didn’t find time to drink his tea or coffee, did he?” Dropping the sheet where she stood, Isabella waved to the chair for Anna to sit. “We will ignore him as we become better acquainted.” With a nod, she moved to chair Xavier had uncovered and sat daintily on the edge of the seat. “So, Lady Anna. Do tell me about yourself. There are many ladies that are interested in your gifts. You have become quite the celebrity in Ardencroft.”

“Gifts?” Anna asked coyly as she sat.

“An enchantress and an impressive one from what I have heard.”

Xavier huffed and plopped down on the sofa. “Yet you were not there to see it. I imagine that you used your father’s health as a reason to be absent from my cousin’s wedding.”

“And quite fortunately for you, my dear sheriff,” Isabella replied with a smile.

“Out with it, Bella,” Xavier commanded. “We cannot sit here all day and wade through word games and misdirection.” He turned to Anna. “She is a spy.”

Isabella’s smile widen. “Such a brutish way of describing a vocation. Don’t you think so, Lady Anna?”

Anna looked to the glamorous woman who showed a false look of displeasure. “Perhaps a kinder word for—”

“Spy is the proper word for it,” Xavier interrupted.

Isabella laughed. “How ungentlemanly of you, Xavier. To interrupt a lady? Your parents will turn in their graves for hearing such a thing.” She brushed her gloved hand across the top of her lap. “Informant or spy assumes one works for another.” Her eyes casually glanced up at Xavier. “I do not work for anyone, a fact that you know is true.”

Anna saw Xavier flinch. “Then, perhaps you might share with us what it is you wish us to hear?”

“Well said, Sister of the Arts,” Isabella commended with charm dripping from her words. “I have heard a tale of a woman from a city to the west who once traveled to a small town ruled by a man. This woman was not any ordinary person so the man sent out another to learn about her family.”

Xavier gritted his teeth. “Where is he?”

“Lying very still,” Isabella stated calmly, running her fingers along a line in her dress. “You should have come to me, Xavier, and I do not mean the night of the Harvest Festival.”

Anna look at both parties and saw the unblinking stare between them. “You are referring to me, aren’t you?”

“Indeed, Sister,” Isabella answered. “And your secret husband appears not to have told you what he has been up to. A shameful way to begin a life together, but I’m under the impression there is a link that would prevent a divorce.”

Anna froze in place. The mention of the tether was obvious. What she did not know was what this woman of meant to do with the information. She knew enough to look at Xavier for clues.

“Anna, I must apologize to you,” Xavier stated quietly. “I am…responsible for the village and there has been a history, of sorts, that I had to make certain would not repeat itself.”

“What our mutual friend means, my dear,” Isabella stated, “is that he hired a spy to recover certain facts about your family. A pathetic spy, at that.” She had not taken her eyes off of Xavier nor the smile from her face. “As I said, you should have come to me, Xavier.”

Anna could not believe what she was hearing. “You had a spy follow my family?”

“All the way to its roots, Sister,” Isabella answered for him. “Though your dear husband chose the wrong source to discover certain items of importance, he was not wrong to look.” Isabella looked beyond Xavier toward the back of the house. “I see that you have a small garden, Sister. Would you care to go and breathe in the fresh air or are the type that can manage to stand the stench often associated with the truth?”

Anna glanced at Xavier. He would not return her look. “I am strong enough for truth, Lady Isabella.”

“I am happy to hear it. The spy, as you might call him, was sloppy,” Isabella began. “Something had to be done. In the course of separating story from fact, he decided a venture through your father’s personal things would be the most direct route to take.”

Anna shook her head, disappointed that Xavier had kept such a thing from her. “What is it that you believe my father could be hiding?”

“His intentions,” Xavier stated. “Anna, I am very sorry but—”

“Your father is a scoundrel,” Isabella finished. “Not only is he living a pleasant lifestyle on borrowed money, but he had intentions that your husband guessed quite correctly about. It was the sole purpose to bring you two together for profit.” Isabella turned to Xavier. “I had to look upon her, Xavier. You know how I hate unanswered questions.”

Anna shook her head. “No, this can’t be true.”

“But it is, Sister,” Isabella stated. “I know it to be true very intimately.”

A tear began in grow in her eye. Attempting to be brave in hearing of the horrible tale, Anna quickly wiped it away and wished to be the aloof enchantress she acted to be.

Xavier looked quickly from one face to the other. “Lies!” Xavier stated as he stood from his seat.

“Certain historical facts can be uncomfortable, but truth is plain enough,” Isabella replied. Reaching forward, she took Anna’s intertwined hands into hers and looked at Xavier. “Tell me, Witch Hunter, what do you see? Look at us and tell me it isn’t as plain as the sun.”

Anna starred at her. “What do you mean?”

Isabella offered her a warm smile. “My dear woman, have you not heard me calling you ‘Sister’?”

Chapter 34

The lights that flickered from the street torches were not to his liking. The oil infused rags wrapped around the wooden sticks spat and sputtered under the heavy rain causing a unpredictable light that casted odd shadows. Had Xavier not crawled through hidden tunnels and tracked foul men through dark passageways before, he would have given up his place of hiding for a quite table in the corner of a tavern.

With drops of rain falling from his hood, he slowly rose and inspected the hovel that Isabella had claimed was the residence of her mother. He shook his head as the fight between the possibility of Anna and Isabella relation and the history he had with both pressed for the most attention in his mind. From the safety of the shadows, he wondered if he had made a poor choice in allowing the pair time together. If what Isabella had said was in fact true, his unusual tie to Anna would become far more complicated than he had imagined. “Sisters,” he huffed under his breath. “All hells are against me.”

“Quite possibly,” a chiming voice came from behind him.

Xavier did not turn, knowing Isabella’s voice. “How—”

“She is happy, Xavier.” Isabella answered. “That is enough for now. But isn’t it strange how Anna can hear conversation from a distance while I hear thoughts when near? Do you not find that interesting?”

“No,” Xavier lied.

Isabella covered her smile. “Ah! In a foul mood tonight, milord?”

“You could have sent word or at least warned me—”

“I have a flare for the dramatic. Still, had you come to me with your intentions to know more about the family, I could have simply told you. I thought my hint of protecting the family would have been enough. Once again, you ignored the obvious.” Isabella waited and heard the numerous curse words flowing from his thoughts. “You have little to fear from this, Xavier. The tears that well up in Anna’s eyes are from joy rather than sorrow. In truth, we owe a debt of gratitude.”

Xavier had seen and heard enough of the odd aspects of the world not to be surprised by most things, however his thoughts were jumbled and murky, a reflection of his life. It was true that perhaps he had unexpectedly brought two sisters together, but at what cost, he could not imagine.

“Oh, I won’t interfere, my dear Xavier,” Isabella said softly. “Your secret is safe with me. For now, anyway.”

He turned to see the white of her smile in the dim light. Understanding her to mean his growing feelings toward Anna, he felt his hand tremble. “Somethings are best left—”

“As I said,” Isabella stated, “I can hear your thoughts Hero of Chatting Woods. The things that are considered in your mind within a certain range are already said to me.”

“Annoying,” Xavier stated.

“Effective and useful,” she replied. For a moment, silence was broken only by the rain. “Can you feel her presence?”

Xavier was not in a mood for passing the time with words, his thoughts were singularly on Anna and what discussion was taking place in the hovel.

“Come. Let us get out of this rain,” Isabella said softly. “I know of your tether to my sister. Can it stretch to that alehouse up the road?”

With a quick glance to the small establishment that threatened to fall down at any moment, he estimated the distance and nodded.

“Good!” Isabella replied. “I’ll buy the first round.” Without another word, she vanished.

Knowing how she had covered the distance to the shadows of tree by the alehouse, Xavier sighed. Open displays of magic would be the end of her. Still, she would only pester him if he did not follow and he was only to become soaked if he waited behind. He glanced up and down the road for any that might see. Finding no one in sight, within two blinks he stood next to her.

Isabella laughed and took his arm. “Come. You think, I’ll whisper and Anna will listen from our mother’s home. This could be fun!”

Feeling the tug of her arm, Xavier sighed and led her to the rickety door of the small alehouse. As they entered, he scanned the small area with rustic tables and chairs. The few patrons that stood at the bar gave them a cursory look before going back to their mugs. Xavier noted Isabella’s lead to a shabby-looking table in the back of the poorly lit room and followed. He pulled out a chair for her and saw her smile.

“Such a gentleman.”

Xavier stepped to the other chair and sat. Seeing the barkeep come to the table with two large mugs, he attempted to keep his thoughts to himself. Try as he may a memory from their past sneaked into his thoughts. Not unlike this particular rainy night and soaked as they were, the memory held another alehouse and a bed later that night.

“How kind of you to remember, Xavier,” Isabella beamed.

His eyes shot to meet hers. A feeling of embarrassment washed over him.

“I have not had ale in many years,” Isabella stated as the barkeep set the mugs on the table. She did not hide her smile and thanked the apron-wearing man for attending them before winking at Xavier. “My sister has chosen wisely. So many years have passed yet you remembered how I enjoyed the sipping at my first ale? There are few men in the world that would hold such an event in their minds.”

Xavier appreciated her not going into detail. He knew her well enough. Isabella would use anything information to her benefit.

“I hope that we might begin again,” she stated as the man left to attend his duties. “An alehouse seems fitting.”

Xavier looked to the bar and found the men and barkeep disinterested in their presence. “How—”

“Perhaps just a thought would do better than words,” Isabella stated. “I will keep my answers…short.” She smiled and sipped from her mug. “Oh! Do I have a foam mustache?”

He nodded, understanding that only a partial conversation overheard would be to their advantage. For his part, it was only a matter of thinking of the question. How long have you known about Anna?

“A year or two. I couldn’t find all the pieces of the puzzle, but then suddenly, there they were!”

How did you hear about my spy?

“I looked for the pieces, but it was only when a friend told me that someone was looking for the same pieces that I found the man. You see, I asked a special friend to speak to him for me since I am shy around strangers. Then my friend told me that he heard the man talk about the pieces in a tavern of some sort.”

“And this man, did he have all the pieces?” This is tiresome.

“No. But the ones he had, he gave to my friend before they parted. Sadly, the man doesn’t play with puzzles anymore.”

“So your friend scared him off?”

Isabella shook her head as she sipped from her mug. “From what my friend says, the man will never play another game or work another puzzle again.”

Heavens, Bella! You did not need to kill the drunkard!

“Some do not play well, milord. Perhaps those that appreciate the game deserve to have all the pieces and those like that man are happier now that they do not play at all.”

“Perhaps it’s best,” Xavier stated through gritting teeth.

“For all of us, milord,” she replied.

Her smile would charm the world, but Xavier understood that she had his spy murdered for snooping into Anna’s background. “I suppose you heard the story of the sisters? There are some that say it is only a tale.”

Isabella nodded. “The twins? Only a tale? No, I believe every word of it.” She glanced at the men at the bar before turning her attention back to Xavier. “Can you imagine those poor girls when they learned of their father’s behavior?”

“I have not heard the entirety of the story.”

“Well, milord, it goes something like this. The father in this story was always the type of man who wanted more. As I understand it, he was a merchant, but that really has little to do with it. Well, to become friends with others in certain social circles, he felt the need to have a family, in order to properly fit in I suppose. He married, but low and behold, he found he could not sire a child of his own. This poor soul was so disparate to increase his standing—”

Xavier saw her eyes glance away. Turning, he noticed the men at the bar watching them.

“Sorry, milady,” the barkeep said. “Don’t mean to pry, but everyone likes to hear a good tale.”

Do not do it.

Isabella acted as if she was blushing. “I am flattered gentlemen. I’m not a very good storyteller as you men must be.”

“Kinda want to hear it too, milady, if that’d be alright,” said one of the men.

“Milord,” she said, turning to Xavier, “it appears I am to live out a dream of being a storyteller.” Isabella gave the men her most winning smile. “Well, gentlemen, you will forgive me if the story has certain inappropriate topics, but I am willing to give the tale if you will not hold my words against me and promise that you never heard it from me.”

“Aye, miss. Go on then,” chimed a man closer to passing out than the others.

Isabella winked at Xavier.

Bella do not tell them—.

“Where was I? Oh! So the man, being a merchant, traveled away from home to look for new wares to purchase. He started to drink and gamble when he was away because he wasn’t a very good merchant and not at all a good man. Then one day, he found himself in an alehouse, I imagine very much like this one, and his life was changed because of it.”

“Good fortune found in an alehouse?” one of the drunkards asked. “I like this story already.”

Isabella chuckled with them. “As I understand it, he met a woman that worked in the alehouse. She was beautiful and kind. In the course of a few days, she had fallen in love with the merchant and married him secretly as the man said he could not do it openly.”

“But that bastard was already married!” the barkeep exclaimed.

“He was indeed, Master Barkeep,” she said with a frown. “And the woman became pregnant, as well.”

“This pregnant woman, did she learn of the merchant’s other wife?” Xavier asked, filling his role as an audience member.

Isabella sighed. “She did, milord, and much to her ruin in health. At first, the tavern wench and merchant sent secret notes to one another, but the carrier of these letters between them accidentally let the truth of the merchant’s marriage to another slip. It devastated the woman to the point of a near miscarriage.”

“Would have had the merchant’s twig for that,” stated one of the patrons.

“A sad excuse of a man, I agree,” Isabella stated. “But the story has some good to it. Another man, perhaps we should call Victor, who had lost his family during a plague happened upon the pregnant woman. Hearing of her plight, he promised to stay in the city and raise one of the twin girls as his own.”

The barkeep nodded. “That’s good and right of him, but what of the other babe?”

“The greedy merchant was without a child, remember?” Isabella asked. “As I know of the story, he talked the woman into letting him keep the other, seeing she was in poor health.”

Xavier smiled as he saw the pieces fit together. “The couple needed a child. Conveniently, the merchant knew just where to find one.”

“Indeed, milord. So, sad as it was, the girls were raised apart and knew nothing of each other. That is until the one that was raise by Victor was told of her adoption and sought out her mother. This is when she fit most of the pieces of the puzzle together but she was missing a piece. It was difficult for the sister to learn more as the mother, in her poor health and mind-struck, could not remember facts correctly.”

“So did the girls ever meet?” the barkeep asked, setting aside the mug he was cleaning.

Isabella smiled and nodded. “But not the way you and I would have thought. As I understand the tale, they had a mutual friend, though only one of the sisters knew about it. One day, the girl from the city heard that her sister would come to the very town her mutual friend lived in.”

“Impossible!” one patron cried out.

“It could have happened,” stated another. “The world is a strange place.”

The barkeep scratched his head. “But if the sisters hadn’t seen each other before, how did the girl from the city recognize her sister?”

Isabella turned to Xavier and smiled broadly.

“Her facial features,” Xavier chuckled as he recounted the meeting at the house. “They were not identical twins but both had a look of their father. Perhaps one might have had the shape of the ears while the other—”

“A similar shape of her eyes?” Isabella interrupted. “A brilliant deduction, milord! Only the most clever of souls would have been able to put all the pieces together as you have.” She lifted her mug to salute him. “You are as intelligent as the girl from the city!” Isabella sipped her ale as the men praised Xavier for figuring out the end of her story. Setting the mug down on the table, Isabella shrugged. “Well, almost as intelligent.”

Chapter 35

“Do I make you uncomfortable, Sister?” Isabella asked. “Perhaps, I could close the draperies. The sunlight must be blinding from where you sit.”

Anna looked up from the tea cup on her lap to the woman in green velvet. The events of the past few days were nearly overwhelming, but there was also joy in what she had found. Now, her sister, her twin, stood beside a window in an elegant home attempting to shade her from the sun. “The light doesn’t bother me,—”

“Sister,” Isabella finished. Looking to the servant at the door, she noted something odd about him. “Come, Anna. It cannot still be in your mind that all of this is some sort of fable.”

Anna leaned forward and whispered. “Aren’t you afraid he might tell others?”

“Why should I be afraid of that?”

“Your reputation,” Anna answered. “To be associated with an enchantress?”

“You cannot choose family, my dear, and I am very pleased to have found another member,” Isabella stated as she lifted tea cup and saucer from the table. “Besides, the man is quite deaf. Still, even if he heard every word, I have living family members to be very proud of and will not hide it from the world. True, two of them I sadly cannot help from meeting their end. But the last? That person I am certain I can aid.” She sat at the edge of a chair and situated her dress as if preparing for a portrait to be painted of her. “The late hour kept us from speaking last night, but we have all day to talk if you wish.”

Anna fidgeted, unsure how to begin the new relationship.

“I cannot read your mind, Anna. You will need to use words.”

“Why can’t you read my mind?”

“I cannot read Mother’s so I assume it has something to do with our relationship.”

“I learned more from the story you told Xavier at the alehouse than from Mother,” Anna stated, feeling odd to use the title for another woman in her life.

“Now imagine months on end of attempting such a thing. Do you see how difficult it was to learn all the facts?”

Anna could not imagine the efforts she had gone to find the truth of her birth and fill the empty spaces of the tale. “I assume our…gift comes from Mother.”

“I cannot see how it could have possibly come from that baboon of a man you call Father, so I believe you are correct. Still, it cannot be proved and the majority of what Mother knows will go with her to the grave.”

“That’s rather harsh, Lady…Bella.”

Isabella nodded with a hint of shame. “It is, indeed. My apologies, Sister. You are the kinder of the pair.”

Anna was unsure of what to say next. To buy time, she sipped from her cup and studied the woman that stroked the silk choker around her neck. “Is that a ring that is attacked to the ribbon?”

With a raised eyebrow, Isabella nodded. “A gift from the past.” She grinned at how the situation with her sister falling for the man she once knew and the other part of him somewhere in the city was a joke begging to be told. Considering her time was running out, she allowed herself to ask Anna a question she was not sure she wished to know. “Can you actually tell where he is?”

Swallowing her tea, Anna nodded. “And hear him.”

“At all times? Even when he uses the chamber pot?” Isabella shivered. “It must be love as even I would not put up with such a thing.”

Anna glared at her.

“Oh, a history as old as time,” Isabella waved off her look. “You must know that he has considered only you for some time now.”

The words made her feel more at ease. “I fear he only considers me a friend.”

“Hardly,” Isabella laughed. “I hear his thoughts and they are constantly of you.”

Anna bit the end of her lip, hesitant to ask more. “Then why does he avoid me?”

“Avoid you?” Isabella smiled. “He is nearly holding your hand at every moment.”

“He has little choice in that. What I mean is that he seems opposed to letting me be a part of his life.”

Isabella shook her head. “Fear, my dear sister. He fears that you will be hurt with your involvement in his world. Why else?”

Anna looked down at her cup as she slowly turned the handle. “What would you suggest I do?”

“You are tethered together, so there is little chance of him actually running away. Let him ease into the idea. Though I think him stupid for putting such a thing off, I understand that it is the loss of so many under his command that prevents him from chasing after your heart and opening his own. Anna, he is not the most complicated of men.” She sipped her tea before continuing. “Still, the rest of the world thinks the pair of you as married. I’m certain you have heard the gossip. Perhaps he needs a bit of a push in that direction.” Isabella looked at her nails. “A formidable match, they say. Few will try to…well, I’m certain you know.”

“Know what?”

“That your secret husband has a great many enemies. The rumor of your nuptials and the tales being told of your gifts will send most in hiding. Still, the pair of you must not flaunt such skills as you did at the ball. It’s unwise to taunt enemies unless you are certain you can defeat them.”

Anna shook her head. “As I said, we are not married.”

“Soon enough, I’m sure, but I would not tell others that you are not betrothed. It is always better to have the upper hand in both knowledge and skill. You have the fortune of having both in this. But do promise me you will not go seeking out trouble.”

“I’m tethered to Xavier, Bella,” she said with a faint smile. “Can you imagine him avoiding it?”

“No, but you can be the voice of reason when his ear itches with some news of villainy. He is the sheriff of a town so point his attention on such things. Keep him focused on what that little shire needs and not on the world’s troubles. Avoid cities such as these, if you can, as there are too many eyes and ears.”

Anna found it hard to imagine she had such a gift. “I will try,” she offered. “Is there someone in your life? Someone you care for?”

Isabella sipped her tea and adamantly shook her head. “I do not care to be tethered as you have been, though it is not a choice one has.” Her eyes glanced to the servant who stared ever forward. “Fear not, I will eventually find someone that is wealthy enough to sustain my appetites and ignorant enough not to note my gifts. I do hope the bond works in such a way.”

“You understand the bond?”

“Only that it is temporary. I imagine the tethering you feel will fade once you’ve married as it would be replaced by something much stronger. Something from the heart and more impressive than magic.”

“A bonding of the heart,” Anna repeated. “I like the sound of that.”

“Well, hide the fact of your bond deep within you,” Isabella stated frankly. “Should someone know of it, such a thing could be used against you until you have wed. Never let others know of your weaknesses. It is enough to have them.”

Anna found herself staring at her newly found twin. They were, by her accounts, the complete opposite.

“What is he doing now?” Isabella asked.

As if she could see him from afar, Anna turned toward the door. “Talking to the stablehand about the cost of oats.”

Isabella smiled. “You keep an eye on him all the time, do you not? Do you sleep at all?”

“He paces at night and sleeps very little.”

“Perhaps I should speak to him about such things,” Isabella stated. “I believe I would be allowed to say such things given my new status a sister-in-law.”

“Please don’t.”

Her sister shrugged. “I suppose it is not entirely his fault that he has such memories.”

“You know of them?”

“Anna,” she burst out in laughter. “Surely you did not need to hear of the tales of your good sheriff to know he is a stricken man. From the moment he arrived home from the war, I noted the change, but one look should have informed you he carries the weight of the world on his shoulders. I wish I knew of an enchantment to ease such suffering. Perhaps when you bed him—”

“Bella!”

“Do you not wish to?”

Anna refused to answer and quickly searched for another topic. “Tell me of your adopted father. Does he appear to be gaining in health?”

The mention of her father stung Isabella though she hid it well. “No. I imagine that I will bury both parents within the month.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know he was so ill.” Anna set her cup aside. “Is there nothing that can be done?”

Isabella shook her head. “It is an absolute, I’m afraid. But, I am thankful that you will live so close, Anna. It will ease the suffering having a sister nearby and the distance short enough to allow us to become better acquainted.”

Anna smiled and nodded. “I’ve attempted to convince Father to use my dowry to purchase a shop where I might be a type of agent.”

“A spy?”

“No, of course not,” Anna laughed. “I mean to act as a buyer of pelts.”

Isabella frowned. “You would work for the man that had such a history?”

“He is the only father I know. Why wouldn’t I do what I can for family?”

Tapping her chin, nearly lost in the wonder of the idea, Isabella slowly shook her head. “Anna, I believe you should reconsider such an idea. Your life will not allow for you to keep up a shop and there may be other circumstances that may change your mind. You may wish to leave that sleepy town.”

“Why would I do that?”

“You are now Lady Anna, that much must have reached his ears. Your feats at the ball will also be known and Lady Anna the Enchantress does not occupy a shop of animal furs.”

“Xavier is a sheriff,” Anna stated. “What would prevent me from—”

“The tether, my dear. Xavier has already considered the issue and will agree to your thoughts of working beside him. A dangerous proposition, but I must say that it would protect you both as much as any other suggestion.”

Anna rather liked the idea. The frightening battle at the reception banquet had convinced her that they were better off being together than apart. “Father would object, though.”

“I doubt it,” Isabella stated coldly. “Tell Xavier to buy him off as he once considered and send this parent of yours on his way.”

“Father couldn’t be so shallow. He might have been short of coin at one point in his life and made poor choices, but we live quite comfortably now.”

“On borrowed coin. Loans he cannot repay.” Isabella lowered her eyes. “I am sorry, Anna. But the situation with the man you call Father is not as it seems.”

Anna shook her head.

“You doubt me? Understandable.” Isabella hated to paint their situation in such vivid colors but saw no other course. “Call Xavier.”

“He is not my dog, Bella,” Anna stated with a frowned. “And what do you want with Xavier?”

Isabella stood and moved to the marble fireplace. “I wish to ask him a few questions before you leave tomorrow. He is as nocturnal as a bat, but I prefer to not to hold such a conversation in the shadows. Shadows have ears. Call him.”

Anna stood slowly, turning for the door, before her movement was interrupted.

“No, silly girl,” Isabella reprimanded. “Like this.” Raising her hand to the side of her mouth, she whispered. “Xavier, come here.”

“You can force a whisper to travel?”

“You have the same ability. I sent it to the stables, but because I do not precisely know where he stands, it is likely all in the stable will have heard the message. Fortunately, most of my staff believe this house to be haunted. Remember such a ploy should others hear your spell.”

Anna felt his moment toward them. In short bursts, Xavier was using his abilities to cover the distances and she could trace every one of them. She smiled at his choice of places to move and had a feeling he had used the summons as a means of practicing his gift. Soon, he was at the door.

“You look like a girl of twelve with a crush,” Isabella stated to her sister.

The servant opened the door and Xavier stepped into the room. “I am not a pet, Bella,” Xavier barked.

Anna smiled. “I said the same, milord.”

“Yes, yes,” Isabella stated flippantly. “Please take a seat, Xavier.”

“I will stand.”

Isabella rolled her eyes. “So stubborn. Do as you wish, but I will want answers.”

Anna returned to her seat on the sofa as Xavier stood near her. “What is it you want, Bella?” Anna asked.

“Xavier, did you or did you not know of my gifts?” Isabella waited and heard his answer in her mind. “That makes you an idiot and worries me that you are too distracted with this obsession with your local problems.”

“Could we please have this conversation out loud so—” Anna began.

“My apologies, Sister.” Isabella starred at the pair while thumbing the ribbon about her neck. Catching the servant’s nod out of the corner of her eye, she sighed. “I wished with all that I have that you might find a way out of this mess, but my mind is now made up. Two sets of eyes are better than one, Xavier. Marry my sister, run away together and begin a real life together. You are too focused on one subject while my sister appears to be unaware of her surrounds. To linger would be dangerous. You have shown the world your gifts.”

Xavier shook his head.

“It is not a death sentence,” Isabella replied. “And remember we are to use our voices for this conversation. Please, be a gentleman and take a seat. You are hurting my neck with your standing at attention like a soldier.”

Anna shifted over on the sofa and smiled when he moved to sit beside her.

“Anna, I set my cards on the table before you. Your future husband is a wanted man. Those that attacked you were not Seethers.”

“But Xavier said there was no such thing as an enchantress.”

“Yet here are two,” Isabella stated with a wave of a hand. “Tell me now, Xavier. What will you do with the letter?”

Anna looked at the man next to her and quickly noted his eyebrows dipping in anger. “What letter?” she asked.

“A letter to your parent stating he will pay off your father’s debts and ask him never to return to Kedalpoint.”

“That is putting it kindly,” Xavier sneered.

Isabella smiled, though there was little warmth in it. “I would send the letter to Hollowbrook, as he will not be in Kedalpoint on your return after hearing what has happened. Have funds delivered to the family home. If he chooses to play games, then it is he who placed the noose around his neck.” She turned to her sister. “You, dear sister, will give up this folly and accept that your adoptive family sees you as a means to an end.”

Anna felt cornered.

“Marry and do so quickly,” Isabella stated, eying the pair. “You have traipsed into more than one person can handle. I had hoped that you would stick to local affairs, but it is obvious you will not.”

“I have dealt with the occult before,” Xavier hissed. “I can help here, if need be.”

“Take on the issues of Kedalpoint? Yes, but now you are playing a much larger game with those that are not so stupid as to play games in a small town. Despite your painful victories in a hushed war, there are greater foes. Your display of prowess at the ball has taken the lives of several that stand on sides of a interested party. They were foolish to attack you in public, but does that not show you their commitment?”

“More sorceresses?” he asked.

Isabella nodded. “They will come from the Capital next time. But there are others within the city walls and in the lands that have been at work for greater purposes. You have fallen into a very dangerous circle of people who do not care to be meddled with. Your survival of the attack will only anger them.”

Xavier stood and began to pace the room in his usual style.

“Such an annoying habit of his, Anna,” Isabella stated. “You must find a way of breaking him of it. Marry, but take precautions not to have children as they will be targets.”

“Children?” Anna asked in amazement.

Isabella lowered her eyes, as if ashamed to say more. “Yes, my dear. Your life changes with the wind and, for that, I am truly sorry. But you have fallen for an unusual man with ties to many unusual circumstances. And let us not forget you have gifts that are forbidden.”

Anna shook her head. “Isabella, speak plainly.”

Xavier snorted.

“It comes to this,” Isabella stated, ignoring Xavier’s reaction. “You and Xavier are bonded, a fact few know but will notice soon enough. Your chosen has a life dedicated to the killing of all those of the occult, though no one person could do such a thing.”

“Kedalpoint first, then I will work my way outward.”

“Finish your work in that little hamlet of yours quickly, for you now have peeked the interests of many. For now, they will continue to play their games within these walls and vie for pieces of the city, but it will not be long before forces from the Throne grow more desperate and make a play for their own.”

Xavier spun on his heels. “The Throne would not dare.”

“The Prince wishes us harm?” Anna asked. “But we have done nothing!”

“You exist,” Isabella stated. “And quite openly.”

“Damn you!” Xavier shouted. Knowing Isabella would say only what she must, he rubbed his neck. “My cousin. They will kill them on the road, force the title onto me and pin us to this city.”

Anna looked to her sister. “The Throne will murder the baron and baroness?”

“Our paranoid Prince has done far worse in the past,” Isabella answered. “Do you not find it odd how his wives and children suddenly die? No, the pair of you must never return to Ardencroft.” She shook her head. “Wearing a cornet would only mean death.”

The couple looked to her, but Isabella knew their thoughts without searching. Xavier was too stubborn to leave his post and Anna too naive to listen to her words. They would flounder and in that, become easy targets for numerous archers. “Xavier, you know what I say is true. The Prince taunted your cousin into fighting that damn war for a purpose. Open your mind for once and see the folly in your thoughts. Take my sister and find a life elsewhere.” She felt a sharp pain in her forehead. “Forgive me, but I have grown very tired and must lie down. I would welcome you to stay, but I prefer you to travel back to Kedalpoint today.”

Xavier nodded then looked to Anna. “It is better for us to return.”

“That was the first intelligent thing I have heard you say today, milord,” Isabella stated as she rose. “Remember my words and keep your affairs in Kedalpoint very short. There is no future in that place for the pair of you and certainly not so in this city.”

Xavier went to Anna to offer her his hand but she stood suddenly and went to her sister. With a loving soul, she hugged her sister.

The embrace warmed Isabella’s heart. Though her murky thoughts had been kept locked tightly away from others’ knowing, Isabella’s plan to keep her sister safe grew more vivid and resolute. With reluctance, she pulled away and smiled. “We will see each other again, Sister. Promise me you will think on what I’ve said.”

The words appeared to please Anna, as the woman turned to take Xavier’s arm. After a quick glance over her shoulder toward the servant, she watched in pain as Anna and her future husband left the comfortable room.

“Perhaps a soothing tea for your headache, milady?” the servant asked.

Isabella simply stared at the man. “The most ridiculous of disguises I have seen you wear to date. You should know Mr. Ironside’s nose was once broken, yet yours show no signs of such an event.”

The man waved his hand before him and appeared in his natural state. Closing the door and waving his hand, Isabella saw the faintest of hints of a spell.

“A shielding spell? That is very impressive,” Isabella smiled. “Is that how you keep your thoughts from my gift?”

With a shrug, the man walked to the sofa and sat. He began to pull at his beard. “Perhaps a new face to go with the new identity?”

“I prefer how you look now, Xander, but perhaps in a doublet instead of that blackish leather armor.”

“I like your new jewelry,” he stated. To Isabella’s amusement, he suddenly wore a deep blue leather doublet and laid back on the sofa. Staring at the ceiling, he clasped his hands behind his head. “You hid something from the couple. Tell me. What is it that beckons the Prince to this place?”

“Gold, of course.”

“Ardencroft has always benefited from the mines in the mountains.”

Isabella stood and went to the sofa. Sitting next to him, she took his hand in hers. “There is a great deal more under the city itself. Had your idiotic cousin not flaunted a purchase of arms and the building of a small army, it might have continued to go unnoticed.”

His eyes sharpened. “How did you come by such knowledge?”

“Xander, my family mints royal coins. Do you not think we count the amount of ore that comes to our businesses and the shipments of treasure wagons that travel to the Capital?”

“Why is it always coin?”

She shrugged as another pressing issue came to her mind. “You understand I have only a few days left with Father. When the magical effect passes, we will either need to fight or flee.”

“It is unlike you to give up so easily. Do you wish me to hurry Act Two?”

“I dearly love to pretend I had just lost my heart to you and marry on a whim, but we must not be too hasty as you stated before.”

“You cannot believe my other half and your sister will simply run away.”

“They will stay and attempt some foolish plan to hold where they are. You and I are of the same mind on that fact and I have no need to read your thoughts to know you think it will not come to a good end.” She stroked his hair and smiled. “In my heart, Xander, Act Two is as complete as it needs to be. Still, the last part of the play must happen and I will not give up hope we can accomplish it.” Isabella sighed. “I’ve had to revise my idea, but I have a plan.”

“Of course, you do,” he said with a chuckle. “And so do I.”

Chapter 36

With the two men staring at her from across the table, Anna felt out of place. Letting her eyes wander about the front room of the jail house, she noted the numerous wanted posts pinned with a nail to the wall, the simple stove that doubled as a fireplace, and the door made of iron bars that led to the cells beyond. As her eyes returned back to the small party, she found the men still staring at her. There was no doubt in her mind that it would take some time for Harris and Jeffers to become comfortable with the idea of a woman in their midst. Attempting to set her upturned life aside, Anna’s particular concern at the moment was that she would become a wedge between the old friends. The history between the men had built an unyielding trust and Anna imagined it would take a great deal for the two men at the table to accept her presence.

Harris, with his trimmed beard and small, yet cheerful eyes, nodded to her when their eyes met. Anna wondered if the man’s usual demeanor would change after the wonder of the unique situation wore off.

Jeffers was quite a different story to her. Though she offered him pleasant smiles, he would quickly look away or left the room to accomplish some pressing task, seemingly to avoid spending time with in her presence. The young man usually appeared nervous and hinted of being indignant in the other moments. She hoped it was just a matter of being unsettled by the recent turn in his normal routine.

She thought of a small jest that she hoped would break the ice between them. “Do you think I should call him Capt as you do?”

Harris chuckled, but Jeffers’ eyes glanced nervously toward the open office door. “I wouldn’t,” the young man stated. “Capt probably wants you to call him—well, whatever you call him now.”

“Grumpy?” she asked whimsically.

Jeffers paled.

“She’s teasing you lad,” Harris reprimanded him. “Lady Anna is trying to make us feel at ease. The least you could do is show some respect.” He huffed as he turned to her. “Gotta forgive the boy, milady.”

“There’s nothing to forgive, Mr. Harris. I am the intruder here.”

Harris scoffed. “A pretty addition to a group of ugly mugs. We’ll get along fine. The boy’s just on pins today and idolizes Capt.”

Anna smiled at the welcoming words and the young man’s admiration for her future husband. “I find him a bit of a wonder too, Mr. Jeffers. Though I wished he slept more. Maybe that would help his morning mood.”

The older man smiled as he nodded. “If I might offer some advice, milady. Coffee will set his mood in the right.” His eyes seemed to sparkle. “Well,” he shrugged, “in a mood right enough.”

She covered her smile as Xavier entered the room with a few loose pages and a rolled up map. “I have ears,” he stated. Setting the items on the table, he took the seat next to Anna. “And please do not call me Capt, milady.”

Harris leaned over toward her to whisper. “He’s probably afraid your children will call him that instead of Papa.”

Wishing to burst out in laughter, Anna forced herself to bite the end of her lip. She knew well enough that Xavier was not a morning person nor would appreciate her adding to the chuckling of the older man. Catching his eye, Anna noted Harris nodding toward the steaming tin cup on the table. She understood his meaning. Gently, she nudged it with her gloved hand until it rested in front of Xavier. With a sweet smile and a batting of her eyes to declare innocence, Anna was happy when he took a sip.

“If we might begin,” Xavier stated. “We, who are subject to the welfare of this community have three rather straight forward duties. The first is to be alert to possible misdeeds within the town and act to correct them. The second, to patrol the roads that branch outward from Kedalpoint. Thirdly, to watch over the people and property that lay outside of the town yet within our land.”

Anna nodded. Watching him roll out the map and each man at the table place a readied weighting stone on the corners, her eyes focused on the map itself. Scanning for landmarks she might recognize, she wondered at the size of the land under Xavier’s care. “All this? With only the four of us?”

“Capt is quite the taskmaster, isn’t he milady?” Harris chuckled.

Xavier cleared his throat. “The land is made up of steep hillsides, forests and farmland. It is not as vast as it appears. We often exchange duties but when trouble arises we must focus our efforts on the single task.”

“We leave the darker things to Capt, Lady Anna,” Harris joked.

“Cause he knows how to put them in the grave,” Jeffers stated proudly.

Anna nodded in agreement and was happy the young man had at least spoken. “A wise choice.” She pointed to the small stack of paper Xavier had brought to the table. “And what are these?”

“Wanted posters,” Xavier answered. “Most are people of some misdeeds that we are to keep an eye out.”

Harris huffed. “As if there wasn’t enough to do.”

Anna looked up and noticed Xavier’s stare at the man. “We do the best we can. The Throne sends such things to the baron then on to us. It is better to know if a stranger’s face has a past tied to it.”

“Miners and trappers come and go, milady,” Harris reworded for her. “Logging camps also bring in people looking for work for a season. Newcomers,” he said with a shrug.

The man’s summery was appreciated by Anna. “It makes sense to watch those that might run from a city guard to a more remote part of the world to hide.” She turned to Xavier. “What is it that you wish me to do to help?”

Xavier sipped from his cup. “We have two issues to consider. Two groups of people, really. As you well know, there are bandits along the roads.”

“Much smaller group since Capt started burying them along the road,” Jeffers stated with a smile.

“A last resort,” Xavier replied. “We look for reports of stolen animals or homes that have been broken into and their valuables or food stores taken.”

“Bandits are not farmers,” she nodded. “They cannot provide for themselves.”

Xavier smiled. “Precisely. There has been a complaint from the Holmes family that a pig has gone missing. Jeffers will ride out to the farm today.” He looked to the young man. “You know the method. Listen to the story, evaluate the pen, then make ever widening circles around the farm until you find suspicious tracks of animal or man.”

“And me?” Harris asked.

“You have an option. Do you wish to ride the north road or the south?”

Harris scratched his beard. “Would like to check on those panners that got into a scuffle while you were away. I could ride the north road and accomplish both tasks.”

Xavier nodded. “With authority, not abusiveness.”

“Understood, Capt,” Harris replied.

“As for the second group we must watch for, Lady Anna and I will travel to the Knoll farm. I wish to reexamine the site and hope she will note something I may have missed.”

“That trails gone cold, hasn’t it, Capt?” Jeffers asked.

Xavier thought for a moment. “Perhaps, but we owe the late Mrs. Knoll to do as much as we are able to find her killers. With Lady Anna with me, I am certain something will eventually be found to give us another lead.”

Anna felt rather proud of being so quickly added into their routine.

“Off to visit a dead woman’s farm?” Harris asked. “You picked a very romantic fellow, milady.”

Though Xavier frowned at the remark, Anna looked down quickly to hide her smile.

Chapter 37

Approaching the farm of the deceased woman, Anna noticed her nervousness grow. It was, by all account, her first task in her new position and she wanted to show that she was able to help. The thought of working alongside of Xavier made sense at the time it was suggested, but Anna was now well aware she had not thought the idea completely through as his work life was so odd in nature. Watching him ride beside her in silence, her mind easily pictured Xavier patrolling the roads alone. He was, by her account, often alone before she had truly come into his life. She desired to make the pairing something more than a convenient way of the struggle to stay close to one another or to avoid death by hidden trouble.

“Can you hear anyone?” he asked suddenly.

Anna looked around her. Stretching her senses, she sought the sounds around her and found nothing out of the ordinary. “Birds. Squirrels,” she answered with a shrug. “Why do you ask? You aren’t thinking about kissing me, are you?” His smile made her grin.

“Your gift, milady, is a great advantage. Consider the fear bandits are likely to feel when word of your talents reaches their ears? They will scatter like rats.”

“Is that pride I hear in your voice, milord?”

He nodded. “We are a formidable couple, don’t you agree? I hate the Throne’s plan to pin us into a corner, but the Prince underestimates how dangerous we can be.”

Anna was pleased that he had such faith in her. Pulling back on her reins, she caused her horse to stop next to his at the end of the bridge. Looking over the side of the road, she noticed something had left the road and gone into the river below. “I hope the person was not hurt.”

Xavier dismounted and walked to the edge. “I thought it an accident as you do when I first came across it, but it was a trick.” He glanced down the hill to the water. “I followed tracks across the river then up the hillside but they only circled and came back to the river. I first considered there were four riders given the number of hoof prints. I tracked them the best I could but I lost them as they crossed back and forth. When I gave up, I returned here and considered investigating where this band came from instead of where they were headed.”

“And where did they come from?”

“It was not a group but rather a single person.” With the pointing of his hand, he signaled that the rider had come from a farm in the distance.

Anna looked and saw the top of a barn. “The farm, is that where the woman was murdered?”

“It is, though I didn’t know it at the time. This murder is one I very much wish to solve before we are called away.” He led his horse to the edges of the road. Finding a suitable branch, he tethered his horse to a tree. “I was following the trail in reverse in my mind. Something that I wish us to recreate.”

When he came to her side and reached upward for her, Anna slipped out of her saddle into his arms. Staring into his eyes and the feeling of his lingering touch of her waist made her blush.

Xavier pulled his hands away quickly. “My apologies, milady,”

“Don’t apologize, Xavier,” she said quickly. “I doubt people would talk if a married couple touched.”

Xavier looked around. Seeming confident that no one was near, he still appeared to her to be uneasy.

“I fear that Harris was correct in his assessment of your choice of companions,” he stated. “It is possible I lack the romantic nature appropriate for courtship.”

Anna shrugged. “We will see.” She smiled at him and chuckled when a hint of a reaction appeared on his lips. “But I will not torment you. Continue your story and I will walk behind you so that you will not be tantalized by my figure.”

“Walk before me or behind, milady, it will make no difference on that account.”

“See? You can flatter a woman.” Anna began to walk in the direction she assumed he meant to lead. “Now, on with your tale.”

She felt his arm wrap around her waist. Though she thought he was making advances, Anna quickly felt the rush of traveling a great distance. In the time of three blinks they stood on the lane leading to the farm house. Looking back quickly, she was surprised at the distance they had covered. “Well, you certainly can cover more ground than I can, but don’t forget I’m faster, milord.”

“Xavier,” he corrected. With a prideful look on his face, he began to walk up the lane before continuing his story. “I rode to this point and feared for the worse. The previous day, I had hung a man who had lived on this farm with his mother. He was, as she put it, not himself after coming home from the battles we fought. His condition was no secret. What troubled me was that there had been graves that had been dug up after certain deaths.” He turned and pointed to the farmhouse. “She would, of course, bury her child in a family plot. One near her home.”

“You feared for her life for burying her son?” Anna shook her head. “I don’t understand.”

“I was under the impression, after seeing the numerous hoof prints and the release of her farm animals, that bandits had taken advantage of her living alone on this farm.”

Anna began to walk along side him up the lane toward the house. “And what did you find?”

“Mrs. Knoll’s body in the front room of her home. Her neck was slit done by an assailant from behind. It had to have happened as she slept as there was no sign of struggling. Though she sat in a chair by the fire, I knew I was too late once I kicked in the door and saw her.” He placed his hands behind his back and lowered his head as he walked. “She did not deserve such a death and I wish to find who has done this.”

Anna felt sorry for him. From the short time that she had known him, justice seemed the most important thing in his world. The battles he had been through must have shaped him into one that hated to kill indiscriminately but also a person that desired to preserve life. It was this thought in her mind when she began to notice an odd sensation. Looking up to the house as they entered the yard, she came to a stop.

“Do you hear something?” he asked.

She saw the concern in his eyes. “Nothing. It’s…the house.” Anna attempted to understand why she could not hear anything beyond the door. “It’s unnatural. I don’t understand.”

Xavier drew his sword. “I trust your thoughts. Wait here in the yard and I will see what is the cause.”

Anna shook her head in reply though the prickling sensation of every nerve in her body told her to move away. “We go together. We are safer if we are together.” Pulling back the side of her unique dress, she took a knife from the belt around her thigh. “But, you lead.”

Following closely behind, Anna felt her skin itch as they stepped onto the porch and stopped in front of the replaced door. She reached out and touched his shoulder. “This place…it feels…dead. There isn’t anything alive making the slightest sound in there, Xavier.”

Though she found her own words strange, Xavier nodded as if he understood. He reached inside his jerkin and produced a glass flask full of a clear liquid. “Should anything unnatural be seen, throw this at it and escape.”

With a trembling hand she took the flask.

“Are you certain you won’t stay in the yard?” he asked.

Anna breathed deeply and did not answer, fearing her words.

With one quick movement, Xavier kicked the wooden door open. Nearly coming off the leather hinges, it swung wide as he blinked and appeared inside the house. There was no one in the room to attack. Standing in the center of the rustic interior, he scanned the room, holding his sword in a defensive posture.

Anna followed slowly, feeling the itching sensation grow. By the time she reached him, the odd feeling sank to her feet. “Below us,” she whispered.

“The root cellar is out by the garden. There is no lower level in this house.”

“There is, Xavier,” she stated. “There is an emptiness below us.”

The man looked to the floor. With the toe of his boot, he tapped the wooden planks. The firm sound made him shake his head. Slowly moving around the floor, he tested the floorboards for any hint of some evidence that a room lie beneath. Finding nothing, he looked into her eyes. “I find no—” he hesitated as he looked at the old rocking chair by the fireplace. Moving quickly to its side, he dropped to a knee. With a disregard for the object, Xavier toppled the chair over and pulled aside the small rug beneath it. “Damn.”

Anna noticed the small iron ring instantly. “A hidden door.”

Xavier nodded. Positioning the tip of his sword toward the door, with his free hand he flung open the once hidden entrance.

Anna watched with fear as he peered down into the hole. “What is it?”

His eyes looked up at her, then scanned the room quickly. “I need something that will burn, clothing or the like. And an oil lamp.”

“You aren’t going down there, are you?”

Xavier nodded as he stood. Grabbing a candle off the fireplace mantle, he struck a match and lit the wick. “Go and find the items quickly.” He dropped the candle down into hole and a plume of sickening dust arose from the hole.

Anna, covering her face from the noxious odor, hurried into the next room looking for what he might need. Fortunately, the house was small and she easily found herself in the woman’s bedroom. Grabbing an oil lamp from a small bedstand and the dusty blanket from the bed, she hurried back into the main room. The odor grew in intensity as she neared the hole. Carefully, she climbed down the ladder.

In the dim light from the single candle he had dropped and somehow kept lit, Anna’s eyes widened at the scene. In the small room, no larger than the one above, were five chairs before a type of altar. The sight of the corpses that occupied three of the chairs made her stomach churn.

“Do not use your abilities,” Xavier warned in a soft voice. He bent over and studied the remains that had been posed and draped in black velvet robes.

“What is this place,” she asked, feeling a sickness grow inside of her.

“A temple of sorts.”

She slowly approached, bringing the bedding up to her face to counter the horrendous smell of rot. With one quick glance, she turned away from the sight. “They are all men,” she stated.

“Warlocks. They wear the raven talisman,” he said as he stood upright. “How could they have hidden themselves?”

“Xavier?”

“This man,” he said, pointing to the nearest corpse, “I cut off his head in a fight a year ago. And this, milady, was the man I ran my sword through on the moment of your family was attacked.” His face hardened with anger. “How, you bastards? How did you hide yourselves from me?”

Anna yelped as the black candles on the altar suddenly lit. Like a hideous display of death, the large stag horns, adorned with dead leaves, twisted roots and raven feathers loomed in front of her. “Xavier!”

He appeared before her, yanking the bedding and oil from her hand. “Give me the flask!”

She shook as she recovered the flask with transparent liquid from her belt pouch. Holding it out to him, she watched as candle after candle lit themselves.

“Go, Anna! Run!” he yelled.

She turned back and reached the ladder quickly. Looking back, she saw the flames of the candles grow taller and taller as Xavier wrapped the oil lamp and flask in the bedding. As quickly as she could, she climbed the rungs and crawled out of the hidden chamber. Feeling Xavier pick her up from her knees, they burst through the open doorway and rolled to the ground in the middle of the courtyard.

“Xavier!” she cried, hugging him and baring her head into his foul smelling jerkin.

When she looked up to see if he was harmed, Xavier covered her ears with his hands. The horrifying sound of unadulterated rage and hate that emanated from the house, made her scream. Putting her hands over his ears, she saw him grit his teeth as the house exploded in flames. In a heartbeat of time, they were transported into the forest behind the barn.

“Are you hurt?” he asked quickly, his eyes wide in fear.

Anna felt as if she might vomit, but the scene of the man before her gave her comfort. “Never again, Xavier. Don’t ever ask me go into such a place again.”

Xavier drew her into his strong arms and Anna focused on the sound of his heartbeat.

Chapter 38

For several hours, Anna had sat, tightly holding Xavier’s arm. The simple farm house that had held its secret from the world burnt ferociously with licks of flames that seemed to spew its spite at the clouds above. When small crowds had appeared on the road, Xavier went to them and offered some false reason for the fire. She did not care. Her only concern was that they had survived the unusual event she could hardly set to words.

Gathering her legs under her chin, she watched as Harris, who had joined them earlier, and Xavier spread water from the well around the home. The barn had been saved with the help of others, but she wondered what use that was. Anna could only imagine that it was more of a hazard to the forest should it catch fire and thus important to the community that it be kept safe.

When the fire had become more of a cluster of flames than raging fire, many of the locals began to leave having had their fill of excitement. She heard their discussions, of course, but set them aside as she attempted to make sense of all that had happened. From what Anna could piece together, the woman who once lived along a quite road had somehow found herself hiding a very sinister cult beneath the floorboards of her small home. With a disturbing end to her own life, Anna wondered if the woman had only been kept alive as her son remained so. She shuddered at the thought that Xavier may blame himself having been the one that had hung him.

Part of her wished to wallow for a time in a sense of self-pity. The memory of Xavier’s touch at her waist and playful banter earlier in the day made her wish they had not left the bridge and the hopefulness she had then of their growing fondness. He had, for a brief moment, looked into her eyes and she basked in it. Had he asked her to leave everything behind and start anew, Anna knew she would have done so. But the smoke from the burned out home was a reminder of her true unsettled future. The foul smell that emitted out of a unholy chamber and lingered in her clothing was proof enough their lives where unlike others and held little hope of being so.

As her eye caught the slow return of Xavier and his old comrade, she wished for a future, no matter how short, that had only Xavier in it. She knew it was a selfish thought, but after today’s events, it was more than pleasantly distracting. Anna took a deep breath and attempted to be in a more cheerful mood as she saw the fallen face of the man she hoped to one day marry.

“If you wanted a romantic campfire, milady,” Harris teased as he neared, “you might have started with a smaller flame.”

The man’s joke lightened her mood. “You were the one that stated my future husband was not a romantic. Just look at the fire he created for me.”

“Ha!” Harris exclaimed. “Then warn me when the pair of you are talking about having children. I will need time to leave town before it is engulf with flames.”

Xavier cracked a smile at the joke. “I believe we will catch you all unaware with that, Harris.” He stopped before Anna’s feet and looked at her. “Have you eaten?”

Anna nodded. “I’ve been offered everything from cheese to pie, milord. The people of this land are very generous with what they have. What I crave is a bath and a bit of peace and quiet.”

He could not agree more. “Harris, go and collect our horses at the bridge—”

“A man named Vaske has already done than, Xavier,” Anna stated and motioned to behind her.

“Well,” he smirked to his old friend, “then go to the jail house and inform Jeffers of what I have told you. Lady Anna and I will stay here to make certain no fires spring up from a random spark and burn more of this farm.”

“Fortunately, polishing boots is not one of my responsibilities,” Anna stated.

Xavier looked down at his muddy boots and chuckled. Turning to his old friend, he shrugged. “Victims of war.”

Joining him in some inside joke, Harris laughed. “Such is battle, Capt.” He looked back at the farm. “I will come relieve you from your post in a few hours and can take the night watch.”

“It will not be necessary, my friend. The farmers will tell us if there is trouble tonight. The lady and I will be here long enough to persuade anyone from coming to take a closer look, then I will escort Lady Anna into town for dinner and make certain she is seen to her home.”

Anna smiled. Since the quick escape of her last family member before their return, Xavier had made certain she had a place to rest her head. As one would expect, she could not make her home in the jail house. Within an hour of arrival, she had been moved into a boarding room an older woman had offered. On her own for the first time in her life and after tears shed for her family’s obvious betrayal, she unexpectedly found herself bolder and hopeful of a future with the man she had fallen in love with and the knowledge her twin and mother lived.

She breathed deeply and thought of the few happy hours they would share tonight. “Dinner? That, I will hold you to, milord.”

Harris bowed to them both with a chuckle. “Then I will see you both in the morning. Don’t keep him up too late, milady. You do know he is a bit testy in the mornings.”

“I will make no promises, Mr. Harris,” Anna smiled. “But it won’t be scandalously late. I feel like sleeping already.”

The man laughed with a wave and began his return up the short lane to the road.

Xavier held out his hands and helped Anna to her feet. “I owe you more than a dinner for all of today’s excitement.” Looking over her shoulder, he watched as Harris met the last of the onlookers. “I am sorry that you had to witness my outburst.”

“There is no need to apologize. These fiends have haunted your life for some time now.”

“It is no excuse,” he objected gently. “Anna. This would be our life, should you still wish to marry. There is death everywhere around me. It seems to nip at my heels no matter where I travel and even interrupts the still of the night when we would sleep.”

Anna understood. “Fighting for what’s right is just one of the reasons I will not leave you, Xavier. That and the fact I’m completely in love with you.” She blushed at her open words and looked away from his stare.

Xavier smiled. “Well, if that is your answer, I will share a secret with you. After such trying times, I like to distract myself with a stroll and think on happier times if I can manage it.” He offered his arm. “Shall we?”

Anna took his arm. “You look almost jovial, milord.” She chuckled as they began to walk toward the barn. “Is there some source that might be the cause of it?”

“You, of course,” he stated. “And two chairs empty and not five.”

She nodded as she recounted the memory of the makeshift temple. “Three out of the way to your happiness?”

“I might have thought so a year or even two months ago, but today, after an hour or more thinking on the situation, I find that I feel lighter no matter what is in front of us.”

“Does burning down homes bring this on or is there something else?” she asked with a chuckle. “You are truly a unique sort of man, Xavier.”

“As unique as the lady on my arm,” he stated. “But, no, it comes from how I felt when we were safe from danger. The victory is ours and I am proud to be with you.” He shook his head. “No, it more than that, much simpler actually.”

Anna smiled. “Are you going to tell me?”

“We are together and I hope for our future.”

She took his hands in hers and stared into his eyes. “Is that enough?”

“More than I could have imagined,” he said. “I know I am difficult to be tethered to, but are you certain our marriage is right for you? You have seen what such a life would entail.”

“I would marry you now, milord.”

Xavier simply stared into her eyes. “I heard rumors that the hunter and the enchantress were secretly married.”

Anna laughed. “I have heard the same gossip.”

“Brother Talas is over at the well.”

Her eyes glanced behind him and saw the priest tending the last of the flames. “Here?”

“In the sixth circle, there is a legal contract called the Maiden’s Law. A woman and man may live under the same roof for a certain number of days if promised to one another. At the end of it, they are legally married.”

Anna smirked, “And you think living within your land in a different society should count?”

“If you wish it,” Xavier said quietly.

Anna’s heartbeat faster. The thought of marrying the man in secret thrilled her, but there were others to consider. “Wouldn’t that be a lie?” Seeing the priest set aside a pail next to the well and begin his walk toward them, she bit her lip in excitement. “Two weddings, then. One for us, the other for the people. But only if Brother Talas doesn’t object.”

“Agreed.”

With a wave to the priest, she became very excited. Rushing through words that she might put in place as a valid argument to offer, Anna quickly pieced them together. As the man approached, she had enough in her mind to counter any argument.

“A very busy day,” Brother Talas stated as he drew near.

“We wish to marry,” she blurted out, amazing herself in the process.

The priest’s smile grew large across his face. “I assume you mean at this moment, milady.”

“I do,” she answered. “Can that be done?”

The priest looked to Xavier. “Is it your free will to want this as well?”

“I do,” he said confidently. “But we would like this to be kept to ourselves, for a time.”

“Come with me, my naive children.” Brother Talas stated and started to walk toward the woods.

Anna took Xavier’s arm. “Is he upset with us?”

When he shook his head, the couple began to follow the priest into the woods. Keeping thoughts to themselves, they walked a short distance down a deer path until they reached a place with a fallen tree. The priest motioned for them to sit and stood aside as they did so.

“Are you certain?” Brother Talas asked, looking from one face to another.

“We are,” Xavier answered for both of them.

The priest smiled. “Marriage is a promise, a very special promise. In this confession, each of you are saying to the world, ‘We are one until death’. I know you have vicarious lives but it must be said that your promise is to be lived out with an honest heart.”

“I do not have a ring,” Xavier stated.

“And we need a witness, don’t we?” Anna asked.

Brother Talas chuckled and shook his head. “A ring is only a symbol to the world and I am your witness. You have only to promise your love to each other and confess it to the One. The ring tells others you have done so and I am here to witness the event…and make certain you both understand the importance of your words.”

Anna turned to Xavier. Looking into his eyes, she smiled. “I promise I will love you till the end of my days, Xavier.”

Xavier’s smile grew. “And I, Anna. I will love and honor your love until my last breath.”

“Then there is only the last promise to make,” the priest stated happily.

Anna nodded in her understanding. Looking up into the sunlight between the leaves of the tall trees, she whispered her promise to the One and heard Xavier do likewise.

Sharing a smile between them, each looked to the robed man.

“Is there nothing more to it?” Xavier asked.

“Only a life time of commitment to your promise,” the priest chuckled.

Anna looked over to the bewilderment of her new husband. “But what of the ceremony?”

“A celebration of the event,” Brother Talas stated. “All the gifts and decorations do not make the wedding. When you have such an event, we will be celebrating a reaffirmation of the vows you gave today.” He smiled. “Now it is my turn.” Brother Talas looked up to the sky. “I bless this marriage and pray it is filled with honesty and love.” He paused and looked at the nearly dumbfounded couple. “Xavier, it is customary for you to kiss your bride.”

Anna felt his strong arms gently pull her to him. He’s eyes danced with joy and his smile, loving and welcoming. The wall that had stood between their hearts had vanished and she kissed his lips. A tingling raced through her and she knew it was shared as his embrace tightened and his kiss more passionate. Life was complete in her mind and heart as the tingling grew the longer they touched.

“Well,” the priest stated. “I will, umm, leave you two to your…well…lives.”

Though Anna heard his words, her mind would not allow her to think on them. The feeling of being wrapped in Xavier’s arms pushed the world away and she basked in the wave of emotions that coursed through her. She would have dearly wished to stand in the forest the entire day in such a wash in love, but Xavier slowly retreated from her lips.

Anna heart beat wildly, and her body forced her forward for another kiss of his lips. He did not move away but accepted it and lingered. Moving gently away, she felt herself blush. “I feel as if I will melt.” She looked into his eyes and found a warmth she had never seen before. “We are truly married.”

Xavier touched her cheek and nodded.

“I’m sorry I’m not in a beautiful gown but I would not trade this moment,” she said.

“Our clothes are victims of war, I suppose,” he replied. Xavier looked deeper into the forest. “I have…an idea. Do you swim?”

Anna found the question delightfully odd. “I do, but poorly.”

Xavier took her hand. “Perhaps you might allow me to show you a place of my past.”

“Now?”

“Just down the path.”

Anna nodded happily and followed his lead to an unknown place.

“Tell me of a happy memory of yours,” he asked as they managed their way down the trail, hand in hand.

Anna thought the request odd, but as long as they were not talking about Seethers and wars, she was willing to play along. “Well, I remember when Father took me to the lower park as a child. In Hollowbrook there is a place where they graze sheep along the Russet river. When the night air is cool, people stroll along the river and spread out blankets on the shoreline to watch the stars. I remember how Father and I sat and watched the people more than the sky. In fact, that was the time I had my first icy.”

Xavier smiled as he listened and helped her down from a steep step.

“Well, I was young so it was quite the treat to stay up late and pretend I was one of the beautiful ladies in their long silk dresses. There are nobles in Hollowbrook as well, you know.”

“So I have heard.”

“You don’t know how exciting it was as a young girl. My parents would dress in their best clothing and we would all climb into a carriage. I imagined that we were off to spend a few hours in a world that didn’t exist. One with flowers and music, where people danced until time didn’t matter anymore.”

Xavier lifted a branch out of her way as they wandered deeper into the woods. “Is that why you made me promise a dance at the wedding?”

Anna smiled and ducked under the branch. “Of course! I have never worn such an expensive dress as this and I have only been to four dances. Your cousin’s reception ball was a wonder to see and I was not about to miss my chance to dance with such a handsome man.”

“Nor I, with such a beautiful woman,” he said.

“So you do think I’m beautiful,” Anna chuckled. “Well, your secret is safe with me.” She saw him frown. “I’m sorry, Xavier, I should stop teasing you like that.”

“You have a right to, Anna.” He held out his arm for her to take and started to walk when she held onto it. “I was raised to believe that actions were not only important but the proof of what one believes. If I made a promise that I would not misbehave, I made an effort to be the very picture of a gentleman. If I promised to visit someone, I stayed longer to show that I wished to be there.”

“And if you happened to promise a man and a boy you would take care of them, you employ them after you return from a war,” she added.

Xavier smiled and nodded.

“A very nice way of looking at promises, Xavier,” she stated. In the near distance, Anna heard the sound of water. “Is there a river nearby?”

Xavier did not answer. In a short amount of time, they came to a pool in the woods where the a small branch of the river had created a waterfall. Her eyes brightened at the lovely scene. Letting go of his arm, she hurried to the side of the shallow pond and knelt in the soft moss that grew along its edges. Looking above her, the large trees, full of their leaves, made a canopy that allowed gentle streams of sun light through. She turned to Xavier. “It is the most beautiful place I have ever been! How did you ever find it?”

Xavier smiled. “Years ago, when I was eleven or so, I bribed a house maid to show me how clothing is washed.” He moved to her side and sat. “The event fascinated me as I was only allowed a certain amount of freedom and little interaction with staff. Later, I found ways to catch glimpses of the lives of others. I became creative with my excuses, but managed to visit farms and businesses to ask my questions and witness lives other than my own. It came as a great benefit later in life.” He reached down and pulled off his boot. “To make a long story short, one of the things I learned from a person was how to swim.”

Anna smiled. “Here?”

Xavier nodded and pulled off his other boot. “The water is shallow at the edges and an excellent place to learn to swim. It was something I have never regretted nor a time I do not look back on and not smile.” He stood and pulled off his stockings.

“Do you mean to swim now, milord?”

“I mean to bathe. You did say we smell. Would you care to join me?”

Anna looked around. “Now?”

He unhooked the closures of his jerkin and nodded. With a smile on his face, he set the jerkin aside and pulled his shirt over his head. He tossed his shirt to her and began unbuckling his leather pants.

Anna stood holding his shirt with her eyes opened wide. “Xavier!”

He stopped. “We are married, are we not?”

Her heart began to pound in her chest as she stared at his bare chest. “I’ll blush until my entire body turns red.”

“I will look away, if you wish.” With that, he bent and pulled off his trousers.

She instantly turned around. “What if someone sees?”

“Is there anyone near?”

Her mind instantly canvased the area around them. “No, but what if someone comes looking for us?” she asked, hearing the sounds of him entering the water.

“We will hide under the falls. Do as you wish, but I mean to soak away the events of this morning and ponder the life we will have together.”

Anna opened one eye and saw him submerge himself in the water. Don’t you dare let this moment pass, Anna Travene. “Lady Anna Sevet”, she corrected herself out loud. Anna sat quickly and pulled off her long boots, tossing them aside as he reemerged. “You have to turn around. I’m the shy one, remember?”

With laughter in his voice, he turned his back to her.

Her heart fluttered at the thought of being so close to him and found that she could manage out of her clothes quickly under such an influence. Standing, she covered herself with her arms and stepped into the water. “It’s brisk!”

“You will warm when you move around.”

With a deep breath, she dove into the water. Having not swam for many years, she miscalculated and emerged from the water far closer to him than she had intended. Wiping the water from her eyes, she found herself only a foot away from the man’s scarred back. She shuddered against the chill. “They’ll find us frozen, floating in this pond.”

Xavier dipped below the surface, reappearing with gritty mud in his hand. “But clean, my dear,” he replied, wiping the water off his face. He lifted his hand over his shoulder. “Soap?”

“Washing with mud?”

“I thought the same when I first heard of it,” he chuckled. Rubbing the mud in his hair and face, he dipped his head into the water, splashing her in the process.

Feeling the gritty bottom of the pool with her foot, she shrugged, pinched her nose and vanished under the surface. Returning with a handful of rocky silt, she began to shake. “Xavier, it’s too cold.”

He turned and moved toward her, deeper into the water. Wrapping his arms around her, he gently brought her to him. Anna did not fight his actions, allowing herself to be pressed against his body. Looking up, she framed his face with her hands and kissed him deeply. Her body warmed from both the heat of his skin and the coursing of blood through her entire body. The kissing became more passionate. Anna felt faint as his hands moved lower. Instinctively, as if lost in a dream, she wrapped her arms around him as her carried her through the water to the soft mossy ground at the edge. With pounding heart and wave of colors drifting past her closed eyes, they became one under the tall trees of the woods.

Chapter 39

Anna breathed in the cool morning air as the wagon rattled along the road toward her future home. Looking over her shoulder, she smiled at the numerous carts and people that followed happily behind them. Word of the reopening of the old stately home had swept through the town and into the mining and logging camps with the speed of a wildfire. Anna felt proud of herself having used the old idea of farmers helping other farmers build barns together. With coin from her own purse, or saddlebag in this case, a gold coin would be placed in the hand of anyone who came and helped on the first day. Seeing the number of people fill the road behind her, she was thankful she was given such a large prize from the baron.

“You’ve done something special here, milady,” the man sitting next to her stated.

Anna chuckled. “Nothing has been done yet, Mr. Harris.”

Harris shook his head and gave a little more length to the reins in his hands. “Gave a sense a hope back to the town. Not with just this but coming into our lives.”

“And this place has given me purpose.”

“Two of a kind,” he chuckled. “Didn’t think it when you stepped out of that coach with your family, but you and Capt are alike in many ways.”

Anna liked the sound of that and raised her chin to the morning sun. “I think we are very different. Sir Xavier is…well, he’s…I guess I don’t have the right words for it.”

“You both are of the same side of the coin, miss,” he chuckled. “Oh, I mean, milady.”

“You can call me Miss, if you like, Harris. Just not around Xavier.”

The comment brought on another chuckle from the man. “He made us laugh like that when we got down in the mouth.”

“Really?” Anna thought back on her husband’s dry sense of humor, but wondered what he was like before all that had happened. “You knew him before the war, didn’t you, Mr. Harris?”

“I did, Miss. His father hired me on as a stable worker and liked how I cared for the horses and property. Soon enough, I was put in charge of the whole estate. The outside, of course. Didn’t have the training to be someone who waited at table or such. But that young man riding up there ahead of us was the most curious boy I had met. Always sneaking out, coming to the stables and asking questions while we worked. Wasn’t long before we were showing him how to do our trade. ‘Course, he took to it like a fish to water. And it wasn’t just the men of the stables. He would watch the staff in the house too.”

Anna laughed. “A curious boy for certain. Did the staff mind?”

“Well,” he shrugged, “not much. There is a line that shouldn’t be crossed and he had his rear smacked with a stick by his father more than once for it. Didn’t slow him much. He would just find another way around it. But a giving boy, that’s for certain.”

“How so?”

“When he was older, his father gave him responsibilities so he would learn how to run the estate. If you had a concern or complaint, we were to go to Capt. He would not speak until you were done having your say. If a wheel needed replacing or a mare grew too old to manage, I would come tell him. He might ask a question or two, such is the mind the One gave him, but they were honest and direct. Once, I had a troubled day and complained about a man that wasn’t pulling his weight. You know what he said to me?”

Anna shook her head. “Astonish me.”

Harris chuckled at the memory. “He said, ‘Mr. Harris, have you given this man a warning?’. I told him I had so he tells me, ‘You are my Head Keeper and I trust your words. Warn him once again and let him be the reason he stays or leaves us’. Can you imagine a boy of fourteen saying that?” Harris laughed. “But there’s one time, before the wars, that I will never forget for as long as I breathe.”

She turned toward the sight of her husband and smiled. “You have my attention, Mr. Harris.”

“I was secretly married to one of the maids in the house. It was against the rules, mind you. A reason to be sent packing.” He smiled as the memory unfolded in his mind. “Helen was her name and we couldn’t keep our hands off each other, but it had to be kept a secret. Well, all the staff had secrets so it didn’t mean much to them, but to the family, that was a different matter.”

“You had to hide your marriage from Xavier’s family? For how long?”

“About two years, but the crux of it is we had to make sure we didn’t have children until we could save enough to leave and start a new life. A tough thing to do on a working man’s wage, Miss.”

“So I’m told, Mr. Harris. Go on.”

“So Capt’s father decides that he is going to take his wife on a grand trip. Be gone for months. Capt was about eighteen or so and was to be away to visit his cousin. Well,” he shrugged.

Anna nodded. “A married couple couldn’t possibly give up such a chance to be together.”

“Right you are. It was summer, you see, and the a few of the house staff would sometimes escape the heat and sleep on the roof of the old tower. So one night, I paid ten copper for them not to.”

“I believe a romantic scene is in the making,” she said.

Harris smiled. “It was our second anniversary. Wanted to do something special. That was the plan anyway.”

“She was scare of heights?”

“Nope, we were laying on that rooftop under blanket, naked as could be. Then Capt comes poppin’ up through the hatch. Scared us so much that we could have leapt right into our graves.” He laughed. “Capt just apologized and went back down. Didn’t sack us or give us trouble after. He didn’t even hint to anyone that it happened. Later, found a coin purse under my blanket with ten gold pieces. He would have made a fine thief breaking into the servant’s house like that.”

Anna shook her head as she watched her husband ride slowly ahead. For some reason, the story didn’t surprise her. “But what was he doing on the roof of the house?”

“Probably going to sit up there and look at the stars. Did that a lot. The older he got, the more he liked being alone. Still asked questions, but not as often. He liked to ride as a boy. Daring little sap. But as time went on, he started to walk the grounds. You’ve seen him pace. Just like that. Hands behind his back, head down, walking in smaller and smaller circles as if trying to figure out how the whole world worked.”

“And what happened later? I mean with your wife?”

“The war,” Harris stated sadly. “While we were gone hacking and slashing our way through each day, an terrible sickness spread in this town. Some say one and seven died, others say more. Still, it took my Helen and it took Capt’s parents. No one left untouched by that vicious scourge.”

“I’m very sorry to hear about your wife,” Anna said softly. “It must have been a terrible thing to come back to.”

Harris nodded. “It was that, Miss. But, sad as the time was, Capt helped me and the boy through. Gave us jobs to focus on instead of more loss.”

“I think your staying with him helped Xavier just as much.” Anna thought about all the loss they had in their lives and understood more how the three had stayed together. From the tales of their battles to the lives they had before and after, it was not difficult to see how much they needed one another. “Am I going to be a cause of trouble between your bond?”

“Nope. I imagine you’ll be too busy running that,” he stated with a nod ahead.

Anna turned to see the bramble covered walls along the road and the half hidden height of a stone tower. She turned quickly to see Xavier begin to slow and point further up the road. “Is it a keep?” she asked.

“The tower was the first to be built,” Harris answered. “Through the ages the family continued to build around it. Now the tower is its center.”

She fidgeted in her seat anxious to see more of her future home. As the long caravan followed the man on horseback and her wagon, Anna looked at the landscape and was pleased with the overlook of the river below and the forests that crept onward. “A beautiful view.”

Harris chuckled. “Wait until you see it from the top of the tower, Miss.”

* * *

Signaling the traveling party behind him to stop, Xavier felt the tingle of nerves as he dismounted. It had been a longer than he had imagined since riding up to the vine entangled gates of his family estate. Finding Mr. Harris suddenly by his side, he grabbed a handful of ivy and pulled it away. The overgrowth had attempted to hide that a gate even existed, but the tall iron finials lacquered in gold still signaled its location.

“A bit of ivy,” Harris stated as he aided him. “If that is the worst of it, then it will hardly take this lot more than a day to set right.”

Xavier smiled and pulled another course of vines aside. “The estate sits on hundreds of acres, Harris. You certainly could not have forgotten that. Then there is also the lower grounds of another two miles on its boarder.”

The man stopped. “A vast estate, Capt. That’s for certain.” The large man pulled with all his might, managing to rip away a massive swath of entanglement. Huffing as he continued to drag the mass toward the road, he peeked up to see Anna grinning at him. “Maybe her ladyship would like to help?”

“You are doing an excellent job, Mr. Harris,” she replied. “I would only be in the way.”

Harris chuckled. “Remember those word, Capt. You’re likely to run into them often enough.”

Xavier looked back to see his bride happily perched on the wagon seat. She looked the part of a queen. He could not be more proud to bring such a lady home to where his family had been set by the Crown. Of all the disrepair, he considered if he should not send word to his cousin and request an artist come to paint her portrait to bring beauty back into the house.

“There,” Harris stated with satisfaction. “That is a good beginning and what a sight to see through the bars!”

With a quick glance up toward his childhood home, Xavier took the iron key and forced the lock to turn. “Suddenly, I feel fortunate that my father replaced the old reinforced timbers with this iron rod. We would have had to burn down the gate if he hadn’t.”

Grabbing one side of the twin gate, he pulled until the sound of twigs snapping and the screeching of iron against neglected iron echoed in his ears. He was surprised the gate would move at all, believing he would need horse and rope to pry it from its stubborn sleep. Slowly, using his shoulder and digging deeply into the rocky soil with his boots, the massive door gave fully into his will. With a small satisfaction, he dusted his gloved hands and his shoulder. “Welcome to Ellenwood, Lady Anna.”

Her smile and gentle nod warmed his heart. Perhaps, he thought, not all was lost. In time, the estate would find a return to its grandeur, but it was the woman on the wagon that would make it breathtaking. Smiling at how easily he was distracted by her, he looked at the grass-covered lane that led to the main house. “You might as well have the herdsmen begin, Mr. Harris.”

“The sheep will be the size of horses once they’ve cleared all that, Capt.”

Xavier had to hide the smile on his face from the others. It was not unlike Harris to find a pithy way to turn a sour situation into something to laugh at. With the understanding that one must take a step forward to begin a journey, Xavier took his horse’s reins and lead it through the gate.

He could not help but note the overgrowth and lack of attention his father would assuredly roll in his grave if known. The pond was thick with weeds and vines had wrapped the fountain to the point that it sprayed water in only one direction. The lane, nearly unrecognizable. The grounds, nothing more than a field of grass nearly as high as his hip in some areas. Fortunately, the road was somewhat elevated, a way of shedding water his father once told him.

Onward he walked, evaluating all that he saw until Xavier forced himself to look at the state of the roofline and the front of the once grand home. “Harris,” he said over his shoulder. “We will work from the top down. Have five men go to the roof to see what must be done to keep the rain from doing more damage than it has. Another three or four to clear any blocking of the gutters and eaves. I want you to go to the roof of the tower and make certain no stone can be moved and that water will still flow down its sides.”

“Will do, Capt,” Harris replied. “Want me to have the horses put in the stable?”

Xavier smiled to himself. “Close the gate and let them wander. Maybe their grazing will help us find the lawn.”

“What would you like me to do, milord?” a shopkeeper asked eagerly.

“We must go from room to room, looking for damage. Windows broken from storms and ceilings that show signs of leaks from above.” He sighed as they neared the house. “It will take time to air out the place.” He turned and unfastened his horse’s halter. Rubbing its nose, his mind returned to the day he had left.

“And what can I do, Sir Xavier?” Anna asked.

His mind was forced into the present. Looking at Anna, he bowed. “I ask the pleasure of guiding you through what once was a grand home, milady.” Coming to the side of the wagon, he reach up to take her hand and helped her down. Seeing the sparkle in her eyes, he would have sold his entire estate for a moment longer. Offering his arm, he escorted her to the large main door. He reached into his satchel and produced a key then handed it to her. “Will you do me the honor?”

She smiled and set the key in place. With a little nudge, the massive door opened wide. “A pity you can’t carry me over the threshold,” she teased in a whisper.

Xavier had forgotten the custom. Without thought, he turned to the crowd. “Please, my dear friends, look away and for a moment remember what this house once was. It will set a picture in our minds of what we will create again.” When all turned, he bent quickly and swept her off her feet. Taking a step in, he grinned at her and set her gently to her feet.

“Ha!” she laughed. “They’ll gossip all night over what they think just happened.”

“Something odd happened, milady?” he asked knowingly. “What have you heard?”

Anna turned and looked into the vastness of the ceiling above her. “I will hear that the sheriff carried a lady over the threshold of his house, though no one saw it.”

“Such is the way of gossip,” he chuckled. Looking high into the ancient rafters, his joy began to seep away. The sunshine behind them sent sparkling dust-filled rays of light into the once inspiring grand hall. He sighed at the countless coverings of paintings and animal trophies that adorned the balcony above. “It was much more grand when I left,” he stated thoughtfully.

“It’s a wonder even now, milord,” she whispered back. “It just needs a woman’s touch…perhaps an army of women.”

Xavier burst with laughter and quickly covered his mouth. “Well, said. Care to see the house?”

“Every nook of it,” she replied watching numerous people passing her by. “But one day, I would like to see the stars from the tower roof.”

“I knew it was a poor idea for you to ride with Harris.”

Anna winked. “Whatever do you mean?” She batted her eyes in innocence. “Well, I can’t imagine what you were thinking, milord, but I happen to be found of gazing at the stars.”

Leading her to the grand stairs, Xavier attempted to set the image of the pair ‘gazing at the stars’ a side for the near future. Pointing out the numerous artifacts under dusting coverings as they ascend, Xavier found that of all the small tours he had done in the past could not compare to the one he gave now. With the excitement of a child wrapped tightly with a noble maturity, he stopped at the top of the stairs and allowed her a moment to take in the scene below. “Our family seal, milady,” he stated, pointing out the large wooden carving above the front door. “Persistence is victory,” Xavier read the engraved motto.

Anna smiled at him. “A valiant statement. And short.” She turned and looked down the halls. “Where are the other stairs?”

“Hidden behind the walls,” he stated, understanding her estimation of the height of the manner. “At each end of the halls are stairs to the rooms above. They were used for providing places to sleep visitors, but those types of things are not done as they once were.”

He guided her down the right hall to the end and pulled back the thick curtains covering a window. “When the main tower was converted and the second floor above the entry removed to create the large open space, my great grandfather added this wing to accommodate the family’s bedrooms.” He tapped on the wall beside him creating a thin thumping sound. “And also ways for the staff to move about without being seen.” With a smile, he pushed the panel, opening the hidden door that it was.

“Cleaver man,” Anna stated.

“All castles and great homes have secrets, but at the time, it was an elegant way to achieve the desired effect. The stairs behind lead all the way up to the roof and down into the kitchen and rooms for the staff. When I left, the upper rooms were used for those who worked within the house or for storage of unwanted furniture.”

Anna nodded. “So the family rooms are on this wing?”

“Yes, our rooms…my parent’s rooms are side by side along the right. Children’s rooms on the left.”

She looked at him with a peculiar smile. “Parent’s rooms? There are more than one?”

He chuckled. “It is customary to have separate rooms. A show of wealth or…well, not all marriages are—”

Anna began to walk ahead. “I understand what you mean, milord. But”, she hesitated and looked down the hall to make certain they were alone, “is it a custom you wish to keep?” she whispered.

Hiding his smile, he went to the nearest door and opened it. Walking into his father’s private rooms brought back a handful of memories. He was rarely in them as a child and only to be scorned privately. The large bed held the phantom image where he supposed the man spent his final hours. Pushing the unwanted memories away, Xavier crossed the room and began to pull back the heavy curtains.

“The doors were once thick oak,” he described as he nudged the stubborn window open. “My father had them replaced when I was a boy. They were always recessed from the hall but the remodel makes them appear deeper.” He turned to see her standing in the middle of the room, gazing at the ornate ceiling. “The rooms with the lowest ceilings are the oldest and the taller you find them—”

“The more recent the room was made,” she finished with a nod.

Xavier enjoyed her sharp mind, but it was her question in the hall that lingered in his mind. “Under this covering,” he stated, “is something that cannot be moved.” Walking to the tall object, he pulled down the thin cover and waved away the dust. “There is a matching wardrobe on the other side of this wall.”

Anna strolled closer. “Matching?”

He smiled as he opened the doors to reveal the open space inside. “Filled with clothing, it is invisible, but—” he began. With a push of a knothole and the sound of a hushed click, the back wall of the wardrobe opened like a door. He turned to see her smiling. “Nobles do have to find their way around protocol to have children after all.” Seeing her examine the novelty and nodding, he pointed out the workings of the door. Softly tapping the exposed wood of the back of the paired wardrobe, he finished his lecture. “Your side, milady, has the same knot, of course.”

“I’m beginning to envision ghostly sounds of clicking, people disappearing in wardrobes and unexplainable pregnancies.”

Xavier laughed. “Unfortunately, we will have to wait to see if that comes true.” Setting the door back in place, he stepped out of the wardrobe and closed the tall door. “I’m not allowed to be on the same wing with a certain unmarried Lady Anna.”

“I see,” Anna stated. Turning from him, she began to wander the room, tapping her finger against her lips. “But would it not be a gentlemanly thing to have me near? In case of intruders and the like?”

“The most, milady, I can offer are the rooms on the other wing. The people that have come with us know this house nearly as well as I do.”

“Gossip is one thing. A slight on a family’s reputation is another.”

Though he hated to admit it, she was right. Despite living under the same roof, they would have to follow customs. The room he stood in seemed to shout how it was already inappropriate for them to be alone within its walls. Xavier suddenly wished that they were back at the inn. They could sit and talk in their rooms without much care of what was said by the staff. Here, in his family’s manor, it would be impossible to repeat. “We will find ways,” he said stubbornly.

She smiled. “Well, perhaps you will show me to where I will stay?”

“It would be my honor, Lady Anna,” he replied with a bow.

Chapter 40

Anna breathed in the cool morning air as the wagon rattled along the road toward her future home. Looking over her shoulder, she smiled at the numerous carts and people that followed happily behind them. Word of the reopening of the old stately home had swept through the town and into the mining and logging camps with the speed of a wildfire. Anna felt proud of herself having used the old idea of farmers helping other farmers build barns together. With coin from her own purse, or saddlebag in this case, a gold coin would be placed in the hand of anyone who came and helped on the first day. Seeing the number of people fill the road behind her, she was thankful she was given such a large prize from the baron.

“You’ve done something special here, milady,” the man sitting next to her stated.

Anna chuckled. “Nothing has been done yet, Mr. Harris.”

Harris shook his head and gave a little more length to the reins in his hands. “Gave a sense a hope back to the town. Not with just this but coming into our lives.”

“And this place has given me purpose.”

“Two of a kind,” he chuckled. “Didn’t think it when you stepped out of that coach with your family, but you and Capt are alike in many ways.”

Anna liked the sound of that and raised her chin to the morning sun. “I think we are very different. Sir Xavier is…well, he’s…I guess I don’t have the right words for it.”

“You both are of the same side of the coin, miss,” he chuckled. “Oh, I mean, milady.”

“You can call me Miss, if you like, Harris. Just not around Xavier.”

The comment brought on another chuckle from the man. “He made us laugh like that when we got down in the mouth.”

“Really?” Anna thought back on her husband’s dry sense of humor, but wondered what he was like before all that had happened. “You knew him before the war, didn’t you, Mr. Harris?”

“I did, Miss. His father hired me on as a stable worker and liked how I cared for the horses and property. Soon enough, I was put in charge of the whole estate. The outside, of course. Didn’t have the training to be someone who waited at table or such. But that young man riding up there ahead of us was the most curious boy I had met. Always sneaking out, coming to the stables and asking questions while we worked. Wasn’t long before we were showing him how to do our trade. ‘Course, he took to it like a fish to water. And it wasn’t just the men of the stables. He would watch the staff in the house too.”

Anna laughed. “A curious boy for certain. Did the staff mind?”

“Well,” he shrugged, “not much. There is a line that shouldn’t be crossed and he had his rear smacked with a stick by his father more than once for it. Didn’t slow him much. He would just find another way around it. But a giving boy, that’s for certain.”

“How so?”

“When he was older, his father gave him responsibilities so he would learn how to run the estate. If you had a concern or complaint, we were to go to Capt. He would not speak until you were done having your say. If a wheel needed replacing or a mare grew too old to manage, I would come tell him. He might ask a question or two, such is the mind the One gave him, but they were honest and direct. Once, I had a troubled day and complained about a man that wasn’t pulling his weight. You know what he said to me?”

Anna shook her head. “Astonish me.”

Harris chuckled at the memory. “He said, ‘Mr. Harris, have you given this man a warning?’. I told him I had so he tells me, ‘You are my Head Keeper and I trust your words. Warn him once again and let him be the reason he stays or leaves us’. Can you imagine a boy of fourteen saying that?” Harris laughed. “But there’s one time, before the wars, that I will never forget for as long as I breathe.”

She turned toward the sight of her husband and smiled. “You have my attention, Mr. Harris.”

“I was secretly married to one of the maids in the house. It was against the rules, mind you. A reason to be sent packing.” He smiled as the memory unfolded in his mind. “Helen was her name and we couldn’t keep our hands off each other, but it had to be kept a secret. Well, all the staff had secrets so it didn’t mean much to them, but to the family, that was a different matter.”

“You had to hide your marriage from Xavier’s family? For how long?”

“About two years, but the crux of it is we had to make sure we didn’t have children until we could save enough to leave and start a new life. A tough thing to do on a working man’s wage, Miss.”

“So I’m told, Mr. Harris. Go on.”

“So Capt’s father decides that he is going to take his wife on a grand trip. Be gone for months. Capt was about eighteen or so and was to be away to visit his cousin. Well,” he shrugged.

Anna nodded. “A married couple couldn’t possibly give up such a chance to be together.”

“Right you are. It was summer, you see, and the a few of the house staff would sometimes escape the heat and sleep on the roof of the old tower. So one night, I paid ten copper for them not to.”

“I believe a romantic scene is in the making,” she said.

Harris smiled. “It was our second anniversary. Wanted to do something special. That was the plan anyway.”

“She was scare of heights?”

“Nope, we were laying on that rooftop under blanket, naked as could be. Then Capt comes poppin’ up through the hatch. Scared us so much that we could have leapt right into our graves.” He laughed. “Capt just apologized and went back down. Didn’t sack us or give us trouble after. He didn’t even hint to anyone that it happened. Later, found a coin purse under my blanket with ten gold pieces. He would have made a fine thief breaking into the servant’s house like that.”

Anna shook her head as she watched her husband ride slowly ahead. For some reason, the story didn’t surprise her. “But what was he doing on the roof of the house?”

“Probably going to sit up there and look at the stars. Did that a lot. The older he got, the more he liked being alone. Still asked questions, but not as often. He liked to ride as a boy. Daring little sap. But as time went on, he started to walk the grounds. You’ve seen him pace. Just like that. Hands behind his back, head down, walking in smaller and smaller circles as if trying to figure out how the whole world worked.”

“And what happened later? I mean with your wife?”

“The war,” Harris stated sadly. “While we were gone hacking and slashing our way through each day, an terrible sickness spread in this town. Some say one and seven died, others say more. Still, it took my Helen and it took Capt’s parents. No one left untouched by that vicious scourge.”

“I’m very sorry to hear about your wife,” Anna said softly. “It must have been a terrible thing to come back to.”

Harris nodded. “It was that, Miss. But, sad as the time was, Capt helped me and the boy through. Gave us jobs to focus on instead of more loss.”

“I think your staying with him helped Xavier just as much.” Anna thought about all the loss they had in their lives and understood more how the three had stayed together. From the tales of their battles to the lives they had before and after, it was not difficult to see how much they needed one another. “Am I going to be a cause of trouble between your bond?”

“Nope. I imagine you’ll be too busy running that,” he stated with a nod ahead.

Anna turned to see the bramble covered walls along the road and the half hidden height of a stone tower. She turned quickly to see Xavier begin to slow and point further up the road. “Is it a keep?” she asked.

“The tower was the first to be built,” Harris answered. “Through the ages the family continued to build around it. Now the tower is its center.”

She fidgeted in her seat anxious to see more of her future home. As the long caravan followed the man on horseback and her wagon, Anna looked at the landscape and was pleased with the overlook of the river below and the forests that crept onward. “A beautiful view.”

Harris chuckled. “Wait until you see it from the top of the tower, Miss.”

* * *

Signaling the traveling party behind him to stop, Xavier felt the tingle of nerves as he dismounted. It had been a longer than he had imagined since riding up to the vine entangled gates of his family estate. Finding Mr. Harris suddenly by his side, he grabbed a handful of ivy and pulled it away. The overgrowth had attempted to hide that a gate even existed, but the tall iron finials lacquered in gold still signaled its location.

“A bit of ivy,” Harris stated as he aided him. “If that is the worst of it, then it will hardly take this lot more than a day to set right.”

Xavier smiled and pulled another course of vines aside. “The estate sits on hundreds of acres, Harris. You certainly could not have forgotten that. Then there is also the lower grounds of another two miles on its boarder.”

The man stopped. “A vast estate, Capt. That’s for certain.” The large man pulled with all his might, managing to rip away a massive swath of entanglement. Huffing as he continued to drag the mass toward the road, he peeked up to see Anna grinning at him. “Maybe her ladyship would like to help?”

“You are doing an excellent job, Mr. Harris,” she replied. “I would only be in the way.”

Harris chuckled. “Remember those word, Capt. You’re likely to run into them often enough.”

Xavier looked back to see his bride happily perched on the wagon seat. She looked the part of a queen. He could not be more proud to bring such a lady home to where his family had been set by the Crown. Of all the disrepair, he considered if he should not send word to his cousin and request an artist come to paint her portrait to bring beauty back into the house.

“There,” Harris stated with satisfaction. “That is a good beginning and what a sight to see through the bars!”

With a quick glance up toward his childhood home, Xavier took the iron key and forced the lock to turn. “Suddenly, I feel fortunate that my father replaced the old reinforced timbers with this iron rod. We would have had to burn down the gate if he hadn’t.”

Grabbing one side of the twin gate, he pulled until the sound of twigs snapping and the screeching of iron against neglected iron echoed in his ears. He was surprised the gate would move at all, believing he would need horse and rope to pry it from its stubborn sleep. Slowly, using his shoulder and digging deeply into the rocky soil with his boots, the massive door gave fully into his will. With a small satisfaction, he dusted his gloved hands and his shoulder. “Welcome to Ellenwood, Lady Anna.”

Her smile and gentle nod warmed his heart. Perhaps, he thought, not all was lost. In time, the estate would find a return to its grandeur, but it was the woman on the wagon that would make it breathtaking. Smiling at how easily he was distracted by her, he looked at the grass-covered lane that led to the main house. “You might as well have the herdsmen begin, Mr. Harris.”

“The sheep will be the size of horses once they’ve cleared all that, Capt.”

Xavier had to hide the smile on his face from the others. It was not unlike Harris to find a pithy way to turn a sour situation into something to laugh at. With the understanding that one must take a step forward to begin a journey, Xavier took his horse’s reins and lead it through the gate.

He could not help but note the overgrowth and lack of attention his father would assuredly roll in his grave if known. The pond was thick with weeds and vines had wrapped the fountain to the point that it sprayed water in only one direction. The lane, nearly unrecognizable. The grounds, nothing more than a field of grass nearly as high as his hip in some areas. Fortunately, the road was somewhat elevated, a way of shedding water his father once told him.

Onward he walked, evaluating all that he saw until Xavier forced himself to look at the state of the roofline and the front of the once grand home. “Harris,” he said over his shoulder. “We will work from the top down. Have five men go to the roof to see what must be done to keep the rain from doing more damage than it has. Another three or four to clear any blocking of the gutters and eaves. I want you to go to the roof of the tower and make certain no stone can be moved and that water will still flow down its sides.”

“Will do, Capt,” Harris replied. “Want me to have the horses put in the stable?”

Xavier smiled to himself. “Close the gate and let them wander. Maybe their grazing will help us find the lawn.”

“What would you like me to do, milord?” a shopkeeper asked eagerly.

“We must go from room to room, looking for damage. Windows broken from storms and ceilings that show signs of leaks from above.” He sighed as they neared the house. “It will take time to air out the place.” He turned and unfastened his horse’s halter. Rubbing its nose, his mind returned to the day he had left.

“And what can I do, Sir Xavier?” Anna asked.

His mind was forced into the present. Looking at Anna, he bowed. “I ask the pleasure of guiding you through what once was a grand home, milady.” Coming to the side of the wagon, he reach up to take her hand and helped her down. Seeing the sparkle in her eyes, he would have sold his entire estate for a moment longer. Offering his arm, he escorted her to the large main door. He reached into his satchel and produced a key then handed it to her. “Will you do me the honor?”

She smiled and set the key in place. With a little nudge, the massive door opened wide. “A pity you can’t carry me over the threshold,” she teased in a whisper.

Xavier had forgotten the custom. Without thought, he turned to the crowd. “Please, my dear friends, look away and for a moment remember what this house once was. It will set a picture in our minds of what we will create again.” When all turned, he bent quickly and swept her off her feet. Taking a step in, he grinned at her and set her gently to her feet.

“Ha!” she laughed. “They’ll gossip all night over what they think just happened.”

“Something odd happened, milady?” he asked knowingly. “What have you heard?”

Anna turned and looked into the vastness of the ceiling above her. “I will hear that the sheriff carried a lady over the threshold of his house, though no one saw it.”

“Such is the way of gossip,” he chuckled. Looking high into the ancient rafters, his joy began to seep away. The sunshine behind them sent sparkling dust-filled rays of light into the once inspiring grand hall. He sighed at the countless coverings of paintings and animal trophies that adorned the balcony above. “It was much more grand when I left,” he stated thoughtfully.

“It’s a wonder even now, milord,” she whispered back. “It just needs a woman’s touch…perhaps an army of women.”

Xavier burst with laughter and quickly covered his mouth. “Well, said. Care to see the house?”

“Every nook of it,” she replied watching numerous people passing her by. “But one day, I would like to see the stars from the tower roof.”

“I knew it was a poor idea for you to ride with Harris.”

Anna winked. “Whatever do you mean?” She batted her eyes in innocence. “Well, I can’t imagine what you were thinking, milord, but I happen to be found of gazing at the stars.”

Leading her to the grand stairs, Xavier attempted to set the image of the pair ‘gazing at the stars’ a side for the near future. Pointing out the numerous artifacts under dusting coverings as they ascend, Xavier found that of all the small tours he had done in the past could not compare to the one he gave now. With the excitement of a child wrapped tightly with a noble maturity, he stopped at the top of the stairs and allowed her a moment to take in the scene below. “Our family seal, milady,” he stated, pointing out the large wooden carving above the front door. “Persistence is victory,” Xavier read the engraved motto.

Anna smiled at him. “A valiant statement. And short.” She turned and looked down the halls. “Where are the other stairs?”

“Hidden behind the walls,” he stated, understanding her estimation of the height of the manner. “At each end of the halls are stairs to the rooms above. They were used for providing places to sleep visitors, but those types of things are not done as they once were.”

He guided her down the right hall to the end and pulled back the thick curtains covering a window. “When the main tower was converted and the second floor above the entry removed to create the large open space, my great grandfather added this wing to accommodate the family’s bedrooms.” He tapped on the wall beside him creating a thin thumping sound. “And also ways for the staff to move about without being seen.” With a smile, he pushed the panel, opening the hidden door that it was.

“Cleaver man,” Anna stated.

“All castles and great homes have secrets, but at the time, it was an elegant way to achieve the desired effect. The stairs behind lead all the way up to the roof and down into the kitchen and rooms for the staff. When I left, the upper rooms were used for those who worked within the house or for storage of unwanted furniture.”

Anna nodded. “So the family rooms are on this wing?”

“Yes, our rooms…my parent’s rooms are side by side along the right. Children’s rooms on the left.”

She looked at him with a peculiar smile. “Parent’s rooms? There are more than one?”

He chuckled. “It is customary to have separate rooms. A show of wealth or…well, not all marriages are—”

Anna began to walk ahead. “I understand what you mean, milord. But”, she hesitated and looked down the hall to make certain they were alone, “is it a custom you wish to keep?” she whispered.

Hiding his smile, he went to the nearest door and opened it. Walking into his father’s private rooms brought back a handful of memories. He was rarely in them as a child and only to be scorned privately. The large bed held the phantom image where he supposed the man spent his final hours. Pushing the unwanted memories away, Xavier crossed the room and began to pull back the heavy curtains.

“The doors were once thick oak,” he described as he nudged the stubborn window open. “My father had them replaced when I was a boy. They were always recessed from the hall but the remodel makes them appear deeper.” He turned to see her standing in the middle of the room, gazing at the ornate ceiling. “The rooms with the lowest ceilings are the oldest and the taller you find them—”

“The more recent the room was made,” she finished with a nod.

Xavier enjoyed her sharp mind, but it was her question in the hall that lingered in his mind. “Under this covering,” he stated, “is something that cannot be moved.” Walking to the tall object, he pulled down the thin cover and waved away the dust. “There is a matching wardrobe on the other side of this wall.”

Anna strolled closer. “Matching?”

He smiled as he opened the doors to reveal the open space inside. “Filled with clothing, it is invisible, but—” he began. With a push of a knothole and the sound of a hushed click, the back wall of the wardrobe opened like a door. He turned to see her smiling. “Nobles do have to find their way around protocol to have children after all.” Seeing her examine the novelty and nodding, he pointed out the workings of the door. Softly tapping the exposed wood of the back of the paired wardrobe, he finished his lecture. “Your side, milady, has the same knot, of course.”

“I’m beginning to envision ghostly sounds of clicking, people disappearing in wardrobes and unexplainable pregnancies.”

Xavier laughed. “Unfortunately, we will have to wait to see if that comes true.” Setting the door back in place, he stepped out of the wardrobe and closed the tall door. “I’m not allowed to be on the same wing with a certain unmarried Lady Anna.”

“I see,” Anna stated. Turning from him, she began to wander the room, tapping her finger against her lips. “But would it not be a gentlemanly thing to have me near? In case of intruders and the like?”

“The most, milady, I can offer are the rooms on the other wing. The people that have come with us know this house nearly as well as I do.”

“Gossip is one thing. A slight on a family’s reputation is another.”

Though he hated to admit it, she was right. Despite living under the same roof, they would have to follow customs. The room he stood in seemed to shout how it was already inappropriate for them to be alone within its walls. Xavier suddenly wished that they were back at the inn. They could sit and talk in their rooms without much care of what was said by the staff. Here, in his family’s manor, it would be impossible to repeat. “We will find ways,” he said stubbornly.

She smiled. “Well, perhaps you will show me to where I will stay?”

“It would be my honor, Lady Anna,” he replied with a bow.

Chapter 41

“What should we do today?” Anna asked as she watched husband climb into the saddle his horse.

“A slow ride into town to see if Jeffers has lost complete control of our people?”

Anna laughed as she nudged her horse forward. “Harris is there. I imagine little gets past him. And Jeffers isn’t an idiot, Xavier. He’s just young.”

They began to ride down the lane toward the gates of their estate. “I sometimes wonder about his mental faculties. He was a boy when we left and there are many that did not come home with a firm grasp of reality.”

“You think he witnessed too much in your battles?”

Xavier lifted a low hanging branch for her to ride under. “Each of us saw too much, milady. I cannot blame a person who returns home with some ill change in them. With all the horrors we witnessed, there are some that have truly changed, and we must be mindful of that.”

“Like your tremor?”

He knew she had seen the unconscious trembling of his hand, but the defect did not look better in the light of honesty. “Yes, my dear.”

“Say that again,” she said with a smile.

“Yes?”

Anna laughed. “No. ‘My dear’. It reminds me that I’m special to you.”

Xavier was concerned. “Have I not shown you are special to me?”

“You have, milord, but I still like to hear it.”

“I suppose that I have slipped back into the stagnating roll of—”

“A bit,” she interrupted. “But I know that you have obligations and must present yourself in certain ways in front of others. Personally, I think you have a calming presence.”

“Harris and Jeffers would have another opinion.”

Anna nodded. “Perhaps, but they don’t want to kiss you either.”

She beamed brighter than the sun and Xavier reveled in it. No one had made him laugh after the war as she had and quite effortlessly, it seemed to him. Having looked over the welfare of others, Xavier had cared for no other like he felt for her. In Anna’s smile and laughter, he saw life and wished for it in abundance.

“Have you considered what you wish your wedding band to be made of?” he asked, thinking of their future.

“I haven’t thought of it at all, actually,” she replied. “I will be the happiest woman alive with whatever you choose.”

Xavier wondered about that. “You seem to like silver. Perhaps something done in both gold and silver?”

“Can such a thing be afforded on your salary, my love?”

“I have not shown you the vault in the cellar. I believe we can manage a ring.”

“Well, I don’t want to know what you have planned. Surprise me!”

This was going to be difficult and he began to consider who he might employ to help him make the decision. He ran through the list of women he knew. Most were quickly set aside for no other reason than not knowing what might be in fashion. There was Bella, of course, but that had its own drawbacks. His mind drew a blank of who he would find suitable.

“I believe I will make a rather good sort of mother,” Anna stated.

Xavier nearly dropped his reins at the announcement. “You aren’t—”

“No,” she stated. “But I have been thinking about it. Have you?”

“I wish I had, actually. With the opening of the manner, I have been rather distracted.”

Anna smiled. “I wonder if maybe tonight, I might distract you.”

He laughed, but relished the idea. “Planning to travel through walls, milady?”

“Only if the ghost does not appear in my bedroom first, milord.” Anna chuckled. “But perhaps the ghosts would like to haunt the top of the tower tonight?”

Xavier looked quickly up to the sky. “If you don’t mind rain.”

“I’ve been subjected to cold water before,” Anna smiled. “Oh, maybe we should change the subject before we get into town. The men will not take me seriously if I’m starring at you longingly across the table.”

The thought of them together on the rooftop was difficult to displace. He looked to the river only to imagine them there. Turning his attention to the road, he saw a copse of trees that would hide them from view. “Anna, you have enchanted me. I can look nowhere without a certain scene painted in my mind.”

“That is why you must be careful when falling in love with an enchantress!”

Xavier was amused, but knew he must find a way to change the subject. The weather, he thought would be a safe enough topic to discuss. “If we have rains for more than a few day, the river will swell.”

Anna looked at him with raised eyebrows and a knowing grin.

“Hopeless,” he said shaking his head. “Must everything remind me?”

She said nothing in reply, but he did not need many guesses to know what she was thinking from the grin on her face. Fortunately, they were nearly to town and might be able to force his thoughts elsewhere with the needs of the people. He hoped.

Rounding the corner and entering town, Xavier noticed the many eyes that met them. From what he could tell, the people seemed glad for his return which was a rather odd change. Most smiled before but found a way to flee from any direct contact. He had always considered it a type reaction to the shame in their own lives or the avoidance of his stoic personality. Today, however, there were waves and greetings. Looking to his side, seeing the beautiful woman he traveled with, Xavier understood the reason for new experience. He felt proud. “They are very fond of you, Lady Anna,” he said, remembering to use a more formal title.

“I’m listening to them, Sir Xavier and I can tell you they are happy for the change in you and our future.”

Xavier let the idea seep in as they road to the jail house. The change in the people of Kedalpoint seemed uncomfortable, though he wished it hadn’t. It was easy enough to understand that the people would prefer a happier lord over their lives, but their reaction reminded him of how long they had spent under his gloom. He had not considered that the frustration he felt from not being able to forget the past would affect so many around him. Embarrassed or not, he knew that they had, in a way, been forced to suffer with him.

Finding himself before the jail house, Xavier pulled back on the reins, swung his leg around the rear end of his mount and dropped to the ground in a single movement.

“You are very agile, milord sheriff,” Anna commented as she stepped down from her horse. “You will have to teach me that someday.”

Xavier looked back and recounted his action. “An old habit learned quite by accident.” He had forgotten exactly how he had learned the movement. Though certainly not done in a style befitting a noble, the need to move from saddle to ground was an important skill to have in times of war. Nodding to the thought, he helped his wife from her horse and moved to the thick wooden door. Opening it for her, he smiled at her obvious change into her role as enchantress.

“Milady!” the young man stated happily when they entered.

“How are you today, Mr. Jeffers?” Anna replied. “Has Mr. Harris slept late?”

Xavier saw the respectful nod to him from the young man and walked into the office to see what had been delivered to him while he was away.

“Gone to buy some coffee beans, milady,” Jeffers answered.

Xavier smirked at the hearing of the young man’s answer knowing the reason for the increase of coffee supplies. Going through the pile of new warrants he found himself happy that the Jeffers had begun to be more accepting of his wife. Xavier did not blame him for being shy as she was a beauty to behold. He was torn from this thought when a scream accosted his ears. With no thought in his mind, he blinked toward the main room through the open door and appeared at the table.

There, with eyes filled with a unnerving wildness, stood Jeffers holding a knife to his beloved’s throat.

“I got her Capt!” Jeffers said excitedly. “Knew I could beat you to it!”

Xavier’s heart nearly stopped at the sound of his words. “Jeffers,” he began, raising his hand for lad to be still, “lower your weapon.”

“But she’s a Seether! Now, run her through!” the young man called.

He had seen the look before. From the unadulterated terrors in the eerie woods of his past, men had such a look in their eyes before going mad with fright. Xavier shook his head slowly and attempted to speak calmly. “She is not a Seether, Jeffers. Please, set the dagger aside and let her go.”

“Of course she is, Capt! Now, run her through like you did before and gain her power. You and I can go to Ardencroft and kill the others. We will be invincible!”

Xavier’s eyes flashed to Anna’s; his heart nearly in his throat. “Jeffers—”

The pair before him vanished and reappeared in another corner. “See, I’m as good as the others. Better, even! I didn’t understand what you were doing at first, killing the others, but I understand now. One can grow stronger with each kill. I can be your second in your ruling!”

“Jeffers. Listen closely to me, boy. It is not what you think.”

“Testing me, aren’t yah, Capt.” Jeffers said. “I killed the old woman so she wouldn’t tell no one about us. But then you went and burned the coven’s hiding place. That’s when I figured it out what you were up to.”

“He thinks you’re the fifth warlock, Xavier,” Anna said in a trembling voice.

Xavier’s heartbeat quickened.

“I know it for a fact!” Jeffers said eagerly. “You gave me the warlock’s ring, Capt. Didn’t understand until the humming stopped when I put it on. I’ve watched you so I could learn and be a warlock just like you. When you killed the last of the coven in Kedalpoint to get take their power, then I understood our future.”

The door of the jail house sudden swung open. “What in all hells, boy!” Harris yelled.

“Kill him, Capt!”

Xavier saw the young man’s arm began to rise. Though he could not completely make out the quick words uttered from his mouth, Xavier knew the spell would be deadly. Without thought, he stepped in front of the blast. The force of the spell was immensely powerful, knocking both he and Harris through the doorway and to the ground outside. Xavier grabbed his chest feeling his lungs expand. Taking two quick breathes, he countered the evil spell that would make his chest explode. Rolling to his knees, he slammed his fists into Harris’ chest. The man began to violently cough, but would live.

Anna’s scream forced Xavier’s eyes up to the empty space they once occupied. Scrabbling to his feet, he caught a glimpse of the pair in the middle of the road. Xavier blinked but Jeffers was on the roof with his bride before he arrived. Again he followed, but was too late, left only with the echo of a demented laughter. The boy was powerful and fast. He turned to see them on the bridge. With rage, pushing fear aside, he blinked.

Looking around on his arrival, he saw the image of Anna appear and disappear down the road. With a deep breath and squinting of his eyes, he attempted his longest leap. Sliding against the rocks of the road as he appeared, Xavier scrambled forward until he was running toward their new position. They blinked again and reappeared in the tall wheat of a nearby field. Pushing himself, he made the journey using the last of his strength.

There, in broad daylight, not twenty feet between them, the young man stood with the eyes of a mad man.

“Dagger,” he heard Anna’s voice in his ear.

“Why didn’t you kill me in the tent, Capt?” Jeffers yelled to him.

Xavier shook his head. To beat the crazed young man, he would have to beat him using his mind. “You are a fool!” he exclaimed. Raising is dagger, he pretended to merely point with it. “You of all people should know that a coven should only contain the strongest! You had to prove yourself worthy!”

“Higher,” he heard her voice again.

“I knew you saw how strong I was!” Jeffers called back to him. “But why won’t you let me kill this witch?”

Xavier lifted the dagger higher, estimating the height of the young man’s eye. The thought of running him through turned his stomach. “She must be given to the Dark One!” The mere idea sickened him, but understood he must have Jeffers lower his blade from her throat. “We cannot make new rituals for our own pleasure!”

“A bit more, my love,” he heard her words in his ear.

Attempting to muster all that had, Xavier prepared to race through the air. To his horror, he suddenly realized what Anna was doing. Before he could react, he saw her hand grab Jeffers’ hand at her throat. In the smallest of moments, the pair slammed into him. The impact of his blade into the young man’s skull nearly broke his wrist. The force knocked him off his feet and Anna’s body crashed into him in the same moment.

Rolling to his side, he saw her sit up holding her bloodied cheek. “Anna!” he yelled in fear. Pushing himself up onto his knees, he climbed over Jeffers’ body and pressed his uninjured hand over her wounded cheek to stop the bleeding. With anxious eyes, he scanned her throat for the deadliest cut one can make.

With tear-filled eyes, she clanged to him.

He pried her away, fearing she had been hurt elsewhere. “Tell me where you are cut.”

“I’m whole,” she said through her tears, then quickly grimaced in pain as she touched her cheek. “You have a hard head.”

Xavier could not keep the tears of joy from blurring his eyes. Wiping them aside, he pulled out his handkerchief and moved her hand aside. Having seen many injuries, his eyes could hardly comprehend how the expected deep slash across her throat was nonexistent. “It will heal, my dear.”

She pressed her hand against his. Her tear-filled eyes wandered to the sight of the body. Anna turned away quickly and closed her eyes, burying her head into his chest. “You promised me I wouldn’t have to kill anyone again.”

He took her carefully in her arms and placed his hand on her head. “You beat me to it.”

“I’m faster,” Anna offered in her sobs. “Didn’t you hear me tell you that?”

Chapter 42

Lying in bed, cradled in the warmth of the man she loved, Anna listened to the rain drops tap against the large windows of the bedroom. Closing her eyes and remembering the evening’s secret event, she could see the tears in Harris’ eyes as he lit the makeshift funeral pyre and feel the small tremble in Xavier’s hand in hers. A quick and hidden funeral, despite the young man’s actions, was what they needed and she did not regret forcing them to find a way to forgive Jeffers’ actions and say goodbye to a friend.

Anna knew Xavier hid the pain of losing the boy. He was silent and would not say last words before the body was burned. One day, she considered, he would mention the loss and would take solace in knowing she was there for him. Until such a time, she would leave him to his thoughts on the feelings he might have.

With the itching sensation reappearing, she reached up to touch the bandage over her cheek.

“You must leave it to heal,” Xavier whispered.

Anna smiled and put her hand in his. Listening to his heartbeat, she felt tired but her mind would not let her sleep. “Do you think we will be found out?”

“I doubt anyone believes the ‘secret’ of our marriage. The lady of the house may do as she pleases,” he said softly.

“The lady of the house wanted to lie on the roof and look at the stars with her husband. I wonder which would cause more gossip?”

Xavier shifted his body against the many pillows that propped him up. “Perhaps you might change the subject.”

She flinched as her smiled pulled at the new stitches. “Well, we can talk about the lovely scar I will have.”

“I doubt it will be noticeable, Anna,” he replied. “Only someone coming very near will be able to notice and I am very unlikely to let others so close to you.” He sighed. “You should not have taken such a chance.”

Anna understood his words. “He was out of breath. You were fatigued. It made sense to do all that I could.”

“A dangerous choice.”

“But one that worked well enough. Maybe this scar will be a reminder to think things through. But I blame you for the headache.”

Xavier chuckled. “I will take the blame if you lay it at my doorstep, milady.”

“You are too quick to take blame, my love.” Looking at the dark glass of the windows glimmer with the distant lightening, she thought of how much they had been through. Their time together, though memorable to be certain, had a certain darkness that attempted to overshadow the softer moments. Anna did not want anything to steal her joy in finding a man she could love.

“I feel responsible for Jeffers,” Xavier said softly.

Anna was surprise he was so forthcoming. “You protected him from all that you could, Xavier. The choice to follow darker things is not your fault.”

“I was a type of parent to him and failed to see his plight.”

“Because he had a ring that hid him from you…and me. I do pity the loss you and Harris have gone through, but no one can blame either of you.”

Xavier gently moved her from his chest, and shifted to a space beside her in the large four-post bed. “I gave him the warlock’s ring.”

She fluffed a pillow and lie on her back. “As treasure,” Anna reminded him.

“The others, I did not recognize their place in all of this,” he said, sitting up. “Anna, how could I have been so ignorant? I thought them only bandits or criminals.”

“And you were right.”

He scooted to the side of the bed and stood. Wrapping himself in a robe, Xavier walked to the window. “Do you think Jeffers was correct?” He touched the glass and traced the diagonal sections. “Do you imagine that I am what he said?”

Anna had wondered if he would mention such a thing and was happy that she had thought the subject through. “I think it is possible that you took the warlock’s place but not in your heart.”

He turned and started to pace before the fireplace. “The others, I assume, did not expect me to come after them because they thought I was one of them.”

“That is what I think,” Anna agreed. She sat up in bed and covered herself with the silken bed sheets. “Jeffers hid and watched, but the others were—”

“Ignorant or blinded by power,” he finished. “Your sister was correct in saying that I have wandered into something dangerous. Those that attacked us at the castle knew something of us and we walked quite easily into their trap. They must have thought we were weaker. Why else attack us so openly?”

Anna smiled. “They did not expect to deal with such a talented hunter.”

“Or such a talented enchantress,” he added quickly. “What if Jeffers and the others were wrong? What if there is another Seether?”

“Perhaps, but I’ve been thinking of what Bella told us as well. There are more than just those you fought in the past and they are scattered around like pebbles. But you are ignoring a few facts and I can state them with all the confidence in the world.”

Xavier stopped and looked at her. “And these facts are?”

“The Seethers will now know you are not one of them and that you do not wish to be one of them.”

“I would assume that is true.”

Anna continued. “Those that have other gifts feel you are a threat to them.”

“Let us not forget you are also considered a threat to those with talents,” he added. “That is my greatest concern.”

Anna beamed with pride that Xavier considered her such an ally. Touching her bandage, she began to think out loud. “Those that attacked us in the city don’t cause humming in our ears so we must find another way to identify them. I can only think of one way to begin with tracking each of those that would cause harm.”

Xavier moved to the side of the bed and sat, patiently listening to her words. “Go on, brave enchantress.”

“Bella.”

He shook his head. “My dearest love, I would not wish to be a league closer to your sister than I have to be.”

“But she has information about things we don’t,” Anna stated softly. “She did tell us of the others and warned us—”

“After the fact,” Xavier interrupted. “Bella protects her secret by spying and holding others hostage with such knowledge. She has and always will be one that will give out information when it suits her. Bella is not the ally you are hoping for.”

Anna took his hand. “She’s afraid, Xavier. I can tell.”

“As she bloody well should be.”

Pressing her finger to his lips to calm him, Anna moved closer to him. “You care for her, don’t you?”

“She is not in my thoughts, Anna. You consume most of my mind.”

“I’m happy to hear it, but that isn’t what I meant. She is a friend, of sorts. I don’t want to know what has happened in the past between you two, but I know you were once close. She can’t have you now,” she said with a smile. “Still, Bella will always be my sister and in my life so we must not simply cast her away.”

Xavier sighed. “Do be careful around her. Sister or not, she will protect herself at any cost. She found your mother, yet still leaves her to live in a hovel. What does that tell you?”

“She keeps her alive the best she can. I have no illusions about her, Xavier, but that doesn’t sever the tie.” Anna watched him closely and found there was something that was separating him from the moment. “Tell me.”

He closed his eyes and sighed. “She may be correct.”

“In what way?”

“If there should be a royal plan for Ardencroft, then we are unlikely to divert it. I only wish that Kedalpoint not be in line for the Crown’s attention.”

Anna understood his desire for the town and its people to be saved from more hardship. Kedalpoint had become a home she cared for, though it was much different than any she had known. There was a sense of peace and neighborly love that appeared not to exist in any other. It was worth fighting for.

“The baron of Ardencroft is the head of all the landowners such as yourself?”

With a small movement of his head, Xavier told her it was so.

“Then,” Anna continued, “would we not be in a position to keep it safe?”

“In theory.”

“What do you suspect will happen should your cousin come to a bad end?”

Xavier began to stoke her hair, lost in thought. “Patrick knew the city better than anyone and he had been attacked in his very home, under the watchful eye of those he keeps to protect him. What would you imagine we might do better to keep the same from happening to us?”

“Bella.”

He chuckled. “You have too much faith in her, my dear. No one person can manage all of that.”

“You said she was a spy. Doesn’t that mean she knows people who would alert us to danger?”

“Dearest, I am not certain that she can keep herself from the changes that may come.”

Anna thought for a moment as she watch a sense of helplessness grow in her husband’s face. “I suppose we don’t have enough in the vault to simply buy off the Crown?”

Xavier smiled. “I’m certain of it.”

“The Prince must have a strong desire to take over the city to go to such horrible extremes. I wonder what it is that he wants?”

“I think you give the man too much credit. It is either power or coin. This land has not changed to entice a new desire for the land. It is as it always has been.”

Anna smirked. “But if something had, I’m sure my sister would know about it.”

Xavier breathed deeply. “Perhaps another conversation to be had in the morning.”

Anna kissed his lips and stroked his cheek. “Yes. Let’s put things aside tonight and just listen to the storm together. Tomorrow’s troubles and answers will come soon enough.”

Chapter 43

With the sun slowly setting, Isabella looked through the window at the city of Ardencroft as if it were the last time she would view it. The gray slate of the roofs and the smoke rising from the chimneys had been a scene she had grown up with and one that brought comfort. Within days, if all went to plan, she would say goodbye to the familiar structures and begin a new life. Turning from the view, she let the heavy curtains slip back in place and turned her attention to the sound of footsteps coming down the stairs. The physicians, who had come at noon, would soon enter the library and tell her that her father was dead.

Walking to a high-back chair, she picked up the book she had been reading throughout the day and sat. Her eyes glanced over to the secret door hoping to note her friend and love was nearby. She felt nothing. “Where could he be?” she whispered.

As the footsteps neared the door and a knock was heard, she stood and put on a brave face. The time she had dreaded had come too quickly and, without the presence of her love, she would apparently face it alone. As the door opened, Isabella bowed her head at the appearance of the physicians. “Gentlemen, how is it with my father?”

Each looked at the other, before one spoke for both. “I am sorry to tell you, milady, that your father has left this world.”

How odd it was that she felt a sting at the words after having known her parent had not been with her for many weeks. Throughout the time, his body gave false clues that he only slept. Isabella realized that she had allowed a part of herself to believe it as well. His slow breathing had brought her comfort despite knowing it was only a spell that had accomplished the charade.

“I thank you for your attendance, gentlemen,” she offered. “I will make the necessary arrangements and I will mourn the life of a good and kind man.”

One of the physicians bowed to her. “Our condolences, milady. Your father was a patron of our studies and work. If you would allow me, I will send for a priest on your behalf.”

“A great kindness, sir,” she replied. Watching the man leave, her eyes fell on the remaining physician. “I do not have words to express my gratitude for your diligent work. The pestilence has ruthlessly entered the lives of many families and none fault your guild’s efforts to contain its spreading.”

The physician bowed to her. “The spreading of such illnesses has always been a mystery to those of my profession, milady. It appears to change in its effects and its choice of victims. A difficult adversary to combat.” He opened his pouch and removed a silver bracelet. “It is not as grand as the jewelry you have, but it would give us comfort if you would accept this simple object. We believe that the materials that are of its making will keep the pestilence from spreading to you. If it fails to do so, please consider it a gift of condolence.”

Isabella nodded. “I would be honored to wear it, milord.” Reaching out to take the thin bracelet of silver, she laid it across wrist and began to fasten the clasp. Completing the task, she held her hand outward and inspected the gift. “Is it only silver in its making?”

The physician smiled. “Much more than that, milady.”

“How so?”

The man turned to the sudden commotion outside the windows. “I find timing the most important attribute to have. Allow me to show you.”

Isabella followed the physician to the window. As he pulled the curtain aside, she gasped. There, in the streets and in plain view, was Xander in shackles between several armed Ardencroft guards. “What is the meaning of this?”

“We found this man with an iron ring in his possession.” The physician shook his head. “A dangerous object as it is made by the occult.”

Her eyes fixed on the man in the street and her hand reached out to touch the pane of glass that separated them. “There must be some mistake, milord.”

“I fear not, milady. You know the laws of Ardencroft pertaining to the occult.”

“I have seen this man before. He is not what you assume him to be.”

The physician looked out to the guards. Motioning to them with two fingers, he turned to her. “We shall put it to the test.”

Isabella turned with him to the doorway and found a man in rags and her maid, Harriet, escorted into the room by city guards. Instantly, she reached out with her mind to read the thoughts of the pair but found her gift absent. Isabella stared at the two and found they looked away.

“You have seen the man outside before,” the physician stated to the poor man. “That is your claim.”

“It is, milord,” the humble man replied. “He walks the streets of the Trough and visited an old witch in a hut.”

“A witch, you say? How interesting. And you?” the physician questioned the maid. “You have claimed that you have heard the man in the street speaking to Lady Isabella in whispers in this very house.”

Isabella saw the flush in the woman’s cheeks. Without a doubt in her mind, she knew her servant was being forced.

“On several occasions, milord,” Harriet replied. “Lady Isabella has had many visitors from men, but the man outside has found his way into this home to speak to her when night comes. They speak of dark things when together.”

“Harriet!” Isabella exclaimed.

“Thank you,” the physician said. “You have done a great service for the Throne.” He waved them away. “Milady, you have but two choices. Identify this man as a warlock and you will only be imprisoned for being aware of his noted occult activities.”

Isabella heart fell in her chest. “And if I do not?”

“You will be marked as a member of the occult, found guilty of the murder of twelve women and burned at the stake.”

She turned quickly to see Xander in the street with many of the people of the city beginning to gather. “He is not a warlock,” she said softly. “He is a kind friend that visits to comfort me in my time of trouble. Nothing more.” Her mind began to piece together a story that would set them both free. “I do not know why the others have accused me, but their statements are false. I have known this man for many years. He hides in the shadows and visits me at night, that much is true, but it is so gossip of our meetings will not spread through the city and ruin my family’s good name. Why a physician would take it upon himself to act in place of the baron seems a far more a dangerous thing than two lonely people comforting each other.”

“I take interest in all the dealings of the occult, milady. I have served the baron for many years weeding out those that might do him harm.”

Isabella turned away and blinked to escape, but she did not move.

The man grabbed her shoulders. His eyes narrowed. “You will not escape, Lady Isabella. The bracelet is your shackles and cannot be removed. The reason for the iron ring on your father’s hand was only one of many bits of evidence we have found against you.” Roughly grabbing her shoulders, he turned her to face the scene outside the window. “Now, we will set things right and be rid of your kind.”

“No!” she screamed as the guard beside Xavier drove his dagger into her love’s chest. Isabella turned and lashed out at the physician, but his strength exceeded hers.

Calling for the guards, the man pushed her to the floor and stood over her. “You have failed in your evil designs and you will pay dearly for the harm you have caused.”

Isabella looked up with hate in her eyes. “You are a fool! It will be you who pays dearly for such an insult. The baron will not stand for you insolence!”

The guards came quickly and pulled her up from the floor. Though they shackled her, Isabella stared at the physician and set her mind on her revenge. “The baron will see you hanged for this!”

“My dear lady,” the physician began, “the baron eternally sleeps. Pity you will not have a marker for your grave as he will.”

Chapter 44

The dark cell was cold and heartless. Watching the flickering light of the smoky torches that lit the halls of the damp dungeons beneath the castle, Isabella’s thoughts were far and away from the tattered blanket she covered herself with. Leaning against the chilled wall of her stone prison cell, the rotting straw and the single view through the barred window of the iron reinforced door meant little to her. She could only replay the loss of her only love in her mind as one long night passed after another.

She shivered at the memory of his corpse lying on the streets. It was an unfitting death for one who had stood beside her when he must have known her cause was lost. Yet, he had stayed, even to his demise. Now, alone in her cell, awaiting certain judgment, Isabella found that all the worries she once had, were of little concern.

The passing of her parents were within a day of one another as she felt the absence in her heart. Isabella considered it a blessing as each deserved a peaceful slipping away from the foul world. A man, who had known the story of her birth, took her in and raised her as his own would now be laid in his grave. Her mother, having lived through such difficult times was a peace. There was a comfort in these things.

Staring at the silver bracelet around her wrist, she reprimanded herself for being so careless and imaged her parents’ disappointment in her. Had she taken more care and not been so opposed to leaving her home, perhaps she would be sitting at a table, enjoying a meal with the man she cared for. As it was, she had played a dangerous game, and for the first time, lost.

Isabella looked up at the shadow caused by the guards who passed by her cell door and wondered how soon her death sentence would be carried out. To be burned at the stake was a horrifying thought and her mind moved to how she might make a better end.

At the sound of a key unlocking her cell, Isabella did not take her eyes off the ceiling until the guards drug two bodies into the cold room. The bright light from a torch held by another hurt her eyes and she looked to the dark corner to protect them. As the men dropped the new prisoners onto the straw and each man clasped shackles around the prisoners’ ankles, Isabella searched for a means to escape through the open door. It would be pointless to try without her skills. As quickly as they had entered, the men left with the disheartening ringing of the cell door lock set in place.

Isabella’s eyes slowly became accustom to the dark cell once again and was able to note that the women had been beaten. “Savages,” she whispered and tested the length of her chains only to find she could not reach them. “Can you hear me? Are you well?”

The older woman moaned. In time, she felt for the bleeding injury on her head. “Do I look like I’m well?” With effort, she sat up and pulled at the chains. “All ends as it should. Serves me right.”

“What happened to your head?”

“A smack of the blunt end of a guard’s sword, that’s what happened!” The old woman spit on the ground before her. “They will regret that.”

Isabella liked her spirit, but knew the woman’s brave words were all that she had left to her. “You will need to do it beyond the grave from the looks of things. Do you plan to haunt your captures?”

“Haunt?” the woman asked, looking up at her in surprise. “Nah, I will see them run through before the end. Beating an old woman for nipping a purse? They’re beasts and will pay for it.” The woman looked at her with a crooked smile. “Don’t suppose you know of the Shadow Man, do ya?”

Isabella’s heart ached. “He was a good man. They killed him before my very eyes.”

“Ha! Can’t kill a shadow, deary,” the woman cackled.

Isabella shivered at the memory. “A dagger in the chest was enough to do the deed.”

“A blade ain’t gonna do no good. No, the Shadow Man is special. Does good things for poor folk. Has for years, I tell ya, and will keep doing it. Bet he comes to take me away tonight.”

“I would not hold my breath.”

“Don’t believe me?” She wiped the blood from her brow. “Think I just got a big bump on my head?” The woman laughed and spit again. “You don’t know the Shadow Man like I’s do. He’ll come.”

Isabella sat back and shook her head. “Sounds as if you knew the same shadow I once knew. He did not let things like death stand in his way.”

“Maybes,” the woman said softly. “He tell ya how he came to be?”

Thinking back on the many conversations she had with Xander, she knew it intimately. Even in his death, she would not tell his secret. “I haven’t a clue.”

“Well, he told me. I’ll tell ya, but you can’t tell another soul.”

“In our current situation, that will not be an issue. They are likely to hang you and burn me in the morning.”

The old woman shrugged as if she didn’t care what words came from Isabella’s lips. “Well, the Shadow Man was like everybody else once. That’s what he told me. But then he ran into a Seether and was split in two.”

Isabella smiled at the familiar tale. “You believe he suddenly got up and put himself back together? A fine story that is.”

“Nah, stupid woman. I mean his being was made into two people.” she huffed. “Nobody can have half a body.” She looked around. “Ain’t got a flask on ya by chance?”

“I have this pathetic wool dress and nothing more,” Isabella stated.

“Pity. The Shadow Man might bring some liquor with him when he comes. He’s like that. Knows what you need. But you don’t know what mood he’ll be in.”

Isabella grew weary of the tale being spun for her entertainment. “Maybe it would be better if we just sit quietly. You should rest and let that wound heal.”

“Can’t sleep. Not without my shadow. He watches over me when I sleep so no one steals my possessions.”

“I see,” Isabella said. “I suppose you have many objects worth keeping an eye on.”

“Gots as much as I need. But Shadow Man makes sure I keeps it. Those buggered bastards that run the streets nip everything when people sleep. Makes it tough to make a livin’.”

“I suppose you want me to stand over you so you can sleep,” Isabella chide.

The woman shook her head. “Nah, Shadow Man doesn’t like to stand still. Paces a lot. It’s his footsteps that rock me to sleep.”

Isabella looked at the woman as a small hint of what she said seemed to her to suddenly be truth. “This Shadow Man, did he wear a mask?”

“Sures he did. Never saw his face.”

She got to her feet and raised her hand about a foot over her own. “Was he about this tall?”

The woman smiled, showing missing teeth. “Sures he was. Yous seen him, haven’t ya?”

Isabella did not trust her thoughts but the fact the woman truly had seen him and wished to talk of Xander made her carefree of what the conversations might bring. “You did know him.”

“Told ya I did, you daft cow. Weren’t you listenin’?”

Sitting back down with need to know more, Isabella collected her thoughts. “Did he come to you every night?”

“Mostly. Sometimes he said I would be on my own, but he was usually there most nights I slept in the alley in the Trough. He would slip a silver coin in my hand before I would wake. Never saw him in the daylight, mind you.”

Isabella nodded. “I saw him only a few times during the day, myself.”

“Wondered if he was burnt up or somethin’. He wore that mask all the time.”

She shrugged and chuckled. “I don’t think so. He wore faces like he wore the mask you saw.”

“That sounds like somethin’ he’d do. Bless him. He is a good sort. I gotta thank him next time I see him.”

Isabella could not bring herself to worry the woman with what she had seen happen. “You say he was cut in two?”

“Spirit like,” the old woman nodded. “Like he was made two men.” She laid her head back on the stone wall and smiled. “He would sing me to me and be kind as a dove, then go into a rage if he saw someone doing something evil. He killed a lot. He doesn’t like doing it and he feels real bad about it after. Told me so once. He’s a good man. Need more like him.”

“I don’t suppose you happen to know his name, do you?”

“I told ya, girl. Shadow Man. He’s got no name, really. Just sort of a spirit wandering about. Told me he had a home once, but not for a while now. Just shows up in the alleys most nights. Think he had a love for a woman though. He told me he had to go help a woman find a special ring.”

Isabella smiled. It was the very man she knew. “I was the one he helped,” Isabella whispered.

“Well! If you be that woman, then I’m sure he will come tonight. He has to run about and do good things, but he’ll be here. Only so much time in the night. He’ll knock those piss pot guards so hard, they won’t stand for a week.”

“He told you he loved me, you say?” Isabella mused, thinking of the figure that often showed up at night. “He once stole into my bedroom.”

The old woman spit. “Don’t you be talkin’ about him like he be some pervert.”

Her threat surprised Isabella. “I do not mean it sound like that.”

“Well, then you mind that tongue. If it be you he’s interested in then I’ll have to tell him what you said. He fancied that woman and she better be good to him or I’ll knock her head in with a fryin’ pan.”

Isabella felt a sense of shame. She hadn’t considered that Xander had been helping others, though it sounded very much like something he would do. “My apologies, milady. You are right. Only good things should be said of the man.”

“That’s the truth of it,” the old woman said. Her eyes moved to the other on the floor. “That ones beat us to the afterlife.”

“Maybe she’s just unconscious.”

With a finger, the old woman opened the eyelid of the unconscious prisoner and let it fall closed. “Nope.” She shrugged and wiped her hand of on her dirty dress. Fluffing the moldy straw, the woman laid herself down and rested her hands on her stomach.

“You must believe the Shadow Man is alive to be so calm. Even though I have told you of his death.”

The woman rubbed her head. “He ain’t dead. Got to rest my bones. The Shadow Man will come and I’s got to have my strength to escape with him. Don’t know if he will help a Seether like you though.”

“I am not a Seether,” Isabella stated emphatically. “And I fear you wait for no one.”

“Bet he’ll leave you rotting here for sayin’ that,” the woman said. “Now shut that Seether mouth of yours and let an old woman get some rest.”

Isabella watched the old woman close her eyes and lay peacefully still. She was amazed that the rough soul could so easily find rest in such a place. Though they both sat in the same cell awaiting their fate, it was the old woman that had hope. Isabella wished she had such certainty but the memory of her loved one struck down had erased such a thought.

As the moans of dungeon grew quiet, Isabella attempted to find something that would distract her thoughts of Xander. It was of little use. Even when she thought of the harshness of the stone around her, she thought of what humor he would find in it. The moments of quiet between her busy life had often been filled with thoughts of what might have been had she simply ran off with him when they were younger. Perhaps they might have found a small village in the south and lived under assumed names. A simple shop run by the pair of them or maybe a small farm. The idea made her smile through the pain of loss.

“We would have found a way,” she whispered to herself. “Living as normal people do and have a family of our own. I just wasn’t brave enough and you were so stubborn. Still, Anna has a part of your heart now and that should be enough.”

The unlocking of the cell door grabbed her attention. With eyes accustomed to the dark, she could barely make out a figure of a man pulling a body of a woman into the cell. She sighed as yet another soul was added to the tight stone room that held those that were sentenced to die. Without moving, she watched as the man clasped the woman’s ankles in chains and stood.

“Those are kind words, indeed, milady,” the man stated. “But I’ve come only for you.”

She looked up quickly to find the very man her thoughts had settled on. Isabella’s heart leapt but it was her laughter that she had difficulty controlling. “I do not know how you managed it, milord, but I couldn’t be more pleased!”

“What did you think of my role as physician?” Xander asked with a grin.

The smile from her face fell instantly. “You bastard! Why would you have me put in this cursed cell?”

“So much for being pleased,” he chuckled. “I needed to alter our plan as those guards truly were looking to arrest you. The rest, I will tell you another time.” His eyes moved to the other women in the cell. Going to each, he placed his hand under their noses and shook his head. “I was not quick enough for them.”

Isabella looked at the peaceful looking old woman and was touched by her death. “She was certain you would come.”

He moved to Isabella’s side. “They have no concerns of this world now, Bella. We, on the other hand, must think of what we are to do now.” With a quick tap of his finger her shackles unlocked.

“I can’t help you with this damn bracelet on and it will not come off.”

Xavier’s eyed the bracelet carefully. “This object keeps you from your gifts?”

“You do not have to make me feel like a fool, Xander. I thought it was a kindness offered to me by a physician. You saw me put it on, now take the cursed thing off.”

He shook his head with a look of dismay. “But it is the weakest of spells. Here.” He unclasped the bracelet and put it in his pocket. “Better?”

Isabella felt no different. Getting to her feet, she reached out to touch his thoughts. Nothing came to her. Worried, she looked to the corner and blink. Again, it was as if her gifts ceased to exist. “Xander,” she said in her panic. “My gifts. They are gone.”

“Breathe slowly, milady. Perhaps it is just a phase.”

She shook her head. “No, Xander. The gift has left me!”

He looked to the door. “We haven’t much time for this. Tonight, Isabella Nelstet must die so we can be free. Was that not what you wanted in Act Three?”

Slowly, Isabella nodded her head.

“I had counted on your ability to move from place to place with your gifts. I can travel through the shadows with you, but not as far as to put us safely outside of the castle walls.” He shook his head. In a quick movement, he unsheathed his dagger and placed the blade to the tips of his finger.

“No!” Isabella exclaimed. “You must not try share your gifts. The chance of you losing your mind is—”

He grabbed her hand and held tightly in his. “There are more than fifty guards from this cell to the castle gate, milady. There are more along the walls and walking the streets in the city.”

She tugged her hand but found his grip too strong. “You stupid man. What if you fail? We will be left mindless. We will just have to do without it.”

He pulled her quickly outside of the cell and looked down the corridor. “We have only the one chance. I believe I can get us as far as the inner gate, but after that…”

Isabella trembled at the likelihood of the plan failing. Looking to the cell, she understood how he imagined they would escape. “Lock the cell and start the fire.”

Xander agreed with a nod. Closing the cell door, he touched the lock and heard the spell set the iron bolt in place. With a wave of his hand the straw inside set ablaze. He turned and grabbed her around the waist. He suddenly held fast with a fallen look on his face.

“What is matter? Have you lost your gifts as well?”

“No. I warned you about using too much sugar in your tea.”

“Shut up, you fool, and get us out of here,” she stated with a smirk.

Holding him with all her strength, she raised herself on the tips of her toes and kissed him deeply. Hopes and memories flowed through her as her lips touched his. She gasped when a rush of magical energy swept around them.

Chapter 45

The long, heavy beams that supported the main entry had always impressed him. Even as a boy, Xavier dreamed of climbing up to them and seeing the view of the grand hall from such a height. The memory made him smile as lecturing words of his father rang in his ears. Even now, looking on it for the last time, the entry way to his family home was as imposing and wonderful as he had always known it to be.

“I’ll make sure it’s always kept up proper, Capt,” Harris said.

Xavier nodded. Who better to look after the estate than one who took equal pride in the manor’s appearance. “You will send me word if you are in need of anything.”

“We’ll only be a day’s ride away,” Anna reassured him.

Her words were true, but something in Xavier told him her would never stand in the hall again. Looking to the great seal of his family over the doorway, he wondered if his parents would not have given him useful advice. In times such as these, he yearned to hear their voices again. “Then we had better be off.” Looking at the new sheriff of Kedalpoint, he reached out and shook Harris’ hand. “I leave the town and land in your care, Mr. Harris. They are fortunate to live under such a man.”

“It’s still yours, Capt…I mean, milord baron.”

Xavier smiled. “Capt will do, Harris.”

“He won’t even let me call him that,” Anna chuckled.

Xavier sighed and nodded as he scanned the entry. “Are you ready to travel to your new home?”

“Our new home?” Anna asked. “This will always be home to me.” She turned to Harris and gave him a hug. “You will write, won’t you?”

“I have to, milady,” Harris chuckled. “Your husband is forcing me to send reports to Ardencroft.”

Xavier caught her eye. “I had to do the same when I was sheriff. It is part of the duty of the office.” Fetching the iron key from his pocket, he handed it to Harris. “No need to keep it in perfect condition, just have the eves and roof looked after.”

Harris nodded. “Now, if you will excuse me, I will go and make sure I’m seen carrying out my duties,” He bowed deeply and left for the library.

“I suppose we have run out of excuses not to do the same,” Xavier stated. Offering his arm, with Anna quickly wrapping her arm around his, he led the way into the night and to the awaiting carriage. With Anna handed up, he nodded to the waving staff and looked to the coach driver. “To Ardencroft.”

“Very good, milord,” said the man sitting high in driver’s seat.

Xavier climbed inside the coach. Sitting next to the woman of his heart, he situated his sword and took a deep breath as the coachman closed the door behind them.

“It’s only for a little while,” Anna said. “I’m sure we can escape to come back for a visit.”

Xavier looked out the window as the couch pulled forward. “The last time I left my home it was to vanquish the occult a hundred miles away. For some unfathomable reason, tonight feels very similar.”

Anna wrapped her arm around his and pulled him closer. “We’ll be back, Xavier. I’ll make sure of it.”

“How can you be so certain? I imagined then that I would be away for two weeks for that cursed battle and returned two years later.”

“Because, milord,” Anna began, “this is where you prefer to be. No castle can replace the memories within your family home. Here we were able to be Xavier and Anna. We’re not likely to have that in Ardencroft so will make every effort to come back.”

Her words were true and Xavier understood her meaning. Once they entered the city, there would be a service for the deaths of the baron and his wife then another to mark his new roles. Having spent enough time in Ardencroft, Xavier had a keen sense of what their new titles would require. He did not want it. In fact, he had never wanted to be more than a squire to the village. “Perhaps we might find a way to mold it to our liking or perhaps a way…” His words drifted off with his hope of holding back change. From the moons in their half phase, there was enough light through the windows for him to see Anna nod slowly and her smile fade.

The shadowed view of the scenery to Kedalpoint took on a new meaning to Xavier as they passed. Though Anna had earlier reflected his thoughts of her unhappiness of leaving the manor, he attempted to set his mind to that task at hand. A short passing through town and they would be on the road to Ardencroft. The word ‘duty’ stuck in his mind. Gone would be the days of patrolling the roads and looking for those that would cause harm in the land. Now, he would spend hours listening to advisers and claims of rights that might have been violated. Xavier was lost in such petty-sounding thoughts as the coach wheels rattled against cobblestone and woke him from his concerns.

When their coach passed the jail house, he heard Anna sigh.

“It will be hard for me to leave those stack of stones as much as the manor,” he confessed. Seeing her attempted smile, he knew he must set his mind to making the transition less painful. He could not imagine how he would accomplish a task when his own heart was not set on leaving. Turning to the window, he watched the town he had spent the majority of his life in, pass slowly by. Making the turn to cross the bridge toward the long road to the city, he turned to Anna. He stared in wonder when he noticed her new gown in the moon light. “You look beautiful, my dear.”

Her smile grew. “I think I like you better wearing the Old Black than that doublet, but you are as handsome as ever, milord.” She squeezed his arm.

Enjoying her smile, Xavier wished to capture the moment as their new life would separate them from the usual days spent together. “Tell me your thoughts.”

Anna looked into his eyes and shook her head. “They aren’t happy ones, my love.”

“I would still prefer to hear them.”

“I fear what the city will do to us, Xavier.”

Xavier felt her words keenly. “As do I. Do you have a plan to combat it?”

“Not in any clear way. I assume we will have our own tasks to do through the day but we will be together for meals and sleeping. When we heard of the deaths, it seemed that we changed in a moment to suit the positions they left. I don’t like how that feels. It seems that we are to be different people than who we are. We don’t even have the tethering to keep us close to one another anymore.” She shrugged. “But there isn’t anything we can do about it, I suppose.”

Xavier did not need the glow of the moons to see her disappointment. Wishing for comforting words he might offer, he found himself at a loss. As the coach rambled along the dark road, the deepest part of his mind formed thoughts and hopes that he had not considered. “If I were just a man, with no past as I have now, could you still find happiness with me?”

Anna smiled. “I love you, Xavier, not your gifts or your position. And you? What if I didn’t have such a family and the gifts I have? Would you still want to be with me?”

Her words struck a chord in his thoughts. “I would. You and I fear the same thing, Anna. You said we will change and I fear that as well. Perhaps, if…if I were to simply abdicate, we could live our lives in Kedalpoint as they were. Or perhaps we might even leave the Fifth Circle all together.”

“The Prince would still come after us. Isabella words to us fully sank into my thoughts the other day. We will be a replacement for your cousin and try to fight off any who will try to replace us.” She turned her head to hide her concern. “Besides, you care so much for these people, I know you would never leave.”

Xavier rubbed his trembling hand. “I would if it brought you happiness.”

Anna turned back to him and kissed his cheek. “You are the reason for my happiness, Xavier.”

“And you are mine, my dear,” he replied tenderly. “Still, with each passing mile, I see your heart breaking.”

“I will adjust. As you said, we will make it our…Is the coach slowing?”

Xavier turned to the window and noted the coach coming to a full stop. Scanning the dim scenery beyond the glassy fields, he instinctively reached for his sword.

The coach door beside Anna opened, causing her to let out a yelp.

“Tender words,” the thin footman stated in a female voice. Climbing inside, she sat in the bench seat across from them and shifted over as the masked driver entered the coach. “Would you not agree?”

“I would,” the driver stated. Waving his hand, Xavier’s hand left his sword as a spark leapt from the pommel. “A word, Xavier. Without blades, if you would be so kind.” The driver removed his mask.

Anna’s eyes grew wide as she saw the exact image of her husband in the face of the driver. “What is this?” She turned to see the astonishment of Xavier.

Xavier shook his head. “You cannot truly exist.”

Isabella removed her hood. “Perhaps you have not been formally introduced to your other half.” She turned to the revealed coach driver. “Xander, if you please. It is not fitting for me to look like the opposite gender.”

Chuckling, the Xander waved his hand in front of her and watched with displeasure how slowly his enchantment wore off. His eyes flashed to the man sitting across from him. “It appears that our proximity has an unusual effect.”

Xavier watched as the footman morphed into the woman he knew. “Bella! How could I not have guessed you would find this man?”

Isabella laughed. “He came to me.”

“And fought the idea when told,” Xander stated.

Isabella turned to her worried looking sister. “Anna, the two men you see in this coach are the same man. One divided in two at time of the warlock’s death. Your Xavier came home. Mine, on the other hand…lingered.”

Anna looked from one man to the other. Their identical features were stunning. She turned to her husband and saw the fear in his eyes. “Xavier?”

“Yes?” Xander answered with a chuckle. “Forgive me, an inappropriate jest on my part.”

Xavier studied his reflection in flesh closely. “I felt the tearing…I wondered…”

“And you, we, were correct,” the Xander stated. “I did not wish to interfere with your desire to protect Kedalpoint, but it left me with without a purpose and with…certain abilities. I assume you know what I am going to suggest tonight.”

Anna looked to her sister and a small hope arose in her. “Can it be done? Can you take our places?”

Isabella looked at her shadow friend with a sense of whimsy. “I told you they would like my clever plan better, my dear.”

Xavier fought the small hope of removing himself and Anna from the duties of the city. “But it is folly to try. As much as I wish Anna and I to find another life, Bella has warned us of the factions within the city. It would not be fair to put you in danger.”

“You would truly take her away if you could?” Isabella asked in surprise. “Leave this place with no whining of how duty and honor would keep you here?”

Xavier considered her words. “My cousin is dead, along with another wife.” He turned to Isabella. “If you can prove to me that this is not a trick, I will listen to your plan.”

Anna was amazed at his words. “Truly?”

Isabella smiled. “Did he not tell you that you are his happiness?” She looked over to the Xander. “Tell him something that only the two of you know.”

The man sighed. “They are very private thoughts. Painfully, so.”

“If you are part of myself,” Xavier stated, “I will know the truth of them.”

The man nodded. “I have considered what I might say, should we ever meet. I suppose we might start with the time we reburied Yellow behind the family chapel after Father told us it was forbidden.”

Xavier shook his head slowly. “Possibly found out from another.”

“Wish for another?” The shadow man tapped his finger against his lip. “We were stuck in the tray shaft for half a day, before the cook found us. Perhaps you will also remember that we had a rather embarrassing event occur when Sarah walked into her room and found—”

With a raised hand, Xavier interrupted. “I do not know how you have managed to find out such a thing, but…”

The shadow man shook his head. “You still doubt me yet you yearn for it. It is odd to see how stubborn I am. Then let me put it in these terms. I did not give up my life to watch you toss all my efforts aside. You will listen. You owe me that much.”

Anna took Xavier’s hand. “We will listen, but you have to know that this seems impossible to believe.”

“There is one memory that we have that will never leave me,” the shadow man said to Xavier. “Us, I should say. That is, unless you found a way to bury it so deep that you have forgotten.”

Xavier looked at the man and saw pain in his eyes. His hand began to tremble.

Xander looked to Anna. “Perhaps you and your sister should step outside and allow us to talk.”

“I will not leave my husband, sir,” Anna stated.

“Very well,” the shadow man agreed. “We were not the only child of our parents.”

“Do not continue,” Xavier whispered.

The shadow man shook his head. “It is our fault that we are to this day. Is it not so?”

Isabella turned to each of the men and saw an identical tear flow from their eye. “But you never said—”

“How could we?” Xander ignored the others, staring only at his other half. “How could we be so mad as to think it wouldn’t harm her?”

Xavier wiped a forming tear from his eye. “No more,” he begged softly.

“You know it to be true,” the shadow man stated. “She was warned that having another child would kill her, but Father thought them fools. How typical of the man to think he knew better than all others. But we were the one who sought out the ingredients to set things right. We were the ones that put it in her tea. It was by our hand the child in our mother’s womb was murdered.”

“Xavier!” Anna gasped in horror.

Angrily, Xavier leaned forward in his seat. “She would have died!”

“We do not know that,” his reflection stated with a growing anger. “We will never know that!”

Xavier’s tears flowed from his eyes. “We were…just a boy.”

Isabella took out her handkerchief and wiped the shadow man’s eyes. “The past is the past, my dear,” she whispered. “Mother’s forgive. I’m certain she would have forgiven a boy’s unthinking act in fear for her life.”

“Yes,” Anna agreed softly. “Of course, she would.”

Xander held Isabella’s hand. “I have no other thought or memory deeper than our foolish act.” He looked to his twin image. “Either you believe it to be true and we continue, or Isabella and I will leave you to your fate.”

Anna looked over to the man beside her. “Do you trust him?”

With a slow nod, Xavier gave his answer.

“Good,” Isabella stated. “A wise act. Now, to more important things. The future!” She turned to her sister. “Anna, I need your gift.”

“What?”

“We will sit in your place and manage for as long as possible, but we need as many advantages as we can obtain. The Prince will bide his time, but the others are certainly be waiting for the both of you, as we speak.”

“Who?” Anna asked.

“Everyone,” the shadow man answered with a chuckle, wiping the last tear from his eye. “It should be a lively first year of our reign. With your gift added to the abilities I have amassed from the warlock’s curse—”

“You are the last warlock Jeffers thought Xavier to be!” Anna stated.

The shadow man grinned. “Oddly enough, no. Mr. Harris is that man.” He turned to his twin. “We have never looked for the dark path, neither has he. I cannot think of a better man to watch our land.”

Xavier stated in awe. “But he gave no hint to having powers. He said nothing.”

Isabella nodded. “Which proves to me that it should be Xander that carries the name forward.”

In such light, Xavier could not help but agree.

“Bella and I will begin a cleansing in Ardencroft,” Xander stated. “Once word begins to spread of our sudden success, the Prince with fear to meddle in our affairs and leave us to our work. Still, we will need your gifts.”

“How do I give them to Bella?” Anna asked quickly.

Isabella was quite shocked. “So eager to be normal, Sister?”

Anna thought for the briefest of moments. “This plan of yours will let Xavier and I live out a peaceful life. It would give us the life we wish for.” She let the images of such a life and the new hope spread within her. The joy of it was too much to contain. “I want you to have my gifts. Tell me, how is it done?”

Isabella flinched then chuckled. “You have just done so, Sister.”

Anna looked to each person. “But—”

“You forced it on a most willing subject,” Isabella laughed. “Can you not feel it?”

Feeling nothing out of the ordinary, she looked to Xavier. Thinking of the smallest test that would prove her sister’s words, she attempted a spell to chill her hand. Anna burst out in laughter. “I can’t think of the right words! They are completely gone from my mind.”

Isabella waved her hand over her own face. With simple words, she transformed into Anna’s likeness before the group of onlookers. “How do I look?”

“This will prove awkward tonight,” the shadow man chuckled.

“It’s perfect!” Anna chimed. She looked to Xavier. “Now, you.” His perplexed look told her that he did not follow her thinking. “Wish your…twin the last of your abilities.”

“I do not think it would prove wise for us to try,” the shadow man began. “We are different that you and your sister. It was not a gift trending from mother to daughter that gave us abilities. The effects could be—”

“Deadly,” Xavier finished for him. “But there are other means.” He looked at his signet ring and closed his eyes. Working it off his finger, he swayed with dizziness. “You must promise to protect Harris and Kedalpoint.”

Anna looked at the ring as Xavier held it out to his twin. “Your abilities are in your ring?”

“Magic needs an object to latch onto, my dear sister-in-law,” Xander stated as he took the ring for his double. “You and your sister have it flowing through your blood. The curse we suffered was quite different.” He placed the ring on his finger and sighed. “It is a pity that Isabella Nelstet and her spy are dead. You might have taken our places as well.”

“Act Four, my dear,“ Isabella said with a smile. She pulled out several pieces of parchment from inside her cloak. “I have added to the play.”

Xander chuckled. “Why did I not think of it before?”

“Because,” Isabella stated with a wide grin, “I am the crafty one of the pair.” She turned to her sister and handed her folded letters a with a smile. “A belated wedding gift.”

Anna opened the letters. “Passage to Oscelet?”

“From Oscelet,” Isabella corrected.

Xavier peered over to the parchment. “Lord and Lady Stonewolf?” He smiled. “Our new identities I assume? But, the poorest nobles that ever lived.”

“These should set that to right,” the shadow man stated. Flipping him a purse, he felt Isabella’s stare. “The cost of Act Four, my crafty love.”

“A very expensive price, milord,” she stated with a frown. “It took me years to collect those.”

Xavier opened the purse and looked inside. “These cannot be what I think them to be.”

Isabella sighed. “Yes, Xavier, they are. White diamonds. Completely flawless. Would you expect me to spend half a lifetime collecting chunks of coal?”

“Coal!” Anna exclaimed. Digging into her pocket, she searched for the unique purse. “I will be sad to part with her.”

“Keep the creature,” the shadow man stated happily, “It gives off no effect and is harmless to have in your possession.”

Anna relaxed. “I’m happy to hear it. What do we do now?”

“Purchase land and holdings of another family,” Isabella said. “Something not too far away, if you please.” She casually looked at the shadow man. “Are we nearly there?”

Xavier turned to the window to look out. To his amazement, the scene outside his window changed frequently as if he had used his skill to move across distances. “You can move an entire carriage?”

His twin chuckled. “When not chased or within walls? A great distance at a time. Is it so different that how you move about?”

“Not in a carriage,” he remarked. “Where are you taking us?”

“You have a ship disembark from,” Xander replied.

Xavier nodded. Feeling an excitement of standing on the threshold of a new life, he looked to his happy wife. “I am not certain how we begin to thank you. You have—”

“There is no need,” the shadow man stated. “You have done much. Now you have given us the opportunity to do our part.” Looking out the window, he closed his eyes.

With the softest of bounces, the coach was once rattling along a road. “We had better take our places. A carriage without a driver will certainly draw attention.” With that, he simply disappeared.

Isabella chuckled. “He does seem to have a taste for the dramatic.” She smiled at the couple who appeared content with their lot in life. With a touch to her face, Isabella returned to the image of a footman. Leaning forward, she handed Anna a ring and whispered in her ear. “This was meant for you.”

Anna turned the ring in her hand. “There is something inscribed inside in the wedding band.”

“The initials I.S., Sister. Wear it proudly.” Isabella glanced to Xavier and nodded. “I smell the scent of the sea, so time is short. Will you be happy with this plan?”

Anna nodded. “It will take a bit to get used to the idea of not having gifts, but before meeting Xavier, I thought I could only do one a simple trick.”

Xavier studied Isabella in her footman disguise. “There is something you are not telling us, Bella. You have always held back a secret or two.”

She smiled. “Honesty has not been my most prominent characteristic, but it was only to for the sake of our survival.”

“Bella,” Anna began with a small feigning of her heart, “We will be separated soon and I don’t know when we will meet again.”

Isabella shook her hand and smiled. “Do you remember when I met you at the house the baron gave you?”

Xavier thought back, though it was difficult to set aside all that had happened. “You met us at the house in a carriage. Teased me for not carrying Anna through the front door.”

“And what was the reason you suspected I sought to know each house in the city?”

Xavier shrugged. “Ley lines. You have always been fascinated by—”

“Well, they exist and run in many directions. Send me word when you have found a place and I come find you.” She looked to Anna. “Let us just agree there are quicker ways to reconnect than taking a coach.”

Anna hugged her disguised sister. “You will always be welcome to our home.”

“With advanced notice, if you please,” Xavier stated.

“We shall see,” Isabella smiled. With a wink, she vanished before their very eyes.

The coach came to a stop and the door opened for them. Stepping out into the salty air, each gave a wordless nod to each other before parting ways. Arm and arm, the couple walked away from their old life toward the unknown.

Anna chuckled as she reexamined the notes of passage in her hands. “Iora and Xander Stonewolf.” She looked up to see Xavier’s smile. “What do you think of their plan, my love?”

“I could not have planned a better outcome if we had created it ourselves.”

She snuggled closer to him and whispered to her husband. “Maybe there is something to be said about twins after all?”

Chuckling together, the couple strolled toward the docks and disappeared into the night.

 

© Eric E. McClure