Authors: Kathryne Kennedy
Copyright © 2011 by Kathryne Kennedy
Cover and internal design © 2011 by Sourcebooks, Inc.
Cover illustration by Anne Cain
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About the Author
Excerpt fromThe Lord of Illusion
The link between the world of man and Elfhame had sundered long ago, the elven people and their magic fading to legend. Tall beings of extraordinary beauty, the fae preferred a world of peace. But seven elves—considered mad by their own people—longed for power and war. They stole sacred magical scepters, created their dragon-steeds, and opened the gate to the realm of man again and flew through.
Each elf carved a sovereign land within England, replacing the baronies that had so recently been formed by William the Conqueror. They acquired willing and unwilling slaves to serve in their palaces and till their lands. And fight their wars. Like mythical gods they set armies of humans against each other, battling for the right to win the king, who’d become nothing more than a trophy. They bred with their human slaves, producing children to become champions of their war games.
The elven lords maintained a unified pact, using the scepters in a united will to place a barrier around England, with only a few guarded borders open to commerce. Elven magic provided unique goods and the world turned a blind eye to the plight of the people, persuaded by greed to leave England to its own, as long as the elven did not seek to expand their rule into neighboring lands.
But many of the English people formed a secret rebellion to fight their oppressors. Some of the elven’s children considered themselves human despite their foreign blood and joined the cause. And over the centuries these half-breeds became their only hope.
Devon, England, 1734
Giles Beaumont heard the sound of battle coming from beyond the rocks in the direction of the village at the same moment Cecily emerged from the waves of the English Channel. His magically cursed sword flew from its scabbard, smacked the palm of his hand, and it took every ounce of Giles’s considerable strength to shove it back into the leather sheath. As much as his blade longed to be finally used, the years of training to protect the young woman held firm and he ran away from the village to the beach.
He’d removed his stockings and half jackboots after the first hour of waiting for Cecily, and now his toes dug through the hot sand while broken seashells stabbed his heels. But the elven blood that ran through his veins allowed him to reach the tide line soon enough, his feet now slapping on wet sand, the spray of the crashing waves cooling his face, the ocean breeze billowing open his half-buttoned shirt with even more welcome relief.
He kept his gaze fixed on naught but her.
Cecily Sutton, half-breed daughter of the Imperial Lord Breden, elven lord of the sovereignty of Dewhame, did not look like a direct descendant of the elven royal line. At least, not at the moment. She had one arm wrapped around the fin of a dolphin, the creature propelling her through the water at wicked speed. Her black hair gleamed in the sunlight, her luscious mouth hung wide open with laughter, and she’d half-closed her eyes against the spray of flight.
A wild magical woman, indeed. A mysterious creature whom he’d been assigned to protect since she was nine years old—and Giles himself only fifteen—in hopes that she would be of use to the Rebellion some day. But a daughter of those cold, reserved elven lords? No, she did not fit that mold.
She swam by herself the rest of the way to the shore, with a wave and a last caress for her dolphin-steed. Her magical affinity for the water made her look one with it, her swimming near effortless as she crossed the final distance to the beach. Giles waited for her, waves lapping about his ankles, watching as her eyes grew round with surprise when she recognized him. With her large inhuman eyes, he could not deny her birthright to the elven lord. They glittered in the sunshine, twin jewels of blue, with a crystalline depth that bespoke the enormous power the young woman could summon.
Although she’d managed to keep that power well hidden through the years.
“What are you doing here?” she said, her gaze flicking away from him to stare at her abandoned clothing on the beach. Cecily kept her body hidden in the water, but the motion of the waves occasionally revealed the swell of her breasts. Giles made sure his gaze stayed fixed on her face, but despite his efforts to appear unaffected by her nudity, the warmth of a flush crept over his cheeks.
For he’d been ordered to protect her but keep his distance. Thomas had warned him that the girl was destined to marry a great lord. And in more subtle terms, that Giles would never be good enough for her. So by necessity he had spied upon her from a distance for years. Many times he had damned her for her magical affinity to water, for scarcely a day went by without her sneaking off to this private cove where she stripped and flung herself into the ocean. Perforce he’d watched her body develop from skinny youth into the full curvature of womanhood.
Now her curves rivaled those of any woman he’d bedded; indeed, once she’d matured, he would often dream of those perfect features while he made love to one girl after another.
Many times he had fancied himself in love with one of the village maidens. For a time he would feel relieved that he had been able to put the forbidden girl from his thoughts. But thoughts of Cecily would always intrude yet again. He would find himself comparing those vivid blue eyes, that heart-shaped brow, the lilt of her laughter, with every girl he met. And would find himself dreaming of her once again, chiding himself for a fool.
“There’s something wrong in the village,” he managed to say. “I want you to stay hidden in the water until I return.”
As usual, she avoided looking into his eyes, her gaze fixed somewhere around his nose. “How did you know I’d be here? How did you manage to climb the rocks? No one knows about my secret place—” A more urgent question suddenly halted her flow of indignation. “Has Thomas returned?”
He shook his head. “No, but I fear that your father may have something to do with it.”
“With what? What is happening?”
“I’m not sure, and I don’t have time for this. Just stay here!”
Giles spun, raced back to his hiding place, struggling damp skin into woolen hose, sandy cloth into leather boots. He pulled his sword from the scabbard, the greedy thing ringing with delight, eager for the taste of the blood Giles had denied it for so many years.
A thrill went through him from hilt to hand and he fought it with a clench of his muscles. “You devil,” he murmured. “If I could have gotten rid of you, I would have. Father’s gift or no.”
The sword answered him with a tug in the direction of the village, where the sounds of battle had grown louder. Giles took one last glance over his shoulder…
The little hoyden had ignored him. Cecily stood next to her clothing, her net with her day’s catch abandoned in shallow water, flopping fish and scuttling crabs quickly making their way back to ocean. Giles would have cursed if he’d had the wits to, but the sight of her bending over to pick up her chemise near knocked the power of speech completely from his head.
He sprinted back to the water, his sword resisting him all the way. Giles should have known she wouldn’t listen to him. She treated him like all the villagers did, as if he had nothing between his muscled shoulders but his fine elven features. He had carefully cultivated that impression of course, assuming the quiet manner of a humble blacksmith, in spite of how much he despised the role. But Cecily’s attitude had surpassed his assumed disguise. After the night she offered herself to him and he gallantly refused her, she’d avoided him with a disdain that bordered on contempt.
By the time he reached her side Cecily had pulled on her chemise, struggled into her stays. Her fingers fastened up the front-lacing stays most working women wore, and she pulled on her jacket and skirt without benefit of her quilted petticoat.
Giles found it easier to speak once she’d covered that glorious body. “I told you to stay in the water.”
She did not answer, pulling on stockings and shoes.
Not for the first time, he mentally cursed the task of having to protect this young woman. “I cannot keep you safe while fighting.”
She straightened, her eyes widening at that. “Why would you care—what in heaven’s name is wrong with your sword?”
The damned blade kept twisting his arm around, pointing at the village like a dog scenting a hare. Giles’s boots began to slide across the sand, little furrows left in his wake. “It smells blood—”
She flew past him in a blur of black hair and linsey-woolsey skirts. Giles blinked then followed. He’d forgotten she shared the speed elven blood could provide; indeed, it ran even stronger through her veins than his. But his eager sword aided his flight and he managed to catch up with her at the top of the rise. He threw an arm about her waist, managed to drag her and his sword behind an outcropping of rock.
Despite years of watching over her, he had never dared touch her before and the shock of it took him by surprise. A thrill ran through him and for a moment he could only stare speechlessly at her.
Before he lost himself completely in the crystal blue of her eyes, she lowered her gaze. “Let me go.”
“Not until you promise me you’ll stay here.”
The sound of gunfire drifted up to their perch and Giles fought against more than just his sword arm to seek out the source.
“I do not know why you have this sudden concern for me, sir, but I assure you—”
“How many more will die while you argue with me?”
Her mouth snapped shut, those eyes sparkling with uncanny brilliance. “I will stay.”
“This time you will promise.”
“I promise. Now go!”
Giles leaped to his feet, racing down the other side of the rise toward the village. He kept his attention on the scene before him, praying he judged her rightly, that the lady would keep her word, for he knew her life held more value than a village of peasants, and leaving her alone to fend for herself went against everything he’d been sworn to do. But the villagers had become his friends, and in good conscience he could not forsake them.
Smoke curled up from beyond the trees. The sound of steel ringing against steel grew louder until the way opened up before him, revealing the village clearing. Soldiers wearing the blue livery of the Imperial Lord fought against peasants in their coarse wool clothing. But Giles had made sure every man had a blade from his forge, and despite their ragged appearance, the villagers’ weapons had a quality that surpassed the common soldiers’. They held their own.
The devil-blade sang in his hand and plunged him into the fray.
For the next few moments Giles could do naught but concentrate on keeping the hilt in his fist. One blue uniform went down, then another, warm blood splattering his face, gore dripping down the front of his chest. Giles had always longed for battle but he did not relish death like his sword did. It thirstily sought out one enemy after another until nothing but dead bodies surrounded him.
Fortunately, the villagers stayed clear of his blade.
It appeared that most of the soldiers had discharged their muskets and probably hadn’t the time to reload them before the villagers fell upon them, because no shots rang out as they had earlier. But the back of his neck suddenly itched. Giles turned to meet the furious glare of a uniformed man across the clearing. The soldier raised his gun and took aim at Giles—the village blacksmith who had taken down so many of his fellows.
He heard Old Man Hugh cry out a warning, saw the fisherman lunge for the soldier, but the shot rang out before his friend could reach the musket. And time slowed. With a curse Giles wrested control of his sword, which had now drunk enough blood to allow such impudence, and thrust the weapon in front of him, catching the edge of the bullet with the slightly wider bottom of the blade, diverting it away from him.
If Giles had ever doubted the enchantment of his sword, the lack of any nick in the steel now confirmed it. He did not credit his blade for saving his life—his elven blood gave him more than a handsome face and pointed ears. His strength and speed rivaled that of a mere projectile.
Hugh plunged his blade into the soldier who had fired his musket. The officer didn’t even appear to notice at first, his ruddy face frozen in sheer incredulity at Giles.
But fall he did, joining the rest of his fellows. Giles regained his breath while he wiped his blade on the uniform of the last enemy, and returned Hugh’s sad smile of victory.
A sudden quiet descended on the once-pretty little village, broken only by the crackling of burning thatch, the sobs of grieving women. Dead bodies defiled the town fountain, had turned the water a sickly pinkish hue. Giles winced at the number of villagers who lay alongside the soldiers that littered the clearing, but many more of them still stood. They had won. Blood-spattered and weary, the fighters gathered together around Giles, slapping each other’s backs. Celebrating the fact that they still lived.
But Giles suddenly hushed them, his pointed ears cocked toward a faint rumble of sound. Soon the few other villagers who possessed a bit of elven blood—and therefore a keener sense of hearing—joined him in quieting the rest.
Up the road that led inland came a cloud of dust, the pounding of hooves. Giles did not need to see their uniforms to know more soldiers were coming. Hugh gave him a look of surprise while several of the younger men cursed in dismay. He knew what they were thinking. For years upon years Imperial Lord Breden of Dewhame had left this village alone. While other towns had lost their young men to the raising of Breden’s new army, they had been left in peace to farm, raise families, and grow old.
“Why have they suddenly come for us?” asked William the shepherd.
Giles already knew the answer to that. Thomas had been gone too long. The Rebellion’s most skilled spy had crafted a spell about the village to hide it, and the enchantment must have faded in his prolonged absence. Although the villagers had benefited from it, Thomas had cast it to protect his adopted daughter, to hide her from her true father, Breden, the Imperial Lord of Dewhame. And Giles could not speak of it. “What started this skirmish? You know what happens to villages that refuse the draft—have you become so arrogant, then?”
“Damn it, Giles!” sputtered William, his freckled face near purple. “Ye know I’ve been longing to join the wars, as stupid as they be! ’Tis the only way a lad can gain some glory, leastways.” Several of the younger men grunted in agreement. “We woulda’ gone with ’em with nary a fuss, but they took it upon their brutish hides to feel up the skirts of our women. Are ye thinking we shoulda’ let them?”
“No, you did right,” replied Giles, knowing the soldiers had gotten much more than they’d bargained for. Most villages had already been stripped of their fighting men for the wars; only children or old men were usually left to protect their families. “But I’m thinking that when the rest of the troops get here, we allow Old Hugh to explain what happened to avoid more bloodshed—”
The fountain suddenly erupted, pink arcs of water splashing against the still smoldering thatch of the roofs and the timbers of the cottages.
She walked toward them, her blue eyes gazing about the ruined village with a fury Giles had never seen the likes of before. The men surrounding him muttered a prayer under their breath at the power she so casually wielded, her fingers but flicking at the water to divert it until the fires were completely extinguished. Even the few villagers who had enough elven blood to possess a bit of magic crossed themselves. For they had only a little, since the elven lords destroyed all half-breeds who might possess enough power to be a threat to their rule.
Like Giles’s younger brother, John, who commanded enough magic at the age of six to help their father craft the devil-sword, a weapon more powerful than the sovereignty of Bladehame had produced in centuries.
And like Cecily.
She had never displayed such power before; indeed, Giles had thought Thomas might have found a way to suppress it in her. To better hide her. But he had never seen her this furious before, either. She’d never had a reason to be, in the idyllic little village life they’d led, safe from the horrors of the rest of their enslaved England.
And the full import of what had happened struck Giles. The soldiers could find her now.
When Giles had been assigned the task of protecting the girl he’d been naught but a headstrong lad determined to join the Rebellion that would free England of the elven lords who had invaded their land… and killed his father and brother. But after years of working the forge and feeling like nothing more than a glorified bodyguard—even if he enjoyed watching Cecily more than he should—when he longed tofightfor freedom…
Ah, but Thomas had insisted Cecily could be the Rebellion’s greatest weapon, that Giles’s task held more importance than he knew. That Thomas himself could not leave the girl and do his important work for the Rebellion without knowing someone would protect her in his absence.
Giles had pleaded with Thomas to be assigned another mission. A small task even, just so he would be able to shed this disguise of a thickheaded village blacksmith, if only for a few days. But Thomas denied him, and each time Giles grew more restless and frustrated, suppressing his feelings as surely as Cecily hid her magic. For Thomas insisted that one day Giles would be needed to protect his adopted daughter. That Giles was the only man Thomas would trust in that task.
This must have been the moment Thomas feared. When he would be unable to return to watch over Cecily.
Thomas must be dead, or he would have come home. And now, Giles had full responsibility for the Rebellion’s treasured weapon. And a part of him did not regret that the day for action had finally come.
“I did not break my promise,” said Cecily. “I did not come until the fighting stopped.”
Giles nodded. He thought she would keep her word—that’s why he’d forced her to give it. Fie, he probably knew more about the lady than she knew about herself, after constantly keeping her in his sight for the past nine years.
He prided himself on the fact that she hadn’t been aware of his scrutiny.
“There are more soldiers coming.” Giles glanced over his shoulder at the rapidly approaching dust cloud. “Go back to the water and stay beneath it until I come for you.”
Her raven brows rose at that. “Your sudden concern for me is… mystifying, but there are others here—”
He grabbed her arm. The second time he’d touched her. And that same shock of excitement went through him. “No one is more important than you are; do you understand?”
Old Man Hugh made a choking sound and William, who’d been sweet on Cecily since they were children, took a step forward. “Now see here, Giles, if anyone be protecting Cecily, it’ll be me. Don’t think the number of men ye killed here today gives ye any rights to be bossing around—”
Giles grabbed the smaller man by his dirty collar and lifted him off his feet. In addition to his elven strength, he’d been pumping bellows for years to work off his frustration and had the muscles to prove it. “She’s not meant for the likes of you, William, so let it be.”
The younger man’s face paled until his freckles stood out in stark relief. Giles carefully set him back on his feet. He’d watched William moon after Cecily for years and for some reason it had irritated the hell out of him. With the aftermath of battle and the threat of another, Giles had allowed his hidden feelings to surface. He needed to rein in his control.
Cecily stood there, with eyes wide and mouth hanging open, staring at Giles as if she’d never seen him before, rather than almost every day of her young life. For a change, she looked straight into his eyes.
The world suddenly appeared to come to a stop, and Giles could no more tear his gaze away from hers than he could tear out his heart. Cecily appeared equally transfixed. They might have stood there enthralled with each other, if not for Eleanor Sutton.
The frail woman staggered into the clearing, clutching at her chest, her face black with soot. “Cecily!”
She wrenched her gaze away from Giles and turned. “Mother!” Cecily ran to the older woman’s side, clasping the thin hands in hers. “Are you all right?”
Eleanor coughed, an affliction she’d had for years, but which seemed to have worsened since her husband’s disappearance. “The smoke—the fire destroyed half of our little cottage, Cecily. The one Thomas built with his own two hands.”
“Mother, I’m so sorry.” Cecily turned back to Giles, the expression on her face now completely altered. “You shouldn’t have made me promise! She needed my help.”
The older woman collapsed at her daughter’s feet. Giles took a step toward them, but Hugh spat and said, “Stand firm, boys.”
Giles spun back around to face Breden of Dewhame’s soldiers. Hundreds of them. He wondered what had brought them out in such force. Thomas had been his only source of information from the outside world, and he’d been gone for nearly a year. But he’d gone on assignments for months before, and Giles had expected him to return any day.
It suddenly occurred to Giles that he might be wrong about the failure of the spell surrounding the village. Perhaps Thomas had been found out. Interrogated with elven magic. Perhaps he’d given away Cecily’s location to Breden of Dewhame. And his army had been sent here to capture her.
To hell with Hugh trying to reason with the soldiers. Giles couldn’t risk it.
With a roar he leaped forward, sword aloft and singing with glee, decapitating the mounted officer before the man’s body realized it, swinging around to kill another while the first slowly slid off his horse. The rest of the villagers had apparently forgotten his suggestion as well, for without hesitation they joined the melee, destroying the mounted officers before the soldiers on foot behind them could even get a shot off.
But the enemy rallied soon enough, firing at the villagers with abandon.
Giles took a bullet in the shoulder. He barely noticed. He had complete control of his devil-sword this time, and it flew in dizzying arcs, slicing through anyone foolish enough to get close enough.
They kept coming anyway.
Until he walked on bodies to reach the next group of fighters, saving his fellow villagers time and again.
But it would not be enough.
There were too many soldiers this time.
Screams of fury and agony surrounded him. The sharp scent of blood filled his nostrils. Betimes a red haze covered his eyes until he could barely see. Battle was not all he had dreamed of. The reality of it twisted his gut, brought a bitter taste to his mouth. Giles’s blade hummed with happiness while he regretted the death of each man he killed, trying not to think of the widows he created today.
Magic bit at him more than once—a pool of water threatening to trip him up, a liquid flail that sliced across his chest like a knife, ripping through linen and skin.
There must have been a few soldiers from other sovereignties as well, for fire magic from Firehame licked at his breeches. Giles fought an illusory Cyclops created from Dreamhame, and he even met the steel of another enchanted sword crafted in Bladehame. But none of the paltry spells could overcome his devil of a sword. It dissolved the flail, quenched the fire, cut through the illusion, and shattered the other blade.
Through it all, Giles knew he fought a losing battle. But he would not allow despair or regret to make him falter, for not once did he forget the reason he fought. And after nine years of his life revolving around one slip of a woman, he did not allow his awareness of her to waver.
And so. When she approached the circle of fighting he felt her. He cursed, took one dangerous glance behind him, cursed again. That quick glance revealed Eleanor’s lifeless body behind her, Cecily’s furious blue eyes sparkling like sentient jewels as she strode toward the fray. Giles gathered all the elven strength he possessed and jumped, landing lithely in front of her, effectively stopping her advance. His sword danced a pattern around her, warning anyone foolish enough to approach the woman to stay clear.
“Get out of my way,” she growled.
“The hell I will.”
“You cannot defeat them all. I can.”
She could. Giles could hear it in her voice. She might even be the villagers’ only hope of surviving this battle. But then what? For the past nine years she’d hidden the true strength of her magic. And Giles had to consider every possibility. If he was wrong about Thomas being captured, and the elven lorddidn’tknow about Cecily’s existence… word of this battle would spread quickly to Dewhame Palace. Breden would know one of his elven bastards had enough magic to threaten his rule.
They would hunt her down like a rabid fox. He wouldn’t be able to keep her safe.
“No,” he finally said. “When I say the word, you will run. Find a horse. Ride away from here as fast as you can. Go to Firehame Palace—ask for the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole—tell him you are Thomas’s daughter.”
“The hell I will.”
She’d thrown his words right back at him. Damn if he could not stop the smile that cracked his face.
“If you don’t get out of my way,” she continued, “I shall have to go through you.”
And she would.
He’d admired her growing beauty for years, but this was the first time he admired her strength of character.
Giles stepped out of her path but stayed near, protecting her back. For even the most powerful sorceress could be felled by a bullet or a blade.
A pile of bodies lay between them and the remaining fighters. Cecily’s uncannily brilliant eyes narrowed at the sight, her lips tightening with resolve. Giles could feel her call to the magic in her blood, could hear the distant sound of the waves which constantly crashed against the shore grow more furious by the second, could sense the multitude of ponds and lakes that surrounded the village rise up into pillars of whirling dervishes.
Giles had known of Cecily’s command of water but he’d never felt the complete force of it until now. Thomas had once told him she also commanded the more dangerous elements of the sky, that he’d seen her use a storm to defend them long ago. But the consequences of her actions had made Cecily turn her back on most of her magic, and Thomas had allowed it for his own reasons. If she called down her sky magic now, Breden of Dewhame would know that he dealt with more than an ordinary half-breed. That the daughter he’d let slip through his grasp still survived.
For only Breden could command the power of sky. Even his general, Owen Fletcher, reputed for his magical abilities—and more quietly—his perversions of that power, could not summon the tiniest of rainstorms.
Giles glanced up at the sky, still blue and soft with clouds, and breathed a sigh of relief. Perhaps Cecily’s aversion to using that gift still ruled her.
But the power she commanded from earthbound water was impressive enough. The young woman who stood next to him radiated enough magical resonance to make the hair on the back of his neck stand up. And her head barely topped his shoulders.
Spears of liquid raced from ocean and pond, swirling in columns of water to create a density strong enough to wrap around the soldiers of Breden’s army. Saltwater tangled about their boots; pond water circled their arms and muskets. At first it soaked their clothing, the bloody dirt beneath them, but more water arced toward them until it surrounded them in a cyclone that had the strength to lift them off their feet. Their screams were muffled behind the silvery sheen of liquid.
Two of the officers possessed magical abilities and they managed to break free of their watery traps. Five other soldiers wielded swords that must have been crafted in Bladehame, for they sliced through their cyclones, trying to cut the tendrils that led to their fellows. But they did not wield a devil-blade like Giles’s, and Cecily’s power overwhelmed such puny strength. Soon they were trapped like most of their fellows.
The villagers gaped at the maelstrom around them for a few moments but soon began a retreat toward Cecily. The officers who remained free followed them with a yell of defiance. Giles resisted the impulse to leap forward and engage them in combat, his mission to protect Cecily keeping him by the half-breed’s side.
Her hands moved in a pattern that followed the swirling motion of the water. Those jewel-like elven eyes barely blinked, the blue irises glazed with some emotion Giles could only guess at. What would it feel like to wield such power?
His devil of a sword thrummed in his hand, reminding him that he did indeed possess a similar gift, although not one he would have chosen. Unlike the inferior swords of the officers, Giles’s blade could withstand almost any magical spell. Cecily would find it nearly impossible to entrap him with her powers. Giles suspected his sword might even surprise an elven lord bereft of a scepter.
The villagers ran past Cecily. Giles cursed. They had brought the officers right to them. He swung his blade in a warning pass and the closest soldier came to an abrupt stop. Seemingly unaware of the danger, Cecily continued to weave her magic with her hands. She lifted her palms to the sky, raised them above her head. The cyclones surrounding the trapped officers rose in unison, drifted toward the ocean. Cecily turned to watch her creations, and as each one reached a point that Giles judged to be over deep water, she made a fist then quickly splayed her fingers. The cyclone disintegrated into thousands of droplets, releasing the man trapped inside to plunge downward with a scream of terror that Giles heard even from this distance.
He could not determine if they would survive the fall.
The officer who had halted a few paces beyond where they stood narrowed his eyes at Cecily’s hands, suddenly threw back his head and screamed, “To me, men! To me!”
Giles did not wait for anyone to answer that cry. He lunged forward, forcing the other man to raise his sword in defense, and with a spin of his wrist and a twist, he quickly disarmed the officer and ran him through. Giles risked a brief glance around as the man fell to his knees, but none of his troops remained to answer his call.
Old Man Hugh stood over the other officer’s body, one bare foot of gnarly toes placed firmly on the back of the blue uniform. He gave Giles a crooked grin as Giles yanked his sword free of the fallen man and half-turned toward Cecily. But Hugh’s eyes widened and Giles turned back just in time to see a pistol pointed at her. He had no time to consider if it had already been discharged or gotten water-soaked. He removed the arm from the soldier who pointed the barrel at the Rebellion’s coveted treasure.
Despite the horrors Cecily had witnessed already, or perhaps because of it, a sob of dismay ripped from her throat as the severed appendage flew through the air. Giles turned, his chest contracting for a moment at the expression on Cecily’s face. The dreamy haze had faded from those blue eyes and now each individual facet sparkled with hypnotizing flashes.
“How could you do that?” she demanded.
“I had to.” Giles bent down and cleaned his hands on a blue coat. “He would have shot you.”
Cecily waved her hands wildly about her. “I cannot believe this is happening.” With a sudden slash of her arms, a curve of water arced over their heads to crash onto the bloody battle site, washing it clean before curling upwards and returning to wherever it had come from. The surviving villagers released a gasp of terror despite the cyclones she’d already conjured, and as one, they backed away from her.
Giles stood, shoved his sword back into his scabbard. Or at least, he tried to. The damn blade resisted and nudged the tip away from the opening, causing Giles to nearly impale his own boot. Faith, not only did he have to endure the hysterics of the battle-scarred young woman, but he couldn’t even manage to sheath his own weapon.
“Get in there, you bastard, or I swear I’ll melt you down for horseshoes,” muttered Giles as he slammed the blade into the scabbard again. This time it settled into the leather with a satisfied hum.
If he had not vowed to avenge the deaths of his father and brother, Giles would have abandoned the magical sword long ago. But the enchanted blade had the power to aid him in his revenge against the elven lords, in his goal to one day become an important leader in the Rebellion. He hated the necessity of its thirst for blood—and needed it, all at the same time.
“You talk to it—you are mad,” hissed Cecily.
“Me? Aren’t you the one who just dropped a troop of Breden’s soldiers into the ocean?”
“They killed my mother.”
Giles wiped his bloody palm down his breeches, took a deep breath of patience and strode forward, placing his fingers on her cheek, as if now that he’d touched her, he could not stop from doing so again. “I’m sorry. Many more would have died if you had not called your magic to defend us, and I am grateful. But we have no time for your fit of vapors. If any soldiers survive, they will tell the story of what happened here and the elven lord will come with an even larger army. You must leave the village.”
“Now I know you’re demented,” she said. But she did not pull away from his touch. “I do not understand your sudden concern for me. You… you do not know that I am alive. And I… I despise you. That’s the way it has always been.”
“Has it?” Giles found this revelation of her inner thoughts startling, but he didn’t have time to dwell upon it. “Listen. I promised your father I would look out for you while he was gone, and since he has not returned, that makes you my responsibility.”
“You? You would be the last person I would ever want to watch over me.”
“Apparently Thomas did not care what you thought.” Giles noticed the women had emerged from their hiding places, had started to tend to the wounds of the injured. His own bullet wound suddenly began to ache, and his vision swam for a moment as his hand dropped to Cecily’s shoulder to steady himself. He didn’t have the patience to reason with her, but he would have to try. “You are no longer safe here. Even if word of this scuffle does not reach Breden of Dewhame’s ears, more soldiers will come. Thomas has been gone too long and the spell that has hidden this village has faded. The Rebellion cannot let you fall into enemy hands.”
Cecily’s enormous eyes glittered. “Now I understand. You aren’t just a friend of my father’s. You are part of this Rebellion—how long have you been spying on me? No, no, don’t answer. I’m sure it will be a lie. Fie, you almost had me believing… never mind. Your concern is for me as a tool, not a person.”
She stepped away from him, dislodging his hand. Giles swayed.
“I’m not going anywhere with you, Giles Beaumont… if that’s even your real name.”
His vision developed odd black specks and he blinked to try to clear it. “I assure you, lady, thatismy name. And after nine years of protecting you I think you could at least trust me for the next few…” The ground suddenly flew up to meet his face, but before he felt the impact the black specks exploded and the world disappeared.
At first Cecily could do nothing more than stare down in confusion at the large man. Indeed, she’d felt nothing but confusion since she’d emerged from the ocean to find the blacksmith waiting for her. His concern for her safety had astonished her and her foolish heart had thought…
Fie, she’d found out the truth of it soon enough.
Perhaps she should take the opportunity to get as far away from him as she could. He seemed awfully determined to take control of her life. And she had tried so hard, for so long, to plan her future the way she wanted it.
And certainly not as some weapon for the Rebellion.
Cecily raised her trembling hands, stared at them in dawning horror. What had she done? Years of hiding the true strength of her power—all destroyed in one day. How could she have allowed this to happen? And yet, how could she stand by and do nothing while her friends and neighbors were being slaughtered?
Her entire world had suddenly changed and Cecily couldn’t quite grasp the full extent of it yet. Especially the revelation that the man at her feet had been spying on her for years.
She huffed and bent down, rolled Giles over. So much blood covered his chest that she couldn’t determine how much of it was his. She unbuttoned his shirt with shaking fingers, trying not to look at his beautiful face. He had too much of the elven’s beautiful features for her not to be affected by them.
She spread open the blood-soaked cloth, pushing it over his muscular shoulders. The wound did not look very large but it still bled prodigiously. Cecily tore off a strip from her chemise and balled it up, pushing it against the hole in that otherwise perfect skin.
“Somebody help me,” she cried.
“I’m here, Cecily.”
She looked up into Will’s warm brown gaze and suddenly the horrible things she’d seen and done today caught up with her. She didn’t fight the tears that stung her eyes, trailed down her cheeks. “He needs a healer.”
“Aye, that he does. But it’s not a mortal wound, me girl, so he can wait a bit. I daresay that elven blood of his will have him healed before any of the others.”
Cecily gave him a wondering look. He’d said “elven blood” with a touch of scorn in his voice, and she could not forget she carried even more than the blacksmith. Indeed, she’d tried very hard to keep her odd eyes lowered to hide that damning trait, for despite Giles’s pointed ears and pale blond hair, he still had the ordinary eyes of a human.
“He does look very elven, Will. Is that why you don’t like him?”
William hunched down and laid his arm about Cecily’s shoulders. “Nay. I don’t like him because he’s a strange man, with strange ways. He’s been here nigh on nine years and we still don’t know nuthin’ about him.” He gave her a slight squeeze. “Ye know yer blood has never bothered me, Cecily. Nor yer swimming with all manner of creatures. But ye should have told me about this magic of yers. ’Tis enough to make a man shake in his very boots.”
“I’m sorry, Will. I just hoped that if I ignored it, it would go away.”
Will laughed at that. “No more’n the crystal in yer eyes would fade, me girl. But ye have managed it well, and I don’t see why ye can’t continue to do so.”
Cecily hoped she understood the meaning behind his words. She’d had every intention of marrying Will, had waited only for him to gather the courage to ask her. For the past few years she’d dreamt of a little cottage of her own, filled with freckled babies and Will’s gentle contented sort of love.
It did not concern her that her dreams did not include passion. She had experienced the madness of infatuation once, and never wanted to have her heart crushed like that again.
“Does that mean,” whispered Cecily, “that you still care for me?”
“Ach, me dear girl, I would never let a bit of magic come between us.”
Giles moaned. Cecily focused her attention back on him. She peeked under the cloth and reduced the pressure when she saw that the bleeding had slowed. “That bullet needs to be removed before his skin heals over it.”
Will scratched his head. “Do ye reckon he can heal that fast?”
“I can, Will.”
“And ye have proved to carry more elven blood than even this sword-gifted fiend. Ach, now don’t look at me that way. I told ye it doesn’t change the way I feel.”
But Cecily noticed none of the other villagers had come near them, and realized Will might be the only one of them who felt that way. The few who had the gift of healing had chosen others to care for, the women tending to their own men. Yet if it hadn’t been for Giles, none of them would have survived. He had fought so valiantly for them, yet they now seemed to fear him.
Or perhaps they avoidedher.
When Giles’s current lover hurried by with nary a glance at the fallen man, Cecily wanted to scream at the young woman to help him. She wished the blacksmith would wake up and see what a self-centered chit he’d chosen to bed when he could have had—
No, best not follow that thought.
“I once pulled a splinter from little Ralph’s finger with my magic,” she told Will. “Do you think it would work with a bullet?”
“I dunno. But I don’t see the harm in tryin’.” Will glanced up and frowned. “It seems it may be awhile before someone else can tend to him.”
Cecily gathered the power to her again, her blood thrumming in response until it felt as if her very skin shivered with the force of it. Will jerked his arm from about her shoulders. Perhaps it truly did.
Several healers had already started pots of water to boil, and she called thin streams of it to her, the air cooling it by the time it reached her. Cecily guided it with her fingers, washing off Giles’s chest, noting a thin wound across that perfect skin, but otherwise no injuries except for the bullet hole. She angled the liquid into a point and swirled it to make it strong enough to penetrate that opening, then allowed it to trickle back out with red, then a tint of pink. She continued to force the water into the wound until the musket ball popped out.
Cecily heaved a sigh of relief.
“Well done,” whispered Will.
She nodded at his words, ignoring the awe that had crept into his voice. She tore more cloth from her chemise and bound the blacksmith’s shoulder.
“What shall we do with him?”
Will rose to his feet, grabbed Giles’s ankles, attempting to drag him. “I’ll take him over with the rest of the injured—damn, the man must weigh a hundred stone.”
“Do stop, Will. You’re likely to hurt him.” Cecily curled her arms beneath the blacksmith’s back and knees, lifting him with a grunt. Despite her elven strength, all that muscle of his made him heavy. And her smaller height allowed his head to nearly touch the ground, his feet to drag through the mud. But it was better than Will tugging him about like one of his sheep. “Where?”
Will just gaped at her.
Cecily inwardly groaned. For years she’d hidden her elven strength just as much as she’d hidden her magic, longing to fit in with her fellow villagers. Well, except for the time that beam had fallen on Gregory—but she’d been careful that no one had seen her move it. And once, when Becca’s little sister had wandered near the cliffs, Cecily had used her elven speed to catch the girl before she tumbled over the edge. Isolated incidences with few witnesses. Quickly forgotten because for most of the time she appeared entirely human. But today…
Today’s events had destroyed all of her diligent subterfuge.
“Where do I take him, Will? He’s heavy.”
He snapped his mouth shut and led her to Old Man Hugh’s cottage, which already held several other wounded men. Cecily laid the blacksmith down on a clean pallet just beyond the doorway, her muscles trembling with relief as she settled him. Despite everything, she felt hesitant to leave him. What if he’d lost so much blood he’d never manage to wake up?
She broke another habit she’d developed to protect herself. She looked into his face.
Merciful heavens. Cecily stroked his thick white hair off his brow. The pale strands lacked the sparkle of silver that marked the elven lords, but it only made him appear more human. Made his beauty more real. The sculpted cheekbones, the perfectly formed nose and chin. His skin also lacked the paleness attributed to the pure elven—a light golden color that, along with his ordinary-shaped eyes, betrayed his more human blood.
But he’d inherited entirely too much of the elven beauty for any woman to be unaffected by the mere sight of him.
Cecily had been but nine years old when Giles had come to apprentice to the old blacksmith. At the age of fifteen, Giles had already reached his manhood, while she had been nothing but a scrawny child. Within a few years Giles had taken over the forge and seduced half the maidens in the village.
And like all the rest, Cecily had imagined herself in love with him.
She could not look into his eyes without feeling as if she’d swoon, so she had avoided his gaze. His mere presence left her breathless, heart hammering and palms sweating, so she could not gather the nerve to speak to him. But she took to hanging out about the smithy with all the rest of the young girls, until Giles lost patience and shooed them away.
She’d fought with her best friend, Becca, over who loved him the most. The stupid girl thought she did, and that argument had strained their friendship.
Cecily might have continued to moon after him in quiet adoration if she hadn’t accidentally stumbled across him on the beach one night.
She’d managed to hide most of her peculiar elven traits. She felt grateful she hadn’t inherited the pale locks that were a telltale sign of the blood. Indeed, her black hair helped, and she took to wearing it long over her forehead to hide her freakishly large eyes. She had even managed to suppress her magic until she almost forgot she had it.
All in the attempt to erase the memory of the knowledge that her magic could kill.
But she could not fight the attraction for the ocean. She longed for it like a flower longs for the sun. So she took to the water at night, to swim with the dolphins and become one with the waves. And she’d stumbled across Giles and his lover, their bodies entwined at the edge of the tide, the moonlight highlighting the muscles in Giles’s back and shoulders… in his shapely legs… in his firm buttocks… as he moved atop the woman beneath him. Cecily stared in wonder at the beauty of his face when he arched his back and moaned, his eyes closed in some sort of bliss.
Even the mere thought of how she’d reacted years ago made her face heat with shame now.
For she should have been frightened, or appalled, or even disgusted. She’d never seen such a sight before. She had only a girlish inkling of what went on between a man and a woman when they were alone together, much of it involving kissing.
She had not believed Will when he’d told her it was much like what sheep did.
So witnessing the act should have sent her running in the other direction. Instead, she watched. And studied. And tingled in places she’d never thought of before.
And longed to be that woman beneath him.
Cecily had gone to bed that night, touching herself in those new places of interest, imagining his hands upon her body.
And her determination had grown beyond her shyness.
When her body had finally developed enough curves that she felt the admiring glances of the village boys and a sense of the power she could wield with just a sway of her hips, she had snuck into his private rooms behind the smithy and waited for him.
She could still remember the way he looked when he entered his bedroom. The way he smelled. He must have just come from his bath—another habit of his that marked him as an oddity in the village—for he smelled of spring water and soap, and his naked chest gleamed from scrubbing. His pale hair still dripped sparkling droplets of water about his shoulders and down his back. He wore nothing but his drawers, wet and plastered to his body.
Cecily stared in fascination at what they revealed, forgetting for the moment her rehearsed seduction.
But she must have made some noise, for he swung round toward the bed, his eyes narrowed, and he groaned, “Not again.”
The firelight played across the smooth planes of his chest, the ridged curves in his stomach. He had little body hair marring that expanse, just a bit in the center of his chest, creating a light line straight down into his drawers.
“Lud, woman. Are you married?”
Cecily blinked. Of course, in the dim light he hadn’t recognized her. “No.”
A sigh. “Widowed, perhaps?”
“Known for offering your favors freely?”
He strode toward the bed and ripped the covers off her. “Then, my dear, I’m afraid I have to ask you to leave.”
Cecily squeaked and tried to cover herself with her hands. She had disrobed, hoping the sight of her new curves would be more than he could resist. But, fie, he hadn’t even given her a chance to appear… tempting.
Something flickered in his eyes as they traveled over her body, but his face froze into a sort of dispassionate boredom. “Get dressed. Before I do something we shall both regret.”
“But… but…” Cecily tried to gather her wits. He didn’t understand. He thought she was some foolish girl who didn’t know what she was about. Who wanted to use him for his good looks, and nothing more. “But I love you,” she managed to whisper. There, she’d done it. Confessed her secret longings, let him know that she desired him beyond what his other lovers surely did.
He dropped the bedcovering, took a step backward. His voice, when he spoke, sounded oddly breathless. “Yes, yes. I’m sure you do. Now, be a good girl and get dressed.”
Cecily rose to her knees. He just didn’t understand and this might be her one and only chance to tell him. She had to explain, and then surely he would fall into her arms as she had dreamed. Unlike Becca, Cecily would have the boldness to take what she wanted. And she had never wanted anything more than she wanted Giles Beaumont.
So despite the heat in her face, she confessed her heart. “You think I’m like all the other girls, don’t you? But, Giles, I’m not. None of them are worthy of you. Not a one of them will cherish you the way I do. I am your soul mate, and ours will be a greater love than you can possibly imagine. You just don’t know it yet. You just need…”
He’d stepped closer again, his hand reaching out to her face as if her words had somehow cast a spell over him, and he couldn’t stop himself. His handsome features had softened; his eyes glazed with some emotion Cecily couldn’t identify, yet somehow understood.
She suppressed a grin of victory.
But his fingers halted mere inches from her face, and he snatched them back as if the thought of touching her might burn him as easily as molten metal. He shook his head, water droplets spraying her skin like tiny spears of ice. And then he laughed. “Who the hellareyou?”
“Why, I’m…” She could not say her name, for the meaning of his words slowly drifted past the intensity of her feelings. How could he not know her? She loitered in the forge every day. She knew his every habit. What he liked to eat, how the corners of his eyes crinkled when he smiled, the way he would grow silent when angered.
And he couldn’t even recall her name?
He hadn’t noticed her among the bevy of his admirers. She hadn’t been worthy of his notice.
A humiliation unlike anything she had ever known before suffused her. She had confessed an infatuation that was entirely one-sided. Hers. She gathered up her clothing and backed out of the room, her passion turning into a rage that threatened to overwhelm her. She ran before the control over her magic slipped beyond redemption.
And learned that love could fool. That passion could blind. And that…
Will cleared his throat from the doorway of Old Man Hugh’s cottage. Cecily untangled her fingers from the blacksmith’s hair. How long had she been sitting here staring at him? Revisiting memories she’d thought she had managed to bury years ago?
She attempted to rise but Giles’s eyelids suddenly flew open and he grasped her hand. “Must leave… keep you safe.”
His big hand felt so warm, her fingers dwarfed in his. Something ran through her, a frisson of feeling similar to what she had felt all those years ago. She should never have allowed that old memory to resurface with such excruciating detail.
And yet, she now realized he had lied to her. That night, he had known who she was. He had used those words to hurt her, to discourage the childish infatuation she’d felt for him. But his laughter had been genuine, of that she could be sure. For he had been assigned to protect the Rebellion’s tool, had never truly seen her as a person. And what a lark the tool had turned out to be!
Cecily twisted her hand from his and near growled her next words. “I told you, I’m not going anywhere with you.”
But his eyes had already rolled back into his head.
Will stood frozen in the doorway, his brown gaze flicking from her to Giles. “What is going on between the two of ye?”
“Nothing.” Cecily stepped over to his side and took his hand, so much smaller in comparison to the blacksmith’s. “Father asked him to watch over me while he was away; that’s all. Although why he would choose such an oaf is beyond my ability to comprehend.”
Will bristled. “Thomas should have askedme. He knows how I feel about ye.”
Cecily could not explain to him about the Rebellion. About who her true father was. For then she would have to explain about the night she’d escaped the clutches of an elven lord. And how even as a child, she had killed more than a hundred men in the process. Today had been bad enough.
“I don’t need anyone to watch over me, Will.”
“Aye,” he replied as he led her across the village square. “Ye’ve proven that, well enough.”
She caught some inflection in his voice, perhaps a bit of the betrayal he’d mentioned, but chose to ignore it. She would just have to work twice as hard to make the villagers forget what she’d done here today. It would take a bit longer for them to forget this incident. But she had every confidence they would. She would not give up her life here so easily. She had worked too hard for it.
“Do ye wish me to help bury her?” whispered Will.
Cecily realized she’d stopped beside her mother’s body. What was she doing here lying in the dirt? Mother hated to get dirty.
“Yes,” she replied. “Let me fetch a blanket, Will.”
Before he could respond, Cecily dropped his hand and ran to their little cottage on the outskirts of the village. Thomas had built it close to the ocean, for he knew his daughter couldn’t bear to be far from the waves. The thatch had been burned along with most of the south wall, and it reeked of smoke when she entered it.
Cecily opened the cedar trunk that sat at the foot of her mother’s bed. She pulled out the quilt she had so painstakingly sewed many a night, dreaming of when it would be spread on her marriage bed, the beam of Will’s smile as she proudly displayed the work she had done for him. She had pieced the blue-and-green cloth in a pattern of waves, with dolphins leaping from between the curls, and then overlaid the entire piece with tiny stitches of even more waves.
Mother had professed it to be the most beautiful quilt she’d ever seen.
Her poor mother could not sew. Indeed, it appeared she had no skills whatsoever, and Cecily often wondered what grand house she had lived in that she couldn’t manage to do anything for herself. But feared to ask about their life before they’d come to the village.
Cecily took to domestic life like she took to the sea. She had but to watch a quilting circle once to learn to sew. She cooked all of their meals, inventing her own dishes to tempt her mother’s delicate appetite. She tended the finest garden in the village, her vegetables and herbs always growing large and fine. She spun her own thread, wove her own cloth, and made her dresses from hand-drawn designs that Father would bring from London.
Cecily glanced around their little cottage, her gaze picking out the many things she’d created to make it a home. From the curtains at the windows to the seashells filled with flowers, the room spoke more of her tastes than her parents’. Mother professed time and again that she didn’t understand where Cecily had acquired such a gift for peasant life. Father only smiled and patted her hand in sympathy. And then winked at Cecily.
Father. What would he do when he came home? He adored Mother.
Cecily curled the blanket under her arm and ran back down to the village clearing, hopping over the small streams and rivulets that laced the land. Will stood patiently where she had left him.
Cecily laid out the blanket, and Will helped her place Mother in the middle of it. She brushed the dirt from her mother’s hair and dress, then carefully folded the quilt around her. “There now. This will protect her.”
Will nodded, as if what she said made any sense at all, and picked up Mother, following the line of villagers out to the small cemetery. Too many of their own would be buried today.
The plot stood on a small knoll, the driest place near the village. The elven lord of Dewhame had changed the land with his magic: springs spouted from meadow and wood, ponds softened any lowland, rivers and streams flowed in a wild profusion across the landscape.
Cecily knew that although the sovereignty of Dewhame had always been green, it had lacked the wealth of water the Imperial Lord Breden of Dewhame had created with his magic. Since the liquid nourished her very soul, she could not regret the change in the landscape, despite her adopted father mourning about how England had looked before the invasion.
Cecily dug the grave herself, until it grew too deep for her to get out of, and then Will helped her up and took over the task. Other than the weeping of the women, the villagers went about the burying of their dead with quiet grief.
Although many offered their sympathy to one another, not a one spoke a word of comfort to Cecily. She tried not to be hurt. Hadn’t she lived among them for years? Hadn’t she tended their families when one of them grew ill? Hadn’t she brought them gifts from the ocean to sell at market to help them through the winter? Surely her display of magic had not made them forget she was still one of them.
She had frightened them. Their fear would lessen when they realized she hadn’t changed. That she was the same girl, despite carrying too much of the elven blood.
Cecily sat at her mother’s side, watching the hole growing ever deeper, her chest tightening until she could scarcely breathe. If she allowed Will to place her mother in the grave, it would all become real. Oh, her head knew very well that her mother had died, but her heart had not acknowledged it yet. She could not allow it, or surely she would splinter into a thousand pieces, never to be whole again.
She stared up through the branches of the old elm tree, watching the sunlight filter through the leaves. If she didn’t answer Will, he might go away. She could not put her mother into the ground. She could not. Then it would be final. And she would never hear her mother’s laugh again, or feel the softness of her arms enfold her, or know the joy of her words of praise when she thought Cecily had done something particularly clever.
She couldn’t do this.
Will tried to take up the blanket. Cecily frowned at him, picked up her mother herself. She felt so slight. So frail.
Will jumped down into the hole and lifted up his arms. Cecily carefully handed Mother to him, and when Will crawled back out and made to cover her with dirt, Cecily grabbed his arm.
And she flew down the small rise, into the meadow, gathering as many flowers as her arms could hold, and then took them back to shower down around her mother.
“This will make it bearable for her, Will.”
He only nodded, and followed her on her next trip, this time partway into the woods, gathering violets and wild roses and buttercups. Then he followed her back toward the ocean, and they gathered knotgrass and sea holly and the small yellow flowers that grew along the cliffs.
By the time they returned, most of the villagers had finished their burials and left. The few who remained kept their eyes averted from Cecily’s.
Will began to shovel the dirt onto their mound of flowers.
“Wait,” she panted, and raced back home, stripping her garden bare of any plants that had managed to flower, gathering the honeysuckle she’d cultivated near the front of the cottage, until she could barely see past the blooms in her arms.
When she’d dropped them down into the hole, the combined perfume of the blooms made her head spin. But she nodded at Will, who had waited with infinite patience for her to return. The sun started to set while he shoveled, and this time she joined him, until they laid the last clump of earth atop the grave.
“She will like being surrounded by the flowers.”
“Aye. Ye did right, Cecily.”
He took her hand, and they stood for a moment without saying a word. Mother knew what lay in her heart, without her having to say it over her… place of rest.
Will escorted her back to her empty cottage, placing his cheek against hers in farewell. “Are ye sure ye will be all right by yerself?”
Cecily nodded. “I can’t stay at your place, Will. It wouldn’t be proper.”
He flushed. “I was thinking of Becca. Surely ye can stay with her a time?”
She should have known Will would never suggest anything improper. But even if Becca would welcome her, Cecily knew her friend’s family would not. They had always stared at her odd eyes with suspicion, despite everything she’d done to endear them to her.
“No, Will. This is my home. I just hope it doesn’t rain tonight.”
He nodded, red hair falling about his forehead. “I’ll see about fixing the roof in the morning.”
Cecily smiled with gratitude. She knew she could count on Will. Despite everything he saw her do today, he still cared for her.
Night had fallen and shadowed the familiar interior of the cottage, and Cecily shivered as she closed the door, grateful that at least the smoke had finally cleared. She lit a rush light, the meager illumination doing little to vanquish the shadows. But she hesitated to light a fire. The early summer night was too warm, and their pile of wood too meager. Mother kept saying that as soon as Thomas returned she would set him to chopping wood.
But Father had not returned. And now Cecily wondered if he ever would.
While she ate a cold meal of bread and dried fish, she wondered if the blacksmith had been right. Thomas had never been gone this long before. He often went away for months at a time, never telling them where he was going, or what task the Rebellion had set for him. Cecily had reassured her mother that Thomas could take care of himself. Hadn’t he shown her the way he could make himself almost disappear? Hadn’t he regaled them with stories of his escapes from danger time and again?
And it hadn’t occurred to Cecily that something bad couldreallyhappen to him. But today’s events had shown her that the evils of the world could come upon one suddenly, when they least expected it.
Cecily could bear her thoughts no longer. She pushed them from her mind, climbed into her parents’ bed, and allowed herself to cry until she fell asleep.
When she woke the next morning, it took a moment for the events of yesterday to filter into her mind.
Of course, she didn’t answer. But Cecily tried to keep up her usual routine.
“I’m going out to tend to the garden.” She glanced down at her wrinkled clothing, grimaced at the stains upon it, and changed into her second-best set of clothes. “And to the beach. I left my favorite quilted petticoat there.”
The small house near vibrated with silence.
In her garden, the plants had a layer of soot covering them, and she washed them all down with her bucket several times. A stream ran not too far from her garden patch, and walking back and forth soon grew tedious. It would take but a flick of her hand to call the water from stream to garden, but she had never used her magic so casually. Nor would she do so today. Indeed, she would have to work even harder to fit in now.
She glanced up into Will’s rather haggard-looking face, pushing the hair away from her eyes and wondering if she looked as bad. Probably worse. “Good morn, Will. My plants are doing well this year. I will make dinner for you this eve—what’s wrong?”
He spread out his hands. “How can ye ask me that? Everything’s wrong; everything’s changed.”
“But not you and I.”
“Not the way I feel about ye, no. And yet—the men have been talking. We don’t know why the elven lord suddenly decided to raid our village for his army. ’Tis said that he’s determined to win back the king from Firehame. Our king who is naught but a trophy to them! Ach, we should be a united England, conquering the world. But because of the elven we are nothing but squabbling sovereignties, pitting our own men against one another.”
Cecily dropped her bucket, the water sloshing over the sides, wetting the hem of her skirt. “I’ve never heard you talk like this before. What has gotten into you?”
“Ye can ask me that, after yesterday?” He shook his head. “Ye cannot keep things the way they were, Cecily, no matter how hard ye try.”
“Don’t say that. We can repair the village. We can go back to our peaceful lives. The elven lord will forget about us.”
“Nay, he will not! He will send more soldiers… or just destroy us with one of his storms. We are doing what’s best.”
A shaft of ice ran through her body. “What do you mean?”
Will took a breath. “The men and I are going to Dewhame to join Breden’s army. They will attack the village again if we do not, and we will not sit and wait for them to come to us.”
“You can’t leave.”
Will stepped forward, lifted her hands in his. “Don’t ye see it’s the only way to protect ye?”
Cecily had her fill of men trying to protect her. “Liar. You’ve always wanted to join the army. You long for glory. This is naught but an excuse.”
He flinched as if she’d slapped him and quickly withdrew his hands from hers and stepped back warily. For a moment, she saw a hint of fear in his eyes. Dear, sweet Will, despite what he had said, feared her. Or rather, her magic.
“Do not be this way,” he whispered. “Ye cannot change what has happened. Ye cannot hide from it.”
Will couldn’t go. She might never see him again. All of her plans for a quiet comfortable life would go with him. “When are you leaving?”
“This morn. Old Man Hugh will take care of my flock until I return. I know I don’t have the right to ask, but if ye could wait for me…”
Cecily shook her head. “It doesn’t matter. You know what I am now, Will. Even if you manage to come home, you’ll never be able to forget that, will you?”
He dropped his gaze, studied the toes of his boots. He wore his best pair, the leather only slightly scuffed. “Ye cannot help what ye are. Many others have more elven blood than they’d like.”
He didn’t deny her words. Cecily sucked in a breath. “You had best go.”
Will wouldn’t leave her like this. He would take her hand and tell her he could never be parted from her, for any reason.
But he turned and walked away.
Thomas had always told her she had too much romanticism in her heart for her own good. She knew it to be true the day she had snuck into the blacksmith’s bedroom and humiliated herself beyond redemption. She now knew it to be true with Will. She had thought she could always count on his love. But it was just as tenuous as the life she’d made for herself in the village.
Cecily spun and ran to the one place that always offered her comfort. That always soothed her whenever Thomas tried to shake the romanticism out of her.
She flew through the scraggly woods, over the steep rocks and across the sun-warmed sand, not stopping until she reached her private cove. The sharp tang of salt nipped her nose and tickled her tongue. She stripped off her clothing, dropping it atop her discarded petticoat from yesterday, and plunged into the waves.
Thomas had always told her that one day she would become a tool of the Rebellion. The magic in her blood had chosen her destiny, and she could not fight it. She had firmly denied it, telling him she didn’t want such power.
For she remembered the night Thomas and the lady Cassandra had rescued Mother and her from the prison of Firehame Palace. The night she’d called up a storm to stop the troops that pursued them. Cecily’s magic had killed hundreds of men, and she could still see their deaths limned by the fury of lightning, shadowed by the deluge of the storm.
And she’d sworn to renounce her magic. Had done such a jolly good job of it that Thomas had quit trying to teach her the ways of deception that made for a good spy. Indeed, as she grew to love Thomas as a father, he’d grown to love her as a daughter, and eventually put her needs before those of the Rebellion.
He no longer saw her as just a tool for the Rebellion. Had found ways to protect her, not only from her blood father, Breden of Dewhame, but from his own Rebellion.
Cecily swam ever deeper, leaving behind the sun-dappled water until she moved in a world of twilight. Luminous fish spotted the water with bright color; anemone and coral swayed like a garden of flowers beneath her. Two dolphins swam up to greet her, brushing their smooth cool skin against hers, inviting her to play.
But Cecily did not have the heart for it, and instead pushed herself to swim farther out to sea, to leave behind the world of man once and for all.
Although her lungs seemed capable of supporting her for hours within the water, she knew she could not stay below forever. Nor could she go back to that empty house and pretend her life would go on as it had before. She had nothing, now. No one.
A fury of movement to her right made Cecily slow her sharp kicks, float in weightlessness for a moment. A school of sharks circled, a multitude of other sea creatures below, feeding off the bits that floated from the shark’s feast. She felt the agitation of the dolphins at her side, smoothed their hides with the palms of her hands.
She should swim away, but her eye caught something wrong about the scene beside her. The sharks did not feast on the carcass of another fish.
Cecily tried to swim around them and abruptly hit an invisible wall. She placed her hands against the barrier, knowing she could not pass through it. Neither could she go under or over it. For it was the magical barrier that the elven lords had crafted to surround England. To cut them off from the rest of the world—to contain their magic or keep the English people prisoner, she could not be sure. But Thomas said it allowed the elven lords to monitor trade and hide their evil from the rest of the world.
But Mother said the rest of the world could care less about the plight of the English people.
And Father said they would have to help themselves. And he would go off on another mission for the Rebellion.
Cecily drifted up to the surface, her hands trailing against the invisible wall, watching the school of sharks circling again and again, until finally a gap opened between the sharp-finned bodies, and she caught sight of their feast.
And why it had seemed so very wrong.
They fed on soldiers. The soldiers that she had plunged into the ocean. Arms, legs, shredded torsos and a head with glazed, staring eyes…
Cecily clutched at her dolphins, kicking her legs away from the carnage. And her friends responded by swiftly pulling her back to shore, her arms slung about their backs, her head lowered against the spray. She normally took such delight in their swift passage, but the horror of what she’d seen robbed her of any enjoyment.
She had done that. But she’d dropped the men in the water because she assumed they would swim to shore, too worn out to fight the villagers, their weapons lost. Surely some had made it to shore…
She hadn’t meant to kill them. If her world was no longer the safe, contented harbor she’d worked so hard to create, she was no longer the harmless girl she’d tried to fool herself into being.
Thomas had been right about everything. She pictured his smiling face, with his golden hair gone slightly gray at the temples, his pale eyes surrounded by a network of laugh lines. How could he have stayed so kind in the world in which he lived?
How could he have allowed Cecily to hide for so long?
Perhaps his home in the village was the only place he knew peace. Perhaps he wanted to keep a little part of his world as a safe haven to return to.
If Giles was right, Thomas had even found a spell to place around the village, keeping them all safe.
But Thomas had not come home to renew it. Wouldn’t he have known how long it would last? What if something truly horrible had happened to him? What if he lay imprisoned by some elven lord at this very moment, in pain and crying out for help?
Her toes dragged against the sand and she dropped her arms from about the dolphins, giving them a petting in their favorite places, while the waves bobbed her up and down.
Will had been right. She could not hide from the world anymore.
But she need not become a tool, either.
She walked to the shore, ignoring the waves that battered her, the plaintive cries of her friends begging her to stay and play. Her eyes narrowed as she studied the far rise, looking for a hint of movement.
Ah, he was good. Had she not been looking, she never would have spied him. But a brief flash of pale hair told her Giles had resumed his post of spying upon her, wounded or no.
Cecily did not bother to hurry into her clothing. He had watched her for years, so it hardly mattered now that he saw her naked body. Besides, it obviously held little appeal for him. She’d offered it and he had easily rejected her.
She felt that familiar rise of humiliation turn into something harder. Something cold and brilliant which formed from the events of the last four-and-twenty hours. It served to strengthen her resolve.
Cecily surreptitiously used her magic to shed her skin of water and pulled her chemise over her head. She had always just struggled her damp skin into her clothing. But now that she’d made her decision, there was no reason to hide her magic, even for the little things.
But she had no magic that would assist her into her stays, and she could only be thankful that working women had laces in front and back. She wouldn’t have a servant to aid her on the journey ahead.
She pulled on both of her petticoats, then her serviceable brown dress, and carried her shoes in her hand as she made her way up the rocks.
The spy did not attempt to hide. Why would he, now that his secret was revealed? Giles stood as she approached, looking as pale as an elven lord, favoring his shoulder as he brushed the hair from his eyes with his other hand.
He stood too tall. Cecily could meet Will’s eyes, but her head barely topped Giles’s massive shoulders.
Despite that new, hard little knot inside of her, she could not stop the racing of her heart, the flutter in her stomach, at his nearness.
Nor could she stare into his face. So she spoke to his chin. “I need a horse.”
Giles could only stare at her in stunned amazement.
“You’re a blacksmith, aren’t you? You have horses in your stables, don’t you?”
He nodded, feeling like the rather slow oaf that he’d pretended to be since he’d come to the village. Cecily looked… different, somehow. Oh, she was still beautiful. With the elven blood that ran through her veins, she could never be otherwise. Her enormous blue eyes glittered like crystal jewels, her black hair shone in the sunlight, and her skin looked like translucent parchment.
But her soft mouth had hardened, her posture rigidly alert like a soldier about to face battle.
Giles regretted the change in her.
“I am in need of one,” she said.
“Of a horse.”
“Yes, quite. Has your injury addled your brain?”
He cocked a grin. His brain always seemed to get addled when she neared within a few feet of him. Another good reason that had kept him at a distance from her for so many years. “I’m just astonished you’ve managed to find your good sense. You understand that you must leave this… place.”
He hadn’t meant his words to sound so derisive. But the thought of finally leaving this little village, of relinquishing his task of watching over Cecily so he could serve the Rebellion in a way more suited to his character, had made him speak more harshly than he intended.
He longed for adventure. He ached for the chance to deliver a blow to the elven lords that would ease the suffering in his heart for the death of his father and brother. And he had felt stifled in this little village. An entire world waited for him, and now he had the chance to experience it.
Her gaze finally left his chin to glance up into his eyes. He resisted the urge to take a step backward, to escape the feeling that she delved into his very soul.
“It must have been dreadful for you,” she said, “having to watch over some foolish little chit, while my father went off on his grand missions.”
She had struck too close to home. For the first time, it occurred to him that the girl might know him just as well as he knew her. She had watched him often enough. With the other young women of the village. Until that night she had… fie, she’d almost destroyed his entire mission when she had climbed into his bed and offered herself to him.
If she had not been so innocent, he wouldn’t have been able to resist bedding her. And Thomas would have killed him.
“My feelings in this matter are not significant.” This time he willed himself to speak harshly. He felt sure any infatuation for him that she’d suffered from as a child had faded on her maturity. Indeed, he should have felt relieved by the coldness she had treated him to since that night. The fact that it rankled still confused him. “We will leave at once.”
“I beg your pardon,” she replied, in a tone that suggested she offered no such thing. “I do not recall asking for your company.”
“You will have it, whether you wish it or no. Until I deliver you into someone else’s safekeeping, you are my responsibility.”
“Indeed. You still seem to suffer under the delusion that I need protection. Did you not witness what I did yesterday? Do you not realize how many bodies litter the waters of my ocean?”
She raised her hands, her fingers playing some invisible melody in the air. He knew how deadly a mere gesture from her could be, although he had not truly understood the extent of her power until he’d witnessed it. But behind the anger in her eyes, he saw a deep sadness, and her breath had hitched when she spoke of her waters.
Perhaps another would not have noticed. But he’d studied her interactions with others often enough to see past the shield of her public face.
“You did what you had to,” he said, closing the distance between them. She smelled like lavender and deep ocean. A heady scent no other woman could ever match. “Just as I did what I needed to do.”
“I do not like killing.”
“Nor do I.”
She waved her fingers again. “I do not likeyou.”
Giles laughed. “Do not think you frighten me, little girl. You shan’t be rid of me so easily.”
Her mouth dropped open, and he fought the urge to kiss her. Heaven help him on their journey to Firehame. His only defense against her appeal had been distance, and he would not be able to keep it. And now that she knew the truth about him, it seemed it had broken some sort of barrier between them, for they spoke to each other now more than they had in the past nine years. Which meant he would have to be even more vigilant against his affection for her.
At the thought, he raised his hand and touched her cheek, that thrill of anticipation running through him again. Indeed, he did have an affection for her. How astonishing.
She stepped away from his touch. “Do not think to use your wiles upon me. I am no longer a child. And do not think I am going with you to become some pawn for your Rebellion. I will not be used—by you or anyone else. I am going to see this Sir Robert of yours only to find my father. He will know of Thomas’s last mission… unless… did Father tell you?”
Giles shook his head. Even if he did know, he wouldn’t likely tell her, nor did he think Sir Robert would, either. But if he wished the young woman off his hands and the end of this task so he could be given another, he wouldn’t admit this. “No. And please refrain from bandying the man’s name about. I confessed it to you only in the dire need of your circumstances.”
“I’m surprised you were given his name.”
“The Rebellion will risk much to protect you.”
She grimaced. He could not help but grin at such a look.
“Come,” he said, bending down to pull on his boots. “We should leave at once.” A bit of sand had stuck to his stockings and prickled his feet as he walked up the rise. He did not wait for her, knowing she would follow. For he’d heard about the men leaving, had known that Will would go with them.
The village held nothing for her now.
Indeed, as they made their way to his smithy it felt as though they walked through an empty village. The young men must have already left, and perhaps many of their families as well. It would be foolish to stay and wait for the soldiers to come.
Cecily tried to walk away, and he stayed her with a raised hand. “It’s best if we do not part.”
She gave him an indignant look. “I need to pack some items for the journey. I will meet you back here in a few hours.”
Giles entered the stable next to the smithy, his mind already racing with plans for the journey. It would take at least six days to reach London, perhaps more since they needed to travel in secret. He had but one horse, Apollo, a brute big enough to bear his weight, but Thomas kept extra mounts stabled, and he thought the small brown mare would suit Cecily. “I think it’s better if you stay with me. I have already packed the supplies and need only to prepare the horses. Does this little mare meet with your approval?”
Giles turned around and realized he spoke to air.
He frowned and patted the mare’s neck. “Ah, Belle. It would seem that this is going to be a most difficult journey, eh? With that young lady hating me—and me wanting her—all at the same time.” The horse nickered, nosing into his pockets in hopes of a treat. Giles fetched out a bit of wilted carrot and saddled her while she crunched. “The hatred doesn’t worry me. It’s the wanting that could get me into trouble.”
When he’d finished with the mare he saddled up Apollo, who stamped his feet until he’d been given a carrot as well.
It took Giles only a few moments to arrange the bags on the mounts. When he’d awoken this morning, he had decided to take Cecily to Firehame whether the woman would come willingly or no, so he’d packed the bags and dressed in his buckskins. He supposed he should be grateful she had changed her mind. He’d never had to force a woman to do anything.
“Although,” he muttered as he led the horses from the stables, “Cecily is not a woman who can be forced to do anything. And that, my beasties, will have her and I knocking our heads together before we travel far.”
Belle nickered and Apollo snorted. Fie, how he loved the beasts. They listened to everything he said and never talked back.
Giles didn’t spare a glance for the smithy he left behind. He had always known that it had been but a temporary arrangement for him, despite having lived here for years. And although it had become his home, and he’d made a few friends in the village, his heart felt light as he left it behind for good. He did not lock the doors, and welcome to any man who wished to take up where he’d left off. He didn’t suppose it would be any time soon, but after a while the village would become populated again.
The fishing hereabouts made for a comfortable livelihood.
As if on cue, Old Man Hugh popped his head out the door of his cottage as Giles passed.
“Ye be taking her away then?”
The old man spat. “Can’t say as I’m sad to see her go. Nor ye, for that matter.”
Giles turned to him in surprise. One of the men he’d thought he had made friends with was Hugh.
“Ach, now, don’t be looking that aways. It’s not that I don’t like either of ye. It’s just… ye two are not for the likes of our little village. Ye belong in the world that made ye.” He stepped out of the doorway of his cottage, holding out a hand knobby with age and hard work. “I’ll miss ye, though, Mister Giles Beaumont.”
Giles shook the dry hand.
Hugh let out a cackle. “Lud, don’t ye think I know that blade of yers is destined to protect more than this humble village?”
The devil-sword shivered in its scabbard, as if it knew it was the object of discussion.
“You see more than most, Old Man. More than I had thought.”
“That I do.” Hugh stepped closer and lowered his gravelly voice. “I’m naught but a worn-out fisherman, son, but sometimes I see things—there’s a bit of elven blood in me own line. So heed the advice of this old man, for I’m given it to ye in good faith. Ye may not get what ye want, but it will be more’n ye ever thought to have. So be patient. With yer ambition, and the girl.”
One of the injured cried out from within the dark recesses of the cottage and Hugh turned to answer.
“Wait,” said Giles, his fear for the old man overriding his confusion about the advice he’d been given. “Come with us. When the soldiers return, they may not feel like talking. It’s dangerous to stay.”
“And who will take care of the injured?” asked Hugh. “Besides, I no more belong in yer world than ye do in mine. Naw, get on with ye, boy. And use the elven blood in yer veins to help the human part of ye. For freedom is worth any cost.” He scrambled back into his cottage, throwing his parting words over one strong, bony shoulder. “Good luck to ye, Beaumont, and may the Good Lord bless ye.”
With that parting benediction, Giles left the village for the last time, following the small pathway that led to Thomas’s cottage. The honeysuckle that usually surrounded the front of the little house had been torn away, straggles of blossoms releasing a strong aroma as he tread upon them to knock at the door.
She answered it within a heartbeat, her gaze quickly skimming past him to the waiting horses. “I’m more at home in the water than on the back of a beast.”
“I know. But Belle is a docile mount.”
“It’s the sidesaddle,” she continued, stepping back from the doorway and allowing him in.
“I know,” he said again.
She huffed. “I suppose you know a great many things about me, after spying on me all these years. And I suppose I will have to become adjusted to who you really are… and not who I thought you were.”
Giles shrugged, surveying the homey cottage. “I’m the same person and so are you. Only our circumstances have changed.”
“Perhaps.” She hefted a rather large valise.
He shook his head. “We travel light.”
She sighed but didn’t argue, setting the bag on the bedstead and sorting through it. “I shall have only one change of clothes, and no hoops. The prime minister will think I’m a country bumpkin… ah, faith, that’s what I am. I just hope he takes me seriously.”
Giles purposely looked away from her smallclothes and examined a shelf laden with an assortment of seashells, coral, and some items he could not identify. Cecily’s ocean finds often traded for large sums, and more than once, had fed the village through a lean winter. They should have been grateful for her contributions, but instead it had served only to set her even further apart from them.
Indeed, in the same way his gift with steel had made the young men only more distant from him.
“You’ve only to twiddle your fingers at water,” he finally replied, “and I’m sure Sir Robert will take you seriously.”
“And I will nick my finger, and your sword’s hunger for blood will make him takeyouseriously when he realizes the power of the magic it holds.”
He turned with a smile. “Well met. It seems we are a pair of magical aberrations, does it not?”
“I was perfectly ordinary until yesterday.”
“You, my dear lady, were never ordinary.”
She gave him an odd look, but didn’t reply, only handed him a much-smaller bundle of tightly rolled clothing. He accepted it this time, striding out to her horse and stuffing it into the empty bag he’d left for her things. He checked the horses’ shoes again, the straps of the saddles, and when she didn’t appear he went back into the cottage.
She stood in the middle of the room, her magnificent eyes bright with tears. “I will just fetch Father and return. I will sit at this loom again, and spin my cloth. I will swim in my ocean with my friends. I will cook at that fire and embroider Father’s shirts. I will not so easily give up this life I’ve worked so hard for.”
Giles had a feeling she would never return to this little cottage but he said nothing. If it comforted her to believe she would one day return, he wouldn’t take that from her.
Such an odd young woman. He constantly sought change, yearned for excitement. If it hadn’t been for the distraction spying on Cecily had provided, he might have gone mad with boredom these past nine years.
It was time to start a new life. His heart jumped at the thought, and he could not keep the eagerness from his voice. “Come. It’s dangerous to tarry.”
She followed him out this time, turned and closed the door firmly behind her, latching it with a murmur of a promise. Belle nickered and Cecily smiled at the small mare, pulling an apple from within the folds of her skirts.
Giles studied her beneath lowered lids. Cecily wore a riding habit, the coat similar to his own, but with pearl buttons instead of his dull brass. Her skirts lacked a hoop, which made mounting and riding easier, and the wool cloth would be sturdy enough for their journey. She’d placed a straw hat over her mobcap and wore her hair in a single plait down her back.
An odd mixture of dress that spoke of a working-class woman with the elegance of a lady. But he knew she’d acquired the pearls using her magical abilities and not through trade, and that the fine weave of the cloth came from her own efforts.
A remarkable young woman. But not for the likes of him.
She scrambled into the saddle without his assistance, scowling as she wrapped her leg about the saddle’s support, but too much of a lady to suggest she ride astride. She smoothed down her skirts and patted Belle’s neck.
“Clever of you,” said Giles as he mounted his gelding.
“What do you mean?”
She shrugged. “Father taught me about bribery.”
And apparently that should have explained everything, for she said no more, just watched him with an expectant look on her lovely face.
Giles nodded and tapped Apollo with his heels, the beast starting out at a brisk pace. Despite his success with the village girls, Cecily often made him feel like an untried youth, clumsy and flustered in her presence. Fortunately his natural elven grace hid most of his human failings, so he didn’t think he betrayed his uneasiness around her.
To make it all worse, he began to suspect that he might have been wrong about Cecily’s feelings for him. She used her disdain for him like a shield, as if she sought to hide her true sensibilities.
And he had never quite managed to erase the vision of her in his bed.
Fie! Perhaps it was only wishful thinking. He could not have the one woman he truly wanted. Whether she knew it or not, they came from entirely different social classes, and as soon as they reached Firehame this would become very clear to her.
He would rather not face the humiliation of her rejection once she realized her true status, so he would just have to ignore this attraction… and never allow her to guess he felt it.
Giles started to get warm and stripped off his jacket then his neck cloth and finally opened the topmost buttons of his shirt. Then realized his discomfort came not from the sun overhead, but from the feel of her gaze upon his back. He slowed Apollo so that he rode by her side, which kept her scrutiny firmly directed away from him.
His body ceased to burn.
Giles stayed on a path that paralleled the channel, knowing Cecily would feel more comfortable if they kept close to the ocean, but eventually they would have to head inland…
“How many days will it take to reach London?”
It seemed her thoughts ran similarly to his own. “Five or six days, depending.”
Giles glanced over and down at her on the smaller horse. “You weren’t born in the village. Do you have no memory of how you came there?”
She smoothed the hair away from her face, the ocean breeze having loosened black tendrils from the plaiting. “I have worked very hard to forget everything that happened before Thomas rescued me and my mother.”
“I see.” Giles knew that when Thomas had rescued her from the Imperial Lord of Firehame, Cecily had called down a storm that had destroyed their pursuers. And that she could not forgive herself for killing so many. Yet it seemed a simple matter to Giles. They would have brought her back to Firehame to die a horrible death, so why should she feel remorse that she had stopped them?
“Tell me what our journey will be like,” she asked. “For I would feel better knowing what to expect.”
“I’m not sure if we shall reach Dorset today, but when we do, we will have to head inland. It will dry out as we leave Dewhame and enter the sovereignty of Firehame, but until then we avoid the lowlands, for Breden of Dewhame’s water magic has turned them into marshes. Most of Dewhame is littered with streams and fountains similar to the land about our village. It is said the land was quite different before the arrival of the elven lords, but that their magic has changed it… surely you know of the seven sovereignties and the elven lords who rule each of them?”
She glanced at him with a look of annoyance. “Firehame in south central England ruled by the black scepter of Mor’ded. Verdanthame to the east ruled by the green scepter of Mi’cal. Terrahame to the northeast with the brown of Annanor; Bladehame next to that, then Stonehame, Dreamhame… yes, Giles, I know my geography and the powers that have shaped each land. I am not ignorant of the outside world. My question referred to the actual court of Firehame. Thomas had hinted of changes there.”
And if Thomas hadn’t seen fit to reveal all of the Rebellion’s secrets to his daughter, Giles most assuredly would not. “You needn’t worry about it. We shan’t be going to the palace, but to Sir Robert’s townhouse, and I haven’t been past the front entry, so I couldn’t tell you what to expect. It’s a grand home though, almost as large as our village.”
She raised a brow at that, but he ignored it. She would soon see for herself. “Perhaps if you allow yourself to remember, the memories of your earlier life will return.”
Her head shook emphatically. “I was imprisoned in a rickety old tower the entire time I was in Firehame, and before that…” Cecily frowned, watching the gulls and cormorants gliding above the ocean waves. “I recall only running and hiding, dark places and whispered conversations.”
The path they rode upon curved away from the ocean again, but they had been steadily climbing and so this time the poplar trees did not block their view, and they had a fine prospect of the land of Dewhame.
A wild moor spread out below them, heather blooming in a lavender blanket that rippled in the breeze and made a sort of shushing sound. A river sparkled on the far horizon, small streams flowing from it to weave through the heather like some giant spider web. Fountains of water erupted from several of the streams, glittering in the sunshine and overlaying the land with a sheen of mist. Giles resisted the urge to spread out his arms as the open land filled him with a feeling of freedom.
But Cecily showed no such restraint. “How glorious,” she murmured, opening her arms wide. The water responded to her call, forming shimmering columns in the air and snaking their way toward her. Apollo came to an abrupt halt and snorted as the beams of water curled around them to reach Cecily. Giles felt the cool glide of a tendril caress his face, curve about his neck, leaving behind a soothing dampness.
For a moment, Cecily sat surrounded by shimmering columns, her eyes closed and a rapturous smile on her lovely mouth. She looked ethereal and beautiful and entirely dangerous.
“You make the water look almost alive,” said Giles.
She turned and looked at him, light gleaming from within the facets of her eyes. “It is. Can’t you feel it?”
“I come from Bladehame, lady. The elven blood that runs through my veins is attuned to dry metal.”
He patted Apollo’s rump, but the gelding did not need any urging from him, and picked up a quick trot.
Cecily dropped her arms as the little mare followed, a loud splash and a new puddle behind her on the trail. But Giles noticed that translucent wisps of vapor still clung to the young woman’s cheeks and hair.
The trail curved back toward the ocean and they rode atop jagged cliffs that ended in smooth rocks below, the view to their left now hidden by bush and tree.
“You do not resist your magic now.”
She brushed a rather damp tendril of hair away from her cheek. “It’s odd, but it feels stronger than it ever has before. It’s as if I unleashed a dam when I used it to save the village, and now the fallen stones resist my attempts to block it back up… Oh, it’s hard to explain.”
“I think I understand.” Giles glanced down at the hilt of his sword. “We humans were not meant for elven blood and magic.”
“Besides,” she continued, as if he hadn’t spoken,“I see no reason to hide what I am anymore. My attempts at a normal life have failed miserably.”
“Normal is boring.”
“It is safe.”
He did not reply. Safe was boring too, but the lady would probably argue about it for the next several hours if he told her so. They rode for a time in silence, twilight falling gently about them, until it grew cool enough that Giles pulled his coat back on. Just over the rise ahead they should be able to spy the small town that boasted an inn. He had stayed there many a time to barter his trade. The rooms were tiny and damp, but the innkeeper’s wife served up a delicious fish stew.
Giles pulled back on the reins. He narrowed his eyes at the town below them and muttered a curse.
Cecily pulled the mare a bit ahead of him, craning her head to see down the rise. “What is it?”
“Bluecoats. Everywhere.” But it must be a somewhat peaceful occupation, for his sword did not try to fly into his hand, only hummed a bit in the scabbard. “Just keep the horses walking.”
When trees blocked their view again, Giles urged Apollo to a trot, until they’d left enough distance behind them for comfort.
“Why this sudden interest in our small villages?” asked Cecily.
“There have been rumors that Breden of Dewhame is building up his army again, that he intends to win back the king from Mor’ded of Firehame.”
Cecily wrinkled her rather pert little nose. “I don’t see why they care whether the king resides in Firehame or Dewhame. It’s not like the king has any true power anymore.”
“It’s part of the game, my lady. Whoever wins the king has beaten the other elven lord in skill and battle… although it’s humans who suffer the true losses. For the Imperial Lords, it’s just a matter of pride and love of chaos.”
“I wish they had never opened the door to our world,” she said with a shiver.
“Then you never would have been born.”
“Point taken. Then I wish they would open it back up and leave.”
“Not very likely. They consider their home world of Elfhame… boring.”
“Peace is not boring.”
Giles shrugged. He would not debate this subject with her either, so he switched to the subject he’d been meaning to discuss all day. “There could be another reason for the soldiers’ presence, Cecily. They could have heard about the magic you performed in our village.”
Giles knew the elven lords had a magical means of communication, but again, if Thomas had not seen fit to tell her… “Anything’s possible. So to be safe I suggest you do not use your full powers. I think we can escape them if we move in secret, but if you use that magic of yours, they will know where to look for you.”
The trail brought them closer to the channel again, and the wind picked up with a vengeance. She buttoned her coat while Giles did the same.
Cecily raised her voice over the crash of the waves. “I’m back where I started—running and hiding. I won’t do it again.”
Giles studied her face, looking for the determination behind her words, but unable to stop himself from noticing how lovely she looked in the wind, with pink cheeks and curls of midnight hair playing about her face. Her lips were a dark red, like the finest claret, and so damn kissable that he wondered where he’d found the force of will all those years ago to deny them when she’d offered. Of course, she was a woman now and not a young girl and that made a difference… although he knew he had done the right thing, the only thing he could have under the circumstances…
Alas, what had she been saying? Oh, yes. “Do not think to give yourself up to Breden of Dewhame. The elven lord does not understand mercy. And despite your impressive magic, you would not stand a chance against him.”
“Must he hate me so?”
Her voice trembled and he brought Apollo to a stop, the mare placidly halting alongside. He reached down and touched her shoulder in sympathy, a flare of tenderness running through him. “Do not allow yourself to think that the elven lords have feelings like we do. It is not in their nature. Indeed, their own people consider them mad, or so says Thomas.”
Her eyes flashed. “Thomas is my true father.”
“Indeed. So think of him. You cannot find him if you give yourself up to Breden of Dewhame.”
She nodded, and Giles breathed a mental sigh of relief. The young woman could be stubborn and unpredictable, but she would listen to reason.
Giles urged Apollo forward, allowing the gelding to pick his way carefully in the near darkness. The jagged cliffs had softened to a smoother slope down to the ocean, and he took a trail that he remembered from his visits here. Once in Dorset, however, he would be in unfamiliar territory, and would have enjoyed the adventure of it if he didn’t have the young woman to protect.
“Where are we going?” she asked from behind him.
Giles did not answer, for she would see quickly enough. Sand softened Apollo’s hoofbeats. Giles guided him to the right, behind a fall of rock that looked solid, but held a gap just barely wide enough for the beast to pass through. The ocean breeze no longer pummeled them, the crash of the waves now muffled. When Giles felt the chamber open, he dismounted and set about gathering driftwood by feel, and making a fire.
The flames lit the cavern and Cecily still sat atop her horse, staring about with joy.
“I knew you’d like it,” he said. Faith, every time he came here he had thought of her, and how he would like to show her this place. He just never thought he’d actually have the opportunity to do so.
Magic had crafted this cave, he knew. But how or why, he couldn’t fathom. Seashells had been imbedded into the walls to form pictures of sharks and dolphins, and seals near the bottom. A layer of blue shells separated water and sky, with a myriad of birds crafted above. Some of the birds he could put a name to: puffins, razorbills, and kittiwakes. Some he could not identify, and wondered if they were native to England… or perhaps that fabled land of Elfhame. For dragons had also been crafted on the ceiling above, with wings spread wide and claws outstretched. And although he’d only seen them from a distance, he knew the dragons had been brought with the elven lords when they’d opened that door between the worlds.
“It… moves,” breathed Cecily as she continued to stare about her. “Look, Giles, the dolphin is jumping through the waves. And, ho, that seal is evading that shark and making him angry.” Her eyes widened as she tilted her head farther back and stared at the ceiling. “Those dragons are battling one another… the black one is breathing fire, and the blue… that is Breden’s dragon-steed, Kalah. I’d heard that he belches lightning…” She shuddered, quickly pulling her gaze down from the scene above.
Giles rose and approached her horse. Her face had gone white. “What is it?”
She shook her head, her lower lip trembling. “I wielded lightning once. It’s deadly. And so powerful.”
“When you escaped from Firehame?”
“And that is why you have turned your back on your magic?”
“No one should be able to hold that much power. It makes you feel…”
She smiled at that, too sadly for his liking. “No, Giles Beaumont. It makes you long for more. It makes you want to destroy, just because you can.”
He did not know what to say. Perhaps he knew the young lady’s habits from watching her all these years, but he suddenly realized he really didn’t know her at all.
Giles held up his arms to her and she allowed him to help her off the horse. Her legs wobbled beneath her, so his hands lingered on her shoulders to keep her from falling. Or so he told himself. In truth, he enjoyed the feeling that touching her always seemed to excite in him.
“You are not used to riding so long in the saddle.” His voice surprised him. Low, husky, as if he spoke to one of his lovers.
She looked up at him and damn if he didn’t think he’d drown in her eyes.
She licked her lips.
He would not kiss her. Thomas had forbidden any familiarity with his daughter. Giles’s own ambition of working for the Rebellion made the act disastrous. Pretty girls had always gotten him into trouble, but not this time. The stakes were too high.
Giles dropped his arms and broke whatever spell had fallen between them. He turned and saw to the mounts, removing their saddles and spreading the blankets on the sandy floor near the fire. He frowned, and then set the blankets on opposite sides of the fire. ’Twas a sad thing when he couldn’t trust himself to sleep next to the minx.
Cecily didn’t comment on his actions, just settled herself atop one of the blankets when he finished arranging them. From his pouch he withdrew some dried fish and journey cakes lumpy with nuts and berries, and handed them to her while he fetched water from a small spring near the back of the cave. By the time he’d finished watering the horses, Cecily had finished her meal, removed her hat, and unplaited her hair.
Giles settled himself on his blanket and surreptitiously watched her while he ate his meal. She drew a comb through her hair, and although the black strands lacked the white color of the elven, it appeared to sparkle with a silver luster at her every movement. He wanted to fill his hands with the silken stuff and bury his face in it.
He brushed the crumbs from his lap and drank greedily from his flask.
Another glance across the fire, and he saw the tips of her slightly pointed ears as she combed her hair back from her face. Cecily always kept her ears covered with her hair by means of tightly binding it down in the back. The rare sight of them made him feel as if he’d glimpsed some forbidden flesh.
He shifted where he sat.
Lud, he’d seen her naked more times than he could count. A bit of softly spiked ear should not have bothered him. Perhaps it was due to their new understanding of each other, or perhaps to their circumstances… but now that he pondered it… hadn’t he dreamed of the sight of her body every night? Hadn’t he been disappointed by one lover after another, when they lacked the long length of Cecily’s legs, or the dark pink of her nipples, or the small beauty mark on her left hip?
Perhaps the sight of her nude bodyhadbothered him more than he allowed himself to admit.
When he glanced up again, she’d braided her hair and covered those ears. He couldn’t decide if he felt relieved or annoyed.
“Are you well?” she asked.
“You made an odd sort of noise.”
They sat companionably for a time, with the distant sound of the surf and the snuffling of the horses to dispel the quiet. Despite the summer evening, a chill emanated from the walls of the cave and Giles unrolled his cloak.
“Did you bring a wrap, Cecily?”
“No. You told me to pack lightly, and I needed my petticoats.”
“Yes, of course. Here.” Giles stood and walked around the fire, feeling as if he breached some intimate barrier. He took a breath and ignored the feeling, crouching and laying his cloak lightly about Cecily’s slight body. He allowed his hands to rest on her small shoulders for a moment, relishing the contact, breathing in the scent of her hair. Lavender. Soft and sweet.
“Thank you,” she said a bit stiffly, and he noticed how she’d stilled, like a doe in sight of an arrow.
He flinched away from her. Just because she’d offered herself to him all those years ago did not mean she desired him now. Indeed, with all the upheaval in her life, and his sense that she blamed him for most of it, the young woman had every right to regret being forced upon this journey with him.
As he settled himself back on his blanket, he told himself it was probably for the best. If he couldn’t manage to control himself around her, at least she did not suffer from the same weakness.
Giles removed his sword belt, but left it near to hand. He felt safe enough within the cavern not to stand watch, but that would probably not be true for the rest of their journey, so he’d best get some sleep while he could. Besides, his devil-blade always alerted him to danger.
In anticipation of a fight, no doubt.
His shoulder still ached a bit from his wound, and he groaned and shifted as he lay down. His eyes tried to make out the dragons above, but the smoke from their fire obscured the mosaic. After a time he heard Cecily lie down as well, but he refused to look at her again.
Apollo snorted and the wind moaned. Except for their small ring of light, the black of night surrounded them like a shroud.
“I cannot sleep.”
Cecily’s words drifted over the banked flames. He’d never noticed how smooth her voice sounded, like water flowing over stone.
“Tell me about your sword.”
Giles glanced at his devilish blade. It lay quietly within his scabbard, looking for all the world like any other ordinary weapon. Perhaps an even less-than-ordinary blade, unless someone looked closely. The stone that had once been imbedded in the pommel had long ago fallen out, leaving behind a small depression. The leather on the hilt had been worn down to shiny smoothness, only the wire encasing it allowing a firm grip. The quillon was nothing more than two plain crosspieces of metal, lacking any sort of engraving or design.
But the blade itself looked newly forged, without dent or scratch, and never needed sharpening. “My sword?”
“Up until yesterday, I thought it but an ordinary weapon.”
“Up until yesterday, we had no battles within the village.”
She shifted, and he caught the gleam of a soft cheek, the sheen of midnight hair. “I vow, Giles, itpulledyou into battle. How did you come by it?”
He threw an arm over his eyes. “’Twas my father’s blade, and the making of it, my younger brother, John’s. From somewhere far down our family line came a strong influx of elven blood, and although I inherited the looks and grace, John inherited the magic of the Imperial Lord of Bladehame.”
The thought of his brother made his chest constrict. Time should have dulled the memory of his young face, but he could see it just as clearly as if he had but seen John yesterday. So small and plain, but those silver eyes of his glittering with the enormous elven power he could wield. As the eldest, Giles had felt John to be his responsibility, and perhaps that was why his father had not told him of the testing, until after John had been taken. Giles had been furious with his father, and they had exchanged harsh words before he had died. Words that Giles now regretted.
His mother had died long ago, so he had been left with no one. For a long time, Giles had felt lost and alone. Until he had discovered the Rebellion. And had filled the emptiness inside of him with a lust for vengeance.
For some reason, Giles wanted to tell Cecily about John. And perhaps, a bit about himself. Giles could not imagine what opinions she had formed about him, and he found that it mattered. More than it should. “When my brother and father died, the sword came to me with a promise. A promise to avenge their deaths.”
The wood in the fire crackled and popped.
“I suppose,” she said, “that the Imperial Lord of Bladehame… Lan’dor, is that his name?”
“I suppose he discovered your brother’s talent for magic and sent John to Elfhame after his testing. But the chosen ones aren’t sent to Elfhame, are they, Giles?” He heard the shift of her skirts. “It is true what Thomas says, then. That those gifted with enough magic to threaten the elven lords’ rule are murdered. And your father must have known this. But what of your father? How did he die?”
It became harder and harder to speak. Giles swallowed against his dry throat. “At the hand of Lan’dor of Bladehame. This devilish sword had been crafted to murder the elven lord.”
Cecily gasped, and Giles dropped the arm from his face, met her gaze across the fire. “John forged it with his own blood. To withstand not only any blade of steel, but magical assaults as well. When they hauled John away after his testing, my father challenged Lan’dor. But the devil-blade could not withstand the power of an Imperial Lordandhis scepter.”
Shadows played across her lovely face, and he saw but flashes of the sad curve to her lips, the welling of tears in her eyes. “And so you joined the Rebellion.”
“Aye. It will take the might of many to defeat an elven lord. Or…”
She finished the thought for him. “Or perhaps the powerful daughter of but one.”
Cecily woke the next morning surrounded by the spicy scent of the blacksmith’s skin. Her eyelids flew open with a start. She took in a deep breath before she realized the scent came from the cloak around her, then hastily threw off the covering.
He still slept, with one arm thrown over his eyes and the other resting upon his sword. His broad chest rose and fell with his heavy breathing, his mouth slightly parted and his white-blond hair spread about him like a halo. His face looked a bit pale and Cecily wondered if his injury still pained him.
She frowned at the thought, and quickly scurried out of the cavern, avoiding the mosaics on the wall. Beautiful, yes, but their movement made her dizzy.
The crisp morning air erased any lingering drowsiness. Seabirds swooped above the waves and scolded each other with harsh cries. She skirted clumps of green and purple seaweed and scuttling crabs. A boulder with a slight overhang provided an outdoor dressing room for her to strip, a protrusion of stone a dry shelf to store her clothing.
What use had she for fine palaces when her beach provided her with all she needed?
The thought made her think of Mother, and the way she had always seemed to be a great lady, even in their humble cottage, and tears burned Cecily’s eyes. How she wished she could talk to Mother about her confused feelings for Giles.
Cecily ran into the waves, sucking in a breath when they reached past her hips, but she soon became accustomed to the coldness of the water and dove into the next high wave. It didn’t take her long to find what she sought.
Lobster. Giles loved it.
With a skill from many years of capturing them, Cecily avoided the snapping claws and managed to carry several of the large shellfish back to dry sand. She set them in a small tide pool while she dressed, humming a tune beneath her breath. And caught herself.
She bowed her head, staring down at her hands, the skin only slightly puckered from her long swim. How could she feel so content after all that had happened?
Because she had been thinking only of Giles, and the look on his face when she brought his morning meal.
She carried her shoes in one hand and lobster in the other, the fine sand softly padding her footsteps as she returned to the cave.
No, ’twas more than Giles. Despite losing the life she’d worked so hard to achieve, she was no longer hiding. She’d made a decision, and would confront the Rebellion on her own terms. She would find her father. She had to believe she hadn’t lost everything.
She did believe it.
Her footsteps felt light as she walked along the tunnel-like rock that led to the hidden cavern. Belle nickered at the sight of her, Apollo deigning to give her a snort, and suddenly Giles flew to his feet with sword in hand.
“I overslept,” he said with a scowl.
“Nay, you but slept longer than I.”
“Where have you been?”
She held out her catch with a proud grin. “There’s no need to eat dried fish when the ocean is so near.”
Giles sheathed his sword but not the stern look upon his face. “Never do that again.”
“Leave my side. Don’t you realize I’m supposed to protect you?”
She could argue with him. But it would serve no purpose. “Alas, I had forgotten, brave knight. This weak and defenseless maiden will never leave your sight again.”
Her sarcasm was not lost on him. His handsome face turned an alarming shade of red and he strode toward the back of the cave, watering the horses while Cecily proceeded to build up the fire and cook her catch. When she judged it done, she broke open the shell with a rock and dug out the sweet white meat.
Boiled and buttered, it could not have tasted better.
The smell drew him back to the fire, as she knew it would, and he took what she offered without a word. He sat and ate, occasionally closing his eyes as he chewed, the irritation on his face slowly fading.
“I love lobster.”
“I know.” Ah, it felt good to say that back to him. “You are not the only one who is observant.”
His brow rose. “Are you saying you spied upon me?”
“Certainly not.” She would not admit that her gaze had always been drawn to him. Not ever again. One such humiliation in her lifetime would be sufficient. “Everyone saw the stack of shells you left upon the table at the last harvest gathering. Faith, the men werewageringon how high it would get.”
He smiled and Cecily’s eyes widened. His lips curled in such a boyish manner, his head tilting to the side and a fall of his thick silky hair shadowing his high cheekbone and angled jaw. He looked slightly embarrassed and proud and utterly delicious.
Heaven help her.
“I’m sorry,” he murmured. “About raising my voice to you. I forget what you truly are, even though you showed me the proof of your powers—”
“No,” she hurriedly protested. She could not bear that smile alongside an apology. It was more temptation than she could defend against. “I apologize for my saucy tongue. Mother always chided me for it.”
He captured her with his gaze. Although he had the physique and grace of the elven, his eyes were entirely human. A normal-sized dusky green, like the color of the ocean on a cloudy day.
“Despite what your father kept telling me, I saw nothing but a normal girl for many years.” His lips quirked. “A very pretty normal girl, mind you, who could stay submerged beneath the waves for an unusually long time, but who showed very little magical ability. But now I have seen the proof of your powers and I know you can surely defend yourself but I have not adjusted—”
“Do not,” she interrupted. “Please do not treat me other than a normal girl. I could not bear the changes that have happened to me otherwise.”
Silence lay between them for a moment, until Cecily could finally tear her gaze away from his.
“Well, then,” he said, the jauntiness in his voice sounding only a bit forced. “You have now agreed to my full protection and I have yet found a lady who regretted it.” He rose and began to gather up his things and pack them back onto the horses.
Cecily rolled her eyes, a grin on her mouth despite herself, and doused the fire and packed her belongings. She allowed herself to enjoy the mosaic on the walls for a last time, but soon they were both mounted and on their way.
Giles took paths that led them farther and farther from her ocean. It made Cecily feel an odd sort of panic, but thankfully the land still held so many lakes and streams and fountains that she comforted herself with the sight of them.
But within a few hours even those bodies of water started to dwindle.
“Where are we?”
“Dorset,” he replied, sparing her no glance, for his eyes constantly surveyed their surroundings, and she would swear the tips of his pointed ears perked at every rustle of the brush. They rode through a soft land of rolling hills and yellow gorse, an occasional fiery red tree dotting the landscape. Giles must have taken a route specifically designed to avoid any more villages or towns, for nary a cottage did she see.
The landscape changed as they rode down into a valley, and soon they were surrounded by rocky mountains and tors.
“There is a spring ahead,” breathed Cecily. She could smell the water.
Giles turned in the saddle and looked down at her with a worried frown. “What is wrong?”
She wiped away a trickle of sweat that seeped from beneath her straw hat. “I have discovered that I’m… uncomfortable without the presence of the ocean beside me.”
“We are in the sovereignty of Firehame, and will see more flame than water. But by evening we will reach the Hants, and there are many streams within the forest and you should feel better. I should have thought—I have a map memorized in my head, but it lacks much detail. Where is the spring? We will stop there for our midday meal.”
Cecily gave a crooked smile of relief and pointed to the right. Giles found it beneath an overhanging boulder, with enough shade for them to sit side by side while they ate another meal of dried fish and journey bread.
When she had finished, Cecily removed her tucker and dunked it in the cool liquid, dousing her face and neck. She did not think about the cleavage she revealed until she felt his gaze upon her.
She turned and he swallowed his last bite. Rather forcefully.
He quickly averted his gaze and Cecily frowned, pushing her soggy tucker back into theVof her bodice. She could not figure this man at all. Oh, she well understood that after living in the same village for years—despite the fact that they’d barely exchanged a few words to each other in the past few—it would be natural for them to feel some sort of familiarity with one another. Especially after Giles had revealed his secret.
And she had always felt a certain… light-headedness around him. Most of the village girls did. He could not help his handsome face or fine figure, no more than she could help her large odd eyes. But since that dreadful night when she’d made such a prodigious fool of herself, she had realized he felt no attraction for her person whatsoever.
Yet he looked at her with such hungry eyes…
Pshaw. ’Twas only her way of transferring her own desire to him. He looked at her bosom as he would any woman’s. He was but a man, despite the mix of elven blood that flowed through his veins.
And she could not even think that they were friends. Temporary companions forced to journey together.
She had misread his kindness and natural charm before. This time she would not.She would not. No matter how many times she had to tell herself—
A muscular arm wrapped about her shoulders and then her mouth, dragging her deeper into the hollow of the boulder. His hand muffled her cry of surprise but she reflexively struggled anyway, gathering her magic to help free her from his hold.
“Stop,” he whispered, his mouth against her ear. “Fire demon.”
But she didn’t have to wait long to understand, for several whirling orbs of flame bounced along the valley floor, no more than a few feet from where they huddled. Following those harbingers walked a creature she could not have imagined.
Red fire shaped a being that had legs like a man but flowed across the ground rather than stepped. A black, dripping mess formed the semblance of a face and an emaciated body.
Cecily froze and Giles angled his body in front of hers, that sword of his appearing to jump from his scabbard into his hand.
The horses had been grazing on a patch of grass in the path of the creature. Their nostrils flared and they suddenly bolted, their flight not hampered a whit by Giles’s and Cecily’s belongings still strapped to their saddles.
The fire demon laughed, tossing a ball of orange flame at the beasts, hitting poor Belle squarely on her rump. The little mare squealed, her shorter legs pumping to overtake the faster gait of Apollo. Cecily gasped in sympathy, and the demon stopped, glowing eyes studying the rocky walls of the valley.
When those red orbs slowly settled on their hiding place, a flush of weakness made her muscles go limp. When the unnatural creature flowed toward them, Giles let out a curse and leaped at it. Cecily watched, still frozen with fear, as the demon threw another ball of fire straight at Giles.
He dodged, with unnatural elven swiftness, his sword slicing through the fireball and dissolving it into a shower of sparks. It appeared that the blade had enough power to disarm the magic of a fire demon, if not that of an Imperial Lord.
The flaming creature roared, making Cecily jump and finally freeing her from the terror that had held her immobile. Her hands trembled but her fingers followed her commands, coaxing the water from the spring, swirling it into small translucent tornadoes.
Giles danced around the demon, dodging more flaming spheres and occasionally getting in close enough to nick the thing with the tip of his sword. Wherever he touched it, a small hole appeared, but quickly closed up again with a lick of black fire.
The demon roared in frustration and this time gathered a blob of black sludge that dripped down its face, flung it at Giles. It hit the blacksmith on his injured shoulder, setting his coat aflame.
Cecily pelted Giles with a tornado.
It doused the flame but made him stagger in surprise, his gaze flying to hers in fury as he fell. The demon laughed, or at least, a similar imitation of one, and moving as swiftly as fire igniting dry thatch it swooped down upon the blacksmith. Giles rolled with an agility and grace that testified to the amount of elven blood flowing in his veins, but Cecily could not see past the flames to tell if he’d avoided the demon’s attack.
“Fie,” she breathed, and launched the full force of her swirling water at the monster. But the small spray had little effect on the demon, and the spring quickly ran dry. Cecily reached deeper into the earth, inside the very mountain itself, where an underground river flowed dark and cold. It came to her call through the narrow opening of the spring, cracking the edges of the earth and shaking the mountainside itself.
A deluge of water fell upon the fire demon and the creature turned its burning red eyes in her direction, screaming defiantly as it slowly withered to a puddle of black.
Cecily shivered from that final glare, slowly coaxing the raging water to calm. Her heart beat a staccato rhythm and her legs shook as she stood. But Giles had not moved, and she soon found herself running to reach his side.
He lay on his back, his eyelids shut, fist still closed about the hilt of his sword. But his chest rose and fell—surely she could see it moving! Black sludge covered him from head to toe, and Cecily called the water again, this time a bit more slowly, easing it over his body in gentle swirls.
“Giles,” she whispered again, crouching over him, her shoes sinking into the mud. With an impatient flick of her fingers she sent the remaining liquid back to the spring, her trembling hands smoothing the blacksmith’s hair away from his face. His skin had been scorched red, the tips of his thick black lashes and the edges of his brows burnt away. The leather of his breeches and coat had been blackened, yet his blade still shone like newly forged metal.
But she had not been mistaken. He breathed, although it had an odd, wheezing sound to it.
Tears burned the back of her lids. Perhaps she should not have interfered in the battle. Perhaps Giles wouldn’t have been harmed if she hadn’t distracted him with her magic.
Cecily let out an impatient grunt. Or perhaps he would have died. She would not regret her actions now.
His skin looked ready to blister. She knew as much as the next village maid did about basic healing, and she’d recognized some herbs near the spring…
She suited thought to action and quickly made a poultice of wet leaves and laid it on Giles’s face and hands. But she did not know what to do if his lungs had been affected by fire and smoke. She needed to get him to a healer, and for that, she needed the horses.
Cecily stared down the rocky valley, squinting her eyes for sign of any movement. She could not wander off and leave Giles but they needed the horses. She had no idea how far the animals had gone, and she didn’t know if they’d kept to the valley or found a route out of it.
She squared her shoulders and began to walk in the direction their mounts had run, every instinct within her screaming against leaving the blacksmith alone and unprotected.
But despite her elven strength, she could not carry him all the way to the nearest village.
She found Apollo just as night fell. The animal had actually been walking toward her, and nickered a greeting when she called his name.
He hung his head when she reached him, pushing his nose against her belly.
Cecily rubbed his neck in relief. “You were returning to your master, weren’t you?”
Apollo snorted, a shudder running through his great body.
“Don’t be ashamed. I don’t blame you for running.”
He lifted his head and shook it.
“Well, you will do better next time, that’s all.”
Cecily picked up the dangling reins and led him over to a rock so she could reach the stirrup, and he stood quite still while she settled herself on his back. Deeper shadows from a full moon danced along the valley floor, the gloom of the evening making the jagged rocks and tors look entirely different… and somehow menacing.
She held the reins loosely. “Find your way back to Giles, Apollo.”
He broke into a confident trot, in spite of the uneven ground, and Cecily melted into the saddle with relief. He would find their way back, and she would pray he did not stumble into a hole or over a shadowed rock. For a moment, she allowed herself to tremble with fear and exhaustion. She had expended most of her energy in the use of her magic and she’d never seen such a creature as the fire demon. What other dreadful things existed outside her little village?
She could not wait to find her father and return home… or if not to her old home, they could find a new one. One without monsters and swords and a man who confused her beyond all reason.
Her heart jumped at a sound from behind her, and then settled again when she saw the dark form following them, recognizing the sound of Belle’s lighter hoofbeats.
Cecily had walked farther than she’d thought, yet reached the spring sooner than she could have hoped for. She could barely make out the form of the blacksmith as he lay in shadow, but he looked to be on his hands and knees, his head bowed to the ground.
Apollo approached his master, head hanging down again, and stopped when Cecily slid from his back.
“You’re awake,” she cried, happiness making her voice sing the words.
Giles looked up at her through the fall of his pale hair. “What the hell did you do to me?”
She frowned in confusion at his words, but when she reached his side, Cecily understood. His hair had bonded to the mud when she’d dried it and the ends of the strands were still stuck. He’d managed to rip the rest of his body from the mold, but she imagined it would hurt to rip his hair out of it.
“Oh. Just hold still and I’ll have you out in a moment.” A little water to soak the dirt again, then some more to wash the strands clean when they slipped free, and he sat before her, looking almost as good as new.
“Your skin did not blister.”
He frowned. “I imagine it did, and already healed.”
“Indeed. And where have you been?”
His anger drained the happiness she’d felt on seeing him alive and well. “I went to fetch Apollo, but apparently he’d already decided to return to his master. I didn’t have to go far.”
Giles nodded and stood, wavering on his feet for a moment. “I have words for both of you, but they shall have to wait until I wet my throat.” He slowly made his way back to the spring, gathering dry branches along the way, Cecily collecting her own armful and adding it to the fire that he started.
The horses shied from the flames, and after a few seconds of her own instinctive fear, Cecily stepped closer, around the fire and back into the hollow of the boulder. The air had grown chill with nightfall.
Giles drank and then washed from the diminished spring by the light of the flickering flames. When he finished, he turned toward the black shapes of Apollo and Belle, removing their bags and saddles. “You should have stayed,” he said to the large gelding. Then he turned to Cecily. “You should have run.”
She did not answer. It took all of her willpower to still the chattering of her teeth.
Apollo nickered softly in apology and Giles stroked the animal’s forelock a moment, transferring his hands to Belle when she sidled up for some of the attention. He left them loose to graze, despite their earlier abandonment, and brought the bags within the small shelter.
“We’ll have to sleep here for the night.”
Cecily jerked her head in acknowledgement, hugging her arms about her.
“It’s not that cold,” he added, but wrapped his cloak about her before he settled at her side after laying a blanket on the ground. He rummaged in his sack for a moment and held out a hunk of journey bread. “Eat this. It will help.”
She shook her head. She could not control her jaw enough to chew.
“Damn it,” muttered Giles. “Don’t you know what you’ve done? By using your magic, you’ve alerted Breden of Dewhame’s men to our location. The shaking of a mountain isn’t something he will ignore. What with everything else that has happened, he will be sure to send soldiers to investigate. Have you so little faith in my abilities that you feel impelled to rush to my rescue?”
The inner strength Cecily had relied upon up to this point dwindled to a tiny core. She was tired unto death and could no longer control her shaking. Nor could she stop the tears that welled up in her eyes when she looked at him. “I th-thought you were going to d-d-die.”
His eyes widened, the creases smoothing from his brow, the muscles in his jaw relaxing.
“I c-could hide my magic in the village,” she continued, “because nothing ever h-happened there. There were no b-b-battles or m-monsters. No one I c-c-cared for had ever been threatened with more than a s-s-splinter!”
He slid a bit closer, his arm creeping around her, the heat of his body such a welcome relief that she did not pull away.
“Hush,” he murmured.
But an anger bordering on despair continued to fuel her words. “And now my magic has been l-l-let loose and it comes to my call with a simple thought and your sword may have survived th-that demon thing but you might not have and you were l-l-lucky to come away with naught but singed brows and blackened breeches.”
Cecily took a breath. The heat of his fingers touched her chin and she raised her head. “And then I had t-to leave you to find the horses not knowing if you’d be alive when I returned…”
Somehow his mouth lay mere inches from her own. Firelight flickered off the planes of his cheeks, the sweep of his chin, the straight length of his nose. His eyes looked enormous, the green barely visible in the darkness, two large deep wells she could easily drown in. Her senses heightened; she could smell the burnt leather of his coat, the sharp aroma of the herbs from the poultice she’d made him, the underlying spicy scent of his skin. She felt his arm about her now like a hot band of soft steel, felt his breath across her mouth like a gentle caress, the feel of his fingers beneath her chin like rough leather.
“Hush,” he whispered again. “All is well.”
And then he set his lips on top of hers, a gently soft touch she felt clear to her toes. How many nights had she dreamed that he’d kiss her? Not for a long while now, but for many years she had yearned to know what his lips felt like. Then she had hated him. And now…
And now he touched her with such reverent tenderness that she wondered what feeling lay behind it.
Cecily could never have imagined the circumstances that brought this kiss about.
Her mind spun while his mouth moved hesitantly over hers. This felt nothing like Will’s kiss. It did not comfort or soothe. Instead, it set a tingle racing through her body, made her heart beat faster and her breath quicken. It made her feel alive and aware of parts of her body she’d never taken much notice to.
His tongue brushed her lips. Cecily’s mouth parted on a sigh, her hands reaching for him, encountering the hard slope of his shoulders, the silky texture of his thick hair. Her head tilted backward as he increased the pressure on her mouth as if he couldn’t get close enough to her, couldn’t taste her fully.
And then his tongue swept against hers, a lovely tangle of smooth heat that made her breasts throb and peak. Made the place between her legs ache and grow damp.
Merciful heaven. She had not known what a kiss was until this moment.
He groaned. A shudder racked his body and he pulled away from her, panting hard, his face twisted with pain.
“What is it?” asked Cecily. Had his injuries not all healed? “Where does it hurt?”
His mouth quirked at her words. “Not somewhere that my elven blood can heal.”
She frowned. “I do not understand.”
Giles straightened his spine, turning his face from hers to stare into the fire. “I shouldn’t have done that. It seemed but a simple means to silence you. I forgot how you affect me, Cecily. I promise not to let it happen again.”
Cecily blinked. A kiss meant so little to him that he used it as a way to silence her? Such a vast gulf of experience yawned between them she feared she might never bridge that gap. Apparently what she’d felt from that kiss was completely one-sided. Her imagination at work again.
She collapsed on the blanket, wiggling to escape a protruding rock, and closed her eyes. She would regard that kiss as casually as he did, and be proud of herself for no longer being childish enough to think it meant a thing.
Perhaps tomorrow she would ask him what he’d meant by saying that he’d forgotten how she affected him, but for the nonce exhaustion overwhelmed her, as if he’d taken what little stamina she’d had left, and she plunged into sleep.
But when she awoke in the morning Giles had already put out the fire and saddled their mounts, and Cecily ate a cold meal while they rode. When she attempted conversation later, the blacksmith shushed her, his gaze warily roaming the gentle hills that had replaced the rocky tors.
Cecily frowned, trying to ignore an itch from her wool coat, and the ache in her bottom from sitting in a saddle so much. It seemed to her that Giles purposely avoided having a conversation with her. He had barely looked at her once this morn, and when he accidentally caught her eye he would flush and look away.
Did he regret that kiss so very much then? Or did he fear that she would misunderstand it, as she had done with his kindness when she was a young girl?
Cecily leaned over and patted Belle’s neck. Fiddle, the man probably hadn’t given it another thought.
Trees had swallowed the road some time ago, and when it finally cleared a bit, she caught a glimpse of buildings through the branches.
“Stay close,” murmured Giles. “This is the town where I’d planned for us to spend the night before we encountered that demon. We’ll have to be on the lookout for bluecoats now, but I’m hoping Breden of Dewhame won’t risk angering another elven lord by sending his troops into another sovereignty.”
Finally, she could speak, and words flowed from her tongue like a dam breaking. “What was that demon-thing? And why are we stopping here now? Do you really think Breden suspects I’m alive? Or does he think someone else made the mountain shake? Surely there are others that can manage that feat?” And why did you kiss me? Did you feel nothing at all?
But she could not voice those last two questions.
He turned and looked down at her, his green eyes appearing even more vibrant with the shadow of the leaves behind him. His white-blond hair shimmered in the dappled sunlight, his dark brows a startling contrast. The singed tips had already grown back, along with his thick eyelashes.
“I think,” he said, with that shuttered look on his face again, which Cecily suspected meant he knew more than he told her, “the fire demon was but a stray from Firehame Palace. Mor’ded used to craft them to do his bidding, and no doubt he would not regret it getting loose and causing a bit of mayhem in the countryside. The elven lords are easily bored, Cecily. Don’t ever underestimate that sensibility with them.”
She tilted her head up at him. “You said ‘used’ to craft them. Does he not do so anymore? And why not?”
A half smile curved his sensual lips. Cecily ignored the thought that she now knew they were also firm, warm, and tasted exquisite.
“You are a clever woman,” he said. “I should be reminding myself never to underestimateyou.” Giles scanned the empty streets as they rode into the town proper. “There should be more foot traffic. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. But damn, I’m tired of the stink of burnt leather.”
“It’s a splendid idea,” urged Cecily. “I would give much for a hot meal.”
“And I for a new coat. Let’s go then; the inn is this way, and they serve a hearty stew—”
His scabbard flapped against his hip and suddenly his sword flew into his hand. Giles looked about, urging Apollo backward, pinning Belle against the back wall of a cottage. Cecily caught a flash of blue before Giles’s body and the top of his horse blocked her view.
And then she heard the sound of running feet, the shouts of soldiers, and the oddest keening noise from the blade. Giles and Apollo erupted into a fury of motion, dodging, swinging, and fighting to protect her.
Cecily raised her hands, but the village had only one small well, surely not enough water for her to vanquish the number of soldiers that had appeared from doorways and alleys and roadways. She would have to go deeper again, like she did with the mountain, but the underground stream ran thinly, far underground…
“Do not even think it,” shouted Giles while dropping low in his saddle to swing at another soldier.
Cecily lowered her hands into her lap, clasping them about her reins until the whites of her knuckles showed. She would wait. He could not fight them all, for just as in the village, they numbered in the hundreds.
Giles spared no more attention to her, his sword moving so quickly she saw only flashes of the metal. If she didn’t feel so terrified, she would have admired his deadly skill.
She wondered why none of the soldiers had discharged their weapons, instead of fighting close quarters with such a dangerous opponent. And then she realized that perhaps they wanted her alive.
Would she even recognize her blood father when she saw him again?
And then Giles angled Apollo so Belle had a clear escape route to an open road.
“Go,” he shouted.
Cecily shook her head. She would not leave him.
“I’ll follow,” he insisted, and then slapped Belle on the rump.
Her poor little mare had withstood the sound of battle for long enough. She took off with a leap, nearly unseating Cecily, and galloped down the unfamiliar road with nary a caution for overhanging branches or potholes. Cecily lay over the horse’s neck, praying that the next turn in the road would not take them into another group of soldiers.
She heard another set of hoofbeats behind them. She glanced back and relief replaced her terror. As he promised, Giles did indeed follow. Bloody sword in hand, eyes squinted against the wind of their flight, pale blond hair streaming like a silk banner behind him.
And a smile on his face.
Cecily turned back around, and soon Apollo’s greater stride overtook that of Belle. Her little mare snorted at the big gelding, and when he slowed, she quickly followed suit to an easy gallop.
“Redcoats,” shouted Giles.
Cecily nodded. The uniforms of the Imperial Lord of Firehame.
“They showed up behind the blue,” said Giles, his eyes sparkling with laughter, “and soon Breden of Dewhame’s men turned to face the new threat. It seems Mor’ded of Firehame will not tolerate the presence of another elven lord’s soldiers, no matter the reason.”
“Will we be followed?”
His expression sobered. “It’s possible. But if so, we will lose them in the forest of the Hants.”
Giles glanced at his sword, and Cecily followed his gaze. He had not wiped it clean, and yet now the blade shone clear and bright. She suppressed a shiver. Had it truly absorbed the blood of its victims?
She raised questioning eyes to Giles but he just shrugged, and sheathed the sword.
The blacksmith kept their mounts to a hard gallop, occasionally slowing to let the beasts catch their breath. At noon he allowed them to walk, so Cecily could eat her meal. Close to nightfall they encountered the edge of the forest and finally ended their mad flight.
Giles gave one last look behind them before the woods obscured their view. “I don’t think we were followed.”
Cecily lifted her head. “I smell water.”
“The forest is littered with streams and brooks, despite the fire spells of the elven lord. It’s as much of a normal wood as can be expected in England, so we have little to fear but a few forest deer and the occasional dormouse.” He grinned, that odd euphoria from battle still affecting him. “Now, if we were entering a forest in the sovereignty of Verdanthame, that would be another adventure! The elven lord of the green scepter has twisted and shaped his woods beyond human imagining.”
“Have you been there?”
He shook his head. “Nay. But one day I shall.”
And Cecily saw him clearly for the first time. Giles Beaumont was a wanderer, craving adventure and new experiences. It filled his soul as much as her affinity for the ocean completed hers. She did not understand it. This joy for battle and excitement. But she recognized it. Thomas had the same sort of restlessness about him.
How it must have chafed at Giles to be stuck in their small village. How he must have resented the task of watching over her.
Yet, he had hidden it so well. She would never have suspected his true nature if they hadn’t been forced to make this journey. Indeed, had she ever tried to see beyond his handsome face and perfect body?
His nature contrasted sharply with her desires for a comfortable home, nights by the fireside, pleasant tasks of gardening and sewing.
Cecily’s fingers flew to her lips, the memory of that perfect kiss. They would never suit. Perhaps he had known that all along. Perhaps that’s why he’d regretted kissing her. And she’d been too caught up in her infatuation to see it.
His innate passion would make it difficult for him to travel with a woman, any woman, without responding to her physically. She could not take it personally, or her heart would never survive a second rejection.
But Cecily couldn’t be sure if she had correctly assessed the situation, and fiercely wished she could talk to her mother about it. She missed her dreadfully, and the realization that she would never see Mother again overwhelmed her anew.
She glanced up in surprise, hating the way she loved the sound of her name spoken in his deep voice. Then she looked in the direction he pointed, and her sadness faded.
Giles knew how she must have been feeling. Cecily had such a soft heart, a peaceful spirit. The events of the past few days might have been glorious for him, but a trial for her. When he’d stumbled upon this little glade, he had expected to hear her gasp with pleasure.
Instead he found her sight turned inward, a frown on her lovely face, her enormous eyes dark from her thoughts. But when she did glance up, his heart lightened, for her reaction was everything he’d hoped for.
They stood at the edge of a small clearing, a large boulder creating a small pond from the clear stream that ran between the elms. A carpet of emerald grass stretched around the pool of water, dotted with tiny yellow flowers and the occasional red poppy. The sun had fallen but a full moon had risen to replace it, creating a soft glow about the glade.
Off in the distance, a warbler sang a late-night tune.
“Is it safe?”
Giles nodded. “We lost our pursuers. You can swim while I make camp.”
Her eyes closed for a moment as if he’d offered her heaven. But she did not move from her horse.
She hung her head. “I do not think I can move.”
“What do you mean?”
“My legs. They don’t appear to want to work.”
Giles suppressed a smile, slipping off Apollo’s back. “My apologies, my lady. Your muscles are not used to riding as hard as we did today.” His words brought forbidden images to his mind. He was a cad. But damn if he couldn’t help his base thoughts around this tantalizing woman. She had bedroom eyes and a body meant for hard riding, but more of the loving kind. He didn’t know how Will had managed to keep her pure. But he knew she was. Giles would have intervened if the lout had pressed for anything more than a kiss.
He strode over to her horse. Enough of these thoughts. He always felt aroused after a good fight, and the battle today had surpassed any previous heightening of his senses. Any woman would have conjured carnal thoughts in him, and Cecily wasn’t just any woman.
He could never bedherwithout serious consequences.
He held up his hand and she clasped his with her much smaller one, a frisson of pleasure at the contact racing through him. He did not know why she affected him like no other woman ever had, but perhaps being forbidden to him fueled his desire.
He was the experienced man, and she an innocent maid. He would have to keep control over their attraction to each other.
Then his gaze flew to her lips and they begged to be kissed again.Again.What had he been thinking last night? Giles could not believe he’d blundered so badly. But it had seemed so natural for him to bend down and cover her mouth with his. As if he had done it all of his life. Or as if he’d wanted to.
Damn it, his thoughts had wandered off again.
“Can you unhook your leg from the support?”
She gritted her teeth, and then shook her head. Giles gently took hold of her thigh and calf and lowered it up and over the support of the sidesaddle. Then he quickly put his hands under her arms and she fell from her perch against him.
Her legs wobbled. Giles curved his arms about her back and held her upright. Her hair smelled of lavender and country air, the fine strands of it tickling the underside of his chin. She felt so small that a wave of fierce possessiveness struck him, an urge to protect her, to keep her safe, despite the dangerous power he knew she could wield. Power that made her more than capable of protecting herself.
If he didn’t let her go soon, he might never. “Can you stand now?”
She nodded, her face against the front of his open shirt. Her cheek felt like the softest of rose petals.
Giles abruptly let her go, and she staggered for a moment, but remained upright. He spun and busied himself with removing Apollo’s gear, trying to keep his breathing even. This woman muddled his brain with the feelings she aroused in him.
“You will be able to stretch your muscles with a swim,” he said. “That should make them feel—”
A splash sounded from the pond. She had wasted little time in regaining her element. Smallclothes littered the green of the grass in a line to the water—hints of lace and the other finery that always made women so appealing to him. Her sleek wet head rose from the water and he could just see her smile of pleasure from this distance.
Giles turned back to his chores, her happiness making him feel suddenly lighter. He allowed Apollo and Belle to roam free, grazing on the sweet grass around the pond, occasionally sucking up a drink of water and eyeing the strange sprite who playfully splashed their noses.
He placed his hands on his hips as he tried to survey the trees in the fading light. A small hollow carpeted with moss between the roots of a grandfather oak would make a fine sleeping place. He dug a shallow pit for the fire in front of it. With the flames in front and the tree at his back, they should be well protected from any nocturnal visitors of the scavenging kind.
He shook out their blankets and tossed them in the hollow, dug some dried fish and journey bread from his sack and frowned at the thought of eating it again.
He should have known better.
“Giles,” shouted Cecily. He turned just as she tossed a small trout onto the grassy bank. The swell of her breasts were exposed to his gaze for a moment but then she dove again, surfacing to toss another fish beside the one still flopping about. He watched as she repeated the process several times, chiding himself for hoping for more than a brief flash of her pale skin, but unable to stop gawking.
Finally she had caught enough that she waved at him and dove, and he knew she would stay under for a time, so he killed the fish and gutted them, wrapping them in pliable leaves and burying them in the coals. Giles told himself he didn’t mind cooking while she hunted, but he set some snares deep in the woods, thinking that on the morrow a few fat hares would be a fine change from fish.
Just because he allowed her to contribute did not mean that he could not provide for both of them on this journey. And he would protect her. He would not fail her as he had failed John, nor would he ever exchange harsh words with her, as he had done with his father. When he parted from Cecily, he would do so without any regrets to plague his conscience.
In an odd sort of way, Cecily and Thomas had been his only family for the past nine years.
When Giles returned to the pond, she still had not surfaced. But he knew she could stay submerged for hours and did not worry. Instead he shed his coat and boots and stockings, thinking that he would welcome a bath himself, if only to cool his blood. But would wait until Cecily went to sleep before he attempted it.
He could not trust himself with more than one of them naked at a time.
At first Giles found himself hanging back from the clearing behind a bush. How easily habit took over. He did not need to spy upon her anymore. Indeed, it would be best if he sat in the open, returning to the fire when she emerged.
He settled on the grassy bank, watching the moonlight shimmer on the water’s surface. Even the infamous Sir Robert Walpole, leader of the Rebellion, would have to agree that Giles had earned his place in the ranks as a true spy after this journey. Another man would never have been able to resist the temptation Cecily offered. He knew he wouldn’t have been able to if he had not known her so well. Thomas forbidding him to touch the girl would only fuel a man’s temptation. But Giles knew that Thomas had been right.
If he bedded Cecily, he would have to wed her. And they were not meant for each other. Not just because of their disparate natures, but because she was meant for someone more worthy than he.
Cecily Sutton was England’s best hope for freedom. He understood that better than any man.
And when would the worrisome woman come up for air?
A bubble broke the surface of the water. Giles rose to his feet, the grass a cold prickle between his toes. The small woodland sounds suddenly ceased, even the rustle of the trees seeming to still in the sudden silence.
His sword trembled at his hip. Damn. Giles dove.
He could see nothing but shadows upon shadows. The water buffeted him like a huge fist, batting him away, sending him tumbling head over heels more than once. Cold tendrils slithered against his skin. Jagged scales tore at his clothing. The weight of his breeches and sword dragged him down and he fought to regain the surface, desperate for a breath of air.
The pond could not be this deep.
With one mighty kick he rose, gasping for air, the water roiling around him.
The moonlight now seemed bright by comparison to the depths below. A column of swirling water erupted in front of him and Giles drew his sword, which came swiftly to hand, the blade humming as if it longed for magic just as eagerly as for blood.
For the creature that held Cecily in its jaw was surely made of magic.
A fish too large for such a small pond, with jagged teeth and slimy green scales and fins that resembled the blades of a knife. She fought within the confines of its great jaw, forcing water to keep its mouth open while she tried to push her way past the prison of its teeth.
But the monster kept her trapped, and Giles acted before the thing could submerge again, near leaping across the frothing water to plunge his blade into its side. The fish twisted, slamming him with its tail, making bright spots of light dance in his vision.
And then it was gone.
Giles dove blindly, his body sucked down in the wake of the beast’s passage. Again he felt buffeted by some force, and realized it was Cecily’s magic commanding the water to push the monster back up to the surface. But this time he held his naked blade in his hand and it dispelled the force of her magic and he plunged down, down…
His feet hit a solid surface. Not the pebbly bottom of the pond but a rubbery slick surface…
Giles spread his feet and plunged his blade downward.
A shudder. A keen from his sword more felt than heard. And then he rose up again, the pressure bringing him to his knees until the beast broke the surface of the water. He managed to suck in a desperate breath of air before the fish rolled. His devil-sword slid easily out of the monster’s flesh and Giles leaped, landing in a fury of a wave.
A black slick stained the water, slowly growing as the creature thrashed weakly. When the fish finally stilled, it began to sink.
Giles did not have breath to call her name. He swam to the great head, the jaw still closed but lax now. Cecily lay trapped inside, her eyelids closed, her hair wrapped about her like a shroud. He used his sword as a lever, desperate to get her free before the monster sank below the surface. But he could not force the teeth apart until they slid underwater, weightlessness aiding him. A gap opened, just large enough for her slim body to get through and he grasped at her, fingers slipping off the wet surface of her skin.
Her hair wrapped about his fist and he winced, but used that tether to haul her free.
Not enough hands.
Giles sheathed his sword, and with one arm about Cecily’s waist and the other paddling madly, he swam to shore. Collapsed on the grassy surface and just breathed.
The pond gave one last heave and the fins of the beast disappeared beneath the moonlit waves.
“Cecily.” Her skin looked so pale against the dark grass. So delicate and vulnerable. He picked her up, cradling her in his arms, smoothing her wet hair out of her face. “Wake up.”
She did not stir. But she breathed. In that he placed all of his hope.
Giles held her close, kissing her brow, her nose, her mouth.
“You cannot die,” he murmured. “You are England’s best hope. You aremybest hope.”
She felt so cold.
Giles rose and brought her to the grassy hollow, laid her gently on the blanket and covered her with his cloak. He built up the fire, never taking his gaze off her. Watching for a sigh. The stir of a lash.
Something tightened in his chest and he frowned at the weight of it while he stripped off his breeches, drew his sword, keeping it close to hand while he crawled beneath the cloak to lie beside her.
His chilled skin soon became warm, but not hers. Giles gathered her closer to him, her head beneath his chin, her bottom against his lower belly. He threw a leg over hers, cradled her arms within his own.
“It is my fault,” he whispered. “I did not think Breden of Dewhame would dare trespass this far into Mor’ded’s sovereignty. But that beast had to be his.”
The fire crackled. Far off through the trees, an owl hooted. Giles could not stop rubbing his hands over her skin, kissing the wet cap of her hair.
“You do not know how long I have wanted to hold you in my arms. How tempted I had been to accept the offer you made me so long ago. But I knew I could not trust myself with you. You are too easy to love, Cecily Sutton. And I have my duty.”
She still did not stir. An anger born of desperation made Giles turn her in his arms. “I am your protector, now and always. You cannot leave me.”
And he cradled her face with one hand and lowered his mouth to hers, seeking to take some of his own life and breathe it into her. He willed her to respond as he pressed his lips gently against hers, sweeping across her mouth again and again.
A tremble ran through her body. Giles’s heart leaped.
“That’s it, dearest. Come back to me.”
He pressed his mouth harder against hers. Felt her sigh and open her lips. He swept his tongue inside, coaxing her own to do battle with his.
For a time, Giles could feel nothing—could think of nothing more than the sweet response of her mouth moving slowly beneath his own.
And then she began to tremble. Hard. Small convulsions wracking her entire body.
Her eyelids flew open. “G-Giles?”
He tucked her head against his neck.
“Hush. You are safe. Nothing will harm you now.”
Her teeth chattered. He held her closer, but gently, afraid he would crush her in his arms.
“Sleep,” he murmured. “I will watch over you. As always.”
She did not speak nor open her eyes again, but soon her trembling eased and he felt the gentle rhythm of her breathing. A natural sleep this time. She would be all right. With a smile on his face, he allowed his own exhaustion to overtake him.
When he awoke the next morning, Giles felt sure he now qualified for sainthood. His rod throbbed against the back of Cecily’s thighs, so engorged it pained him to move away from her. He gritted his teeth and emerged from beneath his cloak, the morning air chilling his skin and raising prickles of his flesh.
She mumbled in her sleep and rolled over. Giles carefully wrapped the cloak back around her and then took off at a near run, eyeing the still pond for only a moment before diving in.
The cold nearly stole his breath but succeeded in cooling his unmanageable rod, so he swam about, looking for any sign of danger. But the monster had disappeared, along with the blood that had tainted the water last night.
Which did not mean that Breden of Dewhame didn’t have other nasty creatures hunting for his half-breed.
He climbed out of the pond, sluiced the water off his skin with his hands, checked his breeches to see if they had dried. Already blackened and now stiff from their dunking, he tossed them away with a grimace, returning to camp and digging out another pair of leathers. His blackened coat would have to do, for he had nothing left but a suit of broadcloth to wear when he reached London.
The back of Giles’s neck tingled, and he turned to find Cecily watching him with those enormous blue eyes of hers.
“You’re awake.” He tried for jolliness, but did not quite succeed. Her gaze traveled from the top of his wet head, lingered on his bare chest, and then hovered somewhere about his knees. He felt as if she’d raked him with live coals.
“You must be hungry.” He dug through the ashes at the edge of the fire and retrieved the fish he’d buried there last night. She quickly sat up, holding the cloak over her chest, the deep glaze in her eyes fading as he handed her the parcel.
“Eat,” he urged, unwrapping his own leaves and pulling out the white meat. It fell off the bones, almost too tender.
She followed his lead, albeit taking smaller bites. He passed her the waterskin, watching her throat move in fascination as she swallowed.
Damn, now he could barely manage to look at her.
She did not eat much. “I don’t feel well.”
“I’m not surprised. You expended a healthy dose of magic last night and I’m thinking you took quite a blow to the head. It took some time for you to come around.”
“I do not… I don’t remember much. Except for the shark…”
“Ah, well, I’m not sure if we could call it that.”
She sighed. “Another monster. Is the world so full of them, then?”
Giles grinned. “I hope so.” But he quickly sobered at the sad expression crossing her face. “Cecily, that was one of your father’s—Breden of Dewhame’s creations. He never would have trespassed so far into another elven lord’s sovereignty unless he felt it worth the risk.”
She shivered, holding the cloak more tightly against her. “You think he’s looking for me?”
“I do. Although I can’t be sure if it’s you specifically, or if he’s heard of your magic and is just blindly seeking the wielder… but we should avoid contact with any body of water until we reach London.”
She nodded, and Giles worried about her listlessness. Perhaps she needed more time to heal. “Does anything hurt? I mean, in particular?”
Cecily shrugged. “I just don’t feel like myself.”
“We can stay here and rest a few days…”
She glanced over at the pond and shuddered. “No. No, let’s move on. If I cannot be in water until we reach London, I would like to get there as quickly as possible.”
Giles nodded. He’d hated to suggest it, for he knew how miserable it would make her to stay out of her element. But he could not risk any more harm to her until he delivered her into the hands of Sir Robert.
He stood to retrieve her clothing, which still lay on the grass near the pond, but her voice stayed him.
“Giles. I seem to recall… you kept me warm. And you said some things…”
He had spoken from his heart in the heat of the moment, and now that his head ruled once more, he felt grateful she had not heard his words.
“I assured you that you were safe with me. That is all.”
“I see. I owe you my thanks. For saving my life—even if you value it only for England’s sake.”
His jaw grew rigid in sudden anger. He could not understand why. “I value you for your own sake, Cecily. And mine. Never doubt it.” And he strode away, picking up his shirt that still lay near the pond, the cloth warmed by the sun and feeling heavenly as he shrugged it on. He fetched her clothing, liking the way the soft cloth felt in his hands, and returned it to her, neither one of them meeting the other’s gaze.
Giles left their campsite to give her privacy, and checked his snares, satisfied to see he’d caught two fat hares. He tied them into a bundle and looked forward to roasting them for dinner.
Apollo came swiftly to his call, Belle right behind, and he had them saddled by the time Cecily finished dressing.
He helped her mount, remembering the silky feel of her skin against his as he lifted her into the saddle. Her face looked pale and she swayed a bit in the seat.
“Perhaps you should ride with me.”
She shook her head, the long black braid she’d woven in her hair swinging across her back. “I’ll manage.”
Giles shrugged and mounted Apollo, setting off through the trees at a slow pace, constantly glancing behind to make sure she remained in her seat. It would have been easier if she’d just agreed to ride with him, although he couldn’t help but admire her fortitude.
Sunlight filtered through the canopy overhead, mostly giant oaks with a few elms sprinkled throughout. A mist wove its way through the thick trunks and gave the forest an ethereal quality that kept Giles quiet, searching for enemies, magical or human. They stumbled upon some brambles around noon and he called a halt.
Cecily slid from her horse more gracefully than she’d managed yesterday, and began to pluck the juicy berries and pop them into her mouth. Giles joined her, and in companionable silence they fought the bees for their feast.
He passed her the waterskin and studied her face. Although she still looked pale, a rosy blush tinted her cheeks and her lips had been dyed a deep red from the berries. He fought the urge to kiss them to see if they tasted of wine. “How are you feeling, my lady?”
“Good. We still have a long ride ahead.”
But despite her words, when they reached the end of the Hants and entered into Surrey he turned in his saddle to find her swaying precariously. He leaped and caught her before she hit the ground, thanking his ancestors for his elven speed.
Giles ignored her protests as he lifted her onto Apollo, loosely wrapping Belle’s reins around the pommel so the mare could follow unhindered. He swung up behind Cecily and settled on his horse’s rump. “I cannot watch you and look for danger at the same time.”
She leaned back against his chest and sighed. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. Perhaps I hit my head harder than I thought.”
Giles breathed in the scent of her, wrapping one arm about her waist and holding the reins with the other. She felt soft and warm and he tried not to think about how natural it seemed to hold her in his arms.
“I think it’s more than that,” he said, tapping Apollo’s sides to get the horse moving again.
“Of course,” she grumbled. “You know me better than I know myself.”
Giles frowned. Now why should that annoy the little minx? “I just know your affinity to the water. Perhaps because your magic is so tied to it, your body and mind are, as well. I cannot remember a day when you did not swim in the ocean.”
She stiffened. “Giles.”
“I cannot hear the waves.”
“Cecily, we have not been near the ocean for days.”
“I know, I know. Yet I have always heard them in my mind. But I cannot any longer.”
A note of panic edged her voice.
Giles searched the countryside for any sign of stream or fountain, for he had only been looking for danger and not comfort. But they rode through the sovereignty of Firehame, and despite the natural greenery of Surrey, the elven lord’s magic dotted the landscape. Pockets of fire sprung amongst meadows carpeted with buttercups, alongside the road, between hill and dale. Flame trees crowded against beech and chestnut, their fiery red leaves flickering in the breeze like the flame of a million candles.
It made him feel hot, dry, and parched. He could only imagine how it affected Cecily, who had thrived in the wet land of Dewhame.
Giles reached for his waterskin, passing it to her. “Drink. Every few minutes I want you to take a sip. We will stop at the next stream and you will swim.”
She turned her head and looked up at him. “But I thought you said—”
“I have changed my mind. We are far beyond the point where Breden of Dewhame will dare invade with his magic.” At least, Giles hoped. But he would rather fight another monster than watch her wither away.
He had avoided farmsteads or villages, often leaving the road to find a path through the woodlands. But they did not stumble upon a body of water large enough for Cecily to bathe in, and toward nightfall he finally woke her.
“Do you smell water?”
She straightened abruptly. “Where are we?”
He smiled. She had dozed against him for most of the day. “Still in Surrey, but close to the Thames, I think. At least, it seems to be wetter and cooler.”
She took in a deep breath. “Yes, I feel it. But too far away.”
“A runoff then?”
One elegant finger pointed to a rise of land within the forest. Giles urged Apollo forward, frowning as the horse labored up the slope. Odd, he would expect a pool at the base of a hill, not the top, for water ran ever downward. Perhaps on the other side…
But when they reached the crest of the rise a small waterfall tinkled merrily over some fallen stones, a crystal pool forming within a ring of standing stones nearly thrice his height. Cecily slid from the saddle and flew across the thatch of thick grass and clover within that protective circle, bending to scoop up the clear water and bury her face in it.
Giles hesitated. He’d heard about the ancient circles of stone that dotted England. Older than the coming of the elven lords, they were rumored to be places of power erected by England’s true ancestors. Some offered protection, while others might open a gateway to… ah, he did not know. But when the elven lords brought magic to England, it changed more than just the landscape.
But Apollo had enough of his dallying and made for the spring, Belle right behind, and Giles placed his hand on the hilt of his sword, waiting for a tremor of anticipation. Despite his blade having an annoying bloody will of its own, it did serve to warn him of any danger.
But it lay quiescent in his scabbard, nary a sound or movement to indicate anticipation of battle, magic or otherwise.
So he dismounted while Apollo slurped rather noisily, washed the dust from his own face, and watched Cecily from the corner of his eyes.
Her hands sifted through the water as if it were gold.
“It’s not large enough for you to swim in,” he said, “but I imagine it will make a creditable bath.”
She turned and smiled, her enormous eyes glowing in the twilight. A funny feeling spread through him at the knowledge that he’d brought that smile to her face.
He swallowed. “I’ll just, um, make camp. See to the horses.”
She nodded and he scooped up Apollo’s reins, making his way back through the circle of stones, the ground beneath him feeling like a spongy cushion. From the vantage of the rise, he would be able to spot anyone or anything creeping up on them. He shrugged off his superstition and decided the place made for a good camp.
He kept his back to Cecily, his imagination filling in the sight of her nude body in the crystal water, the waning moon turning her skin to glowing ivory.
Devil-a-bit, he needed a woman! And soon. Tomorrow they would be in London and he would visit a bawdy house at his first opportunity.
Maybe that would get Cecily out of his blood, if not quite out of his heart.
Giles froze, saddle in hand.
He did not… he could not… Yes, he would admit he had a soft spot for her. How could he not, after being her protector all of these years? He knew her ways, the gentleness of her soul, the habits that he found endearing. Becoming fond of her only allowed him to perform his task better, so why not?
That did not mean that he loved her. He could never love—
“Yes?” He dropped the saddle, but did not turn.
“Can you bring me my sack? I have washed this dress and would like to change into the other while I let it dry.”
He untied it from Belle’s saddle, which he’d yet to remove, and strode over to the pond, his eyes downcast, placing it on a stone near the water.
“I find it most amusing,” she said, “that after years of spying upon me, you can now be so shy.”
He flushed. Looked up. She sat on the bottom of the pool, water barely covering her breasts, her hair spread about her, looking like some beautiful naiad who could steal his soul with the curve of her mouth, the crook of her finger.
“I gave you your privacy for your sake, my lady. I have already seen all that you have to offer.”
Gads, she looked as if he’d struck her, but he had not said the words harshly, indeed, his voice had held a teasing note. Feeling like a complete dunderhead, he turned on his heel and walked away.
He busied himself with the fire, with the horses, and when she returned fully dressed to sit upon the blanket he’d laid out for her, he went back to the stream, cleaning and gutting the hares. Giles roasted them and they smelled delicious. His stomach rumbled as he turned them on his makeshift spit, and he watched Cecily surreptitiously, for she drew a comb slowly through her hair, a sight he could not resist. Her eyes half-closed with pleasure, her lips parted slightly while she drew the comb through the gleaming black strands. He’d watched her perform the simple task for years and had never witnessed another woman move with such sensual grace at the doing of it.
Like the first night they had spent together, he had laid out their blankets on opposite sides of the fire, and when they finished eating he lay down on his, staring up at the stars. Last night he had held her in his arms, and throughout most of the day. He felt oddly bereft at the moment.
“I did not mean…” He never had difficulty finding the right words with a woman. Except for this one. He sighed. “You have a great deal to offer, Cecily. To any man.”
“But not to you.”
“No. You are meant for someone better than I. And I… I am meant for a life of danger in service of the Rebellion.”
But he thought she did not. Nor could he say anything more. ’Twould only make the tension between them worse.
He had given her his cloak again, but she did not need it this night. Indeed, the air felt so warm that he allowed the fire to dwindle to red coals. The sound of roots tearing from the soil and teeth chomping on the sweet clover reminded him that the horses would alert him to any danger, so he allowed exhaustion to overtake him when he heard Cecily’s deep breathing.
Still, he drew his blade before he fell asleep, keeping it in his hand. He did not trust that Breden’s soldiers had given up. Or that spies might not be trailing them. Or that the innocent-looking stones that surrounded them might not conjure up some dreaded beast…
His sword woke him.
The vibrations had barely traveled up the length of his arm when he sprang to his feet, knees bent in a fighting crouch as he looked for the danger.
At first he thought morning had come, until he saw the blackness of night still beyond the circle of stones. The horses dozed not far off to his left, heads gently leaning against one another. Insects still chirped; frogs still croaked.
Cecily stood in the middle of the clearing, her hands spread in supplication.
The circle of stones glowed with white fire all about them.
Giles could not see nor sense any danger, yet his sword still vibrated. But intermittently, as if confused.
She turned, and he saw past her, and in two bounds had leaped to her side.
“Get away from her,” he demanded, waving his sword threateningly.
The other man narrowed his eyes.
“Giles, don’t you recognize him? It’s my father.”
Breden of Dew—ah, no, not her birth father. The man before them possessed entirely human features, although he rivaled the lords with a rougher kind of beauty. Thick gold hair framed a handsome face with thickly lashed gray eyes and a strong jaw, although the man looked younger than Giles remembered.
“Thomas?” Where had he come from? Had he been on his way back to the village? Yet the odds of stumbling across him in miles of woodland seemed too remote for Giles to believe.
“Father,” said Cecily, her hands out to him again. “Why can’t you come to me?”
And Giles realized that Thomas did not look quite… right. The outline of his body shimmered and flickered, while ribbons of hazy color slithered about him like snakes.
Cecily took a step toward her father. Giles gently held her back. “No. Don’t you see something is wrong?”
She blinked. “But it’s him. We found him! Oh, Father, I am so happy. I thought I might never see you again—Giles, let me go!”
Thomas—if indeed it was Thomas who faced them—opened his mouth to speak. But although his lips moved, no sound came out and he fisted his hands in frustration.
“It’s these stones,” said Giles. “They have conjured up the image of him. Or his ghost. I don’t know. But you must stay back, Cecily. Who knows what evil is intended by this?”
“No. He’s not a ghost or an illusion. It’s my father, Giles. I canfeelhim.”
Thomas’s eyes suddenly widened. The shimmer around the other man’s body grew. His golden hair whipped around his head then shot straight backward, as if some force pulled at him. His coat flew open, the flaps drawing back and then somehow vanishing. He held out his hands to his daughter, his mouth moving again, gesturing wildly. Trying to tell her something.
Cecily cried out. She struggled and twisted, taking Giles by surprise. He was used to dealing with those not of elven blood and perforce had gotten into the habit of not using his full strength. Especially around women, fearing he might unknowingly injure them.
But Cecily possessed even more elven blood than he did. Although she still could not surpass his strength, he constantly underestimated her.
She broke free of his hold and flung herself at Thomas. The force that had been drawing him backward, dissolving his coat and hair and the edges of his shape, seemed to suck him away in one mighty burst.
Cecily hit empty air, landing with a grunt amid a patch of clover.
They remained motionless for a moment, as the white fire coming from the stones began to fade.
Giles expected her to turn upon him in fury with tears of anguish or screams of recrimination.
But instead she turned and met his gaze with a calm that shook him. He automatically held out his hand and helped her rise.
“You were right. He was not here.”
He breathed a sigh of relief, not releasing his hold on her hand. “These stones are ancient sources of human energies. I should not have trusted you to their safety.”
“Thomas once told me that some of these stones run across lines of energy within the earth. A power made greater by the magic that has flooded England. A power that—if harnessed—can allow the crossing of time or distance.”
Giles frowned, fully understanding where she was going with this. “You think he used them to reach out to you.”
“Yes, I do. And he wants me to find him. It is important.”
Giles frowned. That may be, but he still did not trust this place. “I still think it was naught but illusion.”
“But who would have sent it? Only the elven lord of Dreamhame, Roden, would have the power to cast such an illusion. Why would he be involved in this? And how would he know where to find me?”
“It could have been a half-breed of his. Those with other elven blood do wander into other sovereignties, dear lady. I come from Bladehame.”
She shook her head. “That is still too far-fetched. I agree that Breden might be concerned with me, yes, but I can’t see him admitting to the other elven lords that I even exist. It would be… an embarrassment to him.”
She made sense, but still… “There is too much here which I do not understand, and I will not put your safety at risk. We will leave at once.”
“No!” She placed her other hand against her breast and lowered her voice. “No, Giles. Thomas might be able to contact me again. And this time I will watch his mouth, try to read the words he so desperately wanted me to hear.”
He could not withstand the plea in her voice. And he had witnessed her stubbornness too often to doubt it. He’d have to carry her away fighting if he tried to make her leave before morning.
Giles strode over to the fire, dragging her along with him, and picked up her blanket, placing it next to his. “Then you will sleep with me tonight. It’s the only way I can be sure you won’t wander off.”
He pulled her down beside him, wrapping his arm firmly about her waist, his other hand still clutching his sword. She felt warm and soft and smelled of spring water. Giles did not question any ulterior motives he might have for insisting she sleep with him again.
As the glow of the stones finally faded to black, he just allowed contentment to fill him.
They reached London the next evening, Cecily planted firmly in front of Giles on Apollo’s back. Giles insisted she ride with him, that she still looked pale, that the appearance of Thomas had shaken her delicate sensibilities.
Cecily did not argue with him. She had spent the night awake, hoping Thomas would appear to her again, but he had not, and she could no longer feel any lingering presence of him. She felt too tired and disheartened the next morning to put up much of a fight when Giles insisted they leave. Indeed, she would not have managed to keep her seat today without Giles’s arm about her when she nodded off. Besides, this would be the last day she spent with Giles, perhaps even the last time she ever saw him. She did not know what might await her in London. But it frightened her that she would be alone, without friends or family.
Giles had been a constant presence in her life for as long as she could remember. Although she did her best to hide it after that dreadful night when he’d rejected her, her heart would always leap at the sight of him. Knowing he was near made her feel more alive, somehow.
Will had been a comfort. Giles an excitement that made her primp a bit longer in the mirror… pay more attention to her clothing… walk with a sway to her hips.
And now. Now he had kissed her. Held her in his arms. Despite his constant attempts to keep his feelings at a distance from her, he sought ways to touch her with but the slightest excuse for it.
The contradictions in his character confused her. And she regretted she might never uncover the mystery of him.
“If I did not have Breden of Dewhame’s half-breed with me, I doubt I’d be given instructions to go to Sir Robert himself,” muttered Giles sometime later.
Cecily jerked upright. She’d half-dozed off again. They approached the city by a small road that obviously was not the main thoroughfare to London.
“Where would you have gone?”
He shrugged, muscles rippling against her back. “Thomas was my contact. I probably would have had another one much lower in the ranks of the Rebellion, if my task hadn’t been so important.”
Houses began to multiply around them.
“So you have been privy to the Rebellion’s innermost circle. That makes it more dangerous for you.”
She could feel his smile, if not see it. “And more important. I don’t think even my father would have believed my good fortune.”
“Yes, I felt sure that’s how you would view it.”
They entered the city proper, suddenly battling for passage amongst wagons and coaches and men on foot carrying chair boxes behind them. Flaming lamplights lit the throng in the streets: servants, children in rags, costermongers, and gentlemen distinguishable by their white wigs. Cecily could not help but stare, for most men in her village could not afford a wig, much less such fine ones that mimicked the flowing locks of the elven lords so perfectly. The wigs had been powdered with some glittering dust that gave off sparkles of silver even in the lamplight, eerily duplicating the brilliance of the elven lords’ hair as well.
The crowd thinned as the glass-fronted shops dwindled to be replaced by brownstone townhouses, and then suddenly they passed over a bridge, a large stone sign etched with the words:Charing Cross. The fishy smell of the Thames tickled her nose as she looked down on boats and ferries, and farther down the river, fine-masted ships with sails gleaming in the dusk.
A glow to her left caught Cecily’s attention. “What is that?”
She felt Giles’s head turn. “That, my lady, is Firehame Palace. Home to the elven lord Mor’ded, and his lovely mistress, Lady Cassandra Brydges, mother of the new Duke of Chandos.”
Yellow fire danced along the walls of the palace, flared to the tops of its soaring towers, and lit the heavens above like a beacon. The flames somehow looked menacing, as if they could suddenly flare forth and destroy the city around them into cinders. She shivered.
They entered a narrow street and turned a corner and cut the ominous flames from their view. Giles stopped Apollo before a well-kept building, a small sign near the entrance proclaiming it to be an inn.
A young lad came out to take care of their horses, and Giles made arrangements for a night’s lodging. Cecily did not question or protest the single room until they stood inside.
Giles held up a graceful hand. “I thought you would like to rest and change before you meet Sir Robert. Then I will hire a chair, and follow on Apollo by the alleys—”
“No.” The panicked word fell from her lips before she thought. “I will not go without you.”
“There is no reason to be afraid.”
“I’m not,” she lied. “It’s just that… there will be no one there whom I trust. Sir Robert will try to use me and the only protection I will have against that is you.”
He frowned and Cecily feared she knew his thoughts.
“Do not worry,” she continued. “Once I am familiar with the players, I will not hold you to me.”
A knock at the door startled them both, and Giles turned to answer it, almost eagerly. A maid stepped in with a bucket of water, filled the washstand in the corner of the room, and quickly left.
Giles nodded his head toward their bags, which he’d placed near the bed. “You will have the room to yourself while I check on the horses. I will send a message to Sir Robert, telling him of your arrival, and leave the arrangements of your meeting up to him.” And he left.
Cecily stood still a moment. Giles had not said whether he would accompany her or not. He’d brought her safely back into the arms of the Rebellion and finished his task. She knew he would not be eager to stay with her, but his abandonment hurt all the same. She had thought their journey had brought them a sense of companionship, but apparently she’d been wrong.
She quickly performed her toilette, trying to fluff out her quilted petticoat for more volume, using damp hands to smooth the wrinkles from her favorite calico dress. The gown had a pattern of small roses and a modest neckline, and Cecily thought it would make a suitable presentation, especially with the pearl buttons down the front, and the lace ruffles at sleeve and throat. She twisted up her hair and covered it with a lace cap, the trailing lappets brushing her shoulders and making her feel a bit elegant.
She stepped in front of the cracked mirror, pinching her cheeks to combat the paleness in her face.
Giles knocked and she bade him enter.
He opened the door and stared at her a moment, a slight flush darkening his cheeks. “You look… I have arranged a private dining room for you to sup. A lackey will take you there and I will join you after I change.”
He sounded so stiff and formal, as if he spoke to some great lady instead of familiar, ordinary Cecily.
She remarked on the first part of his comment. “I’m sure I look exactly what I am. A village lass still fresh from the farm… but that is good, for then perhaps they will underestimate me.”
A grin softened his face. “Your beauty will rival the ladies of London, regardless of the costume you wear. But you are right, they will underestimate you. That has always beenmyfault.”
Cecily brushed past him on the way out the door, his shoulder touching hers as if he’d intended the contact. She refused to acknowledge him with a lingering look. Surely he would at least join her for dinner, as he promised. They would have one last evening together.
The lackey led her into a cozy dining room, the fire banked against the warmth of the evening, but a dozen candles lighting the private area. Giles’s funds must be padded by the Rebellion, for surely a mere blacksmith could not afford this well-appointed setting.
She sat at a table laden with linen and crystal, surveying the scenic paintings on the walls. When a serving maid brought the covered dishes into the room, she refused to touch them until Giles joined her, despite the mouthwatering smells wafting up from them.
She did not have to wait long. When he entered the room he seemed to fill it up with his presence. The candles glowed brighter; the crystal sparkled more brilliantly. The pale blond hair near his temples looked slightly damp from his wash, the fall of it glimmering down his back from a thorough brushing. He wore a broadcloth suit with brass buttons. Not the attire of a wealthy man, but one that his broad shoulders filled without benefit of padding or cut. He still wore boots below his stockings, although they’d been buffed to a fine polish.
Cecily’s mouth watered.
He took a seat and uncovered a dish, and without further ado, began to eat. She joined him in companionable silence, the only sounds to break their meal the sound of muffled laughter coming from the common room, and an occasional comment from one of them on a particularly tasty bite.
Giles glanced over at her now and again, whatever formality he’d tried to adopt earlier now completely forgotten, for he would smile and nod, just as he had over their campfires. Cecily’s heart flipped every time she caught his gaze, but she would hide her reaction beneath a calm smile.
A knock at the door interrupted the serenity of their dinner. A young lad handed a folded bit of paper to Giles, accepted the coin in return, and quickly backed out the door.
Giles opened the missive. “Sir Robert will send a carriage for you at midnight. You’ll wear my hood and cloak, and leave the inn as stealthily as you can.”
Cecily set down her fork, no longer interested in the rest of the meal. “And so it begins. You never answered, Giles. Will you accompany me?”
He downed the last of his port and pushed his chair away from the table, legs squeaking on the hardwood floor. “He does not say I should accompany you, and I’m not sure if they’ll allow me past the grand front door, Cecily.Iam not the future hope of England.”
“Please don’t call me that. And if this Sir Robert wishes to speak to me, he will have to welcome you as well.”
Giles pulled at the kerchief about his throat as he muttered, “I’m sure that’s something they could not have foreseen. I wonder what they’ll make of it.”
“What do you mean—no, never mind. Just say you will accompany me tonight.”
“Yes, I believe I shall.” A wicked grin spread across his mouth, and near took her breath away. For a moment she could only stare at him, and he returned the favor with a darkening of his green eyes. He leaned forward in his chair, his hand reaching across the table, past the salt and the china plate of butter and the stem of her goblet, and clasped her hand. She felt his touch thrum up her arm and travel clear to her toes.
“Yes?” The word left her lips on a soft breath.
“I will miss you.”
She closed her eyes for a moment. She would not allow his words to mean more than he intended. “Perhaps. But you will also be glad for another assignment. One with more adventure and intrigue. You must have found my little village so quaint and boring.”
“It was not as bad as all that. Do you remember the time when that badger got into Old Man Hugh’s cottage?”
“And ate the pie that the widow had made for Hugh? Fie! I think the whole village came out to witness the commotion. I will never forget the sight of him chasing the animal about with his broom. The poor beast.”
“Hugh, or the badger?”
Giles squeezed her hand. “It’s only a few hours before midnight. Do you want to return to the room to rest a bit, or would you prefer to stay with me here?”
Cecily lowered her lashes. “I could not sleep if I tried.”
And so they stayed at table, Giles never once relinquishing her hand, even when the serving girl came in to clear the dishes. They told stories of the village, Cecily with longing and Giles with nostalgia, as if he spoke of memories of a place that he’d already left far behind. And the time flew by faster than she could have imagined.
The clock on the mantel chimed midnight and Giles abruptly stood, jarring Cecily from her contentment.
“It’s time,” he said. “Let me fetch my cloak—I’ll be but a moment.”
He fled the room and she tried not to be disappointed by his apparent eagerness. If it had been up to her, she never would have let the evening end.
But she must face her new future, eagerly or no. She stiffened her back and shoulders, determined to be strong. Cecily did not know what this Sir Robert might have planned for her, but she would hold to her own ambitions. She would think only of Thomas, and if this Rebellion would not tell her his whereabouts, then she would find some way to track him down herself.
When Giles returned to the dining room he took one glance at her face and froze in the act of shrouding her with his cloak. “Damn. I would not want to be Sir Robert tonight.”
Cecily pulled the cloak over her head, trying not to muss her cap or hair, and followed Giles through the half-empty common room to the waiting carriage outside. She ducked into the plain black coach, surprised by the contrast of the inside. Her hands touched velvet-cushioned seats, the walls had been painted with scenes of playful cherubs, and every bit of trim shone with the luster of gold.
Giles took the seat across from her, watching her face as the conveyance lurched forward. “Although Sir Robert prefers to travel in secrecy, he does appreciate his comforts.”
“Yes, I see.” Cecily turned and stared out the window, watching the lamplights flit past. “I am not discomfited by grandeur, Giles. For some reason this all seems… commonplace to me.”
“I should think it would.”
She met his shadowed gaze. “What do you mean?”
He took a deep breath, and then shrugged. “I suppose you’ll find out soon enough, and they might use it to unsettle you.”
“You still remember nothing of your past life? Before you settled in the village, that is.”
Giles had asked her this once before, and she’d flinched from the memories. But she would need any advantage she could, and he was obviously trying to help. She frowned in concentration. “I remember running and hiding in dark places. I remember the storm. The relief when we settled in the village.”
The coach bounced as they hit a pothole. Giles reached forward and placed her hand upon a leather strap bolted to the sidewall. “Hold this, or you might wind up in my lap.” He gave her a wicked grin.
Cecily scowled. For a man who couldn’t wait to be rid of her, he still could not seem to stop his flirting. She ignored the frisson of excitement that raced through her from his touch, from the nearness of his face.
Giles’s eyes widened at her expression, and he relaxed back into his seat. “They will not know what to do in the face of such determination. Cecily, can you recall anything before the running and hiding?”
“My mother’s face. Another woman’s… she sang songs to me. A garden, the sting of a bee. Little things that have no meaning. And yet there is obviously more.”
He nodded, glanced out the window. “Your mother was a widowed countess. You are, by title, the Lady Cecily Sutton. You were born in a fine mansion, but your mother left it all behind to protect you from the elven lord when your powers became apparent.”
Cecily should have felt more surprise than she did. But perhaps somewhere deep inside, she had known it all along. “I am deeply touched by my mother’s sacrifice. She never said a word about our past life, although it explains a great deal—I think she detested that little village. But a title hardly matters to me.”
“You are a peer of the realm, Cecily. Of course it matters.”
She shook her head so hard the lappets on her cap swept against her cheeks. “My mother gave up the title, so as far as I’m concerned, I never held it.”
“You can’t just dismiss a title. At least, not to those who matter.”
“Ah, you mean the esteemed Sir Robert? He will discover soon enough that he cannot bribe me with the trappings of society. I care for nothing more than my sweet cottage by the sea.”
Her breath hitched on the last sentence, and Giles fell silent until the carriage slowed. “We are here.”
Cecily pressed her nose against the glass. The carriage rolled through a massive square, a fine park in the center of it, which sported those flaming trees and a fountain of yellow fire. When the coach came to a full stop and Giles flung the door open, a golden light spilled into the dim interior. He helped her down the steps, and she drew strength from his strong warm hand as she looked up at the home in front of her.
Giles had been right. Her entire village could surely fit into the massive dwelling.
Despite her brave words, Cecily felt her knees quiver as they approached the front door. Two stone gargoyles sat on either side of the front step, an odd combination of lion and bird, and their eyes seemed to follow her every movement. Before Giles could raise his hand to lift the brass knocker, the door flew open, and a uniformed man bowed and stepped aside, beckoning them in.
“May I take your cloak, madam?” he asked as soon as he closed the door behind them. Giles unwrapped her while Cecily stared about. Pockets of fire littered the massive hall, casting eerie shadows upon the marble floor and a line of statues that paraded down the walls. Frescoes of angels and clouds covered the ceiling high above her head, and crystal chandeliers divided the firelight into sprinkles of starlight.
“I have been given instructions to show you to the library upon your arrival,” sniffed the doorman, looking down at her with disapproval. He turned to lead them down the hall.
Cecily snapped her mouth shut and told herself to quit gawking.
“The trappings of society,” whispered Giles.
She glared at him and he smiled jauntily back at her. Thank heavens he had agreed to accompany her, for somehow he made her feel like her normal self in these rather daunting surroundings. Giles took her elbow and prepared to lead her after the doorman, but that stiff-legged gentleman took a glance over his shoulder and said, “Not you, sir.”
The smile froze on Giles’s face and Cecily felt his sword tremble. He patted the scabbard, another look crossing his handsome features. A sort of acceptance.
“He is with me,” said Cecily, watching Giles in confusion. Had any man in the village dismissed him in such a manner, he would have reminded the fool of his skill with a weapon.
The doorman stopped and turned, a polite rise of his bushy brows his only response.
“I will not step one foot farther without him,” she insisted.
“Cecily,” whispered Giles. “Do not argue. The man is well aware of my place, and it is not among such esteemed personages.”
“Your place is at my side, at least for tonight. You promised.”
He shrugged. “Aye, so I did.” Giles met the stare of the officious steward, his expression quite different than it had been a moment ago. “Majordomo, tell his lordship that the lady refuses an audience unless I am at her side, and until she dismisses me I continue in my duty to protect her in every conceivable way.”
The doorman’s face did not alter a whit as he turned and proceeded back down the hall.
That sword of his trembled again and Giles patted it with a sigh. “Sir Robert will not like this.”
Cecily frowned. “Will he punish you?”
“Me? I’m too low in the grand scheme of things for him to bother with. He might, however, make my next assignment extremely dangerous.” And those green eyes glinted with eagerness.
“Then I will go in alone.” Cecily strode down the hall, picking up her pace when she heard his footsteps behind her. “Go away, Giles. I will not assist you in your suicidal desires.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. You don’t even know where you’re going.”
No, she didn’t. All the doors along the hall looked exactly alike. But at that moment one of them opened, and the majordomo, as Giles had called him, bowed and swept his arm toward the open door. “His lordship will see… both of you.”
When he rose, he gave Giles a look that made the blacksmith shrug, as if he sympathized with the other man’s apparent discomfiture.
It irritated Cecily to no end. Fie, of course there were social distinctions in the village, but not so large a gap that one man was forced to feel inferior to another. Although Sir Robert may be Giles’s leader, she saw no need for the blacksmith to react as if he did not belong in the same room with such an august personage. Or for the servant to assume the same.
Giles’s strength of character certainly gave him every right to escort her into the room.
A man sat near the fireplace in a high wing-backed chair of leather, a blanket over his knees despite the warm evening. A heavy man with an elegant white wig, a rather longish nose, and dark piercing eyes beneath thick brows. He stood, the blanket falling about his ankles, and bowed to her. “Lady Cecily. What a pleasure to finally meet you.”
Cecily curtsied a bit awkwardly, being woefully out of practice. Everything about this man, indeed, about the entire room, screamed elegance. From his velvet jacket to the twinkle of rings on his fingers, from the polished oak walls to the thousands of leather-bound books encased in exquisitely carved shelving.
She realized she’d forgotten her gloves.
Cecily didn’t often have the opportunity to wear them, and she could picture them perfectly in her mind, wrapped in white paper, nestled snuggly in the bottom of the trunk at the foot of her bed. In her cottage. Hundreds of miles away.
She clasped her hands behind her back.
“Beaumont,” said Sir Robert, inclining his head toward the blacksmith. “You have our gratitude for delivering Lady Cecily safely home.”
Giles bowed, somewhat stiffly, like a soldier to his commander.
“Lady Cecily,” continued Sir Robert, “will you be seated? I fear we have much to discuss.”
Cecily took the chair across from him, her gaze flying to Giles. As soon as Sir Robert sat back down, the blacksmith took a standing position next to Cecily’s chair, his solid presence allowing her to relax. She removed her hands from where she’d hidden them within the folds of her skirts.
Sir Robert’s eyes sparkled as they went from her to his spy. “My dear girl, you must be exhausted from your journey. May I offer you some refreshment? A spot of tea, perhaps?”
“No, thank you. Giles—Mister Beaumont and I have eaten but a few hours ago.”
“I see.” He did not look up at the blacksmith. “Allow me to be the first to welcome you home, Lady Cecily. I have had reports from Dewhame, but I would like to hear from you what happened, if you’re up to it.”
Cecily took a breath. It would be best if she took control of the situation from the start. “This is not my home, Sir Robert, and I certainly have no intention of permanently making it so. My home was in Dewhame, in a little cottage by the sea. Now, it will be wherever my father is. And that is why I have come to you. To seek him out.”
Sir Robert’s heavy brows nearly rose up to his wig. This time he did look up at Giles. “Beaumont. Report.”
And Giles began to speak, not only telling his superior about the invasion of the village, but also condensing an account of the last nine years of watching over her. Cecily flushed during certain parts of it, but thankfully Giles’s report did not extend to confessing intimate details about her. His omissions reassured her that although his first loyalties lay with the Rebellion, he still held some feelings for her.
When Giles finished some time later, his deep voice hoarse from talking, Sir Robert sat back in his chair, rubbing the sides of his chin with his fingers, his gaze occasionally going from Cecily to the blacksmith.
Or perhaps she should now think of Giles as a spy. The role of blacksmith had always been a ruse, and yet she still had difficulty thinking of him otherwise.
“Do you believe Breden of Dewhame knows that the sorcerer he’s been chasing might be his daughter?” Sir Robert finally asked.
She felt Giles’s shrug. “I’m not sure, sir. But I don’t believe so.”
“Then there is still a chance.” Sir Robert pinned her with his gaze. “We had hoped you would be loyal to our cause, Lady Cecily. After all, if not for our interference, you would no longer be alive. You do understand that it is the Rebellion that has protected you all of these years?”
“Oh, indeed, sir, I do understand. I understand that you seek to use me as your tool, whether I will it or no. But my father showed me I have a choice, and I will not be used by you or anyone.”
“Ah, Thomas,” he muttered. “What have you done by claiming this girl as your daughter?” Then Sir Robert leaned forward, his hands clutching the blanket he’d drawn back up around his knees, his dark eyes now fixed upon her with an intensity that was frightening. “Is your loyalty to yourbirthfather, then? Do you wish the elven lords to continue their slavery of the English people?”
Cecily blanched. She had not thought of it in that way. And if she continued to let this glib man control the conversation, he would soon have her committing her soul to his cause. “My loyalty is to Thomas, mytruefather, and that is why I have come. I want you to tell me where he is.”
Those dark eyes glittered, and Cecily wondered what machinations might be going on behind them. He seemed to come to a sudden decision, for the corner of his mouth quirked and his hands relaxed back onto his lap. “We don’t know.”
Cecily’s heart dropped. “How can you not know? Wasn’t he on a mission for you?”
“Yes. But we haven’t heard from him for months, and my contacts cannot locate him. It’s almost as if he disappeared off the face of the earth.”
“But I saw him…”
“So Beaumont said in his report. But he also said he wasn’t sure what you had actually seen. And yet, it is the best clue we have had to his whereabouts in some time. I have a proposition for you, Lady Cecily.”
Fiddle, she did not like the sound of that. But what other choice did she have? “And that is?”
“I will give you Thomas’s last known location. I will provide you with the funds and supplies you need for the journey. In exchange for one small favor.”
She suddenly felt Giles’s hand on her shoulder, but she did not need the warning. The favor would not be small by any means.
“I want you to accept a mission on behalf of the Rebellion when you return. Whether you have found Thomas or not.”
Anger evaporated any lingering nervousness Cecily might have felt. The decanters on the sideboard shuddered, the liquid contained in them responding to her magic. “What sort of mission?”
“If I could be sure of your loyalty to our cause, I might be able to divulge that… but as it is…” He shrugged his velvet-clad shoulders.
“That’s blackmail,” hissed Cecily. “If you have it within your power to help me find Thomas, then you will, make no mistake of that, sir.” And without any conscious volition of her own, the stoppers on the decanters suddenly popped out, hitting the ceiling with enough force to dent the plaster. Port and brandy and gin swirled from the containers, forming tiny cyclones above the sideboard.
But Sir Robert didn’t seem to notice, his attention suddenly fixed upon a creaking sound coming from the side of the fireplace. “I don’t think this is wise,” he muttered.
A portion of the paneled wall suddenly swung into the room, and the most dazzling couple Cecily had ever seen stepped from behind it.
“Ah, Robert. I adore that secret passage from the palace to your library,” said the woman, brushing cobwebs from her shoulder. “It makes me feel like one of your spies again.”
Sir Robert quickly rose and bowed deeply. “Have you ever stopped, my lady?”
She laughed, a trilling sound that made the man beside her smile tenderly in response, and Cecily could not help but stare at him. He did not need the black scepter in his hand for her to know that the elven lord of Firehame stood before her. Mor’ded’s ethereal beauty gave him away. Like Giles, he had pale white hair, but the elven lord possessed the silver sparkles in those thick strands that made it glow with a sterling sheen. His eyes were similar to her own, large and luminous, faceted like crystals, but a midnight black to her blue. His skin was so pale and translucent it nearly glowed with its own light, and his face so exquisitely formed he did not seem quite of this earth.
Cecily preferred Giles’s golden tan and green eyes. It made his beauty at least human.
The woman stepped forward, unperturbed by Cecily’s gawking, and held out her hand. “It has been too long since I last saw you, Cecily Sutton. You have grown into a beautiful woman.”
Cecily frowned, for she could not remember the lady, but she rose and clasped the hand extended to her. “I’m sorry, but I don’t—”
“Allow me to introduce you,” Sir Robert smoothly interposed. “Lady Cecily, meet Lady Cassandra Brydges, mother to the future Duke of Chandos, and lady to the elven lord of Firehame.” He bowed deeply to the elven lord. “Your Most High, allow me to introduce Lady Cecily Sutton, daughter of the widowed Countess of Warwick, and bastard to one of your people, Elven Lord Breden of Dewhame.”
Cecily felt grateful for Giles’s warning of her mother’s status, for surely she would have been flustered by the introduction. Instead, she calmly curtsied, keeping her lowered position until the elven lord bade her rise.
Lady Cassandra still held her hand, and helped her upright. “You remember me, do you not? I am the lady who rode next to you on your escape from Firehame.”
Cecily had tried so hard to forget that wild flight. The feel of the rain slapping her face, the laboring beast beneath her, the power as it flooded her veins while she called forth the lightning that blasted their pursuers…
“Oh, my dear,” said Cassandra. “Please forgive me. I did not wish to remind you of something painful.”
“No.” Cecily took a deep breath. “No, it is all right, and best that I acknowledge it now. I owe you my thanks, my lady, and I am grateful I can finally voice it.”
Lady Cassandra patted her hand, a puzzled look on her face. “Well, it is good to see you again, safe and well. How is your mother, the Lady Eleanor?”
“My mother… she was killed when Breden of Dewhame’s army invaded our village.” Cecily tried not to think of how much she still missed her mother, or she would surely start crying in front of everyone.
Cassandra’s lovely face fell with even more sympathy. “I am so sorry. It seems you have been through more trials than any young woman should have to face.” Then she reached out and enfolded Cecily in a warm embrace, her empathy so genuine Cecily could not help but respond to it. Had Lady Cassandra not already saved her life, she would still adore the other woman. Her anger faded somewhat.
Cassandra guided Cecily back to her chair, while Giles quickly dragged a velvet settee closer to the fireplace, taking up his station by Cecily’s side again as soon as the elven lord Mor’ded had seated himself.
Cassandra gave Cecily’s hand one last pat before she settled her skirts beside the elven lord. She wore a dress of emerald silk, stiff with embroidery about the hems and sleeves, elbow hoops creating such a wide expanse of cloth that her waist looked miniscule by comparison. Her rich brown hair had been artfully braided with tiny silk roses and pearls and then swept into a high crown upon her head.
Cecily felt dowdy by comparison, her best dress of calico now looking more poorly than it had but a moment ago.
Yet she could not feel jealous of the other lady, merely a sincere admiration. Despite the fact that the other woman sat near the elven lord. Cecily could not imagine getting that close to the powerful man without swooning. His mere name struck terror into the hearts of thousands, yet here he sat, directly across from her, Lady Cassandra’s hand gently enclosed within his own. The way he looked at his lady, with a tenderness that belied his reputation, made Cecily frown in confusion.
Mor’ded of Firehame caught her staring, and those black eyes hardened to flinty coal, a mask of indifference falling over his features. His fingers tightened around the black scepter he held, reminding her he commanded more power than she could imagine. With those talismans, the elven lords held the barrier around England, cutting them off from the rest of the world.
With those talismans, they had the power to destroy everything she loved.
For a moment Cecily couldn’t breathe. She had feared this meeting with the infamous Sir Robert but had faced it with resolve, intent upon finding her father. But she had never expected to meet with Lady Cassandra, much less the elven lord himself. Surely the elven lord could not know that the king’s most trusted advisor, Sir Robert Walpole, led the Rebellion against him? And yet… hadn’t Lady Cassandra said she had been one of Sir Robert’s spies when she emerged from behind the wall? How could that be?
Had Sir Robert betrayed the Rebellion to Mor’ded of Firehame? Or did conspiracies exist that she had no means of understanding?
Cecily glanced up at Giles, who stood as still as a statue, his gaze fixed on some point in the wall across from him, like a servant at table. But his hand stole out again to rest upon her shoulder. She felt prodigiously glad she’d insisted he come. Despite his loyalty to the Rebellion, Cecily trusted him. He would not allow any harm to come to her. The past few days had proven that.
“Robert,” said Lady Cassandra, “you cannot send her after Thomas without telling her the entire story. Do you think I saved her life all those years ago for you to risk it by sending her out blind?”
Cecily stared in confusion at Lady Cassandra, who smiled at her and said in a loud whisper, “Peephole. Over the fireplace. We heard every word.”
Ah. Cecily nodded and tried not to enjoy the sight of Sir Robert squirming in his chair, but she felt secretly glad that he now knew how it felt.
“But we cannot be sure of her loyalties, my lady. How can we trust her with such sensitive information?”
“Because we must. Don’t you see that she will go after Thomas whether we help her or not?” She gave Cecily an admiring glance.
“You do not need to question my loyalties,” Cecily hastened to assure her, “for they will always be to my father. Andhisloyalties lie with the Rebellion.”
“So we have yours by default,” said Mor’ded. His voice startled Cecily, so similar to Giles’s, yet silkier and more melodious.
She gathered her courage and spoke directly to him. “I do not understand, Your Most High. Is the Rebellion in some way aligned with you?”
“You might say that.” His arm stole around Lady Cassandra. “You see, I am not what I appear to be. You do not need to fear me, Cecily.”
“Are you sure?”
Mor’ded smiled, the expression changing his face from merely beautiful to heaven-sent. “I am different from the other elven lords.”
“In what way?”
Flames of yellow fire suddenly erupted in his palms. He formed them into orbs and tossed them in the air, like some juggler performing at the fair. “I am half-human. Like you.”
Cecily narrowed her eyes, expecting some jest at her expense. But why they would do such a thing…
“Allow me to explain,” interjected Cassandra, giving the elven lord a frown. “You see, my dear, Mor’ded of Firehame has been dead for nigh over nine years. The man at my side, the current elven lord of Firehame, is his half-bastard son. And he is as dedicated to freeing England just as much as I am.”
Could it be true? She could not see a trace of humanity in the elven lord who sat across from her… except when he gazed at Lady Cassandra. “But how?” Cecily managed to ask.
“That is a long story and can wait for another time,” replied Mor’ded—or at least, the man who pretended to be him. “For the moment, let us make an exchange. If I douse my flames, perhaps you will allow your little cyclones to calm? They are rather annoying.”
Cecily felt her cheeks redden. She had forgotten about them, and apparently they had not stilled when her anger had faded. With a wave of her fingers she sent the liquid back into their decanters.
“What a lovely talent,” said Lady Cassandra. “Have you explored the full extent of it?”
“I can no longer call the power of a storm, if that’s what you mean.”
“It isn’t, my dear. And I believe I understand why that would be difficult for you to do again. I was there, remember?”
Cecily nodded, feeling a bit ashamed. But why else did Sir Robert suggest a mission for her, unless he sought to use that more formidable power?
“Because I am half-human,” continued Mor’ded as if he had never been interrupted, “I age at a normal human rate, unlike the elven lords, who age so slowly it is nearly indiscernible to us. But I am beginning to show signs… a wrinkle here, a gray hair there. Not enough to yet betray my charade, but it is a condition we are forced to address.”
Lady Cassandra leaned over and kissed his cheek. “Your human side is what I love most about you.”
“Indeed?” He turned and caught a strand of her hair between his elegant fingers. “I thought mymagicbrought you joy, my lady.”
Her cheeks reddened, and for the first time Cecily noticed the ring on Cassandra’s finger. A rosebud of gold that suddenly bloomed into full flower. “Perhaps. But there will always be magic between us, my lord. Of a human kind.”
And then as if he could not resist any longer, the dread lord of Firehame kissed Lady Cassandra, with such passion and longing that Cecily felt her face heat. How she wished for a man to feel such passion for her. She glanced up at Giles without meaning to, and wondered about the look on his face as he watched the two lovers. Did she see an echo of her own longing? Wishful thinking, indeed. He had desire only for adventure and his cause.
And he refused to meet her gaze.
Sir Robert cleared his throat. “Yes, well. Are you familiar with the power of the other elven lords, Lady Cecily?”
“Of course.” She fought to keep the flare of annoyance from her voice—she wasn’t some ignorant peasant. Lady Cassandra obviously felt affection for the leader of the Rebellion, but she could not profess to the same.
“Although the elven lords constantly war and seek to best one another,” he continued, “on rare occasions they play together. Long ago, elven lord Roden of Dreamhame desired the elven lady, La’laylia of Stonehame, and crafted her a ring of gold to hold one of the lady’s magical gems. Forged within the black fire by the former lord Mor’ded, the might of three elven lords working together gives the ring the power to fool them all, and would take the power of three to uncover the truth of it. Fortunately, in our time the elven lords rarely make an alliance long enough to work together… nor would they in this case, to uncover the magic of what they would consider a harmless ring.”
Cecily felt as if Sir Robert wove a bedtime story, and she had to force herself to consider the very real implications of what he said. “Lord Roden wields the magic of illusion and glamour, and Lady La’laylia of Stonehame can enspell her gems for many purposes. So what does the ring do?”
“Ah,” replied Sir Robert, shifting excitedly in his chair, setting his white wig of imitation elven locks slightly askew. “This is where it gets interesting. For you see, the elven lady La’laylia fooled Roden of Dreamhame. She convinced him that her face had begun to age, that she wanted to stay beautiful for him forever, so he cast the ring with the illusion of youth.”
“I can understand the desire,” murmured Lady Cassandra, her eyes downcast. Mor’ded of Firehame took her hand in his and kissed the palm of it.
“But she had no intention of using the ring herself,” continued Sir Robert, pausing dramatically.
Which Cecily considered completely unnecessary. “Then what did she want it for?”
“For her human lover,” said Mor’ded, his midnight eyes fixed upon his lady. “It’s why she needed the might of three to cast it, for only then would she be unable to see through the illusion herself. Despite the differences between the two races, there are times when love, or at least lust, conquers all barriers.”
“I daresay,” agreed Sir Robert, beaming at Lady Cassandra. “Lady La’laylia of Stonehame had fallen in lust with her half-breed slave, a man captured in her recent skirmish with the lord of Bladehame.”
Giles dropped his hand from Cecily’s shoulder, and for the first time, neglected his military posture and shifted where he stood.
“She could not bear to see her half-breed lover turn into an old man,” said Lady Cassandra, with a wealth of sadness in her voice. “And so her slave stayed young for his lifetime. But even the elven lords cannot hold back death. La’laylia buried him with the ring still upon his finger.”
Cecily surmised the Rebellion wanted the ring for Mor’ded of Firehame, so he could continue to fool the other elven lords with his masquerade. But what of the Lady Cassandra? If they managed to find this ring, she would turn into an old woman while her lover never aged.
As if Cecily had spoken her thoughts aloud, Mor’ded leaned toward his lady and whispered, “As you have just said, there will always be magic between us, my lady.”
Lady Cassandra glanced up at him, tears in her soft brown eyes, but a brilliant smile blossoming upon her mouth.
“So you sent my father on a mission to rob a grave,” said Cecily, turning her attention back to Sir Robert. “Or did Roden discover La’laylia’s deception and take the ring back?”
“He tried,” answered Sir Robert. “But he could not find where she had buried the slave. And although the ring is unusual in that it can fool even an elven lord, the spell itself is harmless to their rule. The tale soon became lost to time, naught but a recording in the Rebellion’s archives, until we realized we might have a use for it.”
Cecily expelled a breath, leaning back in the cushioned chair. “Thomas journeyed to La’laylia of Stonehame’s sovereignty then, in the land of Stonehame. Did he find the grave?”
“We don’t know,” said Lady Cassandra. “I asked my maid, who has a talent for finding… things, if she could locate him. But alas, she could not find the light of his magic anywhere within the seven sovereignties. But her gift is not infallible—surely the vision Thomas sent you confirms this. He is the best spy the Rebellion has ever had. I have faith he is still alive.”
“We can be sure of nothing but his last known location,” warned Sir Robert. “He met with another contact of ours, a professor of archaeology at Oxford University.”
Lady Cassandra leaned forward. “So you see, Cecily dear, how important this mission is. Not only for your father, but also for the entire country. Many people have suffered to put a half-breed on Firehame’s throne, and Dom—the new Mor’ded has already saved many lives. But it will be dangerous. More dangerous than we might know.”
“I understand.” Cecily smoothed the folds of her skirts, wiping the moisture off the palms of her hands. How simple life had been in the village, the world of the elven lords and their magic seemingly far removed. But now she had been thrust into the thick of things, and for Thomas’s sake, she would not turn back. “But it makes no difference. I must still find my father.”
Sir Robert nodded, his face still slightly creased with uncertainty, but Lady Cassandra, and even the dread Lord Mor’ded of Firehame, smiled with complete confidence at her.
“Nay, Cecily,” said Giles, suddenly breaking his subservient silence. “You willnot.”
The room went deathly quiet as all eyes turned to stare at Giles. Sir Robert glared at him for daring to speak; Mor’ded of Firehame’s black eyes held no expression, but Lady Cassandra’s soft brown gaze glittered with an odd, merry interest.
Cecily looked at him as if he’d suddenly gone mad.
Giles would not allow them to intimidate him, not even the powerful elven lord, who could probably toast Giles to ash where he stood.
Giles had listened to the tale of the ring with growing excitement and foreboding. Excitement for him, who relished the adventure Thomas had become a part of, but foreboding for Cecily. She could not venture into the Lady La’laylia’s sovereignty of Stonehame, a land rumored to be as arid and dry as any in England. Cecily could barely withstand the scarcity of water since they left Dewhame.
There might be little water for her magic to call upon, unless she summoned it from a great distance. And how much time would that take if she were in the midst of some danger?
He knew what his leaders intended. They would send Cecily out to test her magic, putting her into danger to see if she could use the power of the storm again. For she could call upon the power of the sky no matter which sovereignty she stood in.
This might be a trial by fire to see how much use she could be to the future of the Rebellion.
But they had not counted on Giles being here. And although he had great respect for Sir Robert’s leadership, Giles did not always agree with his methods on how England gained her freedom. But up until now, he’d never had cause to dispute them.
Cecily, of course, recovered first. “Don’t be ridiculous, Giles. Of course I will go after my father. That’s why you brought me here, remember?”
Giles lowered his voice, ignoring the others in the room and focusing on Cecily. The lady would listen to reason, and right now, her safety negated any other considerations. “I did not realize the enormity of the task. Nor did I think they would truly send a young woman after Thomas.”
She blinked those luminous blue eyes at him. “But you must realize I am best suited for it.”
“I realize nothing of the sort. You, my dear, are the worst person to be venturing into Stonehame. It is nearly as parched from mining as Bladehame, and you would have to cross the length of it to get near your ocean again. And you would wither before you managed it.”
A flash of uncertainty flickered in her elven eyes, and then that luscious little mouth firmed with resolve. “You saw Thomas. He reached out to me, and I will not turn my back upon him.”
Giles swiped a hand across his brow. He would not debate that again. But surely Thomas would not have wanted her to risk herself on his behalf. “I forbid you to go.”
She rose to her feet and poked a finger against his chest, the little minx. “You have no right to tell me what to do, Giles Beaumont.”
“Do you think I spent the last nine years keeping you safe just to let you toss your life away?”
“Ha. You resented every moment of it. And now you’re finally free! Why don’t you just enjoy it?”
“Because I…” Giles frowned. Cecily was right. He would finally be free to take on more important missions. Missions that involved the travel and adventure he’d always craved. She would soon be nothing but a part of his past, and he should be glad of it. So why couldn’t he let her go?
Giles lifted his chin. “Because you are England’s best hope.”
“She is indeed,” interjected Lady Cassandra, in a voice that shook with some suppressed emotion. “And we would not send her on such an important mission without aid. Sir Robert, I believe we have found the perfect man to accompany her.”
The heavy man replied in a low voice. “Do you think this is wise, my lady?”
“Indeed I do.”
Giles did not look at Sir Robert to see if he would agree or not, for Cecily’s eyes had narrowed along with her lips, with a fury he hadn’t seen the likes of since Breden’s men invaded her village. “You are the last person I would want to go with.”
Hadn’t Giles heard those very words from her lips before? It hadn’t mattered then and it didn’t matter now.
Sir Robert harrumphed. “So, Beaumont, I assume you accept this new mission?”
Giles lowered his head, his gaze still fixed upon Cecily’s stubborn face, and softly growled the words, “Damn right, I accept.”
“Well then.” Sir Robert clapped his hands together and rose. “I’ll ring for the footman to show you to your rooms. I suggest you both get some rest, for we have much to do in preparation for tomorrow.”
Giles glanced up, suddenly becoming aware of the rest of the people in the room. Lord Mor’ded watched him with a face that could have been carved from stone, but Sir Robert’s cheeks had turned red and Lady Cassandra looked… amused. Well, he’d surely managed to make a muck of things. “I… I apologize for my behavior. It appears my habit of protecting Lady Cecily has become ingrained in me.”
Lady Cassandra nodded elegantly. “So it seems. Which makes you a perfect candidate for this mission. You will bring her back to us safely, Mister Beaumont, and for that confidence, I thank you.”
Giles bowed deeply to her.
“Come, love,” continued Lady Cassandra, rising and settling her skirts about her ankles, “it is time to return to the game.”
Mor’ded of Firehame grimaced but rose in one fluid motion. “It was enjoyable to not have to pretend for a while.”
“Fie, it makes our stolen moments all the sweeter.” And she reached up and kissed his cheek, the elven lord’s jet black eyes warming at the gesture.
Giles would never have guessed at such passion between the two, had he not been privileged to meet them in such intimate surroundings. He had always thought the Rebellion had fueled their romance, but now he wondered if it hadn’t been the other way around.
Lady Cassandra hugged Cecily again, bidding her to be careful on their journey, and then the lady and her elven lord left the room via the wall near the fireplace. Shortly afterward, a footman appeared at the door in response to Sir Robert’s summons.
Cecily nearly fled the room.
She did not speak to him again until they were halfway to Oxford. They were to meet with a professor of archeology in the university city, following Thomas’s last known location.
They rode through Buckinghamshire, a gentle land of rolling hills and peaceful countryside dotted with occasional flame trees. Giles had chosen a course as parallel to the River Thames as possible, hoping to somehow bolster Cecily’s magic before they entered the land of Stonehame. He might have exaggerated slightly, for Stonehame had many more rivers left than Bladehame, but La’laylia’s magic had indeed drained the waterways to a shadow of what they had been before.
His heart lifted at the thought of what sights awaited him in Stonehame, while at the same time he struggled with fear for Cecily.
“Why did you do it?” she asked.
Giles glanced beside him, where she rode atop Belle. Sir Robert had wanted to provide her a new mount, but Cecily had insisted on the little mare.
He patted Apollo’s neck, understanding Cecily’s desire for the loyalty of a beast. “Do what?” he replied.
“Demand that you accompany me.”
Giles shrugged, for he barely understood it himself. Oh, granted he’d gotten into the habit of protecting her, but he had to admit that he had not been thinking when he’d insisted upon it. Only reacting to what his gut told him. “I have always wanted a dangerous assignment, after life in that little village. Can you think of any other that Sir Robert could have given me that would offer as much danger and adventure?”
Cecily brushed the loose tendrils of hair off her face. She wore a new dress, one that befit her role as daughter to a prosperous merchant, her former wool riding habit now replaced with a blue silk. To avoid attention she wore a black hooded riding cloak, the hood pulled low over her forehead. A matching blue silk lined the inside of the headpiece, and made her eyes appear an even more extraordinary blue.
The guise that Sir Robert had provided them seemed simple enough: a merchant’s daughter traveling to Stonehame to purchase gems for her father’s girdle factory, the man sick with the gout and unable to make the journey himself, and said old man lacking a son and forced to rely upon the training of his daughter.
Lady La’laylia of Stonehame encouraged the participation of women in business and trade, and the disguise further helped explain the amount of notes they carried, which Giles fully expected to use for bribery. Although he had official documents of entry stating Cecily’s nature and business, Giles knew a thing or two about the border patrols. And about getting the information he’d need to discover Thomas’s whereabouts.
Giles had been relegated to the part of Cecily’s guide and guard, with clothing consisting of a brown frock coat and buckskin breeches, of a finer cut and quality than his blacksmith’s garb. He wore new half jackboots, polished to a fine gloss, and a three-cornered black hat, with a new sword belt for his devil-blade.
He looked half-gentleman, half-servant, possibly a retired soldier. Giles approved of Sir Robert’s attempts to keep his enemies guessing.
He started, realizing he had lost himself again in the blue of Cecily’s eyes. An annoying habit, that. “What?”
“I said you did not give Sir Robert the opportunity to offer you another mission.”
Giles sighed. Why did she keep pestering him for answers when he barely knew the truth of it himself? “I didn’t want another one, Cecily. Remember, Thomas is a friend of mine. He’s been my guide and mentor for many years. I want to find out what happened to him just as much as you.”
But she kept searching his face with those crystal eyes of hers, as if trying to see into his very soul.
“Besides,” he muttered, hoping to put an end to this conversation, “you need me.”
“Not enough to endure your resentment.”
Giles brought Apollo to a halt, the smaller mare stopping right alongside. A wagon loaded with hay rumbled by them, but he’d already discarded it as a possible threat, and ignored the driver. He leaned down until his face lay near inches from her own. “What are you talking about?”
A small flush stole across her cheeks. “You made it very clear in every conceivable way how you felt about watching over me all those years. You couldn’t wait to be rid of me. And then”—she snapped her tiny fingers—“just like that, you insist on accompanying me to find my father. And now… now I must bear the thought of you forced into my company again.”
The little minx made no sense. He reached out and took her chin in his hand. “But Iofferedto go.”
“And that’s what I cannot figure.” She frowned, tiny lines etched across her heart-shaped forehead. “You are a wealth of contradictions, Giles Beaumont. You act as if you cannot bear to be near me, and yet you find every excuse to touch me. You say you cannot wait to be rid of me, but there you sit, still watching over me.”
Giles dropped his hand. Damn, and he had thought he’d done such a jolly good job of keeping his distance. Hadn’t he lain all night with her, skin-to-skin, and kept her pure? She should give him some credit, at least. “I am not meant for you. Thomas made that very clear. But that doesn’t mean I do not want you. There, is that what you wished to hear?”
She gasped. “You want—”
But Giles did not wait for her to finish. He did not appreciate being forced to admit it so baldly. He heeled Apollo and set off down the road, listening to make sure she followed. She had little choice, after all, since she rode atop Belle. As soon as he heard the little mare’s hoofbeats close behind, he took a path toward the river, hoping the water would distract Cecily.
Why did she continue to make him acknowledge the fact that he wasn’t good enough for her?
They rode for a time in silence, the soft beat of the horse’s hooves in the dirt a harmonic accompaniment to the soothing murmur of the water beside them, punctuated only occasionally with the splash of a fish breaking the surface or the trumpeting of a swan.
He stole a glance at her. Cecily wore a soft smile, making her appear even more beautiful than usual. Giles spun back around, swiping the hair off his face.
The only way he could make sure she survived her mission was to accompany her. But damn if it didn’t threaten to kill him.
They reached Oxford toward evening, riding through narrow, cobbled streets until he found an inn. They walked through the common room, nearly filled to bursting with students, and Giles glared them all down when they dared to cast appreciative looks upon Cecily. His devil-blade hummed and pulsed at his hip.
Aye, it would surely kill him.
He made arrangements with the innkeeper for supper in their rooms, and relaxed only when he had Cecily safely within the confines of her own.
“Giles,” she murmured, glancing around the small sparse room, “there is but one thing I wish to know, and I promise never to speak of it again.”
He tried not to groan, for he’d suspected that their earlier conversation had been on her mind all day. “I’m tired. Can this not wait until the morrow?”
She shook her head, black locks gleaming in the lamplight. “Tomorrow we hunt for Thomas in earnest. And I must have this settled before then.”
Giles leaned against the doorpost, crossed his arms, and looked down at her with a sigh. “What?”
She looked into his eyes. Cecily had such a habit of avoiding his gaze most of the time, that a direct look of hers could rattle him. He did not move, but he tensed in his negligent pose.
“All I want to know is”—she took a deep breath—“if Thomas hadn’t forbidden you, would you have accepted my offer all those years ago?”
He frowned. “Your offer?”
“Do not pretend you don’t know of what I speak.”
“Faith, Cecily, you were but an innocent girl. Of course I wouldn’t have accepted.”
“But now. Now that I am a woman. You said… you said that you wanted me.”
She would flay him alive, this one.
“My desire for you would have consequences.” He glanced over at the tiny cot, a vision of her bare body tangled in covers coming unbidden to his mind. He pushed away from the doorframe and took a step backward. “There are too many reasons for me, for us… Don’t you see that Thomas was right? Now you know who you are—in comparison to who I am.”
She actually looked confused for a moment, then she frowned. “I am not England’s best hope, or whatever your Rebellion has styled me. I am just Cecily Sutton, a plain country girl who likes to sew and keep house and swim in the ocean.”
“You swim because it draws you. Because you have powerful magic to command. And you areLadyCecily Sutton, an earl’s daughter and a peer of the realm. Don’t you realize what a tangled web we would create if I allowed myself to give in to temptation? Don’t you know how easy it would be for me to do so?”
And because it gave him the flimsy excuse to show her, he stepped forward and took her into his arms. She felt so delicate, and yet within that small frame he could also feel the strength of her magic, the force of her will and personality. Her lips parted, eager and ready, and the devil take him if he hadn’t want to do this again—each and every moment—from the first time he’d kissed her.
He covered her mouth and tried to take her very essence into himself. She tasted like fine wine, sweet and burning and heady. He felt her arms snake around his shoulders, her fingers tangle in his hair, his scalp tingling from her soft touch. Giles groaned and gathered her closer, lifting her off her feet, deepening the kiss until their tongues tangled in frenzied passion.
He had to remind himself that she didn’t know about passion. That given her sheltered life, she would be completely ignorant of the act. Buthisbody knew, and it responded with a tightening of his breeches and a shiver of anticipation.
Giles crushed her against him, smashing her skirts and petticoats, his hand roving down her backside, pushing her body against the part of him that yearned for contact.
Two drunken students chose that moment to stagger up the stairs, their arms around each other, singing snatches of a bawdy tune. Giles released her, his breath labored and his world turned entirely too far upside down for his own comfort.
Cecily stared at him with complete trust in those large gemstone eyes. She stood with arms parted, as if bereft, and he longed to snatch her up again.
She still had no idea how close she had just come to having her life entirely ruined.
Giles turned and stepped back out the door, frowning at the two drunkards, his hand to his hilt, and despite their foxed state, they managed to show some sense and quickly stumbled down the shadowed hall.
Giles glanced back into her room. “Keep the door bolted tonight. I will be right next door, and the walls are so thin that I will hear the slightest noise.”
She stayed his hand when he would have closed the door, her fingers covering his, that odd current of excitement that her touch always caused in him making him freeze.
“Who are you, Giles Beaumont?”
It took a moment for him to understand the course of her thoughts. He shook his head. “I am no one of such great importance, Cecily. And I’m more than happy with my lot.”
“You are wrong.” She dropped her hand. “And you have just proven it again. You are my protector, Giles Beaumont. Now, as always. And none of your protests will change that.”
She closed the door, none too gently, and Giles stared at the splintered wood mere inches from his nose. Damn him if the little hoyden didn’t have the right of it. But that didn’t mean it gavehimthe right to…
He spun and went to his room, slamming the door behind him.
They managed to get to the University of Oxford without referring to the conversation of the night before. For which Giles could only feel incredibly grateful. Cecily had managed to completely confound him, and he now questioned what he had once taken as a surety.
And something had changed between them. A subtle difference in the companionship they’d formed on their previous journey. She radiated some new confidence, and when he grinned at her she returned it easily, her smile bold and promising. Giles sternly refrained from touching her, despite his habit to do so, telling himself that their heightened attraction for one another was entirely his fault.
And then damn ifCecilydidn’t take to touching him at every opportunity. Her hand lingered in his when he helped her mount Belle. Her shoulder brushed his own as they walked across the campus green. She smoothed the hair from his face with fingertips that made his skin burn.
And Giles relished every touch, leaning toward the slightest contact between her skin and his. He could not help it.
She would always be his one and only weakness.
They entered the building and a student directed them to Professor Higley’s office. It smelled of dust and mold; the myriad of books lining the walls and floor a perfect background for the tattered old man’s bespectacled face. “Yes, yes, what is it?”
Giles escorted Cecily into the room, his hand mere inches from the small of her back. When she abruptly stopped and his fingers met the silky fabric of her coat, he could not pull his hand away from her warmth.
“We have come to see you about my father,” she said to the old man. “Lord Thomas Althorp.”
“Ah, well,” he replied, blinking owlishly, “then you had best shut the door behind you.”
Giles complied while Cecily found a chair, removing a stack of books to perch on the edge of it.
Professor Higley set aside his quill and folded his ink-stained hands on top of his desk. “Rebellion business, is it?”
“Yes, and no. You see, Lord Althorp is my father, and he’s missing. You are the last man that he spoke to.”
“Ah well, I told him the search for the ring would be dangerous.” He leaned forward. “We can’t even be sure it’s a real artifact, but many peoplethinkit’s real, and that’s more dangerous than you can imagine.”
Giles had taken up position as her guardian behind her chair, and he could feel the concern the other man’s words caused in Cecily. Without thinking, his hand covered her shoulder. “We would like to know what you told Thomas about the ring’s supposed location.”
The professor’s gaze switched to his, quickly traveling down to center on the scabbard lying against Giles’s hip. “It’s in my report.” He licked his lips. “I am a loyal member of the movement and would not shirk from my contributions. I left nothing out of it.”
“I’m sure you didn’t,” assured Cecily. “But it might be helpful to have you recall that conversation to us directly. Would you be so kind?” Her voice sounded as smooth as water running over stone, the entreaty within it a promise and plea, all at the same time.
The professor seemed to lose himself in her gaze, for which Giles felt complete sympathy. Then the old man blinked a few times and stood, removing a key from his coat pocket and opening a glass case. He lifted out a yellowed document with gentle hands, placing it on his desk. “Come closer, my dear. This is an old map of England and the landscape has changed, but this is where we are, you see?”
Cecily rose and bent over the desk, Giles following suit. Lines radiated outward from a center point near the old man’s finger, separating England into seven sections with the precision of a sliced pie. Each sovereignty held the traces of faded dye: black for Firehame, green for Verdanthame, brown for Terrahame, silver for Bladehame, violet for Stonehame, gold for Dreamhame, and blue for Dewhame.
“Yes,” Cecily replied. “But what is that smudge near your finger?”
“Ah, well. That is a place to be avoided at all costs, and not a topic under discussion at the moment.” His gnarled finger moved upward into Stonehame, but not as far into the sovereignty as Giles had feared. “This is where you will need to journey.”
“Stafford,” said Cecily. “What is there?”
“Shoes,” muttered Giles. “Thousands and thousands of shoes. Stafford is well known for the making of them.”
“But not as well known,” interjected the professor, “for the gravesite of Sebastian Delacourte, former lover of the elven lady La’laylia.” His finger shifted to a tiny etching of craggy spires. “The town lies within the shadow of these stones, a mountain of quartz pulled from the very recesses of the land by the magic of La’laylia’s violet scepter. Some even say the lady Annanor of Terrahame had a hand in the unearthing of it.”
Giles nodded. Annanor of the brown scepter had the power over the very land itself, and he would not doubt the two elven ladies would aid one another in a play against one of the elven lords.
“It is rumored that Sebastian’s grave lies within these very stones,” continued the professor, “encased in a crystal coffin, the ring that La’laylia of Stonehame gifted him with still upon his finger. His face as youthful as when he lived.” He straightened, his back making small popping sounds. “Many have tried to scale these mountains and all have failed. So if the coffin does exist, we will never know.”
“My father may have found it.”
“Ah, my dear. I hate to dash your hopes. But no man has ever emerged from those mountains alive.”
Cecily blanched, and Giles took her arm and gently guided her back into the chair.
“Tell us the story of the lady La’laylia and her slave, this Sebastian Delacourte,” said Giles. “We would like to hear your version.”
Unfortunately, the old man’s story matched the one they had been told at Sir Robert’s, and when he came to the end of it, Giles looked at Cecily. “I suppose you still want to pursue Thomas?”
She tilted her chin. “How can you doubt it?”
He grinned. “I did not. We will leave at once.”
“Wait,” said Professor Higley. “This place you asked about earlier.” His finger moved back to the spot not far from Oxford. “It is a forest of wild magic that no sane Englishman would dare enter. I daresay it would be best if you skirted the area entirely.”
“What kind of wild magic?” asked Giles, his attention immediately captivated.
“The locals call it the Seven Corners of Hell.”
“I see. It’s the exact spot where the boundaries of all seven sovereignties meet. I imagine the mingling of those different powers would cause some chaos.”
“Very good.” Professor Higley glanced at Giles as if the class dunce had just proven to be the most brilliant. “That is the prevailing theory, at least. That water meeting fire, and earth meeting sky, illusion meeting cold metal, et cetera, has created a confluence of energies that constantly battle one another. Indeed, the entire forest appears to shift before one’s eyes, and trees may be replaced with barren desert or a thick mist of clouds or… we have a professor who has studied the phenomenon. And the creatures that occasionally emerge from it.”
The professor shuddered. “No man who has ever entered that forest has come out alive, but we think the creatures who emerge from it may have once been men… horribly disfigured or altered by the wild magic.”
Giles heard Cecily’s small gasp of dismay and quickly squelched his curiosity. “We will be sure to avoid the place, although it will add hours to our journey.”
“Most wise of you,” said the professor.
Giles took Cecily’s hand and lifted her to her feet, escorting her to the door. Her fingers felt cold.
“Thank you for the information, Professor.”
“Yes,” she added. “You have been most helpful.”
The old man beamed at her words, but the intelligent eyes behind the spectacles stayed fixed on Giles. “Should you ever weary of adventuring, young man, you should take up the robes. It’s a shame to have such a keen mind go to waste.”
Giles flushed with pleasure. He had always been proud of his physical prowess, and women had confirmed his good looks with their eyes since he had been a lad. Perhaps he had started believing in his own disguise after spending years pretending to be a thickheaded blacksmith, but he had never considered himself quick-witted. Becoming a scholar had not occurred to him, but he suddenly realized the worlds that books may open for him might be an interesting pursuit.
“Oh,” said Cecily, a wealth of sadness in her voice. “He would never give up adventuring, sir. It’s as much a part of him as his green eyes.”
Later that day, Giles thought Cecily had been more right about him than she knew. For instead of crossing the river and keeping it between them and the forest, he chose the other way around, his curiosity getting the better of him.
“You are incorrigible,” she said with a look of annoyed indulgence. “That’s the forest Professor Higley told us to avoid, isn’t it?”
Giles stared into the thickly wooded forest to his right, hoping to see one of the dread creatures the professor had spoken of. What manner of beast would it be? Clawed, fanged, a complete deformity of human arms and limbs?
“We are keeping well away from it,” he assured her. “I just wanted to see it with my own eyes.”
Cecily followed his gaze. “It looks perfectly ordinary—”
The trees suddenly disappeared in a blaze of fire, leaving behind a landscape of gray ash. The earth split; Giles could feel the ground beneath their feet shake from the force of it, making Apollo snort and Belle squeal. The ash flowed down into the chasm and a green mist erupted back out of it.
“Damn,” blurted Giles in complete admiration.
“I should have known better,” muttered Cecily.
The mist swirled and formed columns that flowed like water, snaking about in a mad dance but never crossing the original line where the trees had once stood. Still, Giles guided Apollo farther away from the place.
Black flames erupted from within the mist, creating a wall of midnight that the sun could not penetrate. Twinkles of light appeared within the blackness, sparkling like so many jewels. Giles felt entranced by the display, until he noticed that Cecily appeared even more beguiled.
“Come,” he urged. “There is another river up ahead and it will be safe for you to take a swim before we board the ferry.”
“Giles, look.” She raised a trembling hand toward one of the spots of light. “See, it’s growing larger. And there’s a figure within…”
Cecily tried to urge Belle toward the light, but the little mare stoutly refused. With that elven speed that made the outline of her body blur, Cecily leaped from the saddle and took off at a run.
His blade rapped him smartly against the thigh, but he hardly needed the warning.
“My fault,” snapped Giles, leaping from Apollo as quickly—if not quite as gracefully. He bounded across the tall grass, catching up with her only because her skirts hampered her legs. He wrapped his arms about her waist and lifted her off her feet, swinging her about from the momentum of their flight. Her petticoats swirled just above the line where the forest had once started.
“Put me down!”
“What is wrong with you? You heard what the professor said.”
Giles turned his head toward that ball of light, squinting against the glare. It had grown twice its former size in the short time it had taken him to reach Cecily. And the figure it surrounded looked exactly like a youthful Thomas.
Had he not been holding Cecily within his arms, his devil-blade would have already been in his hand.
Thomas opened his mouth and Giles heard him speak, but so faintly he could make out only the sound of Cecily’s name. She struggled against Giles’s hold, and from the corner of his eye he could see a wall of blue racing toward them. She had called the river water.
“Cecily,” he said, fighting to keep his voice calm. “Stop this.”
“But Father wants to tell me something important.”
“We cannot hear him. And we cannot venture within that madness. Look!”
Something tore at Thomas’s hair and clothes, just like it had done within that circle of stone. A mist curled about his throat, about his mouth, stifling the words he struggled to say. His hair and coat streamed behind him, and despite his efforts to keep his feet planted, they began to slide backward.
Black fire blossomed beneath Thomas’s feet and engulfed the ball of light, and within one breath and the next, caused a conflagration that heated Giles’s face and hands with sudden pain.
A blanket of water doused his body, pushing him to the ground, Cecily still within his arms.
They both lay still for a moment, breathless and stunned. When Giles finally sat up, a thick tangle of trees met his gaze.
“Good thinking,” he said, wiping the dampness from his face. “Although I’m not sure your water would have protected us from the black flame if we had ventured inside of it.”
Cecily struggled to her feet, peeling wet cloth from about her legs. “I would have gone to him.”
“It would have been insane.”
“No. It would have been… understandable. But I don’t think that what we saw is truly Thomas. A vision of him, or a sending, yes. How could he be alive in such a place?”
“You are right. But he is trying to tell me something, and obviously using any means he can to do so.”
“Yes. The magical properties of the standing stones, and now the wild magic of this forest.” Giles glanced through the trees. Things slithered between the enormous trunks in the darkness beneath the thick canopy. He caught a flash of red eyes, a slither of a spiked vine. “I believe you are right, and with luck, we will find another place of magical energy that Thomas can tap into. But in the meantime we must findhim, and not his sending.”
Cecily turned and made a shooing motion. The remaining column of water rolled back upon itself and returned to the river she’d called it from. “Will this alert Breden of Dewhame to my presence?”
Giles frowned. “I don’t think you used enough magic for him to sense. And besides, he doesn’t know where to look for you now. Lady Cassandra would not have sent you forth unless her lord assured her of that.”
Cecily cocked her head, as if considering something for the first time. “But what if I had used the power of the storm? Surely he would sense that, even if we went to the farthest reaches of England.”
“Since Breden of Dewhame is the only other to possess that power, it would not be lost amongst all the other magical energy that permeates England. So yes, Cecily. I believe he could find you that way. But since you have vowed not to use it, we don’t need to worry about it, do we?”
A dry, soft nose suddenly bumped his head. Giles glanced up and grinned at Apollo. The beast shivered from fear, but he had stayed near his master this time.
“Good boy,” he said, his clothes squelching as he rose to his feet. “What say we get the hell out of here, before that forest decides to change its shape again?”
Without waiting for her to answer, Giles swung up into the saddle and held his hand out to Cecily. Apollo might have the training of a warhorse, but Belle had been only a pleasure mount. She stood far off in the distance, her ears cocked toward them, but not coming any closer.
As soon as he felt Cecily settle behind him, Giles urged Apollo into a gallop. The gelding immediately lunged forward, anxious to expend his nervous energy. Soon Giles heard the pounding of Belle’s hooves as the mare caught up to them, but he did not suggest that Cecily switch mounts.
Within a few hours they entered the sovereignty of Stonehame, although they wouldn’t meet up with the border patrol until they crossed the river. Giles found a private shelter of trees for them to dismount and eat their afternoon meal.
He winced when his boots hit the ground, his feet sloshing within the sodden leather. Their ride had dried his neck cloth and the very front of his waistcoat, but the rest of his clothing still felt uncomfortably damp. He lifted his arms to help Cecily dismount and she fell into them, her riding coat as dry as the rest of her clothing. His brows rose in surprise.
“Shall I dry you, too?” she asked with a hint of mischief in her blue eyes.
“How might you manage that?”
“Oh, ’tis the same as calling the water, only in reverse. I expel it from the fabric.”
“Even my boots?”
“Aye. Now close your eyes and hold very still.”
He dropped his arms from about her waist but peeked at her from lowered lids, suspicious of her reasoning. And to his infinite joy, discovered he had the right of it.
She started with his hair, which had completely dried from their gallop, but he wouldn’t be fool enough to protest when her fingers felt so good against his scalp. He barely felt her touch when she reached his neck, her fingertips nothing but a soft whisper against his skin, like the touch of a dragonfly’s wing.
The chill that Giles had taken from his damp clothing burned away from the inside out.
Her palms caressed his coat at the shoulders, slowly traveling down the front of his chest, leaving dry cloth behind. She stepped closer to him to reach his back, and he breathed in the scent of her, fisting his hands against the urge to enfold her in his arms. She stared at him with eyes glassy with desire, and when she licked her lips Giles thought he would go mad.
Her hands reached his hips and his devil-blade tingled.
He nearly snorted in surprise.
But she quickly passed over the scabbard and stroked the fabric of his breeches, and the result of that touch did not surprise him in the least.
Giles sucked a breath through his teeth when she reached behind him and caressed his bottom. He looked down upon her head, that lovely face mere inches from the fall of his breeches. He felt certain she had no idea what that intimated. But when she leaned back and stared at the swelling of flesh beneath it he knew her next actions were intentional.
She molded her hand against him, as if trying to seek out his shape beneath the fabric, rounding her hand over the top of his member and stroking the length of it down to his ballocks.
Giles closed his eyes fully and stopped breathing.
Apparently satisfied she had learned all that she could, Cecily swept her arms down his thighs, pushing at the hard muscle, then over this boots. Giles felt his stockings dry right inside of them.
He heard the rustle of her skirts as she stood. “Now I will go take that swim you promised me.”
Giles jerked his head in semblance of a nod. When he heard her footsteps behind him he remembered to breathe again.
“You are a fine figure of a man, Mister Giles Beaumont,” she said before she disappeared within a rustle of bushes.
The merriment in her voice caused such a fierce emotion to swell within his chest that it overpowered the raging of his body. What an exasperating, tantalizing, absolutely stupendous woman.
They had little difficulty crossing the border, with only a minimal bribe once the patrol discovered that a woman had come to Stonehame to conduct business. The rumors that La’laylia of Stonehame encouraged the authority of women appeared to be true, although the stories that Giles had been told about the land seemed to be exaggerated.
Perhaps if they had gone as far as Westmorland, where Stonehame Palace stood in Appleby, they might have seen more proof of the elven lady’s excavations which had altered the landscape. But this far south, rivers still flowed and heather and greenery covered the hills.
Giles could only feel grateful that he would not have to witness Cecily withering from lack of water. And smug satisfaction that the Rebellion’s plans to force Cecily to call upon the power of the sky would be foiled. There was enough water to easily come to her call, should she need it.
Although Giles vowed it would not come to that. She would not need her magic for protection. She had his sword.
They passed through Warwick, where he restocked their supplies from the market town, and quickly rode through Birmingham, for it reminded him too much of Bladehame with its iron factories. By the time they reached Wolverhampton the rivers became smaller, mounds of quartz and granite replacing the gently rolling hills, patches of brown earth testament to the mining that had taken place.
But the River Sow still flowed strong in Stafford, and although the marshes that were rumored to once lie hereabouts had completely dried up, Giles felt that could be no bad thing.
They rode through the outskirts of the city, Belle and even Apollo hanging their heads with exhaustion, for he had pressed them during the day and through half of the night. Indeed, since they had crossed into Stonehame, Giles did not call a halt until he saw that Cecily felt ready to drop from exhaustion. He fell into slumber as quickly as she. It was the only way he could think of to keep his hands off her, after she had given him such a bold invitation by the river.
He could ignore it only because she surely did not realize the consequences of her actions.
Giles quickly found a reputable inn and ordered the stableboy to feed their mounts extra oats and water, then made arrangements for their stay, stressing that aladyhad come to Stonehame to purchase jewels for her girdle factory.
The merchants came in droves, eager to show their support. Several of them women.
Giles stood behind Cecily in the common room of the inn while she met with the traders, making his presence known, but keeping unobtrusively in the background. At night he visited the taverns, listening for any rumors of a golden-haired man who had come to find the fabled ring of Sebastian Delacourte.
He hated leaving Cecily alone in the inn at night, but it took distance and a good deal of ale to prevent him from entering her room and ravishing her.
For reasons he could not understand, the urge to accept the offers of the women who approached him in the taverns held little appeal.
Giles subtly asked about Thomas, but no one appeared to have seen him. Which was no surprise, since the man had the magical talent to fade into the background when he chose. It was what made him such a good spy. The only thing of interest Giles heard was on the third day when a cobbler deep in his cups insisted that he’d heard the crystal mountain sing a death song about the same time Thomas had been in the city. His companions hushed him with an almost superstitious fear, and they refused to explain no matter how hard Giles coaxed them.
After several days of trading, Giles felt it safe enough to pursue their true goal. He took Cecily to the base of the crystal mountain that shadowed Stafford.
Cecily had never thought much about shoes before. In the village, leather slippers and boots had been more practical, and so she’d always focused on dresses, for she could sew her own. She had not realized shoes could be just as beautiful, or that such a variety existed anywhere in the world.
As she and Giles rode through the cobbled streets of Stafford, her head swiveled from one window display to another. Shoes with feathers, with diamonds, with heels and without. Shoes that buckled or tied. Red shoes, black shoes, lavender, and blue…
Cecily pulled up on Belle’s reins, transfixed on a window display. In the very center, perched upon a slip of lace, gleamed a lovely pair of gem-studded shoes. Made of pale blue silk damask printed with starfish, they sported a crystal-studded buckle that winked in the sunlight, and on closer inspection, tiny silver stones outlining Scallop seashells.
The clear stones looked to be topaz, and the yellow ones most likely a shiny stone called pyrite. Cecily had learned much while she’d traded, and fortunately the merchants had been eager to teach her, but she couldn’t be sure if it had been because of Giles standing behind her, or Lady La’laylia’s support of women in trade.
She sighed with sheer longing at the glorious shoes.
“You could have them, if you want,” said Giles.
“They are too dear.”
He lowered his voice. “I’m sure your mother has funds set aside for you. You need but take up your position in society again.”
She turned and studied his beautiful face. Ah, he still sang that same tune, insisting on pointing out the vast differences in their social positions—despite her avowals that she didn’t care a fig about it. “It is natural for women to admire pretty things, Giles. That does not mean they are willing to give up their happiness for them.”
He frowned, that sculpted mouth turning down at the corners, but some inner emotion lit his eyes. He wore his black hat pulled low over his brow, his blond hair appearing even whiter in contrast, his pointed ears tucked under the brim. A white neckerchief about his throat made his skin look a deeper golden brown, the coloring enhanced by their journey. His eyes shone a vivid green in the sunlight, those dark brows and lashes drawing attention to their brilliance. In his buckskin breeches and wide-sleeved coat, sword belt at his hip, he made such a dashing figure that Cecily did not fault the maids on the walkway for turning to stare.
Her eyes must have given away her admiration, for he shot her a grin of supreme arrogance, and tapped Apollo’s sides with his heels, leading them through the crowded streets again.
Ah, how much she admired… and loved him. It almost hurt at times, twisting at her heart and fluttering in her stomach. So easy now, to admit she had always loved him, since she discovered that he wanted her in turn. But he showed it in a different way, and that realization had confused her at first.
Will had been a simple man, with simple needs. A house, a home, a wife who could cook and sew and raise his children.
Giles Beaumont was much more complicated.
She stared at his back, the elegant posture, the long, flowing white hair. People made way for him through the streets, parting like the sea for Apollo to step through. Giles exuded a confidence—with enough of a hint of danger—for strangers to sense.
And yet, when a young apple-seller held up her basket for him to peruse, she did not show any sign of fear. On the contrary, the child’s eyes shone with innocent trust that he would not brush her aside like so many others had already done.
Giles bought two apples and slowed to hand one to Cecily, his gaze lingering on hers for a few precious moments.
She bit into the tart fruit, a rush of sweetness countering the sharpness, licking the juice from her lips. Giles swallowed and took the lead again.
Cecily smiled. She thought she now knew Giles better than he knew himself. He’d had so many women throwing themselves at him that he could not separate love from the physical act. So she had made sure he connected the two with her. That one had been easy enough for her to rectify, although she still flushed at the way she had fondled him so boldly.
Still, just because she drove him mad with physical desire did not mean he could admit to loving her. She didn’t know how long it might take for him to realize his need to protect her stemmed from that emotion.
Or did it?
Cecily shook her head, the hood of her cloak slipping down off her mobcap. No, she would not doubt herself anymore. Hadn’t she held back her feelings for years because of the mistaken idea that he would reject her again? She had thought she was not attractive enough for him. What an illuminating experience to discover that he felt he wasn’t good enough forher. She had only to fully convince him she cared little about the social positions that separated them.
Cecily pocketed the core of her apple to give to Belle later, and smiled at her own confidence. She was no longer that woman who had once hid in her little village. She had become someone who could endure the hardships of the real world to find her father.
The crowds thinned as they reached the edge of the city, stately mansions replacing the brownstone shops. Gems glittered in the very bricks of the homes, winking in a myriad of colors. Statues carved of crystal into the shapes of animals and birds glowed softly from cornices above, and beside the stairs of grand entrances below. Lions roared, dragons spread their wings, and gargoyles leered.
It seemed that the cities had grown more brilliant the farther they rode into the interior of Stonehame, their construction enhanced by the local crystal called from the depths by La’laylia of Stonehame, the crystal itself often colored and striated with vibrant hues. Cecily could not imagine what Stonehame Palace might look like, for Giles had told her it had been crafted entirely of amethyst.
At first it felt odd to see a crystal spire jutting from the middle of a swath of grassland, but Cecily had become accustomed to it the farther they had traveled into the sovereignty. But the mountain of stone that came into view once they’d cleared the buildings of the city astonished her.
Gray clouds moved over the skies, covering the brief morning sunshine, but even in that dimness the mountain of crystal blazed, as if it possessed some inner light. It sat in the middle of a field of tall grass, the enormous base of it a cluster of square-shaped stones angling inward toward the top into four-sided capped spires.
“Oh, dear,” muttered Cecily.
A river ran straight to the base of it, and they rode parallel alongside. Belle snorted at the tall grass that swished against her belly, the much taller Apollo eyeing her with a merry gleam as he stepped lightly over the growth.
“Do you hear that?” asked Giles.
Cecily cocked her head. The river gurgled beside them, the grass rustled in the rising wind of the coming storm, the leather of their saddles creaked, and from far away, she could hear the faint sounds of the city. And between and betwixt those soft noises shivered a song that she couldn’t quite catch the tune of.
“It’s the mountain,” she replied. “The crystal is singing.”
Giles nodded, pressing on a bit faster, the song becoming louder the closer they came to the mountain, until it nearly set Cecily’s teeth on edge when they reached the base of it.
She soon became accustomed to it though as Giles made his way round the big pile of rock. They came to the river again on the other side of it, for the water seemed to flow directly under the mountain. They searched for a shallow place to cross, then continued their journey back to the river across from where they started.
Giles dismounted and placed his hand against the smooth wall, snatching it away in surprise before holding it up again. Cecily dismounted and followed his lead, but when she felt the vibration of the stone beneath her palm she did not start, for his reaction had prepared her.
“It shivers with its song.”
“Aye.” Giles stepped back and craned his neck upward. “But it can’t be alive, despite appearances to the contrary.”
Cecily wasn’t so sure, but Giles had proven to be extraordinarily intelligent as well as beautiful, and she trusted his judgment. She stroked the smooth, cold stone, trying to peer into it, for it had a cloudy translucence to it that made her think if she looked hard enough, she could make out the shapes beneath the surface.
“It’s going to be hell trying to climb this,” said Giles. “I don’t see any hand- or footholds, but I suppose the stone may be soft enough to chip my own.”
“I don’t think this is ordinary quartz. I don’t think it will be possible for you to break it.”
As if she’d challenged him to do it, Giles tossed her a cocky grin and pulled his sword from his scabbard, whipping it about his head in a completely joyful show of bravado, and jabbed it point-first at the stone.
The mountain shuddered, its song turning into a discordant whine, and they both covered their pointed ears until the sound stopped.
“What the devil,” growled Giles.
Cecily lowered her hands. “I wonder how Thomas managed it?”
“There has to be a way—stop it, you stupid hunk of iron.” Giles wrestled with his blade, which appeared to be intent on plunging itself back into his scabbard.
“I think your sword agrees with me that it cannot break the stone. Let it be, Giles, before it lops your leg off.”
“Coward,” he accused, allowing it to slam back into its sheath.
“It didn’t appear frightened. More like… indignant.”
Giles frowned. “It’s an enchanted blade. I have seen it turn stone to rubble.”
“But this mountain may be enspelled by Lady La’laylia to protect Sebastian’s grave.” Cecily’s heart soared. “Which means Thomas may have found it.”
“If he managed to find a way in. I don’t think any sort of tool will dent this thing.” He slapped the wall.
Cecily took a few paces and then turned, craning her neck upward. Nothing but a bare expanse of smooth rock until near the top, where one crystal formation met another. “I do not see how Thomas could climb this. And we saw no cave or opening.” She refused to believe that her father had given up or had died trying.
“It makes me wonder about the death song,” said Giles.
“What death song?”
Giles leaped to her side. “A cobbler said he heard the crystal sing a death song, but the townspeople wouldn’t explain what it means. I gather they live in fear of something within the mountain.”
“This happened at the time my father was here?”
“You are quick, Cecily. Yes. But we can’t assume that there is a connection to Thomas.”
Giles shook his white-blond hair. “No.”
“But it could mean that he found a way inside.”
“I don’t see how.”
They stared in awe at the height of the massive stone. Then Giles reached out and smoothed the hair away from her cheek, for the wind had risen and tossed it about. Cecily suppressed a smile of triumph. For days now, she had been the one to bridge the physical distance between them.
“You do think Thomas found a way inside,” she accused. “You just don’t want me to worry.”
His hand strayed to her shoulder and rested there. “It is impossible that Thomas managed to scale this mountain, and we can’t even be sure he tried. Perhaps he came across some new clue that led him in another direction. I just think we need more information. Perhaps the Rebellion has some documents in their library about this mountain—or perhaps we should go back and speak to Professor Higley again.”
“That would take too long,” she protested, trying to think despite the distraction of his nearness. “I do not know where Father is sending me those messages from but it cannot be a good place.”
A raindrop pelted her on the cheek, and they both glanced skyward. The gray clouds had turned a smoky black, and they would be drenched before they made it back to the city.
Cecily strode to the river, leaned forward in a crouch, and trickled her fingers in the shallows, scattering tiny minnows. Her gaze followed the current to the base of the crystal, where it seemed to flow into the very stone itself. But surely it discharged into some fissure or cavern, perhaps far beneath the rock. “If we cannot find a way in from above, perhaps we can from below.”
Giles had trailed her, his green eyes narrowing as his gaze followed hers. He quickly discerned her thoughts. “No man can survive that long under water.”
“But I can.”
“No. No, Cecily, I forbid it.”
“You forbid… Giles, I think you are taking this protection thing a wee bit too far.”
He folded his arms across his chest and scowled. “I cannot follow you in there. Therefore, you cannot go. It seems logical enough to me.”
The rain started to come down in earnest now, plastering Cecily’s cap atop her head, streaming down the corners of Giles’s hat. She rose and tore off her cloak. “There is no danger to me. If the water does not resurface somewhere under the mountain, I will just swim through to the other side. You know I cannot drown and the water will aid me in whatever way I desire.”
“On the contrary. You do not have gills. I admit you can stay under for hours, but you have your limits.”
Cecily yanked off her mobcap, quickly shed the pins from her hair, placing them in the ruffled cloth for safekeeping. “Giles, you know good and well it’s near impossible for me to drown. What is the real reason for your stubbornness? Afraid you might miss out on some adventure?”
His lip crooked, a devilishly handsome expression that made her insides flutter. “That’s only asmallpart of it.”
Cecily grinned back at him, unbuttoning her riding coat. “Most likely there will be no way in from beneath. But I promise to give you all of the details should I indeed find Sebastian’s grave.” She untied her skirt and petticoat, and they dropped with a heavy squish. She discarded her shoes and rolled off her hose, but the look on Giles’s face made her leave on her stays and chemise.
Hungry, she decided. He looked very hungry.
He licked rainwater from his lips and muttered, “I still think this is a bad idea.”
“Lady Cassandra would not have sent me after my father unless she felt my magic would help find him. Ineedto do this.”
And before he could say another word she ran into the water, and with a final leap, reached the center of the river and dove.
The storm had robbed the river of enough sunshine to light the murky depths, and Cecily swam in near darkness. Slick scales brushed her arms and legs more than once, and her toes brushed the top of river grass, but when the current increased she swam in a dark void of nothingness. And then fell over some precipice and tumbled down, down, into the very deepest recesses of the earth.
Cecily used her fear to bolster her magic, gathering a shield of water to encapsulate her body, giving it strength by swirling the outer edges to protect herself from jagged walls or rocky outcroppings.
And still she dropped, the current tossing her around until her head swam with dizziness.
Then she thought she leveled out for a moment before the current pushed her upward, her shield springing against the force of one obstruction after another, unable to fatally injure her, but battering her about nonetheless.
Perhaps Giles had been right. Perhaps this had been a bad idea.
But she allowed the water to take her where it would, keeping her eyes open for the least glimmer of light.
It came in the form of a murky sort of grayness.
At the same time, she felt her stomach fly up into her throat as the upward motion suddenly ceased and she dropped down again, and then spun in a circle. Cecily swam upward, dropping her shield as she broke the surface of the water with a gasp of relief. She swam out of the small whirlpool and wrapped her arms about a jutting rock, looking up at the crystal spires of a large cavern.
She closed her eyelids to steady her vision for a moment, for she felt as if she still spun in circles. Then opened them again.
To her right lay the floor of the cavern, more spires creating a sort of maze across the surface, in places meeting the spires that grew downward from the ceiling above.
The cavern glowed with an eerie sort of light, and when she hauled herself out of the water and rested a moment against one of those crystal pillars, she felt the vibrations of the stone mountain.
Cecily sighed with relief. That wild journey could have brought her anywhere, into some subterranean depth of tunnels and caverns, instead of her hoped-for destination. Or she could have bypassed the interior of the mountain completely, appearing on the other side.
Her gaze went to the pool in the floor, to the whirlwind of water that gushed a fountain in the middle of it. She’d been spat out like a cork from a champagne bottle.
The outer edges of the whirlpool broke away, flowing to the other side of the cavern before disappearing beneath a rocky outcropping, presumably continuing on to form the river on the other side of the mountain. She hoped the journey would not be as difficult going out as it had been coming in.
But enough. Cecily ran her hands down her clothing and hair, shedding the water. She must hurry, or no telling what Giles would do. He might attempt to follow her, and he would never survive that journey. She would trust his good sense only so far, especially when it came to protecting her.
Her lips curved upward as she wove a way through the crystal spires.
To her surprise she quickly came to an opening, and when she ducked through it, a flat expanse of crystal spread out before her, open to the sky above.
Cecily would give much to see this place in the sunlight. Even with the gray skies the floor glowed like some ethereal hall of a mythical god, catching what meager light it could and tossing it from one crystal surface to another, lighting the soaring columns that surrounded the open space.
Cecily squinted. Something stood in the middle of this great expanse. A small building, like a garden pavilion, but made of the same stone as the mountain. And beneath it a square shape…
She stepped out onto that smooth surface and soon became drenched yet again, but this time from the rain. It fell in sheets, obscuring her vision, so she could not quite make out what lay beneath that pavilion until she reached it.
A box of stone. No, a coffin.
Cecily dried herself yet again, staring in wonder about the pavilion, which was decidedly larger than it had looked at a distance. Statues had been carved to form the pillars that supported the roof. A gryphon with beak opened in a scream of rage stood next to a hydra with multiple heads that sported needle-sharp teeth. An ogre with eyes of amethyst stood sentinel on the other side. A demon crouched, a centaur reared, a hellhound snarled… all of them in protective stances as guardians of the coffin.
And they had failed.
Cecily stepped closer to the coffin, watching her footing, for shards of crystal lay scattered about. Several cracks marked the top of the coffin’s surface, and on the other side it had been shattered asunder, revealing a skeleton draped in cloth of gold.
The carvings of the guardians sported cracks as well, and the entire back side of them had been shattered as thoroughly as the coffin. Oddly enough, the inside of those pillars held a hollow shape of the creature that had been carved on the outside of it.
Someone had found Sebastian’s coffin… or someone’s coffin, since the appearance of the corpse certainly did not look youthful, as the professor had described. But perhaps Sebastian had aged to normal when his ring had been removed?
With a shudder that carried to the soles of her feet, she searched within the cloth of gold, which crumbled at her touch, and around the skeleton, which she feared would sit up at any moment and strangle her.
But she could not find a ring. And her certainty that it had been her father who had found this grave, and had somehow managed to shatter the crystal that Giles’s sword could not, steadily grew within her.
“Father,” she finally said, “you took it, didn’t you?”
As if in reply, the rain abruptly ceased.
Cecily could not stop trembling. She must get away from this place. The ogre kept staring at her with accusing eyes, and the hydra looked as if it would slither forward and rip her apart with those sharp teeth. She turned and hurried back across the crystal hall toward the entrance to the cavern, heedless to use her magic to clear a path, her feet splashing through the puddles, her steps purposeful to avoid slipping on the wet surface.
The rain had stopped but the wind had not, for it took the song of the mountain and amplified it, until it almost sounded like words now accompanied the tune.
She came to an abrupt stop, her feet slipping out from under her, and went sliding across the smooth crystal, bumping up against one of those soaring columns. She sat up slowly, her backside aching, and used the column for support to rise.
That voice. It had sung her name. And it had sounded like—
She felt the song, too, this time, within the vibrations of the stone beneath her palm. “Father?”
Could he be using the crystal as a voice? Didn’t one of the traders tell her it was a natural conductor of sound and vibration?
“Where are you?” she cried.
Cecily felt the answer vibrate against her hand, but could not make out the words. She set her ear against the column.
“You were with me. Why did you not stay?”
“When? Where? What do you mean?”
She slapped the stone in frustration. “I cannot hear you.”
“Just tell me how to find you!”
No. She could not have heard right. Her father wasn’t dead; she knew it in her heart. And he certainly would not be in hell. He was the bravest, kindest, most heroic man she would ever have the privilege to know.
Cecily closed her eyes, but still the tears leaked from beneath her lids. “Father,” she moaned.
And then faintly. So faintly that at first she couldn’t be sure that she’d made out the words of the tune.
Cecily angrily dashed the tears from her face. Hell. And seven corners. The last place Thomas’s vision had appeared to her had been in that forest of wild magic. Could he have actually been within that chaotic place?
“Father, do you mean the Seven Corners of Hell? Is that where you’ve been imprisoned all this time?”
“How is that possible?”
She waited with bated breath, her ear smashed as hard against the stone as she could manage. But she heard no more words within the mountain’s song, just the rhythmic tune of the gentle breeze that now swirled about her.
Cecily tarried as long as she could, hoping he would speak to her again. But she could not forget Giles. If she took too long, he would come after her, even if it meant he would drown.
The thought of his lifeless body spurred her to action, and she retraced her path through the cavern, getting lost only once, with the sound of the water leading her back to the whirlpool. She dove beneath the overhang, letting the current carry her on a wild journey yet again. She hoped Giles had thought to wait for her on the other side of the mountain, where the water emerged. For if not, she would have to trudge around the crystal, and exhaustion overwhelmed her by the time she reached the gently flowing river.
She should not have doubted him.
Cecily’s head broke the surface of the water; she blinked, and saw him standing on the riverbank beneath the gray skies, the rain having let up. She had never been so glad to see him, despite the anger that tightened his mouth. But when she trudged through the shallows, weariness dogging her steps, his expression changed.
She stumbled over a loose stone and he leaped across the distance separating them, catching her in his arms. Giles dragged her up his body and stared into her eyes. “Don’t you ever leave me like that again.”
And then his warm mouth met hers, and she threw her arms about him and returned his kiss with all the newfound confidence she possessed. He kissed her with a desire that warmed her blood, his lips so smooth and firm, his arms like a gentle band of steel about her. He smelled of rain and damp wool, tasted like water fresh from a spring.
He set her down reluctantly, staring again into her eyes. Cecily saw something within those depths. Something different that reached out to her very soul and made whatever barriers standing between them seem trifling.
“Come,” he said, swooping her up in his arms and carrying her back to land.
He had found a tree to shelter the horses, far off to her left, but had apparently sought no such covering for himself. She saw the muddy path he had worn along the edge of the river from his pacing.
Cecily touched his sodden hair. Had he stood in the rain the entire time while he waited for her? “But don’t you want to know what happened?”
“No. Not now.”
He helped her into her clothing and Cecily accepted his assistance, used her magic to dry the material, doing the same for him with a sweep of her hand. Giles crooked a brow at her, his look telling her he realized she did not need to fondle his clothing to dry it, but when he would have smiled at the innocent look she gave him in return, he did not. The intensity of the emotion that had taken hold of him would not allow it.
His strength had always impressed her, but never more so than at this moment, when he leaped into Apollo’s saddle, still holding her in his arms. He ignored her protests that she felt perfectly capable of riding her own horse.
They rode silently back to town, Giles cradling her against him. After all the distances they had traveled, the short trip back to the inn felt the longest of them all. For his determination lay in his eyes, in his gentle but firm arms, in the stubborn set of his jaw.
Cecily shivered, but not with the cold. Anticipation thrummed through her veins, banishing any lingering tiredness and making her acutely aware of his every move.
Giles had come to a decision.
When they reached the inn, he slid from their mount and set her on her feet, his warm hand firmly grasping hers. He bowed. “My lady, may I escort you inside?”