Authors: Shae Ford
Slight and Shadow
By Shae Ford
Text copyright © 2013 by Shae Ford
All Rights Reserved.
For my beautiful cousin, Bayleigh:
We watched you grow into a loving and confident young woman,
and now you watch us from above.
You are our angel, our guiding light,
and we love you with all of our hearts.
Table of Contents
Prologue: Only a Messenger
Chapter 1: Two Thieves
Chapter 2: The Endless Plains
Chapter 3: Knotter
Chapter 4: The Black Beast
Chapter 5: A Fool’s Help
Chapter 6: Mage Studies
Chapter 7: The Lion and the Chandelier
Chapter 8: Gilderick the Gruesome
Chapter 9: The Head of an Arrow
Chapter 10: No Ordinary Killer
Chapter 11: Arabath
Chapter 12: Minceworms
Chapter 13: Lord of Southbarn
Chapter 14: By Way of a Giant
Chapter 15: The Scepter Stone
Chapter 16: Abomination
Chapter 17: A Dagger in the Back
Chapter 18: A Giant’s Thanks
Chapter 19: The Grandmot
Chapter 20: Cave Trolls
Chapter 21: Nakedness
Chapter 22: Holey Roofs
Chapter 23: Scalybones
Chapter 24: A Warning
Chapter 25: A Flock of Crows
Chapter 26: A Good Hawk
Chapter 27: A Monster in the Shallows
Chapter 28: None Other Than Love
Chapter 29: Dante
Chapter 30: The Razor’s Edge
Chapter 31: The Spring Sniffles
Chapter 32: Across the Threshold
Chapter 33: Unwary Revelers
Chapter 34: Lake of Fire
Chapter 35: If
Chapter 36: The Baron’s Castle
Chapter 37: The Queen of all Minceworms
Chapter 38: The Sowing Moon
Chapter 39: The Dark Rider
Chapter 40: A Bright Light
Chapter 41: Where All Men Fall
Chapter 42: Squirming Hope
Chapter 43: A Battle for the Plains
Chapter 44: Into the Keep
Chapter 45: The Only Death to Fear
Chapter 46: Braver
Chapter 47: An Unexpected Thing
Chapter 48: A New Plan
Only a Messenger
It was the quiet hour before dusk. The sun slid between the horizon and the westward sky, moving as surely as an assassin’s blade through flesh. And for a moment, the whole Kingdom was colored in red.
Winter was fading, spring was fast on its heels, and green, furled leaves had begun sprouting across the Grandforest’s tallest limbs. Soon, the air would be filled with the songs of birds, and the ice covering the horses’ water would finally melt on its own. But most importantly, the roads would be packed with merchants once again.
For one particular merchant, spring couldn’t come fast enough. He’d just barely escaped the dinner table with his hide intact — and if he wanted to keep it that way, he knew he had to move quickly. He shuffled through a darkened hallway, nodding distractedly to the servants as he went, before he finally made it into the safety of his office. He closed the heavy oaken doors behind him and breathed a sigh of relief.
It was a small room: a desk, a chair, and a roaring hearth were about all that would fit into it. But it was sanctuary, nonetheless.
This was the one point in the Kingdom where the worries of the earth couldn’t touch him. It was very likely that his wife nagged on, that she was still ranting to whoever would listen about how she’d have to run the house
all on her own
for the whole trade season. But in the heart of his office, he couldn’t hear her. Nothing could trouble him — not even the grumblings of the servants, or the bickering of his sons.
No, the only sound was of the fire popping merrily in the hearth, and the only troubles were the sort that money could solve.
A pile of letters awaited him on his desk, and he’d been looking forward to opening them all day. He settled himself at his chair and retrieved a small, hand-carved box from his top desk drawer. It had been designed for quill and ink, but he’d gotten far more use out of it as a snuffbox. He tucked his pipe where the quill was supposed to fit, and in place of an inkwell was a packet of his favorite cherry tobacco.
He stuffed his pipe with a generous helping of the tobacco and traveled to the hearth to light it. Only when the air was sufficiently filled with the sweet aroma of the smoke did he open a letter.
This was how he preferred to spend his evenings: smoking, reading, and thinking. He read the message of the first letter — which was all business, mind you. There was absolutely no bickering and
weepy wives. The letter had come from a shopkeeper in Whitebone, who claimed that the Baron’s craftsmen had raised their prices once again. And he wanted to renegotiate their bargain to make up for the expense.
The merchant chuckled to himself as he dipped his quill in ink.
My dear fellow,
, if we haggled every time the Baron upped the charge on his trinkets, we’d never make a deal. No, I’m afraid I must be quite firm on the previous price —
The tail of Randall’s
went shooting off across the page as he jerked. When he saw the figure standing before the window, his pipe nearly fell out of his mouth.
She looked like a highwayman, with her light armor and the mask that covered the lower half of her face. The armor was stained black and very well-made — the workmanship was nothing like the common bandit could’ve afforded. She wore a short, red skirt over the top of her leggings, and the color matched the scarf behind her mask.
She might have been pretty. Her black hair, which hung loose to just past her shoulders, was so clean that it shined in the firelight. And her figure was certainly promising. But what little Randall could see of her face put any such thoughts straight out of his mind.
Her dark brows were so low that they nearly touched the tops of her eyes, and they were set at such an angle that it gave her a glaring look — one that made her stare all the more potent.
“What — what's the meaning of this?” Randall demanded, taking his pipe away so that he could frown at her properly. “Who are you?”
“Hmm,” the woman murmured. She drew a small square of parchment from under the collar of her jerkin and opened it. After a quick glance, her eyes locked onto his once again. “You
Randall of Oakloft, are you not?”
“I am,” he snapped, thrusting the pipe back into his mouth.
“Then I should think my meaning would be quite clear. I've come on behalf of Countess D’Mere.”
again. Well, he wasn’t going to put up with it any longer — he was going to make himself very clear, this time. Randall took a long, steadying drag on his pipe. “This is about that blasted river bridge, isn't it?” When the woman nodded, he took another puff. “Well, I've already told her: I don't care if her convoys have to go a
miles out of their way — I won’t have her trying to widen my bridge. It’s good enough for my carts, and it should be good enough for hers.”
The woman said nothing; she stared in reply.
Randall was starting to feel a little lightheaded. He supposed it was just the stress of trying to keep his words civil. He breathed in another lungful of smoke … for his nerves. “She ruined the Williamsons’ land,” he went on, determined to make his point. “And she never got it fixed. So you'll forgive me if I don't want her workers hacking up my bridge —”
“I haven’t come to forgive you,” the woman said. Her voice was muffled behind the slits in her mask, but it made her words no less sharp. With one hand, she crumpled the parchment and flicked it into the fire.
Her meaning became clear.
“It’ll do you no good to murder me,” Randall growled. He was far more furious than scared. The audacity of it all — the sheer, open-ended audacity! He was so angry that he’d actually begun to sweat. He brushed the dew from across his forehead impatiently. “If I die, the whole estate goes to my wife — and she’d rather stick her hand in the furnace than let anything happen to that bridge. Her pap built it, and that’s all she’s got left of him.”
The woman’s dark eyes bent into crescent moons as she … smiled? He supposed that’s what she was doing. But with that mask in the way, he couldn’t be sure. The fumes from the smoke must’ve been burning his eyes. His sight was starting to blur.
“I’m not here to
you,” she said, as if it was a joke. “I’m only a messenger.”
“Oh, really?” Randall wiped furiously at his stinging eyes. “Then what’s …” he coughed to clear his throat, which suddenly felt tight, “what’s
all about?” he managed to sputter.
He waved at the deadly-looking blades she had strapped to each upper arm, and she touched one of them lightly. “They’re for my protection, Mr. Randall,” she said quietly. “The Kingdom is a dangerous place … especially for a lady. No, I haven’t come to kill you. And I haven’t come to forgive you. I’ve come only to ask you to reconsider.” She clasped her hands behind her back. “Will you sell your bridge to the Countess?”
“No,” Randall said firmly. He coughed again, and this time it took him several moments to get the words out: “No, I … won’t! Now get …” He coughed so violently that his pipe fell from his hand. It struck the desk, and the little glowing leaves spilled across its polished top. “Get … out of my … house!”
The woman nodded slightly. “As you wish.” She was halfway to the window when she paused and held up a finger — as if she’d forgotten something. She crossed back to the fire and dipped her hand beneath her collar once more. This time, she drew out a vial of clear liquid.
“You don’t mind, do you?” she said as she tossed the vial into the flames. “No, of course you don’t. Enjoy your evening, Mr. Randall.”
He heard the window open, but didn’t watch her slip outside — his eyes were on the vial.
He’d stopped coughing, but only because his lungs had swollen shut. He couldn’t catch his breath. The pressure in his head kept building. Randall realized that he wasn’t having a reaction to the smoke at all — he’d been poisoned!
The vial — the antidote — he had to get it.
He tumbled out of his chair, dragging himself a pitiful few feet. Then his limbs began to twitch, and his whole body went limp. He managed to raise his head one last time, seemed to try to urge himself forward … but couldn’t muster the strength. At last, Randall went still.
And the Countess’s message had been delivered.
Horatio put the letter down. He dabbed at the tears on his cheeks with a corner of his filthy apron, and smiled.
It seemed like only yesterday that Aerilyn was begging him to go off on a journey of her own. She was so wide-eyed, so wholly untouched by the world that Horatio had been reluctant to let her out of his sight. He didn’t think he could have ever let her go, had he not been so thoroughly convinced that Kyleigh could protect her.
When she’d sworn to keep Aerilyn safe, he’d believed her. He certainly wasn’t going to make a habit of trusting outlaws, but there was something in those strange, green eyes of hers that made Kyleigh trustworthy.
Well that, and he’d seen firsthand what she could do with a blade.
He picked up the letter again, sifting through the many pages that Aerilyn had managed to seal together for his favorite passage. It was hard to believe that the little girl who used to squeal about getting dirt on her hems had fought her way through a tempest — and a monstrous one, at that. But the picture Kael had drawn on the back of the page was very convincing.
The charcoal swirls of foamy waves and the jagged lines of lightening seemed to come alive on the parchment. They batted the tiny boat caught in the middle of them, ripped at her sails, tossed her about — and even though he knew how the story would end, Horatio found himself holding his breath.
For such a quiet boy, Kael certainly had a lot of talent.
No — Horatio was decidedly very happy for Aerilyn to be having her own adventure, and all seemed to be going well. The only truly troubling bit of news was how often this
fellow kept popping up in Aerilyn’s letter. He seemed to haunt every paragraph:
was so valiant as they sailed through the tempest; no finer
had ever lived; there was nothing the
And come to think of it, Horatio didn’t remember Aerilyn mentioning what it was that Lysander actually did. He flipped the page over and frowned at the portrait Kael had drawn of him. He was handsome, to be sure — but perhaps a little too roguish to be a merchant. There was something about his grin that made Horatio uneasy … almost like he should check his pocket for missing coin.
It was most troubling, indeed.
He was deep in speculation when the front door slammed open with such force that he nearly tumbled out of his chair. He heard footsteps racing down the hall and gathered his girth to meet them. “What in Kingdom’s name —?” Two boys turned the corner, struck Horatio’s ample belly, and went flying backwards. “Steady on, lads! What’s this all about?”
“It’s the Countess!” the elder boy, Chaney, said as he shoved his younger brother away from him.
“And she wants to see Garron!” Claude added as he managed to untangle himself from Chaney’s boots.
Horatio clutched his side. His gut was acting up again — a sign that trouble was about to cross his threshold. “Be off with you, lads. Go on — get back to your pap. And tell him not to come to the house until the Countess leaves.”
The brothers’ heads bobbed up and down as they tore off down the hall. When the back door slammed shut behind them, Horatio let some of the air out of his lungs. But it wasn’t long before he heard something that made his stomach throb once again:
Two pairs of quick, graceful steps — two pairs of slippers striking the polished oak floor. And they were heading directly for the study.
Horatio shoved Aerilyn’s letter to one corner of the desk and barely had a chance to turn around before the footsteps stopped.
Two women stood in the doorway: the first was a pretty young forest woman. Though she wore a tight-fitting red gown and lace, she stood with her legs splayed out — as if she was prepared to break her slippers on the shins of anyone foolish enough to attack her.
Her features were dainty, but her glare was not. The dark brows poised above her eyes matched the warning behind her stance. Horatio stood perfectly still as her gaze swept the room. When she was satisfied, she stepped to the side and allowed the second woman to pass through.
This woman was in her middle age, with long, golden-brown hair and eyes like ice. She carried herself in the same way a witch might have carried her impetus: moving gracefully, intentionally — and knowing full well the effects of the spell she cast.
Horatio’s mouth went dry as Countess D’Mere tugged the blue silk gloves from her hands, one finger at a time. Her full red lips pursed when she turned to look at the empty desk. The arch of her neck began an S that followed the curve of her back … and downward.
“Where is Garron?” she said.
Horatio jerked his gaze from the depths of her neckline, and found himself caught in the snare of her crystal blue eyes.
Worry throbbed in his gut. She hadn’t heard, then. He’d hoped the rumor would’ve reached her by now, if not by some loose-lipped sailor then by one of the other merchants. Every hold across the Grandforest had heard of Garron’s death … though he supposed no one wanted to be the man who broke that news to the Countess.
Now she was standing in Garron’s office, and Horatio knew he had no choice but to play the messenger.
He would have to choose his words carefully. If he didn’t, his life could end swiftly. Oh, she wouldn’t kill him immediately: the Countess was a patient woman. She might feign some emotion. She might laugh or purse her lips. Or she might keep her face as smooth as her skin. He didn’t know.
He wouldn’t know until nightfall whether or not she was displeased. Even then, it would happen subtly — maybe as he drank his wine at dinner. Or perhaps he would fall asleep, never to rise again. These were the sorts of things that had happened to the other merchants. In taverns all across the realm, the truth was a dark joke:
If a dozen men died in the Grandforest, Countess D’Mere was behind roughly eleven of them.
As much as Horatio didn’t want to speak, to keep the Countess waiting was just as dangerous. Somehow, he managed to pass the first sentence through his lips: “Have you not heard, My Countess?”
“Heard what?” she said, her voice suddenly as cold as her stare. “Speak up, cook. I haven’t got time for riddles.”
“Garron is slain.”
His words came out loudly, blurted above the noise of his pounding heart. He hadn’t meant to say it quite like that. And even after a long winter of mourning, the truth still stung his eyes.
The Countess spun to look at the desk once more — as if she expected to see Horatio proved wrong. As if she hoped to find Garron bent with his nose to his ledger, mumbling to himself as he once did, figuring the day’s profit. “I see,” she said after a moment. “If he
truly slain, would you mind telling me how it happened?”
Horatio told her everything he could remember about that horrible day in Bartholomew’s Pass. He told her about the monsters that had ambushed them — the twisted creatures that were half man and half wolf. He told her about how Garron rallied the men together and saved their lives with his cunning. He told her the truth: that Garron fought till the end.
When he was finished, D’Mere nodded stiffly. She sat down at the desk, running her hand across its polished top. She traced the ink spatters and the little scrapes left behind by Garron’s dagger — from the times when he’d opened a letter too zealously. She seemed to be thinking very intensely about something, and Horatio had begun to wonder if his next breath might be his last.
He was quite shocked when she suddenly burst into tears.
The sobs shook her shoulders. D’Mere clutched a hand over her face; the skin went white where her fingernails dug in. Her breath came out thickly and in sputters — like a man choking on his own blood.
Horatio didn’t know what to do. He glanced at the forest girl, who narrowed her eyes dangerously at him. So he kept his stare trained on the rug while the Countess collected herself.
It took her a moment to stop crying. But by the time she spoke again, all trace of sorrow was gone from her voice. “He died in battle,” D’Mere said matter-of-factly. Then she smirked. “I always thought it would be the tarts that finally did him in.”
Horatio returned her look with a cautious smile. “He
fond of a good pastry, My Countess. Especially the apple ones.”
“Yes, with the sugar glaze on top.” D’Mere’s smile vanished as quickly as it’d come. “There are monsters roaming the Valley, you say? Beasts more wolf than man?”
“Any idea where they might have come from?”
She was watching him, her eyes searching through the stubble and over every red blotch on his cheeks. But Horatio was no fool. He knew better than to tell the Countess that the wolves bore the mark of Midlan on their collars. To accuse the King of murder would earn him nothing but a trip to the hangman’s noose.
He cleared his throat and said carefully: “None, Countess.”
She watched him a moment more, her face completely smooth. Then she stood. “I just came to tell Gar … well, I’ve finally secured the purchase of Randall’s bridge. Once my men have it widened, it should cut a considerable few hours from your journey.”
Horatio was surprised. “
bridge? I didn’t think he’d ever sell it.”
D’Mere smirked. “I didn’t buy it from Randall — I bought it from his widow.”
“I see.” Horatio bowed as she swept by, but mostly it was to hide the worry on his face. “Much appreciated, My Countess. I’ll be sure to tell the men.”
As she turned to leave, Horatio glanced out the window at the falling sun. “It’ll be dark in another hour or so. Will you not break your journey here for the night, My Countess?”
D’Mere tugged her gloves back on, glaring at her hands. “No — thank you. I’m impatient to get back to my journey. I’m afraid there’s much to do.”
Horatio stood uncomfortably as she smoothed the wrinkles out of her skirt. A heavy silence hung between them. It was the same air that might’ve hung between two thieves on the morning after a heist — now that they were forced to walk the streets in the daylight, and step over the shattered glass they’d left behind.
Horatio wondered if he ought to say something … but in the end, he figured it was probably best to leave the buried things be.
He made to follow her to the door when the forest girl cut swiftly in front of him, shooting a warning look over her shoulder. Then D’Mere stopped abruptly in the doorway — and she had to come up on her tiptoes to keep from colliding with her back.
“What’s become of the girl?” D’Mere said without turning.
Horatio tried to keep things simple. “I sent Aerilyn on a journey with some friends to the High Seas, My Countess. She’s alive and well — and also quite taken with adventuring.”
D’Mere spun, her eyebrows raised. “Oh? And which friends are these? Not that horrible fiddler, I hope.”
“Eh, he’s among them. But the whole lot’s being watched over by a couple of fighters from the mountains.”
Her brows climbed higher. “The Unforgivable Mountains?”
“Yes,” Horatio said, wondering to himself what other mountains were worth talking about. “But she’s in excellent hands, I can promise you that. The redheaded fellow is a sure shot, and the young woman can wield a blade better than a warlord. Between the two of them, I don’t think there’ll be — Countess? Are you feeling all right?”
D’Mere’s face was suddenly the color of new-fallen snow. She gripped her middle and took an involuntary step backwards. “Yes, I’m fine,” she said after a moment, though her eyes seemed distant. “I suppose I’m just a little sore from traveling. The boy had red hair, you say? And what about the girl — what did she look like?”
Horatio sputtered a bit as he tried to find the words to describe her. “Ah, well, she wasn’t really
anyone I’ve ever seen, Countess. She had dark hair, green eyes — and the men spent more time staring at her than they did actually working.” When the color left her face completely, Horatio’s worry gave him the courage to speak. “What is it, My Countess? What’s gone wrong?”
But D’Mere didn’t reply. She turned and swept out of the room, the forest girl following close behind her.
Horatio listened to her footsteps as they went down the hall. The moment he heard the front door close, he stumbled over to the desk and collapsed in the chair, gripping his chest. It would be several long moments before his breathing steadied, and several moments more before the sick feeling in his gut stopped the bile from climbing up his throat.
But it would be many months before he found peace again. He didn’t know what that look on the Countess’s face had meant, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that he’d somehow put Aerilyn in danger.
It would haunt him day and night.
The carriage rolled for three miles down the road before D’Mere found her voice. “It’s her,” she said, more to herself than anybody. “Aerilyn travels with the Dragongirl.” The carriage bounced beneath her, jolting the end of her sentence.