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Authors: Jeff Wheeler

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BOOK: The Scourge of Muirwood
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“Pasqua,” Lia said archly, “there are no promises made to either one of us. Please do not speak of children before any man has even plighted his troth.”

Pasqua gave her a smile with a glint of teasing in it. “Many of the noble born marry at your age, child. Some even younger are married as children. Since two young nobles are interested in you both, do not dismiss my words too hastily. I should have shooed them both away with a broom instead of encouraging them with Gooseberry Fool. I love Muirwood. There is no other place that is home to me…save where you two are. You are my daughters, after all, in every way except birth. But considering the pain and trouble you have both put me through so often, would a true mother have suffered more than I?” She grinned at them, tears dropping from her lashes. She hugged them both, so fiercely it stole Lia’s breath for a moment.

“Have a care,” Pasqua whispered, and kissed Lia soundly. “Did you remember the orb?”

Lia had forgotten it. “Thank you,” she said gratefully and took another bite while she fetched the orb from behind the secret stone where she hid it. Then fetching and donning her cloak, she took one last Muirwood apple from the basket and wrapped it in oilcloth to protect it. She intended it as a gift for Colvin. She finished the meal and then bid Pasqua and Sowe farewell and took her leave of the kitchen.

Kieran Ven waited in the shadows outside. The grounds were thick with morning mist which would help hide their departure.

“You dawdle,” he said stiffly, walking briskly towards the Abbey. “Most ships begin to leave at dawn. There is an Abbey on the eastern side of Comoros that is near the docks. Hurry lass or we lose another day.”

“The hunter is patient,” Lia reminded him.

“I have patiently limited my scolding to your punctuality. We will discuss your other failings later.”

Lia chuckled to herself and thought he was a rather petulant man. “Please, do not spare my feelings. I am quite used to my faults being pointed out by complete strangers.”

“I am not trying to insult you.”

“Nor are you complimenting me.” Lia stopped and stared at him. “My leg is throbbing already. I understand the urgency, Kieran. But I cannot walk as quickly as you right now.”

“My apologies,” he said, bowing his head deftly. “At your pace then.”

Lia continued walking and approached the Abbey which rose before them like a mountain of stone. The flowers from the grounds were a gentle reminder that she had packed a bunch of purple mint in her rucksack as well. She craved seeing Colvin again and wondered how long it would take to reach Dochte Abbey.

“Where is the Queen Dowager being kept?” Kieran asked softly. His gaze wandered the grounds around them quickly, zigzagging from bench to tree to flowerbed as if every shrub held a threat.

“There is a guest house on the opposite end of the Abbey. She is under guard night and day.”

Kieran pursed his lips. “She should be executed and her head delivered to her brother in a basket.”

Lia stared at him in shock. “That is cruel.”

He shook his head. “The world she manipulates is cruel. The destruction of the Blight is a result of her actions and the actions of those like her. An Evnissyen advises. Sometimes we do what must be done. If a king must die to save his people, then so be it. With her death, it removes the Dahomeyjan king’s pretext for war. It forces him to react rather than us. Demont is bold, but he is too merciful. Here we are.”

They had reached the door of the Abbey. “Have you crossed the Apse Veil before on your own?” he asked her.

She shook her head.

“Then I will go first and then bring you across. That is the way it is done.”

“I understand.”

As they started up towards the archway and the door, it opened from the inside and a knight-maston emerged, his face red from running. His eyes were wild with intensity.

“What news?” Lia asked, for they were blocking the way out.

He was panting and sagged back against the archway. “You are the Aldermaston’s hunter. I recognize you. I seek Demont, but you can tell your master.” He wiped his mouth on his arm. “The Earl of Dieyre escaped Pent Tower last night. The bells are ringing throughout Comoros. They say he is bound for Dahomey, that a ship was waiting for him. He swore he would return with an army and execute every maston for treason.”

Lia felt a spasm of fear strike through her. The Earl of Dieyre was Colvin’s sworn enemy. Since his capture after the battle, he had refused to reveal where he had hidden Colvin’s sister, Marciana. Lia had promised Colvin before he left that she would use the orb to find her.

They let the knight-maston pass who ran through the fog towards the manor house.

“If you are a maston, can you read Pry-rian?” Lia asked Kieran. She could not read, because it was not allowed at Muirwood.

He nodded.

She withdrew the Cruciger orb from the pouch at her belt. His eyes narrowed as he stared at it.
Find Marciana Price
, she thought. The pointers on the orb began to spin and whirl. It pointed southeast, towards the king’s city. A single word appeared on the lower half of the orb, written in the slanted scrawl of the Pry-rian language.

Kieran looked at it and then stared at her. “Who were you searching for?” he asked her. “Dieyre?”

“What does it say?”

“Comoros.”

 

 

CHAPTER FOUR:
Comoros

 

 

Lia felt the Medium engulf her like a flood as she gripped Kieran’s hand and he pulled her through the Apse Veil. It was a dizzying rush, a swirl of color and sound and then a violent shudder as if her insides were wrenched apart and then thrust back together. As she stumbled through on the other side, she staggered and nearly fell, overwhelmed with the sensation. The Medium was a power she respected, though she still did not fully understand it. For most of her life, she had felt it strongly without even realizing its subtle influence. But it was not until she passed through the Apse Veil into Comoros did she realize how strongly it was felt in Muirwood. In Comoros, the whisper of it was nearly gone.

Lia choked. The air was thick with smoke and sour with the stench of filth. Even deep within an Abbey, the smell was blinding in its intensity. There was but a little spark of the Medium, a dull throb that was painfully unnoticeable.

“Where are we?” Lia said, wrinkling her nose and feeling the first throbs of worry.

“Claredon Abbey,” Kieran said. “Near the docks of Pent Tower, as luck would have it. There are ships there ready to sail to Dahomey.” He parted the Apse Veil for her to let her pass first.

She crossed the curtain which did not glow as it did in Muirwood. Looking back, she saw seven Leerings carved into stone pillars. It was the same seven themes she had seen before, but the workmanship was different. A bearded man. One of a lion, another of a sheep. Another of a snake, which made her pause as she thought of the Leering she had seen in her mind during the vision. She also noticed one with a blazing sun and another of a twisting vine, with flowers and leaves. The last, a bull with horns. The worksmanship was different but still beautiful. The seven aspects of Idumea, another world that existed far away – a world where the city-gardens of the Idumeans beckoned all mastons.

They left the Abbey and Lia stopped short at the whirl and commotion of Comoros. The Abbey was small, unlike Muirwood, and it was on the eastern outskirts of the infamous city. The gates were barred but the porter opened for them without question, since only mastons could travel the Apse Veils. The porter was an older man with silver hair, crooked teeth, and a pleasant smile.

“Any travelers from Dahomey recently?” Lia asked him on a whim, pausing to touch his arm.

His smile wrinkled into a pursed grimace. “Not in a long while, girl. The Dochte Mandar do not allow it.”

“Who?” Kieran asked.

“The Dochte Mandar. Be wary of them, mastons.” Lia did not understand the word, but nodded and was about to move on, but the porter grabbed her sleeve. “The person you seek is at Lambeth Manor.”

Lia startled and stared at him in confusion.

He bunched up his mouth into a frown and nodded. “I have lived here a good many years. I was abandoned as a wretched and chose to stay to fulfill my vow. I was shown great kindness by a noble prince once. A noble prince who came down that road yonder, paused on his horse and paid me a gold sovereign. He said a girl would come through Claredon with hair like yours. That was a long time ago. I had forgotten it until just now. Something made me remember. The Medium, no doubt. There you have it. My message is delivered. Now I can spend the gold crown.”

Lia felt the tiniest throb. She took the old porter’s hand and squeezed it. He opened the gate and let them pass into the wild throngs filling the street beyond.

“What was that?” Kieran said, his brows knitting together. “Who do you seek?”

“We must go to Lambeth first,” Lia said.

“Whatever for?”

Someone bumped into Lia from behind, nearly knocking her over. The street was teeming with travelers and carts. The gutters were choked with manure and mud. Kieran grabbed her arm and pulled her with him, walking southward. “You must walk quickly in this city. Do not gawk so. Who is at the Lambeth?”

“A person I came here to find,” Lia answered.

He gave her a sharp look of incredulity. “Do you have any idea how many people live here? There are three dozen Abbeys alone, I think, just serving Comoros. You think you can find a single person?”

“Yes, I can,” Lia said. “I have the orb.”

“Think, girl. If you pull it out, you will have every thief in Comoros with knowledge of it before the midday bells toll. Keep your hand around it. There are cutpurses everywhere.”

“You said you have been here,” she asked, growing annoyed at his tone.

“I have,” he answered. “I hate it. Do you see that fortress? We are not even inside the city gates right now. Pent Tower is the castle keep and the royal manor that protects the king’s family and guards the king’s enemies. Are you seeking Dieyre? He is an enemy to us.”

Lia shook her head violently. “He is the last man I want to see.”

“All the better, for his reputation is known in Pry-Ree. Whom do you seek?”

“Someone he abducted.
I made a promise, Kieran.
The orb said I would find her here. And the porter said where.”

He grabbed her arm and steered her against the wall before a cart crashed into them. The jolt of it stunned her. A swarm of flies buzzed about her face and she shuddered. She was used to the moors and wilderness, not this hive of movement. She felt the Myriad Ones thronging them, but taking no notice.

He was tall and looked down at her with fury. “We must catch a boat to Dahomey today,” he said, his teeth gritting with frustration.

“I am not stopping you,” she replied evenly, looking into his eyes with determination.

“Martin said you must come.”

“I do not obey orders from Martin,” she said. “Or from you. I obey the Aldermaston of Muirwood.”

He shook his head, obviously biting his tongue. “Muirwood is a bit far. You used me to cross here. You said nothing of this other person when we left.”

“And you have told me all of your secrets?” Lia replied. “Are we going to stand here bickering in the street for much longer? The day is wasting.”

“I hate this city,” he replied, his teeth clenching. His look was full of loathing.

“It will not take long before I share your sentiment. Go on without me then. But I will likely find Martin before you will.
After
my errand is done.”

He snorted, hands planted on his hips in frustration. He glanced at her, as if judging whether he should simply truss her up and carry her to the docks. “You are still limping. I cannot abandon you in a place like this.”

“I can take care of myself,” Lia said evenly.

Kieran whirled and grabbed a man toting a cart. The man spluttered with surprise, his face twisting with anger. “My pardon, good sir. Where is Lambeth? What part of the city?”

“Oy, you are a rude sort!”

“Oy, where is Lambeth?” Kieran repeated, his face a mask of anger. He seemed to take the other man’s temperament and adapt it to himself immediately, like changing his shirt.

The carter nodded towards the road ahead. “Across the bridge. In the Stews.” He looked at Lia and his face twisted into a sickening smile – a leer. “She will fetch a decent price. Even with that awful tangle of hair. The Stews, have at it, and leave me be!”

 

* * *

 

There was no way to describe the king’s city Comoros – no words fitting or suitable to a girl raised in the shelter of Muirwood. It was, Lia decided, the worst place in the world. The streets were narrow and sliced this way and that, the buildings crammed and topped and then crammed and topped more until the roofs seemed to sway in the wind. Laundry clothes were hung from poles in the windows to dry. The streets were caked with filth and the air was rancid. It was busy and violent. Once she thought she saw a knight-maston weaving through the crowd, but he covered his sword with his hand to hide the insignia. Just when Lia thought it could get no worse, they reached the bridge that straddled the mighty river and crossed it into the Stews and Lia realized that life on the other side was even worse.

BOOK: The Scourge of Muirwood
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