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Authors: Angela Highland

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Enverly might have protested being assigned such a lowly duty as caring for the horses of the Hawks who’d arrested him, but it kept him more or less out of sight, and for that he was genuinely thankful.

More so, when he discovered that Captain Follingsen had taken his turn to watch him and Vaarsen and Valleford. The man gave him a canny, considering glance as he found him quietly brushing down the flanks of one of the horses. Follingsen lingered long enough, in fact, that Enverly turned away from the creature he’d been ordered to attend, and gave the man a long stare of his own.

You didn’t come to get me by Church orders
, he scratched out on the slate. Chalk and an expectant stare on his part were a poor substitute for what he should have been able to convey through tone alone. But they were all the voice he had at the moment, and he didn’t hesitate to use them.
Or the goodness of your heart.

“No, I didn’t. The Lady Khamsin sent us to retrieve you.” His mouth curling up on one end, Follingsen stepped in to join him by the horse, speaking softly now, so softly that the priest had to strain to hear him. “Her Grace charges me to tell you that she knows of certain plans that the duke had laid in motion, and that she intends to carry them through.”

Surprise and hope sparked in Enverly’s breast, enough that he let loose a hoarse little gargle of reaction before his will reasserted itself. His hands shook, and with a scowl, he held himself still until he could write again upon the slate without flaw.

We can’t discuss those plans here.

Follingsen was polite enough to ignore his lapse of composure—and thank the gods, had no pity in his eyes. If anything, his gaze burned with a religious fervor he rarely saw outside the Church. Even as Enverly swiftly wiped away his words on the slate before anyone else could come by and see, the guard captain drew forth the golden pendant he wore beneath his shirt, just far enough to let him glimpse the wheat and apple etched upon it.

“Hold fast,” he murmured. “The Hawks want to execute you, but Lady Khamsin has other plans. Nirrivy will rise again. You’ll still be a part of it.”

And for the first time since the disaster at Arlitham Abbey, Shaymis Enverly smiled.

Chapter Eight

Shalridan
,
Kilmerry Province
,
AC 1864

True to their promise, Moirae and Momus got Julian off his family’s lands. Soon after that, they escaped out of easy range of Dareli and the constabulary that policed the city along with the Hawks. He might have wondered exactly how a barely grown girl and her stripling brother could have pulled it off alone, but it quickly became apparent that they had support—and that their support had money. Moirae and Momus brought him laudanum for his injuries, a sling for his maimed arm, and bandages to wrap his head and cover the place where his eye had been. Once they’d taken him far enough, they handed him off to a farmer with a horse and cart. The farmer in turn entrusted him to a mail carrier, in whose carriage he huddled among burlap sacks of letters and wrapped packages of goods being shipped to the western provinces. After that, there was a brewer with a wagon filled with barrels of hops.

None of them offered Julian their names, or asked him for his own. Nor was he in any mood to identify himself. Marked as he was by his brother Cleon’s wrath, he was ready to abandon the name of Julian Nemeides entirely. But neither was he quite ready to accept so much aid without question, and so he asked the brewer her motive for giving him transport.

“Just the Mother’s own charity, sir,” the brewer replied, without a hitch in the attention she gave to the donkeys who pulled her wagon along. “You need to get from one point to another, and I can get you there.”

“Funny. The last two people I asked this said the exact same thing. A man might conclude you had something in common.”

The brewer slid him a small, knowing grin. “What, you don’t believe in the universal charity of the gods?”

“Do I look like I’ve seen much charity lately?”

“Not in the slightest.” The brewer’s grin faded. “All the more reason for some to find you now. And if it helps, sir, certain folk happen to think that the gods’ charity just needs a little help.”

Her words stayed with Julian all the way to Shalridan as he made his piecemeal way westward. It took two weeks at the speed he had to travel, hampered as he was by laudanum and pain. But two things stood out clearly to him all throughout the journey—that this kind of charity required money, and that he could think of only one person who’d care to give him that kind of assistance. How Dulcinea could have brought herself to act on his behalf when he’d...

No. He couldn’t think of that without guilt, and wouldn’t think of it now, not when he had to assume he’d never see Dulcinea again if he wanted to live.

And in Shalridan’s streets, he quickly learned that the charity that had brought him there wasn’t going to help him accomplish that simple goal for long—but that charity could present itself to him in odd guises. Wounded though he was, bearded and haggard and clad in simple borrowed clothes, he still carried himself like a nobleman. And it took no more than half an hour after he’d finally arrived, when he was walking the city looking for a place to stay, for someone to try to pick his pocket.

A boy, in fact, a scrawny little blond imp with guileless blue eyes and a shriek like a startled pig the instant Julian whirled and caught him, one-handed.

“Hey! Let go, mister! I didn’t do anything, let me go, let me go!”

“Didn’t do anything, my eye,” Julian snapped down at him, and then smirked at his own oath. “Bugger off with you, runt, unless you want to lose one or two of those fingers.”

At that the boy’s screams only redoubled, until all at once a man loomed up at Julian’s side, half a head taller than he, and glowering with imminent anger. “Unless you want to lose a few fingers of your own,” he growled, “you’ll unhand my son. Rab, you all right there?”

The boy’s howl cut off so fast that Julian sourly suspected he’d snagged an apprentice actor as well as a fledging thief. “I didn’t do a thing, Da!”

“Let’s keep it that way.” His father eyed Julian once more. “If that’s all right with you?”

The man was easily of a size to knock him senseless, and though Julian bristled at the blatant threat, he was already far more physically damaged than he wanted to accept—and in no shape to handle a fight. He promptly let go of the boy, never taking his eyes off the father even as he slid his hand up and down to the pockets he could reach, just to make sure none of the few coins he had were gone. “Perfectly.”

“Then we’ll go about our business.” Then, to his amazement, the man cracked a narrow smile. “Though if you don’t mind my saying so, stranger, you’ve got a swift hand for somebody who looks like he’s been in a war. I haven’t seen you in these parts before. You new to Shalridan?”

“I’ve been practicing, since I’ve got only the one to work with now,” Julian said, twirling his fingers. “And yes. I am.”

“You need work?”

“Are you offering?”

“I’m offering to buy you a drink so we can discuss some possibilities, if you’re interested.” The other man dropped a dry look down to the boy, who stood now at his side, his small face wide-eyed with cherubic innocence. “And to offer my apologies if my son caused you any inconvenience.”

A drink sounded good. A job sounded better, and though Julian was suspicious, he couldn’t afford to ignore any opportunity that presented itself. Not if he wanted to eat, get his strength back, and get a roof over his head and himself away from the eyes of anyone who might report him to his brothers. “I’m willing to come listen,” he said, after eying the man long in return, and even risking a glance of his own down at the boy. “And let bygones be gone.”

“My name’s Jacob, son, what’s yours?”

Julian paused and then smiled, not particularly caring how it must have made him look; all that mattered was that he now had a way to begin to hide.

“Richard.”

* * *

Dolmerrath
,
Kilmerry Province
,
Jomhas 27
,
AC 1876

“Isn’t that really the question,
akreshi
—what the Anreulag truly is? Can you...can
we
decide what to do before we know?”

From head to foot, Faanshi looked as weary as Julian had ever seen her, and it took no great leap of logic to discern the cause. They’d ridden themselves ragged to make it to Dolmerrath, outrunning Hawks all the way, and he hadn’t missed how the girl had been pouring power into him through almost every waking moment he could remember. No small wonder that her voice remained soft and worried, despite the light of interest that brightened her green eyes.

“That’s precisely the problem,” Gerren agreed. He still glowered at the lot of them, but Julian gave him grudging credit for tempering his ire when he addressed the girl. “If there’s any chance at all that She might be truly one of us, I don’t think we can.”

Despite their similarity of appearance, elves weren’t human. Jannyn and Tembriel had asserted this loudly and often from the day they’d hired Julian, but he hadn’t seen the truth of it, not really, until he’d set foot in Dolmerrath. It wasn’t a question of grace as such; he knew many humans, dancers and thieves and fighters, who could meet and match an elf in gracefulness of motion. The true difference was subtler—in body language, in carriage, in standing perfectly still when a human would have fidgeted. Most of all it was in the eyes. Every elf in Dolmerrath had a direct, unwavering stare that gave him, robust as his resolve usually was, a frisson of unease.

It vexed him that in his current state, his resolve wasn’t as robust as it should have been. His head ached with the effort to focus his vision, a dull rumble of pain that had refused to fade ever since he’d woken up in Faanshi’s care. He could barely manage to keep his gaze on innocuous objects for any length of time, never mind the fixed attention of any of their elven hosts.

And it vexed him even more deeply that he was beginning to lose his connection to Faanshi.

Bringing her to the elves had been the right thing to do; he had no doubt of that. Julian had but to see her with Alarrah, Gerren and Kirinil, blossoming into confidence as they welcomed her among them, to see that this was so.

Julian watched Faanshi with the others without really registering what any of them were saying—only the thoughtful frowns of both Kirinil and Alarrah as the latter spoke up in challenge of Gerren’s assertion. Of them all, the girl stood out most clearly in his erratic sight. There was nothing wrong with his hearing, but her anxious tones lingered longest in his ears.

“But how can the Anreulag be an elf?
Akreshi
Gerren, Alarrah, Kirinil, I don’t understand. She’s so powerful.”

Someone snorted. Alarrah, Julian thought, though he’d closed his eyes against the blurring of his sight, and the ache in his skull made it hard to tell. “Thus speaks the girl who swatted Her aside.”

“Lady of Time! I keep telling you all, I don’t know how I did that!”

Eyes shut or no, he was restless, but his balance was skewed along with his vision, and he had to constantly rethink every little movement he might make. His new right hand was still weak, the left slower than it should have been, yet by feel alone Julian found and drew one of the daggers he’d refused to go without. While everyone else in Gerren’s study argued back and forth, he sheathed the blade and drew it over and over again. When he was sure he could find it with either hand, he did the same with the other weapons he wore.

I’ll do this.

It would have been a vow to Tykhe if he’d thought about it. But Julian forced all thought out of his awareness, devoting himself instead to the instincts that needed to be honed anew after the days he’d lost in recuperation and slumber. With his eyes still closed, with the last of his daggers drawn, he began to shift it back and forth between his hands. The weight of the blade was strangely comforting, and for all that the texture of the hilt was rough against his right palm, he welcomed the sensation. It goaded his senses, challenging him to move the dagger faster, to see if he could twirl it between the fingers Faanshi had restored to him. That motion, too, was reassuring. It felt familiar. It felt like—

Rab.

Julian froze as his new fingers went numb and nerveless, and it was no comfort at all that his left hand caught the weapon before it could clatter to the floor. His eyes snapped open on the sight of Faanshi and the elves headlong in their debate, a few scant paces away. Inevitably, as it’d done seemingly of its own accord since he’d awakened, his gaze locked on the healer girl.

Her face had held an unearthly radiance when she’d healed Kestar Vaarsen—both times. Yet even then she hadn’t looked as vibrant as she did now. Faanshi’s countenance shone, not with magic, but with the simple burgeoning glow of her own assurance. The meek little mouse he’d rescued from the Camden church was gone, replaced by a dove taking flight as she tested the strength of her wings.

It was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen, and Tykhe help him, he adored her.

Which didn’t excuse for an instant how he’d somehow forgotten his partner. He knew all too well what it felt like to lose a part of his own flesh, and Rab’s absence felt exactly like that, as if the knife had taken his hand all over again. Julian stared down at both the hands he had now, old and new, and wondered for one wild instant if his healing was worth not having Nine-fingered Rab at his side where he belonged.

“Ho, the study! Gerren, may I enter?”

The voice just beyond the entry curtain startled them all. Jannyn, brother of Tembriel. He, his sister and Alarrah had once hired Julian and Rab to kill the Duke of Shalridan, and of the three, Jannyn was the most virulently antihuman. Yet to Julian’s surprise the elf sounded almost civil. Especially since he’d deigned to address them in Adalonic.

“Come in.” Gerren’s tone was mild and calm, but his face betrayed a hint of displeasure, just enough for Julian to wonder exactly how badly Tembriel and her brother might have disgraced themselves for the ambush they’d once launched against Julian and his partner.

Interesting, too, that neither sibling had been asked to come to this council.

Jannyn stepped in through the curtain, throwing the room at large a sullen glance. “I apologize for interrupting, but this news wouldn’t wait. We’ve got two humans just outside the Wards, and I figured our guests would want to be informed.” He finally looked at Julian, and there was the expected disdain in the hardness of his eye and the tight curl of his mouth. “This one’s compatriot is one of them.”

“What?” Julian shot up from his seat, conscious of surprise, hope and wariness all swamping him at once. “Who’s the other?”

The elf’s sour expression didn’t exactly vanish, but it did take on a nervous tinge as he turned to face Faanshi. “A Tantiu warrior,” he said, which provoked a shocked gasp from the girl. “He says his name is Semai, and that he’s come for her.”

* * *

There were times for pride and times for practicality, and Julian opted for the latter when the elves escorted him and Faanshi out to meet the new arrivals. They had to arrange it with the utmost care, for Gerren forbade anyone to set foot outside the caves until the scouts could confirm that the woods were clear of any remaining Hawks. Alarrah put them both quietly to sleep before they crossed the Wards, with Kirinil taking Faanshi on his mare Elisel, and Alarrah herself swinging into Morrigh’s saddle behind Julian. Mercifully, for the sake of his pride, she brought them quickly back to consciousness as soon as they were beyond the magic’s reach. He wasn’t at all sure of what mood he’d find Rab in, never mind the Tantiu who’d come in search of Faanshi. But he was certain he wanted to meet them on his feet.

And he was just as sure that Tykhe had to be laughing at how they were waiting in the very same clearing where he and Rab had bitterly parted—months ago, it seemed, though in truth it had been only weeks.

Two men didn’t make much of a camp, especially two men who were making themselves as unobtrusive as possible. But even from several yards away, even to Julian’s improving sight, the shapes of their horses were unmistakable. No one called out, for outside the refuge of Dolmerrath, the elves lived by the rule of stealth. Julian and Rab had learned this quickly enough when Alarrah, Tembriel and Jannyn had hired them, and Julian followed their example now. Faanshi, riding behind him on Morrigh once more, took her cue from him. Likewise there was no hail from the men waiting ahead of them, and so he assumed Rab had alerted Semai, as well.

BOOK: Vengeance of the Hunter
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