Tahn crept up the stone wall like a reptile silent after its prey. Almost he hoped that the young woman was not in the room above him, he so loathed what was to come. But he knew she was there. He had seen the flicker of her candle and enough silhouette in the window to know it was her.
He stopped for a moment, almost three stories up, to take a breath and prepare his mind. Lady Netta would be terrified of a stranger taking her by force from her family home. And she would be even more terrified if she remembered the one time they had seen each other before this night.
But what choice did he have? She would not leave willingly. Not with him. And Tahn knew that if he did not steal her away this night, someone else would. Someone who cared far less for her dignity or her life.
He hoped she would not struggle too much, for the thought that he might hurt her pained his heart.
Everything was quiet. The nobleman Trilett and his kinsmen were sleeping in their regal manor, the pride of Onath, most blessed of all the towns of Turis. Cool wind rustled in the trees beyond the wall and gate, defenses in which the Trilett family had long placed far too much confidence. Guards should have been posted, many of them and not at the gate alone, to protect the lady and those she loved. By morning this grand home would be a shell emptied of its glory. And there was nothing he could do but try to ensure that none of the Lady Netta’s blood would be shed there.
Her window above him was dark as he pulled upward toward it. Even his boots on the weathered stone made no sound. The lattice shutters were not difficult to push aside, and he was up and over the sill quickly.
He thought of another stone home in the Trilett hands, a different wall he had once climbed to a roof garden. Karll had been the young man’s name. He had screamed to his bride in warning and had fought so valiantly.
Tahn shoved those thoughts from his mind. The Lady Netta. She lay on the bed here now, already sleeping. In an instant he was upon her. With one hand he squeezed both her wrists tight together. And with the other hand he pressed down firmly over her mouth. Even in the darkness, he could easily read the terror in her suddenly opened eyes.
“Do not scream,” he ordered her. “Do not struggle, and I’ll not hurt you.”
But she struggled. She squirmed beneath him like a wild thing, but he was too strong for her and too good at anticipating her efforts. “You must cooperate with me tonight, or you will die,” he warned. “Do you understand?”
His hand still pressed against her mouth, pushing her into the bed. The sight of her trembling nod made his insides burn. She would never understand. Her fear would be joined by so much more hatred when she realized who it was that had come to apprehend her. But he could find no alternative. Her family would never have listened to him. No more than a peasant could believe that a fox among chickens would protect them from the approach of wolves. He would have to get her out and hope that at least some of the Triletts would try to follow.
He rose from the darkness beneath the canopy of her bed, pulling her up with him. Clouds parted from the moon outside as the lady gained her footing in the middle of the room. He could not bear the look in her eyes. Did she know him already? Did she know that her black-garbed demon had returned?
“I will tie you,” he told her quickly. “Because I cannot risk you escaping. But first I will let you gather warm clothing and whatever else you need. Without a sound. And very quickly, do you understand? If you wish to live, you must cooperate.”
Slowly he released his hold on her. “Hurry,” he commanded. “Or you will leave with nothing.”
Feeling numb, Netta forced herself to obey the frightening intruder. How could this be happening? What might he do?
She pulled her warmest, bulkiest dress over her nightgown and laced on her shoes. Her comb, a sewing bag, and a few pages of handwritten script lay on the bedside table. She stuffed all of them into the pocket of her cloak and pulled it around her shoulders. Her mind was racing, hoping for a way of escape from this man. He’d surely kill her if she screamed or tried to run from the room. He’d already warned her of that.
She had no way of knowing what his intentions were. How did he even expect to get out of here without rousing someone?
She turned and stood as straight as she could, though her heart was pounding and the fear was like a sodden weight in her stomach. She would have to do what he said. He left her no choice.
Without a word, he took hold of her wrists and tied them tightly. Then he pulled a scarf from his pocket and gagged her. He had a long length of rope at his waist, and he knotted it carefully at the windowsill. When he had secured it well, he gave the end a toss through the open window. Then he grabbed her bound arms and looped them over his head.
“Don’t scream,” he told her. “Not till we get to the ground.”
And they were suddenly out the window. Netta was dizzy with the terror of it. He scarcely held her at all. She simply dangled there on the neck of her kidnapper as he stole her away. Tears came unbidden and flowed in silent streams down her cheeks. When they were finally on the ground, he set her down in the dirt and picked up a stone. He looked up at the other windows of the great house. “Which is your father’s room?” he asked.
She sat and stared at him. How could he expect her to answer that? She wouldn’t. She wouldn’t help this brazen villain. He might hurt her father. He might do anything.
“Point, Lady!” he insisted.
She shook her head boldly, defiantly, though inside her heart was quaking.
He hurled the stone anyway, at the one window that held a soft glow of candlelight. His aim was true and strong, and the stone went crashing into the room of Netta’s Uncle Winn.
She tried to scream, and to her surprise, he reached and pulled the gag away from her mouth. “Yes,” he told her. “Loud, now!” He grabbed her by the waist, threw her over his shoulder, and began to run. And she screamed, fearing for the reason he would let her. But maybe they would hear. Maybe they could do something before he got very far.
He was going to the back wall, farthest from the guarded gate. And she soon saw that he had prepared it for their exit. A long plank leaned against it like a ramp, and he was up like a cat without even slowing down. At the top, he held her with one hand and used the other to pull the board up until it leaned down the other side. He took the slope at a run and then kicked the plank to the ground at the bottom. She screamed again, hoping the guard from the gate would come, or her strong cousins, and stop this man before he could disappear with her into the night. But why, why would he let her scream and take that chance? Why would he tell her to?
He suddenly stopped and replaced her gag. She tried to fight him. She tried to struggle as he lifted her again. He was not a very big man, but there was little she could do in the strength of his grasp.
When they reached the woods, a horse was waiting for them. “This is Smoke,” the kidnapper suddenly said. He lifted her to the horse’s back and jumped up behind her. “Try to be calm,” he told her. “I swear I will not hurt you.”
But she did not believe him. It was like a horrible dream, to be planted in the saddle with the strange young man’s strong arms ensnaring her. His clothes, his long hair, and his eyes were all black beneath the moonlight. She shuddered to think of another black-garbed intruder, on the roof of the springhouse, his sword dripping with the blood of her husband. She’d loved Karll so and had known him in marriage for less than a week when the fiendish killer took him away.
She glanced down at the kidnapper’s hands holding tight at the reins in front of her, and she began to tremble. He was so much like that killer. Small and fierce and quiet. It had been three years ago, but she had barely recovered. And now the horror was back again. She could not control the sobs that broke over her.
“We will meet with company soon,” he told her steadily. “I am sorry for it, but I have no choice. I will be rid of him quickly. He is a rough man, but I will not let him harm you.”
He sat in silence a while longer as they rode through the depth of shadowy woods. And then he seemed to sigh. “Your father’s home will be attacked this night, Lady,” he said. “That is why I let your screams call them from sleep, once we were outside where they could not stop us. If they are already alert to a trouble, they are not so likely to be slaughtered in their beds. May they be elsewhere, searching for you with their weapons in hand.”
The trees gave way to meadow. Netta’s captor gave the horse a quick nudge, and the animal broke into a trot. When they slowed again for the return of dense black forest, he continued his talk. “The dark angels will burn your home. But Samis sent me to capture you separately, before the rest are assailed. He has plans of his own for you. The man we meet will have his orders where you are to be taken, but I have no intention of following them. I will hide you.”
Netta listened with apprehension. Was it true, what he said? Her home attacked? She greatly hoped not. But he dared claim to be helping? By carrying her off like this?
“I mean you no harm, Lady,” he went on. “You might think we should have stayed to fight for your family, but they would have had me away before the true enemy came. I know you cannot trust my word. And I alone would be too little help against the numbers tonight. I used the order to capture you as a chance to spare your life.”
She sat silent in front of him. She feared there could be some truth to his words. She knew her father had an enemy in the Baron Trent, a rival for the throne left vacant for seven years as factions of their kingdom warred amongst themselves. The peaceful Trilett family were not crown-seekers, and certainly not mighty of arms, but they were highly favored of the common people, which was enough to incite the jealousy of greedier men.
But though she knew those dangers, she could not possibly trust this man. He was so much like Karll’s murderer. Like the devil himself, who was also the father of lies.
She wondered that he seemed to be taking no precautions to avoid leaving a trail. Even when they reached a stream, he followed alongside it a great ways instead of going in.
“The cottage is just ahead,” he soon told her. “His name is Darin, and he’s an oaf. Try to do what he says, and it will be easier. I won’t leave you alone with him.” He turned the horse with a barely perceivable flick of his hand. “He will expect that I left your family sleeping. But if they are able to follow us here, I’ll not fight them. My object was to get you away from there.”
Tahn didn’t speak again as they rode the rest of the way. It was just too hard, with this shaking young woman encircled in his arms. For a moment he almost wished he had sunk the dagger into his own flesh as he’d intended such a short time ago. But her life depended on him now. And the little ones depended on him too. Riding here from Samis’s Valhal, he’d decided he could not leave them to face the torment he’d known. He could not die until he had them all safely hidden. The lady and the street urchins. Together. It was the only way he knew. Perhaps they could help each other. Perhaps they could even come to care about each other.
He thought of Lucas, bearing the master’s summons, who had stepped into his room barely in time to stop him from thrusting the cold dagger into his own heart. But it was the summons that did the stopping. Because the new orders were against the Triletts, and only this compulsion to spare the lady could have given him the will to live on. Still, he wished he could have brought Lucas with him, because he had cared, finding Tahn so close to suicide. But Lucas was a dark angel the same as he was. He would have his own orders to contend with tonight, much as he would hate them.
A stab of pain bore through his heart with the memory of Lucas praying when they were little boys shut up in a dark room by night. Perhaps Netta Trilett was also praying right now. To the God of justice. And good.
But he must stop this foolishness, letting his thoughts wander so freely. He must concentrate on the task ahead. He drove Smoke on through the woods, carefully considering Valhal, Samis’s stronghold, and how he could possibly breach it to bring the children outside. A miracle it would take, he knew that. And he could expect no favor from heaven.
Soon Netta saw the dim glow of a window ahead. Her dark-clothed captor dismounted soundlessly and stroked his horse’s head for a moment as he looked at the cottage in front of them. He seemed to be whispering something to the animal he’d called Smoke. And then he pulled a long sword down from among the horse’s bags and strapped it to his side.
Netta trembled. He was too familiar. Too like that killer from the springhouse roof.
He looked up at her soundlessly, and she could not help but think of Karll’s brave struggle. Could this be the same man? Had he been the one to leave her lover bleeding to death in her helpless arms?
He’d come back like a nightmare to steal her from her home. Was there truth in anything he said? What could he possibly want from her? What mission of the devil was he about this night?
He said nothing, only turned his eyes away from her gaze and pulled her down from the horse’s back. In his arms he carried her to the cottage door.
It was little more than a shack. The man inside whirled around at the sound of the door creaking.
“Already, eh?” the strange man taunted. “Well, you can get the job done, I guess. But you should be glad for that old door hinge, little man. You sneak up on the wrong person sometime and you’ll have a knife in the throat.” He smiled suddenly. “She’s a pretty one, eh?” He stepped up and took Netta roughly from her captor’s arms.
She squirmed, wanting away from this coarse man. He was huge, considerably more than a head taller than the stealthy one who had kidnapped her. And there was something abhorrent about the way he grasped her.
“What are the orders?” her kidnapper was asking.
“On the table,” the man called Darin answered him. He plopped Netta down on a straw tick in the corner. “You haven’t had time to touch her, have ya?” he asked with a smirk.
The kidnapper looked up at them, papers in his hand. Netta thought he looked so terribly young just then, certainly no older than herself. But it was hardness more than youth that she remembered in his features before. Was it the same man?
“She’ll be needing a drink,” he said suddenly.
“That can wait,” the bigger man snorted. Netta was still bound but managed to scoot into the corner. Darin grabbed her by the leg and pulled her back. She kicked at him desperately, knowing his intentions.
“Business comes first,” the kidnapper persisted.
Darin gave a disgusted groan. “There’s a skin of good liquor on the back of the chair,” he grunted as he groped a hand toward Netta’s bosom.
“No liquor for her. Go get water.”
Darin turned to face the smaller man. “You get it,” he said. “I’m busy.”
“No,” her kidnapper insisted. “You will get it while I read the orders. Business comes first. We will have plenty of time for pleasure later.”
Darin stared at him angrily then stomped out of the cottage with an empty skin in hand.
Netta sat up with relief at her temporary reprieve. Her captor had said he would help her, and he had. But it gave her small comfort—she didn’t know what to expect from either of them next. He looked over at her briefly but turned his eyes back to the paper in his hand.
He had the same long and wavy dark hair. It was tied back the very same way it had been the night Karll was killed. He was even dressed the same, with the same sword. It was the man, she was sure, though she had not had such a generous look at him before. He was only about her height, with scant whiskers and a fearsome frown. His dark eyes were haunting in their depth. And she could not help but think of Karll lying before her, losing his lifeblood on the marbled tiles.
Tahn knew she was studying him, but he kept his attention carefully on the papers before him. Samis wanted her brought directly to Valhal, as though he considered the Trilett heiress some sort of prize. Anger churned in Tahn as he thought of the terrible fate of another woman Samis had brought to Valhal for himself. It must not be so for the lady.
He read the order that he was to leave her with Darin, return to the town, and torch the rectory where the Triletts were beloved. That being accomplished, he and Darin were to escort her together to Valhal. He grimaced, knowing the risk of what he would have to do. Netta Trilett was only one part of his crucial plan. He must somehow return to Valhal without suspicion. These orders, this trouble with Darin, could jeopardize any chance of freeing the children. But he’d had no choice but to stop here, or Samis would know already of his betrayal.
The big man stomped back in. He knelt in front of Netta, jerked the scarf away from her mouth, and poured the water at her gruffly. “There ya go,” he said. “All satisfied.” He set the water down and turned to Tahn with a smile. “You best be going. You got your orders.”
The lady looked at them both with fear.
“I’m not going,” Tahn told him. “You are.”
“Can’t,” Darin replied instantly. “It’s the order. You’re not that much the fool, and neither am I.”
“When I took this assignment,” Tahn maintained, “Samis gave me charge concerning this girl, and I pledged my life over it, before any of us knew how wily she is. I will not risk failure at that charge by leaving her with some oaf who might let her escape for lack of watchfulness.”
“Let her escape? I have far different things in mind.”
“Indeed. But once you’re satisfied, you ox, what shall keep you from rolling over to sleep in your bliss? I’ll not take that chance.”
“You will,” Darin told him, “or face the wrath of Samis.”
But Tahn shook his head. This had to work. “I cannot begin another order until this one is completed. I must personally bring her to him.”
“You will, idiot, after you torch the rectory.”
Lady Netta gasped. And Tahn was saddened for her. A dreadful thing to hear, and better had she never known. “The wrath of Samis would be worse over the loss of his prize,” Tahn insisted, “than it would be over a simple change of plan. Anyone can light a fire. But I will not trust anyone else with this wildcat. I told you she’s wily.”
“Don’t seem so to me.”
“I won’t change the order,” Darin growled.
Tahn faced the bigger man with absolute determination. He drew his sword. “I’m changing it. I will explain the matter to Samis myself. He is not so unreasonable in the face of necessity. Now go!”
Tahn knew Darin had no desire to fight him. There were few now who would risk Tahn’s speed and skill. He was barely bigger than the girl he’d carried in. But he was feared.
“All right,” Darin relented. “It’s certainly no part of the orders that we be fighting among ourselves. Let me help myself to the lady first, and I’ll go and do your job for you.”
But Tahn stepped forward. “I told you. Business comes first. You can have your fill when you get back. Make sure you are not seen.”
Darin took his coat and his liquor and left the cottage with a curse.
Tahn knew that the lady was watching him in fear. But he was not ready yet to turn his attention to her. He sheathed his sword and stood by the window waiting. The big man’s horse responded quickly to his impatient whistle, and then Darin disappeared into the darkness on his way to town.
After a silence that hung on the place like a heavy cloud, Tahn turned from the window toward Netta. Even in the dim light, it was obvious that she was crying. And no wonder. Her life would never be the same after this night. He stepped toward her, and she backed to the corner again on her knees.
“Don’t touch me.”
For a moment Tahn stopped. Of course she would react this way. What else could he expect?
“Jesus,” she whispered.
He shook his head sadly. “It is no wonder you are loved. You hold your faith in trying times. May you gain by it.” Those were painful words to speak. Brutal to a heart without hope.
Netta scooted backward, trembling. What sort of creature was this? “Don’t touch me,” she pleaded again.
For a moment their eyes met. He took another step forward, and she had nowhere to go as he pulled a knife from his clothes. “I have to,” he told her, “to do this.”
He leaned forward and carefully cut the rope at her wrists.
The gesture surprised her. But the comfort of it was lost in her pain. “Why?” she screamed at him suddenly. “My family! The rectory! Why are you doing this?”
He didn’t answer. He only leaned down for the skin of water and took a long drink. She bolted for the door. But he was ahead of her quickly, stopping the door with his boot.
“Don’t, Lady,” he said. “Please. If one of the others were to find you, it would not be well.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that Samis will have you hunted. People know your name and your face. It would be hard to stay safe alone.”
Safe? As though she could consider herself that now. This one was a killer. And the other would be back with an animal drive. She started screaming, hoping someone were near enough to hear.
He took her arm. “I doubt there’s anyone close enough.”
She started to struggle against him. “Let me go!” she cried. She kicked at him and fought like the wildcat he’d called her.
But he grasped both of her arms and shook her hard. “Listen to me!” he said and pushed her against the rough door. “Where would you go? Home? The soldiers of Samis are there by now, with swords drawn and torches ready. Darin goes to burn the rectory. And any friend who shelters you now has endangered his own life.”
She sobbed violently and then sank to the floor. Could it be as he said? Was her world now gone?
She looked up at his face for a moment and could not read what she saw there. Her heart pounded with fear for her family and the good priest. “Lord, God,” she prayed, “a building is but wood and stone, but spare the lives of those that dwell therein. Protect them from the violence of those that seek their hurt. Deliver them from the flames!”
Tahn stood over her, listening to the prayer. When she mentioned flames, he shook his head. Flames were the forte of this woman’s God, were they not? The ultimate punishment. The fate of killers such as himself. More than anything else, that thought shook him. But he would not bow to it now.
Perhaps she needed some hopeful words that at least the holy persons in the rectory could be unscathed. “Darin won’t be taking the time to lift his sword, Lady,” he assured her. “And it may be that he will fail in his quietness as usual and give them ample time to save the place.”
“What about my family?” she asked.
He knew he could give her no comfort there. But she had asked, and he must be honest, whether she believed him or not.
“I don’t give your home a hope,” he answered gravely. “Nor the family either, unless they are far and wide seeking you.”
Netta bowed her head.
Horrible I am, Tahn thought. Speaking horrible things. He stood for a moment, knowing her turmoil. He had come into her life again, bringing pain and loss. But there was no helping it. He lifted her carefully and carried her back to the straw tick. She was so young and beautiful, with her rich, auburn hair and gentle features. She shook with fear at his touch.
“You should rest while you can,” he said with a faraway solemnity. “We will ride again by morning, and it will be a hard day ahead.”
He stretched himself out on the tick beside her but made no move to touch her again. They would only wait now until Darin came back, because if they left before that, Darin would run to the soldiers of Samis and tell of his treachery. The thought of what he must do burdened him, and he sighed. But for the lady, for the little ones, he had to try.
Netta sat tensely beside the silent young man. Perhaps he will fall asleep, she dared to hope.
“I know it’s a hard thing,” he said to her then. “But I’m all you’ve got, Lady. I can’t let you go yet, do you understand? You don’t know from what it is I’m trying to spare you.”
She stared at him, knowing she could not believe him. He had told her he would not let the big man hurt her, but he had given the man permission to do all he wanted at the dread hour of his return. He had said he would not obey the orders when they came, but he had insisted to the man that they were foremost in his mind.
“You are a liar,” she told him boldly.
“I am what you say I am,” he answered her. “When I need to be.”
Tears stung her cheeks again, and she rubbed her sore wrists. There seemed to be no answer here. Even unbound, she knew she could not escape him so long as he was awake.
“Water?” he asked.
She shook her head.
But he leaned for the waterskin and handed it to her. “You should drink. You’ll be wanting your strength. Are you hungry?”
“No.” She lifted the water and drank just a sip.
Tahn looked at her silky hair and thought about Karll and his new bride. It was the only time he had failed to have the surprise on any victim. And it was not his own fault. He knew he’d not been seen. He knew he’d not been heard. But he had noticed a burst of light above Karll’s head, and the young man had whirled about as if warned by some unseen being. Otherwise, the Lady Netta too would have died that day. In buying time with his struggle, Karll had saved his bride.
Netta returned to anxious prayer. Tahn watched her lips move and the tears well up in her eyes. He could remember plainly her anguished scream. And her lover’s last words: “By Jesus, don’t hurt her!”
He shook his head. That night still haunted him, but there was no more sense thinking of it than of the flames.
He didn’t sleep or even close his eyes. Instead, he rose to the table, knowing she wouldn’t lie down as long as he was there. “Rest,” he told her again. “And don’t fear Darin. It is not bliss that awaits him here.”
The night was well spent when the big man returned. Smelling of smoke and sweat, he burst through the door, and Netta jumped.
“Ho!” Darin laughed. “After tonight, the Triletts’ll be nothing but an old story. You could see the blaze of their high and mighty place from the town!” Netta’s heart pounded as he grinned and moved in her direction. “Awful shame for you, pretty lady,” he went on. “Might as well set your mind to consortin’ with us.”
She rose to her feet, determined that she would not give in to this man, regardless of the consequences. But he looked down at her unbound wrists and laughed. “You two been havin’ fun with the wait, have ya?” he chortled. “Fair enough. But it’s my turn now. Don’t ya be slappin’ me, girl, or I’ll make you well sorry.”
Neither of them paid any attention to Tahn until he was directly behind Darin, his sword already drawn. Netta gasped in fear, but Darin failed to notice that her eyes were focused past him. Until he felt the cold tip of Tahn’s sword against the back of his neck.
“You’re little more than a slave to Samis,” Tahn said. “Because of that, I will give you the chance to fight.” He drew back his sword, and Darin turned around.
“You would call me the slave?” Darin laughed. He wiped his palms on his tunic before drawing his sword. “Where is your haste to leave and finish your orders, little man?” he taunted. “You only slow us down. Go out and talk to your horse while I take the lady, and we’ll be on our way.”
“I will not travel with you, Darin,” Tahn said. “And I will never obey another order of Samis.”
“You are mad.”
“Then it is good madness and I claim it gladly. The lady is a praying one. Solicit her help while you can. You are leaving this world.”
Netta shrank back against the wall. Perhaps they were both crazy. Perhaps they would forget her in their conflict. But so far they remained between her and the door.
“I will kill you first, devil!” Darin shouted. He lifted his sword and rushed forward. The smaller man easily parried. Swords clashed, and Netta edged against the wall. But the fight did not last long. Her kidnapper had forced the sword from his opponent’s hand and thrust his own weapon into Darin’s thick middle. Netta was so close now to the door, but the small man whirled around and stopped her progress with the bloody sword point shoved to the wall just inches in front of her. Netta screamed and sank to the floor in broken sobs. The kidnapper grabbed her arm and pulled her up.
In the middle of the room, Darin was gasping for breath. Her captor brought his sword down again swiftly upon the big man’s throat.
Netta closed her eyes and shuddered. That anyone could kill like that, without so much as a blink . . .
“Come, now,” her captor said, interrupting her thoughts and pulling her to the door. His whistle was barely audible, but Smoke was in front of them in an instant. The kidnapper let his sword rest against the doorframe and lifted Netta to the back of his horse. He pulled a length of cord from a pack. “This will be the last time I do this,” he said. “They know this cottage. We will have to gain distance.”
He tied her hands together and then tied them to the peaked horn of his saddle. “I hate to take the time,” he continued. “But I must be rid of the body.” He took hold of Smoke’s head and seemed to be whispering to him as he had before. Then he turned to Netta and actually smiled. “He’s a good horse. He’ll watch you for me while I dig. Relax yourself. Neither of us will hurt you.”
He disappeared into the trees, selecting a concealed spot for a grave amidst the falling leaves. Netta struck her heels at the horse’s side. If she could just get the animal to walk away, perhaps she could direct it somehow toward the Rhodes farm or that of any other good-hearted people. But Smoke would not respond to her urging. He would not move at all except to jump slightly in protest at her continued kicking.
“Would think you were a dog, you lousy beast,” she sputtered. “What kind of a master can he be to you, anyway?”
She felt like screaming but doubted now that anyone would hear. Her captor had a mind for such details. Maybe if anyone did come, he would kill them like he had the big man called Darin. She kicked at the horse once more in her frustration, but he only turned his head to a stand of nodding bristlegrass near a tree. She was powerless, and it was a dreadful feeling indeed.
When Tahn finally had the grave filled over, he scattered fallen leaves and twigs across its surface to disguise it. In the same way, he covered the path where he had dragged the body to its resting place. It all looked again like undisturbed woodland. By the time he’d finished, the dawn light was edging its way above the horizon.
Tahn took a look into the cottage. There was no disguising the stain on its floor where the blood had seeped into the cracks of the rough wood. Oh well, he thought. This blood could not reveal its owner. Perhaps he could use it some way.
With a scarf from his pocket and water from the skin, he wiped the blade of his sword so it would not be sticky, and replaced it to his sheath. And he whistled, loud and shrill like Darin. The man’s strong horse lumbered out from the brush. Tahn sprung to the empty saddle and drove the horse quickly toward the rising sun. His own Smoke instantly followed.
They traveled without a pause for what seemed like hours. Netta was growing desperately weary, but Smoke continued his pursuit of his master. Finally, the man slowed.
“We are near a horse trader who asks no questions. I will leave you with Smoke again so the trader cannot say he saw you.” He patted the animal beneath him and sighed. “A shame to slaughter such a fine mount, but the trader will if I pay him to. For Darin to have run away with you, his horse will have to disappear too.”
Netta had nothing to say to this man who cared more for horses than for the men who rode them. She did not even want to look at him.
He left her in a thick grove of trees. “I expect no one,” he told her. “Though I know you would welcome someone to find you while I am gone. Should it happen, I wish you life. But if they are dressed as I am, scream with all the breath that is in you.”
He had done his whispering to Smoke, and he rode away.
This time the horse did not follow. And once again, Netta tried in vain to get the animal to respond to her directions. Smoke simply ignored her and turned to grazing. Even at that, he would not move more than a few yards. She would not have thought it possible.
No one came, and the wait was torturous. She struggled against the cord, but it only made her wrists raw. She thought she should pray again, but the weight of despair seemed to crush her very heart into the dust. So she wept bitterly as the wind began to whip about her with an unwelcome autumn chill.
When she finally heard the approach of a horse, her heart pounded. Let it be a kindly, common man, she prayed, who will have the conscience to help me.
But it was the killer returning. He rode a different horse that was plain looking but strong. He gave a little whistle as he turned again to the northeast, and Smoke joined him gladly.
Tahn said nothing, but he saw the pain of his prisoner. He had wanted to push the horses and hurry on. He was desperate to move as quickly as possible. But he couldn’t push Netta so. He knew she could not understand that what he did he meant for good.
He took them to a tiny stream that snaked through the dense woodland. When he unwound the cord from the horn of the saddle, he saw the angry red of her wrists. Her eyes were puffy and her face was streaked with the mixture of trail dust and tears. He lifted her down as gently as he could and led her to the water’s edge.
He took her wrists and the cord around them into his hands and sought her eyes. But she turned her head away. “Promise me you’ll not run,” he said.
But she wouldn’t. She just stared at the horses as they drank.
Though he’d gained no assurance, he helped her to sit, knelt in front of her, and carefully loosed the cord.
He could tell that the movement hurt her wrists, especially the right one, though she said not a word. She did not resist as he pulled her arms toward the cold water; she only shivered just a little as it washed over her wrists. But as he lifted his hands toward the scarf at her throat, she jumped to her feet with a cry. Quickly, he caught her elbow. “Wait,” he said, pulling her down again. “I know what I am to you, and that we will never get past that, but let me help you. Please. While I can.”
Netta could barely stand sitting still, but she knew it would do her no good to run. As he lifted his hands toward her throat again, she closed her eyes, her body tensing. But he only untied the scarf that still hung there, that had once been her gag.
He cut the scarf in two with a knife and swished both parts in the frigid, flowing water. Then he carefully wrapped the cold cloths around her aching wrists. “Let me get the waterskin for you,” he said, “and fill it fresh so you may drink like a lady and not stoop like dogs and men.” She didn’t move an inch from her spot. He brought her the water, and she drank much. After their long ride she needed its cool refreshment.
Suddenly he was handing her a generous chunk of bread. “You’ll not be hungry yet, I know,” he said. “But try to eat, lest you become weak.”
She stared at him, uncertain how to respond to his sudden kindness. He was not to be trusted. Of that she was sure. The man in the cottage had been an ogre, a horrible threat. But not so her Karll. There could be no good in the murder of that good man.
And she was not hungry. The anguish of heart over the fate of her family and friends was too great to think about food. But perhaps he was right. Eventually, he would have to rest. Then there might be some way of escape, if she were strong enough. She made an effort to down at least part of the bread.
He cupped water from the stream in his hand and drank, watching her. But he did not eat. “I would like to let you rest more,” he said. “But we must go quickly. I will let you stay on Smoke, because I am not so sure yet of the new animal, good as she seems. I would not want her spooked beneath you.” He sighed. “I’ll not tie you, Lady. But don’t spring from the horse’s back. The fall could be of harm to you.”
He stood and seemed to be looking far away. “We will ride the rest of the day and reach a cave tonight. There we will have shelter and rest. Then I must return to Valhal for the little ones. I would that you stay at the cave in hiding. By the time I am back, you will be sought far and wide. But I will not bind you there.”
His voice had seemed as far away as his gaze. The little ones? What was he talking about? Where was Valhal? And who was the Samis they had talked about in the cottage?
She pushed those thoughts aside. If he were true to his word, she would be free of him soon. And even if he weren’t, there would surely be some way.