Kieran almost bumped into us as we entered the hall. "Oh, good. I’ve been looking all over for you. Rolf wants to see you. He has several things he thinks you should discuss."
"Oh, great." I rolled my eyes. "Sounds like loads of fun."
Wynne started to step away from me, but Kieran held up a hand to halt her. “Rolf wants to see both of you.”
Wynne’s cheeks glowed with a subtle blush, and the corners of her mouth twitched involuntarily. She nodded to Kieran and looped her arm through mine again. “Shall we?”
I couldn’t stop myself from grimacing. “Might as well.”
Wynne chuckled and gave my arm a friendly squeeze. “I know Rolf’s a little rough around the edges, but he’s really not as awful as he seems.”
I grinned over at her. “That statement implies that he is kind of awful, though.”
Wynne flushed redder and shook her head. “That’s not what I meant!”
I squeezed her arm with an apologetic smile. “I was just teasing, hon. If you trust him, then I do, too.”
Unfortunately, that was only somewhat true because my stomach was tied up in a nervous knot by the time we stopped in front of Rolf’s study door. A man I hadn’t met before appeared to be standing guard outside. He was burly and square jawed, with dark, piercing eyes that could almost have been considered black, and chocolate brown hair. A broadsword hung at his side, and he twirled a wicked looking curved dagger between deft fingers.
Wynne shot the man a wide grin. “Good to see you back, Burns.”
“Good to be back. It’ll be nice to sleep on something besides the ground for a change.” He paused and studied me, his eyes unreadable. He shifted his gaze back to Wynne without addressing me. “Who’s your…unusual friend?”
I felt my cheeks turn crimson, but I couldn’t think of a sufficient retort. So, I crossed my arms and stared at him in stony silence as Gabriel let out a soft warning growl from behind me. Wynne, however, didn’t hesitate to chastise him.
“Burns! I know you spend most of your time alone, but that’s no excuse to forget your manners.”
Burns arched a brow and shrugged. “You know the old saying, Wynne…black of hair, black of heart.”
Wynne snorted and shook her head. “That old saying is a load of rot, Captain Burns. Besides, I didn’t think you were the kind of man who succumbed to silly superstitions.”
I felt a grin tugging at my lips as Wynne defended me, and it gave me the little boost I needed to work up the courage to say something to Burns for myself. “You might also consider the fact that I’m not even from this world, so your old sayings can hardly apply to me.”
His facial expression slipped from aloof superiority to confusion, and I grinned a little wider as Rolf opened his study door.
“Oh, good. You’re all here.” His gaze flicked to Gabriel, and he sighed. “Must the dog really join us, Lauren?”
“He was a gift from the Messengers. I’d prefer it if he did.”
Rolf nodded, and Wynne and Burns looked puzzled as Rolf waved us all inside his chamber.
Rolf closed the door and moved to his desk, nodding to Wynne, Burns, and me, each in turn. “I assume that you all realize we have quite a lot to discuss with one another?”
“You’re bloody right, we do,” Burns growled, glaring at Rolf and me with obvious distrust. “How could you bring some black-haired wench we know nothing about into our fortress? How do you know she isn’t a spy for the queen?”
“Hey!” I glared over at Burns and Gabriel growled, sharing my sentiment.
Rolf held up a hand to stem whatever I’d been about to say, and my scowl deepened. Wynne ignored Rolf’s upheld hand and leaned across me, nose-to-nose with Burns.
“Stop being so rude, you mean, bull-headed old git. Lauren hasn’t wronged you in any way, so I would suggest that you shut that obnoxious, gaping maw of yours and listen to what Rolf has to say. Then you’re going to keep your trap shut and listen to what Lauren has to say. I promise if you’re rude to her again, I will poison you when you least expect it, and you’ll be sick to your stomach for a week. Got it?”
I couldn’t stop myself from grinning as Rolf laughed aloud, and a crimson flush marched up Burns’ neck and invaded his chiseled face. Wynne leaned back with a superior expression and crossed her arms, turning her attention back to Rolf.
“So, are you going to tell us why we’re all here?”
“Yes. I’m sure you each have concerns you’d like to address, as Captain Burns so eloquently expressed while you were waiting outside.”
Burns reddened and looked down at his hands, refusing to respond. Wynne chuckled and shook her head, and Rolf sighed.
“You don’t have to like our new friend, Burns, but I would suggest that you treat her with some degree of civility because you’re going to be helping to train her. I recently found a collection of scrolls written some time ago by a dwarf seer who used to inhabit this very chamber. I believe that his later visions may have referred to Lauren.”
“Visions,” I broke in with a frown. “What kind of visions? What do the scrolls say? ”
Rolf shot me a perturbed glance. “We’ll get to that, but first I want assurances from Captain Burns that he is going to be civil, trust my good judgment in bringing you here, and help train you for combat.”
“You really think that combat training is going to be necessary? You believe it will come to that?”
Rolf nodded. “You’ve met Sigrid and the captain of her guard. What do you think?”
“You’re right,” I nodded, sighing, “Combat training is probably a good idea. What do you say, Captain?”
He ignored me and stared at Rolf. “I give you my word that I’ll treat your guest with civility, but I won’t agree to train her until you tell us what the scrolls say. Once I’ve heard what the dwarf seer had to say, then I’ll decide whether or not I feel it wise to train the girl.”
“You would do well to remember that we chose Rolf to lead us for a reason,” Wynne growled.
Captain Burns glared at Wynne but didn’t respond. Rolf cleared his throat and shuffled the scrolls on his desk.
“First, I’ll read you the one that made me send Kieran after the girl in the first place. I warn you, the dwarf seer’s writings are tantamount to bad poetry, but I believe the message is relevant.
‘Salvation will come with a lightning strike,
A witch with hair as black as night.
Black of hair, but pure of heart and bright,
The stranger will come to wipe away the blight.’
I assume you can see why I feel the way I do about our new friend now, Captain Burns?”
I snorted and shook my head. “That was really bad poetry. Also, I’m not a witch. I just have what you might call ‘friends in high places,’ and they’re the ones who sent me here to help you.” Rolf studied me quietly and Burns shifted uncomfortably in his chair. Neither one looked like they quite believed me. “No, really. I’m not magical at all! I have some technology on my side, and some magical ladies called the Messengers who sometimes help me out. They’re the ones who sent Gabriel to me.”
The dog wagged his tail at the sound of his name, and if I didn’t know better, I would’ve said he smiled at me. I bent down to pet him for a moment and sighed when I sat back up. Burns looked like steam was about to come out of his ears, and Wynne just looked amused by his anger. Rolf, however, was staring me down with a frown.
“How can you not be a witch? Kieran witnessed that entrance you made himself. He said it was quite an impressive lightning strike, and that it destroyed an entire section of Sigrid’s garden. Tell me, Lauren, how can you possibly have survived that if you aren’t a witch?”
I pinched the bridge of my nose and sighed, shaking my head. “I don’t know. My guess is that the Messengers protected me.”
Rolf nodded and turned his gaze to Captain Burns. “So, what do you say, Burns? Will you help us train the girl or not?”
Burns sighed and crossed his arms. “Well, I can see how the prophecy applies, so I suppose I’ll help. What do the other prophecies say?”
Rolf shook his head. “I’m still in the process of reading them and figuring them out. I’ll let you know what the other six say after I’ve gotten it all figured out.”
Burns, Wynne, and I all nodded, and I cleared my throat. “Let me know when you’ve got it all figured out.”
“I will.” Rolf nodded and motioned toward the door.
I found the gesture offensively dismissive but chose to say nothing. I whistled for Gabriel, and we left, both with rumbling stomachs. “Let’s go find something to eat, shall we?”
As soon as we reached the dining hall, Sam materialized beside me, as if from thin air. I cocked an eyebrow and slid a sideways glance at him. “What do you want?”
He winced and shook his head. “I realize that I may not have made the best impression on you before—”
“No. No, you didn’t. You made the impression that you’re a petulant, spoiled brat who’s used to getting his own way. Is that the impression you intended to make?” I crossed my arms, still mad at how rude he and Kieran had been to each other.
“No! It’s not the impression I wanted to make at all.” He stepped in front of me, halting my progress, and I was caught off-guard by the sincere expression in his blue eyes, so similar to Kieran’s in shape, but a sharp contrast in color. “You have to believe me, I’m not usually like that. It’s just…Kieran and I have some really rough history together. I’m sorry that we made you uncomfortable. Will you please allow me to apologize? I feel terrible, and I’m very good at groveling. That’s something you learn well, growing up in Sigrid’s court.”
“Ah,” I nodded with a sudden wave of understanding, “So that’s where the sore spot originates. Nice. Would you care to elaborate some more, or is that the only morsel I’m going to get out of you?”
Sam bowed his head, speaking quietly and with a greater degree of respect than I had suspected him capable of, at first. “If you agree to help us, I’ll tell you everything you want to know and more.”
“Lucky for you, I was already planning to help you guys out. But, I’m afraid I’m going to have to hold you to that promise to tell me everything I want to know.” I smiled and grabbed a plate, filling it with various vegetables and some chicken.
Sam reddened and shook his head. “Well played, my lady. Very well played. That’s almost courtly of you.”
“Courtly? Pfft. I’d imagine that learning how to navigate a royal court is nothing compared to American high school.”
“Don’t worry about it. Too complicated to explain to an elf from another world that I still can’t even believe exists.”
Sam frowned and looked offended. “You know, all this ‘witch from another world’ business isn’t exactly easy for us to digest.”
I rolled my eyes. “Don’t get your feathers all ruffled. None of this is easy for me, either.” I finished off my lunch and stared him down across the table. “Now, I want to know what you know.”
Just as Sam opened his mouth to explain his history with Kieran, someone burst into the dining hall. The man was wild eyed and obviously in an utter and complete panic. “We’ve had news,” he gasped out to Sam, “The most horrible news. Sigrid and the queen’s Elite Guard are on a rampage. They’re going village to village interrogating people, looking for the raven-haired witch’s location. My cousin Regan’s family was tortured. Even the children. They made their way here afterward to bring us the news.” He studied me with an understandable rage and spat at my feet.
I recoiled instinctually, and Sam clapped the man on the shoulder. “Calm down, MacGivens.”
“Why?” The stocky, red-haired man was outraged. “Why should I be calm when innocent families are being attacked because of her? Personally, I think we ought to serve her up to Sigrid on a platter!”
I winced, but I couldn’t really argue with the man’s sentiment. He had every right to feel the way he did about me.
Rolf, however, didn’t seem to share the sentiment. He stormed up to MacGivens and spoke in a quiet, deadly tone. “If you try it, MacGivens, I swear on everything I hold dear that I will gut you myself. You will not undermine everything I’ve worked for. The prophecies are clear. She will be instrumental in ending this war. If you step out of bounds and jeopardize us all because you can’t keep your temper in check, I will personally end you.”
MacGivens swallowed, his Adam’s apple convulsing with surprising violence. I could see the veins in his temples pulsing with the strain he was exerting to keep from snapping back at Rolf. “Aye, Rolf. You have my word that I won’t do anything rash, but this damn witch had better be worth what she’s cost innocent people.”
I felt a chill down to my bones, and tears burned at the back of my eyes. “Excuse me,” I choked, barely able to make a sound. I turned and ran to my room, Gabriel at my heels and hot tears pouring down my cheeks. I couldn’t contain the sobs that wracked me at the thought of what Sigrid and her QEG had done because of me. I burst into my room and slammed the door shut behind me. Gabriel whimpered and nosed my leg as I began to hyperventilate. I threw myself onto the bed and he leaped up, curling against me and licking my face.
“I can’t do this, Gabriel.” I shuddered and shook my head with the all-consuming misery. “I can’t freaking do this! I’m just a normal girl. I’m not a witch! I’m not magical. I don’t have special powers. I wasn’t made for confrontation. All I have on my side is my freaking iPod! I don’t know how to do this. I don’t know how to handle this.”
I moaned, shaking with grief for people I didn’t even know.
I was still crying when Kieran let himself in. He sat on the edge of the bed, pulled me to him, and started stroking my hair. He was silent until my sobs quieted. I sat up and made eye contact with him. Once again, I felt the inexplicable tug those darkly hypnotic eyes elicited in my chest when they were soft and kind. “Thank you,” I murmured.
He nodded and tucked my hair behind my ears. The feather-light brush of his fingers in the hollows behind my ears sent heat zipping down my spine. “I need you to pull it together for me, please. Can you do that?”
I took a deep breath and nodded in return. “Yeah. I think so. Maybe.”
Kieran leaned in and brushed a kiss against my temple. “You can, and you will because you’re the best bet we’ve got.”