Someone shook me and it dragged me out of exhaustion’s perfect oblivion. By sheer force of habit, I groaned. “Five more minutes, Mom.”
“I’m not sure an extraction will work with the girl in this state. She doesn’t even know where she is.”
Damon. If I’d possessed the energy, I would have told him to go rot. Instead, I managed an incoherent, wheezing grunt.
“No. She needs time to recover. An extraction right now would kill her.”
I felt him drape a blanket over me and, by instinct, caught his hand and gave it a light squeeze. “Thanks.”
He tucked my hand under the blanket without reply. “Bring food, water, and perhaps a little wine to keep her from catching her death of cold before Queen Sigrid can find out what she needs to know. I will inform her that we should wait until tomorrow before she tries another extraction.”
The door banged shut and I pulled the blanket tight around me, even managing to get a little of it between the floor and me. I made sure that no part of me was exposed to the damp air. The difference the blanket made was staggering. I got the first restful sleep I’d had since I woke up in Daraglathia.
Something prodded me in the side and I groaned. Rather than stopping, the prodding grew more urgent and I cracked an eyelid just far enough open to see that it was Damon poking me in the side with the toe of his boot. “You need to eat.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“Your stomach was growling while you were asleep.”
“With all due respect, I’m not about to eat just so your paranoid queen can go poking around in my head some more.”
“You’re going to eat.”
“Okay, I’ll try explaining without the respect this time and see if you get the picture. I am not going to eat just so that insecure whack-job can violate my personal, private memories.”
Damon blanched and leaned down until the tips of our noses collided. “If Queen Sigrid did not need you alive to extract your memories, I would kill you for saying such things. Do it again and I may not be able to keep myself from taking your life.”
“Oh my God, you’re in love with her.”
“Silence!” He grabbed a handful of my hair and squirrel-dragged me farther away from the door. He knelt in front of me, and the frigid violence in his eyes froze me where I sat. “You are never to voice that thought again! If you do, I’ll kill you and damn the consequences. Do we understand one another?”
“We do now.”
“Good. Now, you will eat the food I brought you.”
“Whatever you say.”
“Every morsel better be gone when I return.”
“I’ll get right on that.”
I couldn’t help the sarcasm, and I could tell it got under his skin because his eye started twitching just before he turned and stormed out. One more point for me.
I considered dumping everything into the sewer, but my hunger got the better of me. I even drank the God-awful wine, which tasted like what I’ve always imagined lighter fluid would taste like. Well, if I ever make it to 21, this is definitely not on my list of things to drink. Lighter fluid or not, it warmed me up and I huddled in the blanket once again, knowing it wouldn’t be long before Damon was back.
I was still awake when Damon returned and didn’t bother protesting when he hauled me up and marched me back to Sigrid’s study chamber. I was numb and I knew there wasn’t a single thing I could do to stop her. I slumped onto a wooden bench and gave her a hollow-eyed stare. “Go ahead and get this over with, will you?”
She beamed at Damon. “Your methods worked, Damon. I must say I am surprised and impressed.”
I watched him flush with pleasure and stare down at the floor. “Thank you, my lady.”
She nodded and turned her attention to me. “Surrender the truth, witch.”
My most recent Christmas flashed by. Once again, I was stunned by my father’s marriage to Michelle. I showed up on my mother’s doorstep; I took that fateful walk on the wrong side of town. I relived the chase up the alley and the blinding pain as one of my pursuers slammed a brick into the side of my head. After that, nothing…there was a black void and then I was blinking up at Sigrid.
She glared at me with confused frustration and tried to force her way into my memory again. No memory came. My mind didn’t reveal my encounter with the Messengers. I was sure that was their doing, and I was beyond grateful for it. I almost laughed when she smashed the nearest oil lamp.
“It’s useless,” she shrieked, “Take her back to the dungeon until I can find a way to get around this mental block of hers.”
I couldn’t hold the laughter in any longer, and the hysterical giggling even made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Damon dragged me back to my cell and sat me down with my back against the stone wall. I slumped forward and laughed myself to sleep, muttering a genuine, grateful thank-you to the Messengers as I went.
I jarred awake as something clamped over my mouth. I tried to scream, but it was no use. I attempted to turn my head, but the person’s other arm snaked around my waist. I could feel whoever it was hauling me back against a hard, warm chest as he stood up, pulling me with him. He was tall enough that my toes were barely brushing the dungeon’s stone floor. I clawed at the hand over my mouth and whoever had me squeezed my waist tighter.
“Stop,” a masculine voice hissed. “Don’t fight me. I’m getting you out of here.”
I went still and gave a cautious nod. It seemed like an age before the man let go of my waist and pulled his hand away from my mouth. “Who are you?”
“Who I am is of little consequence, sorceress. How many of the Queen’s guards have you scarred with those bloody talons of yours?”
It took me a moment to register the feeling of blood on my fingertips. “Sorry.”
“Don’t apologize. It was instinct, and I wager you’ll be needing instincts like that here.”
“Do your current surroundings not answer that question well enough?”
“Fair point. How, exactly, do you plan to get me out of here? How in the world did you get in here, for that matter?”
“Save the questions for later. We need to leave now, so follow me.”
I shifted with discomfort. “I can’t see.”
The man grunted in frustration, grabbed my arm, and pulled me toward him. I stumbled into his chest and jumped back like I’d been struck by lightning. He snorted and moved around behind me, placing his hands on my waist. I shuddered at his hot breath whispering in my ear. “I’m going to guide you, just trust me.”
“Will you stop being difficult and let me rescue you?”
“What’s your angle?”
“Be quiet.” He nudged me forward and I caught a strong whiff of sewage.
“Do you want to get out of here or not?”
“Of course I do but isn’t there some other way?”
“This is the best way,” he snapped, “but you’re welcome to try and find your own way out. That seems to have worked quite well for you thus far.”
I clenched my teeth and hissed a sigh through them. “Fine, but you’re not allowed to be angry if I throw up on you—this was your idea.”
“I’m just warning you. That is the most awful smell I’ve ever encountered!”
“Stop talking and start moving.” He gripped me under my arms, lowered me into the hole and let go. I fell at least a couple of feet and staggered into a wall when my feet slipped on the wet stone. I couldn’t stop myself from gagging and clapped my hands over my mouth and nose as human, or elven, waste squished up around my boots.
“How did you get the bars out of the way?”
“I told you to save your questions.” He grabbed my upper arm and started tugging me through the narrow sewer tunnels, just big enough for a person to get through and clean them out once or twice a year.
“This is disgusting. We’re going to get some kind of disease traipsing around in this mess.”
He ignored my statement and continued pulling me through the mazelike tunnels. Visibility started to improve as we continued and after a couple more minutes, I could see just fine. I jerked my arm out of his grip and he turned to stare at me.
“What are you doing?”
“I can see now, thanks.”
He threw back the hood of his cloak and backed me against a wall, his hazel eyes, a mixture of dark chocolate and gold flakes, glittering with the calculation of a predator. “Don’t do anything stupid, girl.”
“I have a name.”
He rolled his eyes and pushed a hand through the ash-brown curls of his hair. I admit it, I was distracted for a couple of seconds by how long it was—it fell a few inches below his shoulders. “Please, tell me how you would like me to address you, and I will be happy to oblige.”
“Don’t take that tone with me. You don’t have to be a jerk.”
“That one,” I said. You don’t care what my name is, and I’m guessing you aren’t likely to call me anything besides ‘girl.’”
I saw a muscle in his jaw twitch and he spoke through gritted teeth. “I was serious and please pardon my tone. I’m just a little irritated that you feel the need to be a talkative, nosy, typical female while I’m trying to rescue you.”
“How original, I’m being rescued by a chauvinist.”
“A man who assumes that women know nothing and believes that we females should worship the ground he walks on.”
“Are you going to tell me your name or not?”
“My name is Lauren.” I crossed my arms and gave him a suspicious glare. “What about you? Do you have a name?”
“Yes. If you insist on using names, you may call me Kieran. Are you finished antagonizing the man who just saved you now, or are you determined to convince me to take you back to that putrid little cell of yours?”
“Fine,” I mumbled under my breath.
“What was that? I didn’t hear you.”
He smirked. “Now, was that really so hard?”
I sighed and shook my head. “When are we going to get out of this reeking maze?”
“We have to wait until the sun goes down. What happened to you being quiet?”
I crossed my arms and stared up at the ceiling. I’m going to kill him if he keeps this up.
It felt like an age passed before night fell and Kieran shoved his cloak at me. “Put that on and pull the hood up. Don’t take the hood off for any reason.”
I shrugged on the mass of heather-gray cloth, clasped it, and flipped the hood up over my head. “All right, I’m ready.”
“Not yet.” Kieran shook his head and tugged on my hair. “You need to hide this. I’m reasonably sure that you are the only female in Daraglathia with obscenely long black hair.”
“You are such a girl! Just hide the hair, will you? It’s nothing personal, people in Daraglathia just don’t have black hair. It’s unnatural and it makes you easily identifiable, which is a problem.”
I glared at him as I stuffed my hair back in the hood. “Happy now?”
“Much better, now let’s go.”
I followed him out of the sewers and through an endless labyrinth of claustrophobic back alleys before he stopped in a small, cobbled courtyard. The stench of horse droppings wafted out of the thatch-roofed stable that made up one side of the courtyard’s perimeter, and it was almost a welcome change after spending most of the day in the sewers. Kieran crossed the hard, well-worn stone yard and knocked on a wooden door that I hadn’t even noticed. A moment later, an older, portly man pulled the door open and glared out at us until recognition bloomed on his weary features.
“Kieran! Come in, my friend. How are you?” His greeting dwindled as he sniffed and pinched his nose. “You smell horrible! Have you been running around in a sewer?”
“As a matter of fact, I have. Listen, Eric, the girl and I both need baths, new clothes, and to have these clothes washed. Our shoes need cleaning and we need an extra pair of boots each.”
“Girl?” The man peered around Kieran and frowned, squinting at me through half-moon spectacles.
“Is this she? Why on earth is she wearing a hooded cloak in midsummer?”
“Sigrid’s soldiers are looking for her. It’s best if no one has a chance to identify her. Come to think of it, she could use a cloak of her own, as well.”
Eric nodded and ushered us in. “Private baths, I assume?”
“I’ll chance it in the public baths, but take her to my room and have a tub of hot water carried in.”
The pub keeper bowed so deeply that his glasses almost fell off his nose. “I will see to it immediately. Follow me, miss.”
I hesitated until Kieran gave an encouraging nod. Eric led the way up two sets of narrow, creaky stairs, pushed open a heavy oak door and stood aside so I could enter. “You’ll be safe here at the Eyrie, miss. If you need anything at all, please do not hesitate to ring for me.” He gestured to a rope beside the door and started to leave.
“What about payment? I don’t have any money.”
A confused frown furrowed his brow. “Did Mr. Amsel not tell you? Your companion is the owner of this public house. That is not a well-known fact, I grant you, and he prefers to keep it that way. I just thought that you’d know since he brought you here. In any case, I am the owner as far as anyone knows, but in reality I am but his humble servant.” I stared at him, unable to process the information that had just been dumped into my lap. “I wager this won’t be the last time you’re surprised in his company. Kieran has many secrets, miss, but I had better leave before I reveal any more. Your tub of hot water will be delivered as soon as possible.”
Eric was gone before I could respond and I wandered over to the window with a frown. I can’t help feeling that this guy has some kind of plan for me. A shiver skipped down my spine. What could it be? Why would he rescue me if he intended to do me harm?
I whirled around when a pair of men entered the room with a tub of steaming water, soap and linen. They deposited the items next to the fireplace and bowed out of the room, shutting the door behind them. I didn’t miss the fact that they avoided looking at me.
How much clout does this Kieran guy have?
I sank into the tub of hot water and sighed. I’ve never been more grateful for a simple bath in my whole life. Muscles that had been knotted since my second night in Sigrid’s dungeon spasmed and released. I grabbed the bar of soap and was surprised by the light, floral scent. I suppose I was expecting something harsh. I cleaned up and soaked until the water went cold.