I soaked in the tub until the water was too cold to afford any comfort. Somebody knocked just seconds after I got out and started drying off with the linen. “Who is it?”
“Who do you think?” I would recognize that perpetually annoyed tone anywhere.
“You can’t come in. I’m not dressed.”
“I didn’t expect you were, seeing as how I have our new clothes out here.”
I scrubbed a hand over my face in frustration and stomped over to the door, opening it only far enough to stick my arm out for my clothes. “Thanks.”
“Hurry up. I want to put the rest of these things down and go get supper.” I snatched the clothes and shut the door. “I hope it fits; Eric had to guess at the size.”
I held up the blue wool frock and nodded. It was simple and utilitarian, but it looked soft enough. There was also a pair of simple white linen shorts that I guessed were supposed to be underwear. My gaze darted over to my bra. I’d been wearing it for days, but I didn’t want to go without it. The need to be clean won out and I slid the dress over my head.
“Good.” Kieran barged in, passed me a new cloak and a soft pair of boots, and dumped a pile of stuff on the bed. “Put those on and get your hood up, we’re going to eat.”
The thing that dominated my notice was his newly shorn hair. It was shorter and neater, but still long enough that playing with the curls would be a severe temptation if he weren’t so abrasive. I pulled the boots on and couldn’t help smiling. “These are so soft! What are they made of?”
“Doeskin, now hide that hair and come with me.” I rolled my eyes and tied my hair in a loose knot before jamming it back in my hood and hiding my face. “Remember what I said about not letting anyone see your hair or face…it’s imperative.”
“I get it,” I snapped, following him out the door. “When is Eric going to wash our clothes?”
“While we’re eating.”
I shut the door and followed him downstairs. “What are we having?” I couldn’t douse the eager smile that took over my face at the thought of real food. He turned to face me and pulled the hood a little lower over my face.
“Bread, beef stew, and hot tea. Look down as much as possible.” Kieran led the way into a dimly lit, noisy common room full of crowded tables and chattering patrons.
“Looks like the Eyrie is a pretty popular place.”
He nodded and then paused, giving me a suspicious glare. “How do you know the pub’s name?”
I couldn’t stop myself from grinning. “Eric told me.”
He muttered something under his breath and led me to a small table in the least crowded corner of the room. Food appeared in front of us in an instant and he glared at the serving maids, shooing them without a word.
We ate in silence until the scent of alcohol assailed me and I instinctively looked up. A drunken man was standing at the end of our table leering at me with unfocused eyes. He turned and addressed Kieran rather than me. “Why does your companion have her hood up inside, friend?”
I flinched and my heart skipped a beat, but Kieran gave the man a calm stare. “My sister was cursed seven years ago because she’s an ill-tempered wretch. She’s rather unsightly now, has a tendency for getting violent when people start asking too many questions.”
I kicked him as hard as I could under the table and enjoyed his wince. He scowled at me and turned his glare on the too-curious patron. “See what you’ve done? I’m going to have to ask you to leave before she gets any more upset.” The drunkard gave us a long, dubious stare before staggering away. When I looked back at Kieran, he was smirking.
“You are such a jerk! I can’t believe you just called me ugly. That one’s going to cost you, friend.” I crossed my arms and fumed in silence and considered kicking him somewhere a little more vulnerable when he laughed aloud. I decided against it, but only because we were going to be sleeping in the same room.
I took my cloak off with a sigh as soon as we re-entered our room.
“What?” Kieran yawned and slanted a deflated look in my direction.
“It just feels weird to have to hide my hair and face for nearly every waking moment of the day.”
I slumped down on the surprisingly luxurious bed, noticing that my clothes were dry and folded in a neat stack at the foot of it. My boots were on the floor next to an empty rucksack, and a comb with leather cord wrapped around it sat on the pillow. I unwrapped the comb and started working at detangling my still-damp hair. It was cold, so I relocated to the foot of the bed, as close to the fireplace as possible without sitting on the rough-hewn stone hearth.
“Hiding your appearance is necessary, princess, so you may as well get over it.”
“Don’t call me princess.” I braided my hair and studied his scruffy figure with distaste. “Are you this much of a jerk all the time?”
Kieran scowled over at me, his dark eyes wary and frigid. “What does ‘jerk’ even mean?”
“It means you’re rude, mean, and abrasive.”
“Then yes, I am. Now go to sleep, we have an early start in the morning.” He shot me a stern look to back up his statement. “You can have the bed, and I recommend that you enjoy it because we have a long, bedless journey ahead of us.”
I settled back on the feather mattress and stared up at the thatched ceiling. “Where, exactly, are we going?” The thought of going any great distance with Kieran had my stomach squirming like it was full of Jell-O.
“That isn’t something you need to worry about. Do you even stop talking long enough to sleep?”
I snorted and rolled my eyes. “I’m not even going to dignify that with an answer.”
He dragged a rough-hewn wooden chair from the corner of the room, pushed it against the door and settled in with a smirk. “Just in case you decide to try anything stupid.”
I shook my head and snatched the rucksack off the floor, shoving my clothes, boots, the comb, and my iPod in it. For some inexplicable reason, I didn’t want him anywhere near my iPod. “Night, jerk.”
I glared at him again. “I told you, don’t call me princess.”
As much as I wanted to defy Kieran for his bossiness, I was tired. The bed was the most comfortable thing I’d been on since the last time I’d slept in my own bed at my Mom’s house. I stifled a yawn and curled up under a well-worn patchwork quilt. It was pure heaven while it lasted.
I felt something hit my back and grunted, burying my face deeper in the lumpy feather pillow.
“Get up!” I could hear the bark in Kieran’s voice, but I was in no way ready to get out of bed.
“What time is it?”
“Dawn is a couple of hours away. We need to get out of Pallidia before the sun rises. We’ll have a better chance of escaping without trouble if we leave while the city is still asleep.”
“I am not getting up right now. I feel like I’ve only gotten about three hours of sleep tonight.”
“Whose fault is that?”
“Shut up. I am not getting out of this bed yet.”
I screeched as he flipped me over and tried to slap him, but he caught my wrist and pinned it to the bed. “That is, without a doubt, the worst idea you’ve had since we met, princess.”
“Stop calling me that! I swear I’m going to end up killing you before this is all over.”
“That wouldn’t be an intelligent choice. You know nothing about this world, yet you try to navigate it on your own? Brilliant.”
I snatched my wrist out of his grip and sat up with a groan. “I really, really dislike you right now.”
“I don’t care whether you like me or not. My objective is not to befriend you.”
“What is your ’objective’?” I crossed my arms and stared him down.
“My great-grandfather thinks you may be of some use to us, so I’m taking you to meet him.”
I felt my jaw drop and I reddened from the neck up. “What the heck made him think I might be useful to you? How does he even know about me?”
“He knows about you because I happened to witness your rather spectacular arrival when I was doing some reconnaissance on the queen. I reported back to him, he said something about a prophecy and told me to retrieve you. So, here we are.”
I shook my head and pulled on the cloak, keeping my hair back without having to be told. We were almost out of the city when Damon stepped out of the shadows in front of us.
“Going somewhere, friends?”
“Yes. I’m taking my sister back to her home in Helgard. Summer in Pallidia appears not to agree with her.”
“May I see her face?”
“One of the queen’s prisoners has escaped and the queen’s Elite Guard have been ordered to capture and return her. So, you understand why we need to identify everyone who is attempting to leave Pallidia.”
“I’m afraid my sister is cursed and quite hideous. She would kill anyone who sees her face.”
“I’ll take that chance, friend.” Damon stepped closer and reached for my hood.
“I think not.” Kieran moved quickly, darting toward Damon in a blur. Blood blossomed on Damon’s cheek, though I never even saw the knife.
The guard let out a stream of violent swears and struck back at Kieran. I couldn’t help staring as they fought. They looked like a pair of starved cats fighting over a kill. Kieran slammed his fist into the side of Damon’s head five or six times in a matter of about two seconds and the elf went down, sprawling in the middle of the street.
“Move!” Kieran bellowed, shoving me toward the city gates as the castle clock struck three. I staggered, regained my balance, and sprinted for the massive arch, hearing clinks and the grinding of huge metal gears. “The portcullis,” he shouted, catching up and grabbing my arm.
“The what?” I had to take three strides to each one of his and prayed I wouldn’t fall.
“The gigantic iron gate with spikes on the bottom that’s going to come crashing to the ground at any moment!” That succeeded in stepping up my sprint. I was breaking even with Kieran when the portcullis slammed closed behind us.
I yelped as the ground vibrated and doubled my pace, a stitch stabbing into my side as I ran. Kieran glared over at me, though he never stopped moving. “You are a jinx!”
I wheezed, clutching my side. “You’re going to blame Damon showing up on me? It’s not like I waved my arms and screamed, ‘Hey guards, we’re over here,’ or something!” I gritted my teeth and pushed harder, trying to keep pace with him.
He slowed his pace and squeezed my arm. “Easy, now. Catch your breath.”
“Do we really have time for that?”
“We have a couple of moments, yes. It’s going to take them a lot longer to get that portcullis back up than it did to let it down.”
I nodded and doubled over, gasping for air. “So where are we going?” I straightened up enough to see a village relatively close to us and nodded toward it. “There?”
“No.” My heart sank as Kieran pointed toward a tree line that was at least twice as far away from us as the village. “The queen’s Elite Guard will expect us to head for the village, and our presence would endanger all the families living there. Plus, I’m better in the woods.”