Excerpt

This excerpt is from Chapter 6: It Won’t Come to That. Roderic and Anne have just had an argument because he missed showing up for an assignment. (For a very good reason. He just learned that his parents were kidnapped.) In the aftermath of her scathing rebuke, Roderic goes to a hut outside the castle to cool off…

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There was no way he was going to keep guarding her. Knight Pierre should be able to resume his duties as her personal guard immediately.

He stared at the walls. She was irrational. Purely irrational, that’s all there was to it. The little woman was out of her mind. The princess who wants to be a scullery maid, but is completely furious when someone forgets about her. He thumped his head against the back of the chair. And then again. Thump. Thump. THUMP.

Oww. He winced as shards of pain ricocheted through his brain. No, she wasn’t worth all that. He rolled his neck back, and then forward, releasing tension. Breathe in, breathe out.

He stared outside the grungy window at nothing in particular. Life was going on, and as tired as he was, he could make it through another day. There were more important things he needed to do than sit around fuming over Adrienne du Parries. He could curry-comb his horse.

Stepping slowly out of the house he saw a white clad figure, Anne, stomping through the wheat field. She’d run away from her lecture and Madame Veiller was no where in sight. Well, so be it. If she wanted to find out why it was so dangerous to be a noble, why she needed all that protection, running off alone was a good way to learn. If she was so miserable with castle life, well, it’d be better for all concerned if she just disappeared right then.

But he could see her. He’d heard the plotters last night. Zohlton wanted to kill her.

He watched her bobbing gently up and down, crossing the field with her thin arms swinging briskly. She looked so open, vulnerable, like easy prey, and the plotters would have had more than enough time to come this far. They might abandon their idea of an ambush to take her now while she was unprotected.

He walked into the field, legs engulfed in a golden sea of wheat, and looked toward the forest where dark shadows were moving between the trees.

His heart skipped. Panic surged through his tired body, followed by a different sensation: raw strength in his arms and legs. His head still ached, but his vision sharpened with stark clarity. Bending over, he walked faster in a crouched position, poking his head up every so often to check his bearing and Anne’s position.

She was toiling on, arms swinging harder.

He angled closer to her, pushing through the scratchy, thick crop, pausing to listen. All he heard was the gentle swish of wheat and Anne breathing hard. Carefully, he edged toward the top of the stalks, scanning his surroundings.

Two horses emerged from the woods, cantering toward the field.

A jolt of electricity traveled through him in a millisecond. He drew his sword and ran, staying low, eyes locked on Anne who was standing still, facing the horsemen. Then, warily, she lifted her skirt and started hurrying back the way she had come.

He jerked her down between the stalks.

“Aghh!” She tried to stand.

He caught her shoulder and yanked her back down. “Shhh.”

Her eyes locked on his sword and her mouth dropped open. “I…”

“Anne, they’re assassins. Come with me.”

Her face looked blank. She didn’t comprehend.

“Anne, stay close to me.”

The color drained from her cheeks as she crawled closer to him. “What?”

“Stay right behind me and be quiet.” He maneuvered through the wheat, staying as low as possible. They crawled forty feet, making slow progress through the crop.

Roderic eased up to check the position of the assassins. The horsemen were plodding over the ground where she had disappeared. They paused. Scanning. Scanning. Scanning.

Behind him, Anne fidgeted—rustling too loudly.

Roderic gripped her arm and glared, splaying his hands, begging her to be still. Like a naïve child, she didn’t understand danger. Sheltered in a castle all her life how could she? And he? No. He didn’t understand it either. That scared him. If Fardius was here, squatted low in a field with assassins looking for him, he wouldn’t be afraid. The man had tasted danger so often that it held no power over him.

He drew a breath and checked their position again. The assassins talked at a corner of the field and then split up, marching their horses through in a grid-like search pattern. Not much time.

He had to get the attention of the tower guards, or do something on his own. He felt the panic begin to ebb away as a plan began to form in his mind. The peace, the calm reliance was still there. He swallowed. What had Berenicé said? Do what you can and leave the rest to God.

Sliding his sword back into his scabbard, he felt the sheathed dagger at his thigh, nodding to himself. Two horsemen. Two. He had to get close.

Backing up to Anne, he took a four-inch knife from his belt, and pressed the handle firmly in her palm. “Lie down, flat as you can. Don’t get up for anything.”

“Roderic…I…” she shook her head, holding the knife away from her.

“Anne. You won’t have to. It won’t come to that. Just hang on to it for me?”

Her icy fingers touched the top of his hand. “Be careful.”

“Stay down.” Stretching up again, he spotted the nearest horseman, flipped over, and crawled to an intercept point, waiting.

The horse came closer. Phoomp, phoomp, phoomp. Snort.

Closer. Phoomp, phoomp, phoomp. Silence.

Wait.

Phoomp, phoomp…

Now.

Roderic sprang out of the field, and hurled a dagger into the assassin’s heart.

Mouth gaping, his eyes met Roderic’s, as white, fierce shock froze the man’s expression.  The man looked down at his chest, and his face contorted with pain as he fell from his horse.

A dreadful poison spread through Roderic. Horror invaded every pore, weighing him down. In a trance he stumbled forward, kneeling beside the fallen man, dead, just that fast, with a sickly blue tone on his bearded face, his eyes open, staring into eternity.

Guilt and remorse spiraled through Roderic as he touched the lifeless body.

Ka-thump-thump, Ka-thump-a-dah-dump.

The other horseman. Riding hard.

Roderic blinked. There was another one out there coming to get him. He would die if he didn’t move. Driving his emotions to a deep corner of his soul, Roderic grabbed the reins of the dead man’s horse and mounted.

The other rider was galloping at him, only two hundred yards away.

He dug his spurs into the horse, and felt it surge ahead. The wheat heads slapped his boots as he forged ahead on a collision course with the remaining assassin.

The menace looked down.

Wrong place. No. Not there. He shouldn’t have left Anne alone.

The cloaked man jumped from the horse and plunged into the wheat, disappearing from view.

“YAH!” Roderic jabbed the horse with the spurs. Sword out. Come on! Faster! FASTER!

Ahead, the wheat stalks wavered.

“NO!” he screamed at his horse. It charged forward, mowing the crop, plowing, churning, fighting the terrain.

He squeezed his eyes shut and for an instant saw the image of the man he’d just killed. Alive one moment. Dead the next. Gone.

Not to Anne. He would not let her die. Fifty yards to go.


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