When Kaor disappeared, Leah felt all eyes go to her. She shivered but it wasn’t because of the cold or the snow. It wasn’t even because of the calculating glances she received from some of the townspeople.
It was something else entirely.
She’d never before doubted Kaor’s devotion to her or his desire to be with her but now she wasn’t so sure.
It seemed the man barely knew her.
Had he really thought she’d abandon him in his hour of need? She’d been forced to play a part; surely, he’d seen that?
The betrayal she’d seen in his eyes made her wonder.
She’d done what had been necessary and had expected him to be smart enough to realize it.
I don’t mind if you help, Leah thought, repeating Kaor’s words to herself. They were like hot coals that fell on her shoulders and slipped down her back. Does he honestly think so little of me? He can’t possibly know the first thing about me.
His words echoed around her mind, making her angry and sad at the same time. They had the effect of calling into question the exact nature of their relationship.
Perhaps he said them to cast doubt away from me, she thought, looking for a reason to explain the misstep. But that didn’t really make sense either, now did it? If anything, it heightened the suspicion of anybody who had already started to wonder if she’d known he was a rebel.
Judging by some of the looks, her guess wasn’t far wrong. Frannie and the merchant beside her whispered while looking Leah’s way. No, Kaor hadn’t done Leah any favors by suggesting she help build the bonfire.
If he’d been smart, he would have reinforced her cover by apologizing, saying something about how he regretted what he was, and had hated lying to her all this time. Something that would have put her above reproach. She’d been forced to dig in when he hadn’t realized what she was doing, going so far as to call more attention to him.
Why hadn’t the cursed fool run sooner?
They’d lost precious time.
Franni nodded back towards an alley and the merchant followed her.
What are you up to? Leah wondered, trying to keep the appropriate expression of horror on her face. She’d never liked Franni, but the feeling was mutual. The woman had always seemed the type to say and do whatever she needed to get what she wanted. Just as Franni disappeared, she favored Leah with a small smile. Something about her eyes made Leah grimace and curl her fist.
Come at me, you old hag, see what I’m capable of.
Ruc’s horn winded again, much closer than it had been originally, and she shuddered. She was glad it wasn’t coming for her but was horrified it called after the man she loved. Even if the fool had so little faith in her.
Stop it! Leah thought. Kaor’s life is in jeopardy and you’re trying to find meaning where there isn’t any. She wouldn’t have done any better in his situation. She needed to give him the benefit of the doubt.
“You best be getting on too,” Stan Trachur whispered in her ear, his words an echo of her own thoughts. “I don’t like the way some are looking at you.”
It was difficult not to pull back from the man’s breath, but she managed to do it. He was, after all, trying to help her. He wouldn’t have been an ally she would have chosen, but it was good to have somebody who wasn’t looking at her and thinking they could claim a bag of gold by capturing her. Three witnesses were all that was needed to claim she’d been giving aid to a rebel. It was supposed to be more complicated than that, but she’d never heard of somebody who’d been freed when there had been three or more witnesses testify against them.
It was better not to take the chance. Her best option to get out of this alive was to portray confidence, something she felt slipping away at an ever-increasing pace.
“I’ve nothing to fear,” she said, raising her voice more than necessary. She was just glad it didn’t waver or crack. “I’ve just learned of this, same as you. If any fool tries to claim I was aiding a rebel, they’ll find I’ve got quite the bite for being such a small woman.” She pulled out the dagger she kept strapped to her arm and flashed it against the lantern light before making it disappear. It was a move she’d practiced hundreds of times but never done in public. The sharp blade scraped her arm on reentry. She hoped it hadn’t drawn blood. She’d feel right foolish if it started dripping down her arm.
The knife trick earned a raised eyebrow from Stan and he raised a hand to squeeze her shoulder. She gritted her teeth and forced a grin.
It had taken every ounce of resolve to not shove Stan’s hand off her when he’d arrived. Many in East Ridge thought Stan’s wife Jules was the one to watch out for, but Leah had heard stories about Stan that would have raised most people’s neck hair. Her mother had forbidden her from going near the man when she’d been younger.
As Stan stared into her eyes, it occurred to Leah that he was much closer than he’d originally been when this had all started.
He had been whispering and it might have just been concern for her welfare, but could it be something else as well? The way Jules stepped beside him and hooked her arm through his while giving Leah a wary look was all the proof Leah needed to know there was something to the rumors about the man.
If word ever got out on him, he’d be run out of town.
From what little Leah knew, Jules had a right to be as bitter and acidic as she was. Leah would have been too if her husband had been fonder of other men’s ladies than her. It was no secret Stan tended to dote on women most would describe as pretty. It was also often observed he was not kind to his wife. That might not have been so bad if that’s where all the stories stopped, but that wasn’t the case.
Stan’s fingers curled around Leah’s shoulder again and it took every bit of her willpower to keep from cringing. Where had the man’s hands been last? She avoided shuddering as she imagined several possibilities before she could stop herself.
It was better she didn’t speculate.
She looked around, careful to not let anybody see her check the spot where Kaor had disappeared. She didn’t think Kaor would have stopped once he was out of view, but she wanted to make sure he was gone. Stress could do strange things to a person. By all appearances, Kaor appeared to have handled it well enough—if only the fool would have run immediately—but she hated the thought of him becoming paralyzed with fear and not making it far.
When Kaor had finally run, she’d forced her legs to not move, though she wanted nothing more than to chase after him. Every instinct screamed at her to run too. Whether it was more for her desire to be with him or throttle him or escape the suspicious looks of the mob, she couldn’t be sure. When he’d disappeared, a little voice in the back of her head had said it was the last she’d ever see him. She’d argued with it but feared it would be the case.
Kaor might have foolishly put her in this position, but that wasn’t an excuse for her to act on instinct. Quite the contrary, now was the time to avoid any possible misstep. There were a lot of eyes on her, searching for the slightest excuse to take her captive and claim she’d given him aid. Kaor had hunters, hounds, lucent wolves, and a mage, all clamoring for his head.
They were likely to get it too.
It galled her to think the last thing he might do before he died was curse her name because he’d refused to listen to good sense and leave months ago.
Well, if he doesn’t survive this, perhaps there’s a place for me in the traveling troops, she thought bitterly. She’d been positive Kaor had seen right through her mask, but he’d actually looked hurt. I’m not a bad actor.
“What did you say to her?” Jules demanded of Stan, her voice quiet but higher than normal. “Tell me what you said!” Jules stared at Leah with cold eyes, daring Leah to touch her man.
Like I’d want the creeper, Leah thought and almost said aloud. She refrained from doing so because, like it or not, Stan had been looking out for her. With the two split in opinion, she liked her chances a little better.
Leah’s mom believed Jules knew of Stan’s behavior but just pretended like she didn’t. If that were true, didn’t that make her a silent accomplice to everything Stan had done?
“Nothing dear.” Stan shook his head and muttered something inaudible. “Nothing at all.” Stan let up on Leah’s shoulder but not before giving it a small squeeze that made her want to retch. There had been a promise to the touch; she was certain she hadn’t imagined it.
“It didn’t look like nothing!” Jules turned to Leah. “You knew about Kaor, didn’t you? I’ve seen the way the two of you walk around town, holding hands while deep in conversation. There’s no way you didn’t. Men are terrible with secrets and even worse liars.” She glared at Stan.
Leah frowned but kept her voice still. “Perhaps some men are, same as some women, but it’s hardly fair to judge all based on your limited experience.” She sighed and looked down. “Truth is, I knew he was keeping something from me. I thought it might have been the theft of Ally’s chicks, never anything like this.” She let her anger show. “To think he was hiding this from me.”
How could the fool man have so little faith in me? Leah wondered again, wishing Kaor was standing in front of her so she could wrap her hands around his throat. We’ve been together six months. I’ve come close to professing love and he’s been close as well. How can he think I’d abandon him?
“Some women are indeed bad liars,” Jules said. “Perhaps, Stan, you can make up for your folly now. We just need another witness.”
“Oh, leave off, woman!” Stan kept his voice low and looked around. “Come off it! No amount of money is worth blood on our hands.”
“You owe me. For… everything.”
“Don’t you dare—”
Leah stepped forward and bent down so she was in Jules’s face, keeping her voice low so that only the two of them could hear. It was time to make a threat strong enough that Jules would think twice. “Back off. You try anything and I’ll make sure word of Stan gets to the right ears. Too many people have turned a blind eye and let the guilt sour in their gut to not step forward when it comes to light.”
“I won’t be held responsible for his crimes!” Jules spat.
“Oh. So you know. That will earn you a lot of sympathy from the mayor and his council, I imagine.”
“Careful, girl.” Stan’s eyes were cold as he leaned in. “I’m trying to help.”
Jules paled as Ruc’s horn sounded, it was much closer than it had been before and drew all their attention. Leah wasn’t sure how much time had passed since Kaor had run. She would have expected Ruc to be in a hurry, anxious to get after his quarry. Instead, Ruc strolled up, calm as the dead of night, his dogs milling around him like bees. They snapped at one another, anxious for the chase. The crowd parted around them, giving them a wide berth.
Scut Grelmer hadn’t moved since Kaor had conjured the lightning bolt and stolen his bow. Leah had been so wrapped up in everything else she hadn’t thought about the boy. He rubbed his eyes, large tears rolling down his face as he blinked and tried to look around.
The poor boy, he never should have antagonized a rebel. He should have known better. Kaor will feel guilty about him losing his vision.
One of the dogs brushed against Scut, who lurched away. The dog snapped at the sudden movement and bit his leg. Scut screamed as he toppled over. The dog was on top of him before anybody could move. Scut froze, his cry dying on his lips.
“Wrong quarry, dog.” Ruc’s voice had a jovial edge to it and if he felt any sympathy for Scut, it didn’t show on his face. “Watch out, boy, he doesn’t take kindly to fast movements. I’ve trained him to bite first and wait for me to shoot second.”
“Ruc.” Stan’s voice was flat and tired. “Call the dog off. He was blinded by the rebel.”
Ruc licked his lips, a smile forming on his face. “A fighter,” he said softly. He waved his hand and the dog backed off. “It’s been a long time since we’ve had one of those. It will be good to have a challenge for a change.
Scut grabbed his leg and sat up, his eyes focusing clearly on the dog while he blinked. Leah felt a swell of relief as Scut backed away, grabbing his leg and whimpering.
Ruc bent to look at the boy. “We’ll get him. You won’t have suffered in vain. I’ll make him pay. Would you like that?”
The boy hesitated. He knew Ruc’s reputation. It wasn’t wise to provoke the man. He nodded as Ruc straightened.
“Well, who’s the lucky rebel this time?” Ruc’s smile made Leah’s stomach do flips and her hands clenched into fists. It took effort, but she was able to uncurl them.
Ruc’s lips were cracked and bleeding. How could he live like that?
Light’s above! Leah thought. I hope it’s his blood.
Some said Ruc liked his meat raw, but she’d never believed it. She was beginning to rethink that. There were some in East Ridge who claimed to like Ruc, but Leah had always suspected they’d only said such things because they hoped Ruc might show them mercy if they turned out to be a rebel.
Saying such things did them no favors. If anything, Ruc tended to keep an eye on those more than most.
Ruc’s double swords formed an awkward cross on his back. Despite being full-sized, they looked small against his massive form. He had a long spear, and Leah lost count of the daggers he had hanging from various spots about his person.
His large fur coat had the skin of several different animals and probably hid plenty of other weapons as well. His hair went every which way and was starting to turn gray, though it was difficult to determine for certain with all the grease. If the man ever took a bath, she’d never been able to tell. He’d smelled for as long as she’d known him.
Ruc wasn’t self-conscious about it, sometimes joking with others about his stench. Any that heard the frivolity were careful to study Ruc before they reacted, never quite sure if it was some sort of setup.
Leah’s earliest memory of Ruc was of him whistling as he walked down the road with the body of a young man thrown over his shoulder in much the same way most men might carry a small deer, turkey, or boar. Even as a little child, she’d known there was something wrong with the man. People didn’t behave that way.
Leah’s dad had picked her up suddenly, hugging her to his chest and obscuring her view of the ghastly scene. He’d tensed as if he were going to speak to Ruc, but many seconds passed before he muttered something under his breath that Leah hadn’t been able to understand. Ruc turned the corner without her father confronting him.
Ruc had only had the one dog back then—Scar—and that dog led the way today. The other hounds kept a wary eye on Scar, careful to keep their distance.
She’d never quite gotten over her fear of Scar, but at least she didn’t feel the need to hide from the animal in the way she had when she’d been young.
“It’s Lidy’s kid,” Stan said, breaking into Leah’s thoughts. “Kaor.” Despite Stan’s words to Kaor earlier and his defense of Leah afterward, there wasn’t the slightest indication on either his face or in his tone to betray his apparent mixed feelings.
Ruc rubbed his bearded chin and stared at Leah, crumbs falling from it as he did. A small piece of food that looked like fried chicken was knocked loose as well. One of the dogs stopped to lap it up before it continued to circle around him, growling as it did.
Ruc’s eyes bored into Leah. He knew about them. Cursed night, anybody in town would have known about them if all they did was keep their eyes open.
“Did anybody help him?” Ruc asked, his wicked smile broadening.
Stan shook his head. “It’s just the boy. Don’t try to wrap up another innocent person into all this.” He took Jules by the arm and placed a hand on her back. She hadn’t looked ready to say anything but threw Stan a resentful look.
Ruc growled, his smile turning to bared teeth. “The girl was always with him.”
Leah sniffed, outraged. “If you have an accusation, make it straight and be done with it! I wouldn’t lift a finger to help a rebel. Kaor is not the man I thought he was.”
Ruc chuckled, it sounded hollow in his chest. “Seems as close as you two were, you’d have known about this.” He licked his cracked lips. “There’s good money in traitors.”
Leah stepped forward, fueling her rage with her hurt. “He lied to me but have it your way.” She pulled open her coat. “Here, run me through the heart.” She stepped forward, confronting the big man. “Take my blood. It is freely offered and will condemn you. Make it a fine end to a fine cursed day.”
Ruc stepped back as she took another forward. It felt good to make the monster of a man do her bidding, if only for a heartbeat.
“Well, isn’t this rich,” Ruc said, chuckling. “Leah Canes. I won’t come for you.” He paused. “Today.” Without another word, he plodded off in the direction Kaor had gone, his dark chuckle audible long after he was gone from view.