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Shadowblade: (A Dance of Fire and Shadow Book 1) – Chapter 7


MASTER, TO MY GREAT surprise it appears I have fulfilled your final instruction.

I am still alive, saved by a remarkable woman.

She is beautiful and clever, a talented healer.

If I can persuade her to join us, I have a little more hope for our success.

I await your orders,     M.

.

.

It seems that Deris has misplaced his trust in me as a healer. We find Marin unconscious on the ground outside the hut. He is still wrapped in the rough felted blanket I had covered him with but even so he’s cold, his skin pallid under its golden tan.

We get him inside and covered with every bit of spare blanket and clothing I can find. I can’t blame this failure entirely on the delay caused by my capture. Those smelly bandits were only part of the problem. I allowed myself to be fooled by Marin’s steely self-control and determination, mistaking it for the beginnings of a recovery. I don’t want to contemplate the possibility that the Blade’s gift is already clouding my judgement.

Brac and Deris pile the retrieved weapons into the back of the cave that once served as a charcoal store. Nem builds up the fire before I even need to ask and in a few minutes I manage to stir Marin into enough semblance of consciousness to drink some hot mint infusion. The warmth seems to revive him but I’m more cautious now, determined not to confuse his steely willpower with genuine recovery. My healer’s judgement might work better if I can avoid getting too distracted by my heightened awareness of the way he makes me feel… so alive.

I give him the dried fruit from my pack. It’s not much, but better than nothing. He smiles as he accepts it, acknowledging the gift by squeezing my hand.

I stifle a gasp as a wild tingling runs through me at his touch and when I look up in surprise I can tell he feels the same. His eyes hold mine for a long moment and I sense a depth of understanding and power in him, more than I noticed before. He is still a mystery, and yet in a strange way I feel… already bound to him in a way I can’t explain.

Drawn to him like a moth to flame, I can sense every part of my body responding to that brief contact. My surroundings, the people moving quietly around the dimly-lit room, all seem to fade into obscurity as I stare at him in shock and wonder. I have never felt anything like this. It feels almost like an echo of the Blade’s power but without the sinister undercurrents.

The handsome lines of his face brighten as he smiles again. He gives back the empty cup and his hand brushes against my arm. I can tell the touch was intentional and sense intuitively that he is as intrigued and curious by this compelling attraction as I am. Maybe his recent encounter with death has allowed him a brief release from discipline and duty to simply be himself for a few precious moments. My heart is already beating faster with the awareness that his brief respite of freedom has suddenly included me.

I can feel the longing in his gaze. If only the others were not here, I would be tempted to tease him about conserving his strength and maybe the teasing would lead to other things… but he seems to read it in my face anyhow and gives a quiet laugh, as if we just shared an unspoken understanding.

I make one last effort not to get carried away by this alluring connection. I have to focus on practicalities. He needs better nourishment than the sparse dried rations I brought with me, and he needs it soon.

“Nem, do you have any food?”

She shakes her head. “We brought our own, but then we found the conscripts had been given nothing so we gave everything we had to them. They were so many it made little difference in practical terms but I like to think it made them feel a little less abused before the end.”

“Keep the fire built up and get the stewpot ready.” I head for the door.

“Where are you going?” Nem’s question has a suspicious edge.

“Fetching dinner.”

“In the dark?”

“I already know where it is.” I don’t give her time to argue, and hastily slip outside into the night. Sahan is grazing nearby. I slip onto her bare back, not bothering with the saddle. There is a full moon and I have good night vision. I should reach the tree with the quarters of boar in it within half an hour.

What I did not anticipate is the war breaking out once more in my mind as I ride. Part of me is busy planning what I need to give Marin over the next three days to ensure his recovery. Plans still confused by the tingling attraction still coursing through my whole body. The other side of the battle is full of images of Alina in some slave-pit, being whipped or broken with heavy work.

Samaran has been a kingdom free from slavery for several centuries so I have no idea what her fate might entail. Everything now is unknown, unpredictable and I am left balancing Marin’s life against hers in a world where there are no longer any certainties, no fixed points from which to calculate.

Except my need for information and training if I’m going to free Alina from a legion of invaders. I don’t know if these elite Eldrin fighters can or will provide that, but right now they are the only source I have available.

And through it all I’m still haunted by Marin’s enticing hazel eyes gazing at me in a wild mix of surprise and longing. I have never felt this way with someone before and I don’t know what it is about him that is causing this heady warmth surging through me. Or is it the heightened awareness of the Blade’s gift that has done this? Trying to make objective decisions with so much confusion is impossible.

By the time I reach the oak and see the lumpy shadows of pig still hanging from the branch, the inner war has become unbearable. I ride straight past, heading deeper into the forest. It is much darker here where the trees grow close together but the lack of underbrush means I can urge Sahan into moving a little faster. Another hour to reach the Shadowblade’s mirror.

I don’t give myself time to feel fear. Nothing is worse than this painful decision I am unable to make. Before Sahan even halts, I’m sliding off her back and running to the mirror.

He steps in front of me like a cloud of deeper night detaching itself from the surrounding darkness, the hiss of anger resonating through the vortex of his swirling black robes.

“You dare to use this place as your own?”

I try to dodge past him. “I need to see what’s happening with my sister.”

He is like rock or cold resistant ice and leaves me no room to pass. I reach out to shove him aside and my hand catches on smooth folded leathery…

Wings. Draped around him like the black cloak I had assumed they were when I first saw him.

Something wild erupts within me. I need information about Alina and I’m desperate to break out of this crippling and exhausting indecision. I draw my hunting knife and stab at the heart of his swirling shadow. He twists away, his hand briefly touching mine as he moves and a bolt of what feels like ice and lightning together stabs through me. The knife falls from my nerveless grip and I’m finding it difficult to stay on my feet.

I glare at him, gripping my numbed wrist.

“One look isn’t too much to ask!”

He seems more incredulous than angry that I tried to attack him. Maybe because as he has just demonstrated, he has nothing to fear from me if that is the kind of power he holds.

“Is it courage or stupidity with you?” He doesn’t even sound surprised now, just curious.

“Need. I have an obligation to my sister and to my patient. And only one body. You told me I have to train, to make the most of my gift. Well, this is me trying to do just that. In two different places at the same time.”

He falls silent for a few moments, as if trying to work out what to do with this information. Then he takes a deep breath and straightens his back as if readying himself for a fight.

“Your sister is captive––” A shudder runs through him as if he has been stabbed. “And unharmed––”

He doubles over and leans against the rock wall. Moonlight catches on pale features distorted with pain. He gives a choking cough and spits blood. A voice in my head is screaming at me to run, grab Sahan and flee back to the hut with this precious new knowledge. He looks ready to die and then I’ll be free of this confusing gift binding me to him.

But the healer in me holds my feet firmly on the ground. He is hurt and although I don’t understand what happened, it is surely something to do with him helping me.

And dammit, I do need his gift, at least for a while.

“What do you want?” I try to keep my voice as confident as when I was being carried along by desperation and anger but I can tell it doesn’t sound very convincing.

“Nothing from you. Go.” But his eyes are saying the opposite, devouring me with such hunger I feel like a rabbit stricken with paralysis, transfixed by the gaze of a hungry wolf. I cautiously take a step forward, the bite of his touch still stinging painfully in my limbs.

“I’ll try to help if you promise you’re not going to kill me.”

I can’t tell if his surprise is at my offer or the rash stupidity of it. His breathing is irregular and rasping now.

“Half your life-force would be enough. But you would be weak for a whole day before you recover.”

Fine. I’ll survive. I don’t stop to think because my courage will fail if I do. I hold out my hand. He takes it in both of his and the shivery cold runs through me again, painful but not as crippling and violent as before. All the strength seems to be melting out of me, leaving a hollow weakness that is almost blissful as it steals all responsibility for doing anything.

His wings fold around me and for a few moments I feel helpless and overwhelmed as the bright moonlight fades to grey. I can’t tell if I am looking through them as if through gauze or if my body has become its own transparent shadow. And then for a brief second, I see him. Or maybe sense him is more accurate.

Icy, dispassionate, deadly, like the swords I helped Marin sheath this morning. Even the hissing anger is merely a technique, a warning, severe and cold like the rest of him. The decision to help me, to tell me about my sister, doesn’t fit in this pattern of ice and death. It feels like a spark in all this bleakness with nowhere to settle.

Then everything starts to fade as I sink to the ground. Somewhere in the greyness above me I hear his softly hissing voice.

“Tch. Took too much.” There is another breath of cold against my face as he kneels beside me and his wings encircle me again. Cold hands press onto mine and a jolt of ice-lightning surges through me, painful and exhilarating and terrible like his original gift over again but far stronger this time. If it had been like this the first time instead of mixed with water, it would have killed me. He grips my waist and pushes me from him to lift me onto Sahan’s back. She shies away, turning without any encouragement from me to head back to the hut.

The return journey is a blur of exhaustion such as I have never experienced, not even when I got really sick with marsh-fever a couple of years ago. I hang on to Sahan’s mane, half slumped over her neck.

Thank the stars I can collect the pieces of boar without dismounting, because I would never be able to get back on again in this state. The load is perilously near Sahan’s tolerance limit but she seems to sense my desperate need and her protest is little more than a twitch of her flanks.

The others hear us approaching the hut and they are already outside, waiting. Nem stands in the doorway like the guardian on the gates of hell, her arms crossed in front of her. I catch the glint of a throwing knife in each hand. I have been gone too long and they are all suspicious.

Deris is nowhere to be seen but I sense that he is poised in the deep shadow of the wall somewhere, bow drawn. Brac approaches, blade in hand and eyes darting behind me warily, no doubt trying to see how many enemy soldiers I have brought with me.

The outline of the hut turns to liquid waves as I try to dismount. Moonlight glints on Brac’s sword for an instant as he drops it on the ground and catches me as I fall. I’m vaguely aware of powerful arms carrying me inside and depositing me gently on the floor.

Then everything goes black.


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