The Taking (Tales of Malstria, Book 1)
PART ONE: AWAY
So long my life has been a lie. The girl I was seems a ghost parted from me. The seasons were shifting, bringing storms, the night her slow demise began. The dream I remember with more clarity than the life before it.
Nose to nose Death bent over me, the sharpness of his features showing bone beneath his skin as clearly as if that skin had been transparent. Too wide open, his eyes rolled in their sockets–whites glowing, pupils broad and black, as he examined me up and down. His mouth hung open, and his breath hit my face with the stench of rotten eggs. He chewed his lower lip, sucking it and drawing it across his teeth.
Though he didn’t touch me, the air itself crushed me so I couldn’t move at all. I struggled to yell for Mama, but I could only make a strangled noise that sounded like it came from someone else.
“But not tonight,” Death whispered.
My arm jerked as my eyes flashed open. On each side of me lay my sisters, breathing deep and slow, but I heard the darkness around us. Its quiet pulse throbbed with mine. I rolled onto my side, scrunching as close to my older sister Deidre as I could, but she elbowed me away.
Little Anne didn’t complain when I turned the other way and wrapped my arm over her. Her warmth alone was comfort. All day I’d ached with woman’s cramps. My back. My belly. I’d sneaked off and spent the afternoon sunning on the rocks of Cregnycrock to soothe myself.
Even then I’d felt anxious. Mama said sometimes the bleeding makes a woman prickly-hearted and nervous, like a stranger to herself, but I hadn’t felt like a stranger. I’d felt watched. The radiant rock had melted my pain, but the sense of being spied on was so strong I kept sitting up to check the grove’s edge.
If being a woman caused such uneasiness and agony, I’d rather have been born a boy or never grown to womanhood. The pain had kept me turning when I first tried to sleep that night. Waking afraid, I hadn’t a hope of rest.
Mama sighed. I sat up slowly and strained to see across the room, where she rose, fumbling in the dimness to stir the hearth’s embers to life. Adding a fistful of dry grass, she sank onto the bench and held her bare feet in the orange warmth.
Mama looked beautiful in the firelight. Beautiful and worn. Time had whittled lines around her eyes and creases around her smile. Her light brown hair seemed duller each month, with streaks of gray creeping into the waves framing her face.
She sighed again as she took Father’s net onto her lap; then stopped and pressed her hand against the roundness of her belly. Closing her eyes, she leaned back with a smile.
I tiptoed across the smooth dirt floor and whispered, “Is he kicking, Mama?”
She opened her eyes, her smile spreading as she placed my hand under hers to feel the baby squirming within her. For a moment he was still. Then he pressed against my hand–a long, steady push as if he hoped to caress me through the wall of flesh separating us. I leaned over and kissed the spot just as his touch faded. Before winter’s end I’d be able to hold him, but the months between stretched like years against my impatience.
Mama’s last baby was dead before a single breath. Clutching him close, she’d studied his tiny fingers and toes as though she could will them to wiggle with life. When the midwife took him, Mama cried but stopped right off when my father came in. None of us cried then.
I didn’t want to remember that day.
“You’ve barely caught a dream tonight, Amarys,” Mama said as I sat beside her and grabbed an edge of the net. “I can manage this alone.”
“I’ve dreamt enough.” I shivered, and, noticing, Mama added tinder to the fire.
When she handed me our other needle, I threaded it nimbly with hands as dainty as hers. She always joked our hands were made for fine pursuits like embroidery, not digging turnips and plucking hens. Sewing or mending Father’s nets whenever I could, I’d imagine I was a clean-handed lady, ever-busy stitching useless beauty.
“He moves a lot, doesn’t he?” I nodded toward her belly. “That’s good, isn’t it?”
“Not when I’d like to be sleeping.” Mama chuckled.
“Does it hurt?”
“Sometimes it’s . . .” Mama’s eyes shifted as she sought the right word. “Uncomfortable, you could say . . . You were a restless one, but you did all your dancing in the daylight, so I didn’t mind. You were a good baby, Amarys–fat and happy . . . I remember–“
Our cottage’s door rattled against its frame. The reminiscence dead on her tongue, Mama rose, laying the net and needle on the bench. She met my eyes, hesitating, as the door shook again from the rap of a heavy fist.
The scent of sea air and coming storm whistled through the cracks around the door, and then he spoke. He might have said anything. I only recall the tone–needful yet strong–a voice made for commanding lowered to request. Humbled and a little lost. You can’t leave a man with such a voice out in the downpour.
Three tarnished silver pieces he paid for a night’s shelter in our shack, handing the coins over like they were nothing. Chin cocked, he turned to scrutinize every corner of the room as he unclasped his black fur cloak, draping it over his arm. His shirt was bright white, not the dingy ewe’s wool shade of my chemise, and the wavy dark hair hanging past his shoulders gleamed more richly against the brightness.
He took Mama’s place on the bench and, stretching his legs toward the hearth, glanced at me. He smelled like the spice seller’s stall at Ballacaistal fair–a warm, dry scent of sunshine on cedar boughs. Everything in our home, including ourselves, reeked of hearthsmoke and herring. Before long he would, too. Leaning over my work, I smiled at the thought of contaminating him.
“Come now, Amarys.” Mama put her hands on my shoulders. “Off to bed with you.”
I looked up at her without budging. “Mama, I can finish this for you.”
I knew my pleading eyes had worked before she said a word. “Just mind yourself, then.” She nodded once, the warning in her eyes as clear and strong as my plea.
She turned to the man. “If you change your mind about the kipper, sir, she can get it for you, and her father and I are only over there,” she tipped her chin toward the north wall and gave him a meaningful stare, “if there’s anything more.”
He nodded and stretched his hands out to the flames. Mama’s eyes began a final emphasis but Anne sat up babbling drowsily, sparing me the silent lecture as the storm’s first strong gust shook our door. The stranger watched her tuck Anne in with a hushed lullaby. Hearthlight flickered over his brow and prominent nose, shadows hollowing his cheeks to hungry sharpness.
The first raindrops pelted the thatch above us–huge and hard-driven from the sound of them.
“Inside just in time,” I said, watching the hearthsmoke dip and dance as the gale rattled the edges of the hole meant for its escape. “You’re lucky.”
I thought I felt him watching me, but when I turned, he was looking at the drip rimming the smokehole.
“You don’t sleep?” he whispered.
“Who could with this wind?”
Smirking, he raised his eyebrows and dragged his gaze over my mostly slumbering family. His eyes met mine and paused before flicking back toward the leak. I laughed and, blushing, stammered something about a dream waking me.
“A dream?” He smiled, a single corner of his closed lips inching upward. “Don’t you like your dreams?”
“I don’t often like my own, to tell the truth.” He stared into the flames with a far-away look, his eyes dark as damp earth and skin pampered pale.
He twisted a gold ring around his middle finger. On his left hand he wore another with a blood-red gem. Looking at me again, he followed my gaze to the jewel.
“My father’s.” His eyebrows rose, an expression between insistence and expectation as if he wanted to impress me.
“Oh.” I nodded, grinning. “You’re not a thief, then.”
He laughed too loudly, and, hushing himself, leaned toward me. “Lords and thieves are often one in the same.”
His lop-sided smile broadened, his eyes crinkling merrily. “I’m Leoric of Rensweald.” He chuckled. “And, I assure you, I’ll plunder none of your finery tonight.”
I giggled. “You’re only saying that so I’ll pull my golden ewer out of hiding. Then back into the storm you’ll go to leave me ewer-less.”
“I’d wait until the storm was done.”
He turned toward the door, where the deluge breached every crack to soak the rushes on the floor. Each hard rain had me gathering fresh rushes for that spot, though I’d tried to seal the threshold a dozen different ways.
“You just might drown in here if you’re not careful. You’d be drier in a tree.”
He laughed, his gleeful gaze lingering and flowing into my eyes.
Too long I sat and spoke with him, but his face in the firelight, the purr of his voice, his laugh–his attention all on me–drew me and held me. He stayed up with me until daybreak, hours after the last thunder had blown beyond the sea, and seemed to sleep the moment his eyes closed.
Exhausted and ecstatic, I stared at him to remember just how he looked. Arms drawn to his chest, his shoulders hunched like he was hugging himself, he seemed younger than I’d realized–his skin flawless except for the scar, deeply grooved and puckered, from his left cheek nearly to his chin. I wanted to touch it and know its history. I smiled at the womanly look of his eyelashes–black and long, thick and curled–so delicate and different from the scar.
I didn’t want him to rise that night and leave us. When that dreaded hour came, I did feel like a stranger to myself–queasy and restless, giddy and mournful.
Like a man who’d never known real hunger, he picked at the supper Mama gave him. When I eyed the long scar on his cheek, he met my gaze, and, caught in the stare, I fought the urge to look at him again. Without finishing, he’d donned his cloak and asked my father to join him outside.
We’d cleaned up supper’s last crumbs before Father stepped inside, his cheeks ruddy from the evening air. Behind him, Leoric stared at me with a subtle smile. Tossing his red-stoned ring on the table, he spilled out a pile of coins without bothering to count them and gently grasped my arm with a hand like iron in winter. As the last spinning coin fell on its side, Anne’s babbling and the hearth’s crackle danced, senseless, over dread silence.
“Go on with you, girl.” Blinking too rapidly, my father nodded toward the door.
I jerked my arm free. “Father?”
Mama stood, barring the door. “What’s he buying, Colm?”
“He needs a girl for sewing and such, and Amarys–“
“She’ll be well with me.” Leoric spoke over my father with that buttercream voice I’d savored all night, but I couldn’t look at him anymore. “I’ll not harm her.”
Deidre and my brother joined Mama’s argument. Looking at us all, little Anne’s eyes widened and flashed full of tears as she began to screech. Mama whimpered. Deidre’s sobbing protest became a wail, and it sounded like hell itself had risen to hold court in our cottage.
I glanced at the payment on the table, a pile of more wealth than my family could hope to hold in lifetimes.
I wouldn’t see the baby.
Turning my back on them all, I opened the chest where we kept our blankets and clothes and pawed through the cloth to grab a splintered wooden box. A cottage is no haven for secrets, but I’d managed to keep the little chemise hidden from Mama. Without opening it, I gave the box to Deidre.
“Finish this for me,” I whispered, making the mistake of looking in her eyes.
She nodded, her face tightening with a swallowed sob, and I quickly looked away. I stared at the golden coins as I joined Leoric again. That was my worth. A fortune to my family, but at what cost to me?
I followed him into the night. Shivering in my flimsy dress, I stared back at my family’s cottage. I couldn’t hear weeping or argument, not even in the windless quiet, and I wondered if they’d calmed themselves so quickly.
“Life’s full of leaving.” Wrapping his fur cloak around my shoulders, Leoric glanced in my eyes as he fastened the silver cloakpin. His lips shifted as if he meant to say more, but instead, he half-smiled and patted the top of my arm.
When he boosted me onto his mare, she shifted suddenly. I clutched a fistful of her mane and, tight as a tick, clamped my legs on her sides. I’d never been on a horse, and sitting atop one felt as safe as leaning over the sea cliffs at Eaynindoo.
“First ride?” he asked, grinning up at me as he untethered the mare. “You’ll grow to like it.”
Mounting behind me, he started her off at a trot, and though my shaking legs gripped her with all their strength, I couldn’t keep from bouncing. With each upward jolt, I feared I’d sail over her head. Each downward smack stung.
Leoric laughed softly as he squeezed his arm around my waist and guided my motion. He smelled of herring and hearthsmoke, an alteration one bath would undo.
I should have gone back to bed as had Mama wanted.
With a click of his tongue he urged the mare into a canter, the stride less jarring despite its speed. Cold wind clawed my cheeks and whipped my hair back against his face. I wanted day’s crisp light so I might look at all I wouldn’t see again, but I’d wasted the daylight sneaking glances at the man I’d thought would stay a stranger.
We rode in silence until the rhythm of his mare’s hooves on the earth and her snorting breath became a drumming dirge. Past the gnarled hawthorn where Deidre said the fairies dance at midnight. Past the yew at the crossroads to Ballacaistal. Mist-shrouded, the familiar slipped by like a dream until the sound of the spring at our right faded away and the scattered trees merged in a glen I didn’t recognize.
I might have imagined the sharpness in Leoric’s tone, but by then I was sure I felt demand in his posture–his chest pressed against my shoulders and arm around my waist binding me like a favorite toy in a child’s greedy grip.
“Quiet and tired?” He chuckled, ducking as we passed beneath a low bough. “From last night I’d have judged you could be neither.”
I didn’t laugh with him. The trail narrowed, curving as it sloped upward.
For one sleepless night and dream-dredged day, I’d understood why Deidre ran to Finian, the smith’s son, whenever she could. I’d wished Leoric would linger in our cottage another night–a week, a lifetime–to whisper in hearthlight with his fond dark eyes on me; to feel madly alive and wild with delight like fear.
His property, I was unloved as the ring he’d traded for me. Something to barter? Something to use? No longer my own, would I have to obey him as if he were my father? Being near him, talking with him, even smiling had become an obligation. I leaned forward to be as far from him as I could, and my back began to throb.
“Nothing comes to mind?” Leoric slowed the mare to a walk as the mist thickened to fog heavy with the scent of moss and rotted wood. “No words at all for me?”
I couldn’t see much beyond the horse’s ears anymore. “Dark for riding, isn’t it?”
“I’ve no fear of darkness.”
“And, you have eyes of an owl as well?”
Leoric laughed. I stopped straining away from him; the ache in my back easing a bit.
“We’ve a ship to board by morning. Owl’s eyes or ass’s obstinance, I’ll keep on until I’m there.”
Raising my shoulders, I tucked my chin in the cloak’s plush warmth, where Leoric’s muskiness lingered under the odors of my home. My eyes flickered closed and open again. “Where’s the ship bound?”
“Home,” Leoric whispered, halting the mare.
His muscles tensed. He took his arm from around my waist as the horse snorted and side-stepped. I sat straighter, his wariness contagious.
Just ahead a fallen tree and mounds of brush barred our path. Behind us, a horse nickered as three riders emerged from the trailside to pen us in.
“Off the horse.” The man in the middle pointed his sword at Leoric as his partners flanked us.
Leoric jammed the reins in my fist.
“Ride,” he whispered before he leapt off the mare with a yell, smacking her rump.
She shot forward, her hooves cracking against the dry timber as she cleared the barrier. I flattened against her neck, branches closing about me like nets. I couldn’t tell if I was on the trail or a deer path. Glancing over my shoulder, I saw only fog, but hoofbeats pounded after me.
The leather ripped my fingers, my grip tightening the reins as I swatted the mare’s sides with my heels. She stopped so suddenly she skidded sideways, rearing and bucking, and I toppled off, landing on my shoulder in bracken.
Stones and twigs scraped my already raw palms, but I kept crawling as fast as I could through the underbrush, away from the sound of horses and breaking branches. Raiders snatched women to sell like sheep in far-off markets. Leoric, at least, had paid well to take me and valued me more than bandits would.
I was weeping, quiet except for sniffles I couldn’t quite stifle. I heard no horses or voices–only the ordinary murmurs of the forest after dark–nightbirds and raindrops and wind in the trees, which altogether sounded like lonesome death to me.
Leoric’s cloak kept me warm and dry. Breathing in his scent calmed me a little. Though I’d spent the ride plotting how I might escape him, I wanted him back. He was the rarity my curiosity craved, a life stretched far beyond mine. Sitting with him in our cottage, I’d made a kaleidoscope man of him, dazzling myself with shifting impressions of who he truly was and what the world became around him. I liked his voice, his laugh, the amusement ever-present in his eyes.
Nearby a horse whinnied restlessly. Curling my knees to my chest, I flattened myself beneath the ferns and hazel and listened. A harsh, hissing screech pierced the fog–oak leaves slapping as something burst from the boughs above.
A twig cracked just in front of me. Holding my breath, I watched through the hazel but saw only fog beyond its bony black branches. The birds’ chatter, the pattering rain–even the wind–had stopped, and left such a void my heartbeat pounded in my ears. To my left fern fronds slid silkily against one another; to my right whispered a branch carefully pulled back.
“What’s this?” A pair of hands grabbed me from behind. I shrieked, kicking and flailing, and my captor chuckled. “A thief, I think, running off with my cloak.”
He let go and, whirling, I smacked his chest with both fists.
Leoric laughed. “Calm yourself, child.”
He knelt beside me, his tangled hair half-covering his face and his eyes wide and round. The corners of his lips curved in a subtle smile. Horror and peace mingled in his features, more alive than before. His sleeve was ripped open, exposing his shoulder, and blood soaked the shirt’s front, though I couldn’t see a wound on him.
“How’d you get away?”
“I didn’t.” Leoric shrugged, his voice deepening to its mellowest pitch. “But, neither did they.”
He held his hand out to me, and I hesitantly took hold of it. Pulling me up as he rose, he drew the short sword tucked under his belt and held it across his palms. I looked at the sword; then into his face.
His smile broadened. Stooping slightly, he stretched the sword toward me and bowed his chin.
“A gift, my lady, from our unfortunate acquaintance the illicit tolltaker. Generous to the end, he left a bit of himself with it as well.”
Leoric wiped the blade with the only clean edge of his shirt and presented it to me again. Trembling, my hands hovered above the weapon.
“Here.” He put the sword’s leather-wrapped hilt in my palm. “It’s yours now, child.” He smirked. “If you can carry it.”
A simple sword, its unembellished blade was nicked and freckled with rust; its sheepskin grip, worn smooth. But, I felt power holding it. When I met his gaze, Leoric stepped back.
“A girl like you shouldn’t have that blade, but we’ll make it our secret if you like.” Cocking his head sideways, he chewed the corner of his lip. “The improper’s never the impossible, Amarys, but it must always remain a secret.”
He extended his arm, timidly offering his hand as if he expected I’d cut it off. Staring up at him, I didn’t feel like property. I grasped his hand with my left and clutched the sword in my right.
His toasty fingers squeezed mine as he dashed forward, jerking me behind him. “Secrets are gold where I’m taking you.” Glancing over his shoulder, he loosened his grip slightly.
“Rare as gold?”
“I’ve troves of both and guard the secrets more closely.” He chuckled and ran faster, while I staggered behind, more dragged-along than running. “Trust me always, child, but be wary of the others. Our secrets must be our own.”
Secrets are seldom good, and those deepest buried, darkest of all. What man would treasure his, and what sort of place was full of others worse than he?
I stumbled on a tree root. “Can’t you slow down?”
“We’ll barely reach the ship by dawn.”
Planting my feet wide, I stopped, but he kept on–his tug on my arm forcing me a few steps before I could brace myself against an oak. He halted and spun, snatching the sword from me.
“We haven’t time for this,” he said calmly, keeping the blade pointed to the ground, and though he didn’t menace me, I flattened myself against the tree as he shrank the space between us.
“I’ve enriched your family and endangered myself.” He shoved the sword’s hilt in my grip. “I’ve even given you this so you might feel safe. Tell me, what more would ease your mind?”
I couldn’t answer. Patient as his tone and eyes were, he frightened me.
Grasping my arm more gently than before, he started off, his brisk walk half the pace he’d been running. We hadn’t walked far when we reached his mare and the bandits’ riderless mounts, all loaded with bags of booty.
“You’re my kin now. My cousin and my ward. And, that gilded lie you should treasure.” Leoric mounted his mare and pulled me up in front of him. “I need you, child.”
I was a help or I was a bother. No one had called me a need, and the way Leoric’s voice fell, sighing, with that phrase sweetened its sound–as if he’d surrendered to me. He’d given much for me already, and kinship wouldn’t be slavery. I stroked the hilt of my new sword. Not all secrets are bad.