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THE STRENGTH OF BAFFIN

A Romance Novel



Copyright © 2017 by Patrice Hannah

Cover design by Lavendere



All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems--except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews--without permission in writing from its publisher and author.

The characters, places and events portrayed in this books are wholly fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.



Copyright © 2017 by Patrice Hannah











To K M. McDonald,

For being, in all the parts that matter, my very own LeMark.

Thank you for encouraging me to continue writing. Your strength and character has left the sweetest of scars on my heart.











PRAISE FOR PATRICE HANNAH’S

Coins & Daggers



Well written story that kept me interested from the beginning. I have read many historical novels and this story had some unique character interactions and plots. It is refreshing to read a book about 2 people who have challenges but are not completely broken. I also appreciated that the main characters did not fall in love at first sight, but their individual charm and personal strengths drew them together. I highly recommend this book!” -Michele B.



Out of all the Historical Romance novels I've read, this is one of my favorites. It has everything you'd want in a romance novel with just enough love and mystery to keep you invested in the characters and their stories. A great read.” -Briar R.



One of the BEST books that i have read in quite a while! I loved everything about it!” Nanette Rae B.



What an absolute treasure this was. Although a few spelling mistakes it didn't deter from a great story line and loveable characters. I was amazed to find out Patrice is only 20. This author will go far I predict. Now I just request another with Edwin as the main man!” -Kirstie



Author’s Note



Hello Reader,

The idea of this story came to me one afternoon while staring blankly up at my uninteresting ceiling, having exhausted two novels already for the day. One could say I was bored, and maybe just a bit…uninspired. I had been struggling for nearly a year with my writing but through that dull dreary phase, something had struck me anew. Inspiration, some would call it. But I say it was just a spark of hope. It was my salvation. And the more I scratched pen against paper, the more I thought I could not stop.

When I completed this book, I was relieved but a little sad that it had come to an end. If you properly study a map of North America, you will find that there is, in fact, such a place as Baffin. But I assure you that the context I have chosen is purely fantastical and not at all similar to the actual place. Nevertheless, I do hope you’ll enjoy the read. Take a leap of faith into Tethran and Jolin’s story. I tried my best to convey it properly.

Lastly, I must thank my dear young sister, Janelle, for acting out some of the dialogues with me. Your childhood exuberance is most comforting. And although you did not say much when I questioned you about what to write next whenever I started a new chapter, your silence spoke volumes.

Yours,

Patrice.





PROLOGUE



Castle Iqa, Iqa City, Baffin

Viktor de Gesch watched with pleasure as his guards marched briskly through the lowered gates of the citadel, the once polished surfaces of their sable armour glistening with melting frost. Within the grip of his Captain was a traitor he desperately wanted to murder. Standing on the balcony of his private chambers, Viktor tightened the belt of his coat though the wicked excitement now coursing through his veins warmed him against the biting cold of the night. Nothing would bring him greater satisfaction than to inhale the bitter scent of Mikal Warwick’s blood on his blade.

He moved closer to the concrete balustrades as the men came to a stop just below in the centre of the courtyard. Captain Carlisle raised his helmet and nodded. Viktor chuckled and made a swift exit back through his chambers and down the winding stone staircase. It was the night of all nights. He would get his sweet revenge.

“Get me my wife!” he barked to a serf man as he reached the foyer. “To the Holding Room. Drag her if you have to!



* * * * *

The Lady de Gesch lifted the bulk of her skirts as she walked briskly down the long corridor, her demeanour ever so calm despite the rampant pounding of her heart due to the dire situation she had most recently found herself in. Well, not most recently seeing that she was being summoned by the alderman to speak her piece on a crime she was being accused of committing over twelve years ago. A crime she was most guilty of if truth be told, and one with which she suffered herself no regrets.

“Malady Isabel, this way.”

Isabel stopped in her tracks, shaking her head free of the memories she had accumulated of the castle over the past thirteen years. They would serve her no purpose after the events of this night. Life had become far too easy there as lady of the castle; so much that she had allowed herself to become distracted. She had become complacent and far too comfortable and now she was about to make the hardest decision of her life. Turning down the branching hallway which the serf man had indicated, she held her head high as she passed by some of her husband’s most trusted men, their faces dutifully rigid yet eyes sympathetic as they noticed her. They knew. But of course, they did. Everyone in Baffin probably knew what she had done by now. Isabel was only pleased that they did not condemn her for it. The private reproof she could take from her husband but never the open ridicule from her people. And for that she was grateful.

The wide wooden door at the end of the dimly lit hall came into view and a breath suddenly caught in her throat. It was then that she realized she had not prepared any form of deposition to defend herself from the claims laid against her. And she was most certain that breaking down into a teary fit and begging for mercy would not work either. The alderman was a vile creature born from the deepest bowels of hell; he was not partial to feminine bawling.

“Just a minute, I beg you…” She squeezed the hand of the serf and closed her eyes for a moment. All was at stake here. She had better figure out a plan fast. Either way, Isabel was not entirely sure she would live to see the morrow. Not now that the alderman had discovered her deceit.

Sending up a silent prayer to the heavens, she allowed the serf to shove the door open, and a gush of heat combined with the harsh scent of hard-brewed liquor, flooded out. Swallowing, Isabel stepped inside, stilling the fright that lingered in her veins as the door slammed shut behind her. So, no one was permitted to enter with her, were they? Another strike from the alderman’s fury, she supposed. Remaining rooted in her position, Isabel tried her best not to take in the gloomy ugliness of the room. It had always been her least favourite place in the entire castle. The locus of the alderman’s most heinous crimes and where he passed the most outrageous sentences. The political hell-hole of Baffin, if you may. And Isabel had never laid a foot inside the room until this day.

“Approach me.” The deep voice rumbled from across the wide room and she finally lifted her face to regard him. With the posture required of her status, Isabel crossed the dark stone floor until she was at the foot of the short staircase leading up to the high chair. His throne.

“You summoned me, my lord?” She performed a graceful curtsey though her heart pained her to do so.

“You know full well why you are here,” he responded crisply.

Isabel could think of many scalding words to toss at the beast just now but decided that it would be far wiser to bite her tongue and remain silent. The alderman was a tall man, eyes the colour of the dark sky with a countenance that could only be described as beautiful. The irony was so strong she could almost taste it.

“I do not pretend to be ignorant, my lord. But I must ask a question, if I may.”

Said eyes flickered over her as they always had from the very first time they’d met. Eyes that never hid what he wanted. Eyes that chilled to the bone. “Speak.”

Swatting a lock of chestnut hair that had suddenly grown damp at her temple, she angled her chin with as much valour as she could afford. “Do you mean to banish me to the deserts so the birds of the sky may feast on my flesh?”

The room fell silent before the clunk of heavy boots hit the floor. The alderman rose to his feet so quickly she instantly regretted the retort. Swallowing down the terror broiling in her veins, she remained still as he advanced on her, refusing to be daunted.

“You think you know me, don't you Bel?”

Bel. Oh, how her stomach turned at the moniker. “I would never presume such a thing, my lord.”

A large roughened palm cupped her left jaw and Isabel turned her face away as the alderman’s large figure towered over her. Her soul shook ferociously when a thick thumb began to caress her bottom lip.

“Look me in the eye, Isabel de Gesch, and tell me where he is.”

Never. I don't know.”

The thumb moved gently across the line of her jaw and down to the base of her throat. The gentleness… Isabel was accustomed to this. But it was the gentleness that terrified her the most.

“I don't believe you.”

“I…I speak the truth.”

The alderman barked out a harsh laugh that rocked her being. He was crazy and she was even crazier to think she could ever outwit the devil. “Oh, Isabel. You never cease to amuse me. Amusement is good for the soul, did you know? It almost makes me...happy.”

You possess no soul. Isabel swallowed. “Your happiness is my duty, my lord.”

“Good.” He ran his other hand through the dark tresses of her hair and over her scalp softly. “That's very good. But do you know what would make me even happier?”

She clenched her jaws tight and refused to blink lest her tears betray her. “No, my lord.”

He grinned. “My son, Isabel. My son. All these years, I have a son and you kept him from me.” He caressed her cheek one more time before she found herself being spun fiercely and held tightly by the throat. “You made a mockery of me, having me believe that the boy had died at birth. Do not toy with me now, woman. Tell me where my heir is or I'll break your damn neck!”

Isabel gasped, clawing at her husband’s murderous hand. Her husband. Oh, there were days when she wished that both men were not the same. He would kill her this time, she was sure of it but if dying meant she would succeed at keeping her son out of his clutches, then so be it.

“No!” She screamed coarsely as the strain on her neck intensified. “Never. Kill me if you must. But you'll never see him. Never!”

The alderman’s roar echoed in her ears as she gasped for dear life. “You would deprive me of my own flesh and blood? The seed of my own loins?”

Isabel wheezed, tears now flooding down her face. “You will not spoil him with your wickedness, Viktor! I'll n-not allow it.”

A terrifying second passed and his hand fell from her throat. Isabel gagged and gasped, almost stumbling to her knees. Her heart was aching, her body and soul weak because she knew he would not allow her to live. Not after this. Another few seconds went and she straightened, hand at her burning throat, and witnessed the disbelief in his eyes. Was he shocked that she possessed no qualms about dying? Did he finally realize that her love for her son outweighed her fear of him?

“So be it,” came the soft response. Too soft a response. “Carlisle!”

Isabel shook as the walls echoed with his command, her eyes wandering frantically around the dimly lit room. The doors opened suddenly and in came her husband’s captain, dragging the body of a man that appeared to be…dead. She froze as she noticed the long silvery-blonde hair…the thick brown leather vest with the engraved markings of an eagle. A vest she had made with her very own hands. Feeling as though her heart had now sunk to the ground, her watery eyes widened on her husband. Oh no. Not my dear friend!

“V-Viktor? What…what have you done?”

Her husband spun around almost instantly, hand flying with so much force that she was knocked to the ground. “You were never so concerned about me, wife. I sent your lover exactly where he was meant to be. And now that he’s dead, what other choice do you have but to tell me exactly what I need to know? Unless you’d like to spend eternity with the bastard!”

“No.” Isabel’s voice came only in a pained whimper, her face stinging and the warmth of fresh blood trickling over her top lip. Her mind was too numb to even fathom what was going on. “No… Kill me now, Viktor. Kill me. Please…”

So, when Viktor’s hand swept through the air again before her eyes, she knew the time had come. His fist the side of her head hard, the pain biting and shocking. Her heart could not register what had taken place but her mind knew. She just hoped that death would come quickly.

But Isabel was content. Viktor de Gesch would never see her son.





ONE

Duit Village. Sixteen years later…

The scars engraved on Tethran LeMark’s face was enough to appall grown men, least of all a pudgy barmaid who had now unceremoniously tossed a cup of whiskey at him and bulleted off towards the opposite side of the room as if she had just witnessed a rotting worm-infested corpse. Ignoring the scrutinizing eyes that had been trained on him since the moment he stepped inside the stuffy bar house, he downed the hard liquor in one swift swallow, wincing just barely as the burning liquid coursed down his throat. He’d never been a man to care about the opinion of others, and it would seem rather outlandish if he were to start now. Shoving the cup across the small wooden table, Tethran leaned back in his chair and met the gaze of his prospective employer. Prospective was a strong word since he had all but retired from his metier six months prior, having full intention of setting up residence in a small cottage near the eastern outskirts of Baffin. Somewhere far from gawking eyes and unwanted company. Furthermore, there was a tiny voice in the back of his head telling him to decline this offer. No matter how sweet the pay-out would prove to be. He watched half-annoyed as the older man dipped a long finger into his own drink, stirring idly. It was really a shame to toy with good whiskey.

“Not much fun with the ladies, are you, lad?”

Tethran folded his arms. He had a strong dislike for small talk. “Tell me what the job is; then I’ll decide just how much it will cost you, yes?”

“Right.” Clearing his throat, he finally took a sip of the golden-brown liquid and clasped clean graceful hands on the solid surface of the old table. Tethran wondered who exactly he was dealing with. There was not a soul, man or woman, in Duit who had hands that clean. “Firstly, I requested you because I was advised you’d accept.”

“I never take a job before I know the details.”

“But you are good at what you do, aren’t you?”

Eyes narrowed, Tethran sat upright. He should get up and walk right out of the bar house. He should forget about this man, whoever he is, and focus on a well-deserved retirement. He should but… “And what exactly do you think I’m good at?”

It was the damn challenge. He could never walk away from it and judging by the looks of the man, Tethran supposed the job would be an easy one. Wealthy men who looked as fragile as a toothpick never got entangled with the bloodthirsty hooligans he was accustomed to. So, he was satisfied when the older man slumped in his chair, supposedly giving up whatever pointless act he was trying to pull off.

“I need your assistance with dealing with a matter. A nuisance, really. It has been a rather deathly itch in my arse over the past year. I need you to get rid of it. Quickly.”

“It?” Tethran raised a brow. He studied the man for a minute. From the tightly clipped back blonde hair, deep grey eyes and hawkish nose to the white silk shirt and black leather overcoat. This man oozed money. Money Tethran could certainly live without as he’d accumulated enough over the years to support himself comfortably. But men of vast wealth didn’t need a man like him to get rid of an it. “I pride myself in being a very blunt man, so why don’t we just cut to the chase? Who do you want me to kill?”

A muscle ticked near the other man’s left eye and he sat forward, glancing around them cautiously even though they were perfectly closeted from eavesdropping ears. He glanced at his drink blankly and then shook his head, raising his gaze once more. “His name is Ruel Crymble. He lives over in Dumbar, I believe. A trifling solicitor and a damn snitch, if you ask me. The bastard is trying to destroy my business. I need you to cut his tongue out and bring it to me. Afterwards, that is…”

Not an extreme task compared to what Tethran had done before but certainly one that left many questions swimming around in his head. What type of business was this man operating that a solicitor sought to sink him? As far as Tethran knew, solicitors were just middle-aged men with bald spots and oversized spectacles. None were mad or brave enough to test the anger of a rich man. But questioning such details was not a part of his job either.

“I need a description.”

“Of course.”

He fidgeted through the pocket of his cloak and then slid a piece of folded parchment across the table. Tethran retrieved and unfolded it, glancing briefly at the sketched portrait. “Let’s talk payment then, shall we?”

“So, you accept?”

“Two hundred gold pieces and an additional fifty for travelling expenses.”

“Two hundr—Are you mad?”

Sighing, Tethran tossed back the parchment and shoved his chair backwards. “Well, seems you’ve decided to ignore that itch in your arse after all.”

“Wait!” The man almost jumped out of his chair. “Okay. Two hundred and fifty, it is. One-fifty upfront and the rest once you bring me…you know…the tongue.”

Tethran didn’t know what the obsession was with the tongue but hardly cared either way. This meeting was beginning to feel tiresome. “We’ll meet in the alley of the local marketplace before dawn on the morrow. Take the payment with you and don’t be late. Au revoir.”

“Th—that’s it?” He almost shouted as Tethran got to his feet. “Don’t you at least want to know my name?”

“No. And I don’t suggest you go around telling anyone here either. Not after they’ve seen you with the likes of me.”

Having no intention of discussing business any further, he shoved through the crowded room, keeping his eyes fixed on the door even as patrons scattered out of his way. Scorn was one hell of a thing to be on the receiving end of but Tethran LeMark had consumed so much of it, it was safe to say that he had somehow grown immune. Shaking his head, he stepped out into the wintry night, the sudden bite of the wind smacking harshly against his face. Nights like these reminded him of the solitary years he had spent in the monastery just outside the neutral borders of Baffin. It hadn’t taken long for him to discover that religious servitude wasn’t a life he had been destined for unlike the Catholic priests who had raised him. It had also been quite clear that a child of his disposition and robust stature had been more suited to tasks of the world than endless prayers and devotionals. God forbid, he would have faded away in that blasted abbey if he had not left.

Tethran slanted his eyes to the starry sky like he usually did whenever he felt like a fool. A part of him knew that there was someone or something out there watching…trying to guide him if only he permitted it. Perhaps this was his punishment after all; existing in a world where scars were enough to rob a man of his right to actually live. But people were right. They were all right. His soul was just as ugly as the scars on his face. And in two days’ time, he was going to take his favourite blade and remove the tongue of a solicitor because that was the type of man he was. It was the type of man Tethran LeMark had become.

A lone raindrop collided with his forehead and he ducked, pulling up the collar of his coat. The streets of Duit were empty as usual except for the few urchins who normally came out at nights, searching empty serf stalls for food scrap. Bracing himself against the rain, Tethran lengthened his stride as he turned a corner which lead towards the tavern he was temporarily staying at. An boardinghouse that had grown alarmingly costly the moment he’d arrived. Apparently, men of his uncharacteristic ugliness were required to pay twofold. Kicking his boots to get rid of the excess mud that clung to it, he ran a hand through his dampened hair and ducked through the open door. The moment he crossed the brightly lit lobby, the tavernkeeper’s head jolted upwards from where he stood behind an antiquated desk.

“Out and had you a fleshy wench, eh?” the old man cackled, showing a crooked grin. “Aint nothing better than two warm plump thighs in this kind o’ weather.”

Ignoring the jest, Tethran took the staircase two steps at a time, desperately in need of a quick washing and a good night sleep. Truth be told, he’d never slept as well as he’d done at the monastery. Perhaps, that had been the only thing he had liked about that place; the peace and quiet. The floorboards whimpered as he crossed the landing and moved down the dark mouldy hall. But something caused him to slow in his tracks. Inching towards the door to his room, he sniffed gently, not liking the changes he could sense in the air. Something was off here… Either that or the whiskey was toying with his mind. Tethran refused to accept the latter.

Clenching his jaws tight, he reached for the knife at his waist and unsheathed it, hand firmly gripping the doorknob. Mentally giving himself a quick countdown, he braced himself against the door before giving it a hard shove. The wooden frame almost splintered against the adjacent wall, sending off a resounding bang. Drawing to a sudden halt, Tethran glared at the back of a cloaked figure, nostrils flaring at the intrusion. But something kept him from flinging his blade at the troublemaker. He sniffed again. A troublemaker it was, indeed. The familiar scent of worn leather and horse suddenly engulfed his nostrils like an unwelcomed hello.

“My god, LeMark. Must you be so noisy?” The figure turned then, a smirk forcing its way through the dimness of the room.

He swung the door close. “What do you want, Sinclair?”

“Oh, the same as usual…” Sinclair reached for a flask on the small table next to the bed and took a slug. “Ah… Could always rely on you to have good liquor.”

Tethran silently shrugged off his coat despite the ire rising in his blood. It had been over a year since he’d last seen Ivan Sinclair. The carefree type of brute he’d always tried to steer clear of if he was to maintain his sanity. “You know damn well I do business alone.”

“Selfish as usual, eh? Never want to share the cake.”

He kicked off his boots. “Look, I don’t have time for the bullshit, alright? So just get your wily ass out of here or I will kill you this time.”

“Alright, alright.” He threw up his hands in mock defeat. “No need to resort to violence.”

Sighing, Tethran eyed him wearily before re-sheathing his knife and placing it with his boots. He reached for the bread and cheese he had left wrapped in a handkerchief next to the bed, then sat and ate quietly. Sinclair stood on the other side of the room, slanted green eyes watching him. Swallowing down the food tightly, he brushed his hands over his thighs and scrubbed his itching jaw. “Okay, you cocky fool, are you going to tell me what you are really here for then?”

He leaned against the wall. “It’s a sensitive job, and trust me, it truly hurts my soul to ask for your help.”

A smile quivered around Tethran’s lips. “Getting soft at the sight of blood?”

Sinclair scowled but ignored the jibe. “I need two extra eyes…and hands. Preferably, a pair I know won’t stab me in the back for fun.”

He flicked a piece of bread from between his teeth with his tongue. “Well, that’s a no can do. Already agreed to start a job in the morning. It’ll take at least a couple of days.”

His friend eased off the wall, eyes filled with intent. “I can wait two days.”

Cocking a brow, Tethran eyed him now with carefully masked surprise. He never knew Sinclair to be a man to delay a job. But neither was he cold-hearted enough to run him over if he were to agree with working with him. “What’s so important about this job?”

Sinclair released a heavy breath, pacing across the wooden floor. It was the most anxious Tethran had ever seen the man. He then stopped in his tracks and stared right at him.

“I think I might have found my sister.”

TWO



Eyes still squinted on Sinclair, Tethran downed a mug of water, wondering what the hell the man was talking about. In all their years of knowing each other, from the day Ivan had almost kicked his ass to the days they’d begrudgingly shared mildewed bread on the streets, Tethran had never in his life heard of the man having a sister. Not once. He would have laughed and called him out on his lie except Ivan bore a look on his face that made Tethran want to vomit. It was a look he’d seen being exchanged between serf women and their children, or a bitch and her scrawny pups on the dirty streets of Duit. But he’d never expected to see it on the face of a man who butchered men for a living. The reality of the moment made him shudder with discomfort.

“What sister?”

“She’s…younger than I am. I last saw her when I was eight years old when we were living under an abandoned stall in Iqa City. I…I’d gone to fetch something…anything to eat but when I came back she was…gone.”

Tethran frowned and shook his head. “What makes you think you’ve found her?”

Grabbing the lone chair in the room, Sinclair pulled it up closer and sat down, elbows on his knees and a forlorn expression on his face. “Two days ago, I was passing through the city. It was sometime near midnight but there was a gathering near the river. You know, near the--.”

--old ruins. Yes, I know of it. The spot where the elite conduct their exclusive auctions.”

Yes!” He said the word with so much pain his teeth likely hurt. “But you know I could not just have entered. Those guvs would have had me arrested for trespassing. Or worse.”

“What happened?”

He shook his head. “It was her, LeMark. I know it was. The red hair, my eyes…that dimple in her chin. I know it was Josephine!” Jaws clenched, Sinclair then looked up, his eyes blazing with anger. “They sold her like a common whore.”

Christ. Tethran didn’t know the full details surrounding the auctions that took place in Iqa City but he hoped that they were illegal. As far as he knew, Alderman de Gesch was a principled man and couldn’t possibly know about such activities. Groaning inwardly, he roughly massaged his temples before glancing back at Sinclair. It was clear the man was going through turmoil. Tethran couldn’t imagine what he’d do if he’d found out something like that had happened to a sibling of his. If he had one. He shook his head. Correction: he would have done the same thing Sinclair was suggesting.

“Do you know who she was sold off to?”

Sinclair squeezed his eyes shut for only a brief moment. “Suth McCall. The bastard’s face has been stuck in my mind since that very night.”

He’d never heard the name before but Tethran hardly thought that would pose a problem. All men like him ever needed was a good description and a sharp weapon. Plus, judging by the raw fury vibrating off Sinclair’s body at the moment, he didn’t doubt this McCall gent would be dead within a week.

“I’ll go with you.” Rising to his feet, he moved across the room to the wash basin he’d left earlier in the morning. “You might want to step aside, Sinclair. There are corners of my body that desperately need washing and I hardly think you’d enjoy seeing them.”

Boots scraped against the floor behind him, followed by the swishing of thick fabric. Tethran chuckled to himself as he removed his trousers and shirt. He quickly added some soap to the cold water and soaked a bathing cloth before scrubbing his armpits. Sinclair was truly a devil, waiting silently as he conducted his bathing. The man must be awfully desperate but understandably so. “So how old is this sister of yours?”

The answer came delayed but quite forceful. “I refuse to have a conversation with you while you’re scrubbing your balls, LeMark.” His footsteps resounded across the room, followed by the opening of the door. “I’ll be outside.”

Nodding to himself, he squeezed the excess water from the rag and wiped his face, the raised scars there so prominent, he could feel them. There were days when he refrained from touching his own face just to avoid reminding himself of the permanent marks his own chosen lifestyle had afforded him. It was a topic he did not like to remember, least of all think of. The abbot had been right; his decisions in life would most certainly deal him an unfavourable hand. And they had.

Tethran quickly cleaned his genitals and then tossed the cloth aside, reaching for the only other fresh pair of clothing he had carried on this trip.

Just two more jobs, he thought. Just two more. And then he could finally go off and begin his life as a well-deserved hermit.



* * * *

Try to remain still, damn you. Your pacing is giving me a headache.”

Sinclair shot him a glare. “Your so-called employer is late. Or doesn’t he know what ‘dawn’ means?”

“I mean it, Sinclair. Shut the hell up or I’ll change my damn mind.”

Kicking a pebble across the damp alleyway, his friend flung himself against the wall but waited silently, though he was very much correct. The rich man was late and Tethran was starting to feel itchy all over. It was usually the symptom that confirmed his annoyance with someone or something. Five minutes passed and a round of curses almost flew off his lips when he heard footsteps approaching. Silently alerting Sinclair, they sunk back into the shadows and waited until the person revealed himself. A tall figure entered with a cloak over his head and a small drawstring bag in one hand.

“Are you there?” The voice came cautiously.

Sinclair nudged him in the side. Why the hell did he bring him? Tethran stepped from the shadows. “You’re late.”

“Ah…yes. S-sorry about that but my mistress... Well, you know how needy women can be.” The man gave a smug chuckle.

Tethran didn’t bat an eye. “Move forward and hand me the bag and then be off. Are you certain no one followed you here?”

“Absolutely certain.”

He handed the bag over and Tethran quickly scanned through the contents. One hundred and fifty pieces. If not anything else, at least the rich man was smart enough not to cheat him. Stuffing the sack inside his own bag, he then drew up firmly against the wall as he heard another noise akin to a moving carriage.

“Get back,” he hissed, shoving the man behind him, waiting until the vehicle had fully passed.

“Christ.” His employer swatted at his clothes and chuckled. “For a moment there I thought that was a constable come to arrest me for dallying with a scoundrel like you.”

Dallying?” came Sinclair’s voice, so powerful and abrupt that the man almost sprung from the alleyway like a frightened cat. “What are you? A sissy?”

Good god, man! Who the hell are you?”

This time the man did hold his chest. Tethran sighed. For some reason he believed Sinclair had alarmed the man on purpose. “You should be going now. I’ll make contact once I get back to hand you your…token. In the meanwhile, try not to utter this arrangement to anyone. Not even to your needy mistress. Understood?”

“Perfectly.” After dashing a glance between Tethran and Sinclair, the man then disappeared from the alley, emptying water puddles as he went.

“I’ve seen him before. Has a decent property over in the plains, a pink-faced wife and twin boys.”

“Any idea what kind of business he’s into?”

“No. But it must be profitable. The man’s got a mistress.”

Tethran chuckled. “We should go. The sun is almost up. I need a horse and a day’s sustenance for the trip. You might want to supply yourself as well.”

Sinclair straightened, the short copper curls of hair damp against his skull. “I’m sure your innkeeper wouldn’t mind sparing two of those lovely stallions housed in his stable.”

“Sounds to me like you’ve already taken them.”

“Had no intention of asking.”

The horses were tied to a tree in a safe spot, a mile from the village, near the dirt track that lead out into the wider country. They were well saddled with supplies of bread and dried meat as well as drinking water and blankets. Tethran started to wonder just how Sinclair had known he’d agree to assisting him with recovering his sister. But then again, the man had always been a presumptuous brute. Shaking his head, he untied the reins of one of the horses, patted the animal on the nose and then hooked a foot into one of the stirrups before swinging himself up astride.

“Shhh,” he rubbed the base of the animal’s neck gently as it jerked nervously and then regarded Sinclair. “So when was the last time you took down a man?”

His friend barked out a laugh. “Strange question, if you ask me. Or have you forgotten that you’re not the only man who’s been paid to kill. But if you must know, last night I had the most satisfying dream.” He climbed astride and pulled on the reigns as they both moved out onto the muddy road. “I dreamt that I had McCall by the throat and my blade so deep up his arse, he could taste his own shit.”

Tethran grunted, his mind somewhat distant. He wondered how long this business would really take concerning Sinclair and his long-lost sister. Hopefully not too long that it would impede his own personal plans. “Just when I thought all you dreamed about was rainbows and sunshine.”

“Ugly bastard.”

He grinned. “At least these damn scars serve a purpose. They actually keep people at bay. I just can’t seem to understand how they don’t work on you.”

“That’s because I knew you long before you go most of them, you fool. But like you said, they do serve a purpose. You, LeMark, was too damn pretty for a lad. Those priests at the monastery would have turned you into a full blown poltroon if you hadn’t left.”

“I could say the same about you. If it wasn’t for that tussle we’d had all those years ago that ended in me breaking that glorious nose of yours, maybe you’d be the one being auctioned off instead of your sister.” The moment he’d uttered the words, Tethran realized his error. Flaring hazel eyes turned on him then, burning with fury and for a moment he thought Sinclair was going to launch off his horse and pummel him. It perhaps would have been for the best too since he wasn’t exactly proud of his choice of words either. “If you’d like to belt me in the mouth, I won’t fight back.”

The muscle in Sinclair’s right jaw ticked wildly but the intensity of the moment was cooled fractionally when he, and to Tethran’s surprise, suddenly sent his horse into a gallop, putting a great distance between them. The length of muddy road and damp shrubberies separating them stretched even further to a hundred meters, and the lousy side of him grew weary, almost sending Tethran galloping back in the direction they had come. But there was something, a tiny speck of empathy, that prevented him from doing so. Perhaps, his scars really did serve a purpose.



















THREE



Thick black rings of smoke hovered just ahead of the horizon and Tethran squinted, pulling tightly on the reigns of his horse. The stallion drew to a stop, snorted and threw his head. Chuckling, he gave the beast a gentle pat and turned to Sinclair who was still brooding, gaze averted towards the great expanse of the oncoming valley. Tethran’s frown deepened. He’d never seen the man like this. Ever. And his friend’s mood was riding too much on his nerves. Especially since they’d been in the saddle almost all day in silence and now, that it was approaching sundown, the air between them was dry enough to spark a fire. Turning his gaze back to the horizon, he thanked the heavens they were approaching Dumbar finally. Darting another glance at Sinclair, he suppressed a sigh, searching for a way to lighten the atmosphere.

“I’m not some fragile lad with delicate feelings, LeMark.” Sinclair’s voice came with grudging reluctance. “Say what you must.”

The crease between Tethran’s brows faded. “We’ll find your sister, Sinclair. This business I have to take care of in Dumbar will not go past tonight. Within the next day, we’ll be in Iqa City.”

Sinclair stared at him a moment, before his eyes narrowed a fraction, and nodded. “What know you of this solicitor?”

Tethran reached inside his coat and withdrew the portrait, handing it to his friend. He then kicked his heels against the flanks of his horse, driving it into a light tread. “I know the gent wants him dead desperately.”

He glanced over as Sinclair unfolded the parchment, gaze scrutinizing the drawing. “Looks like an older photo of that baker back in the city.” His friend’s smile wavered a bit and his brows furrowed. “You remember the chap? I stole one of those sweet buns his wife used to make from a shelf. Chased me straight into an alley and gave me a fine whipping that day.”

“Then he handed you another bun and told you to ask next time. Mr. Wulf, was his name.” He chuckled, remembering quite vividly. “Couldn’t possibly be him. If I remember correctly, Mr. Wulf barely had the means or connections to throw him in the way of a legal profession.”

Sinclair shrugged and handed back the portrait. “A lot could happen in so many years.”

Tethran grunted, only because he didn’t know what else to say. If the man on the portrait truly turned out to be Mr. Wulf, then it would certainly put a dash in his plans. The baker had been kind to them--two homeless boys--though he had no obligation to do so. Sighing, he gazed back out towards the valley as the the roof tops of buildings came closer into view, black smoke rising from high chimneys. For a moment, the bag of gold coins in his coat felt heavy. The gent had already paid him half his due. Tethran didn’t know what would happen in the next few hours but he hoped it would not end in him having to murder the wrong man. Throughout his life, he’d only delighted in killing men who were deserving of it. Hard criminals who preyed on the weaknesses of others. He’d just have to see when the time was come.

They sped their horses towards the village, dirt kicking up wildly around them as they did so. Dumbar Village was a farming place, unlike Duit which thrived on commerce. From what he knew of it, men settled here mostly for the safety it provided against brigands who were more interested in fetching gold or silver rather than ground provision.

“Look.”

Tethran eased the horse into a trot as they almost bridged the path entering the village. The streets were empty, but lights burned hotly in every house, the scents of an early supper engulfing the air. Following his friend’s gaze, he squinted as a lone creature looking like a boy scampered unsteadily along the wide porch of a bakery.

“Lad looks like he finally got a taste of some strong spirits.”

Sinclair cocked an amused brow. “Reminds you of someone, doesn’t it?”

Tethran frowned and gripped the reigns tighter, shooting him a hard look. “Come. We’ll question him anyway.”

They moved up to the boy, who was now slouching over as if he was about to throw up. Sighing, Tethran jumped down from his horse, glanced right and then left, and grabbed the boy by the collar. One closely cropped head tossed up suddenly, eyes filled with the tears. Whatever the lad had been drinking was clearly giving him a flaying.

“What?” The boy didn’t look more than twelve. He shook his head viciously. “What’s happening? Let…let me go…sir.” He let out a low cry. “My head… God, my head…”

Sinclair grinned behind him. “His arse will hurt a lot worse when his mother finds him.”

“Look at me, boy.” Tethran gave him a hard shake, he could swear he heard the boy’s teeth rattle. “I’m looking for a man. You must know him as a Mister Crymble. Where does he live?”

The lad’s eyes widened before he scowled in pain again, face going ashen. “I… I don’t know.”

Cursing, Tethran released him just in time as the boy bent over and retched, the raw contents of his stomach barely missing the toe of his boots. Gritting his teeth, he turned to face Sinclair who was barely keeping a straight face. Barely.

“Alright. Let me have at it.” His friend tossed him the reigns of both horses and approached the boy, pulling him to the side. Sinclair tossed an arm around much smaller shoulders. “See now. My friend and I are in desperate need of Mr. Crymble’s help. In fact, the good fellow invited us here but we’ve sort of forgotten the direction. Can you help us out?”

The lad gaped at Sinclair, shot an anxious glance at Tethran and then swallowed. “I don’t kn--”

“Listen to me, you twit!” The lad was suddenly picked off the ground by the lapels of his tiny jacket as Sinclair half lost his temper. “We don’t really have the time--”

Sinclair,” Tethran warned.

“--to sweet talk your lying bony ass. Tell me where the man lives now or I’ll give you a fine hiding and take you myself back to your mother.”

The boy’s eyebrows nearly shot off his head and his face blanched so white Tethran was sure he was about to faint. While he didn’t particularly like Sinclair’s way of handling the situation, he had to admit that the man was right. They really did not have time to waste. They needed to be out of Dumbar. Tonight.

“At the end of the road,” he spat out, limbs visibly shaking. “I-It’s a pretty brick house on th-the left.”

Smiling, Sinclair lowered the boy gently to his feet and patted him on the head. “Thank you. Now, move it!”

The boy scampered off, glancing behind him only once as he tore down the road and inside a small house with a wide awning. Tethran grinned and shook his head.



* * *



They secured the horses within a thick expanse of trees near a trough which sat alongside a shallow well. The orange and red streaks of sunset dissolved into the blackness of the sky and a light shape of a crescent moon beamed back at them. In a few minutes, the entire sky would be black, and everything else beneath it. They decided to wait out those minutes.

Tethran hooked his thumbs inside his belt and gazed at the house the boy had described. It was a fairly modest home with a garden at the front. A woman most likely was in residence. Mr. Wulf did have a wife. No. He shook his head. It wasn’t the baker. Couldn’t be. Rolling the cramp out of his shoulders, he turned to face Sinclair who was sharpening his knife on a solid piece of hewn stone.

“Ready when you are,” he said, glancing up and studying the sharp side of the blade. “I never knew you to delay.”

“Your comment back there troubles me,” Tethran admitted. “I would not wish to kill a man who had been kind to us. I must make sure I know exactly who lives within that house first.”

Sinclair sheathed the knife. “Then, by all means, let’s knock on the door and request some kind hospitality.”

He gritted his teeth but nodded in agreement. As they moved quietly across the yard, Tethran’s eyes never left the windows, lamplight burning dimly behind them. “I’ll be the one knocking,” he said. “You stand off to the side, just in case.”

He paused at the front door, waiting until Sinclair had did as he’d asked. Hand cocked over the hilt of the knife in his waist, he then raised his other hand and knocked on the door. After the third knock, he could hear feet shuffling. The door then swung open and Tethran frowned down at a stocky old woman. His left brow raised despite his best efforts causing the tiny creature to fold two beefy arms over her chest.

“What? Never seen a dwarf before?” The woman’s voice was as small, if not smaller, than her stature. The scratching sound of a voice almost made him laugh. For a split second, he was contemplating turning back but then the woman poked him in the stomach. “What can I do for you?”

When he found his voice, he gave her his most sincere look. “I was just passing through, ma’am, and wondering if you could offer me a place to groom my horses. Poor beasts are almost run to the ground. A glass of water would do me nicely too. If you don’t mind, that is.”

She made an indelicate sound and waved him inside. “I can’t well be talking to you while you’re out there in the dark, young man. Come in and let me take a look at you. Bend a little too because as you can see, I’m a mere scrap of a woman and---good Lord!”

Tethran scowled, not hiding his displeasure at the horror he saw in the woman’s eyes. “Injuries when I was but a green lad, madam.” And that was as close to the truth as any.

Her hand went up to her mouth. “What a sight! What was it, a jealous lover or an angry husband?”

His eyes narrowed but he quickly reminded himself that he needed to play along. At least for a little while longer. “Both. They accosted me deep in the night and left me for dead.”

Her gaze turned sorrowful and then filled with something akin to admiration. Tethran shifted uncomfortably. “My, what a fine big man you are, though.” Her big eyes roamed over his frame with appreciation. “Well, the rest of you can surely make up for that ruined face, my dear. Tell me, from where do you hail?”

Tethran opened to his mouth to speak when quick footsteps came echoing behind him, followed by a soft feminine voice. “Marie, who are you…?”

The voice trailed off and he turned around just in time to welcome an ear splitting scream. The next thing he saw was something silver flashing through the air, and a pain so startling, he stumbled backwards.

His eyes widened a fraction and he looked down to see a tiny knife sticking into his thigh. The stocky woman gasped, Sinclair came storming through the house and the perpetrator of his injury stood stock still, a lethally knowing look in her deep brown eyes.

















FOUR

Goddamn it!” Sinclair rumbled.

Tethran clenched his jaws tight as he gripped the handle of the knife and yanked it from his thigh. He could feel the warmth of his blood soaking into the foot of his trousers. Blasted wench. If ever he felt like killing a woman, now was the time. Reaching out, he grabbed the slender female by the arm and drew her to him so he could see her clearly. The bloody vixen threw a fist at him, almost landing it perfectly in his eye. Trapping her arms at her sides, he scowled deeply. Shite. The stinging in his thigh was enough to give him the nerve to do what he was thinking to do. And he was certainly feeling the urge to toss the harridan over his knees and roast her bottom red.

He shook her, waves of auburn hair escaping the cap she wore. But the eyes that gazed back at him held no fear. It was shocking, to say the least.

“Have you no sense, woman?” he barked in her face.

“I believe the lady was startled--”

“Shut your mouth, Sinclair!” He snarled, eyes not leaving her oval face. “You could have killed somebody.”

A whimper came from next to him and he remembered the other woman. The one in his grip narrowed her gaze even further and spoke between tight lips. “Go home, Marie.”

The dwarf sputtered. “But J--”

“I said go. And do not raise an alarm. I know exactly how to deal with these men.” Marie lifted her skirts and raced out the door. Sinclair kicked it close and stood with his arms crossed, waiting. The woman’s gaze flicked between the two of them, then settled squarely on Tethran’s face. Not even a flinch. Nothing. He was starting to wonder why, when she spoke again,“I suggest you release me, sir, before I am tempted to injure you once again. I’ll not play ignorant. Release me. I know why you’ve come.”

Tethran tightened his grip on her until she winced and then shove her away from him, the pain in his flesh now acting up with full force. He stumbled to a chair and grunted as he reached for a half bottle of whiskey on the table and poured some on the wound. The strong liquor bit into his flesh, almost bringing tears to his eyes. He would enjoy giving this woman a fine spanking, whoever the hell she was.

“And what exactly do you know?” he asked finally, yanking a kerchief from his pocket and tightly securing it around the wound.

She moved then, the hem of her thin white gown brushing around her ankles. Naked ankles. Tethran grunted. “You’re not the first of your kind to show up here,” she spat with disgust. “You have come for my father, haven’t you?”

He and Sinclair exchanged a glance. “And who, pray tell, is your father?”

She gave a short laugh. A snort, really. “Ah. You do not fool me. You’ve come for him, I know it. Well, you are too late. He’s gone.”

Gone?” Tethran shot up, wincing at his injured leg. “Gone, as in dead or gone gone?”

She scowled. “Gone, as in I haven’t a clue where he is.”

“Bloody hell.” He dropped himself back on the chair and took a long draw from the whiskey bottle. It would take another bottle to cool the ire rising in his blood. Eyeing the woman standing before him, it took all the strength he had not to shout. Goddamn it, the woman had a good aim. If she’d shifted it a little higher, she would have damaged a part of him he most certainly had no intention of losing. The thought of it only brought a bitter taste to his mouth. Cursing, he reached inside his coat and slammed the portrait on the table. “Is that your father?”

Her eyes narrowed but she remained where she was. He reached out a hand and grabbed her, dragging her towards the table. From where he sat, he could see something flash in his friend’s eyes but he didn’t care. He was the one who had a stinging leg. Not that he hadn’t suffered through worse. Much worse. But the idea that a woman had bested him, made Tethran even more angrier than he probably should have been.

She shrugged off his grip, eyes blazing. “Do not manhandle me!” She peered down at the portrait and straightened. “Aye. That is my father.”

“Is there a chance your father may have been a baker?” Sinclair moved closer and the woman maintained her ground, chin raised. “Back in the city some years ago?”

My father is a baker.”

Tethran frowned. “What is his name?”

“I am not obligated to tell you anything. I suggest you leave the way you came and--”

“I am not moving an inch until you answer my question, madam.” He rose to his feet once again, the pain in his thigh already dulling. “Believe me, I possess no qualms whatsoever about flinging you over my knee and cracking my palm against your lovely backside.”

Her eyes stretched back in shock, wrapping her arms around her body as if she’d just taken notice to the flimsy night gown she wore. One pert nose then wrinkled with anger, clearly affronted. “You would not dare.”

“I believe he would, madam,” Sinclair chimed in.

Her gaze swept across the two of them swiftly before hardening with contempt. “Ruel Crymble.”

And is he known by any other names? Wulf, perhaps?”

She fidgeted. “Why do you ask?”

Tethran decided to be blunt. “Because I was paid to kill your father, miss. But, mind you, if he is who we think he is, we’ll be forced to change our minds.”

A gasp flew from her mouth. A small, delicate mouth. And she gripped the table as her face paled. “Murder?” She swallowed tightly, eyes wide as saucers. “I thought you were…” She brought a hand to her head before stumbling into a chair. “Oh, dear lord…”

Tethran snorted. “Spare us the theatrics, please. Is it not you who claimed you knew exactly why we’d come?”

She glanced, hands shaking now. “Yes but… I thought you were Papa’s creditors. They always send men that are as…large as both of you.”

Sinclair harrumphed. “Best believe it that your dear ‘Papa’ has got a rather large bounty on his head. Now tell me… How long has he been a baker?”

She shook her head. “For as long as I can remember. We moved here from the city when I was six years old.”

“So is his name ‘Wulf’ as well?” Tethran needed to know.

She nodded. “It was my grandmother’s--his mother’s--maiden name. She had given it to him as well. I believe that was what he had named his bakery back then.”

“Christ.” Tethran ran a hand down his face and glanced at his friend. “You were right.”

He shrugged. “What now?”

He glared down at the woman. “Does your father usually make a habit of running off?”

“Of course not.” She made to stand but likely the hardness his eyes drove her back down. “Running off is not like him at all.”

Are you certain your father is only a baker?” Sinclair directed the question. “Why would someone want to murder a simple country baker?”

“I don’t know.” She dropped her head in her hands. “I haven’t seen him in three days. And he didn’t leave a note or anything.”

“Did you report it to the local constable?”

Her mouth opened but then clamped down in a thin line. “No.”

“And why not?” Tethran demanded.

“Step back, sir. You are bearing too close on me and I fear you might have been travelling for far too long to upkeep proper…cleanliness.”

The skin around his mouth tightened and he noted the surprise in Sinclair’s eyes at her words. The woman was proving to be a spitfire and he fully intended on cooling that tongue. “Give me a moment with the woman, Sinclair.”


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