The Scourge of Muirwood Page 3

“Not to Muirwood?”

“Trust me, old friend,” he said, his eyes intense. “There is a grove of trees we must visit. Ride with me, Martin. Tell no one what we do.”

“The king is expecting us in Comoros in less than a fortnight.” He scratched his throat and started towards his own mount. “He is not a patient man. He will take it amiss if we are late.”

The Prince was staring westward, his eyes fixed on something only he could see. “I know, Martin. But the way is becoming more clear. The swamp whispers to me. It whispers of death.” He sighed. “It whispers of my death.”

CHAPTER TWO:

Binding Sigil

The fragrance of the Cider Orchard enmeshed with Lia’s memories and the churn of feelings she worried would overwhelm her. Throughout her childhood at Muirwood Abbey, she had fled to the Cider Orchard. The tightly clustered rows of trees made it easier to hide and escape kitchen chores. She had plucked hundreds of apples from their stems and nestled in the grass to savor them. She had witnessed the orchard blooming with blossoms or wreathed in smoky mist. The thoughts evoked memories of rushing with Sowe and Colvin to escape the sheriff’s men through the orchard. Of Getman Smith finding her there and squeezing her arm. One of her most painful memories happened there as well – when Colvin had rejected her and left her alone in the mud and dripping branches. But it was also the place where he had found her again, later, and asked for her help in saving Ellowyn Demont.

Ellowyn Demont.

The name invoked such tangled feelings – hate, envy, pity, respect, jealousy. Especially jealousy. Lia leaned against a tree trunk in the twilight, sighing deeply, stifling a sob, and clenched her fists. Colvin had found Ellowyn at Sempringfall Abbey, sentenced there as a wretched after the kingdom of Pry-Ree was vanquished. She grew up unaware of her name, known as Hillel Lavender because she worked at the laundry. But things were not as they seemed. Hillel was not the real Ellowyn Demont. For some reason, for some cruel reason, Lia had learned too late that she herself was the missing heir of Pry-Ree. She had sacrificed herself for the other girl, believing that Hillel was the true person and bound for Dochte Abbey to warn them of the coming of the Blight. But it was not Hillel that needed to go. It was Lia, her leg still throbbing and healing, her hand still aching from the arrow that had transfixed it. The injuries she had sustained were not what pained her the most. It was jealousy – pure jealousy – that the other girl was traveling by sea to Dahomey to warn the inhabitants of Dochte Abbey. She was not traveling alone, but with Colvin.

The ache became worse. It robbed her ability to think. She had always known herself as Lia Cook. It was every wretched’s deepest dream to learn of their parentage. Why had events turned out in such a way? Why was it that Colvin had been led to Sempringfall to find the girl, and not to Muirwood? What would have happened if she had been allowed to spend a year with Colvin, as Hillel had, learning languages and scriving, being able to participate in the politics of her uncle, Garen Demont, instead of shying away from them, always too fearful. Did the Aldermaston of Muirwood know the truth? Had he always known?

The jealousy coalesced into anger. The Prince of Pry-Ree, her very own father, had visited Muirwood before her birth. The Aldermaston of Tintern knew who she was. She coughed with a half-chuckle. He had even promised to tell her when she returned from Dochte Abbey. She remembered the pity in his eyes. But still, he had not told her the truth. It was the Cruciger orb, a gift left with her when she was abandoned as a baby, that had revealed the truth at last. The Aldermaston knew. He must have known. Yet he had deliberately deceived her. The anger boiled. She had to know why. Colvin was escorting the wrong person to Dahomey. The thought made her feel black inside.

Pushing away from the smooth-bark of the apple tree, she strode towards the Manor house. It was dusk and torches shone in sconces on the walls. She walked furiously but with a limp. She knew she should not, that her leg would throb that night as she tried to fall asleep, but she did not care. The Abbey walls seemed luminous that night, as if the very stones radiated moonlight before the silver orb appeared in the sky. She loved the Abbey with all her heart. It was part of her. Beneath her hunter’s garb, she wore a soft, woven chaen shirt. It reminded her of the maston vows she had made inside. She was a maston, as her father and her mother had been. Being a maston was part of her heritage.

Lia reached the manor house and thrust open the door. Something caught her eye in the corner outside, some movement. She glanced but saw nothing. From the corner of her eye, it had seemed like a person – a man wearing hunter garb. She paused, staring at the spot, but she could see nothing. She shook her head, realizing that there were many knight-mastons wandering the grounds since the battle. It was probably one of them.

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