Saturday, August 13, 2011

Tamra is warned of onrushing danger - Blood Duty

Tamra's pulse quickened when she glanced over her shoulder at Jessup, who was leaning back against the wall, unsmiling.

Someone who didn't know him so well might mistake that slouch for carelessness rather than a habit to disguise his coiled tension. Outside the inn, a coach had just pulled up, and the driver shouted for the stable boy. Bright afternoon sun poured through the window. She closed the polished oak shutters and the clamor sank to a murmur. She'd given the innkeeper orders they weren't to be bothered.

"A Faragund army?" She frowned. "After all these years of peace? It's hard to take in."

"It's there all right. And killing everyone they get near." He scowled and twitched his shoulders. "That torture stank of some kind of magic, too. Nasty."

She poured two mugs of ale from the pitcher and handed him one. The innkeeper brewed a fine dark one, so she took a slow sip. Anyway, it gave her time to think. Jessup looked a bit scruffy as always, sandy stubble covering his chin. He'd sent her a message at the keep as soon as he'd arrived. Well, of course he did. She felt the heat flush her cheeks. Their eyes locked, and she could almost feel the kiss they hadn't yet shared. It had always been like that with him.

Gods, she missed him when he was gone. But she hadn't expected him to talk war when he came back. Faragunds... She frowned. "You're sure they're marching toward Daggerfell Pass?"

He shrugged and pulled a chair from the table. He sat in it, tilting it back so it touched the wall. "No way to be sure unless I go into the camp and ask that king of theirs. And I saw what happened to the last scout they got hold of."

She sat on the edge of the table, taking another sip of the rich brew. "But?"

"But they were marching in this direction. Not fast. I'm weeks ahead, but they're moving. Burned three villages that I saw. No prisoners." His lips thinned in a grim look. "Just bodies."

She shook her head. "I don't understand that. I grew up on stories of the war. I heard about… oh, torture. Most people lost someone. My father's brother for one. It was bad, but they took prisoners. Traded prisoners… took ransom for them."

Jessup grunted. "That was then."

"I'll have to think about this. Tell my lady mother first." She bit her lip as she calculated how many guards she had and how many she'd need to hold the keep in a siege. Mostly the guards she led were for patrolling the roads, which her mother was charged with by the prince as levy for holding the keep.

"Telling her is your problem," Jessup said with a curl of his lip. "I don't curry favor with ladies and lordlings."

She gave a quick laugh. "You're more likely to insult them. No. I'll take care of that; you're right. But what about the prince? He needs to know."

Jessup set down his empty mug and let the front legs of the chair thump on the floor. "I came to tell you, not the prince. But all right. I'll report to the palace in Madrian. I'll be back afterwards. Shouldn't take more than two days. If they want to yap about it, they can do it without me." He uncoiled from the chair.

Enough of this. Tamra couldn't think straight when all she wanted to do was kiss the blasted man, so she set her mug down. One step, and she had her hand on his chest.

"About time," he said, voice gruff. He wrapped a hand around her blond braid, bending her head back as his mouth came down on hers.

Their mouths melded, and her blood hammered in her ears. Her body melted from internal fire. He moaned softly as his mouth went to her neck, kissing and nipping. She caressed the back of his neck and took a shuddering breath. This wasn't the place or the time, but it had been too long. As she pulled out of his arms, he rubbed his finger, callous- rough from his bow, along her chin. "Was that all I came back to, Captain?"

"Did you want more?" She grinned a little. "For a scout who never says when he'll be back, you expect a lot."

"Do I?" He grinned.

"Egotistical man." She ran her eyes over him hungrily. "Don't you ever shave?"

"I may—when I get back. And we'll talk. That fealty of yours..."

She kissed him quick and hard to shut him up. "Not now. But hurry back." She strolled out to lean against the wall of the whitewashed tavern as Jessup rode away.

His description of what he had seen on the other side of the mountains had her sufficiently distracted that she barely nodded at the stable boy as she tossed him a coin and mounted. Her horse cantered towards Wayfare Keep and its own stable with a bare twitch of the reins. Tamra looked across the valley with its mixed stands of pine and aspen, past the knot of lime-washed cottages with wood shingle roofs and the patchwork gardens and open fields where goats grazed. Above them on a stark crag rose the massive structure of gray stone keep. The trade road from the nearby mines to Madrian passed under its shadow.

A peasant in brown homespun stopped his goats beside the road. "Fine morning, Cap'n Tamra," he said as she passed.

She nodded and managed a smile. Tales of burned villages and soldiers trampled under the hooves of cavalry charges ran through her mind. She shuddered and shook off her imaginings. Reality was enough to deal with.

In the keep bailey, a bustling wagon train was delivering goods. Mule drivers shouted, and the smell of damp wool and leather mingled with that of animal dung underfoot. Tamra scanned and saw her older brother, Garris, neatly built with brown hair so dark it was almost black, across the bailey yard with his head bent as he talked to the merchant. Sharniz, the white-haired and wizened wagon-train master, was probably doing his best to diddle a few more coins for the goods out of Garris.

Tamra stepped close to one of the guards at the gate, a sturdy girl only recently recruited from one of the nearby farms, eager to escape marriage and farm drudgery. "Go find Farren for me. Tell him to attend me here straight away." As the girl dashed away, Tamra pushed her way through the jumble of workers unloading the wagons. She nodded to the merchant with a smile.

"Think you can beat him out of a few extra coins, Master Sharniz?"

The old man grunted and scowled. "That doesn't happen, Captain. He's a hard man, he is. Takes after his lady mother."

Tamra could happily disagree that her brother was hard, but that was hardly a subject for a merchant's ears.

Garris scraped a hand through his hair, pushing it off his forehead. "I think we're through . I'll have your payment for you shortly."

Tamra grabbed Garris's elbow. "I need to talk to you—now," she said, keeping her voice low enough so that no one else could hear her over the clatter around them.

He gave her a puzzled half-smile. "Something wrong?"

She pointed with her chin towards the steps that led into the keep and led him in that direction until they were away from the crowd. "I just got some…" She frowned. "…some alarming news from Jessup. He was past the mountains. He says the Faragund army is on the move."

Garris gaped at her for a moment, speechless. "By the Light! On the move to where?" He blinked. "That's a stupid question. He couldn't know that. Did he have a guess though?"

"This direction, he says. It doesn't make much sense to me, any of it. He said they're killing prisoners—torturing them. I don't know what to think."

"But you trust his word on it."

"You know I do."

He crossed his arms over his chest and studied the stone steps where they stood as though they might tell him something. Finally, he sighed. "Mother has to know about this."

"It'll come better from you."

"But you're the one Jessup told."

Tamra met his eyes. "Since when did she listen to what I tell her?"

Garris looked as though he'd rather deny it but couldn't. He made an unhappy sound in his throat. "You're right. I'll tell her."

She put a hand on his arm. "Thanks, Garris. I knew I could count on you."

Garris shook his head. "Wish I knew what to think. Perhaps I should be glad that Lizza is gone."

She gave his arm a squeeze. He'd been like a lost puppy ever since his wife of a year had left to visit her family in the city of Rishard on the far side of the imperial capitol. "She's well away from any fighting, Garris. There's no way they'll ever get that far."

He nodded unhappily. Seeing her lieutenant wending his way through the drovers towards them, Tamra said, "I'll go over the list of our weapon stores with Farren. I want to make sure we're ready if it comes to a siege."


Blood Duty is available on Amazon for Kindle and Smashwords in various formats for only $2.99.

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