Crown's Shield ~ Chapter Two
Chapter 2 (Unedited)
Shock pulsed through him even after she’d left. They had actually found her and not only that, but they even knew her true identity and her family. She was completely different from when he saw her the night before, less exotic, less refined. Yet she was just as beautiful. When he initially caught sight of her, he’d felt inclined to haul her over his shoulder and lock her up so they could finally extract some answers from her, and he’d been about to do so when Sam slid him that look.
He wasn’t sure the reasoning behind his brother’s letting her walk away, but Sam always had a plan. The man had more information, and secrets, than anyone he’d ever met… except, perhaps, for the rebel girl. She might be the exception.
He pulled himself from his thoughts when he heard the click of a shutting door.
Was she coming back out?
Her excuse of illness was one of the oldest tricks in the book and it was surprising her father hadn’t seen through it.
When he glanced up he noticed an older woman emerging from the curtain. She pushed some silver streaked hair from the hazel eyes bracketed by fine lines, probably from smiling too often, as it seemed to suit her. She skimmed her eyes over him but lit up with joy as she spotted Sam.
“Samuel!” she exclaimed and rushed towards them, hazel eyes twinkling. “It has been too long, my boy.” She hugged him and then planted a kiss on his cheek.
“Gwen, dearest, your beauty has faded not a bit. Colm is one lucky man.” Sam grasped her hand, placing a quick kiss on the back of it.
She swatted his brother's shoulder, her lips quirking. “Some things never change do they? I was hoping you might have finally found a woman to settle you.”
“I’m afraid the only woman in my life is my duties and she’s all I’ve got room for. She’s a hard mistress, demanding all my time and energy so I fear I would have nothing left to give a young woman. For you, however, I think I would make an exception.”
Tehl barely kept from rolling his eyes at his brother’s antics. Sam couldn’t help himself, he just had to flirt with anything that was female.
“Hey now,” Colm scolded, though good naturedly.
Tehl took the moment to study the older swordmaker while his brother distracted the lady. The older man was a complicated mixture of opposites. He was tall and wide shouldered with massive hands yet his clothes hung loose and his face was gaunt. The size of his clothes bespoke a time of good health and what was most likely considerable strength. Tehl watched as the swordsmith’s hands shook slightly while he worked. What had happened to him? Was he sick?
“Forgive me for being so rude but, who is your companion?”
Tehl discarded his musings and turned to the woman who was now appraising him. Her smile was friendly but her eyes were shrewd. As she looked him up and down, the corner of her lips pinched slightly.
Interesting, he thought.
It appeared she didn’t like him though he’d yet to speak a word. Like mother like daughter.
“I am Tehl, my lady.” He inclined his head, respectfully addressing the older woman.
“Forget all the formal nonsense. A friend of Sam’s is a friend of the family’s. Call me, Gwen.” She brushed her hands against her skirt and looked between Sam and himself. “Would the two of you like to stay for dinner?”
“Colm invited us already and I do wish we could stay Gwen, but I fear that business waits for no man. Thank you for the offer. However, we really ought to be going.” Though Sam smiled it held a hint of disappointment. “It was a pleasure to meet your daughter. We will be back for the blade in a couple weeks.”
“That’s too bad. Perhaps next time?”
“Definitely. Will Zeke and Seb be done with their trading then?”
“Actually, they’re home now. They’re out running errands for me so I’m sure they’ll be sad they missed you.”
Sam picked up his sword and passed his other packages to his brother. “Tell them to not be strangers.” He then gave Lady Blackwell a quick hug and shook hands with Colm before turning towards the exit. As soon as he’d turned the smile slid from his brother’s face, grim determination replacing the former levity.
“You’re sure you don’t have time to stay?” Gwen called lightly.
Something in the tone of her question felt off and Tehl’s brows furrowed, perplexed.
Sam pasted the smile back on his face and tossed over his shoulder, “I am afraid not, dearest, but next time for sure.” Sam waved to the couple once more and meandered away until they were out of sight from their home. He picked up his pace, urging his brother, “We need to hurry, she’s running; I know it. Gwen was trying to stall us.” A bitterness had seeped into his words with the last sentence.
“I thought the same thing. I knew something was off when she smiled at me with her lips but it didn’t match her eyes.” Sam didn’t often show his true feelings but Tehl could feel the frustration pouring off his brother. “What’s wrong?”
“I have known them for years, Tehl, years. You have no idea how many times I snuck over there to visit their sons, Seb and Zeke. I never met Sage. She was younger and always by their father’s side. Neither of the boys had an interest in the forge. I can only guess what Sage told her mother, but my friendship with them just ended. Instead of being honest with me, Gwen shut me out, and protected Sage.”
“That is, I believe, what mothers are supposed to do,” Tehl drawled. Odd that it was him making this observation to his brother when it was usually the other way around.
“Believe me, I know. I just...” Sam stopped, searching the surrounding area and running a hand through his hair. “I wish things were different. Everything is so damn tangled.” Sam squinted at the forest and changed the subject. “She couldn’t move into the city from this direction. If she had, we would have seen her. If I was her, I would have slipped into the trees to sneak so I could enter the city near the fishing district. The homes butt up against the forest there so it’d be an easier transition for her.” Sam met his eyes as he made his way quickly back. “We have to hustle if we want any hope of catching up with her. If we lose her this time I doubt we’ll ever discover her again. Our only chance to quell the rebellion peacefully will disappear with her.”
Tehl nodded and quickened his pace to match his brothers. They jogged down the lane scanning the area. “We could have avoided hunting her down if you had let me take her at the forge,” Tehl pointed out, baiting him. “I understand that you’re friends with her family, but this isn’t about one family, it’s a nation of people.”
He smiled at his brother. Sam loved to tell others why he was right and Tehl had deliberately created the perfect opening.
“First, we want her to come willingly.”
Tehl’s lips twitched. Hook, line, and sinker.
“As we have seen in the last month, she won’t give us a damn thing if we push. We don’t want to be seen as the evil ones. If you had taken Sage from her home, we would’ve become evil and she would have resisted us with everything she had.” Sam continued on in a lofty, lecturing tone. “Second, she will run to someone she trusts, who can protect her and who is potentially very dangerous.”
Tehl let out a snort. So that was it. His brother was brilliant. “The rebellion. She is running to someone in the rebellion.”
Sam grinned, huffing out a breath. “Exactly. Two birds, one stone.”
They slowed when they reached the end of the forest and a small cluster of homes slowly gave way to the bustling city’s edge, families filling the streets, going about their daily business. Sam paused at an abandoned barrel and dumped his packages into it. Tehl raised a brow. Was he really going to leave his goods in that barrel? Sam saw the question on his face and smiled.
“I can’t track a rebel spy if I am weighed down by loot. That girl is fast! Plus, no one is looking to steal from an old barrel, so I doubt anything will happen to it. Stop scowling and blend in, damn it! You keep an eye on the south and I’ll watch the north.”
Tehl pulled his hood to more fully shadow his face and scanned the road. Children sat in the dirt, etching games into it with little rocks. Others chased each other or hung onto the edges of their mum’s skirts as the women gossiped and shopped. He couldn’t help the smile on his face when a baby boy picked up a rock and began gnawing on it, behind his mum’s back. His little face sagging in relief with each bite. The little one must be getting teeth. He pulled his gaze from the baby and studied the surrounding people. Tehl inspected each person carefully, even the young men. The first time he had met Sage she was posing as a boy so she could very well be doing so now.
“There,” Sam breathed.
Tehl shuffled sideways to where his brother looked. There she was, moving from between two homes and into the lane. She then flittered from one group of people to the next, looking for all the world like she belonged in each. It was fascinating.
Sam sprawled drunkenly next to him, groaning about a headache. Her head swiveled in their direction. She spotted Sam and dismissed him as a drunk before moving down the dirt road. His brother was right. People saw mostly what they expected to see.
Sam straightened and paused next to him. “Shall we investigate a bit?” Excitement gleamed in his brother’s blue eyes.
Tehl nodded, gesturing ahead of him. “Lead the way.”
Sam’s eyes flicked to his boots. “Do try to be quiet, we don’t want her to know we are coming.”
Tehl glared at Sam. “But of course. Anything that you command Mighty Lord of The Sneaks.”
Sam scratched his chin with a satisfied smirk. “You know, I have always wanted to hear someone say that.” He then began slinking down an alley parallel to the lane. “Though, admittedly, I’d always hoped it would come from someone of the female persuasion."
Tehl scoffed and kept close behind. They followed Sage at a distance as she made an odd series of twists and turns.
“She’s coming to a dead end,” Sam whispered, but when they turned the corner she was gone.
“Bloody hell,” Sam cursed.
Tehl’s eyes searched along the street but she was not there. A flicker of movement drew his eyes up. He blinked. She was running across the roof of an alehouse. “Sam.”
“I see her. We need to split up or she’ll spot us coming.”
Tehl waited for Sam to get a good ten paces ahead before he made a show of sedately meandering down the cobbled street. Her fluid jumps and quick steps made it easy to keep his attention on her. Every movement was precise and athletic, never stumbling or slowing down. He’d have to pick up his pace to keep her in his sight, but just as he had the thought his breathing stuttered as she hurled herself across a large gap between buildings. Her dark cloak floated behind her, suspended in the air, until her fingers caught the edge of the next building. Bracing her feet against the building she twisted and, with her back to the wall, noiselessly dropped to the ground.
He had never seen anything like it.
“I want her. Do you think she’d marry me?” Sam whispered heavily in his ear.
Only years of practice kept him from jumping. Damn his brother and his eternal sneaking. “Was that necessary?” he asked harshly.
Sam shouldered next to him as Sage slipped down the alley. “No, I find it enjoyable, so I wouldn’t expect it to stop any time soon. Also, you probably would have heard me if you weren’t watching her quite so closely.” Sam hitched a thumb over his shoulder. “You passed me a couple buildings back and never even noticed. Not that I can blame you... that woman,” Sam groaned. “Beauty, grace, cunning… and those moves! I bet she’s flexible-”
Tehl slapped his brother on the back of the head. “Don’t even think about it.”