Vow of Deception, page 30
Footsteps pounded up the stairs. The guard paused outside. Steel scraped as the man drew his sword from his wooden scabbard and charged into the chamber.
Shouting, the guard spun about. His sword arched up to meet Rand’s downward-slashing weapon. The edge of the guard’s blade struck the flat of Rand’s sword; sparks flew. Rand disengaged and attacked with several quick downward blows. The gaoler countered Rand’s every move. Sweat dribbled down Rand’s forehead as they fought, parrying, cutting, slashing, and dodging each other’s attacks.
Aware of the passage of time, Rand struck out with a quick thrust of his steel, but lunging too quickly, he staggered. The guard warded off the blow with a diagonal slice of his blade, glancing Rand’s sword away and slashing through Rand’s unprotected thigh. Rose screamed. Rand did not pause but leapt away, avoiding a deadly cut. Pain seared his thigh. Blood poured forth.
With lightning speed, Rand recovered his blade and stepped in close to the guard, who was caught unprepared. Rand gave a hard glancing blow against the defender’s mailed head. Stunned, the man fell to his knees. Rand stabbed the guard through the throat and withdrew his sword.
The gaoler grabbed his throat, choking as blood gushed through his fingers. Then he slumped over sideways and collapsed on the floorboards, dead.
Turning to Rose, Rand sheathed his sword. She was staring at the guard, her eyes glazed with shock and her hand clutching her throat.
Rand removed his cloak, and wrapping it around Rose’s shoulders, he pulled the hood up so it completely covered her distinct red-gold hair. Rand clutched her cold hands and rubbed his thumbs over her palms, willing his strength into her.
She gazed up at him. Her vision cleared. “You’re wounded.” She raised his tunic and sherte and probed around the wound through the slash in his thin braies.
Rose bit her lip, frowning. “You are lucky. ’Tis a relatively shallow wound and the bleeding has stopped.”
Her fingers glided delicately over his flesh, sensual caresses that stirred his loins. It was certainly not her intention, and his response was completely inappropriate considering the danger they were still in.
“Time is running out, Rose. We need to leave immediately.”
“I agree. But first I need to bind the wound so it does not become infected.” She bent down and ripped a long strip of linen from the hem of her chemise. She continued speaking as she tied the bandage tightly around his thigh. “Later it needs to be cleansed and treated with healing herbs—”
Footsteps thundered up the tower stairs. She spun toward the door.
Rand swore, drawing his sword. When Amaury stepped through the portal, Rand exhaled loudly and sheathed his sword.
Amaury glanced around the room, grimacing. “We need to hurry, Rand. Every moment we delay puts us more in danger.”
Rand nodded. “Rose, listen to me. I need to rouse Golan and get him ready to go with us. Until we’re safely away from the castle, all my attention must be on guarding Golan so he does not alert anyone of our escape. But I can’t do that if I’m worrying about you,” Rand said, holding his hands out to her. “Do you understand, Rose?”
She slipped her fingers trustingly into his hands. “Of course. What is it you would have me do?”
Warmth suffused his hands and spread up his arms and throughout his body. Gratitude and tenderness crowded his senses. Rose’s confidence imbued him with a strength and determination unlike anything he had ever felt before.
“I need you to go with Amaury. He’ll take you to the barge waiting to take us to my ship moored downriver. Do not worry. I shall be right behind you.”
Do not worry, Rand had glibly decreed.
As Rose descended the steep steps cut into the sandstone slope, she glanced for the third time back up toward the postern gate. The high stone walls surrounding Chester loomed above her.
Rand may as well have said, Do not breathe, I shall be right behind you. Indeed, fear and worry coiled in her gut.
Distracted, she caught her toe on an uneven step and tripped. Heart pumping wildly, she flung forward.
Amaury caught her by her elbow, stopping her fall. “Careful, my lady. ’Twould not do for you to fall and break your neck.”
A high-pitched giggle burst from her lips. How ironic it would be to die the same way her husband had died. And when she was escaping from the supposed crime of killing him. The bushy eyebrow Amaury quirked in wary concern provoked another inappropriate laugh. Rose slapped her hand over her mouth.
Amaury frowned, guiding her by the arm. She took mincing steps, more cautious now; she had too much to live for. Her son needed her. It broke her heart thinking of how frightened and confused he must be. Surely Jason did not think she had abandoned him? She fiercely prayed ’twas not so.
The ground beneath her feet leveled as they drew near the riverbank. Waiting for them in a flat-bottomed barge moored to the revetment were two men wearing wool fishermen’s hats.
Rose shifted her gaze back to the castle.
Beside her, Amaury prodded, “My lady, ’tis best if you board the boat before Sir Rand arrives with the captive.”
She nodded distractedly. In addition to her fear, she could not help feeling that she had abandoned Rand. At the time she’d believed it was the right decision, but now she wondered.
Assisted by Amaury, Rose stepped into the back of the vessel. It rocked slightly, but she steadied herself and then sat down on the planked seat.
While Amaury unwound the mooring cable, Rose looked up at the castle and stared fixedly on the postern gate.
Time seemed to draw out forever. Rose nearly lurched out of her skin when the gate finally swung open.
First Golan and then Rand stepped out. Rand slung his left arm over Golan’s shoulder as though they were friendly acquaintances sharing a moment of camaraderie. But Rose noticed Rand walked behind Golan a little way, his right hand pressed up against Golan’s side. Their bodies shifted, parting, and in that brief interval, light from the dying rays of the sun flashed off the steel blade jammed against Golan.
Soon they reached the bottom of the stairs. Golan glared at her, an unrelenting glint of evil menace in his dark eyes. She shivered but raised her chin and held his stare. Perhaps reading her smug satisfaction, he frowned and glanced away.
Rose shifted her gaze to Rand. He was watching her; his gray-green eyes lit with admiration and pride. She smiled slightly. He nodded, his lips curled in satisfaction.
Rand turned to Amaury. “Let’s shove off. Though I didn’t encounter any trouble leaving the castle, it shall not be long before they discover the dead guard and realize Rose has escaped.”
Golan simmered with repressed rage. Thwarted lust and revenge clamored to spew out in violent cataclysm. He nearly shuddered with it. But he shoved it deep down where the darkest recesses of his soul resided. Corrupted after years of disappointment and frustration heaped upon him throughout his misbegotten life—by his whoring, seductive mother, his drunkard father, and his adulteress wife. The final insult came when Rose rejected his offer of marriage and scorned his physical advances.
Golan curled his lip and glared at the offending pair. “Do you truly believe you and your whore shall escape unscathed. The king knows Rose murdered Bertram. He shall arrive in Chester anon and will hunt you down like the dog you are.”
“Shut your mouth”—Rand jabbed the sharp tip of his blade into Golan’s flesh about an inch—“and get into the boat.”
As Golan winced and groaned in pain, Rand shoved him. He stumbled into the boat. Rand squeezed his shoulder painfully, forcing him down onto the seat in the middle of the boat facing the rowers.
Golan opened his mouth to speak.
Rand sat beside him. “Say another word and I’ll cut out your tongue.”
Golan fumed as the boat glided away from the riverbank. He glanced back at the castle as they proceeded downriver. There was no sign of activity on the castle walls except the regular guard watch.
However, his persistence was rewarded when the bonds loosened enough for him to slip his hand out. Hiding a smug smile of satisfaction, he remained emotionless and quiet, unwilling to draw attention to himself. He would watch and wait, and when the perfect opportunity to escape came along, he would snatch it. He would finally kill Rand, show Lady Rosalyn the fate sluts deserved, and then kill her, too.
Beside him, Rand tensed. The barge rowed past the quayside, where guards patrolled and inspected ships’ cargos before they were offloaded.
Golan hissed as the dagger pricked his side.
“I advise you not to do,” Rand warned, “or say anything to draw attention to us. Understand?”
Golan nodded, lips turned down, disgruntled. But he was exactly where he wished to be. He had no intention of seeking rescue.
Trumpets blared loudly from the castle, sounding the alarm. Lady Rosalyn gasped behind him.
“Rand, we must hasten. Now the alarm has been raised, Lydia knows I have escaped. She’s going to kill Jason if we do not get to him first.”
Who was this Lydia she referred to? Golan wondered. It could only be Lyla, which meant the brazen slut lied to him about who she was. Naught about the woman would surprise him.
Once the barge slipped beyond Chester’s walls, Rand barked, “Row faster.”
The men at the oars pulled faster, emerging into the Dee estuary.
Golan could not prevent the gloating smile from spreading across his face. It seemed God had not forsaken him. With soldiers swarming over the countryside in pursuit, and Lyla—or whomever she was—determined to kill Rose and Rand’s brat, the lovers were doomed.
Rand turned his head back to Rose. “We have only a couple of miles to travel until we reach my ship. We’ll find Jason before Lydia can harm him. I promise.”
Rand was deluded. The boy would not long be of this earth. Golan twisted his hands once more. His mouth watered with anticipation as revenge crept ever closer. Soon. Very soo—
The dagger slithered between his thighs and pricked his ballocks. A streak of fire surged through his veins; he gasped.
“Is that not correct, Golan?” Rand smiled. Not the roguish quirk of lips Rand was famous for, but a snarl that said he’d enjoy severing Golan’s cock from his body if he did not reveal the boy’s location.
“Rand, I am going with you.”
The woman is as tenacious as a bloodhound. Rand spun around and planted his hands on his hips. Rose halted in the tall, swaying grasses along the riverbank. He narrowed his eyes, glaring down at her. “Absolutely not. ’Tis too dangerous.”
The shadows of dusk fell on the Argo, moored along the bank, while fog rolled in from the river and scurried lowly and thickly along the ground.
“’Tis dangerous for you, also. Jason is my son. How can you expect me—”
The anger he’d tamped down since learning Jason was his son flared hotly. Rand brought his arm up, swiftly cutting off her reply. “Jason is my son, too. Tell me, Rose, if Jason had not been abducted, would you ever have told me he was mine?” The pain of betrayal was still an open wound, which festered beneath his skin with feverish intensity.
She jerked her face away, flushing with guilt.
A cold prickling sensation skittered over the back of his neck. Rand glanced up onto the deck of his ship. Golan stared directly at him; a wave of hatred slammed into Rand. Then Master Harwood, standing next to Golan, opened the door to the sterncastle, shoved Golan inside, and locked the door behind him.
“Rand,” Amaury called out, emerging from the thatched cottage, “my informant told me soldiers from the castle garrison have already searched this way. I purchased two horses for our use.” He pointed to a track not far away. “He said that hay cart track is seldom used and should take us not far from the hospital.”
Rand turned back to Rose, but she was already halfway across the small courtyard, making her way toward the stable. Rand hurried after her, Amaury on his heels. Rand strode into the small dark structure but did not see Rose. A horse nickered, hay rustled.
The interior of the barn had a hayloft opposite the entrance. Along the left wall hung horse tack and farm implements. To Rand’s right were three stalls; two had occupants and a third was empty.
A brown Welsh cob with a black mane and tail, occupying the first stall, stuck its head over the stall door. Rand patted the horse’s muzzle. A black plow horse stood with its head hanging down in the next stall over.
In the last stall, clothing stirred as though Rose was dressing, or undressing.
“Rose? What are you doing?”
“I have a plan. Just a mo…uumph.” The rest of her words became muffled and indistinct.
Needing to be on his way, Rand grabbed the lead rope hanging on a peg outside the stall. He looped it over the cob’s head, then opened the door and led the horse out of its stall.
Amaury moved to the horse in the second stall. At the sharp intake of the man’s breath, Rand looked up from his task. Rose stood in front of the last stall, her stomach protruding as though big with child.
He blinked, twice, his gaze disbelieving.
Then as her intent registered, Rand clamped his jaw tightly. “Nay, do not even think it. You are going to go on my ship, where you will be safe. As soon as I retrieve Jason, we will join you and we will all leave England together.”
“Just hear me out.” She walked toward him, hands raised pleadingly. “The religious at the Hospital of St. John without the North Gate will not wish to give shelter to two strange men in the dark hours. But if I come as your pregnant wife they would not be so heartless as to turn us away.”
“Rand, she makes an excellent point.”
Rand blew out a frustrated breath. “Amaury, leave us,” he said, his eyes never wavering from Rose’s.
With a dark chuckle, Amaury brushed past him, his heavy footsteps crunching on hay as he exited the barn.
Rose gazed up at him, her crystal blue eyes asking for his understanding. “I need to do this, Rand. Jason must be terrified. He needs me. Besides, we do not have time to argue any longer. You know this is the best chance we have of gaining entrance to the hospital.”
Rand frowned. Though he hated to admit it, she was right. It mattered not to him that she had come up with the idea. What he hated was the thought of her getting hurt. It terrified him. Fear churned in his belly, yet, as always, he ruthlessly pushed it away and concentrated on what he had to do.
“Very well, Rose,” he said grimly. “But you must do exactly as I tell you. You cannot second-guess me or question my actions. If we are going to do this together, you are going to have to trust that every action I take is to minimize the danger to you and Jason.”
“I do trust you, Rand.” The revelation jolted Rose.
Rand nodded stiffly.
As he began tacking their horses, her thoughts turned to her stunning realization. Bertram, a critical, tyrannical man who despised her for her passionate, trusting nature, had shattered her trust in men. So much so that she had annihilated all traces of her true self and become the docile, emotionless mouse Bertram required in his spouse.
Rand, on the other hand, had only ever tried to protect her. He had never disparaged her for her passion or for taking care of the inhabitants of Ayleston. Nor had he spurned her for the ardor he easily drew from her body. He did not try to change her or mold her into the image of a perfect woman. He accepted her as she was.
But could Rand ever love her?
Until now, she never understood how desperately she desired his love.
Rand, riding on the cob, peered up ahead, but the tracks disappeared ab
Amaury rode ahead, reconnoitering, so they did not stumble upon a troop of soldiers out searching for them.
The night was eerily silent. The fabric he’d wrapped around the horses’ hooves muffled the clip-clop of their steps. An owl screeched.
Rose shuddered. “’Tis an omen of death,” her voice quivered, breath wafting across his ear.
The sudden clamor of pounding horses’ hooves sent Rand’s heart beating faster. Directly before them, Amaury materialized out of the fog like a specter.
Amaury’s mouth pulled down in a grim frown, and the scar beside his lips whitened. He swung his arm back the way he came and pointed. “Soldiers,” he said, his voice low and his breath short. “Perhaps a dozen. Coming this way.”
“Rand, what are we going to do?” Her voice frantic, Rose dug her fingers into his waist.
Back at Rand’s ship, Golan paced the small confines of the sterncastle. He had already freed the bonds from his hands. Now he waited for the man called Harwood to return. The ship had moved away from land and was anchored in the Dee estuary now. Looking through a small round window covered with iron bars, he could see the riverbank a short distance away.
At the sudden scrape of the key in the lock, Golan darted to the door. He leaned back against the wall and tensed.
The door swung open. A hand appeared holding a candle stand with a lit candle. As it cast a soft glow in the room, he struck out at Harwood’s elbow. The candle fell and was snuffed out. Before the old man could react, Golan wrapped his arm around Harwood’s neck and seized the man’s dagger from the sheath at his waist.
Golan pressed the sharp blade against Harwood’s throat.
Harwood tensed, panting heavily. “If you kill me, you shall never escape this ship alive. You cannot possibly fight every man on board.”
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