Vow of deception, p.32

Vow of Deception, page 32

 

Vow of Deception
 



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Not even death shall stop me from saving Jason. He is my life, and Rand, too. I love them both so much.

  Rose and Rand stood behind a large stone column not far from the great arching entry of the infirmary. Behind her, Rand braced his hands upon her shoulders. The wide sleeves of a monk’s robe he’d commandeered from the laundry brushed her arms. Rose stared straight forward, her eyes straining toward the infirmary, searching for any sign of movement. She could just make out the first two of several large columns that supported the vaulted ceiling. The darkness was vast, but tall, standing branched candles stood on each side of a column, creating subtle illumination.

  “All right, Rose,” Rand whispered in her ear, his heartbeat a comforting tattoo against her back. “You must not do anything to draw attention upon yourself. I see only one other nun in the infirmary, though there may be others. Casually stop by each bed as if you are seeking to give the inhabitants comfort.”

  Rose glanced over her shoulder at Rand. His face was barely visible within the voluminous cowl he’d pulled down over his brow. “Rand, I shall be fine. I believe I can reasonably portray myself as a nurse. I am accustomed to caring for others.” She was covered from head to toe in the black and white of a nun’s habit except for her face.

  “’Tis Lydia I am concerned about. She shall be very dangerous. Do not confront her if you should come upon her. The moment you get into trouble—”

  “Do you suspect there will be trouble?”

  “Always. ’Tis better to expect the worst and be prepared than to expect the best and be unprepared.” His gray-green eyes steadily held her stare. Calm, serene, confidence his gaze exuded. “But I don’t want you to be distressed. I shall not let you out of my sight and will be there should anything untoward occur. Are you ready?”

  Rose took a deep breath and nodded.

  Rand smiled tenderly. “Good. Remember I am here for you—no matter what happens I shall be by your side in a thrice.”

  She smiled tremulously. With the bent knuckle of his forefinger, he tipped her chin up. Her lips tingled in readiness the moment before he dipped his head. Soft. Tender. His lips pressed against hers; a breath of a kiss that tantalized. Captivated. Enticed.

  Then it was over.

  Rose, her pulse racing, stepped out from behind the column and proceeded through a central area that separated the infirmary from the chapel. The chapel to her right was directly opposite the infirmary and designed so patients could view from their beds the daily offices the brethren sang for the comfort of their soul. A quick, surreptitious glance revealed the chapel was now empty. Only a single candle on the altar gave illumination.

  Edging past the font, Rose turned left and entered the infirmary. Two rows of stone columns on either side of the vast chamber created a large, open central aisle down the middle. Behind the columns were two smaller side aisles where the beds ran in rows down each wall below stained glass windows. Each bed was enclosed by curtains, which hung on rods attached to long chains suspended from the high-beamed ceiling.

  Suddenly, two nuns conversing quietly between each other emerged from behind one of the nearest columns. Rose, wearing the borrowed white wimple and black veil, tipped her head down and tugged the edges of the long veil beside her cheeks to conceal her face.

  “Sister Agnes,” the taller of the two called out. “Did you not hear the bells? ’Tis time to retire for the night.”

  She did not respond but continued walking over to the beds on the left wall. At the foot of each bed was a chest. Many of the beds had two patients in them, but a few had single occupants. Once out of the sisters’ view, she sat on the side of a bed occupied by a woman with long, stringy gray hair who was snoring loudly. A lit sconce on the wall cast subtle shadows on the woman’s craggy, age-worn face. Rose peeked around the curtain divider protecting the patient from drafts. The sisters were gone.

  Checking to make sure no one else was in sight, she climbed to her feet. Hospitals such as this one that housed both male and female residents were segregated, which meant Jason was in one of the beds on the other side with the male patients. With a cautious eye on the entrance to the infirmary, Rose quickly crossed the center aisle to the other side. She began her perusal of the first bed, then the second. Neither of the dwellers were children. She hurried down the row, stopping at the foot of each bed, glancing to see that the patient wasn’t Jason, and continuing to the next. Her heart plummeted each time she scrutinized a patient and realized it was not Jason.

  Then a strange muffled sound emerged from one of the beds farther down. Rose cocked her head and listened.

  The sudden cry of a child calling out, “Mama,” caused Rose to start.

  Caution flown, Rose screamed, “Jason!” She ran like a woman possessed shoving curtains aside as she sought to find where the voice came from. It was Jason. She knew it. A mother recognized the sound of her child’s voice in the deep recesses of her soul.

  She yanked the curtain aside at the last bed and gaped in horror. Jason’s short legs kicked atop the bed as Lydia, garbed in a nun’s habit, pressed a pillow over his face.

  Agony wrenched Rose’s chest. “Get away from my son!” she shrieked, lunging around the bed.

  When she reached for Lydia, the woman drew a dagger from under her scapular and stabbed out at Rose. The blade slashed Rose’s forearm, and blood spurted as fire sizzled along her flesh.

  Lydia grabbed Jason’s arm and yanked him from the bed. Jason whimpered in fear and pain. “Stay where you are, my lady,” Lydia snarled. Her face contorted with hate, a stiff mask marring her refined features. Then she pressed the dagger to Jason’s neck.

  Rose froze where she stood, the blood draining from her face and gushing from her wound. She clasped her hand over the injury to staunch the bleeding.

  “Lydia, prithee. Let my son go,” she entreated, voice quavering.

  “Nay, I think not.”

  “What do you want? Tell me. I’ll do whatever you ask. Just do not hurt my son.”

  Jason squirmed in Lydia’s arms. “Mama?”

  Rose gazed at Jason, who stood barefoot in a big flowing sherte. His big blue-green eyes beseeched her. Her eyes blurred with tears. “Jason, darling, ’tis all right. I won’t let her hurt you.”

  Lydia laughed, a short shrill sound quickly cut off. “You are in no position to dictate to me. You cannot help your precious son. You were supposed to die. Now your son shall pay with his life for your betrayal.”

  “You are right. I betrayed you. Let Jason go. I shall gladly take his place. ’Tis me you want to hurt. Not Jason.”

  “Certes. But now I have changed my mind. Indeed, I want you to suffer knowing ’twas your actions that brought about your son’s death.”

  “Lydia, I beg you. Have you no heart? He is just an innocent boy.”

  “Nay, I have no heart. My father stole it, along with everything else I ever once valued.”

  Desperate, Rose glanced back toward the infirmary entrance. She could just make out the left side of the tall, wide arched portal. Where was Rand? He should have heard her cry out and come by now.

  “He is not coming to your rescue.” She cackled.

  Rose jerked back to Lydia. “What are you talking about?”

  “Rand. Your brave defender,” she scoffed, a wave of scorn hitting Rose like flames spewed from a dragon’s mouth. “He is not coming to your rescue. He has more…pressing matters with which to concern himself.”

  “Do not speak in riddles,” Rose spat out, a spike of anger piercing her voice. She was tired of Lydia’s tricks and constant manipulation. “What do you know?”

  Lydia stiffened. “Brave demands, considering I have a dagger pointed at your son’s throat.” She pressed the dagger closer, puncturing his skin, causing a small bead of blood to trickle down.

  Rose’s heart jumped into her throat, thundered. Jason’s eyes, round with fear, gazed up at her. She cursed her wayward tongue and remained silent, waiting. She must not antagonize the woman. Patien
ce, she told herself. Until I can get Jason safely away from Lydia, that is.

  “Golan,” Lydia said, satisfaction dripping from her tongue like honey.

  “Golan?” She shook her head, straining to keep the satisfaction from entering her voice. “Golan can no longer help you. He is secure in the hold of Rand’s ship.”

  A deep masculine chuckle sent a shiver down Rose’s spine. She spun around and gaped, the pa-bum pa-bum of her heart loud in her ears. Golan’s wide sensual smile gleamed bright, effusive, and terrifying.

  “Golan? What…? I…you…”

  “Did you truly believe you and your pathetic lover could keep me from exacting my revenge?”

  Golan reached out with strong, blunt fingers and pulled her into his arms. With her back to his chest, his left arm embraced her upper shoulders, while his other hand slithered across her breasts in a parody of a loving caress, then down her stomach and over her mound.

  He clutched her between her legs and ground his erect flesh between the cheeks of her derriere. “I’m going to enjoy finishing what we started in the prison before that blackguard knocked me out.”

  A quiver shuddered over her as though an army of black beetles crawled over her flesh. Moaning, she begged, “Nay, not in front of my son.”

  “Don’t touch my mama,” Jason piped up, tears trailing down his face.

  Golan’s sickly hot breath puffed against her ear. “Ah, how touching. Your and Rand’s little bastard is a brave though foolhardy boy. I shall give you that. But ’tis time he learn what a whore his mother is.”

  “What’s a bastard, Mama?”

  Lydia, tugging Jason along, shuffled past Rose and toward the tall, lit iron candle stand near the column at the end of the bed. “Golan,” she snapped, “we do not have time for your games now. Someone will be checking on the inmates soon. Have you taken care of Rand as we discussed?”

  “Aye, Rand was so focused on this trollop, he did not even hear me approach him from behind.” Smug satisfaction laced his words.

  Rose gasped. “What did you do to him? If you hurt him—”

  “He is not dead, if that is your concern. Yet.”

  A loud scraping sound on the stone floor drew Rose’s glance back to Lydia. In stunned disbelief, Rose watched Lydia shove the candelabra over with the weight of her body. It crashed to the bed and, with amazing rapidity, the candle flames caught the coverlet on fire, spreading across the bed in a sizzling trail of destruction.

  “What are you doing?” Rose asked in horror. “You’ll catch the whole hospital on fire and burn it down.”

  A smile so evilly wicked spread across Lydia’s face, Rose nearly doubled over as though from a punch to her stomach.

  “Aye, when they find your charred bodies in the remains, you shall be unrecognizable. A fitting punishment for a woman who murdered her husband, do you not agree?” A menacing chuckle punctuated her rhetorical query.

  Rose opened her mouth to shout fire, but Lydia narrowed her eyes and swore, “Shout a warning, and I’ll slit Jason’s throat right now.”

  Lydia’s snide voice curled around Rose like a serpent and squeezed the breath from her. Rose clamped her mouth shut and glanced back down at Jason. Ghostly pale, he stood quietly, his countenance a mixture of fear and bravery. Pride surged in her chest. She held his gaze, her eyes conveying to him her love and strength.

  Lydia, seeing Rose’s compliance, marched away, hauling Jason behind her. Rose breathed a sigh of relief when Golan released her.

  “Move it,” Golan grumbled, then nudged her forward after Lydia and out the infirmary’s entrance.

  But their ordeal had only begun. Smoke began to billow in the chamber and taint the air with its acrid stench. On the other hand, surely someone would detect the fire and extinguish it before it could flame out of control?

  Chapter Twenty-Eight

  When a sharp pain jabbed at his left temple, Rand groaned. He tried to open his eyes, but a dense blackness weighed him down and held him in the grip of a nightmare. He was in the stable fire, and the burning stench filled his nostrils and lungs. Only this time, the past merged with the present. It was Rose who was in danger, not his mother.

  He thought he heard the drone of a man’s and a woman’s voices. It sounded like Golan’s deep gruff tones, but Rand knew it could not possibly be him. It was just a dream.

  A cool, comforting hand stroked his forehead, smoothing his hair back. He sighed, knowing it was Rose.

  “Rand.” Her soft voice, laced with fear, penetrated the thickness inside his skull. She spoke again, her voice louder, more insistent, “Rand, pray, answer me.”

  Rose needed him. And Jason. He could not let them down. Rand blinked once, twice, forcing his eyes open. It was dark, but he had no difficulty making out her features. She leaned over him, her normally smooth brow furrowed.

  “Heaven’s mercy.”

  He smiled at the relief evident in her voice. “Ro—” His voice cracked. He cleared his throat and tried again. “Are you all right? Do you have Jason?”

  “Jason and I are fine, but—”

  Rose jerked back suddenly.

  “Very well, ’tis enough prattling.”

  Rand started at the male voice. Golan. How could it be him? He was locked in the hold of Rand’s ship. Then Rand remembered hearing Rose scream a moment before he received a blow to his head. Heart racing erratically, he tried to get up from the hard stone floor, but his arms pulled tautly at the rope binding his wrists to a heavy altar column, and he was drawn back.

  Rand strained against his shackles impotently. “Golan, you coward, show your face,” he swore, searching the shadows.

  Golan chuckled and stepped forward. He clutched Rose in his arms before him and groped her breasts, a grin of ecstasy on his face. Rose made not a sound, her face expressionless and eyes staring into the distance.

  “Whoreson,” Rand swore, his face flushing and fury pumping through his veins. “Get your hands off my wife.”

  He tried to lunge up again. Pain wrenched his shoulders. “Release me, Golan, and fight me like a man. Ahh, but we both know you are too inept to beat me in a fair battle. After all, you switched my lance during the joust to give you an unfair advantage.”

  Golan glared. “How did you find out?”

  “The day of the joust something felt odd about my lance. When it shattered too easily, I suspected the fire was a diversion so someone could switch my lance for a defective one. You were the one person who stood to gain by my defeat. Until now, I only had suspicions.” Rand smiled with smug satisfaction. “But you just confirmed them.”

  “Arrogant bastard. But I have the upper hand now.” Golan pressed Rose’s chin to the side with his left hand and kissed her. She jerked her head away and spat with contempt.

  Rand gritted his teeth, loathing and frustration roiling in his gut like pitch. “Golan,” he snapped, drawing his attention away from Rose. “Fight me, you coward. Or are you afraid you cannot beat me in a fair fight?”

  Golan’s lips rolled back in a snarl. “I am not afraid of you.” He shoved Rose aside and swung his arm out.

  Golan’s white-knuckled fist slammed into Rand’s jaw.

  Rose screamed as his head whipped back and his teeth rattled in his skull. The metallic taste of blood filled his mouth. He spat out the blood onto the flagstone floor and glared icily at Golan.

  “That’s for the beating you gave me,” Golan said. Surprising Rand, he knelt down and began untying the bonds at Rand’s wrists. “After I kill you,” he whispered in a sibilant voice, “I’m going to enjoy slaking my desire for Rose over your dead body.”

  A feminine voice slithered from the shadows. “Golan, what are you doing?” It was Lydia, Rand guessed. “You can’t untie him. We have to go before the fire is discovered.” Lydia grabbed Golan’s arm and pulled him toward the door.

  Fire? Rand jerked. It was then he realized the pungent odor of smoke had not been in his dream. His heart pummeled his chest and sweat
popped out on his forehead as panic seized him.

  “Don’t order me about, wench,” Golan said, shoving Lydia off him. “I’m not finished with this knave and his harlot yet.”

  Rand shifted his gaze to Rose, who clutched Jason to her. A small window high above on his right let in a shaft of moonlight. The beam slanted down across the chamber—which was about twelve feet square—and splashed onto the wall opposite, illuminating Rose above her chin. Their eyes met and held. He blinked. Hope, love, and determination shone bright in her gaze. Emotion clogged his throat. He wanted to reach out and hold her, tell her everything was going to be all right, that they would survive this latest challenge.

  Golan reached for his waist. Rand jerked his head back toward Golan. The man withdrew a dagger from his belt. Rand recognized the blade. His heart plummeted.

  “That’s Harwood’s dagger. How did you get it? What did you do to Harwood?”

  Rand stared at the dagger as it drew closer.

  Golan swiped the blade across his neck simulating the action of slitting a throat. “He’s communing with the devils in Purgatory.” A menacing chuckle scraped like a razor.

  “You bastard. You didn’t have to kill him. Your grudge is with me.”

  “You have no one to blame but yourself. When you involved Harwood in our feud, you sealed his death.”

  Rand blanched, guilt churning like acid in his gut. Golan reached down behind Rand again.

  Lydia stepped around Golan and pressed her hands against his chest. “Golan, darling. You can’t release him.” Her voice coaxed with a seductive lilt. “We have schemed too long to give him an opportunity to escape. Come, let’s not divert from our plan now. Leave them to their fiery death”—her hand reached down and pressed against Golan’s loins, and her voice dropped to a throaty pitch—“while we attend to more pleasurable pursuits.”

  “Your wiles shall not work with me, you strumpet.” His tone thick with disgust, Golan pushed her aside once more.

  When she clung to him, he backhanded her across the face. Lydia cried out, stumbling toward Rose. As Golan bent down, Lydia sprang on his back and raised a dagger high in her hand. Rand’s heart stopped a beat and his eyes widened in shock. With a guttural cry, Lydia plunged the blade into Golan’s throat. He bellowed in excruciating pain. Lydia withdrew the dagger; blood sprayed into the air like a fountain.

 
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