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Ice bound kings convicts.., p.9

Ice Bound: King's Convicts II, page 9

 

Ice Bound: King's Convicts II
 


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  “Get in a good shot and get out!” Ernest urged.

  “I can finish him,” Jame snapped, breathless, continuing to circle the monster, which watched him with baleful red eyes.

  “Time to fall back!” Piran shouted.

  Blaine was feeling the exertion of the fight. He felt light-headed and the stinking air burned in his lungs. His head pounded, almost making him a target when one of the lizard-monsters remerged from the shadows, moving like a white blur. Blaine swung his pickaxe again, shattering the creature’s right shoulder.

  The huge lizard lunged at him despite its damaged leg, snapping at him with a maw full of sharp teeth. Blaine dodged the creature’s mouth and brought the full force of the sharp pick down on the lizard’s spine. The monster screeched as its body collapsed, shuddering and twitching. Two more lizards slithered forward, more intent on fighting each other over the body of their fallen comrade than in attacking Blaine, who backed up quickly to get out of their sight.

  Bickle and Torr were fighting one monster, while Shorty held off the other. “Get in one last hit and we’ve got to go!” Blaine yelled.

  Jame and his opponent were so intent on each other that neither seemed to notice what was going on around them. Jame was bleeding in a half a dozen places, and so was the lizard, but they were both still standing and each looked determined to see the battle through to the end.

  “Jame! Give it up. We’re leaving.”

  Jame did not reply. He and the lizard had locked gazes, shadowing each other’s movements. The intensity in Jame’s face was no longer sane. The lizard lunged and Jame feinted, then he dove forward and the lizard dodged.

  “Come on!” Piran yelled.

  “This one’s mine,” Jame growled.

  Jame and the lizard both launched themselves at the same time, colliding in the middle. The monster’s maw closed over Jame’s midsection as Jame’s pick sank deep into the reptile’s underbelly and tore out its entrails. They fell together in a spreading pool of blood, rolling to gain advantage. Jame pounded on the creature’s head with his fists, gouging out its red eyes, as the maw continued to chew on his torso, feet kicking to do more damage with their long claws. The other lizards fell back from Blaine and the rest of the party, unable to resist the allure of so much warm, fresh blood and such an easy feast of flesh.

  Blaine reached for the lantern and Ernest grabbed the mouse cage. The mice lay still, barely breathing.

  “Bad air!” Blaine shouted. “Move out now!”

  Bickle was limping badly, leaning heavily on Torr. Ernest and Blaine led the way back out of the caves, followed by Jaston and Eddles as Piran fed out his homemade fuse, and Shorty took the rear guard position. The air was getting to them all, and Blaine knew in a few more moments, they would be in no better condition than the mice.

  “How long will it take for the fuse to burn?” Shorty asked.

  “With luck, slower than we can run.” Piran stopped when they reached the room where the cave-in had been. “Get the others out of here,” he said to Blaine. “And the guards, too, I suppose. I’ll see you out there.”

  “You had damn well better,” Blaine said, clapping a hand on his shoulder. He turned to the others.

  “Run!”

  Shorty and Torr lifted Bickle off his feet and ran with him suspended between them. Ernest came next, with the monster’s severed head in one hand and the caged mice in the other, and then Jaston and Eddles. Blaine was right behind them. The guards startled as they came into view.

  “What’s going on?” the lead guard demanded.

  “Firedamp. Monsters. Run!” Blaine shouted. He nearly bowled one of the guards over, then reached down and grabbed the man’s collar, dragging the guard with him toward the door.

  “You can’t just—” the lead guard protested as Piran came running at full speed up the tunnel.

  Piran did not stop to argue. He punched the guard in the face, dropping him like a sack of rocks, then hauled the man’s body over one shoulder and kept on going. The third guard took one look at the monster’s head and the prisoners’ bloody wounds and took off running.

  Just as they reached the mine entrance, a boom like trapped thunder rolled up from the depths, echoing in the vast caverns and mining rooms, amplified in the narrow stone tunnels. Blaine threw himself to the ground, taking the guard with him, and threw his arms over his head. A blast of sound, smoke and dust billowed after them, deafening in the quiet of the arctic night.

  For a few moments, Blaine could only lie still, barely conscious, stunned by the blast concussion. His ears rang, and he gasped in the cold, fresh air like a drowning man. Gradually, as his wits returned, he felt the pain of his injuries and a pounding headache from the caves’ foul air.

  “Sound off!” he shouted, anxious to see if the others had survived. The sound of his own voice made his head ache as if he had been struck.

  “Jaston.”

  “Eddles.”

  “Torr.”

  “Ernest—and Bickle,” Ernest yelled back.

  Piran muttered a creatively obscenity, ending in “Here!”

  “Shorty, and two guards.” That was everyone except for Jame.

  Blaine had just gotten to his knees when he saw Prokief and a dozen guards heading their way. “Shit,” he growled. “I am in no mood to get murdered after I just escaped getting killed.”

  “You blew up the mine!” Prokief was so incensed that his voice went up a note from its usual pitch.

  “And the monsters,” Blaine replied, too exhausted and injured to give a damn about anything.

  “You destroyed the king’s property.”

  “We are the king’s property,” Blaine snapped.

  “Look here, if you don’t believe us,” Ernest argued, holding aloft the monster’s head. Prokief’s guards exclaimed in horror and fell back a step.

  “The monsters were in the caves,” Blaine said, keeping his voice level although it took all his willpower not to lash out. “They killed the men you sent to the deep mines—and Jame. The air was bad. A torch set it off. We all nearly died, but we got ahead of the explosion.” He had no intention of confessing that Piran had made a fuse, and trusted the others to keep mum on that detail.

  “They dragged us out, sir” the lead guard said, getting to his feet to stand belatedly at attention. “Warned us and then pulled us to safety. They could have let us die.”

  Prokief eyed the monster’s head, then shifted his attention back to the prisoners. It was apparent from their torn clothing and bloody wounds that they had battled for their lives.

  “You’d better hope that all you did was close up the caves, or there’ll be Raka to pay,” Prokief grumbled. “If it’s closed off good ruby shafts, you’ll be digging them out with your bare hands.”

  For a long moment, no one spoke. Blaine’s heart was still thudding from the fighting and the run out of the mine, and he was so jumpy from the adrenaline that there was no margin left for fear. Let Prokief kill me and get it over with, if that’s what he’s going to do. I’m done with being afraid.

  “You’ll be part of the clean-up detail,” Prokief said abruptly. “And until we’ve made up the production lost from this nonsense, everyone will work longer shifts.” His eyes narrowed. “Rowse and McFadden, I’m watching you. Step out of line again and you’ll be lucky to survive the consequences.” At that, Prokief turned on his heel and strode away, surrounded by his bodyguards.

  “That’s a tale to tell in Raka,” Piran said, his voice colored with satisfaction. “We beat the monsters.”

  This time, Blaine thought. But monsters are hard to kill, and they have very long memories.

  Excerpt from Ice Forged

  Prologue

  “This has to end.” Blaine McFadden looked at his sister Mari huddled in the bed, covers drawn up to her chin. She was sobbing hard enough that it nearly robbed her of breath, and leaning against Aunt Judith, who murmured consolations. Just sixteen, Mari looked small and lost. A vivid bru
ise marked one cheek. She struggled to hold her nightgown together where it had been ripped down the front.

  “You’re upsetting her more.” Judith cast a reproving glance his way.

  “I’m upsetting her? Father’s the one to blame for this. That drunken sonofabitch …” Blaine’s right hand opened and closed, itching for the pommel of his sword.

  “Blaine…” Judith’s voice warned him off.

  “After what he did…you stand up for him?”

  Judith McFadden Ainsworth raised her head to meet his gaze. She was a thin, handsome woman in her middle years; and when she dressed for court, it was still possible to see a glimpse of the beauty she had been in her youth. Tonight, she looked worn. “Of course not.”

  “I’m sick of his rages. Sick of being beaten when he’s on one of his binges…”

  Judith’s lips quirked. “You’ve been too tall for him to beat for years now.”

  At twenty years old and a few inches over six feet tall, Blaine stood a hand’s breadth taller than Lord McFadden. While he had his mother’s dark chestnut hair, his blue eyes were a match in color and determination to his father’s. Blaine had always been secretly pleased that while he resembled his father enough to avoid questions of paternity, in build and features, he took after his mother’s side of the family. Where his father was short and round, Blaine was tall and rangy. Ian McFadden’s features had the smashed look of a brawler; Blaine’s were more regular, and if not quite handsome, better than passable. He was honest enough to know that though he might not be the first man in a room to catch a lady’s eye, he was pleasant enough in face and manner to attract the attention of at least one female by the end of the evening. The work he did around the manor and its lands had filled out his chest and arms. He was no longer the small, thin boy his father caned for the slightest infraction.

  “He killed our mother when she got between him and me. He took his temper out on my hide until I was tall enough to fight back. He started beating Carr when I got too big to thrash. I had to put his horse down after he’d beaten it and broken its legs. Now this…it has to stop!”

  “Blaine, please.” Judith turned, and Blaine could see tears in her eyes. “Anything you do will only make it worse. I know my brother’s tempers better than anyone.” Absently, she stroked Mari’s hair.

  “By the gods…did he…” But the shamed look on Judith’s face as she turned away answered Blaine’s question.

  “I’ll kill that son of a bitch,” Blaine muttered, turning away and sprinting down the hall.

  “Blaine, don’t. Blaine—”

  He took the stairs at a run. Above the fireplace in the parlor hung two broadswords, weapons that had once belonged to his grandfather. Blaine snatched down the lowest broadsword. Its grip felt heavy and familiar in his hand.

  “Master Blaine…” Edward followed him into the room. The elderly man was alarmed as his gaze fell from Blaine’s face to the weapon in his hand. Edward had been Glenreith’s seneschal for longer than Blaine had been alive. Edward: the expert manager, the budget master and the family’s secret keeper.

  “Where is he?”

  “Who, m’lord?”

  Blaine caught Edward by the arm and Edward shrank back from his gaze. “My whore-spawned father, that’s who. Where is he?”

  “Master Blaine, I beg you…”

  “Where is he?”

  “He headed for the gardens. He had his pipe with him.”

  Blaine headed for the manor’s front entrance at a dead run. Judith was half-way down the stairs. “Blaine, think about this. Blaine—”

  He flung open the door so hard that it crashed against the wall. Blaine ran down the manor’s sweeping stone steps. A full moon lit the sloping lawn well enough for Blaine to make out the figure of a man in the distance, strolling down the carriage lane. The smell of his father’s pipe smoke wafted back to him, as hated as the odor of camphor that always clung to Lord McFadden’s clothing.

  The older man turned at the sound of Blaine’s running footsteps. “You bastard! You bloody bastard!” Blaine shouted.

  Lord Ian McFadden’s eyes narrowed as he saw the sword in Blaine’s hand. Dropping his pipe, the man grabbed a rake that leaned against the stone fence edging the carriageway. He held its thick oak handle across his body like a staff. Lord McFadden might be well into his fifth decade, but in his youth he had been an officer in the king’s army, where he had earned King Merrill’s notice and his gratitude. “Go back inside boy. Don’t make me hurt you.”

  Blaine did not slow down or lower his sword. “Why? Why Mari? There’s no shortage of court whores. Why Mari?”

  Lord McFadden’s face reddened. “Because I can. Now drop that sword if you know what’s good for you.”

  Blaine‘s blood thundered in his ears. In the distance, he could hear Judith screaming his name.

  “I guess this cur needs to be taught a lesson.” Lord McFadden swung at Blaine with enough force to have shattered his skull if Blaine had not ducked the heavy rake. McFadden gave a roar and swung again, but Blaine lurched forward, taking the blow on his shoulder to get inside McFadden’s guard. The broadsword sank hilt deep into the man’s chest, slicing through his waistcoat.

  Lord McFadden’s body shuddered, and he dropped the rake. He met Blaine’s gaze, his eyes, wide with surprise. “Didn’t think you had it in you,” he gasped.

  Behind him, Blaine could hear footsteps pounding on the cobblestones; he heard panicked shouts and Judith’s scream. Nothing mattered to him, nothing at all except for the ashen face of his father. Blood soaked Lord McFadden’s clothing and gobbets of it splashed Blaine’s hand and shirt. He gasped for breath, his mouth working like a hooked fish out of water. Blaine let him slide from the sword, watched numbly as his father fell backwards onto the carriageway in a spreading pool of blood.

  “Master Blaine, what have you done?” Selden, the grounds keeper was the first to reach the scene. He gazed in horror at Lord McFadden who lay twitching on the ground, breathing in labored, slow gasps.

  Blaine’s grip tightened on the sword in his hand. “Something someone should have done years ago.”

  A crowd of servants was gathering; Blaine could hear their whispers and the sound of their steps on the cobblestones. “Blaine! Blaine!” He barely recognized Judith’s voice. Raw from screaming, choked with tears, his aunt must have gathered her skirts like a milkmaid to run from the house this quickly. “Let me through!”

  Heaving for breath, Judith pushed past Selden and grabbed Blaine’s left arm to steady herself. “Oh, by the gods Blaine, what will become of us now?”

  Lord McFadden wheezed painfully and went still.

  Shock replaced numbness as the rage drained from Blaine’s body. It’s actually over. He’s finally dead.

  “Blaine, can you hear me?” Judith was shaking his left arm. Her tone had regained control, alarmed but no longer panicked.

  “He swung first,” Blaine replied distantly. “I don’t think he realized, until the end, that I actually meant to do it.”

  “When the king hears—”

  Blaine snapped back to himself and turned toward Judith. “Say nothing about Mari to anyone,” he growled in a voice low enough that only she could hear. “I’ll pay the consequences. But it’s for naught if she’s shamed. I’ve thrown my life away for nothing if she’s dishonored.” He dropped the bloody sword, gripping Judith by the forearm. “Swear to it.”

  Judith’s eyes were wide but Blaine could see she was calm. “I swear.”

  Selden and several of the other servants moved around them, giving Blaine a wary glance as they bent to carry Lord McFarlane’s body back to the manor.

  “The king will find out. He’ll take your title…Oh Blaine, you’ll hang for this.”

  Blaine swallowed hard. A knot of fear tightened in his stomach as he stared at the blood on his hand, and the darkening stain on the cobblestones. Better to die avenged than crouch like a beaten dog. He met Judith’s eyes and a wave of cold r
esignation washed over him.

  “He won’t hurt Mari or Carr again. Ever. Carr will inherit when he’s old enough. Odds are the king will name you guardian until then. Nothing will change—”

  “Except that you’ll hang for murder,” Judith said miserably.

  “Yes,” Blaine replied, folding his aunt against his chest as she sobbed. “Except for that.”

  “You have been charged with murder. Murder of a lord, and murder of your own father.” King Merrill’s voice thundered through the judgment hall. “How do you plead?” A muted buzz of whispered conversation hummed from the packed audience in the galleries. Blaine McFadden knelt where the guards had forced him down, shackled at the wrists and ankles. Unshaven and filthy from more than a week in the king’s dungeon, Blaine’s long brown hair hung loose around his face. He lifted his head to look at the king defiantly.

  “Guilty as charged, Your Majesty. He was a murdering son of a bitch—”

  “Silence!”

  The guard at Blaine’s right shoulder cuffed him hard. Blaine straightened, and lifted his head once more. I’m not sorry and I’ll be damned if I’ll apologize, even to the king. Let’s get this over with. He avoided the curious stares of the courtiers and nobles in the gallery, those for whom death and punishment were nothing more than gossip and entertainment.

  Only two faces caught his eye. Judith sat stiffly, her face unreadable although her eyes glinted angrily. Beside her sat Carensa, daughter of the Earl of Rhystorp. He and Carensa had been betrothed to wed later that spring. Carensa was dressed in mourning clothes; her face was ashen and her eyes were red-rimmed. Blaine could not meet her gaze. Of all that his actions cost him, title, lands, fortune and life, losing Carensa was the only loss that mattered.

 
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