The Shape of Temptation

Spellcraft Book Two

Excerpt

 

Kailey ran, her feet barely hitting the packed earth. Twigs whipped at her arms and a broken branch sliced a line across her cheek as she ducked beneath a leaning, half-rotted trunk. On the other side, there was a sharp twenty-foot drop. With any luck, one of the bastards would try to leap over the top and she’d have one less soldier to worry about. Flipping herself onto her stomach, she grabbed for the familiar handhold in the rock and held her breath until her toes found the ledge. Only a handbreadth wide. She had to move slowly, no matter that she could hear them now, crashing through the forest, making a sound as if the trees themselves had uprooted and joined in the hunt.

If she made it to the caves, they’d never find her. Sarians were terrified of caverns and those of Loran were deep, running beneath the mountain in a maze of branching tunnels, some flooded, some caved in, some so narrow that a spider could barely pass through the crevices. She wasn’t afraid of rock or dark or silence.

She was very afraid of the men behind her.

Five steps to the right and the drop was small enough to risk a tumble. Judging the distance, she leapt straight into the gorge, grabbing hold of a sapling to slow her descent. The slender trunk bent nearly in half with her weight. When she opened her hands to fall the last several feet to the ground, her ankles barely twinged at all.

Above, she heard a thwap followed by cursing, but she didn’t pause. Splashing through the creek, she scurried up the opposite bank, dragging air into her lungs and ignoring the burn in her side. At the top of the ridge, she risked a glance back and felt a surge of triumph. A shout echoed from within the gorge but there was no movement behind her.

She pushed through a stand of pine and then, darting from the trees, let her stride lengthen. Once past the protection of the forest, the hard wind coursing down from the higher elevations caught her full in the face, making her eyes sting and her vision blur. It didn’t matter. She could see the caves now, their black maws open and ready to swallow her whole. She’d spent enough time exploring them as a child to be able to hide inside for days if she had to. Even if the imperial soldiers were brave enough to follow, they’d never stay long enough to search the whole mountain. Surely, she wasn’t important enough for that.

A shout rose up from behind. Instinctively, she jerked her head around. The motion threw her off balance and she nearly fell. Pressing a hand to the ground, she looked back to see a lone soldier break from the tree line. He was tall and a good runner. Though still a half mile behind, his long legs quickly ate up the distance between them.

Gods damn it. Did they never give up?

Straightening from her crouch, she threw every last ounce of strength into a final burst of speed. When she reached the shadow of the mountain, she nearly wept with relief.

Almost there.

Lifting her skirts to leap over a scraggly bush in her path, she’d barely left the ground when an arm hooked around her waist and jerked her back.

No! Not when she was so close.

Letting herself fall forward over the heavy arm, she spun free, landing hard enough on her knee to split the skin. It took her a second to get her feet under her—just long enough to drag in a breath—but before she could escape, the soldier lunged. His weight dropped onto her back, driving her down. Heavy as a horse. When she bucked her hips, he barely budged.

“Be still,” he said. “I don’t want to—”

His teeth knocked together when her shoulder caught his jaw. She rolled and almost made it to her knees before he dragged her back, turned her around and pinned her arms to her sides.

They lay as lovers, his long legs heavy between hers, his broad chest a solid wall of rock against her breasts. The smell of him surrounded her—leather and horse and unfamiliar spice. She froze for a heartbeat with her nose buried in his neck and her breath coming in harsh, ragged pants. Then he shifted his weight and panic shot through her, bringing her back to herself and prodding her to action. With all of her strength, she shoved at his hips and tried to twist out from beneath him.

“None of that. I won’t hurt you.”

“Get off me, Sarian. You’ve no right—”

He spoke calmly, almost directly into her ear. “I’ve every right. It’s treason to run. Treason to help a runner.”

He left the rest of the threat unspoken. She didn’t truly think the soldiers would hurt her, not permanently, but she wouldn’t have been able to slip past them the first time if Jenner hadn’t distracted the master. “No one helped me.”

“Good.”

He reared back and she was too slow to see the opening before he caught her up again, pulling her with him as he climbed to his feet. He was a big man, not as bulky as some of the Sarians she’d seen, but tall and well-formed. Dark hair, black eyes, dusky skin tanned by a far hotter sun than her own. He pulled her aside as a second soldier broke from the forest, nearly crashing into them.

“It’s done, Ardis. I’ve got her.” He grunted when she drove her elbow into his gut but there was only amusement in his voice when he spoke. “Stop that. You’re not going anywhere, rabbit.”

Rabbit.

The new soldier was a balding man of middling years, still mostly muscle despite the thickening about his waist. Winded by the run, he spoke between panted breaths. “How did you know where she was headed?”

“Leesan said she’s a stone mage. Where else would she run to but the mountains? Couldn’t risk losing her in the caves.”

“Surely, she wouldn’t have gone in there.” Ardis sounded appalled.

“Oh, aye. She would.” The soldier gave her a gentle shake. “You are a fast runner.”

“You got lucky.”

His grin widened. “You got caught. That’s all that really matters in the end, isn’t it?”

Her palm itched to slap the smile from his face but she didn’t want to provoke him. She wasn’t getting away and they were very large men. A dozen soldiers and her, alone in this vast forest, halfway up the mountain.

The older man finally caught his breath and straightened. Looking at the cave, he shook his head and then gestured toward the forest. “I’ll go and call in the others. The sooner we’re gone from this place, the better.”

“Go on ahead,” her captor said. “We’ll be right behind you. She needs a moment, I think.”

Ardis gave her one last dismissive glance before turning away. Once he was gone, the young soldier turned her to face him and, holding her at arm’s length, swept a critical gaze down her body. Her first instinct was to cringe. Her second was to straighten her torn dress. Her third, when she noticed how his attention lingered on her breasts, was to knee him in the groin. When he met her glare, he didn’t even have the good grace to blush.

“I heard you cry out when you fell,” he said. “Are you well enough to walk?”

“You’re not carrying me.”

His mouth twitched, but still he hesitated. “This chase was on your time, not ours. We need to reach Garanoc before nightfall and it’s a long way down.”

She looked pointedly at the drop. This side of the mountain was sheer rock. “If you’re pressed for time, I know a shortcut.”

That twitch of a smile expanded into a full grin. “You’ll push me from the peak, will you?”

She wasn’t joking. If they’d been close enough to the edge, she might have just tried to shove him over. When she didn’t answer, his smile faded slightly and he repositioned his grip. “Like I said, this is your time. I’m ready whenever you are. And yes, I can carry you if you allow it.”

She frowned down at his hand locked around her wrist. If he let her go for even a moment, she might still have a chance. “Or drag me there if I don’t. Those are my options?”

“I don’t trust you not to run.” Giving her arm a gentle tug, he started walking toward the forest. “Come on. We’ll start and you’ll let me know if you need to stop…or if you decide you want my help. My name is Benim. All you need say is, ‘Benim, I need help,’ and I will provide it.”

She’d rather swallow her tongue.

As they stepped beneath the shade of the trees, his attention shifted to the trail. Dappled light turned to full shade within twenty steps as the towering old trees closed around them. A bright yellow bird swooped from a branch directly overhead and Benim turned his head to follow its path. While he was distracted, she pulled back sharply to test his grip. Without breaking stride, he jerked her upright, gave her a stern look and kept walking. She’d braced for a blow or for him to attempt to sling her over his shoulder but when he did neither, she blew out a shaky breath and tried to match his gait.

“You know this is a great honor,” he said in an easy voice, again attempting to soothe her. “Most people don’t run when granted acceptance to the University.”

Sarians don’t run,” she corrected. “Because you’re all docile as sheep.”

He glanced at her. “You are a Sarian, else we wouldn’t be here.” She opened her mouth to protest but he cut her off. “I’d watch what you say here. It’s not been more than two winters since your chieftain swore fealty to the emperor. Speak treason and they’ll look to the peasants of your village for someone to hang, not to someone the guild has claimed as one of their own.”

“Don’t you dare threaten my kin.”

“I’m not threatening anyone. I’m telling you that you can’t change this. It’s best you accept that sooner rather than later.” He was silent for a minute while he let that sink in and then said, “You’re limping. Your ankle?”

She shook her head. “I scraped my knee. It will be fine.”

“We’ll take the time to get it cleaned before we leave. I can give you that much.”

“How very generous of you,” she said bitterly. “How much time do I have?”

“Not much, I’m afraid. Leesan won’t travel past dark and your village didn’t exactly welcome us with open arms. After this…” He shook his head. “An hour, maybe two.”

“That’s not enough.”

“It will have to be.”

She rubbed her forehead and winced at a tender spot. “My grandmother is very ill. There’s no one else to care for her.”

The soldier was silent for a time and his hand flexed on her wrist in what might have been intended to be a reassuring gesture. “We’ll find someone.”

The kindness in his dark eyes made her chest ache and she turned away from it, fell silent as he continued to lead her down the trail. They passed through drifts of fallen golden leaves still damp from last night’s rain and over patches of shorn grass where the local herds had recently grazed. Once she looked up to note the location of a small patch of mushrooms until she realized that she wouldn’t be able to return to collect them.

Too soon they reached the wooden gates that had never been strong enough to withstand the might of the empire. Already their chieftain dressed as the southerners did, in short kilts and open sandals. He rode a horse that was a gift from the territory’s Consul and carried a sword on his belt, one nearly identical to the one strapped to this soldier’s hip.

“Peace, sister. I would never draw my sword on a child.”

“I’m not your sister.”

And not a child. She didn’t argue that point though. For the best if he saw her as younger than her nineteen years.

Jenner stood at the wall and grimaced when she looked at him. The gate rattled as he pushed it wider. The guild master who’d named her a stone mage walked toward them, a kindly smile upon his face. He cast his arms wide and the soldier who held her stopped walking abruptly.

“I wouldn’t, Master Leesan. She hasn’t yet reconciled herself to her change in circumstances.”

Rather than embrace her, the mage stopped a good distance away and clapped his hands together. “Once we’ve returned to the University, you’ll see that we speak the truth, daughter.”

Daughter. The soldier’s hand tightened on her arm in warning and she grit her teeth. Not out of fear or a desire to spare the old man’s feelings. It was to spare her grandmother’s, who had come to the door of her small hut and stepped alone into the sunlight, blinking because she hadn’t been outside for days. She shouldn’t be out of bed now.

Kailey took a step in her direction but the hand on her arm held her firmly in place. She swallowed a whimper of distress, but he must have heard it, because his hand opened. As soon as she was free, she flew across the square through the flock of chickens that scattered from her path.

“Gran, you shouldn’t be out here.”

Her grandmother drew herself up straight. She was a tall woman and still stout. But Kailey could see the bright color flagging her pale cheeks, the blue tinge to her lips.

“I have to go with them.” Kailey heard the approaching footsteps and dropped her voice to a whisper. “For now. I have to go, but I’ll find a way to slip away, I promise you. When you’re well enough, go to Cerni.” It was the clan where Gran had been born. Only ten days distant. “I’ll come for you when—”

“I’m not leaving.”

Kailey looked into Gran’s glazed eyes and cursed under her breath. The fever was upon her again. She wouldn’t remember anything about this conversation. She likely wasn’t entirely aware of where she was now. Swallowing the fear that rose in her throat, Kailey took her grandmother by the arm. “Let’s get you back inside.”

Kailey led her grandmother into the small hut and settled her upon the only bed. Lifting the bucket from the hook, Kailey ducked through the doorway and started back across the yard. Right now, she needed to focus on what she could control. Not the soldiers, or the mage at their gate. Not the empire and its stupid laws. She’d fetch water for the tea the healer had left and ask Lia to care for Gran until she returned. She would escape them and return. She’d find a way.

The soldiers stood in the yard, looking impatient to be off. Benim spoke to the mage but his gaze followed her. Even when her back was to him, she felt the weight of his regard like an itch between her shoulder blades.

None of the villagers approached as she drew the water—the cowards. Though whether they were frightened of the mage, the soldiers or of her, she couldn’t say. When she was done, she rested her hands on the ledge for just a moment and bowed her head. Her head ached and her muscles trembled. Blood trickled down her calf from the cut on her knee. She wanted nothing more than to find a dark corner, curl up into a ball and weep.

Strength flowed up her arms from the rock that formed the wall surrounding the well and the granite beneath her feet. The guild master had said that she had an affinity for stone, but she’d already known that. Not that she could do much with her gift besides make bowls and fix cracked chimneys. She’d have liked to have learned more, but there’d never been time for her to leave the village to seek training. Not with Gran sick. This couldn’t have come at a worse time.

A hand touched her shoulder and she startled.

“Here, let me.” Dark eyes shadowed with concern, the young soldier lifted the bucket from the wall. “Your home?”

She searched his face for a moment, wary of his kindness. When she saw nothing there to alarm her, she nodded stiffly and gestured for him to follow. Lia, waiting beside the open door, saw the soldier and took a step back. When her back hit the doorframe she jumped, but held her ground. Benim dipped his head in a respectful nod and then ducked inside.

Kailey grasped Lia’s hand. “Send word to Cerni. They’ll send someone to come for her.”

Lia pursed her lips. “Kailey, she’s not well. Not well enough to travel that far.”

Kailey shook her head. “She will be. The worst of the cough has passed. Once the fever is gone, she’ll make it. Ask Pirrin to send a cart.”

Lia wanted to argue—Kailey could see it in her eyes—but she didn’t. Instead, she pulled Kailey into a tight hug. Such a small everyday sort of kindness, it shouldn’t have made her want to cry.

“I’ll be back,” Kailey said.

Lia nodded again but her hand slipped away. There were tears in her friend’s eyes that Kailey refused to acknowledge. She would come back. She had to, for Gran’s sake if nothing else.

Kailey watched Lia cross the yard before going inside. The soldier seemed enormous in the small one-room home. Even crouched beside the hearth, he took up all of the available space. While she stood in the doorway, considering how to slip past him without touching him again, he poured water into the kettle. He glanced up as she moved forward.

No smile on his face now. Apparently attending a sickbed was much less amusing than chasing rabbits.

“Your friend? She’ll watch after your grandmother?”

She nodded and brushed past him to check on Gran, who had fallen into an uneasy sleep. Her cheeks were flushed and her breathing was alarmingly shallow.

Kailey adjusted the worn quilt and straightened, fighting the urge to sidle away as the soldier came to stand behind her. His sigh stirred the fine hairs that had escaped her braid as she ran.

“It’s hardest for the children from the outlying territories. The families are free to visit but it’s difficult to travel so far.” There was a long silence broken only by the harsh rasp of Gran’s breathing. “I’m sorry.”

As if it was done and over with. She turned and nearly stumbled into him. Instinctively, she reached out to steady herself. Her fingertips brushed the leather armor that covered his chest and she pulled back her hand as if burned. “I’ll pack my things while she’s resting.”

Before he could answer, Ardis ducked his head into the doorway. “The cart’s ready for you, mageling, and the master is anxious to be off. Gather up your things. Benim will carry them.” His gaze swept the small room and he grimaced. “After he checks them for vermin.”

“I need more time.”

He shook his head. “You don’t have it.”

Warm hands closed over her shoulders and moved her gently aside. “A word with you, Ardis?”

Ardis nodded and Benim followed him outside.

Kailey sat upon the edge of the bed. For several numb moments, she simply stared at the doorway, listening to her grandmother’s labored breathing. Lia was right. The trip would be too much for Gran and even if Kailey did manage to escape, the soldiers would only follow her here and drag her away again. She could run…hide away in the caves or the mountains, but what was the point of that? She’d never meant to stay here. She and Gran had planned to cross the border to Cerni where there was a mage who could train Kailey how to use her gift. A non-guild mage who wouldn’t expect her to give up her life in service to the empire. She’d only been waiting until Gran was well enough to travel.

She heard Benim and Ardis arguing in the yard, their voices low enough that she could make out the tone but not the words. Beside her, Gran stirred. Her eyes blinked and then opened, glazed and hazy. Before Kailey even pressed the back of her hand to her cheek, she felt the heat coming off of her.

“I have to take a trip, Gran,” she said softly. “A long trip. I don’t know when I’ll be back.”

Gran’s mouth trembled. “The Sarians have come again.”

The Sarians Gran spoke of were the ones from thirty or more years ago when the clans still warred with the empire. “I’m to attend the University. I’ll have my own bed and new clothes. I’ll learn…” She couldn’t even begin to imagine what they intended to teach her. She shook her head. “I will learn many things.”

Gran’s hands felt fragile, the skin paper thin, but her grip was strong. “They lie, Mili. You cannot trust them. Not a word from their mouths.”

Mili. Kailey’s mother, passed nearly ten years ago from a fever much like this one. Her grandmother was becoming agitated…and she wouldn’t remember this conversation anyway. So Kailey took a deep breath, and she lied.

“Not Sarians, Gran. I’m traveling north, just as we spoke of.” The lie wasn’t that hard to force out and so she tried for a larger one. “I’ll come back to visit as soon as I can.”

Gran wasn’t looking at her any longer. She stared at the window above the bed, frowning at the oilcloth covering it. Kailey untangled her hand and stood, casting around for something to pack her clothes in. Her comb and brush. Her knife. There wasn’t much. A sack would do.

Her gaze caught on the loose stone on the hearth and she knelt to pry it wider. She would have no need of the coin. She dug the dusty leather satchel out and replaced the stone. It would make things easier for Lia and maybe ease the burden of Gran’s care.

She could no longer hear the sounds of men’s voices and when she ducked her head from the door, she saw that they’d gone to speak with Master Leesan. Kailey hurried to Lia’s hut. Everyone was out now, hovering near their doors but watching the soldiers, watching her as if she hadn’t been born here, hadn’t taken her first steps across this very yard. She met Jenner’s gaze dead on and he looked away.

She didn’t expect them to fight for her—not against a dozen trained soldiers and a mage—but surely she could expect better than this. Lia met her halfway and Kailey pushed the bag into her friend’s hands. “It’s all I have. The money Da left. It should be enough to… It should be enough.”

“Of course it will be.” Lia’s expression changed and Kailey glanced over her shoulder. The mage walked toward her, the pack of soldiers surrounding him as a moving guard. One of the men from the village cursed and spat into the ground. Turlin, always ready for a fight. Another man raised his voice and a chill ran down Kailey’s spine as several of the soldiers drew their blades. She squeezed Lia’s hand one last time and stepped forward to face the mage as he came to a stop several feet away.

“If you wait outside the gates,” she said. “I’ll only be a short while longer.”

“I understand that your heart is troubled, but we cannot tarry here.” Master Leesan cast an uncertain glance at the villagers who, while keeping their distance, watched the proceedings with barely veiled hostility. “These good people are your kin, are they not?”

“My grandmother is my kin and she is ill.”

Leesan frowned. “Nonetheless, they will certainly care for her in your absence. Benim?”

At some point during the conversation, Benim had moved closer to her and now took her by the arm. His dark eyes held the shadow of an apology but his grip was firm. When she tried to pull away, he tightened his hold until it hurt. “Be still.”

Turning, she glared into his face. A strong face, his jaw was set and he wouldn’t quite meet her eyes. “You saw her. How can I simply walk away?”

“I saw her. It doesn’t change anything. You would be saying your farewells soon enough even if we hadn’t come.”

She flinched and his brows drew together. “The longer we’re here, the more dangerous it becomes for everyone. We’re not welcome here.”

“No, you are not.”

Tears stung her eyes but she blinked them back. It wasn’t fair, none of this was. She was so determined to think of a way out of leaving—to turn back the sun, to make it right—that she didn’t immediately hear the commotion behind her, didn’t turn around fast enough. When Benim reached for his sword, her eyes went wide. She heard Turlin roar, saw him surge forward with his ax upraised. Benim pushed her aside and behind him. She stumbled to the ground. Above the din, she thought she heard her grandmother’s voice calling her name.

The soldiers were rushing to surround Leesan…and her. Someone cried out in pain. A child screeched in alarm. And Kailey froze, halfway to her feet. She saw the soldier there—Ardis. Legs splayed, head bent. There was blood on his sword.

“Gran.” She started to run, pushing through the crowd. “Gran?”

Benim grabbed her before she’d taken more than two steps. He hauled her up and back. “Come here.”

“What’s wrong?”

“Don’t look.” His voice was tight, angry. “Come on. We’re leaving now.”

“I can’t.” She shoved at his broad chest, but his arms might as well have been made of stone. She craned her neck over his shoulder and he swore, pressing his hand to the back of her head to pull it down. Too late. She saw exactly what it was that he was trying so desperately to hide from her.

At first she thought she was mistaken. She’d half expected to see Turlin there, maybe Jenner. But it wasn’t either of them. She recognized the fabric covering the body on the ground. She’d sewn that dress with her own hands not more than a fortnight ago.

“No.”

Benim made a sound and shoved her head against his shoulder. But the image was already etched in her mind’s eye. Her grandmother, lying in the dirt with a great bloody rent in her gown. Dead. She was dead. Kailey stifled the sob that rose in her throat and closed her eyes. Her body began to shake and the arms around her tightened. She couldn’t close her ears to the roar of outrage. The raised shouts and the frightened shrieks of the children as the soldiers drew their swords.

“Put me down. You can’t hurt them.”

“They won’t hurt them.”

She choked on a denial. “You think I’ll believe that? You killed her.”

She couldn’t break free. His arms were like iron bands around her chest and thighs. Her fists bounced off his chest as if she were hurling acorns at him. She realized in that moment how gently he’d treated her earlier. He was strong, far stronger than she’d originally thought.

“Hush,” he said in a low voice, not looking at her, staring straight ahead at the path before him. “The soldiers won’t hurt your people unless they attack. You’re the problem here. You leave quietly and no one else gets hurt.”

“This is not my fault.” She nearly choked on the whisper.

Benim’s eyes widened and he looked down at her briefly. “No. That’s not— No, it’s not your fault.”

The wail of mourning followed them through the gates.