Warriors of the Mist, Book 3
by Alexis Morgan
Release Date: September 2, 2014
Cursed by the gods. Bound by brotherhood. Freed by love.
The Warriors of the Mist have fought side by side for centuries, but Kane alone has felt something darker calling to him. With the Kingdom of Agathia on the brink of rebellion, Kane knows that relying on dark magic to infiltrate the enemy's court is dangerous but necessary despite the cost to his soul.
Lady Theda hopes to end the tyrannical reign of Duke Keirthan, the man who killed his own brother—Theda's husband. But she has little hope of succeeding, until a mage-marked warrior appears.
For the first time in centuries, Kane is tempted not by dark magic, but by a woman who wants more than his protection. But with both of their hearts—and her people's lives—in jeopardy, giving in to their passion may be a risk too great to take...
It had been three days since Kane first rode through the arched gates of Agathia, capital of the kingdom with the same name. He already hated everything about the place: the throngs of people, the constant noise, and especially the spicy miasma of dark magic that permeated every corner of the city.
During the daylight hours, he slept. Afternoons he prowled the streets, memorizing the layout of the city. Knowing which walls could be scaled and where the guards dozed while on duty could make the difference between life and death if his mission were to go badly.
His nights were spent visiting taverns to gauge the mood of the patrons. They definitely weren't happy, not with the heavy dose of sour fear mixed with the usual smells of greasy food and cheap wine.
He'd hoped to cross paths with Duke Keirthan's personal guard while they were off duty. Yet he hadn't seen any in the places he'd been so far, and it wouldn't be prudent to ask strangers to direct his footsteps. In this city, anyone who showed too much interest in the duke's men was likely to end up dead.
The Broken Sword was the fourth such place he'd been in tonight, but this time he planned to stay awhile. Long enough to finish a second tankard of ale, maybe even a third.
He looked around the crowded room. Had all of these fine citizens of Agathia taken to drinking in reaction to the growing evil trapped within the city walls? Kane felt sure it wasn't the quality of the food that drew them to this piss pot. He choked down another bite of the greasy stew and shoved the bowl aside.
At least he had a table to himself. Several people had started to sit down with him but had quickly changed their minds. Evidently, Agathians were reluctant to share space with a man who bore a mage mark on his cheek and had eyes the color of death.
Fine with him. The company of strangers always made his skin crawl.
The evening's entertainment was about to start, the real reason Kane was there. Averel, the newly hired troubadour, sat in the far corner, tuning his lute and warming up his voice for his debut performance in the city. Two oversized dogs lay sprawled at his feet, their relaxed air deceptive. One hostile move toward their master and these people would learn all too quickly how much damage a pair of war dogs could do.
Kane leaned back in his chair with his arms crossed over his chest, watching the crowd while keeping a wary eye on the young musician. There was a definite air of innocence about the youth. Most of these fools probably thought the calluses on Averel's hands came from hours of plucking the strings on his lute. In truth, they'd come from years of gripping the pommel of a sword.
If Kane hadn't spent centuries of fighting side by side with the young knight, he might well have bought the innocent act himself. However, despite their long friendship, tonight they were strangers to each other. He'd keep his distance to minimize the chance of someone noticing the two of them shared the same unusual eye color. Those who clung to the old superstitions would say they'd been marked by the gods.
They would be right.
Both Kane and Averel served the Lord and Lady of the River. Along with their captain and two other warriors, they were the Warriors of the Mist or, as Kane actually preferred, they were simply called the Damned. The gods had sent them to make this land safe for Lady Merewen, the woman who'd risked everything to call the warriors from their sleep beneath the river back on the spring equinox.
Averel headed toward the small platform in the front of the room. Silence followed in his footsteps as he made his way through the jumble of tables and benches. By the time he took a seat on a tall stool, every eye in the room was on him. Kane would have hated that, but Averel took all the attention in stride.
It seemed as if everyone was leaning forward a bit, anxious for the performance to begin. No doubt in these dark days, the promise of any entertainment was a welcome diversion. Even a poor musician would serve the purpose; tonight they were in for a surprise.
Averel had a true gift for music and a voice that lent itself to both the beautiful and the bawdy, depending on the crowd and his mood. Kane waited to see which direction his friend would choose tonight.
"Good evening," the young minstrel began, pitching his voice just loud enough to be heard over the quiet murmurings of the crowd. "As your humble servant, I will begin with a few personal favorites. Later I will take suggestions, but I make no promises. My master specialized in the old songs, so I have not yet learned the newer melodies."
Kane was impressed. Averel had come up with the perfect excuse for not performing all the popular ballads. Considering how long they'd been absent from the world, it was unlikely he knew anything that had been composed in several hundred years.
It wasn't long before Averel had the crowd singing along with him. Kane looked around for the tavern owner. The grinning fool was behind the bar, serving up pitchers of ale as fast as he could fill them. Obviously, singing was thirsty work, which boded well for Averel's chances of being hired on for an extended stay.
Kane's situation was trickier. His assignment was to get close to Duke Keirthan himself. His best option would be as a member of the duke's personal guard, but the man had a reputation of being careful about letting strangers get too close. Considering the man harvested his own people like a crop to feed his blood magic, the caution was understandable.
A movement off to his side had Kane reaching for his knife. Realizing it was one of Averel's idiot dogs, he forced himself to relax. Both of the mutts were working their way through the crowd, mooching for bits of bread and meat. The white one stopped only inches from Kane's table.
Everyone in his immediate vicinity watched the interchange with understandable caution. After all, the dog was tall enough to look a seated man in the eye.
Kane glared at the offending beast. "What do you want?"
The dog responded by wagging his tail and then laying his head in Kane's lap. It would be more in Kane's character to shove the dog away, but then he glanced up at Averel, who gave him a slight nod before looking away.
All right, then. The animal was there for a purpose. Kane relented and gave him a thorough scratching, in the process palming the message Averel had stuck inside the dog's collar. After a few seconds, Kane gave the dog a gruff push.
"That's enough. Be off with you."
The dog stopped at a few more tables before rejoining the other beast in the back corner. Well done. The message had been delivered without Averel having to approach Kane directly or his dogs singling Kane out for attention.
Averel started a new song, one that had everyone clapping their hands and stamping their feet in time to the music. Kane sipped more of his ale and waited until the song ended before making his escape. Aiming for the back door where the privies were located, he staggered as if he were feeling the effects of all the ale he'd consumed.
When he was sure he wasn't being followed, he dropped the act and continued on down the alley for several blocks before cutting back over to the main road through town. Thanks to the late hour, the streets were dark except for the occasional pool of light from a window along the way. Kane kept to the shadows, where he felt most at home. The few people he passed gave him a furtive look and hurried on their way. He didn't blame them. There were many scary things that prowled in the darkness; Kane was one of them.
His own destination was close by now. He'd taken a room at an inexpensive inn on the edge of town, the kind of place where a few coins ensured privacy. Add another piece of silver to the price, and the staff would turn a blind eye to anything short of murder in the dining hall. While Kane had no immediate intentions of killing anyone, he did have an unusual companion sharing his quarters. Hob wouldn't attack unless provoked, but just the sight of him would likely throw the whole inn into chaos and draw unwanted attention to Kane himself.
Gargoyles had that effect on most people.
Kane entered the building through a side door. At this time of night, few guests would still be up, but he preferred to keep his movements as private as possible. For the same reason, he automatically avoided the fourth step, the one that creaked. His room was at the far end of the hall with a window that overlooked the courtyard below. If he needed to make a quick escape, Kane could easily jump to the roof of the stable and then to the street below. A smart man slept better knowing he wasn't trapped in a room with only one way out.
All was quiet as he slipped inside his room and locked the door. Making his way to the small table by the bed, he lit a candle. Averel's note could wait until Kane released Hob and got comfortable.
He kept the shutters closed even though the air in the room reeked of boiled cabbage and stale beer from the dining room below. Murmuring the words to release Hob from his magical resting place on Kane's shield, he averted his eyes from the sudden burst of light that accompanied the gargoyle's appearance.
Hob looked around and shook from the tip of his nose to the tip of his tail before leaning back on his haunches in a long stretch. Then he circled around Kane's legs, bumping him in a show of affection.
Kane patted the beast on his scaly head. "Sorry to be so late in returning, boy."
When Kane opened the shutters, Hob laid his head on the sill to taste the night air with a few flicks of his tongue and then gave the rest of their quarters a thorough sniff. Satisfied all was well, he turned a few circles before curling up on the floor at Kane's feet.
Unfolding Averel's note, Kane spread it out on the table near the candle for light. All it said was The Empty Keg and The Rooster's Crow. No other explanation was needed. Averel knew Kane was hunting for the tavern where the guards spent their off hours. He must have heard something about these two places.
Kane would visit them as soon as the sun went down tomorrow night. He needed to evaluate the caliber of man the duke was hiring but also hoped to bring himself to their attention. The best way to get a job as a hired sword was through a recommendation from someone already on the payroll.
It wasn't much of a plan, but before meeting Captain Gideon all those centuries ago, Kane had made his living as a mercenary. Some things never changed, especially the demand for men who could wield a sword and weren't too picky about who they worked for.
He stripped out of his clothes and stretched out on the thin mattress. When Kane was situated and had the threadbare blanket pulled up to his chest, Hob crawled onto the bed and curled up at his feet. The damned animal took up too much room, but he and Hob had been partners since Kane's grandfather had presented him with the freshly hatched gargoyle. He'd intended it as a bribe to purchase his grandson's willing assistance in his magery. The ploy hadn't worked, but Kane and Hob had formed a bond that had proven unbreakable.
That wasn't the only reason he tolerated Hob sprawling across his ankles. The Damned had fought as a unit even before the goddess had taken them into her service. Not that he'd admit it to his friends, but Kane missed them on this solo mission. Hob's solid presence close by helped fill the gap.
Before dozing off, Kane offered up a prayer that his time here in the city would be short. He'd volunteered for this duty, but war was coming; he sensed it in his bones. When it came time to fight, the Damned would face their enemy together.
"Readers of Morgan's novels always know they are in for a rich and rewarding experience and once again, she absolutely doesn't disappoint."
--Romantic Times 4 1/2 Stars