Four days later
Damien watched the market square from the shadowed darkness of the candle maker’s shop. Warin Roke is a mad man, Damien thought. But if he is willing to grant my freedom for one last mission, who am I to tell him otherwise?
Merchants shouted from shop windows at passing patrons, hawking their wares. “The best salted venison in the whole of Acquitaine,” a grizzled old man cried out. “Virgin white milk straight from my goat’s teats just this morning,” a pretty, young woman called. Quite a few customers gathered around her, Damien observed.
Children laughed as they raced through Acquitaine’s dusty streets, chasing a few stray ducks. They wove in and out of the legs of villagers as their newfound, feathered toys squawked and waddled into any safe place they could find. Two men haggled over the price of a small pot before the potter’s shop. The smell of freshly baked bread wafted to Damien, mixing with the perfumed scents of burning wax coming from the shop behind him.
Damien ignored all the commotion in the busy market, concentrating on the street leading into the center of the square between the tailor’s shop and the potter’s shop.
It had taken Damien two days of travel to get to Acquitaine, and then a mere day of earnest listening to the local gossip to find out all he needed to know about Lady Aurora’s habits. The owner of the Boar’s Inn certainly liked to hear himself talk. Damien never heard someone go so long without taking a breath between words in his whole life. It had been simple to discover Lady Aurora came into the village weekly to visit with her people.
Damien also heard many stories about Lady Aurora’s mother, Margaret. She had been a cruel lady, vain in her beauty and cold in her demeanor. It was told she had men killed on the spot for looking at her in any manner that displeased her. It was said she poisoned any woman who was more beautiful than she. It was whispered she set homes on fire if their owners did not pay their taxes exactly when she demanded them.
The serfs had not mourned when she died seven years ago.
As Damien learned more of Margaret’s dark moods and deviant behavior, he discovered Lady Aurora was not at all like her mother. Everyone he listened to spoke of Lady Aurora with admiration, with true love and devotion. Damien grunted softly at the memories of their praise. There was not one person he conversed with who said an unkind word about Lady Aurora. He found it very curious the daughter of the most hated woman within a hundred miles of the village was the most beloved by all the villagers. Surely, no woman was so faultless as to merit the endless adoration these serfs heaped on Lady Aurora. He almost wished he had time to find one person who disliked her. He mentally shrugged. No matter. He would do what Roke asked of him and then he would finally be free of his master.
He would bow to Warin Roke no longer. Ten years of servitude was enough.
Damien leaned back against the shop wall, his arms crossed over his chest. He had plenty of time to complete his mission. Four more days. But he knew he would need only one more afternoon.
He scanned his surroundings, instinctively looking for guards or any other threats that could hinder the successful completion of his task.
The sun shone down on the serfs making their way through the streets. A woman with a worn, sun-browned face clutched a basket filled with onions beneath an arm as she hurried through the street. She crashed into the shoulder of a merchant who suddenly stepped in front of her. She called out in exasperation and steadied the onions. Damien’s gaze continued to travel over the occupants of the square. No guards at all.
A tingling sensation prickled the base of his neck. He lifted his gaze to the road leading into the town from the castle. A guard wearing a red tunic with a white dove emblazoned on the front appeared, clearing the path, hollering for people to move out of the way. He used a tall stick to usher the people aside, but he had no need to use it. The people parted on their own, making a clear path. All their gazes turned toward the road in anticipation.
Damien stared down the road with curiosity. Was it Lady Aurora’s approach causing his breath to catch, his skin to prickle, or was it something else?
The merchants stopped their calls. A strange hush fell over the crowd for a moment. Time seemed to slow.
She was coming.
Instinctively, Damien’s hand fell to the dagger in his belt. But even the familiar feel of his weapon did not still the sudden unease filling him.
She emerged into the silence inconsequentially. Complete surprise washed over Damien. He expected a grand entrance. He expected magnanimous applause to erupt. He expected joyous shouts. But she needed none of those to herald her arrival. Her beauty was powerful enough to silence any sound. Her blond hair, touched with wisps of golden sun, hung in a long braid down her back. Her face was fair complexioned with high cheekbones, her lips bowed and full. Her eyes were lowered toward the ground, watching her step. When she lifted her gaze to look about, Damien’s breath caught in his throat. Blue eyes shone at him like the bright sky above. She was more than stunning. She was an angel.
She looked down at a beggar who held an old, feeble hand out to her, his gnarled fingers stained with mud. Outrage filled Damien that this dirty, decrepit man should accost her in such a manner. But the lady did not shy away from his filth. She did not turn her back on him. She smiled at him. Damien found himself wishing he were the beggar, wishing he were the recipient of such radiance. Then she bent forward, touched the beggar’s shoulder, and spoke earnestly to the old man.
Damien inched forward, ignoring the crush of people around him as he moved closer to this goddess. He could not hear her words, but the people around her smiled.
The beggar nodded his head enthusiastically at the regal lady and smiled a toothless grin.
Lady Aurora turned and moved leisurely into the square. Her blue velvet surcoat swished about her long legs. The lone guard walked before her, keeping the path clear.
One guard to protect her, Damien thought, disgusted. If he were her father, he would hire an army of men to trail her and keep her safe.
People called out to her now. She paused and spoke to many, giving them her undivided attention. What would she say to him if he called out to her? Did he care? No, he wouldn’t care what words she uttered. All he wanted was to see those luminescent eyes turn to gaze at him with the same undivided attention she so graciously offered everyone else.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a movement. A shadow. A slithering shape. He searched the crowd, the feeling of unease growing much stronger now, spreading across the nape of his neck and shoulders. His gaze darted through the throng, focusing on one villager and then another. A mother smiling down at her child. A farmer speaking with a short baker. A monk gazing at Lady Aurora.
And then, mixed in the crowd, Damien found him. He was a small man, dressed in a faded green tunic. He hunched slightly, moving slowly between people, being careful not to touch anyone, being careful not to draw attention to himself. But unlike the people who surrounded him, there was no serenity in his face, no adoration. Only dark purpose. The man focused on Lady Aurora with the intensity of a predator.
Damien recognized him immediately. He was one of Roke’s elite guards, a killer, and an assassin. A slave of Warin Roke just like him. Damien didn’t know his name, but he knew the face. And he knew the ugly gleam of determination in his eyes as he trapped his prey in his sights. What the devil is he doing here? Damien silently demanded as fierce anger blasted through him. What game is Roke playing?
Damien moved through the crowd, inching closer to him, not taking his stare away from the stalker. He bumped into a farmer half his size. The man grumbled something, but Damien moved on, ignoring him, concentrating on his target.
Damien heard the gruff call, but did not look up to see who it was. He didn’t dare take his gaze off the man, lest he lose him in the thick crowd of villagers. Damien watched the man’s reaction. He saw him hesitate, watched his small eyes shift from Aurora to somewhere off to the left where the other voice had originated.
For a moment, Damien thought the puny man would turn and leave. Is he here to make sure I complete my mission? His eyes slowly narrowed. No, that was not the reason he was here. He knew Warin Roke well, well enough to realize he would never send anyone to watch over him.
Something glinted in the little man’s hand.
Damien’s eyes widened in realization. The man isn’t here to follow me. He is here to steal my freedom! Damn you to hell, Roke.
The killer bent his legs and sprang forward, moving with a quickness his small stature belied. He moved straight for Lady Aurora, his dagger flashing in the fiery sunlight.