Chapter One: Nadia
Under the cover of darkness, Nadia often snuck outside the walls of Tide Manor. She’d been doing it for years without a hitch, though sometimes her father’s eyes narrowed at her the next morning, suggesting he might be aware of her deceit. Maybe she was paranoid. Her father had a knack for instilling anxiety into her these past nineteen years. Or maybe the calculating arse was biding his time.
Tonight would be the last time she’d have to steal from him.
A crisp wind weaved through the trees, stinging her cheeks. Nadia shivered. She drew in her cloak and glanced about the woods.
Pale moonlight shone through leafless branches. It illuminated the space around her and in-between the scattered trees and shrubs. Although eerie shadows crawled in every direction, she knew she was alone.
Standing before a tree, she flinched when an owl hooted in the branches above. Every creek, every snap, every time the leaves rustled, it set her blood rushing.
Nadia placed a hand on the rough bark and whispered thanks to the wide oak for safeguarding her secret. She swept her woollen skirt behind her and sank to the ground. With hurried hands, she removed twigs, leaves, and dirt from the hole at the base of the oak. She grimaced as fragments of forest litter pierced her stockings and dug into her skin.
Once the hollow was clear, Nadia inhaled a deep breath and reached inside the opening. This was the worst part. As she removed a box, she squirmed at the thought of a spider skittering up her arm.
She scanned the woods once more, before placing a hand inside her coat and retrieving the two coins she’d stolen from her father’s study. They glinted like silver pools in her palm.
Even though a hint of guilt prickled her insides, she could not help but smile. Nadia had gone to all this effort, and soon it would pay off. She only had to tolerate her father for a few more days—six days, in fact. Then he would no longer be able to keep her locked behind the manor walls.
A man’s distant shout sliced through the air, and with an offended hoot, the owl above her took flight.
Nadia clamped her fingers around the coins.
As she crouched, unmoving and listening, her eyes darted around the dark expanse behind her. Nothing. Only the sound of her shaky breath and the grating of moving branches shifted in the wind.
Maybe her nerves were playing tricks on her mind. It wasn’t the first time.
In a hurry, Nadia threw in the silvers with the rest of the pilfered coins and jewels she’d accumulated over the years. She tied the drawstring of a purse tight and placed it inside her coat. Having no more use for the box, she tucked it into the hole and camouflaged it by throwing leaves and dirt over the hiding spot.
Nadia rose and brushed both hands against her skirt. When she returned to her chamber, she’d need to dust her clothes, pluck the forest litter from her stockings, and scrub the grime from underneath her nails.
On the way back to the manor, she trod lightly around snarled roots and small slopes. The stream to her right burbled as it traveled over beds of rocks, masking the sound of her slippers crunching over dried leaves. Through the clump of trees, she caught glimpses of moonlight glistening upon the water and a …? She squinted. What was that? Nadia moved closer. She frowned. A paddleboat bobbed in the water. She slowed her pace. Strange. Her father never allowed unmarked boats so close to the manor.
The recollection of the man’s shout came back to her. What if she hadn’t imagined it? What if she wasn’t alone out here? What if her father had sent someone to follow her? Nadia blew out a breath, smoking the chilled air. No. None of that made any sense. That wasn’t her father’s way. He’d never ask a person to do something he could achieve himself.
The curiosity Nadia’s father often rebuked in her pressed her forward for a better look, but common sense urged her to step backwards. This was neither the time nor the place to be spotted. With considerable hesitation and a teeth-grinding will, she turned towards the secret entrance that would get her inside Tide Manor’s walls.
She pushed aside heavy shrubs and crawled into the hidden passage. Drops of water blended with the crunch of her shoes over the pebbled floor. It was dark. Not even the moonlight shone through the well-covered opening. Nadia didn’t need assistance to light her way; she’d taken this path so many times, each step was embedded into her memory.
Nadia reached the hole in the ground and adjusted the purse inside her coat to keep it from falling as she climbed down the ladder. The cold bars were almost painful to the touch. Her feet ached. House slippers did not create a suitable barrier between her heels and the ladder rails, but they were perfect for sneaking about. The descent did not take long, yet the musky air became damper as she went. Her teeth chattered from the sudden drop in temperature. She pushed on, reminding herself that she’d never have to climb up or down this ladder again.
Relief washed over her when her feet met the stone floor. Nadia pushed open the heavy door leading into the passageway. Even though her father had banned anyone from venturing down here, she still grimaced; the hinges—rusted from lack of use—groaned loudly when she closed the door behind her.
She settled the bolt into place and turned to move but paused when a low, thumping sound echoed off the stone walls and down the corridor. Nadia stilled, craning her neck in the direction of the noise. Footfalls sounded from another passageway leading off the one where she stood. A surge of panic twisted her insides. Could it be her father?
With careful hands, Nadia lifted the bolt and … paused. Realisation struck her. She hissed. If whoever was out there ventured this way, they’d notice someone had removed the bar, and besides, she couldn’t risk them hearing the creaking hinges.
Stepping away from the door, her eyes raked the long, dark passageway.
Besides the two vacant cells at the end of the passageway and the broken pieces of furniture stacked against one wall, many empty barrels sat in one corner. Maybe she could hide behind there? But if she walked farther down, she could slip into one of the several alcoves.
For far too many moments, Nadia stood uncertain.
She cautiously padded towards the barrels and crouched behind them, whispering prayers.
Any hope of not getting caught ebbed away as yellow light illuminated the end of the corridor. She chewed on her bottom lip, realising the barrels wouldn’t conceal her from the brightness of a torch.
She peered over her shoulder, wishing she’d taken her chances earlier and had opened the door. She’d have been up the top of the ladder by now.
Nadia gently removed the purse from inside her coat and placed her wealth on the floor. It was one thing to be discovered down here in the middle of the night, but it was another to be caught harbouring a bag full of stolen coins and jewels.
As the footfalls drew nearer, the light spread across the floor and walls, chasing away the darkness.
Nadia stood and hurried forward. When she reached the first alcove, she slipped inside and pressed her back against the cold stone. A moment of relief cleansed her fear before dread set back in. Damn her luck. Damn her life. How had her last night of thieving turned into this?
Her loud breathing.
Hefty steps drew nearer.
Nadia clamped a hand over her mouth to muffle the whimper that escaped her chapped lips when a man spoke. She bit the webbing between her index finger and thumb. It did nothing to ease her fear, but it kept her attention split between the peril in the passageway and the immediate threat of her teeth cutting through skin.
“Go on. I’ve got hold of him,” a rough voice said.
Nadia tried to think back, but she’d never heard this voice before.
“Stop moving, you prick,” the same man said.
She briefly closed her eyes when a whacking noise sounded, followed by a groan, then a thump as something heavy hit the stone floor. Every muscle in her body tensed.
“Enough,” another man said. “We won’t get paid if he’s dead. Put your blade away and get him up.”
Mustering the little courage she possessed, Nadia tentatively peered around the corner. Her gaze fell upon a black-cladded man, placing a torch inside a wall sconce. His hair and beard, so bright and so red, shone before the flames. He wore a chainmail shirt over a dark tunic, with mud-caked clothes and boots.
e pulled Red retrieved a thin brow rope, with a key hanging on the end, from inside his shirt. As he slipped it over his head, he turned and blew out an agitated breath. “I said, get him off the floor.”
Nadia’s gaze followed the direction of the coarse voice she’d first heard, then landed on another man, large and dressed in all black, with brown hair and a messy, long beard. He looked as rough as his voice sounded.
He kicked a form on the stone floor, and the body beneath him jolted and groaned. “I said, up.”
Who are they? They weren’t her father’s usual force and, none of his ledgers mentioned new hires. Nadia would have known; she’d read them all—even the ones he thought he’d hidden. They weren’t her great uncle’s guards either. The king’s men always wore the grey and red of Macreon.
The sight of the large brown-haired brute interlacing his arms under the motionless prisoner halted her thoughts. With a groan, he heaved the prisoner to his feet.
The captive’s head lolled forward, and his matted hair draped over his face, blocking his features. He appeared sluggish, swaying a little. Blood covered his torn forest-green shirt, muddied in more than one place.
The large man gripped the rope binding the prisoner’s hands behind his back. “No sudden movements unless you want a repeat of last time.”
Red muttered curses under his breath whilst fumbling with a lock in one of the two cells. When a click sounded, he sighed. The gate creaked open. “Get him inside.”
The large guard leaned in close and pressed himself against his captive’s back. “Maybe we’ll meet again someday.” He kissed the nape of his neck, allowing his lips to linger for far too long.
The prisoner’s bloodied jaw twitched. He dragged his feet as the large guard urged him towards the cell. There was no struggle, no attempt to fight back. The guard held him upright as the captive swayed, knees wobbling.
Both men reached the cell, and Red moved aside to let them pass, hand still on the cell door.
The captive’s gaze snapped upward, and in a swift move, he drove the back of his head into the large guard’s face.
A guttural cry tore through the passageways, echoing off the stone walls. The large man’s hand flew to his nose whilst his other hand still gripped the rope binding the prisoner.
The captive raised his knee up and rammed his heel into the howling man’s groin, setting himself free from his grip. He stumbled backward towards Nadia, breathing heavily.
Red stepped around his comrade, now doubled over on the floor, and reached for the dagger at his hip. “That was unwise.”
Nadia sunk low to the floor to make herself small as the prisoner stepped backwards again.
Her heartbeat increased as she watched him unravel the binds. He must have loosened them a long time ago because the rope slid off his bruised skin with ease. It was evident he’d been waiting for this opportunity. Wrapping dirty fingers around each end of the rope, he kept his hands behind his back, not revealing his newfound freedom.
Like a fox stalking a rabbit, Red strode towards his captive. He’d not drawn his blade, but his hand veiled the hilt, showing his readiness.
The large guard gripped a cell bar, trying to heave himself to his feet, but he failed, and fell back onto his ass. His broad face scrunched, and his mouth twisted into a thin line, whilst one hand cradled his groin.
Glancing about him, the captive moved back again. If he retreated any farther, he’d be standing right before Nadia.
In fear of them spotting her, she shifted to the rear of the alcove. Unable to see into the passageway, Nadia trembled as she listened to his heavy breaths drawing close.
Bare, scratched, and bloodied feet came into view. Her gaze followed the length of the prisoner’s form, up soiled pants, a torn short, a chest rising and falling, then landing on his dirt-stained, and blood-crusted profile.
Nadia brought both knees closer to her body and tucked her skirt underneath her legs, only managing to hide half of herself in the shadows.
The prisoner scanned over his left shoulder towards the door she’d bolted closed, then to the barrels her purse hid behind. Unmuddied parts of his brown hair glinted in the torchlight. When he turned his head and his gaze fell upon her, his eyebrows lifted, and his lips parted.
A strange sensation ran over and through her. Nadia’s skin burned, yet her blood ran cold. In that short moment, something passed between them. What exactly, she didn’t know. Before she could give him a pleading look, he schooled his features and stepped forward, out of view.
Nadia knew it was stupid, knew it was dangerous, but she peeked around the corner.
Red drew his dagger and turned it so the blade sat flush against the bottom of his forearm. With chest raised, shoulders stiff, he stepped wide to create an invisible half circle.
The prisoner shifted, taking a side stance. With hands still hiding behind him, he fixed his feet to the floor, front knee in a slight bend.
The large guard still lay on the floor, moaning, as he watched the scene with crumpled eyes.
Red lunged forward.
The captive sidestepped from the knife Red thrust towards him. With a flick of the rope, he struck Red across the face with a thwack.
Red flinched, giving his captive the opportunity to step inside his guard.
The captive clamped both hands around Red’s knife arm and pressed his shoulder into his chest.
Red gritted his teeth and tried to break free, but the prisoner forced his upper arm into the nook of his elbow. Red cursed. He whined in half fear, half panic. Spittle wet his chin and the tension on his face distorted his features.
In the shadows near the cell, the large guard shifted, and Nadia had to stop herself from calling out a warning.
The captive widened his stance, groaning against his opponent’s resistance.
Struggling, Red’s face turned a frightening shade of crimson. His eyes squeezed as he tried to free himself, then almost bulged out of his head when the captive forced his forearm backwards.
Nadia’s stomach clenched when a sickening snap sounded.
Red screamed, and his knife clanked onto the stone floor.
The prisoner, still holding Red’s upper arm, kicked behind his ankle, dropping his opponent onto his back. He straddled him, and sent a rain of fists onto Red’s chest, face, and head.
Nadia didn’t want to watch anymore, but she couldn’t look away. There was no stop to the assault. Moan after painful moan, strike after strike, the prisoner did not slow his violent barrage. She held her breath when her gaze flew to the large guard hobbling towards them. Murder flashed in his tight eyes.
There was no telling how much time had passed since the guards had forced something down the prisoner’s gurgling throat to when they slammed the cell door behind him.
With knees drawn to her chest, Nadia quivered. She’d been telling herself to get up and move for some time now, but terror had kept her in place. Finally, when she weighed the threat of stumbling into the guards on her way out of this building versus sneaking back into the manor house after sunrise, she forced herself to stand.
To her disgust, she internally thanked the guards for leaving the torch behind. It helped her find her coin-purse with ease. Shame filled her. After what she’d witnessed, they did not deserve her gratitude.
She spied the prisoner as she passed the cell. He sat with half his back against the wall, slumped to one side. His chin was buried in his chest, moving in slow rises and dips.
Was he unconscious from the violent beating or asleep due to the concoction the guards had given him? Maybe both.
The prisoner moved, exhaling a deep moan. He tensed his shoulders and shifted again before his head lifted and his blackened and bruised eyes shot open.
Nadia stepped backwards and swallowed despite her dry mouth.
She hadn’t watched as the guards had beat their captive. She’d looked away. When no longer able to stand his pain-filled grunts, she’d covered her ears and pressed her eyelids shut as tears leaked from them.
She’d prayed they’d leave him alone, prayed his cries would cease. But they hadn’t. The guards had been unwavering, both seeking their revenge.
What he’d endured whilst she’d cowered in the shadows of the alcove, now made him appear deformed. Every feature was swollen and bruised, and a large welt protruded from his forehead. One of his eyes had almost closed over, and the space around it was raised and purple. Both crusted and fresh blood covered his mouth, nose, and chin. There was no telling what this pitiable man looked like under it all.
He shifted to an upright position. Nadia’s heart thumped a rapid beat, and her will to move diminished under his intense stare.
For a long time, he just watched her, barely blinking, as though he’d seen a ghost.
Finally, his bloodied and cracked lips formed into a wide smile. “You again.”
His odd expression sent a chill through her. Why did he appear cheerful and so …unphased? Dumbfounded, Nadia could only gape at him. She swallowed what felt like a sharp-edged stone. She opened her mouth to say something, anything, but her mind refused to help her form words.
“Water,” he finally gasped after a drawn-out silence.
Nadia peeled her gaze from him and glanced about. There was no water down here, only the two cells, a lit torch, the remnants of furniture, barrels, and other discarded things. “I’m …” she swallowed. Her throat was as dry as paper, as though she too felt his thirst. “I’m sorry.”
She twisted the fabric of her skirt, meeting the prisoner’s unsettling grin. His pained eyes weakened her knees, yet she could not help him—would not help him. This was dangerous. He might be dangerous.
As though he had read her thoughts, he said, “I won’t harm you.” He sucked in a sharp breath and grimaced. Straining, the prisoner heaved himself to his feet and took several unbalanced steps forward.
Nadia backed away as though retreating from a bear she’d chanced upon in the woods.
“Don’t leave.” He approached the bars. His bloodied face twisted. Heavens, he looked threatening. “Please …” he lowered his voice to an almost whisper, as though he was coaxing her to stay calm. He smiled once more, an unnatural grin that did not meet his saddened eyes. “A drop of water. That’s all I ask.”
“I’ll have to go and get some. I’ll return—”
“The key too.” His gaze flicked to the lock. “Can you find me the key? And water. Don’t forget the water.”
Nadia nodded even though she knew she would not return. Whatever was happening here, it was beyond her.
His smile widened, and she found herself shivering under his menacing gaze.
Aware of her cowardice and disgusted in the false promise she’d just given this man, Nadia backed away from the cell. When she rounded the corner and reached the base of the steps, she paused, one hand resting on a wall for support. Upon hearing the captive’s heart-wrenching sobs mixed with manic laughter, she fled up the stairs and almost tumbled over the hem of her skirt, fighting back tears.