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, Nadia 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 woolen 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. Fragments of forest litter pierced her stockings and dug into her skin. Her knees and shins ache.
Once the hollow was clear, Nadia inhaled a deep breath and reached inside the opening. This was the worst part. She squirmed at the thought of a spider skittering up her arm as she pulled out a box.
She scanned the woods once more.
Placing a hand inside her coat, Nadia retrieved 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. Three 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.
With an offended hoot, the owl above her took flight.
Her fingers clamped around the coins.
Crouching, unmoving, listening, Nadia’s 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 the silvers in 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. There was no more use for the box, so she tucked it back in 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 out of 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. It was fortunate the stream to her right burbled as it traveled over beds of rocks, masking the sound her slippers made 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 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 out 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 task someone to do something he could achieve himself.
The curiosity Nadia’s father often rebuked in her, pressed her forward for a better look, but her common sense urged her to step back. This was neither the time nor the place to be spotted. With considerable hesitation and a teeth-grinding will, she turned away and headed towards the secret entrance that would get her back inside the walls of Tide Manor.
She pushed the heavy shrubs aside 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.
When she reached the hole in the ground, Nadia 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 climb down did not take long, yet the musky air drastically changed as she descended. It was colder down here than it was outside. Damper too. Nadia’s teeth chattered. 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; as the hinges—rusted from lack of use—groaned loudly when she closed the door behind her.
Once the bolt was in place, she turned to move but paused when a low, thumping sound echoed off the stone walls and down the corridor. Nadia stilled. She craned her neck in the direction of the noise. Footfalls sounded from another passageway leading off the one she stood in. Panic twisted her insides. Could it be her father?
With careful hands, Nadia lifted the bolt back up and… paused. Realisation struck her. She hissed. If whoever was out there ventured this way, they’d notice the bar had been removed, and besides, she couldn’t risk them hearing the creaking hinges.
She stepped away from the door. Her eyes raked the long, dark passageway.
Whenever her father had left the manor, she’d snuck down here to explore. Besides the two vacant cells down 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 further down, there were several alcoves she could slip into.
For far too many moments, Nadia stood uncertain.
Taking cautious steps, she made her way to the barrels and crouched down 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. There was no way the barrels would conceal her before the brightness of a torch.
Peering over her shoulder, she wished she’d taken her chances earlier and opened the door. She’d have been up the top of the ladder by now.
Nadia removed the purse from inside her coat. 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.
Moving as soundless as a mouse, Nadia placed her wealth on the floor with gentle hands.
As the footfalls drew nearer, the light illuminated the end of the passageway, creeping towards her.
Nadia stood and hurried forward. When she reached the first alcove, she slipped inside, pressing her back against the cold wall. 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 her panting. Her pulse drummed in her ears, matching the rhythm of the booted steps.
A soft whimper escaped her cold lips when a man spoke. Nadia bit the space 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 her 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.
His words iced Nadia’s blood.
She pressed her eyelids together. A whacking noise sounded, followed by a groan and 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 eyes fell upon a black-clad man, placing a torch inside a sconce on the wall. His hair and beard, so bright and so red, shone before the torch flames. He wore a chainmail shirt over a dark tunic, and his clothes and boots were crusted with mud.
e pulled Red placed a hand in the collar of his shirt and pulled out a thin, brown rope with a key hanging on the end. As he slipped it over his head, he turned and blew out an agitated breath. “I said get him off the floor.”
“Up.” Nadia’s eyes followed the direction of the coarse voice she’d first heard, landing on another man, large, also 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. The body beneath him jolted and groaned. “I said up.”
Who are they? They weren’t her father’s usual force and there was no mention of new hires in any of his ledgers. 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 prisoner who lay motionless on the floor, halted her thoughts. Groaning, he heaved the prisoner to his feet.
When the captive’s head lolled forward, his matted hair draped over his eyes, blocking his features. He appeared sluggish, swaying a little. Blood covered his dark green shirt, which was torn and 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.”
Muttering curses under his breath, Red fumbled with a lock in one of the two cells. When a click sounded, he let out a sigh. The gate creaked open. “Get him inside.”
The large guard leaned in close, pressing himself up against his captives’ 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.
When both men reached the cell, Red moved aside to let them pass, hand still on the cell door.
The captives gaze snapped up.
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 face whilst his other hand still gripped the rope binding the prisoner.
Bringing his knees up, the captive rammed his heel into the howling man’s groin, setting himself free from his grip. He took several steps back towards Nadia.
Red stepped around his comrade who was now doubled over on the floor. “That was unwise,” he said, one hand reaching for the dagger at his hip.
Nadia sunk down low to the floor, making herself small as the prisoner stepped back again, eyes darting around the passageway.
Her heartbeat escalated as she watched him unravel the binds. He must have loosened them a long time ago because the ropes 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 giving away his newfound freedom.
Like a fox stalking a rabbit, Red took deliberate steps towards his captive. He’d not drawn his blade, but his hand veiled the hilt, showing his readiness.
As he gripped one of the cell bars, the large guard tried to heave himself to his feet, but failed, falling back on his ass. The features on his broad face scrunched and his mouth twisted a thin line.
Glancing about him, the captive moved again. If he stepped back any further, he’d be standing right before her.
Nadia shifted to the rear of the alcove, no longer able to see out into the passageway.
Bare, scratched, and bloodied feet came into view. Her eyes followed the length of the prisoner’s form, up soiled pants, a torn shirt, a chest rising and falling, landing on his dirt stained, and blood-crusted profile.
Nadia brought both knees closer to her body and tucked her skirt under her legs, yet only managed to hide half of herself in the shadows.
The prisoner scanned over his left shoulder towards 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 Nadia. Her skin burned, yet her blood ran cold. In that short moment, something passed between them. What exactly? Nadia 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 out and turned it so the blade sat flush against the bottom of his forearm. Chest raised, shoulders stiff, he stepped wide to create an invisible half-circle.
The prisoner shifted, taking a wide stance. With hands still hiding behind him, he fixed his feet to the floor, back knee in a slight bend.
The large guard still lay on the floor, moaning as he watched the scene with crumpled eyes.
Without warning, Red lunged forward.
Torchlight glinted off the blade.
Nadia’s body tensed.
Flicking the rope out, the prisoner struck Red across the face with a thwack.
Red flinched, giving his captive the opportunity to step inside his guard.
The prisoner clamped both hands around Red’s knife arm.
Pressing his shoulder into Red’s chest, the prisoner forced his opponent’s upper arm into the nook of his elbow.
When the captive pushed back against Red’s forearm, Red gritted his teeth as he tried to break free. Spittle wet his chin and the strain on his face distorted his features.
In the shadows near the cell, the large guard shifted.
Nadia stopped herself from calling out a warning.
The captive widened his stance, groaning against his opponent’s resistance.
Red’s face turned a frightening shade of crimson.
They were like that for some time, pushing against one another. For a moment, the captive almost lost his balance, but a sudden burst of strength resulted in him driving his strength into Red’s forearm, forcing it back.
Nadia’s stomach clenched when a sickening snap sounded.
Red screamed. His knife clanked on the floor.
The prisoner, still holding Red’s upper arm, kicked the back of his ankle, dropping his opponent onto his back. He straddled him, sending a rain of fists down 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 eyes flicked to the large guard approaching them with a hobbled walk. Murder flashed in his narrowed 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.
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.
As she walked past the cell, her eyes fell upon the prisoner. Poor thing. 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 sedation the guards had given him? Maybe both.
The prisoner moved, letting out a moan. He tensed his shoulders and shifted again before his head lifted and his blackened and bruised eyes shot open.
Nadia stepped back 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 out of them.
She’d prayed they’d leave him alone. Prayed his painful cries would cease. But they didn’t. The guards were 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 his skin was stained a frightening shade of red. 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 poor man looked like under it all.
He shifted to an upright position. Nadia’s heart thumped a rapid beat. All her will to move diminished under his intense gaze. For a long time, he just stared at her, barely blinking, as though he’d seen a ghost.
Finally, his bloodied and cracked lips formed into a smile. “You again.”
His odd expression sent a chill through her. Why did he appear cheerful and so…unphased? Dumbfounded, Nadia could only stare at him. She swallowed what felt like a sharp-edged stone. She opened her mouth to think of something to say, but her mind refused to help her form words.
“Water,” he finally gasped after a drawn-out silence.
Nadia peeled her eyes away 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 as dry as paper, as though she too felt his thirst. “I’m sorry.”
She twisted the fabric of her skirt. Nadia met the prisoner’s jovial grin, yet his pained eyes weakened her knees, but she could not help him. Would not help him. This was dangerous. He might be dangerous. Whatever this was, it was beyond her.
As though he read her thoughts, he said, “I won’t harm you.” He took in a sharp breath and grimaced. Straining, the prisoner heaved himself to his feet and took several 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 eyes flicked to the lock. “Find the key. And water. Don’t forget the water.”
Nadia nodded even though she knew she would not return.
His smile widened.
She shivered under his menacing gaze.
Aware of her cowardice and disgusted by the false promise she’d just given this man, Nadia backed away from the cell then ran down the passageway.
When she rounded the corner and reached the base of the steps, she could have sworn she heard his sobs mixed with manic laughter.