Home > Iron and Magic (The Iron Covenant #1)(10)

Iron and Magic (The Iron Covenant #1)(10)
Author: Ilona Andrews

The undead bolted for the safety of the ribbons, aiming for the gap between two trees.

She released her magic in a cold rush, stepped in front of the vampire, and caught the abomination by its shoulders. Her power clutched it. The hunger clawed at her from the inside. She bared her teeth.

The undead’s red eyes sparked with a new, brighter fire – the navigator controlling the vampire had bailed. The sudden death of an undead could turn the navigator into a human vegetable. Those who reached the rank of Master knew when to let go.

The undead flailed, but it was too late. Elara found the small hot spark of magic within it and swallowed it. She could almost imagine tasting it on her tongue, as if it were a delicious morsel, and for a long moment she savored it.

The vampire went limp. Elara opened her arms, and the sack of dried flesh and bone that once used to be a human body, then an undead, and now was neither, collapsed to the forest floor.

Too little, the hunger howled inside her. More. More!

She chained it again with a brutal effort of will and forced it back into the dark place she kept it.

Horses.

Elara turned. She was only a few feet away from the narrow ribbon of the road that ran through the woods. Run or sneak a peek? Was there even a choice?

She stepped back a dozen yards, behind a wide old oak, climbed the low hanging branches, and settled above the ground, melting into the shadows among the foliage, as if she were one with them.

Riders approached.

The leading man was tall and dark-haired. That matched Dugas’ description.

Her magic splayed out, masking her.

Do not see me.

The man halted his big white horse and turned toward her.

She couldn’t see his face from this distance. She couldn’t feel his magic either, but he had some, she was sure of it.

Do not see me.

Elara couldn’t see his eyes, but all her senses told her he was staring straight at her. An excited shiver ran down her spine.

She was a complete and utter idiot, she decided. Sitting here, hiding like a child afraid to get caught. Well, at least it’s good to be self-aware.

He gave the forest another long look and rode on.

Elara slipped from the tree and dashed back to the castle.

A few minutes later she stepped past the gates, straightened her long green dress, and checked her hair. Something skittered under her fingers. Elara plucked it from the long braid coiled at her neck. A spider. She walked out the gates and gently set it on the grass.

The spider escaped. She wished she could too. Anxiety flooded her. It’s just nerves, she told herself.

Elara walked up the steps to the wall and touched the druid’s shoulder. He turned, his brown eyes somber.

“I told you I would make it.”

He shook his head. “I know you don’t want to do this…”

“I don’t. But I’ll do it for my people.”

Her people. She knew every single one of them. She was the reason they bounced back and forth across the country, desperately trying to find a place to call home only to be run off again and again. They deserved a home. This was their land, and she had to do everything in her power to protect it. Perhaps d’Ambray wouldn’t prove too much of a problem.

“We could…”

“Pick up and leave again? No.” She shook her head. “You said it yourself, we’ve been here too long. This is home now. I’m not going to uproot us again. Not for this.”

They were done running. She wouldn’t let Nez win.

A group of riders broke free of the canopy and rode up the road toward the gates at a canter. She clenched her hands together. This was ridiculous. She had nothing to be nervous about. She could pull the plug at any time.

The riders grew closer.

Elara nodded at the leader on the white horse. “Is that him?”

“Yes.”

Hugh d’Ambray was huge. The stallion underneath him was massive, but the man matched the horse. He had to be well over six feet tall. Wide shoulders. Long limbs. Very lean. Almost as if he should’ve been thirty pounds or so heavier. Dugas did say they were starving.

Starved or not, he looked like he could hold the drawbridge of a castle by himself.

It was suddenly very real. I don’t want to do this.

“You want me to marry Conan the Barbarian?” A drop of acid slid into her tone.

“An attractive barbarian,” Dugas pointed out.

“I suppose so, if you’re looking at it from a purely animalistic point of view.”

Dugas chuckled.

“Is his horse glowing?” She squinted at the stallion. If you looked just right, there was a hint of something protruding from its forehead, like a shimmer of hot air.

“It appears so.”

They made a striking image, she admitted. The horse that was glowing with silver and the rider, all in black, his dark hair falling to his shoulders. But she wasn’t interested in striking images.

“He’s been here two minutes, and already he’s riding like he owns everything he sees.”

“He very likely always rides that way. Men like him project confidence. It’s what makes others follow them into battle.”

“Violent others.”

“We agreed that we needed skilled violent soldiers with broad backs,” Dugas said. “His back is broad enough.”

The breadth of d’Ambray’s back wasn’t the problem.

She spared a few moments for his people. Two men rode directly behind him, one tall and black, with glasses perching on his nose, and the other athletic and white, with short brown hair and an attractive, smart face. The rider behind them was just a boy, blond and tan. Why bring a boy?

Wolves coming to her door.

The riders reached the gates. D’Ambray raised his head and looked up.

His eyes were a deep dark blue, and they stared through her. She held his stare.

Most women would find him handsome. He had a strong face, overwhelmingly masculine without a hint of the brutish thickness she’d expected. His jaw was square and strong, the lines of his face defined but not sharp or fragile, and his eyes under a sweep of thick black eyebrows were too shrewd and too cold for comfort. His eyes evaluated her with icy calculation.

She was about to share the power over her people with this man. Alarm squirmed through her. This was a bad idea. A terrible idea.

D’Ambray passed through the gate and out of her view.

“I shouldn’t do this,” Elara whispered to herself.

“Do you want me to send them off?” Dugas asked quietly.

If she said yes, he would.

She had to get a grip. She had to teach d’Ambray who she was. The White Warlock. Unclean. Cursed. An abomination. They would come to this meeting table as equals, and if they chose an alliance, she had to make sure they left as equals.

The magic escaped the world without so much as a whisper, stealing her power. That was fine. She didn’t need magic to make Hugh d’Ambray understand where they stood.

“Let’s wait to throw him out until he balks at our terms.”

“Do you want them in the great hall?” the druid asked.

“No.” She narrowed her eyes. “Put them in the green room. Next to the kitchens.”

The air smelled like fresh bread, just out of the oven, with a crisp golden crust. Hugh’s mouth watered, while his stomach begged. Clever girl.

He once starved a woman to the brink of death, trying to break her. Poetic justice, he reflected.

“The castle is in good shape,” Stoyan said softly behind him.

The castle was in excellent shape. It was built with pale grayish-brown stone. The forty-foot-high curtain wall and the massive barbican, the gatehouse protecting the entrance, were both solid, as were the two bastion towers at the corners and the two flanking towers. The bailey, the open space inside the walls, was clean and well maintained. He didn’t see a well, but they must have one. The inner structure consisted of a constellation of buildings hugging the main keep, a hundred-foot-tall square tower. He caught a glimpse of the stables and the motor pool, attached to the east wall. The electric lamps suggested they had a working generator.

The place was massive. It needed a moat. Something he would have to remedy.

A large molosser dog trotted in through the open door, wagging its shaggy white tail. He’d seen three so far as they rode up and walked through the bailey, each dog over a hundred and twenty pounds. They reminded him of Karakachan hounds he’d come across in the Balkans. The dog wandered over to him and Hugh patted its shaggy head. Karakachans were wolf killers. If Lamar was right about the size of their livestock herds, the dogs made sense. The castle and the town attached to the shore of the lake were wrapped in dense forest. There would be wolves there.

   
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