Home > Iron and Magic (The Iron Covenant #1)(11)

Iron and Magic (The Iron Covenant #1)(11)
Author: Ilona Andrews

The inside of the castle was as well taken care of as the outside. The room where he now sat at a big rustic table was simple, the stone walls without any decoration, but it was clean, his chair was comfortable, and the temperature inside was at least ten degrees cooler. Nice thick walls.

All Hugh had to do now was convince the owner of the castle to let him share it. He’d gotten a glimpse of her as he rode in. Her hair was completely white. Not pale blond or bleached platinum, white. Her hazel eyes were sharp, and she looked at him like she saw a wolf at her door. He wasn’t a wolf. He was something much worse, but he needed her defendable castle and her delicious bread.

Hugh had tried to pin down her age, but the white hair threw him off. Her face looked young, but he’d barely seen anything beyond a glimpse.

Hugh leaned back. She was making him wait. That was fine. He could be patient.

Behind him someone’s stomach growled.

He’d felt something in the forest, on the way here. Something that raised the hair on the back of his neck. He’d tangled with powers across three continents, and whatever had been in the woods had tripped all of his alarms. Then it had moved toward the castle and he’d nudged Bucky into a canter, trying to follow it.

His gaze stopped on a large hand-painted map above the side door, showing Berry Hill in the center, by the edge of the Silver River Lake, with the castle on the neighboring hill. On the right and slightly above, to the northeast, lay Aberdine, another small post-Shift settlement, next to a ley point. Higher still, past the woods, directly north, spread Sanderville. Above it in the distance on the far left was Lexington.

Hugh looked at Aberdine. Post-Shift, magic streamed through the world in currents, ley lines, offering a fast way of travel and shipping. Walking into the current would get your legs cut off, so you had to put some barrier between the magic and yourself, a car, a wooden pallet, anything would do. Once in, the ley line would drag its rider off until it reached a ley point, where the magic blinked, interrupted, and the current would jettison its riders out into the real world. There was only one road connecting the castle and that ley point and it ran through Aberdine. They would have to play nice with that settlement.

The heavy wooden door opened, and she walked in, followed by a one-eyed older man in a white robe, a black woman in her late forties in a pantsuit, and a petite blonde.

Hugh tilted his head and took in his future bride.

Somewhere between twenty-five and thirty. A loose green dress fell almost to the floor, hiding most of her. Nice full breasts. Long legs. Pretty features, big eyes, small mouth, eyebrows darker than her hair, pale brown – probably drawn in or dyed. Tan skin, almost golden. Interesting face. Not exactly beautiful, but feminine and pretty.

A cold expression stamped her face, a hint of arrogance, some pride, and a lot of confidence. There was something regal about her. Queen of the castle.

She would be a massive pain in the ass.

Just get through it.

Hugh rose to his feet. She held out her hand.

“Elara Harper.” Her voice matched her, cold and precise.

He grasped her fingers in his and shook her hand. “Hugh d’Ambray.”

“Nice to meet you.” She sat in the chair opposite him.

Her advisors arranged themselves behind her.

“You already know Dugas,” she said.

He didn’t, but Lamar told him the druid was his counterpart, “a voice of reason.” Someone had sliced up the older man’s face. Hugh met his gaze. Dugas held his stare and smiled. A tough nut to crack.

“This is Savannah LeBlanc.”

The black woman nodded to him. Expensive clothes, professional, well put together, her dark natural hair pulled back from her face and twisted into an elegant bun. She looked like a lawyer. Hugh met her gaze. A witch, a powerful one. He couldn’t feel her magic with tech up, but he’d interacted with enough of them to recognize the bearing. Bad news.

“She is the head witch of our covens,” Elara continued.

Covens. Plural. Interesting.

“This is Johanna Kerry.”

The blond smiled at him. She had to be in her twenties, but to him she looked too young, almost a teenager. Barely five feet tall, slender, glasses. Petite smart blonds were Stoyan’s kryptonite.

Her hand flew up to her forehead, thumb pressed against her palm in a kind of a salute. “Hello.”

She was deaf or mute. Possibly both. His knowledge of American Sign Language was rusty. ASL had its own rules and grammar, but he remembered the basics.

He raised his hands and signed. “Lovely day.”

Johanna’s eyebrows rose. “Interesting.”

Interesting was the right word. He would have to work on his gestures.

Hugh introduced his people. “Stoyan, Centurion of the First Century. Lamar, Centurion of the Second Century. And Sam. He’s here to assess the horses.”

Savannah moved to the side, so Johanna could keep them both in her view, and signed as he spoke. Her hands moved fast. She clearly didn’t need any practice.

Another blond woman in jeans and a T-shirt slipped into the room through the side door. She was young and pretty, and she looked at him a moment too long.

“Can I get you anything?”

“Iced tea, please, Caitlyn,” Elara said.

“Yes, ma’am.”

The woman ducked into the doorway.

“You need an army,” Hugh said. “We need a base.”

She nodded. “You have an army, and I have a base.”

So far they were in agreement.

“Shall we talk terms?” she asked. “What do you need from us?”

“My people will need barracks, rations, and equipment,” he said.

“That’s reasonable,” she said.

“They aren’t farmers. They won’t be tending the fields or milking your cows. They won’t assist your people in daily tasks unless it’s an emergency.”

She raised her eyebrows. “So what will they be doing all day?”

“They will patrol the grounds. They will drill, perform PT, repair and fortify the castle, and take care of any external threats we will face.”

He slipped that ‘we’ in there. The sooner she saw them as allies, the sooner he would get his people fed.

“PT?” she asked.

“Physical training. You are hiring us as employees with specific jobs. We must be free to do those jobs.”

“I’m picturing three hundred people lying about, eating my food, and drinking my beer all day,” Elara said.

“Only when they are off duty. They will patrol the castle and the outer perimeter in shifts, and if they do choose to drink beer in their off hours, they will pay for it. Which brings me to another point. They will need to be paid.”

Elara leaned back. “You expect me to feed them, clothe them, equip them, and pay them?”

“Yes. I expect them to put themselves between you and danger.”

“If we paid each of your people $500 per month, the bill would come to $150,000 per month. If we had that kind of money, I would hire mercenaries. I wouldn’t have to stoop to this farce of a marriage.”

Stoop? Oh really. “When Nez slaughters your people like cattle, and you walk among their corpses, inhaling their blood, you should tell them that.”

Elara drew back. “I’ve taken care of my people until now. I’ll take care of Nez without you.”

“I can take this castle with twenty people,” Hugh said. “I can burn it to the ground, or I can kill all of you and take it.”

She leaned forward, her eyes fixed on him, icy with rage. “Try it.”

He leaned toward her. “I can do this, because my people are professional soldiers. You will treat them like soldiers.”

“We don’t need you.”

“Yes, you do. I saw Nez a month ago. He’s coming.”

The blond Caitlyn appeared in the doorway. Savannah took the pitcher from her hands, waved her off, and set the tea on the table.

Elara’s eyes narrowed. “And I should take your word for it?”

“Yes.”

“The word of a man who betrays his friends?”

“The word of a man who is willing to marry you with all of your baggage. I don’t see a line of suitors outside this door, do you?”

   
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