The cart Lissandra rode in rattled over a barren hill, crossed a ridge, and descended into a forested valley. A smudge of smoke hovered over the treetops below, blocking the scenic view.
Her heart skipped a beat. For the first time in four years, she could feel Murdoch’s presence. He’d been part of her life since childhood. No matter how much her memories hurt, no matter what people told her, she couldn’t stifle this unwarranted longing to see him again. The man Ian had described had lost the laughter in his eyes and become a fountain of hostility. Had he grown worse since Ian had left him nearly two years ago?
She was about to find out. He was down there somewhere, although the dynamic life force that had so fascinated her since childhood was oddly banked.
Considering the lightning and explosive fireworks he’d set off to cause her father’s death, the smoke shrouding the forest did not bode well. The horrific memory shredded her thin confidence.
“The village is through the forest, near a lake,” the driver told her as he clicked his mule past a tumble of boulders that looked as if the gods had heaved them there in a Herculean tantrum. “It is usually a pretty picture this time of year.”
At the bottom of the hill, the driver rolled the cart off the main road and took a meandering dirt lane through scorched fields, skirting the still-smoldering forest.
“It is a miracle anyone survived the fire,” the driver said. “Lightning struck the woods that terrible day. We’ve had a dry spring, and the sparks set fire to the weeds and spread to the wheat straw that our young men hadn’t been home to plow. The flames carried across the fields, then leaped to the roofs. They lost only one bedridden old woman. They would have lost more had it not been for the stranger.”
Lissandra sensed the presence that ought to be Murdoch. But his essence seemed to be a mere cinder of the white-hot heat she remembered. Or perhaps, she thought acidly, he’d burned out his rage on a village. That would be typical of the dangerous man he’d become. She had no illusion that the lightning had natural origins, not with Murdoch in the vicinity.
“What stranger?” she asked, if only to prove her theory.
“He gives us no name, so the priest calls him Abel. Old women call him a saint, but they are romantic fools. I call a man who is strong and skilled enough to drive off half a dozen thieves a warrior, not a saint. He was only passing through, but those he saved claim he single-handedly fought a troop of deserting thieves before the storm struck. They went on, but he stayed to fight the fire, and now he is helping the village rebuild.”
Murdoch. It had to be Murdoch, although she could make little sense of his actions. With his gifts, he could have ruled all France. Was she wrong and the spirits had not descended on him? If so, what must she do?
As the old mule ambled around a bend, Lissandra calmed her growing panic by admiring a row of sunflowers emerging along the edge of a field sprouting new green wheat where smoke still smoldered. How could life return so quickly to the scorched earth?
It couldn’t. Unless an Aelynn Agrarian lived here. Murdoch had never shown any talent in that direction—although he did have destructive earth skills. Had he found an Agrarian Crossbreed here? One who might be responsible for the rapid new growth? Had he found a Crossbreed wife, as Ian and Trystan had? Lissandra clasped her fingers tighter and focused on doing her duty.
She’d told the driver that her husband had taken ill along this road, and she required a man to drive her from town to town so she might seek him. If Murdoch was married, a public encounter could prove embarrassing. “Where do those who were burned out live now?” she inquired to prevent her thoughts from straying.
“Most share the cottages that survived the fire. Others live among the ruins.” The driver shrugged. “We are too poor to own land, and these days, who knows who is responsible for repairing the houses? Our landlords have fled France. Our so-called leaders argue in Paris, telling us we must pay tithes to a church that no longer exists and rents to a government that cannot help us. They send deputies from the Tribunal to make certain we do not complain as we pay. Good Bretons rise up in arms against the patriotic Guards, but here, in this village”—he shrugged again—“we simply wish a roof over our heads.”
She had seen the soldiers—the National Guards—in Pouchay, heard that angry villagers throughout Brittany had risen up in revolt against them, but she had not yet seen an outbreak of the violence that she could feel simmering across the land.
As they approached the village, she could see burned-out shells of stone houses, their ancient thatching gone, their contents scorched beyond repair. She was relieved she’d reached her journey’s end, but this disaster crippled her hope that Murdoch had miraculously changed and thus earned the regard of the gods.
Despite the temptation, she refused to turn back without personally confronting her nemesis. Dreading the encounter, she picked at her cloak and scanned the street in search of his familiar form.
“Do you know who I might talk to?” She glanced at the two-story inn ahead. The fire hadn’t reached its tall roof, although the whitewash on its lower walls was blackened with soot.
“You may need to offer coin for answers,” the driver said. “They are isolated here and not likely to speak with strangers.”
She had exchanged her pearls for a purse of coins at a moneylender’s, as she’d learned to do from Mariel. Using her Empathy to judge the moneylender’s greed had resulted in a fair trade, but avoiding the thieves who had followed her had been daunting. Aelynn law required she not cause harm or display her supernatural abilities in this world. But just thinking that an Olympus of Aelynn was reduced to hiding from miscreants because of an irresponsible bastard like Murdoch deepened her anger and resentment.
She produced the small silver coin Trystan had said would buy almost anything. “Is this enough?”
The driver nodded curtly. “Do not display more than one. The world is full of thieves.”
She shuddered, knowing the truth of that. In just two days, she’d had thieves attack her for the coins she carried and seen the fire damage caused by deserters. If deprivation drove people to such levels, what would become of Aelynn should its crops continue to fail, or the volcano continue to spew its deadly lava?
As they drew closer, she could see a man in a neat blue uniform lounging at the tavern door, watching her arrival with suspicion, reminding her that this village was not any safer than the port she’d left behind. She had already discovered that uniforms did not mean security.
Also noticing the soldier, her driver spit on the ground and guided his cart down an alley, out of sight of the main street. “There are committees for everything these days. Here, they send the Committee of Public Safety to conscript our men,” he explained with bitterness. “In the name of the Revolution, they have been licensed with the power of life and death, but they do naught except harass the innocent when they should be fighting for our country. It does not matter who you are—they will ask for your documents. Do not go near them if you’re alone.”
Having no documents to show, Lissandra found it far simpler to travel unobtrusively and pray no one noticed her. It had worked thus far, but it wouldn’t if she stayed in any one place for very long.
Her driver pointed to a row of attached stone houses covered in soot and scorched in places, but relatively intact in comparison with those on the main street. “The widow Girard is a respectable woman with a young son she raises alone. Tell her Luc sent you.”
Lissandra handed him a coin and let him assist her from the cart. Given that she had the strength to knock the driver over with a slap, Lissandra found the custom quaint. But she had spent a lifetime disguising her inner self while studying others. She was an adept student.
An Oracle must be cold and harsh to be heeded, she heard her mother say. An Oracle must be superior to those she would lead. And so with discipline and hard work, Lissandra had made herself superior, which had put her on a lonely pedestal. Now that she’d stepped down, it seemed practical to be unassuming—provided she was offered no provocation to act otherwise.
The widow Girard was a small wren of a woman who checked the alley before opening her door. “There are too many prying eyes these days,” she whispered after Lissandra introduced herself. “They seek spies and traitors around every corner. And the elders whisper of witches and demons.”
Lissandra had no understanding of the subject or any interest in it, but she listened politely until she was offered an opportunity to speak. “I seek the stranger that Luc tells me has recently arrived. I had word my husband was ill along this road, and I hope the stranger might tell me of his whereabouts.”
“The stranger is everywhere,” the widow claimed, with a broad sweep of her hand. “He never rests. He is in the fields when we rise, and hauling broom for thatch when we go to bed. He fights the fires that linger in the peat fields.”
Lissandra found it hard to fathom a warrior like Murdoch building instead of destroying, but she decided to reserve judgment. “Where does he sleep?” Or, when does he sleep? might be a better question if she was to believe one man could do all that the widow claimed.
The woman shrugged. “No one knows. You might ask at the church. The priest has been staying there to guard the statues from the thieving deserters who hide in the woods.”
After obtaining directions to the church, Lissandra began her search. She prayed that it was her smoke-filled surroundings and her need to block the villagers’ belligerent emotions that prevented her from sensing Murdoch clearly. If she let down her shields, the grief and hatred spilling from an entire town would incapacitate her.
When she saw no one at the church, she set out along the back ways into the countryside, following her meager Finding instinct. She’d been warned that wolves and wild boars still roamed this wilderness, but she sensed few creatures of any size except some men in the distance—where her instincts told her she would find Murdoch.
Taking a deep breath to steady her ragged nerves now that she was so close to her objective, she entered the edge of the woodland.
As if a fire-breathing dragon lurked in the shadows under the trees, a cloud of smoke engulfed her, and she coughed. Curse the gods, but this was worse than climbing the volcano’s slope. She could feel the heat through the soles of her shoes.
A rabbit dashed across her foot. She tripped and caught her balance on a tall standing stone. The rock was so hot, she quickly withdrew her palm before it burned.
She dragged her gown up from where it tangled her feet, and held the fabric in her hands, using her Aelynn strength to stride faster. She doubted anyone could see her abnormal speed in this murk, and her lungs would appreciate a hasty departure.
A geyser of fire flamed upward through the layers of decaying vegetation on the side of the road. Startled, she halted. Was Murdoch out there, warning her to leave?
The devil she would.
Determined, she marched on, coughing harder in the thickening smoke. She would have this confrontation done with. The setting might be ominous, but it was certainly fitting—
A demon shot through the smoke at inhuman speed. Lissandra glimpsed only a blur of broad, filthy bare chest before iron arms tackled her waist. She shrieked as the creature tore her heels from the ground and tumbled with her into the ashes on the far side of the lane.
Another fiery geyser spewed into the air on the spot where she’d just been standing.
Muttered curses assaulted her ears. With bare arms propped on either side of her head and muscular thighs pinning her legs, the demon prevented her escape. In shock, Lissandra closed her eyes and screamed at this smothering male proximity. Her attacker covered her mouth with his hand.
Refusing to surrender, she locked her mental shields against any emotional assault and shoved at broad—naked—shoulders, with the intent of flinging her assailant into the air with her superior strength. Beneath her palms she encountered the grit of soot and ash and the powerful play of muscles, but no matter how much strength she applied, her attacker merely beat the ground with his fist.
The ground trembled. She opened her eyes in terror.
And watched the geyser of fire die.
Cursing tonelessly in several languages with phrases so vivid they scorched her ears, her attacker trapped her between his bulging arms, glared down at her through the smoke, and, after only a moment’s hesitation, covered her mouth with his.
Stunned by this invasion of her sacred person, Lissandra grabbed the monster’s arms and tried to pry him away. She kicked and struggled, but her screams were smothered by lips so commanding she almost forgot to fight.
She did forget to fight. Senselessly, she clung to the strong support of his arms and kissed him back. Or maybe not so senselessly. This kiss lived inside her heart…
…and her memories. She had dreamed of this kiss so long.…
His mouth tasted of strong wine, his beard bristles chafed her skin, and the heavy desire consuming them erased rational thought. She parted her lips at her assailant’s insistence, drank his breath into her lungs, mated her tongue with his, and almost burst into flames.
Only when all the alarms clamoring in the back of her mind merged did sense return. With a cry of outrage, Lissandra summoned her strength and brought up her knee.
The confounded skirts hindered her effectiveness. Before she could emasculate the bastard, he rolled off her. Lying flat on his back, he stared at the leaves above them, loudly repeating his curses of earlier.
Undeterred, Lissandra turned on her side and glared into the piratical unshaven features she knew too well. Rising up on one arm, she smashed her fist into his iron-hewn abdomen. He merely oofed and grabbed her elbow, pulling her off-balance and across his bare torso.
“By all the gods in this universe and the next,” he roared, “this is the most asinine, ridiculous, inane, spectacularly stupid behavior I’ve yet encountered! What the devil was Ian thinking to send you here?”
Three more fiery geysers burst from the earth’s floor.
Lissandra had found Murdoch.