by Brian W. Foster
Auggie perched on the edge of a bed in the officer quarters. The low frame caused his knees to jut toward his chest, and the angle made it hard for him to balance his plate. Still, he cut each bite with his knife and fork and chewed each dainty mouthful deliberately instead of wolfing down the roast chicken and vegetables.
Alaina sat at a writing desk pushing food around with her utensils. They hadn’t exchanged more than a few words since he carried her from the camp, and, to him, the silence hung over the room like an oppressive fog. It didn’t appear to bother her.
He made several attempts to talk to her but closed his mouth without making a sound each time as words failed to materialize. When she finally spoke, her eyes didn’t move from the plate, and he started. His plate crashed to the floor, and the stoneware shattered.
“Why are you going through this much trouble over me?”
Auggie cleared his throat. “I will not let him get away with treating my citizens—”
“I’m not one of yours. I come from Hoyna.”
She turned to him, her eyes weary. “Cut the crap. Tell me.”
He didn’t know what she wanted to hear.
“I’m not stupid. Even with me trying to hide, men see my face and desire me. I’ll not be one of your dalliances.”
He recoiled from her stinging accusation. “My lady—”
“Stop calling me that!” She shoved the food away and buried her head in her arms atop the table.
He reached a hand toward her but dropped it before making contact. “Is it a crime to find you attractive? Does appreciation for beauty preclude me from acting against injustice?”
Her head snapped up, and she gestured at the bed. “You bring me here and claim that? You think me stupid? That I don’t know what you expect?”
He leaned away from her. “My la… I mean.…”
“I see what you’re about. I’ll never escape this fort. These soldiers will have no choice but to turn me over to that man.” Alaina stood, placing her hands on her hips. “Is this sport for you? You rescue me in the dead of night and get a rush? Now you’ll bed me without worry of your seed taking. I’ll be dead.” She raised her fists toward him. “I’ll not let you take me easily.”
If not for the horror he felt, Auggie would have laughed at her threat. As he struggled to find his voice, two long raps sounded on the door followed by a pause and a quick tap. He opened it, and Benj thrust a pile of clothes at him before marching away at a quick pace. Auggie tossed the garments to Alaina.
“It’s your outfit for the next phase of our trip. Your dress is ill suited for riding and already threadbare.” He stepped toward the corridor. “I’d suggest I simply turn my back while you change, since I seek to avoid notice, but I know how little you trust me.” Sad, he closed the door behind him.
A minute stretched into five before the door opened again, and he gaped at the sight of her profile. How does Benj do it? The clothes fit perfectly. Her long blond hair hung in a braid down her back. Brown leather trousers hugged the contour of her hips. Her jacket, while covering her completely, emphasized everything in just the right way. Benj won’t mistake her for a boy now.
She blushed at his stare.
Auggie grabbed his cloak from the bed and tossed it to her. It covered her like a blanket, and she mumbled thanks.
He sat on the bed. “Are you ready to listen?”
“The fort wasn’t a great option. There’s a chance we’ll not be able to get you out of here. I’m counting on surprise and being able to pull rank.”
“Then why did we come?”
“Our horses were already road-weary from a week of hard traveling. With us riding double, there was no way we were going to escape. Our only shot is remounts.”
She blushed. “You probably think I owe you an apology.”
Auggie had enough experience with women to not agree to such a statement. “There is no need. I’ve met your duke. Reid Macias is an odious man. I can only guess the trouble he makes for his subjects.”
Her nostrils flared. “You arrogant jerk. I owe you nothing! I told you to leave me be.”
Auggie looked away, grasping for words. “I had to. If not for me, you wouldn’t be in this mess.”
“Stop trying to take responsibility for me.” Her eyes darted about the room, not lighting on anything. “I refused the advances of Raymon Macias. He put a bounty on me—a hundred gold for me alive, ten for me dead.”
Auggie smashed a fist into his open palm. “I swear, my, uh, Alaina, I will not let him have you.”
“But that’s what you should do. Let him have me!” She gestured at her new clothes. “I didn’t ask for any of this.”
“How can you say that? You have allies now. Powerful ones. I’ll take you back to Asherton and protect you.”
“How?” She held up a hand. “Forget the question. I don’t want your help.”
“Alaina, listen to me. I’m your only chance.” Auggie met her eyes. “Are you really so willing to give up your life?”
“I just want this to be over, but.…” She sighed and looked away. “Tell me your plan.”
“There are many places to stash someone. Apartments. Estates away from the City.”
She sipped her wine. “Seems like a lot of trouble for you to go through to find a servant. Did my skills with a broom impress you so?”
“Maybe as more than a servant.”
She slammed the cup onto the table, splashing red liquid onto the wood. “We’re back to that again, are we? I’ll not be your mistress, even at the cost of my life.”
He threw up his hands. “Why is that always your first thought? I understand you have only the worst impression of dukes and their sons, but can’t you judge me on my own merit?”
She eyed him from head to toe, taking another sip from the cup. “What, then, is your intention?”
“I simply want to get to know you better. Maybe, eventually, if we’re both ready—perhaps it could lead to courting.”
Alaina spit out the wine. “Courting?” She hopped to her feet. “Are you mad? I’m a peasant. You’re to be duke.”
“I’m not saying it’s a definite thing, just leaving the possibility open.” He paused to gather his thoughts. “You’re seeing a huge barrier to us being together if that’s what we both want. There isn’t one.”
Her eyebrows arched.
“It started with my great-great-grandfather. He had an arranged marriage to a woman he hated. One day, his son came to him, eyes downcast and hat in hand, to announce he’d fallen in love with a peasant girl. He expected the duke to rail about it or to threaten exile or even to give the duchy to a younger sibling. Instead, the duke started a tradition my family upholds to this day by saying, ‘We give our lives to the land. No longer will we give our loves. Marry whom you will.’”
The door swung open, revealing Benj faking a yawn. “You told her that story? I’m surprised she hasn’t turned to bones waiting for you to finish. Now, get a move on, the colonel’s ordered the gate opened to parley with the catcher.”
* * *
Auggie hoisted Alaina onto a dappled mare as the dawning sun made its presence known above the covering clouds. “You can ride, right?”
She adjusted herself in the saddle and grabbed the reins. “Well enough.”
At the edge of the courtyard, Benj sat atop his mount in the deep shadows. Alaina clicked her tongue and tapped her heels against the horse’s side. The animal shot forward until she eased it to a stop beside him. Auggie chuckled and joined them.
The rain slackened to occasional drips, and two bonfires lit the area around the gate. Soldiers scurried like ants. While bowmen on the walkway above nocked arrows, pikemen guarded the ground level, and the colonel watched the portcullis inch upward.
With the iron spikes at the bottom of the gate still lower than Auggie’s head, Benj held his arm high above him. He dropped his hand and urged his horse to a gallop. Alaina and Auggie followed.
Their mad dash forced two blue-and-gold-liveried men to dive from their path, and the trio veered right to avoid trampling the colonel. Benj and Alaina cleared the gate unhindered while Auggie ducked.
Numbering fourteen, the catcher’s men stood outside. Benj caught one of them with a kick as he passed, and Auggie copied the measure. He laughed as the other black-liveried men impotently waved swords after them.
His mirth disappeared when the catcher’s men quickly mounted. The first galloped after the trio a mere thirty yards behind.
Auggie moved his horse close to Benj’s. “What now?”
They shared a look and nodded at the same time.
“The clearing,” Benj said.
The hard clay of the road provided stable footing despite the water, so Auggie gave his beast his head. He fairly felt breath on the back of his neck as the fleetest of the catcher’s men halved the gap. At least only a couple of them traveled that fast, spreading them into a long line.
Benj pulled close with Auggie. “We cut south in a few miles and need distance between us and our pursuers first. Slow so the horses can rest.”
The tactic allowed the scattered black-liveried men to bunch. Their numbers making them brave, they closed to within striking distance. Cursing their tenacity, Auggie swiped at the ones in front with his huge broadsword, and they fell back. The three rounded a curve leading by a scant ten yards. A hill loomed above the road a half mile ahead.
“Now!” Benj shouted.
Foam covering the neck and shoulder of his mount, Auggie urged his tired horse onward. The maneuver surprised the chasers. Upon reaching the top of the rise, he and his friends had opened a lead of forty yards. The road disappeared around a curve ahead.
With Alaina close behind, Auggie followed Benj onto a trail on the left. He looked back. Several of the catcher’s men darted past the opening before realizing their targets had not continued on the road. The confusion gave Auggie’s group the space they needed.
The path took them to the clearing where thirty of the duke’s soldiers held horse thieves at sword point. The blue-and-gold-liveried men stirred to action at the sight of the approaching riders. Several, including the apparent commanding officer, broke off to intercept the group.
With his two companions close behind, Auggie reined to a stop just shy of the soldiers. “Lieutenant, we’re being pursued. By order of the crown, delay them!”
The soldiers lowered weapons to salute, and Benj and Alaina darted past them into the woods. Leaving comically stunned expressions in their wake, Auggie followed before the officer had time to say a word.
The catcher would be able to bully his way free, but it would take time. Auggie hoped it would be enough to ensure the success of his plan. It will be. It has to be.
For fifteen minutes, they slowed to a crawl through thick forest before the terrain opened. A hard gallop over open ground with sparse trees brought them to the top of a rocky outcrop where Benj dismounted.
He unloaded his saddlebags and draped them over his shoulder, motioning for the others to do the same. Walking behind a bush, he dumped the contents. After each was empty, he filled them with stones.
Alaina hesitated at discarding her dress. “What are we doing?”
Benj tied the weighted bags to his saddle and slapped the horse’s backside. “The hope is that our pursuers will follow the tracks without giving this cliff a second glance. That’s what Auggie and I did.”
“But why the rocks?”
Benj lowered himself to sit on the edge of the precipice with his legs dangling. “A good tracker can judge how much weight a horse carries by the depth of a hoof print. We don’t want the lack of riders to be obvious.” He disappeared below the ledge.
Standing well back, Auggie peeked over the side. As the morning progressed, the sun burned through the layer of clouds, and the light revealed a dense hardwood forest stretching for miles.
Two hundred feet directly below, a wide expanse of jagged rocks waited to impale a careless climber. This is a bad idea.
Several minutes later, Benj made it to the quarter-way point.
Auggie shook his head. “Can you do this?”
Alaina smiled. “Heights never bothered me.” She eased onto the ground and launched herself downward.
Auggie sighed. “Wish I could say the same.”
She scampered over the rocks like she was born to them. When she made it to the fifty-foot mark, Auggie took a deep breath and swung his feet over the ledge. I really don’t want to do this. Belying the thought, a part of him relished the invigoration brought by the fear.
He spotted a rock big enough to support his foot and tested it by shifting weight onto it. His hands grasped the wet, slippery top shelf against the potential of the rock yielding. It held, and he searched out another step. In that manner, choosing and evaluating each foot- and handhold, he descended. By the time his friends had made it to the bottom, he had barely passed the quarter-way mark.
Auggie felt their stares. They’re waiting on me.
He sped his pace. Not being quite so careful to test each position, he climbed two body lengths in a few minutes. This isn’t too bad. It’ll be over faster at least. With his hands firmly clutching jagged stones, he stepped down.
His foot slipped.
That leg slid groundward, and his body lurched. A gasp stole the breath from his lungs.
Fumbling to regain balance, he lost his grip. He grasped at empty air.
Still more than a hundred feet high, he tumbled backward. The world spun, and he saw a look of horror on Benj’s face.
That’s it? This is the way I die? His mind flashed to his father’s disappointed, dying face. The end of the Asher line. Generations of rule ended by me being a careless, irresponsible idiot.
He closed his eyes. Holy One, forgive me for—
A force yanked upward. His clothes pushed against his body, and his momentum slowed. He righted and drifted to the ground.
His feet touched with no more impact than dismounting a horse. Prepared to declare a miracle, he looked about in wonder.
Alaina wouldn’t meet his gaze.
Realization dawned in him. “You did that?”
She nodded, still avoiding his stare by keeping her face cast down.
Auggie swallowed. “You’re a mage.”
She nodded again.
Emotions raced through Auggie—relief, dismay, gratitude, disbelief—before he settled on anger. His hands tightened into fists. “You lied to me! You told me that the catchers are after you because you refused Macias’ advances.”
She looked up. “I didn’t lie; I did refuse his advances. You inferred the rest.” Her eyes flashed, but her voice held no heat. “You shouldn’t have rescued me. I tried to stop you.”
“All you had to do was tell me you were guilty!”
A sob escaped her. “Don’t you think I know what I am? Ask anyone who is more dangerous than a murderer, more vile than a rapist, more worthy of scorn than a thief. You think it’s easy to admit to being a magic user?”
Her quiet voice penetrated his anger.
Benj gestured toward the trees. “We shouldn’t stand in the open.”
They moved under an oak with a large, thick canopy, and Alaina paced. Auggie stepped behind her, and, when she turned, she ran into him.
“Tell me,” Auggie said.
She turned from him. “It’s none of your business.”
He placed his hand on her shoulder. “Please. Tell me.”
“Why do you want to know?”
“I need to get a handle on this. Please?”
She nodded slowly, and Auggie and Benj sat against the trunk.
“I was engaged. A woodworker’s apprentice. A good man, though young.” She smiled sadly. “Raymon Macias passed through my village one day and saw me. Whether it was a game to him or an obsession, I don’t know, but he decided he must possess me.”
She sank onto a stone as if the telling of it sapped all her energy. “He tried to convince me to bed him a single time, suggesting we do the deed the night before my wedding. No one would ever have to know.”
Alaina clutched her hands over her eyes. “It’s all my fault. I valued my honor too highly. A recruiter for Macias’ army dragged Jonah from his shop the next day. A week later, there was a border skirmish. An arrow.…”
Auggie clenched his fists.
Her voice wavered. “All the men in the village feared the niskmo. None would have me. I prepared to live the life of a spinster.” She paused. “Then came the day.”
Alaina lowered her hands. “That’s enough. Does the rest matter?”
Auggie relaxed his tensed hands. “It does. It helps to understand.”
She closed her eyes and kept them that way as she spoke. “The stream running through the village swelled from a combination of rain and melt water, and it flooded. The boy, Palan, was just three years old.”
Her face tightened. “The water swept him past the edge of the village before any of us realized what happened. A tree fell across his path and stopped him.”
She looked at Auggie. “My horrified face gave me away. My friends, my very family.…” Her voice cracked. “The fear.”
Alaina cleared her throat and gathered herself. “Until today, that was the only time I used my power. I’m not even sure how I did it, then or now.”
Benj placed his hand on Auggie’s shoulder. “You know your duty. Helping an innocent girl escape is one thing. Aiding a mage… She admitted to using magic. She used it in our presence.” He shook his head. “We’ll find a catcher we know, one who will perform his duty humanely.”
Auggie burst to his feet. “No!”
“My lord, please. Put me out of my misery.” Tears streamed down her face. “Can’t you understand what it’s like? No matter how much I loathe myself for it, I can’t find the courage to turn myself in.” She hugged her arms close around her.
Auggie wanted nothing more than to embrace her and shield her from the world. He approached and reached out a tentative hand. She shoved it away.
“I can protect you.” Auggie’s voice barely rose above the level of a whisper.
“Even we aren’t powerful enough to hide a mage,” Benj said.
Auggie met his friend’s eyes. “If she were a high noble—”
“No,” Benj said. “You can’t mean.…”
Auggie turned to Alaina. “When I fell, I thought my life was over. I cursed myself as a fool for not fulfilling my duty for Vierna to produce an heir.”
“What are you saying?” she said. “I must be killed. There is no pardon, no escape.”
“Nobles aren’t subject to the same laws as commoners. The catchers can’t execute us.”
“But I’ve heard about—”
“You’ve heard of scions of minor houses or those who refused to abandon their power.”
Alaina shot to her feet, her fists pressed against her hips. “That’s outrageous! You execute commoners but not nobles!”
Auggie shrugged. “Magic isn’t evil; it’s a threat to our rule. When a single peasant can destroy a whole village or army, he can’t be allowed to live. As long as a noble agrees to play by the rules, he’s allowed to continue as before.”
Alaina sank back to the ground. “It doesn’t matter anyway. I’m not of noble birth. My father, Holy One preserve his soul, was a baker.”
“You don’t understand,” Auggie said. “My w-wife would be considered a noble. A high noble.”
She stared at him with wide eyes. Her mouth opened and closed, but no words came out.
Auggie walked to her and took her hand. “This solves both our problems. I gain a b-bride who can bear me c-children. You gain protection from the catcher. We both win.”
Alaina’s face clouded, but he didn’t get the chance to find out what angered her. The sound of horses moving echoed from the top of the cliff.
“Emar’s men.” Benj jumped to his feet. “Whatever we’re going to do, we need to do it fast.”
“The village. Surely, there’s a tender there. If we hurry, we can reach it in an hour. It’ll take the catcher twice as long.” Auggie gripped Alaina’s hand. “Will you do me the honor of m-marrying me?” He stared at her, waiting for her response, not knowing whether he was more terrified of her saying “yes” or “no.
“N—” She shook her head. “Does what I feel play any part in this?”
Auggie opened his mouth to answer.
“Don’t. Just don’t. My answer is yes.”
* * *
Breathing heavily from the jog, they arrived at the small village, and Auggie thrust a handful of coins at Alaina. Fiancée. She’s my fiancée. His heart raced with excitement while his chest tightened with fear. “Find a dress and meet me in the square.”
She gawked at the silver and gold. “My lord, I… This is too much.”
“My money is your money now. Or will be soon enough.” He turned to Benj. “Grab the tender. I’ll go after the mayor.”
Ducking into a jewelry store, Auggie threw coins at the proprietor while grabbing a diamond ring and two gold bands. He rushed to the town hall. Blowing past a startled attendant, he burst through the door to the office. A man wearing a distinguished gray suit sat behind an oak desk.
His eyes shot up at the intrusion.
Auggie introduced himself, giving his full title, and the mayor stood hastily and bowed.
“Round up the sealer and follow me.”
The man nodded his shocked agreement and darted off, returning minutes later with an elderly lady carrying the town’s official record of marriages in tow. They hustled outside and reached the wedding arch in the center of the town square before the others.
Alaina arrived next, and Auggie lost his breath when he saw her. I chose well.
She wore a pale green gown that set off her eyes. It dipped low in the front where a white lace camisole hinted at her charms. The dress, though not a perfect fit, tapered to her thin waist, caressed her hips and flared out into a skirt. Hanging straight down her back with the braid removed, her brilliant yellow hair shone in the sunlight.
Alaina put her hands on her hips and stared at him expectantly.
He realized he stood with his mouth open. “You’re beautiful.”
“Is it that surprising to you?” She sounded pleased.
He grabbed her around the waist and pulled her to him. “I can’t wait to get you alone.”
Red colored her cheeks, and he grinned.
“Where are Benj and the tender?” As his eyes searched the roads intersecting the edges of the square, he remembered his purchase. He pulled the rings from his pocket, plucked out the smaller of the gold bands, and shoved the other two at Alaina. “Here, I bought these.”
She looked at him with a curious expression but didn’t speak. As they waited, Auggie grew more and more agitated. He scanned the horizon for horses.
More minutes passed. Auggie paced in front of the arch. Finally, Benj appeared from an alley with an octogenarian hitched to his elbow. Benj stepped, and the stooped man, who had to balance after each footfall, followed.
Auggie ran his hands through his hair.
At the edge of the street, the tender held Benj back until every cart and horse and passerby traveled out of sight. With agonizing slowness, the old man placed his foot tentatively. Benj hopped forward, and the man shuffled ahead another inch. They continued in that manner until reaching the grass.
Auggie eyed anchored columns supporting the wedding arch and wondered if it would be quicker to try to move the structure than to wait.
Alaina rubbed his arm. “It’ll be okay. Relax.”
Though he reveled in the feel of her hand even through the thick leather of his tunic sleeve, her comment did nothing to calm him. He kept glancing at the road into town, expecting black-liveried riders at any moment. Her hand moved to his back, and she made circular movements with her fingernails. The motion sent chills through him, and he sighed.
“If it’s meant to be, it will be,” she said.
“If it’s not meant to be, I’ll make it be.”
She smiled, the first time he had truly seen her face light up. His heart leapt, and he waited, fidgeting only slightly, until the tender and his best man arrived.
The couple stood under the arch with Benj beside Auggie and the sealer beside Alaina.
The tender faced the wedding party and addressed the mayor standing in the back. “As the representative of the power of law over the union of man and woman, do you give your permission for this marriage?”
A cloud of dust rose above the road in the distance.
The mayor spoke in a loud voice. “Duly elected by the people of East Shadehalm, serving by the grace of his lordship Duke Asher of Vierna and in deference to his laws and those laws of the kingdom of Bermau under the auspicious rule of King—”
Auggie spun. “Blast it, man! We don’t have time for this. Just say yes.”
The mayor looked stricken. “Uh, ah. I suppose… Very well. Yes. I approve the union of these two fine—”
Auggie cut off the man’s words with a glare.
The officiate nodded. “The state having given sanction to the binds of matrimony, the Holy One must give his blessing. Let us pray.”
Auggie bowed his head and closed his eyes. As the wind whistled past and clouds floated by overhead, the tender sought guidance. As insects buzzed past and Auggie’s legs and feet ached from standing still, the tender sought guidance. As the catcher’s men galloped closer and closer, the tender sought guidance.
Finally, the old man said, “Amen.”
Auggie blinked at the sudden light from opening his eyes. Figures of individual men appeared in the midst of the approaching dust cloud.
The old man opened his mouth, but, before he could speak, he appeared to lose focus. He looked around as if trying to figure out where he was.
“Sir?” Auggie moved his finger in a circle trying to signal the man to get a move on. “Our w-wedding?”
The tender started. A light of recognition flashed in his eyes. “Yes. Where was I? Let us pray.”
He bowed his head, as did the others except for Benj and Auggie.
The catcher’s horses drew nearer. The major caught his friend’s eyes and raised his palms in question. Benj shrugged.
The man didn’t respond to Auggie, so he repeated himself louder. The tender opened his eyes and stared with a blank expression.
“Just say ‘you’re married,’ and I’ll slip a ring on her finger. That’s all we need.” Auggie reached for his coin purse. “I’m prepared to make a generous donation.”
The old man stared at Auggie as if seeing him for the first time. “You can’t buy the Holy One’s consent.”
Auggie flexed his hands and started to speak, but Alaina grabbed his arm.
“Good tender, has the Holy One given His blessing?”
The tender directed a doting gaze at the bride. As he opened his mouth and fumbled for words, his countenance changed. Brightness filled his eyes, and he seemed to loom over the couple. “Blessed are your union and his rule and your child. Granted is his power to mend that which was rent through avarice. Allowed is her happiness. Grieved is the brevity.” His voice rose to thunderous volume. “So let it be.”
Power flowed from the old man and forced Auggie to step back, shocked. When he recovered, the tender appeared just as lost and confused as before, and the horsemen had reached the edge of the square.
Auggie bared his sword, the four foot length of steel glistening in the sunlight. He pushed Alaina behind him, and Benj matched his stance. The startled tender stumbled toward the mayor.
Emar, with eleven men behind him, reined to a stop before the wedding arch. “You’re outmanned and outclassed, dukeling. Even the rule of law is on my side. Surrender the girl, and we’ll leave you unmolested.”
Auggie snarled. “She’s a high noble, now. You can’t touch her.”
The catcher gestured toward the tender. Two of the black-liveried men dismounted and restrained the elderly man.
“There’s no wedding ring, so the ceremony isn’t complete.” Emar smiled. “I’m placing your nuptials on permanent hold.”
Auggie roared and surged toward the man. Emar pulled his horse back as three of his soldiers interceded with blades drawn. Benj dropped his sword and pulled his friend back.
“You are not taking her.” Auggie twisted free. “If you try, I swear I’ll hound you for the rest of my days.”
“I will not relinquish my claim.”
“I see no other choice.” Auggie snarled his mouth into a feral grin. “A duel it is.”
“Against the son of a duke? My life is forfeit regardless of the outcome.”
Auggie turned to Benj. “On my honor as a soldier, as a man, and as the niskmo of Vierna, I forbid any to punish this man for what happens between us—contingent, of course, on his acceptance that his loss means his men abandon their claim to Alaina.”
Alaina seized him around the waist. “No, Auggie!”
“Shut up, witch, or I’ll give you even more cause to hate me after I dispatch your man.” Emar sneered. “Your pathetic stipulation is accepted.” He turned to his men. “You are ordered to disperse upon my death with no repercussions toward any here. Do you understand?”
After the men indicated their affirmation, the rest of them and the catcher moved to dismount.
Alaina marched in front of Auggie. “I won’t allow this.”
“I don’t have a choice.” He tried to shove her away, but Benj grabbed his arm
“Listen to her, big man. This isn’t a good idea. He’s tiny, but he looks a lot quicker than you.”
Auggie yanked his arm free and stepped past the two of them. “I’m doing this. Hold her back, lieutenant. That’s an order.”
The mayor stepped forward. “My lord, as the duly elected—”
Auggie glared at him, and he paused.
“I must insist the legal proprieties be followed,” the mayor said. “I cannot allow—”
Auggie drew up to his full height, and his voice boomed with command. “You’ll allow what I tell you to allow. The catcher and I disagree on one of the finer points of Bermau law. I suggest that, as we resolve our differences, you and your people step back, shut up, and never speak of it again.”
Pale, the mayor retreated. Benj, the three townspeople, and the soldiers formed a ring on the grass with Auggie and Emar in the middle. Holding his broadsword before him, Auggie flexed his arms, and his bulging muscles strained against the sleeves of his armor. Appearing almost bored, the catcher held his tiny rapier and stretched his thin frame.
At a word from Benj, the two nodded to each other. Auggie swung hard at the catcher’s head. Emar ducked. Off balance, Auggie staggered to the side as Emar struck a glancing blow to his forearm.
Putting a hand over a nasty red line drawn through the tough leather, Auggie backed away to regroup. One hit, and he’s done. He launched an attack at Emar’s stomach.
Emar jumped back, but Auggie didn’t let the miss carry him off balance. He thrust at his opponent’s heart.
The catcher darted out of the way and connected with Auggie’s leg.
His limp a bloody reminder to be cautious, Auggie reappraised his foe. I hate cowards who won’t fight you head on. Dodge and slash. Bah.
Emar darted in again, the tip of his blade a blur of motion. Auggie raised his sword more out of instinct than deliberation and deflected the blow.
The contest raged for another fifteen minutes. Auggie held back and only attacked when he spotted a clear opening. With his quickness, Emar evaded each blow and inflicted small wounds at every opportunity.
Auggie’s energy waned, and his breath came in ragged spurts. The huge sword multiplied in weight. Sweat dripped from his forehead, and his arms and legs grew sluggish. Blood trickled from a dozen cuts. I can’t keep this up. If I don’t end this soon, I’m done.
Emar shot in close. As the catcher thrust, Auggie let the thin blade slice into his shoulder. Desperate, he tried again to win with a single mighty blow. The heavy steel whistled through the air with tremendous force. Emar bent like a reed, and the swing missed by inches.
Clasping his new wound with one hand, Auggie retreated, his breath labored. He’s still as fresh as when we started. If I don’t do something, he’s going to kill me and Alaina.
Auggie wanted to roar in rage and frustration but wouldn’t give his opponent the satisfaction. His mind spun searching for a solution.
Summoning all his remaining strength, he gripped the hilt in his left hand and struck hard from right to left at the catcher’s stomach. As before, Emar danced out of the sword’s range. Auggie clenched his right hand into a fist and let momentum carry him around.
Emar took the bait and flitted forward.
Auggie felt a sharp sting in his buttocks and smiled. Got you now.
With speed that belied his size, Auggie finished his turn and found the catcher’s head in the perfect position. He caught Emar with a roundhouse.
Bone and cartilage crunched as the catcher’s nose flattened. Blood flowed. Auggie rejoiced at the sight.
Dazed, Emar staggered back.
Auggie pushed his advantage. Putting all his weight behind the blade, he swung. Emar attempted to block. The rapier’s interference caused the broadsword to hit flat instead of with the sharp edge, turning aside the lethal blow. Propelled by Auggie’s thick muscles, the steel contacted with a solid thud, and bones cracked. Emar let out a whoof as all breath fled his lungs. He bent, his face a mask of pain.
Grinning, Auggie hit the catcher with an uppercut.
Emar flew backward and landed with a thud on the grass. Auggie pointed his sword toward the ground. He advanced, prepared to stab.
A yell sounded behind him, but he ignored it. He trusted Benj to protect his back.
His blood and ardor raised, he took another step. And another. He stood over the prone catcher.
Grasping the hilt with both hands, Auggie raised the sword above his head. Something plowed into him from behind, a small collision that barely diverted his attention.
More annoyed than worried, he swiveled his head toward the disruption and found Alaina lying on her back.
With raised eyebrows, Auggie glared at Benj. The lieutenant shrugged sheepishly.
Auggie returned his focus to the woman. “What are you doing?”
Alaina rose shakily. “Trying to stop you from killing him.”
“Because he’s done nothing wrong.”
Auggie looked at her as if she’d lost her mind. “Done nothing wrong? He kidnapped you, held you captive, and plotted to turn you over to a man who plans to rape you. What more wrong could he possibly have done?”
She put her hand on his arm. Even through his leather sleeve, the contact sent shivers through him.
“He arrested me to collect his rightful bounty. He did nothing wrong.”
Auggie sputtered before finding words. “You saw how he acted toward that innkeeper. It’s not right.”
“And that’s worthy of a death penalty?”
Auggie stared at her. She rubbed his arm, her fingers making a circular pattern, and his rage faded.
She withdrew her touch. “Our abuse of power is far worse than his.”
Auggie tightened his grip on the sword. “Come again?”
“While who knows how many commoners are killed each day because they’re even suspected of having magic powers, you seek to marry me to keep me safe.” She turned away. “I never should have agreed to this. I’ll go with him.”
Auggie spun her toward him and grabbed her hand, his two huge mitts engulfing her tiny fingers.
“Alaina, you don’t mean that.”
The mayor cleared his throat and looked like he was about to speak. Auggie glared at him while thinking furiously about how to respond to her. The mayor clamped his mouth shut.
“How about a deal?” Auggie said.
“I’ll let this scum go if you agree not to turn yourself over to him. A life spared in return for yours being saved. Will that soothe your conscience?”
She stared at him. “You’d kill him if I say no?”
The catcher groaned and tried to rise to his elbows.
Keeping his eyes on her, Auggie lowered the sharp tip of the blade to Emar’s chest and pressed. “An ounce of pressure is all it would take.”
Her shoulders slumped. “You win.”
He addressed the man on the ground. “Do you yield?”
After Emar nodded, Auggie withdrew the broadsword and let him up, eyeing him warily as two of his men lifted him. “Depart Vierna. If I ever see you or your men again, I’ll forget my promise to the lady.”
True to his word, the catcher and his soldiers mounted without making a fuss. Auggie watched with relief as the black-liveried men rode away. He hadn’t fully caught his breath by the time they passed from sight.
Alaina tugged at Auggie’s fist, still clenched from the tension of the fight. He opened his hand, and she placed the two rings in it.
“What are you doing?”
“There’s no reason for us to get married now. He’s gone. The immediate threat is past. You said earlier that you can hide me.”
Alaina closed her hands over his. “Auggie, I appreciate what you did for me. The depth of your heroism is truly remarkable. I wish.…” She looked away. “You risked your life for me, and I won’t forget that.”
His face fell. “But you don’t want to m-marry me?”
She turned from him and hid her face. “There’s no reason for it.”
“It’s the only way to ensure your safety.”
“I’m a grown woman. My welfare is no one’s concern but mine. That’s not a reason to get married.”
He stepped back from her. “I thought we had a deal.” His voice rose. “You get safety, and I fulfill my responsibility to produce an heir.”
She barely whispered. “Listen to what I’m telling you. That’s no reason.”
He moved closer to hear her.
She lifted her head to peer into his eyes. “You can’t even say the word without stuttering.”
He stopped and thought for a second. If I were her, would I want a guy to marry me to keep me safe? If I were as beautiful and courageous and strong and smart as her, wouldn’t I want someone to marry me for me?
Memories flooded his mind, scenes of his mother staring at her rings, of her telling the story of his father’s proposal. Alaina doesn’t have that.
He dropped to a knee in front of her, palming the engagement ring. “Alaina.…” He stumbled when he realized he didn’t know her last name. “Will you marry me? Not for safety and convenience, but because, in the short time I’ve known you, you’ve stolen my heart. Because I couldn’t imagine going on without you. That’s why I had to face down the catcher—because your death would have meant mine anyway. Because I love you.”
He held the ring to her.
Tears streamed from her eyes.
The edges of her lips turned up for an instant before falling. “That’s a reason to get married.” She grabbed his proffered hand in both of hers. “Auggie, you’re offering me everything I’ve ever wanted. A good man who I think I could grow to love. Safety. Security. But I don’t deserve you.”
Allowed is her happiness. The tender’s earlier words invaded his mind. “You don’t deserve me, or you don’t think you deserve happiness?”
She stared at him.
“You’re not evil, Alaina. You were born with power that threatens the king’s rule. Put away that power and promise never to use it again. All will be forgiven. It’s the Holy One’s wish.”
The sparkling diamond reflected in her wet eyes.
“It’s what you want,” he said, “and it’s what you deserve. All you’ve done is save two lives, three if you count that jerk you made me let go.”
She tentatively touched the ring as if she didn’t believe it was real.
Auggie nodded. “Go ahead.”
Alaina slipped the ring on her finger. “Yes. A thousand times, yes.”
She threw her arms around him, and her lips met his. He rose, lifting her from her feet.
When they finally broke their kiss, Auggie looked at the smiling faces of all who watched. “Let’s get us married.”
“Now?” she said. “Wouldn’t you prefer to have a huge wedding with your father there?”
“Oh no,” he said. “I’m not taking any chance on you getting away.”
“On one condition.” Alaina broke his grip and faced him. “I need you to promise me something.”
“Make this situation right. It’s not okay to execute people for something they have no control over.”
“Alaina! There’s a reason for the laws. Remember the Wizard’s War, the devastation?”
“That doesn’t make killing people right.”
Auggie closed his eyes for a moment. “It’s the law of the three kingdoms. A duke alone can do nothing.”
She put her hands on her hips. “You have more power and influence than any besides a king. You can do something.”
He sighed. “Very well. I’ll do anything within my power to change it, though I don’t think my efforts will be terribly effective.”
She hugged him, and the embrace warmed his heart. Auggie took advantage of her happiness to organize the wedding party before they suffered any more doubts or interruptions. When the tender finally pronounced them married, he kissed her again.
“Now I truly can call you my lady.”
She looked in wonder at the second ring on her finger. “I’m Alaina Asher. It’s hard to believe.”
He winced, and her eyes narrowed.
“After all that, you’re having doubts?” she said.
“No! It’s just that I can’t believe I’ve inflicted the same too-cutesy alliterative name on someone else. I’ve always hated it.” He grinned. “At least the tradition of naming the Asher kids with an ‘A’ ends with me.”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I like it.”