Lover of Thorns and Holy Gods (Wraith Kings #1.5) – Grace Draven

“Are you certain this will work?” Louvaen addressed Ambrose but kept her gaze on the shimmering portal of coruscating light that hovered midair in the great hall. The sorcerer cut her a hard glance. “No, but it’s the best I could do on short notice with the limited information gleaned from the books Cinnia brought from Monteblanco.” Louvaen glowered at him before turning her attention to her silent husband beside her. “This is a terrible idea.” Ballard’s mouth curved, and he captured a lock of her hair in his hand, letting the silky strands slide through his fingers. “Louvaen, it was your idea.” “That’s why it’s terrible,” Ambrose snapped and returned Louvaen’s glare with one of his own. Ballard continually wondered when his wife and his magician would finally end their fragile peace. He kept expecting to find them literally brawling with each other in one of the corridors. “If we don’t bring back this artifact, the blight will kill every bit of flax we’ve planted.” Since the lands of Ketach Tor were no longer hidden from the rest of the world, trade in the demesne’s flax harvest was brisk and profitable. The blight that had descended on the crop this year ensured a heavy loss if they didn’t find a way to destroy it. Ballard’s coffers were far from empty, but he didn’t relish the idea of denting them with the wholesale loss of his best crop. Relinquishing a costly jewel as payment for a magical item that destroyed blight was worth it to him, as was the strange journey he was about to take in order to complete the transaction.

Louvaen gripped his arm, her strong features grim and pinched. “You’ll be careful? I expect you to return before morning, sound and in one piece, or I’m going through the portal after you.” Ambrose nodded. “Yes, get back as soon as possible.” He clasped his hands behind his back and adopted an innocent look. “I’m sure these are respectable people undeserving of such cruelty.” Ballard pulled Louvaen into his arms before she could wrap her hands around Ambrose’s throat. She stood stiff in his embrace, her mouth compressed into a sour line until the light kisses he feathered across her lips coaxed her into relaxing and returning his caress. Truth be told, he’d much rather spend the evening in her arms in their bed or by the fire in Magda’s kitchen where he could enjoy a warm ale and the companionship of his family. “You fret for naught,” he told her, punctuating his reassurance with the slow stroke of his hand along the length of her back.

“His message was straightforward, and he has what we need. He seems an agreeable, reasonable man.” Ambrose huffed. “Agreeable and reasonable? Considering the bloodline and he the progenitor, I doubt it.” “Ambrose,” Ballard warned and frowned when the sorcerer shrugged. The feel of Louvaen’s tall form pressed against his body distracted him, and he promptly forgot Ambrose’s presence when she nuzzled her face into his neck and kissed the sensitive spot just below his earlobe. “I won’t leave the hall until you return. Promise me you’ll return,” she whispered into his hair. He leaned back enough to look into her eyes—the gray of hot ash. “I give you my word.

” He smiled. “And I expect a fine greeting from you. Preferably without clothes.” Her pupils dilated, and her nostrils flared, highlighting the prominent blade of her nose. “I’m happy to oblige.” “And don’t kill Ambrose while I’m gone.” “That is asking too much of me.” Ballard chortled, gave her a hard kiss before turning to face the portal. Its golden light pulsed, beckoning him to step through and discover the unknown on the other side. He glanced at Ambrose who now stood next to Louvaen.

The two wore identical worried expressions. Ballard nodded. “Look for me in the morning,” he said and stepped through the portal. The light was a living thing, like the tide of a sentient ocean. Waves of luminescence carried him from the world and time he knew to one he didn’t, depositing him in the sanctuary of a quiet forest glade. A cluster of thick evergreens sheltered the portal and hid his entrance. Ballard stumbled as a sharp pain shot through his disfigured leg. He straightened and hobbled to a short outcropping of rock to sit and find his bearings. The message sent contained a clearly wrought map, and from his perch, he saw the smoke from the public house marked as the meeting place. He invoked one of Ambrose’s spell to hide the portal from sight while he was gone and checked his appearance.

It was anyone’s guess if what he wore might blend in with the people who lived here, but he had no intention of staying long enough for his presence to bring more than the most cursory notice. Simple tunic and breeches, sturdy shoes and a loosely laced doublet woven of rough wool. There was nothing on him to signal wealth or make him an obvious target to thieves. He limited the weapons he carried to knives tucked away from sight. He was as proficient with those as he was with a sword, and any bandit with a mind to attack would be in for an unpleasant surprise. The public house was like any he might find in the villages within riding distance of Ketach Tor or in Louvaen’s town of Monteblanco. The ground around the structure was a muddied quagmire trenched by cart wheels and the hooves of horse and ox teams. Mud-encrusted boot scrapers were planted on either side of the entrance, iron flowers mulched in piles of filthy straw. He entered the pub and blinked until his eyes adjusted to the tenebrous interior. Acrid smoke hung in a haze above the patron’s heads, swirling in ghostly dances with the more pleasant smelling smoke that swayed up in tendrils from pipe bowls.

The place stank of mold, grease and too many unwashed bodies seated together in a too-warm enclosure. The man for whom Ballard had crossed worlds to meet sat alone at a small table in one corner. If the crimson cloak was any indicator, he wasn’t in the least concerned about blending in with the crowd. Even in the semi-darkness, the bright splash of color stood out like a beacon, and Ballard limped toward it, map in hand. “Silhara of Neith?” he asked when he reached the table. The other man nodded and rose to clasp the arm Ballard offered. Tall and wiry with a hard face, equally hard black eyes and dark hair threaded through by a startling white streak, Silhara bore little resemblance to the bookish, sometimes scatter-minded mages Ballard had met in his lifetime. Even Ambrose, focused and highly skilled in the magical arts, paled in comparison. Power poured off this man. He might not always recognize a mage, but Ballard knew a fellow warrior when he met one and suspected this one’s magery had been used more than once in combat.

“You’re Ballard…” Silhara paused and cocked his head. “How do you pronounce your title?” He had a raspy voice with a bite to the words, as if he snapped his teeth together when he spoke. Ballard noted the white ligature scar encircling Silhara’s throat. “Day-so-va-tare,” he said. Silhara indicated the chair across from him and resumed his seat when Ballard sat. The two men eyed each other for a moment before Silhara spoke. “How long have you known the heft of a sword?” Ballard stifled his burgeoning smile. It seemed the mage had the same instinct as he. “Since I could walk I think.” A serving wench sashayed up to their table, loaded tray in her hand and a come-hither tilt to her hip.

She gave both men a black-toothed smile. “What can I offer you this fine day?” The false smile melted away when neither Ballard nor Silhara rose to the bait. Silhara indicated two of the overflowing tankards of ale balanced precariously on the tray. She slapped them on the table, spilling foam over the rims and took the coin he offered without further comment. Ballard tasted the ale, thick and yeasty, and tried not to stare too hard at the man across from him. It was difficult. He unconsciously searched for something familiar, even knowing that so many generations gone would have bred out any similarities. His lips twitched. Well, maybe not all of them. Some traits stubbornly remained generation after generation.

Silhara watched him just as closely. “Your sorcerer labored hard to create such an invocation as a portal pass, and you’ve come a long way to seek out what should be readily available in your land.” “True, but the records we found mentioned no other spell worked as well as the one you created. I can afford the loss of the flax but would prefer not to, and as you’ve read in the message, my reasons are also personal.” Language was a fluid thing, especially over a long span of time, but Ambrose’s skill with translation was unequalled, and he provided the means by which Ballard and Silhara could understand each other’s messages. “Yet you came alone.” A frown knitted Silhara’s eyebrows together. Ballard shrugged. “I am a cautious man. Who knew what I might walk into once I came through the portal? I see you’re also solitary.

” The other mimicked his gesture. “I can’t claim your cautious nature, but I’ve put my wife’s wellbeing at risk too often as it is. Hence, alone as well.” He downed some of his ale and shook his head, a half smile ghosting his mouth. “Who knew my name would survive for so long. Shall we do business?” One enchanted rock in exchange for one priceless ruby and the bargain was set between them. Ballard didn’t miss the many gazes that flickered their way and lingered as satchels containing artifact and payment changed hands. “Will we need to fight our way out of here?” Silhara shook his head. “They know to attack me would be their last idiotic act. And you’ve a look about you that would make even me stop to consider whether or not what you possess is worth the risk.

” He caught the black-toothed maid’s attention and waved her over to their table. “Now that our business is concluded, you’ll stay a little longer? You haven’t tasted the elixir of life until you’ve tried Peleta’s Fire.” A few minutes later, Ballard gasped out a breath and stared at his drinking companion with watery eyes. “Gods’ blood,” he said on a wheezy breath and peered into the small cup in front of him. “I see why they call it Dragon’s Piss. I think I just cooked my insides.” He drank ale from his refilled tankard to cool not only the scorch marks in the back of his throat but also the lake of fire bubbling in his belly. Silhara’s reaction was similar to his—a gasp, tears, and a body shudder hard enough to rock the table between them. Like Ballard, he chased the fiery drink with a mouthful of cool ale. He held up the bottle.

“Another?” he said in a voice rough as saw teeth dragged over gravel. Ballard nodded. “Don’t be sparing.” By the fourth round, his vision was fuzzy at the edges and his throat a volcanic pathway to the inferno that was his stomach. He waved away the bottle of liquid agony Silhara raised in offering. One more swallow of Peleta’s Fire would see him either immolated or passed out under the table. The sorcerer slid the nearly empty bottle to the side, and Ballard didn’t imagine the look of relief that crossed his face. Silhara turned to survey the room. “How good are you in a fight while drunk?” Ballard’s fuzzy vision instantly sharpened, and he straightened from his slouched position. “Better than when I’m sober.

Why?” “Just curious.” Silhara leaned back in his chair and rested his tankard on his midriff. “How did you get your limp?” Still suspicious of the mage’s first question, Ballard slowly dragged his gaze from the other occupants in the room. “My wife shot me.” Silhara’s chuff of laughter fanned a pattern of crows’ feet at the corners of his eyes. “Is that so? From how you step and the way you favor your leg, the wound was high on the thigh. Was she aiming for your balls?” “My head.” “Which one?” Ballard snorted, amused. “The one attached to my neck.” “Fortunate for you she had bad aim.

” “Indeed.” Silhara’s austere features turned pensive. “What’s her name?” A hazy image of black hair and a face too strong to ever be beautiful rose in Ballard’s mind. “Lovely,” he said. He blinked. “Louvaen,” he amended. “Her name is Louvaen.” A different maid approached them with a pitcher and topped off their ale. Silhara continued with his line of questioning. “A spirited woman?” “Very, though my magician would be less complimentary if you asked him.

He calls her shrew and harpy. Rightfully so sometimes.” Ballard drank the ale, still hoping to reduce his inflamed insides to a smoking ruin. “I’d have no other.” The spark in Silhara’s dark eyes was either one of approval or simply the gloss of inebriation; he wasn’t sure which. “And your wife?” he asked. “The records mention her by name. Martise?” Silhara raised his tankard in salute. “A quiet creature of profound dignity. That is when she isn’t trying to mule-kick my balls into my mouth or bash my head in with a skillet.

” He grinned as Ballard sputtered into his tankard, splattering foam across his nose and cheeks. “I’ll tell her of Louvaen. I think she would approve.” Ballard wiped the ale foam from his face with his sleeve. “There isn’t much said of her, mostly of you.” The other man sighed. “She’d prefer it that way. And what do these tomes say of me?” “That you were a heretic and an outcast, redeemed only by your defeat of a deity.” “They got most of it right, except for the redemption part.” Silhara rolled his eyes.

“Redemption implies I regret those appellations or apologize for them. I assure you I don’t.” From what he could glean of Silhara’s character in the short time they kept company, Ballard would have been far more surprised if he did. The man given the insulting title of Master of Crows didn’t strike him as one who felt apologetic over much of anything. They finished off another three pitchers of ale between them as Silhara asked questions about Ballard’s life with Louvaen and offered a few stories of his own about him and Martise and the ramshackle estate they called home. Ballard prayed he’d remember the details so he could pass them on to Louvaen when he returned to Ketach Tor. Louvaen. He stood abruptly and gripped the table’s edge to stop the room’s slow rotation around him. The worst of his inebriation had faded, but he was still cupshot to his hairline. His wife might not kill him for overindulging, but she’d have his head mounted on their bedroom wall for being late.

“I must return,” he told his companion. Silhara rose, and by the look of him, was none too steady on his feet either. “I’ll accompany you to the gate.” They wove a path to the door, Ballard’s back prickling with the weight of a dozen stares as they passed. He hadn’t exaggerated when he told Silhara he fought as well drunk as he did sober. He could fight in his sleep if he had too, and it looked as if he might have to do so now with a barrel of ale and a bottle of Dragon’s Piss coursing through his veins. His hands rested casually against his body, his hidden knives within easy reach. As Silhara assured him earlier, he didn’t have to worry. The mage paused at the threshold, sketched a complicated pattern in the air, and every patron in the room froze mid-action. Ballard gaped at the sight, certain he’d never seen the like.

This was powerful sorcery. Ambrose would give his right arm and possibly a leg too for the ability to cast such a spell with similar ease. Silhara smirked and nudged him through the door. “A black spell. Outlawed by Conclave, therefore, one of my favorites. It’ll fade by the time we reach your portal, and by then we won’t care.” Afternoon had given way to evening. The forest interior rustled with the rise of nocturnal hunters as the sky listed above them, spackled in stars and silvered by a full moon. Ballard recited the spell Ambrose had given him, and the portal grew from a firefly speck to the illuminated doorway that had carried him here and would return him home. Silhara eyed it with interest, circling slowly to view both sides as it floated just above the ground.

He returned to Ballard, the shadows thrown by the portal’s light hollowing out his thin face. His mouth drew down in severe lines. “When you return, make sure your magician not only closes this portal but destroys it. I’ve learned from bitter experience that such things might start benign but turn malignant faster than you can imagine.”


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