Greetings Denizens of the WIP,
This week’s installment is, sadly, not a sexy one — but it’s necessary for what comes next. So, if you’re looking for the zee HEAT, pass this one by and hit the other stops this week. But if you’d like to read Chapter Two of Chattel Slave in a Vampire’s Kingdom, read on:)
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Clayton had heard the stories about Farrier. They all had. A shadowy schemer, playing both sides against the other. A trader in flesh, even with the enemy. Farrier’s castle lay far to the north, deep in the dense, trackless forest along the border of the Frontier, the only road leading to it so dangerous, that few attempted it without heavily armed guards.
Many souls had traversed the northern road, seeking the favor of the infamous, reclusive trader. Few of those souls ever came back.
Andrus had more than enough guards, true. But to Clayton, none of that mattered. They had guards, the finest soldiers indeed, gold, provisions. What they didn’t have was what was most precious to him.
Andrus rode beside him, the black, fur-lined coat whipping in the warm afternoon breeze. The soaring evergreens at either side of them amplified the din of the clomping hooves, the snorting of a horse, the creak of leathers.
Out here, there was nothing, and even an entire company of horsemen were so many specks in the vastness of the forest.
“What was she like, Clayton?” Andrus looked over, his beard dark against his sun weathered face. “Your Sophie. Was she fair?”
“Aye, more so even than her mother.” Clayton pursed his lips to his fingers, raising them to the sky reverently. “Gods rest her soul.”
“Elizabeth was missed. The sickness took too many.” Andrus’ voice grew softer. “Even my own brother.”
Clayton stared ahead. Elizabeth’s memory brought him solace, a moment’s peace, even out here. That comfort renewed him, knowing that she was up there, looking down upon him, watching him try to make her proud, walking the path for her. Someday he would see her again, and he would see her smile once more, feel the warmth of her love.
Thinking of her helped, even at the strangest of times. And none were stranger than these. Helping a noble find his lost wife — the same woman who’d once been his lover.
And the same woman who’d taken his daughter from him.
“Why Farrier, your Grace? It was nocturne — I heard it from Isaac Galt’s own lips.”
Andrus lifted an eyebrow. “How is the bastard? Mended, I trust?”
“Aye. He’s walking anyway.”
Clayton had no intention of telling Andrus of the missive arrived just a day before the noble had come calling. Isaac was doing much more than walking.
Perhaps he’d finish the job of getting himself killed that the nocturne had begun at Westwood’s estate.
He’d managed to get Isaac back to the McClearn farm, but as Rory’s wife tended to his battered body, Clayton hadn’t thought Isaac would last one more night. Day by day though, he’d improved, and one morning the Guild riders had arrived at the farm and loaded his friend into their wagon, Isaac groaning and cursing as they jostled him about.
As the driver stepped up, taking the reins, Isaac had gripped Clayton’s arm with his one usable hand. Then Isaac fixed him with his somber, world weary gaze. “Find them, Clayton. Gathering has already begun. I’ll send word when it’s time.”
Before Clayton could ask him what in Gods’ name his friend meant, the wagon and the Guild riders pulled away with the thunder of hooves and a cloud of choking dust.
He knew enough about Isaac to suspect what he’d meant. The letters arrived almost immediately thereafter, first dozens, then hundreds, and each time Clayton opened them with fresh dread, cold fear settling in his vitals as the picture became clear. The wheels had been set in motion already, and there was nothing he could do to stop them now.
All he could do was try to save his Sophie.
“She was fond of Farrier,” Andrus said, bringing Clayton back to the present. “Did you know we visited him every fall? Splendid hunting on his grounds.”
Clayton suspected that hunting was the last thing on Andrus Westwood’s mind today.
“He knows.” Andrus clenched his jaw, his voice dropping to a rumble. “He knows, and he’s going to tell me — Council protection or not.”
“What?” Clayton slapped at a black fly circling his head. “Does the Council know?”
Farrier was infamous for the trade in one thing, above all: flesh.
“No. Not exactly. But they know enough. He makes it worth their while to direct their attention elsewhere.”
“So it’s true then?”
Andrus nodded, not moving his gaze from the road ahead. “If the Council doesn’t have the full picture.” He swept an arm from left to right. “Doesn’t see the forest for the trees, you could say — then they don’t have to do anything about it.”
“Benign neglect,” Clayton muttered. “Bastards.”
“Don’t be so harsh, McClearn. You might like what you see there. Wouldn’t be the first time his … practices, had dazzled.”
“Nothing a slave-trader does ‘dazzles’ me, your Grace. He’s a cancer.”
Andrus turned his gaze toward him, a wry curve to his lips. “You’ll see soon enough, McClearn. Then you’ll understand.”
“Why do you tolerate him then, Grace? You hold sway with the Council. A word from the Protector of the Realm would hold much weight, would it not? And don’t tell me it’s because of his good … hunting grounds.”
“His reputation is not all that he is, McClearn.”
“And so you defend him?” Clayton snorted. “Yes, hunting partners, indeed.”
“Watch your tongue, McClearn.”
“Pardon, your Grace,” Clayton sneered.
“Farrier has … rendered assistance. In the past.”
“To the Council?”
“He’s provided information.” Andrus inclined his head. “Of a sort.”
“But what of this benign neglect you spoke of? Would the Council accept assistance from a man it didn’t even acknowledge exists?”
“It didn’t need to, when it had an intermediary, plausible deniability.”
Andrus shook his head, winding a rein around his gauntleted fist.
The noble met Clayton’s gaze, the hardness he saw in Andrus’ eyes not quite concealing something else, something deeper.
“Miriam,” Clayton murmured, closing his eyes. “By the Gods … ”
“As I said, McClearn. Plausible deniability. The Council sometimes has needs of the … unsavory sort. And unsavory is what Farrier excels at most.”
“And so does she.”
“So she does, McClearn.” Andrus sighed. “So she does.”
A fortnight ago as Andrus sat atop his stallion, a phalanx of Westwood heavy horse arrayed behind him outside the barn, Clayton had been sure he wouldn’t live out the next few minutes; a surprise visit from Andrus Westwood, one of the most ruthless generals in the history of the Realm, was never a good portent of one’s future.
Now, he saw something else in the man. Ruthless he certainly still was — he’d force-marched the company of men that accompanied them for more days than Clayton cared to count — but something else was driving this man.
It was love.
Love for a woman who’d once held Clayton’s heart — and who now was likely dead. Murdered at the hands of the nocturne.
Clayton only wished he’d gotten to his Sophie before it had happened
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I apologize for this week’s lack of the sexytimes, but I promise next week, we’ll be back to Trent’s regularly scheduled depravity:) Until then, please visit the other stops on this week’s hop. Until next week!