Read Beauty and the Werewolf Online

Authors: Mercedes Lackey

Beauty and the Werewolf (21 page)

BOOK: Beauty and the Werewolf
12.4Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

“I s-s-stabbed him with an a-a-arrow,” she stammered, teeth chattering.

“Good thinking. Or good reacting, if you didn't think. He was bleeding like a lanced stag when he came at me. He'd have done better to run.” The horse came up alongside the mule, and the two beasts nuzzled each other in relief at finding their stablemates. “Are you hurt?”

“N-n-no…” She gulped back tears. “A l-little.”

By now the moon shone down through the branches, and he reached over to tilt her chin so it shone down on her face. “Ah. Didn't tuck your head down,” he said with gruff sympathy. “That'll hurt, all right. Wait a moment.” He rummaged into his saddlebag and came up with a jar. Pulling out the cork, he handed it to her, and she caught the familiar scent of one of her ointments. She took it from him with shaking hands, pulled off one glove with her teeth and dug two fingers into the jar. As she smeared on the ointment, the burning of the lash marks began to cool.

“You need to have a good cry?” Eric asked, in a conversational tone.

“I—I d-d-don't know—”

“Then swallow it down for a bit,” he advised. “Or just let it leak as we ride. I've got a few scratches to tend to, and you'll be feeling like you want to faint before long, once all of this catches up with you.” He uttered something like a chuckle. “Hellfire, so will I, or at least sit down on something that isn't moving.” He urged his horse ahead of her mule, and took the lead. She didn't have to nudge the mule; she followed without any signal from her.

She shivered inside her fur-lined coat, gulping down tears, mind going numb, and yet, spinning with horrid images. The strange feeling as the arrow in her hand hit something solid—how badly had she stabbed the man? Badly enough to have killed him, if Eric
hadn't? The dreadful feeling of the knife at her throat and the grim certainty that she was going to die. That was twice, now—once when the wolf had attacked her, and now this—

The sick feeling, knowing that Eric had killed both those men. Yes, the men would have killed
them
without a moment of hesitation, but still, they were dead now, and she and Eric were alive.

She could still smell the blood on him. Oh, God, what if that meant she was getting the senses of the wolf? Had she escaped the knife only to fall to a worse fate?

She shivered and cried silently and clung to the mule as it shoved its way along the trail. She had never felt so cold before. And light-headed. Her fingers dug into the leather of the front of the saddle.

Eric's voice penetrated her fog. “You did very well back there. No fainting, no hysterics.”

She had to gulp three or four times before she could make her voice work and still it shook. “It w-was by accid-d-dent.”

Again, that grim chuckle. “Either you're lucky, or you have good instincts. For now, don't faint on me” came the voice from ahead. “It's not that far.”

“It isn't?” Hope finally made her raise her eyes, and she realized she must have been in more of a fog than she had thought. They were out of the hills, and there was light off ahead through the trees. The mule seemed to realize this at the same time she did; she felt her startle a little beneath her legs, and her weary shuffle turned into a fast walk.

She blanked out a bit then, for the next thing she knew, invisible hands were helping her out of the saddle, and the mule was being led away. Eric's arm around her shoulder steadied her for a moment as she wavered.

“You were fine back there,” he said in her ear, his arm feeling like nothing but that of a friend. “I was the one who was an idiot. I
didn't check to see if there were any of the bastards lurking in the trees. An amateur's mistake. If you hadn't kept your head, we'd have both been in trouble.” He gave her shoulders a squeeze, and chastely kissed her forehead between two of the lines of lashing. “Faugh. That ointment tastes like pine sap, and I stink of blood. We both need baths, food and sleep.”

Blood?

“You can smell the blood?” she asked.

He snorted. “Of course I can. I'm soaked in it. What, did you think you suddenly had a wolf's nose?” He squeezed her shoulders again, then let go of her. “You lot. Get her to her rooms, get her in a hot bath and bring her a good meal. And a good stoop of brandy with it.”

With that, the Spirit Elementals took over, all but carrying her off to her rooms, where Sapphire stripped her out of her clothing and popped her into that hot bath before she could even say a word.

Bella just leaned back and soaked, feeling the heat penetrate all the way to the chill core she had thought she would never get warm. A touch on her arm made her jump, and she flailed for a moment, her eyes snapping open to see a tray of food being set down on the rim of the bathtub.

It was full of little bite-size things: bits of baked squash, chunks of sausage, pickles, slices of beef, cubes of cheese. For a moment, her stomach churned with nausea, but then the nausea turned to hunger and she reached out and took a bit of cheese. And then a pickle. Then some rare beef…and before long the tray was empty and Sapphire was pressing a small glass filled with an amber liquid into her hand.

She tasted it; it was like sweet fire. She'd had brandy before, but this was different. It went down as smooth as honey, and ended up like a comforting coal in the middle of her, thawing the last of the
cold in her center. Warmth spread, and with it, a light and fuzzy feeling.

Sapphire helped her out of the tub; her legs felt a little wavery, as if the bones weren't quite solid, and she realized that she was just a little drunk. The Spirit Elemental wrapped her in a soft robe, sat her down beside the fire and brushed out her hair, then loosely braided it again as she stared at the flames.

She wondered if she ought to be crying again. After all, two men had died today, and she had been partly responsible.

But she couldn't make her mind wrap around that, and she felt at once too tired and too drained to care.

When Sapphire was done with her hair, she tugged at Bella's arm, and Bella rose and let the servant lead her to the bed. She climbed in and lay down, closing her eyes; she felt the featherlight touch of something on her face, and dimly realized that Sapphire was putting some sort of ointment on her wounds, but at that point, the only thing that mattered was sleep, and she let it take her.

 

She was very glad that the mirror was one-way. Her father would have been horrified if he had seen her face. It looked as if someone had been whipping her, although Sapphire assured her that everything would heal without leaving a mark. She had only told him in this morning's letter that she had been out on a long ride into the mining country with Eric's escort, and that it had been interesting to see the hills she had only glimpsed from the city. She knew that since her father was widely traveled, he would have a lot to say on the subject, and that seemed safer than giving him an opening to ask too many questions.

She hadn't gone down to breakfast. She
had
written a note for the servants to take to Sebastian, explaining what had happened. A note had come back from him, assuring her that Eric had already
told him in detail about the ambush and her part in it, and that she should rest if she thought she needed to. But he added in his note that if she didn't think she required rest, he would welcome her company in his workroom this afternoon for another lesson. She had expected the former, but not the latter, and she felt a rush of unanticipated affection for him. He wasn't coddling her, or treating her like a fragile little child. He also wasn't taking her for granted, assuming that she would simply turn up as expected for her lesson in magic, simply because
he
was Duke Sebastian and
she
should be grateful for his tutelage.

Not that she wasn't grateful…she was. He was a very good teacher; she had to wonder, now, who had taught
him,
because in her experience, it took a good teacher to make a good teacher.

She watched her father mime his farewell kiss, as he did when it came time that he
had
to get back to work, and the image of his study faded from the mirror. She was about to get up and see about a better ointment for her stripes, when the mirror suddenly chimed.

The Godmother appeared immediately in the depths, as soon as she picked it up. Elena stared at her for a moment, dumbfounded, as she took in the state of Bella's poor face.

“By all that is holy! Your
face!
If
either
of those men—” the Godmother began, her face twisting into a mask of outrage.

“No! I mean, yes, but not in the way you think!” Bella said hastily, and explained what had happened. Elena listened without interrupting, her anger calming as quickly as it had arisen, then pursed her lips thoughtfully.

“Well,” she said. “This is—unexpected. I hope it doesn't hurt too much.”

Bella grimaced, which, of course, made her face hurt. “Oh, it does. But not as much as being bitten on the foot.”

Elena gave an unladylike snort. “Well. On the one hand, you
were not nearly in as much danger as Eric would have liked you to think,” the Godmother said, cautiously. “Even if the poachers took you for a young man, you were extremely well dressed, and they probably thought you were a noble at the least and Sebastian at the best. One doesn't kill a rich prize like that. In either case, they were not going to spoil what would have been a very lucrative kidnapping by slitting your throat.”

Bella was taken a little aback. “Oh…” she said, feeling deflated, and now, guilty. Because if she had
not
been in danger of her life, then those two men had been killed over nothing—

“Eric, however, was completely expendable, and they'd have gutted him without a moment of hesitation, then sent his body back on his horse as a token that they were in earnest,” the Godmother continued, as calmly as if she was discussing whether fish or soup would be a better first course at dinner. “So I must say, you did well in keeping your wits about you.” She leaned over and said something to someone who was out of sight of the mirror. “As soon as my assistant returns with it, I'll push a pot of one of my salves through the mirror to your side. By tomorrow you won't have so much as a pink mark.”

“You'll—what? Push something through the mirror? You can
do
that?” Bella tried not to gape with surprise.

“And travel through mirrors, as well, yes, when I need to.” The Godmother made a dismissive motion. “Godmothers can. That's another subject. You can see magic?”

Of course. Granny must have told her. Granny probably had one of these mirrors, too. It was no wonder the green-faced thing answered instead of Elena; the Godmother would likely spend every waking moment talking to mirrors if she didn't have someone to act as a secretary for her. Bella nodded. “It looks like…like glowing dust motes. Or maybe like streams of smoke in bright sunlight, be
cause there are streams and trickles and threads of it.” She groped after words to describe what she could see, but Elena just nodded.

“Well, this is an unexpected development, I must say,” the Godmother told her with a sigh. “Not entirely unwelcome but…it does complicate things. The Granny of your woods and I had thought you were going to be a very late bloomer and come into your power with your gray hair, but it seems your story just took a different turn.”

“You expected this?” She felt her mouth falling open, and snapped it shut.

“Of course. Magic generally runs in families. Your mother had a touch and she would have been a witch. Sebastian's mother had it—that's why you feel so at home in her stillroom. His father did, too, but the old fool kept trying to repress it. That's why Sebastian is as good as he is—he got a double dose.” She looked a little annoyed for a moment, and tapped one finger on the table in front of her. “Well, there is no help for it. I am going to have to tell you about The Tradition.”

“The tradition of
what?
” Bella asked, when the Godmother didn't continue.

“Not the tradition of—not that kind of tradition.
The
Tradition. The force that makes puppets out of us all.” The Godmother smiled grimly. “Or it tries, at least.”

And so, as Bella sat there, feeling more and more stunned by the moment, Godmother Elena explained that everything she had thought she had known about how the world wagged was wrong.

As Elena related, calmly and clearly, that she and everyone else in the Five Hundred Kingdoms was being manipulated by a force that had will, but no intelligence, Bella could not believe that the Godmother could relate all this so calmly. This Tradition—it was a horror—a mindless
pressure
on every living thing to fulfill particular roles. Roles that were dictated…

“…by
stories?
” she repeated, feeling a mix of shock, outrage, disbelief and a growing anger.

Elena nodded, her own expression one of acute sympathy. “It's hideous,” she agreed. “Completely unfair. Just because people start telling each other tales over a fire, why should that mean that ten years later, some poor lad or wench finds him or herself playing that tale out again? But that is exactly what happens—”

“But what happens if the people aren't what the story says? For instance, what if a stepmother is
kind
—or at least, not unkind? Does she get forced into being a viper?” Bella wanted to know. Because if that was true…it would explain quite a bit about Genevieve…

“Or for instance, what if the poor abused stepdaughter lives in a Kingdom with no free prince?” Elena countered. And then she proceeded to tell Bella exactly what happened to a girl in that position. “…and so basically, with all that Traditional power building around her, trying to force her into a Path, it either has to get drained off harmlessly so she can live a normal life, or something drastic will happen to her and it generally isn't pleasant. More often than I care to think about, that ‘something drastic' comes in the form of an evil magician. And at that point the best she can hope for is to be kidnapped and locked up to serve as a sort of—well—magical well-spring. But we're getting off the subject, and I will be happy to go on about this in detail later. The point here is this. Keeping these nasty things from happening, and arranging matters so that people can go back to having ordinary lives, is what Godmothers do.”

BOOK: Beauty and the Werewolf
12.4Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Rhapsody on a Theme by Matthew J. Metzger
Capital Crimes by Jonathan Kellerman
Karen Harbaugh by The Marriage Scheme
Doctors by Erich Segal
Things Lost In The Fire by Katie Jennings
Welcome to Envy Park by Esguerra, Mina V.
The Wild Marquis by Miranda Neville