When she woke, Bess found her right eye stuck closed. Searching the torch-lit room, she wished her left hadn’t opened either.
Firelight gleamed on bladed tools peering at her from their rack hung upon the stone, tools she suspected had never tilled soil or tended a harvest.
Wedged into the mortar drooped manacles, ropes, and hooks, each ready to clasp, noose, or heft the next throat or wrist falling into their clutches. Rust, she hoped, or more likely dried blood stained the metal and the frayed hemp, while the stench of piss and excrement rose off the floor, all of it lasting evidence of those they’d once held.
Adjoining sconces flanked an oaken door, their half-used tapers dripping. In a hearth, embers died. The smoke and inferior paraffin greased the air and streaked the walls with black as if the stones cried ink.
Shuddering, Bess turned away, her thick mass of hair cushioning her from the smooth slab where she lay. She tried feeling for her right eye, to determine if it had been swollen or simply scorched, but leather lashes looped through rungs trapped her hand. Another pair pinned her bared feet at the ankles.
The realization of her imprisonment worked with the stony chill, piercing her nightdress and pebbling her flesh. Holding fast to the straps, she searched for a clear memory, one to explain by who and how she’d been put in such a state. A face appeared in her mind’s eye, and a sooty stench blending with horse musk and perfume clung to her next ragged breath.
Footsteps neared, halting her recollection of fire and betrayal, and Bess squinted at the door. Locks unbolted. A rod slung out of a hasp. Hinges moaned and the bottom edge scraped against the floor. A familiar cologne wound across the threshold, reminding her of her Manor’s last night.
Harlow strode through, carrying a torch like the ones he and his posse had brought along with their steeds, swords, armor, arrows, and spears. A dark shadow pulled the door closed behind him, making the flames he carried flicker and leaving them alone.
Bess worked her tongue, the taste of ash stoking her ire. “You burned my home.”
“Of course I did.”
The clang of chainmail and the slap of a sword joined him until Harlow halted his saunter and slid his torch into a holder above the bellows. He jangled and thudded again when approaching her side where he folded his arms over a midnight tunic adorned with a silver starburst and cinched by his weighted belt. Ringed fingers rested on silken sleeves, each as immaculate as the smile curving his lips and the lines denoting the passing years etched onto his elongated face.
“I had to be sure your boy wasn’t hiding.”
Bess scowled with her one good eye. “I told you he wasn’t there.”
“You’re a mother cat, Bessany Crewe, and I hear they’ll do anything to keep their kittens safe.”
“I doubt I’d be here if you’d found him.”
Harlow examined his fingernails, as if the stink of the room or perhaps his failure had somehow stained his digits.
Bess took the sight to heart. “You burned my home for no reason. A home where you’d been welcomed, where you’d dined, danced, laughed.” She licked her lips and hardened her voice. “Cassius will hear of this.”
“Cassius?” Harlow’s cackle rang off the rack’s iron tools. “What do you think your flounder of a cousin will do?”
Bess curled her hands into fists despite the sting of leather cutting her wrists.
Harlow’s smile bloomed. “Our Liege lord, my dear Lady Crewe, is a doddering old fool who listens to one man and one man only.” He thumped his sternum, denting Cassius’ star insignia. “I am the power in this country now.”
“Not in my country.”
Harlow clucked his tongue and Bess turned her head away when he fingered her hair. After freeing strands stuck to the blood or puss at her right eye, he stroked her forehead and ran his lamb-soft fingers down her cheek.
“You could have been mine.”
She shuddered when he brushed against her lips, lips she remembered once warmed by his own. Gulping fear and rage, Bess jerked her mouth free.
“Jurian won’t let you get away with this.”
“Oh I think I might have something to change your honorable son’s young mind.”
Mischief glinted in Harlow’s eye but Bess doubted the glow came from a surprise frog in a lady’s bed or a joke about to stir the humors of stately elders. She trusted Jurian, however, to have retained his father’s temperament, the Crewe temperament, and an ability to rise up against such foolishness and childish challenges. Steadying her voice, she struggled for a similar higher ground.
“What do you plan on prodding him with now?”
“He’ll come for you, Bess.”
His frosted logic punched her in the belly, stealing the air from her lungs. “My boy’s not a fool.”
“But he’s a son. He’s your blood. I’ve heard that’s the strongest bond there is. It can lead men into careless acts and women in to worse, like marriage.”
“You think blood is why I declined your proposal?”
“I can’t deny Crewe’s lineage outweighed mine. My people came from the earth not gilded towers.”
“We loved each other. Bloodlines had nothing to do with the arrangement.”
“Give your father more credit.” Harlow marched around the table and skimmed the rack. “I happened to be sent on a tour of distant lands while Crewe’s assigned closer by. The two of you were pushed together like flotsam in an eddy.”
Plucking a spiked fork, he examined the tines against the meat of his hand. “But what is blood really? It seeps into the ground as easily as water, especially mossy ground.”
Replacing the wicked utensil, Harlow pivoted, his green eyes glittering at brightly as his torch’s flame. “I remember the Crewe’s lands being mossy, especially the forested area where they always hunted.” Harlow clucked his tongue again and leaned against the slab above her head. “It was a shame to hear of his accident under those lovely trees.”
His insinuation dripped like the sconces’ melting wax. Bess fought to retort amid a wave of nausea. Closing her eyes, she gulped down a wretch while Crewe’s pallid face appeared before her, his ghostly visage mirrored in Jurian’s the day they’d returned to the Manor, one astride, the other prone, the father’s neck twisted from the fall, body bruised by the frantic horse’s trampling, son’s gaze seemingly forever downcast. Bess felt Jurian’s quivering frame in her arms, the grief lashing his bones.
Forcing her eye open and the memory aside, she glared at Harlow, at her husband’s killer, at her son’s would be murderer. “How could you?”
“Snakes are a common evil.”
“You’re the snake.” Bess blinked away tears as hot as fire. “Born of them, I’d say.”
“Now you’re insulting my mother.” Harlow pursed his lips. “She liked you, all the way up to when she received your letter declining our house’s offer. She believed you’d make a fine step for me, an ascending tread along the noble lines.” He spread his hands wide. “But as you can see I’m taking care of that all on my own. No lineage needed.”
“You’re hands are bloody enough.”
“Not my fault. Crewe had been a thorn in my side from the beginning and your boy doesn’t know when to bend the knee.”
“Jurian does. That’s precisely where you two disagree.”
“And a point to be remedied. You see, he and his little band are my last opposition. You’ve been holed up in that Manor of yours since Crewe’s fall, so you might not have heard of poor Cassius’ condition. Without an heir, the people will look to his faithful advisor to take the reins upon his death, to ease the conflicts at the boarders, to bring peace.”
“After you kill Cassius too?”
Harlow shrugged as if debating between having another pint. “Your cousin’s fading fast, but I imagine an extra drop or two of tincture in his tea have sped matters along. Regardless, he’ll remain until the rest is secure.” Rotating on his heel he came to her shoulder, head cocked, and traced his fingertip along the apple of her cheek. “You’re going to end this war for me.”
Bess yanked her face from his touch. “I’m not going to do anything to help you.”
Seizing her jaw, Harlow jerked her head toward him, his fingers clamps of iron. “You will. I’m giving you a choice, Bess, tell me where Jurian and his men are hiding or I’m going to be forced to resort to more persuasive measures.”
Bess stiffened down to her grimy toes. “I’ll tell you nothing.”
“You don’t have to make this as difficult as Crewe or your dear boy. You’ve lost one. The other will die trying to rescue you. Make this easier on yourself, Bess.”
“I don’t find betrayal and aligning myself with murderers easy.”
With a sigh, Harlow released his hold. “It could have been so different.”
“It still can.” Bess fought against the slab, propping herself up on her elbows. “Stop this. Cassius has an heir, he must, the lineage papers will show it. We end the war the way it should.”
“The papers do. Or they did.” Harlow snickered, the manic tinge icy. “All the more reason your dear Jurien’s quest must come to an end.”
Looking past her bared feet, past the hearth, past the walls of her prison, Bess traced through the lines of marriages and familial bonds, along branches of family trees. So many ended in the plague two decades past but as she scrambled through the limbs she found one end still green, still vibrant.
“So you see my dilemma.” Harlow hung his head. “He has to go or all my planning, all my work is for nothing, and what a waste of a life that would be.”
Bess pulled her focus back into the room, her glower upon Harlow. “You’ve wasted far more valuable lives in this crazed plot of yours.”
“The most valuable life is always your own. Something you might want to consider.”
“I wouldn’t betray him, even if I knew where he was.”
“And I thought he got his stubbornness from Crewe.” Harlow paced to the door. “Must be the thick headedness then.” With a turn, he placed his hand on the latch and his back to the oak. “I’ll ask politely one last time, Lady Crewe. Where is he?”
Bess spat at his feet, a wet splat her mother would have chided her for as being unladylike. In these circumstances, however, Bess didn’t think her mother would object.
Reclining on the slab, she stared up at the dim window cracking the steepled ceiling far above her head and wondered if the sunlight meant dawn or dusk. She guessed dusk when Harlow opened the door and a savory smell of beef and onions entered along with the thud of boots.
“Remember, Bess, I didn’t want to have to do this.”
She closed her eyes and let her body go slack. “Just kill me and get it over with.”
“Oh, killing you isn’t the idea.”
Rolling her head, she tracked Harlow and the shadowy brute at his side. They neared the rack while a hunched servant scurried to the hearth and pumped the bellows. The brute selected a poker from the wall and jabbed the pointed end into the crackling flames.
Tugging on gloves, Harlow returned to her side. “You see, Jurian must be convinced you’re alive in order to fall into my trap. And, as you said, your boy’s no fool. He’ll want proof.”
Bess struggled against his prying fingers but Harlow worked her fist open, her hand flat against the stone. Tapping her pinky made the seal ring trapped by her weathered knuckle clink and Harlow hummed in approval.
“A potent symbol to say the least. His father’s horse head seal on his mother’s most delicate finger.”
Bess wiggled her hand beneath his grasp, but Harlow seized her wrist and forced all but her pinky aside.
“A few riders showing your jewel around at the right places should gain me the response I need.”
Shuddering, Bess closed her eyes. She quivered once more when Harlow’s breath dampened her ear.
“You must know more than your saying, Bess. Find an answer in the dark and tell me. If you do, I promise no harm will come to you.”
Her voice failed and Bess simply shook her head.
“You leave me no choice then.”
Bess squeezed her eyes tight when the coals stirred, reminding her of a pot being unearthed from a kiln. Heat swept by her face and she bit her lower lip. The stench of chard flesh reached her nose as blood flowed into her mouth, hot and as alive as she wished Jurian would be out wherever he hid, her lone rescuer but more than that, her country’s sole salvation.