“My lord! Someone’s coming—”
“I’m not blind and deaf!” Aimery answered irritably, his eyes riveted on the man in the rain-darkened cloak coming toward him. The hood still shielded his face, but it was clear from his posture that he carried something under his cloak, something precious by the way he moved. He reached the foot of the dais steps and climbed them with a weary doggedness that spoke of long hours in the saddle. Then he looked up and was close enough for Aimery to see his face.
It was a stranger.
The stranger reached up to push his hood off his head with one hand, revealing long, red-blond hair. His other hand remained hidden under his cloak, the elbow still crooked. “My lord,” he croaked out, in a voice laden with grief and warning of bad news.
Aimery backed up into the solar, a sense of foreboding freezing his face and making his movements lame and clumsy.
The cloaked stranger followed him into the room. He was wearing old-fashioned leather boots bound to the leg with thongs, and something clicked in Aimery’s memory. This was surely one of Magnussen’s men.
“My lord,” the man repeated, going down on one knee and then gently pulling back his cloak to reveal a baby sleeping in the crook of his arm.
“Hugh!” Aimery exclaimed instantly, as Maria Zoë and Balian both sprang to their feet in amazement.
“Yes, my lord. Your son Hugh,” the man declared, holding the infant up to Aimery.
Aimery took the little bundle into his arms and looked down at him with wonder. But then his brows knotted in bewilderment. “But what of his brother? Where is Eschiva? The girls?—”
“My lord, Haakon managed to board the pirate ship with half the crew. He broke into the hold where your lady and the children were being held. The crew held the pirates off long enough for Haakon to get them all on deck, but your lady was too weak to climb over the side. As the pirates overwhelmed the crew, your lady thrust the baby into Haakon’s arms and begged him to save at least the infant. That’s what he did.”
“Where is he?” Aimery demanded, and from his grim expression and tone it was clear that he was not satisfied with this story.
Aimery, Balian, and Maria Zoë all gasped at once, and stared at the messenger.
“The pirates fired crossbows as we pulled away. One went straight through Haakon’s back, killing him instantly. We barely managed to catch Hugh as he fell. Almost all the men who had boarded the galley with Haakon were killed, and we lost six more to the crossbows. The Storm Bird was so badly reamed from the collision she nearly sank on the return to port. She’ll never be seaworthy again.” Tears were running down the Norseman’s face as he spoke of the fate of his ship, but they were for his captain and his shipmates, too.
Aimery stared in stunned horror, and Maria Zoë hastened to take the baby out of his arms before he dropped the little bundle in his state of shock.
“Eschiva and the girls? They’re still in the hands of the pirates?” Aimery asked, not wanting to believe it.
“Yes, my lord.”
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