Donning a gray wool dress with a thick, black shawl, I shuffled out into the kitchen. Every step brought pain. Ealasaid was a healer, but although I had allowed her to heal my broken bones, blistered skin, and bruises, I’d refused to let her lay her hands anywhere near my intimate regions. It was simply too much for me to bear. I could see the strain in her bright, blue eyes every time she saw me move, but still, I refused.
I was about to light the stove’s flame when a knock thunked at the front door. I flinched and dropped the match. My eyes strayed down the hall, towards Raven and Ealasaid’s bedroom. The door was still closed. My fingers touched the sigil in my pocket that would link my thoughts to theirs, but something stayed my call. This home had been in Raven’s family for generations. He came from a long line of protectors—witches and warlocks whose magical talents could keep others safe. His shield spell was stronger than nearly any foe and the wards that protected us here could only be crossed if someone had been expressly invited. Even so, my heart pounded and I wiped my damp palms on my skirt.
I was a human and so I had only earthen magic within me. I could heal the land, encourage plants and animals to grow and flourish, and I could even enhance the flavors of food and drink, a talent I had long put to use as the owner of the Copper Cock, one of the town’s oldest pubs. But I could not use my magic on another person, or to defend myself, which is how the devils had managed to capture me and destroy both my pub and the rooms I kept upstairs.
Slowly, I made my way through the parlor. The knock came again: thunk, thunk. The devils who’d destroyed my pub had hurtled spells at my door before they’d brought down the building. The sound was so similar. Thunk, thunk, thunk. I said a quick prayer to the Fates. My sweaty palms slipped off the thick metal lock twice as I wrestled with it. I barely had the strength to drag the massive door open.
Before me stood a woman. Thick, black curls framed her face. Her skin was the color of dark kahve. Her eyes were an alluring duality of bright and dark: deep purple irises flecked with gold. Full lips parted slightly and I found myself staring at them for a second longer than was proper. She was solid, a mass of muscle. Shorter than me by a few inches, dressed in a severe black dress and black cloak, she looked up and cleared her throat.
“I am looking for Eal’said Brùn.” Her voice was exotic, almost velvety. A gentle warmth spread through me at the lilting tone.
“She is . . . indisposed at the moment.” My cheeks warmed. “May I tell her who wishes her presence?”
The woman’s violet eyes took me in. I pulled the shawl tighter around me. I had scarcely been able to stay warm after my rescue and the snow was falling steadily today. The woman scanned the parlor behind me. A carriage rumbled by down the street and she turned her head for a brief moment, her fingers flexing. The scent of the sea wafted over me, tinged with cinnamon. Her magic. She was a protector.
She turned back to me. “My name is Seònaid Buille. I was sent by the Council to protect Mistress Brùn.”
“Certainly the Council would have told you that she is mated to a protector.” I frowned. My fingers twitched, aching to touch the sigil in my pocket.
“Mistress Brùn informed Moire Cráig that she was to start work as a healer. Her mate has his own work. He will be unable to protect her while he is working. I am to take his place in that role while she is away from him. They are expecting me.”
She cocked her head and her dark eyes narrowed. “May I ask who you are?”
“I am Raven’s sister, Ami.” I offered her my hand.
Her strong fingers grasped mine. A comforting pulse of warmth hit me, along with the scent of cinnamon and the salty air. Seònaid’s protective magic surrounded me and I nearly smiled. In that moment I felt safer than I had since I had been taken.
“You . . . you are not a witch,” she accused, breathless. “You are not Mister Brùn’s sister.”
The connection between us was severed as she dropped my hand. My fear and pain returned almost immediately. “Raven and I do not share blood, but he is my brother all the same. I helped raise him.”
Seònaid frowned. “It is quite cold out here. May I please come in?”
I saw no reason to refuse her. She would not have bypassed the first of Raven’s wards had she not been invited. Stepping aside, I welcomed her into the parlor. When I shut the door and faced her again, she was watching me intently.
“Raven and Ealasaid are resting. They have not slept much these past few weeks. I am reluctant to wake them. Would you like some kahve?”
“Aye. Thank you.” Seònaid removed her cloak and followed me into the kitchen. I waved my hand towards the tall chairs at the counter where she sat stiffly, but her intense gaze remained fixed on me. “You are injured.” It wasn’t a question.
I lit the flame and set the kahve pot on the burner. The leaves went into a small woven filter in the top of the pot. I stared into the flame. I had not spoken to anyone of what was done to me. Not even to Ealasaid. I could not bring myself to do so.
“What do you know of Ealasaid?” I asked, finally turning to face the dark protector.
“Moire told me of the prophecy. I know that Eal’said was tortured for many years at the hands of a devil and that I must take care . . . to ensure she is spared the chill of devil magic. I was told that the devil who imprisoned her was part of a larger group. Their leader, Lobhdain, escaped. The Council is searching for him. This does not explain why you are injured. Eal’said is a healer. Surely she could make you well?”
I swallowed audibly. “Lobhdain kidnapped me. He . . . and his clan held me for two days. Raven and Ealasaid freed me, but I was badly injured. She was able to heal most of my wounds. Not all.” It was a safe explanation. No healer alive, besides Ealasaid, could heal injuries as severe as mine. But even as I said the words, I felt an intense desire to confess everything to Seònaid, to tell her that I had been repeatedly violated, that I had spent those two days terrified, kept in the dark, denied sleep, food, and water. That I had prayed for death, for only in death would I ever escape the pain.
The kahve started to boil and the rich scent wafted over me. I turned around, unwilling to face the searching eyes of the witch. I felt her stare, and something else . . . a hint of warmth. Her magic calmed me.
As I stretched for the china cups, one of my injuries protested the movement and I gasped. The shawl fell to the floor. I braced myself against the counter. Seònaid was suddenly at my side. She draped the shawl around my shoulders. Her arm curled around my waist. “You will sit and rest,” she said. I allowed her to guide me to the chair she had just occupied.
“Thank you.” I tugged at the shawl again, holding it against me as if it could somehow protect me from harm. Seònaid filled the cups with the rich, spicy kahve and set one in front of me. She leaned against the counter.
“Ami.” She studied me carefully as her exotic pronunciation of my name washed over me. Ahh-mee. “Ami Brùn?”
“No. My family name is Tamlach.”
“You live here?”
“For now. My rooms were destroyed when the devils kidnapped me.” I sipped my kahve and felt myself settling. The jolt of stimulant calmed the headache raging behind my eyes. I’d not slept more than an hour or two at a stretch since my rescue.
“You are . . . unattached?” Seònaid licked her lips and nearly smiled as she took a sip of her kahve. Like Raven, I tended to make the kahve quite strong.
A strange look came over Seònaid’s face. It was something between relief and joy.
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