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We passed into the courtyard of the castle and moved into a ‘parking’ area of sorts where the other visitors with horses were leaving their mounts with young men in Taeynd’s black livery. Stable boys came to take charge of our horses and Mac instructed them to leave the riding horses saddled and the others harnessed to the wagon. Gwrhyr climbed into the wagon to wait there while the rest of us went inside.

We entered the great hall of the keep as a group and I quickly saw that the visitors were split down the middle so that the commoners were on the left, nobility to the right. I glanced around the room behind the others to get a better idea of how things were laid out as Kenaz clutched my hand tightly.

At far end of hall was a dais and chair that stood empty for the moment, but I noticed that no one pressed very close to the area, making me wonder if all the nobility feared Taeynd as much as the common folk did. Each of the four corners of the hall housed a set of spiral stairs that seemed to go both up to the higher levels, and down to what I hoped weren’t the dungeons. Bathrooms were on either side of the hall under the balconies that made up the second floor hall. Guards were posted at each stairway, as well as among the people. I guessed to keep things in order once Taeynd appeared.

A man who looked as if he were an official approached Mac, asking what we were here for. After a curt, but polite answer from Mac, he directed us to the right side of the room where the nobility were gathered around tables where wine was being served by more of the castle’s staff.

Hoping to come up with a valid story that would keep us from being imprisoned, I turned to Peorth and asked for the name of a town that was part of the country we were in, but obscure, far away. She gave me a name and I filed it away in order to use it if I was approached by someone and they asked where I had come from.

Mac turned so that we formed a rough circle. “What is our goal?” he asked quietly, so that only we could hear him as he looked around the group of us. “Do we just want to get Joel out? Or do we want to kill Taeynd?”

“We don’t want to kill Taeynd,” I told him, keeping my voice as low as possible. I understood the fact that what we’d learned of Taeynd was all negative, but I didn’t want her blood on our hands if we could help it. Getting Joel out was all I cared about.

“We just want to get Joel out?” Mac repeated as he looked around again.

I glanced around the group as well, not sure how anyone else felt, but I knew that if there was a chance of getting Joel away without death, the whole situation would be a better one for all of us. “We don’t want to kill anybody. We can bring her down.” That would remove her from power and get Joel away from her at the same time. It seemed like the best outcome.

“We can kill her,” Siofra said.

“We can’t kill anybody,” I retorted quickly, my voice rising slightly so that I quickly looked around to see if I had been overheard.

“Why don’t we just get Joel out and go home,” Mac suggested, looking between Siofra and myself.

“This woman obviously has a hold over these people, and that’s not good,” I said, not sure if I could live with myself if we allowed Taeynd to maintain control of this land, meaning others would suffer after we had gone, but murder just didn’t sit well with me.

Mac’s gaze met mine. “We came here to get Joel,” he said, his tone saying that he had made the decision and we weren’t to question him about it. “We’ll get him and go home,” he finished with another sweeping look around the group of us, and then he turned to look over the crowd again.

I was torn. I knew that if possible, we should help the people rid themselves of Taeynd’s oppressive dictatorship over the country, but I knew that my first concern was to get Joel out of here. His safety was the priority for us at the moment and what we needed to concentrate on. Mac needed him to learn more about his new powers and to gain whatever he needed to in order to fulfill his destiny.

I tried not to think about my developing feelings for him because I hadn’t really had time to explore them in my own head yet. I figured there would be time for that after we got Joel back home as I pushed the mental picture of him from behind my eyes. I took Kenaz by the hand and kept her at my side as I began to mill through the crowd, thinking that I needed to my use of my time until Taeynd and Joel showed up to learn all that I could about the strange place that Joel had unwillingly found himself bound in.

As Mac and the others wandered about to see what they could learn as well, I chatted with a few people in the hopes of finding out more about Taeynd. I ended up talking to a woman in her early fifties, whom I quickly determined was nothing more than a gossip looking for her next piece of news. Since I was looking for information, I was more than happy to let her chat on about her husband, who was an ambassador from the capital who was here to visit ‘Bloodmark’ as Taeynd was called.

Part way through the conversation I bent down to Kenaz to whisper to her. “I’m talking with this woman so look out for people looking at us strangely. I want you to tug on my skirt if that happens.” The girl nodded that she understood and I felt her little hand move from mine to my skirt where she held on just as tightly as she had my hand.

“Is Bloodmark married?” I asked her. “Does she have a family?”

The other woman nodded. “She has a consort, but I don’t think they’re married.”

“Really?” I replied, trying not to show too much interest as a knot of dread suddenly formed in my lower abdomen. “Who is this consort?”

Her answer caused my heart to stop for a moment, but totally explained the sudden tightness in my gut. “Jolesic.”

I swallowed as I tried to cover my surprise and smiled widely at the woman to keep my jaw from dropping. “What is he like? Have you met him?”

“He’s a very gracious man” she gushed with a knowing smile that made my stomach lurch sickly as I crossed my arms in front of me and clutched at the sleeves of my dress desperately. “He seems to dote on her,” the other woman confided.

I had to clamp my teeth on my bottom lip to not scream, and then tried to sound nonchalant as I spoke. “Amazing. Sounds like a match made in heaven to be sure.”

She looked to either side of us, and then leaned forward to confide in a loud whisper, “I did hear a rumor that they are to be married, but I can’t seem to get it confirmed.”

I blinked in what I hoped was surprise and not repulsion. “How long ago was this?” I asked.

“Just a few weeks ago,” she commented as she took a sip from the pewter goblet she held. “I heard about a wedding dress.”

I cleared my throat. “Where is this Jolesic from? Around here?” How could he have acted the way he had toward me the other night in my dream if he was planning to marry her? It didn’t make sense. Was that why he hadn’t wanted her to see me?

Her eyes gleamed as if I’d asked the million-dollar question and she leaned toward me again. “No one knows. He showed up one day and Taeynd fell for him. Some of the more common folk fear Bloodmark, but they don’t understand what it means to be a ruler. One must keep an iron grip on things or the peasants will over run you.”

I looked around the room to see where Mac and the others were and found that most of them hadn’t gone far. I didn’t see Siofra. “How long will she make us wait before she comes down?”

The other woman shrugged. “She’s a busy woman, she’ll come down when the time is right, she just seems to sense these things.”

All this talk of Joel marrying Taeynd was leaving a horrible taste in my mouth. I knew that I needed to change the subject fast, before I gave myself away. “I heard she’s looking for ladies in waiting. How does one become a lady in waiting?”

The woman looked over her shoulder and pointed out someone, but I was saved from continuing my conversation with her because at that moment horns sounded in the hall and everyone was turning to face the dais. My eyes moved there as well and I found that Joel and a woman I could only assume was Taeynd seemed to have just appeared before everyone, several guards surrounding them and looking the audience over for possible attackers. Taeynd’s hand was lightly resting on Joel’s arm as they stood smiling at the crowd and he seemed to have eyes only for her as everyone welcomed their ‘lady’.

I didn’t think of her for a moment as I looked Joel over carefully. He was wearing a royal blue tunic, trimmed in black with Taeynd’s snake emblems embroidered along the bottom hem and at the shoulders. His black, knee-high boots were polished until they gleamed and his black pants fit him like a glove as they hugged his legs tightly. He didn’t seem to be hurt in any way, but I got the impression that Taeynd had the ability to hurt people in ways that wouldn’t always show readily.

Convinced that he was okay for the moment, I moved my gaze to Taeynd and was overwhelmed by how beautiful she was. Her dark hair was pulled back away from her face in a gentle cascade of fat curls, some having been allowed to spill from their pins so that they caressed her neck and partially exposed chest and shoulders. Her gown was pale pink and looked like a cloud as she moved to sit on the throne in the middle of the dais, Joel helping her adjust the pillows so that she was comfortable after she was seated.

Out of nowhere I felt a sudden need to be closer to her that I couldn’t understand. I found myself wondering why I had ever thought anything bad about the woman as she looked out over the mass of subjects before her with a radiant smile.

I must have taken a few steps forward because I felt Eliza move closer to me and she put a hand on my arm. “Corrine, honey,” I heard her say, but I couldn’t take my eyes off Taeynd. She was so beautiful.

“Isn’t she awfully pretty?” I whispered as I stared at her, awestruck.

“Corrine, honey,” Eliza repeated, shaking me slightly.

“But look at her, isn’t she pretty?” I insisted.

Eliza took my shoulders and turned me so that I finally faced her. “Her presence does not affect you,” she told me when my eyes met hers, and just like that her words sunk in and I instantly knew that Taeynd had done something with magick to make me forget why we were here. Make me become enthralled. For once I was glad that Eliza had used her own brand of mind control on me to break the spell Taeynd had caused.

My eyes moved back at the woman on the dais and I knew that my gaze was filled with malicious intent that if spotted would have given me away to any of the guards in the room. “That bitch,” I ground out through clenched teeth as I tried to take a deep breath to steady my anger.

“Why don’t you come back here with us,” Eliza suggested as she slipped her arm around my waist and practically had to pull me back to where Mac, Glenn and Kenaz were waiting for us with Peorth and Os-tur.

“She’s pretty,” Kenaz told me, her eyes looking soft and dreamy and I winced as I wondered if I had looked the same way just a moment ago.

I took her hand loosely in mine. “Honey, she’s mean, she’s not pretty.”

“Are you sure?” she asked in her innocent, childlike way and I nodded in answer.

Taeynd was thanking everyone for their attendance as Joel stood next to her and her guards moved between her and the crowd on either side of the throne. She sounded very gracious, her voice full of sweetness that made my upper lip curl in distaste. She was manipulating them and I knew it. She then called for the judgments to begin, starting with the peasant class then working up to nobility.

Mac motioned for us to move closer to one of the bathrooms, but he didn’t give an indication as to why. Once there we stood and listened for a while to the proceedings. Taeynd was harsh in her judgments, but everyone around us appeared to approve of her decisions.

Glenn leaned over to Mac and whispered, “Siofra found this woman who was crying that she’s going to help get out of the castle because her daughter’s a bitch.”

Mac glanced at him in disbelief then shook his head. “No, we’re getting Joel and getting out. No more strays.”

Glenn was silent for a moment and I figured that he was talking to his wife in his mind. “She’s not listening,” he told his brother-in-law after a moment.

Mac shook his head again and eyed Glenn in a way that said loud and clear that he expected Glenn to be able to control his wife a little better. This time it was Mac who was quiet for a few more minutes, as if he were locking in the last few pieces to a puzzle that he was working on in his head, and then he turned to Eliza and said, “Get Corrine and the kid out to the wagon.”

“Are you sure that’s such a good idea?” she asked as she eyed him wearily; obviously not ready to leave the castle without him.

“Yes,” he answered.

“Are you sure that’s such a good idea?” she repeated, really not liking the idea. I didn’t like it either, but I knew Mac. Not as well as Eliza did, but I knew him well enough to know that he had a plan and it didn’t include us being there.

“What are you going to do?” I asked, my eyes quickly darting to where Joel still stood next to Taeynd. He hadn’t taken his eyes off her since they had appeared on the dais and that scared me. I had hoped that he would have seen me, or at least one of us, so that he could have been reassured that we were here to help him. That everything was going to be okay. I still wasn’t sure what was going on between he and Taeynd, but part of me hoped that what the other woman had told me was somehow wrong.

“I can’t be in both places,” Eliza was telling Mac. “I can’t protect you both.”

“You need to protect her,” he replied, looking pointedly at me.

“And who’s going to protect you?” she countered, her voice taking on the slight edge of panic that she was trying to control.

“Glenn,” was his answer.

“Are you sure that’s such a good idea?” she asked a third time, obviously stalling.

Mac grinned and dropped a discreet kiss on her cheek. “Well, I have a heartbeat, so Glenn isn’t going to stake me anymore. Go, but give me your cloak.”

Eliza quickly shed the garment and handed it to him, but worry was permanently stuck in her gaze. “Okay, but if you die, I’m going to kill you.”

Mac’s grin widened to a full smile. “Fair enough.”

“Diddo,” I added, unable to think of another funeral for him.

His face set seriously again as he regarded the two of us. “Go get ready, with the gunpowder and the oil. Be ready.”

We turned and discreetly made our way toward the exit as Taeynd continued to listen to the petitions that were being presented to her. As we left I found myself looking over my shoulder for one last lingering glimpse at Joel. I was still secretly hoping that he would look at me, but he never did.

Disappointment at leaving the man behind for the time being took a hold of my heart as Eliza, Kenaz, Peorth and I returned to the wagon. I silently brought Gwrhyr up to speed on what was happening as I determinedly did as Mac had asked, readying the oil and gunpowder for use. Mac’s mystical guide informed me that no one had bothered any of the horses or the wagon while we’d been inside, probably because a large wolf had been pretending to doze in the bed of the wagon, but I didn’t comment on that.

Kenaz didn’t need much prodding to hunker down in the front of the wagon near the seat and be prepared to hold on tightly. Peorth immediately went to her and Os-tur’s horses while Eliza gave the team and wagon a quick once over. I worked on the oil and gunpowder and Eliza climbed into the drivers seat a few minutes later, taking up the reigns with a concerned expression on her face as she looked back toward the keep.

Long minutes crept by before Siofra finally appeared with an older woman who climbed into the back of the wagon with her. No sooner had they settled themselves in the wagon, than a magickal gateway opened a few yards away from us. Mac and Joel stepped through with an unconscious Glenn between them. Siofra bolted from the wagon to her husband and helped the two men get him in the bed as we all scooted around to make room for him. I saw no sign of Os-tur as Gwrhyr jumped down and out of the way, then he went to Mac’s side, probably for a private conversation.

“Corrine, give me your hand,” Siofra commanded in a tightly controlled voice as she reached for me. Knowing that she intended to heal him, I clasped her hand tightly and opened myself to the magick. As the power flowed from me and into my aunt, I watched as Mac and Joel quickly mounted our horses.

I felt the wagon lurch beneath me as we started to move toward the gate and heard Mac call for the oil and a gun. With my free hand I lifted the oil to him, giving him my own gun to use for lighting the packages up, as we rushed forward, Glenn’s gateway to the inside of the castle closing behind us.






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