Eva gripped the side of the wagon as it approached Sui Saor. The rumble of the wooden wheels rolling over the bridge was enough to alert the guards. She couldn’t tell the time of day. Darkness had overtaken them in their rush to leave from Midland.
As Tomas slowed the horses, Eva finally spoke to Theo. She worried about what she would find at the Manor. “I forgot to give Seeley his new name.”
Theotello didn’t feel the need to talk either. His thoughts were on Brother Sammil and Leena, as well as the role he was to play in Bon Abbi. “Send a message to Sola,” he responded, “when you are able. What name did you decide to give him?”
Eva barely allowed the wagon to stop before she jumped to the ground. “Valor.” She pulled her kirtle and tunic off the cobblestones, then said, “Please follow me.”
Without taking the time to thank Tomas, Eva ran to the guards. “Come with me to the Manor.”
“My Lady,” objected one of the men. “We can’t leave the gates unprotected.”
Eva turned to the young runner. “Awaken any of the blacksmiths. Tell them I need them at the gates now! Go!”
Without further delay, she ran towards the Manor with Theotello. The guards kept pace with every step. Eva felt her heartbeat increase the closer they got to the Manor. This late in the day, no one should be working. But the light escaping around the edges of the door said otherwise.
Eva grabbed the handle and pushed the door open with her shoulder. Cara, her hair unbounded and loose, turned toward them, startled by the door hitting the edge of a table.
“My Lady,” she curtsied. “You frightened me for a moment. How may I serve you?”
Before Eva could say anything, Theo stepped between them. Cara was cleaning the kitchen. Nothing looked out of the ordinary. “Where do you keep the kitchen scraps?” he asked the cook.
Cara pointed at the empty pail by the door. “I throw away the scraps to keep vermin out of my kitchen.”
Theo walked around, looking at various shelves and cabinets. Some held bread or filled with vessels, wooden plates, and other meal settings. He placed his hand on the dark kettle suspended above the fireplace, but it was cold.
“What are you doing here, Cara, this late in the day?” asked Eva.
“I couldn’t sleep. I decided to come down and start prepping some food for the masters. I thought they might be hungry since they didn’t eat their evening meal here.”
“My Lady,” interrupted one of the guards. “We should be getting back to the gates.”
Eva glared at them, and with authority, said, “You’ll stay here as long as I need you!”
“Where do you keep your spices?” asked Theo.
Cara pointed. “In the next room through that door. Why all these questions?”
Theo lifted one of the lanterns and left the kitchen through the door near Cara. Sounds of vials hitting together and boxes scrapping the floor made the cook nervous. Eva watched her every move.
The noises from the next room stopped. Theo appeared by the entrance to the kitchen, with his right hand behind him. He concealed something from view.
“Cara, is there anything you want to tell us?”
She couldn’t see what Theo was holding, so she shook her head. He glanced at Eva, then revealed a dark gray flask with a stopper. It had a fixed label of a bull.
“You killed Lord Rando!” Eva screamed at the cook.
“I did no such thing,” Cara yelled as Eva continued to accuse her.
Theo placed the flask on the nearest table and took ahold of Cara’s hand. She tried to pull away, but he held on to it. She rubbed it when he released her hand. He then drew back the thick cloth fastened around the table behind Cara.
There was another scrap bucket. Theo pulled it out and showed it to Cara. “I believe these scraps include the ‘amanita muscaria’ mushroom. Combined with that drink, it produces one of the poisons you used.”
Cara raised her hands to her eyes, sobbing loudly. “I didn’t know it would kill Lord Rando!”
Eva’s anger wouldn’t subside. “Who told you to do such a thing?”
Taking several shuddering breaths, the cook regained her composure. “I went to visit my sister in Casselberry before the last harvest, but I couldn’t find her. Then a soldier came to me, saying they had my sister. They would kill her if I didn’t follow their instructions.”
“Why didn’t you ask for help?” Theo asked.
“Who could I ask? I’m a cook, not a noble. Besides, they told me they would kill my sister if I told anyone.”
“That’s not good enough!” Eva yelled. “You served Lord Rando for a long time. He would have helped. Did you kill my father?” Eva asked.
Cara didn’t know Eva meant the Miller and not Lord Rando. “There were other deaths that occurred before I arrived in Bon Abbi. Were you responsible for them?” Eva demand.
She shook her head, denying any involvement. “No. I received a packet after they died. I was to cook the power into Lord Rando’s meal. Once I did, I could leave for Casselberry.”
Theo placed the scrap bucket down. “But you didn’t leave. Why not?”
Cara couldn’t control her sobbing. “I couldn’t leave without knowing what would happen.”
“And yet, you prepared more poison today.” Eva pointed out.
Cara nodded her head. “Aye. I did. But when the masters didn’t show, I threw it away. I couldn’t do it again, even if it meant my sister would die.”
She turned to the guards. “Take Cara to her quarters. She is not to leave until morning. One of you must stay there until the Council decides what to do.”
As the guards pushed Cara out of the kitchen, she pleaded for mercy, but Eva refused to hear. She took a deep breath before turning to Theo. “This isn’t her fault. I am as guilty as Cara for letting Lord Rando die.”
“You kept him alive longer than expected,” Theo offered. “It’s clear that the threat is coming from Casselberry, but we can’t connect this act to Luka. There wasn’t more I could read when I held Cara’s hand.”
Eva nodded her head slightly. “In the morning, I will ask Cara to identify any other people in Bon Abbi bidding Casselberry’s demands.”
Theo walked over to a small loaf of bread on a shelf. The hardened crust meant someone made it during the early morning hours. It would be safe to consume.
“I’ll take this to my quarters. It’ll hold me until tomorrow. Have someone clean out the kitchen before the morning meal preparation. Throw away every edible item and wash all vessels thoroughly.”
Eva agreed. “I’ll plan to start my day early. Take your rest. I’m going to the barn to speak with Josah before ending the day.”
As he started to leave, Eva said, “Theo, thank you for your help today. There is solace having you here in Bon Abbi.”
The young man grinned for a moment, nodded his head and left. Eva’s smile faded as she looked around the kitchen. Her father and Lord Rando died because of someone she thought to be loyal.
Blowing out the candles in the different lanterns, she closed the kitchen door and headed to the barn. She knew Josah would use this incident as an excuse to run. “And he may be right,” Eva thought.
The path to the Square was awash with darkness, pushed back by the occasional burning torch. The moon, not quite full, provided extra light, a sign of the harvest to come. Eva rounded the corner and entered the Square.
She thought it odd that neither the guards or blacksmiths were by the gates. “They may be chasing the coyotes away,” Eva reasoned after hearing the howling nearby.
As she approached the barn, Eva heard someone call out her name. She couldn’t make out who it was, as they stood in the shadows. “Josah, is that you?”
“Yes,” the shadow replied, urging Eva to come nearer.
“There is so much I have to tell you,” she said. As her eyes adjusted, Eva realized it wasn’t Josah. A man stood, holding a long wooden staff in his hand.
“Who are you? Show yourself!”
Before Eva could react, the man swung the staff hard, striking her head. She reeled back and fell to the cobblestone. Eva felt warm blood flow down the side of her head. Struggling to remain conscious, the man stepped forward, ready to strike again.
“Please stop,” she pleaded before succumbing to the pain.
Josah followed Graybard and the Evermore boys out through the pub door. The music and singing continued with intensity, as they made their way back to the Square. Gray waited for Josah, then swung his arm around his shoulders.
“What did I tell you? There is nothing like mead and ale to lift your spirits.”
Caleb staggered a bit as he sang the last song they heard in the pub. What he lacked in singing skills, he made up with vigor. Josah and Conall couldn’t help laughing.
“Josah,” Conall huffed. “Father is never to hear about Caleb drinking ale.”
“Aye,” agreed Graybard. “I’ll need safe passage to Liez before he’s to know.”
The warrior let out a hearty laugh. He took several steps in front of the boys before turning around. Raising his hand, he got them to stop.
“I’ve never told you before,” he snickered. “I’m, I’m glad you took me as your prisoner.”
Josah placed his hand on the warrior’s shoulder. “This isn’t the ale talking when I say this, Gray.” He paused and looked at the brothers. “We were your prisoners!”
They all laughed at the thought. “Yeah,” Caleb said. “We couldn’t get rid of you.”
Graybard turned around and continued walking toward the Square. “You are right, of course. I can’t thank you enough for letting me stay.”
As they reached the cross path that led to the Manor, Josah bid the brothers a good evening. “Don’t sleep too long. We have to start cutting trees in the morning!”
Gray and Josah turned towards the Square, ready to end their day. As they made the turn to the barn, Graybard commented, “Something’s not right. There’s no one at the gates.”
Josah stretched his left arm out and stopped Graybard’s forward progress. He could see that the barn door was ajar. As he surveyed the area, he spotted Ena standing by two lifeless bodies.
“I told you that cat would harm somebody!” shouted the warrior.
With that sobering thought, the two ran towards Ena. Her eyes reflected the dim light as she made a gurgling sound Josah never heard before. She leaned down, glaring at the man, then looking at Josah.
“Gray, that’s Eva! I’m going to try and hold on to Ena. See what has happened to her!”
Josah squatted and beckoned Ena to come. When the cat didn’t perceive the fallen man as a threat, she came to Josah and sat down. “Eva!” shouted Josah as Graybard scooped her from the cobblestone.
“She’s still breathing, Josah, but has a bad gash on her head.”
The movement was enough to awaken the young girl. “I’m alright,” she insisted. “Put me down.”
Graybard honored her request but held on to her, as she was unstable. “Josah, you’re not harmed, are you?”
“Me? I’m fine, but you’re not. What happened here?”
With a slight push, Eva walked away from Graybard and moved towards the cat. She knelt and hugged Ena, something Josah never tried to do. The big cat rumbled her delight.
Eva released Ena but continued to tilt her head to one side. “I came over to the barn and thought this man in the shadows was you calling to me. He struck me with that staff.”
Graybard went over to pick it up but decided against it when Ena let out a warning growl. “Ena saved my life, Josah.”
He looked at the barn door and noticed the latch used to close it laid on the stones. “She must have heard the commotion.”
The warrior kicked the attacker’s foot, assuring he was dead. Deep wounds on his neck and a pool of blood around his head confirmed it. “Who is he?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never seen the man before,” Eva replied. She stood up gradually, touching around her wound. “Can you put Ena back in the barn and fasten the door as best you can? I need you to take me to the Manor. This wound needs cleaning and binding. “
“What about the man?” asked Graybard.
Eva grimaced from the throbbing pain. “Cover him with a blanket for now. By morning, everyone will know about Ena.”
“Stay here, Eva,” ordered Josah, as he ran to the barn. Ena followed him inside, then glanced at him. He rubbed her back and said, “You did well!”
He motioned her to stay. Requiring no other signal, Ena turned and made her way up the ramp. She seemed unconcerned that Josah would leave. He stepped out of the barn and found a brick to wedge the door shut.
“I’ll fix the latch in the morning. Ena’s had enough excitement for the day. She’ll sleep now.”
Eva slipped her arm around Josah and started walking to the Manor. “Wait, one more thing,” she said, turning slightly toward Graybard.
“Please go to the gates. I’m afraid this attacker may have harmed the guards. Make sure the runner is safe.”
Josah didn’t sleep that evening, getting back to the barn much later. Graybard and Ena were asleep in their opposite corners. All he could do was lay on the blanket and worry about what would happen, come morning.
At first light, he dressed and urged Ena out to the open fields. As she ran to catch her breakfast, Josah thought about taking Ena back to the Valley. He wanted to avoid any harsh judgment handed down by the Council.
Caleb walked to the wall. He told Josah that the Council was in the Square waiting for him. “Earlier, a few men carried the attacker’s body outside of the wall, where they plan to bury him.”
Josah marveled at the speed things had changed since he returned home. With a deep breath, he took one final look at Ena running in the fields.
“She’ll be fine,” Caleb said. “I’ll watch her now.”
He nodded, then walked back toward the side of the barn. Josah decided early to wear his best linen shirt and the green hooded tunic for the occasion. And yet, a queasy feeling washed over him when he encountered the Council.
Eva Marie stood firm, with a white bandage wrapped around her head. Behind her, the Square filled with villagers. He couldn’t tell by the faces if it was a good thing.
“Josah,” Dali began. “The Council knows about the Dragoon and what happened last night. We’re all relieved Eva Marie survived the attack. We cannot believe that an attack of this nature occurred inside our city.”
The young man braced himself for what was to come next. He knew the villagers and the Council wouldn’t tolerate a Dragoon in the city, so he didn’t wait.
“Look,” Josah defended himself. “I know I should never have brought Ena into the city. But she’s never harmed, anyone. We’ve been here nearly a fortnight…”
Eva Marie interrupted Josah. “Hold on. There is no need to go further. The fact that Ena has lived amongst us without an incident means we can trust her.”
Walking over to Josah, Eva touched the back of his arm. “The Council has decided, as a reward for keeping me safe, Ena can stay in the barn. Each member of the Council spoke with their villages and conceded to our request.”
Josah looked confused. Glancing over the villagers in the Square, he could tell everyone didn’t feel the same way. Some looked angry.
“The villages have explicit details on what they are to do,” Eva continued. “Mainly, they cannot interact with Ena at all. No petting, feeding, or entering the barn.”
A murmur spread amid the villagers, many stepping back, as Ena had made her way into the Square. She looked around, sniffing the air, then found Josah. “I’m sorry, Josah,” Caleb whispered. “I couldn’t keep her in the field.”
Josah knelt and let Ena bury her face into his chest. Eva came around and squatted next to the big cat. Without any prompting, Caleb, Graybard, Conall, and Dali stood by Ena.
Eva raised her right hand to hush the crowd. “Those of you still concerned about a Dragoon in our midst, we’ll provide you safe passage to Midland. “I’ll work out the details with Lord Tao over the next few days.”
Dali shouted to the villagers. “Those of you who have promised to help fell trees by Filgore and Alder Woods mountains. Please return with axes and saws. Eat heartily and bring another meal with you as it will take all day.”
Graybard placed his hand on Dali’s back and pushed her away from the Council. “Dali, tell me the truth. How is she? Eva Marie doesn’t look well.”
“No, she doesn’t, but she will survive,” Dali said with confidence.
Rubbing his hand from his forehead to the top of his head, Graybard wasn’t as sure. “I can’t protect her or build an army.”
Josah glanced at Graybard, talking with Dali. His curiosity ended when Eva reminded him. “The Manor can’t serve food until they clean the kitchen. Dali has made provision for you all to eat at the Blue Door Pub.”
“What are you going to do about Cara?” Josah asked.
She touched the side of her head and winced. “The Council has left the decision to Dali and me. We have an idea, but it depends on Cara’s response. Dali plans to stay with me afterward so that I can rest.”
Josah looked into Eva’s eyes. He saw her exhaustion and fear, but there were also signs of anger and determination. He kissed the side of her head, already swollen. The bandage couldn’t cover the shades of purples, yellows, and browns.
The two women left the Square and headed towards the Manor. A guard made sure Cara would be in her quarters when they arrived. Dali assisted Eva up the broad staircase, outside the kitchen. All servants working at the Manor lived here.
The man standing guard outside the door placed his hand near his heart and bowed his head. “My Lady. Cara is in her room.”
Eva glanced at Dali, signaling to her that she knew what to do. Turning to the guard, she said, “I need you to do something for me today. Go to the Grand Parlor. Ask one of the healers to go into Lord Rando’s office and give you the leather pouch inside the first drawer on the left.”
The guard looked up at Eva. He’s never been inside the main house. “There are ten coins in the pouch,” Eva continued. “Take one coin out and give it to Tomas. Tell him to prepare the wagon for a long ride to Casselberry.”
“Anything else, ma’am?” he asked.
“Yes. Give a coin to the other guard and blacksmith standing watch at the gates last night. The attacker struck them as well. Take a coin for yourself, and then give the pouch to Tomas. I’ll send word to him what to do before he heads out to Casselberry.”
Bowing his head once more, the guard left the hall, bounding down the stair. Dali wasn’t sure what Eva was planning but trusted her judgment. With a single knock, the two women entered the room.
Cara, distraught with fear, sat on the edge of a small trunk. The room held a few personal items, but it was dark, drafty, and in need of repair. Eva told herself to update these rooms when she could.
She tried to curtsy, but her strength disappeared. “My Lady,” came out as a whisper.
“An attacker struck me last night, no doubt, from Casselberry, ” Eva began. She touched the bandage to emphasize her point. “Have no doubt. I will hand a punishment down today, but I may be lenient with you.”
“What must I do?” Cara sobbed. “Please ask it of me, and I will do it.”
“We need to know who else in Bon Abbi is doing Casselberry’s bidding,” Dali interjected.
Cara paled at the request. “Ma’am, I worked all my days in the kitchen below us. I am acquainted with a few people, and I can tell you I don’t know of such treachery.”
Dali looked at the cook in disbelief. “My Lady,” she appealed to Eva. “Bid me do something else to gain your favor. But I can’t tell you what I don’t know.”
Her deep sobs told Eva everything she needed to know. “I believe you, Cara.”
The cook wiped her eyes, thanking the two women for their mercy. “Here is your punishment,” Eva said. “You must leave, Rylie Glen.”
Cara gasped. “I am not a young woman. I have no way to get to Southport, nor pay passage, or know where to stay. I will die.”
Eva sat next to Cara and held her hand. “This judgment is to protect and not to harm you. Tomas will take you to Casselberry. He has a pouch with six coins ready to give to you.”
The cook couldn’t determine what she heard. “Are you helping me off the island?”
“Yes, I am. Dali will instruct Tomas to help you gain your sister’s freedom. Use a coin to bride the soldier, if you must. He’ll assist you and your sister with safe passage to your city of choice. There will be a few coins left for you to start again in a new city.”
Cara squeezed Eva’s hand, then stood before embracing Dali. “You have offered mercy, where none should occur. Others will hear of my encounter with the ladies of this fair city!”