(Previous chapters can be found here.)
Not long after the sun began its descent Doctor Carson arrived to check on his patient once more and was very pleased with Aaron's condition. He left with an admonition to Drew and myself not to wear Aaron out too much, and a promise to return the next morning. Dinner came and went, and with it Aaron's energy. As soon as he began to flag Drew moved him back to the bed and he was quickly fast asleep. Drew and I returned to the sitting room, keeping the conversation light, and eventually a soft knock on the door was followed by Ballard's entrance.
"I suppose that's my cue to leave," I said, standing up. Drew stood as well and surprised me by gathering me up in a fierce hug.
"Thank you Laren," he said quietly. I hugged him back and then he let go. "I think it's time I retired for the evening as well," he said, nodding to Ballard. "Tomorrow, then?"
"Tomorrow," I answered, slipping out of the rooms. Ballard joined me in the corridor, once more taking up the guard. I looked at him closely. He didn't seem as rested as I would have liked, but he clearly had taken some time to sleep. "Aaron woke up for a while this afternoon," I told him, smiling. "It was so wonderful to have him back again."
"I'm glad you've gotten the chance," he told me, returning the smile. "Did you have an opportunity to discuss the Riordan situation with him?" He turned serious as he asked.
"I broached the subject," I said, tilting my head. "He doesn't seem to have much hope of a solution. Drew isn't so certain it's a lost cause however. In a day or two I'll sit them both down and see if we can't come up with an actual plan of action, or at least the beginnings of one."
"I've made some changes to the security around the estate," he said. "They are subtle, so hopefully no one will notice, but they should allow us to keep any sneak attacks from happening. Now," he examined me closely, "I think it's my turn to send you to get some sleep, my lady. I'm sure it's been a draining day for you."
I started to protest but as he said it I realized that he was right. I was exhausted. I had gotten only a little sleep the night before, and it had been a long day, even if the bulk of it had been pleasant. Instead, I squeezed his hand and dipped my head to him before turning to head back to my rooms.
When I got there I was a little dismayed at how disorganized they were. I had not yet picked up for the night when Aaron and Drew arrived the previous evening, and had just fallen in bed after my discussion with Drew. I sighed and started straightening up. I put away some drawing supplies that had been left out and marked my place in the book I had been reading. That reminded me to set a few books aside to take to Aaron and Drew. They were going to be stuck in those rooms for a few weeks at least. While I knew I was going to be spending a good deal of that time with them, I likely would have duties that kept me away from time to time. It might be good to offer them some diversions. With all of that in place, I quickly prepared myself for bed and was asleep as soon as my head hit the pillows.
I spent almost every day of the next two weeks with Aaron and Drew, while Ballard continued to guard their rooms at night. I managed to make excuses for declining any invitations I received and Roslyn put off the party she has been planning which freed up even more time for me. Aaron recovered at a remarkable rate, although Doctor Carson still continued to insist that he should remain under observation, just to be sure. I filled several tablets drawing my brother and Drew, trying to capture as many memories as possible before they were once more gone from my life. I had no illusions that they would stay in Pelos even if we were successful in eliminating the threat from Riordan.
I did finally manage to convince Aaron that I was serious about finding a way to end the threat. Drew helped, and I remembered that defiant spark in his eyes the first morning after their arrival, when he had revealed he was of the House of Iron. He knew that powerful Houses could fall, and he was eager to be a part of toppling Riordan's. With that hurdle out of the way, we began brainstorming how to achieve our goal. Once Aaron was able to stay up for longer periods at a time, Ballard would join us in the evenings as we worked out our plan. It was simple enough, really. Ballard had been right that Drew and Aaron knew much that Riordan would not want to be known by the rest of Pelos. It seemed the Head of Griffon had a long list of illegal activities that could be laid at his feet. Any one of them coming to light would be damaging to Riordan, but if we could provide the Prime with enough evidence, he would have no choice but to strip Riordan of his title and imprison him for life--or execute him. Many of his activities seemed to border on treason.
Of course, obtaining that evidence was the hard part, but Drew and Aaron had a good idea of where he kept it. Riordan owned a small candle shop on the Quarter of Trade. His involvement in the shop was not known to the public, of course, or the banks. Much like the warehouse where I had been kept, the shop was purchased and run under false names. Apparently there were only two or three actual shop employees, and they were unaware of their true employer. It was in this shop that Riordan stored all of the documentation regarding his "unofficial" business. Drew had often served as a go-between for Riordan and the shop employees, and he knew where the documents were kept. He also believed the documentation connecting the dots from Riordan to the shop would be found there as well. Our plan was to break into the shop, find the hidden cache of documents, steal them, and then get them into Prime Vinnis' hands.
Simple enough, until we considered that we would need to do it without alerting the Quarter Guards, without being seen leaving or returning to the House of the Stag, without hurting anyone, and without Riordan's people realizing what we were up to. So we spent our evenings pouring over a floor plan of the shop and the layout of the Quarter around it (my drawing skills came in very handily here), and discussing the patrol patterns of the guards and so on. We eventually came up with what we all agreed was a very solid plan, with one major exception. Well, to the men, at least. The plan required four people to succeed, which meant I would have to go along. I was perfectly fine with that, but no one else was. Still, as much as we tried, we could not come up with one that had as good of a chance at working with three.
With the plan decided, all that was left was to choose a night to move. By three weeks after his arrival, Aaron was fully recovered, and it was only Doctor Carson's overprotective nature that kept Roslyn's hospitality in place. Time was running short though, and we all knew it. At most, we had another week to act before Aaron and Drew had to leave. We wrapped up our final planning session and decided to steal the documents the next night. My brother and Drew bid us good evening and retired to their bedroom. Ballard and I headed for the corridor, me to head to my rooms and him to resume guard duty.
Before we made it to the door, however, Ballard surprised me by pulling me into his arms. The kiss was almost as passionate as our first had been, although it was tinged with a sort of desperation. We had not been together in far too long and his touch ignited my body, making my toes curl with delight. When he finally pulled away he held me tightly, resting his forehead against mine. We didn't say anything, but I could tell that he was nervous about our mission the next evening. We would likely not see one another again until we gathered to leave the manor. I soaked up the nearness and tried to reassure him with my touch. We were about to risk so much more than we ever had dreamed, but it would be worth it in the end. It had to be done.
I slept restlessly that night, worrying over details and dreading the coming day. I expected that it would drag on all too slowly as I waited for night to fall. I spent most of the day by myself, reading in my room. Over the last week or so, I had stopped spending the entire day with Aaron and Drew, mostly just joining them for dinner. They needed the time alone and I needed to avoid too many unexplained absences from the rest of the household. I had not left the manor since my brother arrived. Even if I had wanted to, Ballard would not have been able to accompany me, and he would never let anyone else take over as my guard, not when he knew exactly what kind of threat loomed over my head. It was all too easy to assume that Riordan would find a way to snatch me up again the moment I stepped foot off of the estate. I was the threat he had used to keep Aaron and Drew in line, and they assured me that Riordan of Griffon did not make idle threats.
I had just finished my lunch and was going over the evening's plans when a frantic knocking at the door interrupted my thoughts. I opened it with some hesitation and was much surprised to find a very frightened maid on the other side.
"Forgive me, my lady," she exclaimed as she tried to catch her breath, "but you need to come quick! He's like to do something terrible!" She barely waited for me to close the door and step into the corridor before bolting back towards the main stairs. I followed her, my mind racing. Had something happened with Aaron or Drew? Had Riordan managed to get someone inside the manor? The maid led me to the main entrance hall and I picked up my skirts to avoid tripping down the large central staircase. I stopped short at my first sight of the scene that had sent the maid scurrying to find me.
My hand tightened on the banister and my stomach clenched as I saw a very agitated Sebastian standing almost toe to toe with an equally angry Liam. The maid took one look to ensure that I had arrived and then ducked out of sight down a service hallway. I did not blame her. From the looks the two men were giving each other I expected one of them to spontaneously burst into flames at any moment. I could not see anyone else in the entrance hall but I could feel dozens of eyes peeking through barely opened doors or around tapestries. What transpired here was likely to be common knowledge in the city by sundown.
"Where is she!" Sebastian demanded of Liam. He wasn't screaming, exactly, but his voice was certainly much louder than could be considered civilized. "I know something's wrong! No one has seen her in weeks, and all invitations to her are returned, tersely declined with no explanation for why!" I closed my eyes and suppressed a groan. There had been no way to explain to Sebastian in a message what was going on, but I should have tried to get word to him somehow. I should have anticipated this reaction from him. Well, not this exact reaction, I was utterly flabbergasted that he had actually come to the House of Stag itself for answers. But I should have expected something. After all, he knew exactly what had happened the last time I had disappeared from society.
"Maybe," Liam answered in a cold quiet tone, "my wife has finally come to her senses and realized how inappropriate it is for her to associate with you."
"Even if Laren decided to cut ties with me," he said my name very pointedly, trying to provoke Liam, I knew, "she would have the decency to tell me in person, and would give me an explanation. Besides, she isn't answering any invitation. I very much doubt she has suddenly decided that all of Pelos is not worth her time." That tone chilled me. I had only heard it a few times before, but it had never preceded anything pleasant. Neither man had seen me yet, I realized. I frantically tried to think of a way to diffuse this situation before it got any worse. So far it didn't seem as if either had said anything that would be regretted, or that would be overly misconstrued by the audience. I took a few steps down the stairway but stopped short when Sebastian spoke again. "I just want to know that she's alright, man," he breathed softly. I almost didn't hear him.
"Why would you have any reason to think otherwise?" Liam asked, going very still, except for his eyes which narrowed suspiciously. Oh dear. He was not going to be happy that I had told Sebastian about my attack. Not that it was his business who I shared my experiences with, but I doubted he'd see it that way.
"I am perfectly alright, Sebastian," I said clearly, quickly moving down the rest of the steps and walking over to them. Both men started at my voice and turned to face me. I noted with some relief that this put them a little bit farther away from each other. Sebastian's face flooded with relief while Liam's promised a very unpleasant discussion later. "I apologize for my absence of late, but I have just felt rather solitary these past few weeks and had no inclination to leave the manor. I am sorry I didn't offer more of an explanation, I didn't realize you would worry so." I kept my voice as light as possible. "My lord husband, have you offered our guest some tea?"
"He is no guest of mine." Liam spat out. "He should have known better than to step foot in my home."
"Hmm. Perhaps," I said, taking his arm, "but that is no reason not to be gracious." I thought for a moment he would shake me off and for just a heartbeat I saw pure hatred flash across his face. Something inside of me that I hadn't even realized still lived shriveled and died in that moment--the hope that we might ever get along with one another outside of the public eye was gone. Still, he had his role as I had mine, there was no sense in feeding the gossip mill anymore than had already been done. I gazed around the hall pleasantly, giving Liam a pointed look, and said, "Maybe we could finish this conversation in the sitting room?" Liam glanced around in understanding and nodded tersely, but Sebastian spoke up before we could move.
"There will be no need for that, my lady," he said. His face showed traces of concern but he matched his tone to my own. "I came to make sure that you were well and so I find you. I apologize for overreacting." He bowed his head to me. "I do hope you will be feeling more sociable soon, though. Madge has been missing you so, and she was hoping to have you over for tea again."
"I should like that very much, thank you." I answered. "Please give Madge my regards, and my apologies as well. I truly did not mean to cause anyone concern." Liam remained silent through the exchange, holding on to my arm very tightly. I could almost hear the silent refrain of "mine" that I knew was going through his mind.
"I apologize for the scene," Sebastian added, turning to Liam and surprising us both by dipping his head quickly to Liam as well. "You are quite right, my lord, I should not have antagonized you so with a personal visit. I promise never again to darken your doorstep without your express invitation. Good day to you both." He shot me a look that told me quite plainly he expected a full explanation the next time we met, and then he was gone. I released a sigh of relief. It could have been worse.
I had almost forgotten Liam's presence, despite his death grip on my arm. I was therefore quite surprised when he pulled me rapidly into the sitting room, firmly shutting the door and pushing me into a large chair. He didn't say anything for a few moments, he just paced back and forth in front of the fireplace. I could see him shaking with rage and I braced myself for the onslaught.
"I should never have allowed that...friendship to exist," he said at last, whirling on me. I bristled with indignation but was not given a chance to speak before he continued. "You somehow have managed to keep it from making a mockery of me and of this House, but only just. You will accept no more invitation to the House of Blades unless I accompany you, is that clear?" I stared at him in shock. He laughed bitterly at my reaction. "Oh, you've been smart about it so far, Laren, I'll give you that. No one thinks you're sleeping with him yet--"
"Liam, I have already told you--" I tried to interject, but he continued speaking over me.
"But if I suddenly forbid you to spend any time with that charlatan, it will only provide fuel to the flames and the next thing we know, all of Pelos will believe there's an affair." He shook his head in disgust. "No, best to put a stop to the speculation altogether. If I start attending with you, then it will seem as if I approve of the friendship and that I am confident there is nothing more to it." There was a manic gleam in his eyes. I started to feel a little frightened. "Mother was right, we might as well foster a better relationship with Blades anyway. It could be useful. At least neither of those damned twins stands to take over as Head. Now, are we clear on this matter?" He looked at me expectantly.
"Yes, my lord." I was proud that I managed to keep my voice and face calm, despite my roiling emotions. The House of Blades had become a refuge of sorts for me, in more ways than one. Neither Sebastian nor Nathaniel was likely to be pleased by the turn of events. And what would Ballard say? Ballard...well, at least it seemed confirmed that Liam had no suspicions on that front. It was a small comfort, but it seemed all I was likely to receive at the moment.
"You are up to something, though Laren." The statement came so suddenly on my last thought that I only just managed to keep the look of guilt from my face.
"I do not know what you are talking about, my lord," I replied placidly. He snorted and resumed pacing.
"For three weeks you don't leave the manor when normally it is rare for you to spend two days in a row here in their entirety. For the first two weeks no one seems to know where you are all day, although everyone is clear that you didn't leave the estate. I've tried talking to Mother about it, but she seems rather unconcerned with your strange behavior, which leads me to believe she knows what's going on." He stopped again and looked at me, curiosity and annoyance stamped plainly across his face. "I will find out, you know," he promised me softly. I tilted my head at him, maintaining the innocent facade. "But I can be patient," he added, "keep your secrets for now."
He turned toward the window and stood staring out of it in silence. Eventually I stood and smoothed my skirts, ready to be anywhere else.
"If my lord has no further need of me?"
"Go," he said, waving a hand in dismissal without turning to look at me. "I'm tired of dealing with your foolishness." So dismissed I left, hurrying back to my rooms. My thoughts were awhirl with emotions. Liam would have to be told about Aaron after all. I had hoped it could be avoided altogether, and Roslyn had agreed that for the moment at least it was better if he had no knowledge of the matter. I prayed that tonight went well. With any luck, Aaron and Drew would be safely out of Pelos by the end of the week and Riordan dealt with by Prime Vinnis. Then I could freely reveal their visit to Liam without risking them--or him--any harm.
Night fell slowly, bringing with it a sort of tension I had never known before. Once the clock tolled the final hour of the day, I left my rooms and made my way up to the third floor to gather Aaron and Drew. They wore the cloaks of the guard to avoid too much notice in the manor, though we stuck to the routes most likely to be empty of people as much as we could. Underneath their cloaks they wore dark clothing that would allow for them to blend easily into the shadows and darkness, as did I. We stalked quietly through the entrance hall and I tried not to dwell on the day's earlier confrontation that had taken place there. It was a calculated risk to leave through the front entrance, but Ballard insisted it was much less likely to be observed this time of night than the tunnel from the courtyard. Crossing the entrance hall without being seen would be much easier to ensure as well, since there was no way to know who might be looking out through a window or balcony screen observing the courtyard at night.
Ballard was waiting outside and he led us to the woods where he had horses waiting to take us to the Quarter of Trade. As we made our way through the Quarter of Houses, I was quite thankful that Riordan's candle shop was north of the South Claret River, which ran right through the Quarter of Trade. If it had been south of the river, we would have had to risk crossing Peregrine Lake using the bridges that connected the island of House Prima with the two quarters. That would have been too much of a risk to take. As it was, we could not take the horses all the way to the shop. They would only draw attention. We stopped shortly after we entered the quarter and Drew tied the horses up among those belonging to the patrons of a rather busy tavern. When he rejoined us we then made our way to the candle shop on foot.
We reached the street that held the candle shop and hid in the shadows of a building on the opposite side of the street, waiting until we could cross unseen. I realized with a start that the building hiding us was Renard's book shop. How had I never made the correlation in the two shops' locations as we went over our plans? Had I passed by my unknown enemy often as I frequented the store? The steady clopping of hooves down the street shook me from the thoughts. A two-man mounted patrol sauntered down the street, passing within feet of us. I held my breath until they had gone by. Ballard and Drew held us back for a few more long moments after the patrol passed and then, after checking to make sure there was no one about, we dashed across the street into an alleyway that ran along the candle shop.
They alleyway connected the street on which the candle shop was located to the one that ran behind it. It was fairly wide and kept clean of refuge. While too narrow to be an actual thoroughfare, it acted as an out of the way conduit for deliveries to the candle shop and the bakery that occupied the half of the building facing the other street. Drew took up a position in the mouth of the alley to serve as a lookout. Ballard gave my hand a quick squeeze and then he was gone, headed to the back entrance of the alley to serve as a lookout on that end.
I took a deep breath and saw Aaron give me a reassuring smile despite the darkness. He grabbed my hand and led me to a cellar door located about a quarter of a way down the alley. This entrance to the candle shop was the key to our plan. We had realized that even if we did manage to steal the documents proving Riordan's illegal enterprises, we still had to get those documents into the right hands to do us any good. As soon as he found that they were missing, he would come after us with a vengeance. We therefore needed to steal them without him realizing what we had done, in order to buy as much time as possible to get the proof to Prime Vinnis. That meant we couldn't just mask our break-in with a robbery of the shop.
The shop's front door was reinforced and neither Aaron nor Drew believed they could pick its locks quickly enough to avoid discovery. The cellar, however, was another matter. It was kept shut with a heavy chain bolted with a padlock, a padlock that Aaron claimed he could easily and quickly pick. The only real challenge was that the doors were lined with steel and incredibly heavy, it would take two people to open them without being heard. That was where I came in. Aaron bent down on the ground and took out a tool, grasping the padlock firmly in his hands. I held a shuttered lantern behind him to illuminate the lock just enough so he could see what he was doing. I watched in awe as he nimbly manipulated the gears of the padlock, opening it within heartbeats. He carefully pulled the chain free of the door and placed it silently on the ground, not so much as a clink betraying his movements. At a gesture from him I placed the lantern on the ground and moved to help him open one of the massive doors. My muscles were taxed severely, unused to such strain, but I was able to provide enough support for Aaron to swing the door up and open just as quietly as he had moved the chain holding it shut.
He gestured for the lantern, leaning over the opening and dangling it inside to make sure the way was clear. Once he was satisfied, he climbed down inside and then turned to help me in as well. I followed him down the steep but sturdy stairs leading to the floor and took the lantern when he handed it back to me. My heart was pounding as I looked around, suddenly sure we wouldn't find what we sought.
"This way," Aaron whispered and I trailed behind him as he moved deeper into the shop. The cellar was packed full of supplies and smelled rather pleasantly of wax and oils, although it was tricky to navigate. Aaron seemed to know exactly where he was headed though and moved with confidence toward the front corner of the building. When he reached a locked door, he motioned for me to hold up the lantern again and as I did so, he picked another lock, pushing the door open to reveal a neat but cluttered office. It was a small space so I remained in the main room, peering around the darkened cellar while my brother rifled through the office for the documents we needed.
"Laren, you need to see this," Aaron said, his voice almost at its normal volume and full of shock. Surprised, I moved to join him. He was kneeling next to the space under the desk, where he had pulled up a section of the floorboards to reveal a small safe set right into the ground. The safe was open and Aaron was staring down at a stack of letters, disbelief plain on his face.
"What did you find?" I asked quietly. "Are those the documents we need?"
"Yes, what did you find, Aaron?" I froze at the sound of the voice behind us. It had been almost a full cycle since I had last heard it, but it still caused me to freeze in fear. "I should think our employer would be very interested to find you here, going through his personal belongings. Disappointed, of course, but interested nonetheless."
Rough hands grabbed me, pulling me backwards through the office door and spinning me around to face Jonah. How had he known we would be here? We had been so careful! He gave me a wicked grin that promised pain and humiliation and then pulled me close to him, my back to his front. I saw a glint of metal and felt the muzzle of a pistol pressed sharply against my throat. Every instinct I possessed was screaming at me to fight my way free, to claw myself out of that hateful grasp. Yet the cold metal pressed against my neck had frozen me in place.
"Now, friend," Jonah said smoothly, "drop whatever it is you're holding and stand up. Slowly, mind you, hands up, yes like that." Aaron obeyed Jonah's commands, his face had changed from disbelief to rage. "Why don't you come on out from around that desk where I can see you, eh? That's right, this way." Jonah started walking backwards, dragging me with him towards the more open space around the cellar entrance. Weak moonlight drifted in through the open door. Jonah indicated for Aaron to follow us, directing him to stop at the foot of the stairs with his hands raised above his head.
"You're making a big mistake, Jonah," Aaron said in a low voice.
"Am I?" Jonah chuckled. "Oh I don't think so. I think our employer will be very pleased to hear that not only did I stop you from doing something extremely ill-advised, I also managed to bring you back in. Maybe he'll let me have another go at your sister," he said, groping at me with the hand that held me pressed against him. "I might even get to keep her until I'm actually through with her this time." I bit back a whimper at the suggestion. "No doubt you're thinking your friends upstairs will swoop in to save you, yes?" I saw a flash of doubt in Aaron's eyes and knew it was mirrored in my own. If Jonah knew about Drew and Ballard's presence...
A scuffling at the door above drew our attention. Aaron started to turn but stopped at a bark from Jonah. I could only watch in dismay as Drew climbed through with his hands raised in the air much like Aaron's. He navigated his way down the stairs and Walon quickly followed, dragging a third person with him. I felt utter shock when I recognized the man Walon was dragging. It was not Ballard, but my relief at that realization was shattered when I saw the knife pressed close against the man's throat.
"Liam!" I cried out, "What are you--"
"Quiet now, girlie," Jonah said, giving me a sharp shake. "Well, well, it looks like we've got a bit of a party crasher, don't we? My, my, my." Liam's eyes darted frantically around the darkened cellar. What was he doing here? Had he followed us? Me? I couldn't quite suppress the groan that thought elicited. Of course he had followed me. He had told me earlier today that he would find out what I was up to, hadn't he? Before I could get too distracted cursing my own foolishness Jonah gave me another shake and I returned to the awful reality of the situation.
"Laren, what have you gotten yourself involved in!" Even with a knife at his throat he managed to sound imperious. "How could you do this to me?" He started to say more but went silent as Walon increased the pressure of the blade. Jonah directed Drew to stand next to Aaron and Walon dragged Liam further into the room, standing between our two groups. There was no sight of Ballard. I felt a mix of sharp fear and hope at that. The hope was quickly dashed, however.
"The other one?" Jonah asked Walon.
"Sent him haring off after a couple of street urchins," Walon said, smirking. "By the time he gets back from his wild goose chase, there won't be anything left for him to find." I shut my eyes. There was no hope of rescue, then. At least they didn't hurt him. Not that he'd ever forgive himself if we didn't manage to get out of this situation. I opened my eyes to find Liam glaring at me, scowling.
"Where'd you find this one?" Jonah asked, indicating Liam.
"He was lurking across the street," Walon answered. "Must have been following the others. After I sent the other one running, he started to sneak down the alley, so I figured I'd better round him up. Made Drew here a lot more cooperative," he grunted.
"Probably a good idea. Now we just need to decide to do with him. We need to get out of here soon."
"May I speak?" Liam's voice was calm but he was still directing an icy glare at me. I found annoyance fighting with my fear and glared right back.
"By all means, my lord," Jonah answered in an oily tone, "Just mind that I've got this gun here tucked up right snug into your pretty wife's neck, eh? My finger is so itchy, you know, it could go off at any time."
"Do what you want with her," he said, his eyes moving to meet Jonah's. His voice was pure ice. My eyes widened in surprise and across from me Drew and Aaron narrowed theirs.
"Eh?" Jonah said, caught off guard.
"I don't know what's going on here," Liam continued, "and I really don't want to. What I do know is that it is nothing I want associated with my House. I disavow her, she's not my wife anymore. Keep her, do what you will. All I ask is that you be discreet with how you dispose of her." I could only stare. He couldn't be suggesting what I thought he was, could he? Was he truly capable of that much cruelty? "Let me walk away now, keep my House's name untarnished, and I will pay you handsomely," he finished. Every eye in the room was on Liam. Walon eased his grip a little while Jonah seemed to think the offer over. I stood perfectly still, though I was screaming and thrashing inside.
"That is certainly an interesting proposition, my lord," Jonah finally said in a considering voice. "I would need assurances that no retribution will be sought against us or our employer, of course."
"You have my word," Liam answered. Walon released him and he took a step forward, looking around in disgust. As if he had any right to be the disgusted one. Aaron and Drew were staring at each other and it seemed to me that they were engaged in a silent but intense conversation. I wondered what they were up to when all eyes were drawn to the door at the sound of approaching footsteps.
Aaron and Drew didn't even hesitate when the distraction arrived. They moved as one. Drew lunged for Walon and drove a fist into his face, using his momentum to drive the thug to the ground.
"Laren, drop!" Aaron yelled when Jonah wheeled around to face this sudden threat. I didn't even think, just jerked easily out of Jonah's surprised grip as Aaron closed with him, struggling to keep him from shooting his gun.
"Blood and ashes!" I heard a familiar voice curse and suddenly the crowded cellar contained yet another person. Ballard dived in, eschewing the stairs completely, tucking into a neat little roll as he hit the floor and coming up like a jack in the box, ready to fight. I saw him notice Liam with no little surprise. "My lord, stay back!" he barked, shoving Liam into a corner under the stairs. He looked around wildly for me and ran to where I crouched on the floor, he half picked me up, half dragged me over to the corner next to Liam and then turned to see where he should help next.
Drew had Walon pinned to the ground, though they were still wrestling for control of the knife. Aaron seemed to be in the weaker position, fighting with Jonah while trying to get the gun from him. Ballard ran to help Aaron. While Ballard was distracted, Liam lunged toward the other two men, trying to pull Drew off of Walon. I had no idea what motivated him to get involved with the fight. Maybe once his offer to Jonah was made, he had decided the best outcome for him would be if Jonah and Walon were the victors. I could only watch in horror as the three men struggled. Walon had dropped the knife and in the struggle it was kicked across the cellar floor. Finally Aaron and Ballard managed to get the gun away from Jonah, one wild shot firing into the air, and Drew managed to get in a solid punch at Walon's jaw. The man collapsed in a heap, Liam falling back from the fray with a grunt.
The cellar was quiet but for the labored sounds of breathing. Drew dragged the unconscious Walon over to where Aaron and Ballard were surveying Jonah, trying to decide what to do with the men. We needed to be quick about it, I knew. That shot wouldn't have gone unheard. Drew turned back to check on Liam and I moved to join Aaron and Ballard.
"Aaron," Drew gasped out. Aaron walked over to join him.
"Damn!" He exclaimed a heartbeat later. I whirled around to find them kneeling over Liam, who was still lying on the floor. In the feeble light I could see their faces had drained of all color.
"What is it?" I asked, pushing my through them to look down at the man I could no longer call my husband. He wasn't moving, and his eyes were staring blankly at the ceiling, though I knew that they saw nothing. "Ashes!" I breathed. How had this happened?
"The gun went off," Aaron said. "The bullet must have ricocheted." I knelt down and looked more closely. I saw a small hole on his temple. There was so little blood though. How could there be so little blood?
A sense of relief washed over me in a flood as it truly hit me that he was dead. I immediately felt ashamed at the feeling, until I remembered he had just offered to sell me off to rapists and murderers to protect his name. I turned away in disgust. Ballard had joined us, and he placed a hand on my shoulder, looking down at Liam with a somber expression. A clatter of hooves sounded from outside. They weren't in the alley but they were close, the patrol was obviously searching for the source of the gunshot. All hope fled from me. How were we to explain this?
"Go!" Ballard said suddenly, pulling me up and thrusting me at Drew.
"But, what--" I started. He interrupted me.
"I'll take care of this, just go! You can probably still get out of here without being seen. I should be able to distract them long enough." He pushed me and Drew toward the stairs, urging us out of the cellar. To Aaron he said, "Leave two horses at the tavern, one of you can carry her." Aaron gave him an assessing look but only nodded and then bolted for the stairs.
"No!" I protested, but Drew clapped his hand over my mouth and scooped me up, carrying me away from the shop. Away from Ballard. We heard the horses again as we emerged from the cellar and headed the opposite direction. As we exited the alley, I faintly heard Ballard climb out of the cellar and run toward the street the patrol was searching.
"Over here!" He shouted, waving his arms. "Help! Here!" I tried to look back, to see what he was doing, but Drew held me tightly. He and Aaron made as direct a path to the tavern as they could, leaving Ballard's horse and the one Aaron had initially ridden. Aaron took my mare and Drew held me in front of his saddle. I wanted to scream or to cry, but I did neither. I remained silent as we rode through the quarter, making our way back to the House of the Stag. I just stared ahead, empty inside, newly widowed and wondering if I would ever see Ballard again.