A Stroke of Midnight (Page 10)

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Chapter 19

THERE WAS THE SOUND OF RUNNING FEET. FROST KEPT ME PINNED to the wall with only his chest, drawing a gun from behind his back, and pointing both guns in opposite directions down the hallway. To draw the other gun, he'd been forced to move his body enough off of me so that I was able to reach the gun at the small of my back. He'd been right to trap me, for my first instinct had been to run to Galen. No thought, no logic, just truth. Frost had given me those few moments to think. I aimed away from the corner where Galen lay, at the sound of running feet. They would be upon us in seconds.

I wasn't scared anymore. I was calm, that breathless, icy calm that is part anger, part terror, part things there are no words for. Galen was hurt, I would hurt them back. Somewhere in the back of my head was a thought that didn't say hurt but said another word. I pushed it back and aimed.

My finger had actually started to squeeze down when I realized it was Nicca and Biddy, and the rest of the guards who had been with Frost in the hallway before Amatheon and I took our little trip. I let my breath out and raised the gun carefully toward the ceiling. I started to shake almost immediately, realizing how close I had come to putting a bullet through Nicca's chest. If the gun had had a shorter pull… A bullet through an arm or shoulder could be healed, but one in the heart, well, sometimes yes and sometimes no.

Nicca and Biddy stayed with us, gun in his hand, sword in hers. They were both among the gentlest of the sidhe, but now they looked grim, and tall, and muscular, and dangerous, like tigers and lions. Dangerous simply because of what they are. I had never seen resolve such as this on Nicca's face.

Frost stayed with me, his body still shielding me. The thought of another man I loved getting hurt because of me seemed more than I could bear. If I hadn't been clinging to the gun with both hands to make sure it pointed only at stone, I would have pushed Frost away. Stupid, but until I knew how badly Galen was hurt, I didn't want to risk anyone else. Especially stupid since the rest of the guards had just run around the corner. Magic filled the air, crawling over my skin. The sound of metal on metal. A man cried out, and then a woman's cry, not of pain, but of rage. I wanted no one else to risk themselves for me today. I could do nothing but endanger them all.

My eyes were hot and tight with things I did not want to cry away. Someone was moaning softly. All else was small sounds; the brush of metal against stone, footfalls, movement, but not fighting. The fight was over. The question was, Who had won? If Doyle or Frost had been with them, I wouldn't have doubted the outcome, but Frost was still standing, tense and ready in front of me. His grey eyes were still searching down both directions of the hallway, as if he didn't trust anyone else to keep watch. Without Doyle here, neither did I.

The two men trusted no one else as much as they trusted each other. When had I begun to believe that only these two could keep me safe? When had I begun to put my faith in these two men and lose it in the others?

Hawthorne came around the corner, his crimson armor spattered lightly with blood, as if someone had taken a red ink pen and shaken it at him. He was cleaning his blade with a piece of cloth that looked as if it had been jerked off someone's body. “It is over.”

Adair was at his back, helmet tucked under one arm. Without his hair to cushion his helmet, there were marks on his forehead and against his neck, where it had rubbed. “They are subdued or as dead as we can make them, Frost, Princess.”

I started forward, gun still held carefully in my hand. Frost stopped me. “Put up the gun, Princess.”

I looked at his arrogant face, but saw the pain in his eyes. “Why?” I asked.

“Because I do not trust what you will do with it, if he is as gravely injured as he appeared to be.”

My heart was suddenly hammering painfully in my chest, as if I couldn't quite breathe around it. I opened my mouth to say something, but finally closed it. I swallowed and it hurt, as if I were trying not to choke. I just nodded, and put the gun back where it belonged. I settled my cloak over it, as a matter of habit. Don't want to ruin the line of the clothes if you can help it. Habit is what we have when the inside of our head is screaming, and we're so scared that it sits like dry metal on our tongues.

Frost stepped away from me and started to put up his guns, but I didn't stay to watch him finish the smooth, two-handed movement. I was already heading for the corner. One word kept going through my head over and over, Galen, Galen, Galen. Too scared to finish the thought. Too scared to do anything but run for him. I should have been praying to the Goddess harder than I'd ever prayed before. I'd just been in her presence, so she would have listened. But I didn't pray to her or any deity I knew. If it was a prayer, it was a prayer to Galen. I cleared the corner, and saw him. Lying on his back, eyes closed, arms outspread, one leg bent under his body, and blood everywhere. A sea of blood, across the stone floor, spilling out and around him. So much blood, too much blood. The thought finished in my head, the only prayer I had to offer… Galen, don't be dead, don't be dead, Galen, please, don't be dead.

Chapter 20

I FELL TO MY KNEES BESIDE HIM. THE BRIGHT RED OF THE BLOOD framed him, so that his hair was greener than I knew it to be. A moment before I had wanted to hold him more than anything in all of faerie. Now I hesitated, my hand hovering over his face. I wanted to touch him, have him open his eyes and smile up at me. I was afraid to touch him, afraid he would be cold to the touch, afraid to know.

I made myself touch the side of his face. His skin was cool but not cold. A tightness in my chest eased minutely. I touched the side of his neck, pushed my fingers against his skin, searching. Nothing, nothing, then a faint flutter. The relief made me slump, my hand sliding down the side of his neck into the curls at the back of his head, but they were heavy with blood. I raised my hand up, and the fingers were bright with blood. “Where is it all coming from?” I didn't realize I'd said it aloud until Adair answered me. “We have not had time to check for his wounds, Princess.”

I nodded to let him know I'd heard him. “We have to get the bleeding stopped.”

Adair knelt at Galen's shoulders. “I have sent for a healer.”

I shook my head. “His skin is cool. We need to stop this blood loss now, not wait for a healer.”

“A sidhe who can die from blood loss is no sidhe at all.” I glanced up to find Kieran, Lord of Knives, kneeling with his hands bound behind his back. But Ivi still kept the lord at sword point. Kieran had only one hand of power, and it was the only magic left to him, which made many among the sidhe consider him weak. But that one hand was a deadly one. He could use his magic like a blade to stab deep into the body, even from a distance. I knew now how Galen had fallen without even drawing a blade or a gun. But why ambush Galen?

My gaze traveled to the other three kneeling there. The rest were all women of Cel's guard. That did not surprise me. There was another richly dressed lord, lying on his side, moaning. His hands were tied behind his back, but there was a smaller pool of blood beginning to seep out from him. His face was turned away from me, and it didn't matter who it was. Later it might, but now, unless he could heal Galen, I didn't care who he was.

Adair helped me turn Galen onto his side. He was limp as the dead. I was having trouble breathing again, past the taste of panic. There were two wounds in his back, deep and clean. Somehow, miraculously, they had missed the heart. They were still fearfully deep, but bleeding out this quickly wasn't from a wound in his back, especially if it missed the heart.

We eased him onto his back, and when his body settled against the blood-slick floor, there was a fresh gush of blood from his leg. I crawled to his legs, and found the third wound, high up on the thigh. They'd cut his femoral artery. A human could bleed out in twenty minutes. The blood should have been spurting out. The fact that it was only seeping meant that he had lost most of the blood in his body. Which meant that even if someone could close the wounds immediately, he might not recover. The sidhe can take a lot of wounds, a lot of blood loss, but there has to be enough blood left to keep the body running, the heart pumping.

Frost had remained standing in front of me during all of it, guarding me. I couldn't argue with his division of labor, not with Galen lying limp and pale on the floor. I was a great deal easier to kill than Galen.

But Frost had watched as we found the wounds. “Where is the healer that you sent for?”

Adair shook his head. “I do not know.”

“We're running out of time,” I said. “We have to close the wounds and keep what little blood he has left inside him.”

“I can close his wounds,” a woman's voice said. We looked to find one of the kneeling prisoners smiling at us. Her hair was the color of yellow corn silk, her eyes triple colors of blue, silver, with an inner circle of light, if light had a single color. I'd never known what to call the final color of Hafwyn's eyes.

The other women said, “No… You cannot help them. You betray our master…” and other less complimentary things.

Hafwyn shrugged with her hands still bound behind her. “We are captured, and our master is still imprisoned. I think it would not be a mistake to have some favor on other shores.”

She raised one of her dark eyebrows. With her very blond hair, in a human I would have thought dye, but in a race where your eyes could be three different colors, what was black eyebrows and blond hair?

“You are a traitor to your oath if you do this,” Melangell said. There was blood running down her face from a wound that had split the side of her helmet. If she'd been human, her brains would have spilled out, but she was barely bleeding.

“I never made an oath to Prince Cel,” Hafwyn said. “It was Prince Essus I vowed to serve. When he died, no one asked if we would serve Cel, we were simply given to him. No one living has my oath of loyalty.” She looked at me as she said it, and there was something in her face, some need, some message.

“Can she really heal him?” I asked.

“She can close his wounds,” Adair said, “but that's all.”

“It is more than any of the rest of us can do for him,” said Hawthorne. “Though, in truth, it never occurred to me to ask Galen's assassins if they could help heal him.” I searched his face for the irony that should have gone with those words, but he simply looked as if he were stating a fact.

“Do we trust her?” Nicca asked.

I laid a hand against Galen's cooling skin. “No,” I said, “but untie her anyway.” Earlier that day I had been ready to give Galen up to an unknown lover. But that was different from losing him to death. I could live with his smile being for someone else if I knew he was happy. But to never see that smile again, to never feel his hand warm in mine again… I couldn't stand that.

Frost touched my shoulder, made me look up at him. “You must move away before I will allow Hafwyn to touch him.”

I started to protest, but he touched my face and shook his head. “This could be a ruse to get close to you. I will not risk you to save him.” His hand went around my arm, and I had little choice but to go with him, though I was still reluctant to stop touching Galen. If we couldn't save him, these would be my last moments to touch him while he felt… alive.

Hafwyn knelt in the drying blood in her leather armor. She took off the leather gauntlets and tucked them into her sword belt. She settled her short sword more solidly at her hip, and I fought the urge to scream for her to hurry. She was entirely too calm, but then she had helped kill him. Why should she truly want to save him? Was this just a play effort on her part? She would do us a favor, but it would not work, so she could curry favor with us yet lose no favor with Cel and his people. Goddess help me, there were moments when I wished I did not see so many motives for the people around me. It was not a comforting way of looking at the world.

I cuddled in against Frost's body, my arms clinging around his waist, my cheek pressed so hard against him that I heard his heartbeat. He wrapped his arms around me, though it meant he would have to move me to draw almost any of his weapons. As a bodyguard he should have moved me to the side, left himself some room to maneuver, but as my lover, my friend, and Galen's friend, I knew that he wasn't clinging to me just for my comfort. It was impossible not to like Galen. It was his gift to make people like him. The tension in Frost's body as he held me told me more clearly than any words that I wasn't the only one who would miss Galen. It said something about our Galen that he had melted the Killing Frost.

Hafwyn pressed her hands over the wound in his thigh. She was at least starting with the more life-threatening wound. Her skin had looked white, but it was gold the way that Galen's was green, so pale that something had to make you see that other color. Her magic turned her skin a pale solid gold, as she glowed. Strands of her hair struggled to escape the knot that she had it in, her hair moving in the wind of her own magic.

“She's a healer,” Hawthorne said. “Why is she being wasted behind a sword?”

We had expected Hafwyn to have some small healing ability, but what was glowing and dancing along our skin was not small. All the healers with this much magic were not allowed to be warriors, not in the front lines anyway. Their talents were too valuable, and too rare among us now, to risk them.

Watching her shining hands rise from his body, I began to hope. Her voice echoed with magic as she asked, “Can someone turn him over so that I do not waste the healing on smaller things? It has been so long since I have been allowed to use my powers to their full benefit, I am a little out of practice.”

Hawthorne and Adair rolled Galen over for her, Hawthorne cradling his head and shoulders so Galen's face did not touch the blood. I would remember that little extra care he took with Galen, and it would earn Hawthorne something.

Hafwyn laid her hands on Galen's back, and my skin prickled with the effort she put into him. She could have closed his wounds, but simply from the sensations her healing chased across my skin, I thought she was doing more.

“NO!” shouted one of the other female guards, still kneeling, still bound. “You are saving him.” Aisling placed his sword tip at her throat. She had to stop talking or risk piercing her own skin against Aisling's sword point.

“Siobhan will see you dead for this,” said Melangell.

Siobhan had been Cel's captain of the guard. She and a handful of others had also attacked me overtly. I had killed two of the attackers, more by accident than on purpose, and she had surrendered. I had assumed she was dead. She'd tried to kill a royal heir. She should have been dead. When we weren't in front of so many hostile ears, I would ask someone.

Hafwyn leaned back from Galen, a smile on her face. “Siobhan is still locked in a cell in the Hallway of Mortality. She won't be killing anyone for a while yet.”

Galen shuddered in Hawthorne's arms. The first breath he took was loud and gasping, and he thrust himself up off the floor, eyes wild. He collapsed almost immediately, and only Hawthorne's arms kept him from falling flat to the floor.

“You are safe,” Hawthorne said. “You are safe.”

Frost let me go to him. I don't know if he trusted Hafwyn now, or if he knew he couldn't have stopped me without a fight. I did have enough sense left to go on the far side of Galen's body, closer to the wall than to Hafwyn.

Hawthorne spilled Galen's upper body into my lap. I cradled him against me, looking into those green eyes, that face, that smile. Tears streamed down my face, though I was laughing. I had so many emotions that I felt drunk.

“I have not been allowed to heal anyone in decades. It felt so good.”

I looked up at the woman who was still kneeling in all that blood. She was crying, too, and I didn't know why.

“Why would anyone forbid you to use your powers?” I asked.

“It is a secret, and I would not go back to Ezekiel's tender care for anything or anyone, but I can say this: I tried to heal someone that Prince Cel did not want healed. I went against his express orders. He told me I would be a bringer of death until he told me I could heal again.”

“That is a waste of power,” Hawthorne said.

She glanced at him, but her attention was all for me. “But today, for you, I have gone against that order.”

“He will see you raped and skinned for it,” said one of her fellow guards.

Neither Hafwyn nor I even bothered looking at the other woman. “Why would you risk that for me?” I asked. “You just tried to kill Galen, why heal him?”

“Because I am a healer, it is what I am, and I do not want to be this anymore.” She touched her sword. “Does saving him buy me anything from you?”

I nodded. “I would not promise until I hear what you want, not even for Galen, but yes, it buys you something.”

She gave a small smile. “Good.” She took a deep breath and let it out as if she were steeling herself for some great effort. “Queen Andais announced to the court today that you needed more guards. She said that any who wished to could offer their services to you, but that only the ones who bedded you could stay with you.”

“I knew about the first part, but not the second,” I said.

“She said all guards.”

“What are you asking me, Hafwyn?”

She leaned in toward me, hands at her sides. I fought the urge to lean away from her. I saw Hawthorne look to Frost, as if asking what to do. I couldn't see what Frost told him, because Hafwyn's face was all I could see. She kissed me gently, eyes open. There was no passion to the kiss, no promise of anything, just a touch of lips.

“Take me,” she whispered, “take me to your bed, take me here, take me anywhere, but please, Goddess, please, don't leave me here for Cel. I owe him no vow, so I break no vow by asking this of you. I served Prince Essus as his healer for centuries. When he went into exile when you were six, if I had known she would give me to Cel, I would have gone into exile with you. But I thought that exile from faerie was the worst of fates. I ask you, as his daughter, do not leave me here. Now that the queen has opened the way for me to ask, I ask, I beg.” Her eyes glittered with tears and when she could not keep them from falling, she bent her head down so I would not see.

It was Galen who reached for her first, but I was only moments behind. She collapsed into us both. Her shoulders shook with the emotion of her sobs, but she was absolutely silent. How many years had it taken for her to learn to cry silently? To hide away this much pain.

I stroked her yellow hair, and said the only thing I could say, “Yes.”