“Enchanté!” This is the phrase that came to mind as I completed this lively and evocative otherworld tale. I was completely charmed by the story.” ~ Alex at Rainbow Book Reviews
Axel Blackwood catches a thief and is astounded to see that he closely resembles Liam Alloway, the love he lost seven years ago in an attack by the evil woodland folk known as threeves. Axel suspects he’s fallen prey to dark magic, but can’t help becoming infatuated with his prisoner. He’s overwhelmed with the hope that he can at last bring his lost lover home, despite everything that warns him it’s all a diabolical trick.
Bryn Darrow, the half-threeve, half human orphan sent to trick Axel and rob him of much more than a simple gem, finds himself equally as fascinated with his handsome human captor and the lure of someplace to call home, but he knows deep down that the constable is in love with a dangerous illusion. When he’s commanded by the threeves to murder Axel and steal a witch’s powerful grimoire, he’s forced to decide between the only family he’s ever known and the one person who might rescue him from a life of isolation and pain.
Will Axel and Bryn be forced into a deadly confrontation before they can discover the truth?
Gorgeous cover art is by Fiona Jayde
As the crescent moon neared the jagged line of the Lacknor Mountains, shadows merged in the depth of the woods, smothering the last of the light on the forest floor. Only the thud of hooves on a narrow dirt road disturbed the oppressive stillness. That too ended when the rider reined in his horse and waited, chin lowered to chest.
Draped in a black cloak and mounted on a black horse, the man formed a silhouette against the line of trees. His boots and hair were also black, and his sword sheathed in black leather. If any dared draw close enough, they’d see eyes the shade of storm clouds and a gaze that pierced the dark with an uncanny light.
Constable Axel Blackwood barely breathed as he listened for signs of his stalker. Except for the heavy panting of his horse, the creak of his leather saddle and his own heartbeat, nothing out of place disturbed the quiet. He rested one forearm on pommel, closed his eyes and listened as old Roslyn had taught him. Only a few moments passed before the forest creatures adjusted to his presence. A nighthawk shrieked. Four-footed scavengers rustled in the low-growing shrubs, and bats cut and darted in the air above him.
I know you’re still there, he thought, and sank deeper into his listening trance.
Axel’s deputy, Drummond Alloway, had fallen behind at the last creek crossing, partly because his mount was not as sure of foot as Axel’s, but also because Axel wanted this time alone and had hurried his pace. Drummond’s horse now pounded along the road in the distance.
The far-off creek burbled, its mineral scent rising beneath the pungent bite of Ironwood pitch and moldering oak leaves. With his senses sharpened, Axel smelled his stalker before he heard him. Mint and meadow larkspur, a combination often used by hunters to disguise their presence from animals, stood out against the usual smells of the deep forest, alerting Axel to the nearness of the interloper.
Whoever was tracking Axel was good. Very good. The only reason the constable had noticed he was being followed was thanks to a protective spell he’d learned from the old witch Roslyn. By tuning in to the magical energy that pulsed through the forest, he received a recognizable impression whenever the same presence came near him more than once. This particular Tonight was the first time Axel had detected him with his ordinary human senses. He suspected his stalker was getting desperate. Tomorrow, Axel and Drummond would reach the fortress of Lord Thorburn, and the opportunity for mischief would be lost.
Axel had no doubt what form the mischief would take. Tonight when his stalker believed them to be asleep, he’d attempt to steal the precious gemstone Axel carried in his saddlebag. He wasn’t surprised someone discovered his mission. The castle at Breckenride was as thick with gossiping, plotting knaves as any backwoods tavern, and despite the caution taken by Lady Lysette, word must have leaked out.
Clearly transporting the gem would be dangerous, and a convoy might be better for the job than one constable and a hired sword, but the lady insisted she wanted to draw no attention
Attention had been drawn, and Axel intended to find out who in the castle had set a thief after them. He’d take the sneak alive and whip the truth out of him.
The jingle of tack and a stream of curses alerted him to Drummond’s imminent arrival. Axel hadn’t yet told the man of their stalker. He didn’t want anything to alert the would-be thief that his presence was known.
Drummond rounded the bend, legs slapping his horse’s side. Even in the faint starlight, Axel could tell his deputy’s cheeks flamed with exertion. The man was shaped like a standing stone and sported a thick blond beard. He was the physical opposite of Axel. Though broad-shouldered, Axel was slim and tall rather than blunt and wide, and dark-complexioned where Drummond was fair. A fine pair they made, and were recognized the land over as king’s men, not to be fooled with.
“Dammit, Blackwood. How do you expect me to guard your back when you take off at a dead gallop without warning?”
“Wasn’t me. It was Sapphire. He’s had about all he can take lollygagging along at your mare’s pace.”
Drummond grunted and drew up alongside Axel. From any other man, a slight against his mount would lead to blows if not swordplay. But Axel and Drummond had learned to fight, fence, and uphold the law together. As constable to Drummond’s deputy, Axel was his boss as well as his friend.
“Time to find a flat stretch of ground to rest our weary bones?” Drummond asked.
“Up ahead there’s a meadow where the stream crosses the road again. We’ll set up there. Grass for the horses and a clear view of any coming or going on the road.”
Drummond snorted. “As if any man would be traveling this godforsaken patch of forest.”
“Not many with honorable intentions anyway,” Axel said, and nudged his horse into a gentle trot.
“I don’t like this duty we’ve been given,” Drummond said for the third or fourth time since they’d set out two days ago.
“But we serve Lord and Lady Lacknor, and so have naught to say about it.” Axel smiled into the gloom. He knew Drummond appreciated getting away from the town and its drudgery any chance he could. His deputy complained out of habit. However, their trip did seem more dangerous than necessary, and Axel was glad to have Roslyn’s magic to aid him, though he’d once forsworn magic in all its forms—good, bad, or amoral.
They reached the meadow and struck out across it to an open spot on the banks of the stream. Their camp would be easy enough to protect, but not so far from the thick of the woods as to prevent the stalker from making his move.
They didn’t bother with a fire. The fall air was crisp but bearable. They had bread and cheese to eat and wine to drink, so no call to announce their presence. Drummond grumbled about the loose mindedness of lords and ladies and the soreness of his backside from all the galloping, unnecessary in his opinion. Axel kept mostly quiet, arranging his trap while Drummond provided the perfect distraction.
The large man trampled the grass to be rid of snakes and anyone else who might be inclined to approach on their belly, threw brittle twigs around to act as a warning, and generally kicked up a ruckus while Axel unobtrusively cast his magical warning boundary into the trees and placed a ring of flash pebbles along the creek. He was sure the sneak was watching them, and so he made sure all his motions looked natural, as if he were merely scouting the perimeter and helping Drummond place his standard traveler’s tricks.
He drew water from the creek into his water bag and scanned the dense wall of trees. Only one sneak. He must be truly desperate to risk robbing a constable. Or he had great confidence in whatever black magic he’d mastered. Axel had managed to keep his own study of magic from general knowledge, as the king frowned on its use. Axel couldn’t blame him. The strange and ancient power that lingered in the deep woods was too often exploited for evil, chaos, and heartache. Axel had suffered that side of it intimately. But one must fight fire with fire.
He turned his back on the shadows that threatened him with painful memories, and joined Drummond to partake of their cold but welcomed meal.
* * * *
Drummond insisted on first watch, which suited Axel’s plan. He sensed the sneak’s impatience, and he was fairly impatient himself. His nerves were on a knife’s edge as he wrapped himself in his cloak and pretended to sleep. Drummond hummed to entertain himself, which irritated Axel to no end, but he dared not say anything. Besides, it leant to the air of carelessness he strove to create.
After two or three tuneless ditties, Drummond fell silent. Axel scanned the forest noises but detected nothing of the sneak. Perhaps he was more patient than Axel had given him credit for.
With alarm, he caught himself just short of falling asleep. That wasn’t like him. After a moment of tense awareness, he became sure a spell had been cast over them. His arms and legs felt wooden and his chest heavy. He could barely pry open his eyelids.
When he did, he saw that Drummond slept with his chin on his barrel chest. Drummond never fell asleep on watch. Axel carefully flexed his muscles to make sure he had control of them, closed his eyes to slits, and waited.
He’d positioned the bag that held the gem close to hand, between where he lay and Drummond sat. A bold thief indeed would be required to enter their little circle, but the sleeping spell would give him misguided confidence. If Axel hadn’t taken precautions against such mischief, the thief’s gamble would pay off. Axel would be snoozing as soundly as Drummond if his protective spell hadn’t awoken him. He suppressed a shudder. There was always a chance the sneak might try to plunge a knife in his back.
His muscles ached with the tension of remaining perfectly still while near silent footsteps crept out of the trees behind him. The sneak was patient after all. He paused for a long time, no doubt watching Axel with a careful eye to see if he twitched or if his soft breathing broke its rhythm. It took all of Axel’s self control not to leap up and give chase, but he’d be sure to lose his quarry if he acted prematurely.
Axel’s neck itched, and his sword hand cramped as the footsteps circled round and the man stopped again between Axel and Drummond’s snoozing form. Though he dared not look, Axel guessed the sneak was lightweight. No one built like Drummond, or even like Axel, could move so quietly over the dried twigs.. The mint and larkspur scent had faded, and the tang of acrid sweat now tinged the air.
The smell triggered a sharp, violent memory from deep within Axel that threated to overtake his attention, a memory of a hot summer’s day, a long ride— He suppressed it. The sneak moved closer.
Not until a hand brushed the leather pouch did he dare open his eyes a little wider. A figure in a dark cloak stooped over the bag, hood covering his head. Only long slim fingers were visible as they worked the large buckle. Axel braced himself, called on his dearly departed father for divine aid, and sprang to his feet, sword in hand.
“Don’t move or I’ll—”
Too late. The thief dodged Axel’s grasping hand. He leapt straight over the startled form of Drummond, who roused slowly and groggily.
Axel shouted at him as he ran past. “Thief!”
Axel didn’t have time to see how Drummond fared. His prey sprang agile as a buck into the trees. If not for the traps Axel had set the thief would be as good as gone. Still, he couldn’t rely solely on tricks. The sneak’s own magic might set him free before Axel could catch up and secure him.
The moon Axel crashed blindly through the thick undergrowth, leaping logs, stumbling over fallen branches, and getting slapped in the face with limbs full of prickly pine needles. The sneak outpaced him, and Axel could barely keep him in sight.
As the thief approached the creek, Axel shouted, breathless, “Kill la moora, hoc!”
The flash pebbles burst open, sending out stunning flashes of fire. The thief faltered, jerking sideways from the light display and straight into the sticky lines of magic Axel had cast earlier.
“Great Tree of—” The sneak shouted, dragged to his knees by the weight of the lines, which once broken sought to cling to the earth.
Axel caught up and stood over him, bending at the waist with his hands on his thighs, sucking air. His catch thrashed against the tightening lines.
Suddenly the sneak stopped moving. Hunched in a tight ball, he started to mutter. This was what Axel had feared. He pounced and rapped him on the back of the head with the hilt of his sword. The man slumped, and Axel pressed one knee into his back. He had to dispel the magical net and replace it with real manacles before the thief had a chance to work any magic of his own.
He sheathed his sword as he whispered the words of release. When the dark lines of the net faded and slithered back into the ether, he searched the thief’s clothing for magical paraphernalia and weapons. He removed an evil-looking dagger and a pendant heavy with spells, which he carefully set aside. He’d have to deal with that later.
“Axel!” Drummond shouted from what sounded like a long way away.
“Over here!” Axel replied.
“Where in damnation are you?” Drummond cursed loudly as he crashed through the underbrush, making as much noise as an angry bear. Tree limbs snapped, and a flock of crows took flight, squawking as they lumbered into the sky.
“I’ll light the way!” Axel called out. He removed a tiny fire crystal from his pouch and conjured up a bit of illumination. When the glow reached the strength of a candle, he set it on nearby rock. The body under him started to writhe. Even through the heavy cloak he felt long lean muscles, taut and ready to flee at the slightest chance. He removed the manacles from his belt and grabbed one of the thief’s slim wrists.
He clamped one on and reached for the other wrist. With a sudden bucking motion, the man twisted sideways in an effort to throw Axel off his back. He only partially succeeded. Axel seized the sneak’s other arm and forced it behind him as well.
With the thief on his side now, the light of the crystal revealed a face that was clearly human.
Constable Axel Blackwood catches a thief and is astounded to see that he closely resembles Liam Alloway, the love he lost seven years ago in an attack by the evil woodland folk known as threeves. Axel suspects he’s fallen prey to dark magic, but can’t help becoming infatuated with his prisoner. He’s overwhelmed with the hope that he can at last bring his lost lover home, despite everything that warns him it’s all a diabolical trick.
Bryn Darrow, the half-threeve, half human orphan sent to trick Axel and rob him of much more than a simple gem finds himself equally as fascinated with his handsome human captor and the lure of someplace to call home, but he knows deep down that the constable is in love with a dangerous illusion. When he’s commanded by the threeves to murder Axel and steal a witch’s powerful grimoire, he’s forced to decide between the only family he’s ever known and the one person who might rescue him from a life of isolation and pain.
Will Axel and Bryn be forced into a deadly confrontation before they can discover the truth?