By Grace Alone (The Death Dealer Book 2)

By Grace Alone

The Death Dealer Book 2

By Katie Roman

 

 

 

Copyright  2015 by Katie Roman

Warning: The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal. Criminal copyright infringement, including infringement without monetary gain, is investigated by the FBI and is punishable by up to 5 (five) years in federal prison and a fine of $250,000.

Names, characters and incidents depicted in this book are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental and beyond the intent of the author or the publisher.

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

 

Cover Artist: Skylar Faith

Editor: Stacy Sanford

Printed in the United States of America

 

 

 

 

To my dear friends, Katie, Cathy, and Brittany, you helped make this possible

 

 

 

One

A small hooded figure hovered over Adam. He never imagined he’d be in a room where the least threatening figure was named “Death Dealer.” The hooded vigilante hadn’t threatened him with death, but was rather gentle in bringing Adam to face judgment by the King of Thieves. He even whispered assurances to Adam, trying to assuage his fears.

“Master Atkins, did you think we’d look the other way? We slip coins into the pockets of city guards to keep them out of the way, and here you and your brother come, killing a guard over a game of dice.” The King made a “tsk” noise with his tongue.

Adam had seen this man angry before and it was not a pleasant experience. It was a cold anger; cool and calm like the sea before a storm hit. Never did he imagine he’d be on the receiving end of such wrath. The thief hadn’t yelled yet, but his tone heralded doom. The King was not a man who tolerated mistakes.

From his spot on the floor, Adam had a great view of the man’s boots. He was afraid to look upwards, even when the pacing feet of the King stopped by his nose.

“He cheated Harris,” Adam said weakly. He’d pleaded his weak argument over and over while the Death Dealer tied his hands together and it didn’t work then; he knew it wasn’t going to work now. Men who killed guards didn’t survive long enough to brag. Either the guards found them or the Thieves' Guild did. Either way, a long life was not in the cards.

“I don’t like finding bodies near my dwelling, and I especially don’t like finding guards’ bodies. Harris has been warned time and again that his temper would need to be reined in. Now, because of that temper the guards have renewed their efforts to topple me and my folk. Where’s Harris off hiding?”

“He’s my brother…I can’t rat him out.”

“No?” The booted foot pushed Adam’s shoulder and forced him onto his back. “Pity.”

Marcus had deep creases in his forehead and around his mouth. His hair, with specks of gray streaked through it, had been cut to his ears and his hairline was beginning to recede. It had been some days since the King had bothered with a shave.

“You’re lucky the Death Dealer brought you to me instead of the guards.” The vigilante in black stepped over Adam to stand beside the King. “I’ll make sure it’s quick,” Marcus said. “They’ll just torture you in the lock-up.”

The Death Dealer wore an executioner’s hood that masked all his features and dressed all in black, like a quintessential servant of death. A belt with a sheath for a short sword and a few daggers hung loosely about his waist. In stories, the man was a giant. Standing next to Marcus now, this supposed giant among men was closer to a child’s size. How did a little one like this gain such a fierce reputation?

“He has children and a pregnant wife, and they’ll have no one to care for them if you kill Adam,” the Death Dealer said in a voice muffled by the hood. Was this a plea from the same one who killed the man who challenged Marcus the year before? When the hooded figure took Adam, he figured he’d feel the kiss of a blade quickly. Instead, this dealer of death reminded Marcus that Adam had a family to provide for.

“He should have thought of that first. Your job is over. This is a Guild matter now.”

“I really think you should reconsider. The Guard will be around soon enough; let him stand in the magistrate’s court.”

Adam nodded vigorously. He would gladly do anything to at least have the chance to say goodbye to his family.

“I
said
your job is over,” Marcus retorted, and looked meaningfully at his small companion.

The Dealer clenched his fists at his side, and for one, feverish second Adam prayed to the Divine Twins that the Dealer would challenge the King. After a few tense moments it looked like it could happen, but finally the Dealer relaxed his hands and strode out without another word.

Adam saw his last hope of mercy leave with the Death Dealer.

 

 

 

Two

The first of the sun’s rays kissed the treetops. A small, lone figure rode at a light trot from the gates of the city of Glenbard atop a brown gelding. Her dark blonde hair was tied up in a bun at the nape of her neck and she wore a simple green, floor length tunic over a pair of trousers. Sweat already formed on her forehead as the light of dawn broke through the branches. It was a ten mile ride from the city of Glenbard to the town of Dunkirst. Grace Hilren planned to make the journey before noon and before anyone realized she wasn’t home.

She was troubled by the events of the night before. She had found Adam trying to get home from the Emerald Rose tavern without being seen. She waylaid him for the King of Thieves as part of her agreement with him, but Grace was beginning to question the alliance she made a year ago. She frowned and tried to push the thoughts away for a moment.

Grace arrived in Dunkirst and was met by one of her oldest friends. Donald’s brown hair was cut close to his head and he now sported a full beard. His blue eyes twinkled with delight as Grace rode to greet him at the cottage he rented.

“Happy birthday!” Donald said as she rode up. “I am surprised you bothered to come see me.”

Grace dismounted and tied the borrowed horse to the post in front of the cottage. She embraced Donald, kissing his cheek as they broke the hug. “You left me no choice, renting a place all the way out here.”

“I just wanted some peace and quiet this month,” he admitted. “It’s only for a few weeks, though. I’m back out to sea in a few days.” As a sailor on a merchant ship, Donald spent less and less time on land every season. This was the longest break he’d had since signing on to the
Whirlwind
.

“You look a bit distressed this morning,” he said as he led Grace into his cottage.

It was only one room, with a hay mattress, a small table, and two stools. Small though it was, Donald kept it clean and tidy. Grace smiled as she noted the meat pie and honey pastries on the table. Lying next to them was a small wrapped package.

“My landlady is a fair cook, and I thought a birthday meal was in order,” Donald said as he ushered Grace to a stool.

Grace plopped down on the stool and slouched with her elbows on the table in a most unladylike display. “Thank you for all this, Donald.”

Donald pinched the back of her shirt. “Have you lost all your manners since leaving home? What would Cassandra say?”

Grace straightened at the name of her former lady’s maid; a woman who believed in propriety and good, courtly manners above all else. Grace hated to disappoint her, even though they no longer lived near each other. “I’m just tired. I had a rough night.”

Donald sat on the other stool and began serving up the meat pie. “Trouble with the ‘Fisherman’s Collective’?’”

The ‘Fisherman’s Collective’ was the name the Thieves’ Guild went by as a cover. Although no one was really fooled by the name since everyone knew who they were.

“Marcus had me set a trap for one of the Atkins brothers. I don’t know if you remember them…?”

Donald nodded and set to work cutting the meat pie. “Adam Atkins would sometimes get work unloading the
Whirlwind
. He was a decent sort, but his brother Harris had a temper like a dragon.”

“Well Harris got himself in some trouble. He killed a guard, and it was Adam who paid the price.”

Donald continued to serve up the meat pie without a word. He slid a plate in front of Grace and handed her a fork, but still he remained silent.

The silence stretched on too long for Grace’s comfort. “And? What sort of an awful person helps capture a decent man and leads him to his death?”

Donald shook his head and sighed. “You knew the idyllic alliance you forged with the Thieves’ Guild wouldn’t last forever, right?”

Grace’s face flushed under Donald’s question. She had never entertained the idea that the King of Thieves might actually do something she disagreed with, and for this oversight she felt stupid. Marcus seemed so kind and good to his people when they first met. He saw to their needs, but he also severely punished those who stepped out of line. Grace cradled her head in her hands and heard the soft rustle of Donald’s clothing as he got up from his stool. His hands were firm and comforting as they rubbed her back.

“I am so stupid,” she said, her voice muffled through her hands.

“Not stupid, just trusting. But don’t dwell on it right now.” Donald coaxed Grace into sitting up again, smoothed down her hair, and smiled down at her. “It’s your birthday,” he said simply, and pushed the little box toward her.

She appreciated Donald’s earnest effort to distract her. Over the last year she often found herself mired in doubt and he always helped pull her out, no matter how briefly. She unwrapped the present, opened the little box, and found a shimmering pink seashell with a leather cord threaded through it. It was simple but pretty. Grace held it up and the light danced across the shell. She slipped the cord over her head and felt the coolness of the shell when it touched her skin.

“The Nareroc woman who sold it to me said this kind of shell symbolizes friendship, good luck, and long life. Though I also heard her tell the young couple who stood near me that it was a lover’s shell, meant to bind two souls as one.” Donald crossed back to his stool and sat; a smirk playing on his lips. “I just thought it was pretty. I bought one for Cassandra too, and paid a sailor on a merchant vessel headed to Arganis to deliver it.”

Grace softly stroked the shell with her fingers. The inside was smooth, while the ridges on the outside felt rough under her fingertips. Her sadness was momentarily forgotten under Donald’s doting. “It is beautiful. Thank you.”

“Now tell me all the gossip around the Angel.” The mood continued to lighten as Donald worked hard to distract Grace.

She laughed at his eagerness and want of gossip and launched into a tale about the barmaid, Rosemary, throwing ale in a guard’s face over a pinched bottom incident.

~*~*~

When Grace returned from Dunkirst, she continued to use her birthday as an excuse not to work. She intended to do nothing more than stay and sulk in her room. Unfortunately, the entire reason for avoiding going into work was to sulk in peace, and that wasn’t happening.

Marcus sat at her desk with his feet propped up; dirt from his boots littering the top. “Ridley told me those new boots were a good present.” His eyes strayed to the new leather boots sitting at the foot of her bed. They were beautiful. Grace had put them on earlier and noted that with a little bit of wear, they’d fit perfectly around her feet. His beautiful present aside, she wasn’t pleased to have Marcus anywhere near her. She touched the little shell necklace, remembering how calm she’d been that morning and trying to find that peace again before speaking.

“We had an agreement,” she fumed; her glare fixed on Marcus.

“So the boots aren’t what’s making you so cross.”

“I’m cross because a man died on my birthday – a man
your
goons killed. I said I’d help you as long as you didn’t become a tyrant.” A year prior, she pledged an oath that she would help Marcus keep order among the thieves. At the time, she decided it would be far safer than challenging a man who could call down every thief, highwayman, and murderer in the city upon her. She had helped him ever since, and this was the first time he’d resorted to death and pain to keep his people in line.

Grace could tell Marcus fought to hide his annoyance by the way he lowered his feet to the floor; his mouth twitching and his face becoming a shade redder. She knew her self-righteous act grew tiresome to Marcus, but she simply couldn’t let him kill people without saying something.

“Don’t forget the Atkins brothers killed a guard…something you’re against as well as I,” Marcus started. “I know death is what you strive to avoid, but men like Adam Atkins can’t be left alive because they are a danger to the rest of us. And once we find Harris, we’ll be doing him a favor by ending things quickly and quietly. The guards will break his spirit and his body, leaving him alive just enough to feel the pain. This was an unavoidable matter,” growled Marcus.

The summer before, Grace had been forced to kill two men. One by accident and the other because he had threatened those she held dear. The events shook her to the core, so after the second death she packed away her Death Dealer garb. She carried the name ‘Death Dealer’ long before anyone died at her hands, but when circumstances actually lived up to the name, she began to feel guilty. Four months ago, she picked it all up again. It was fundamental to her nature to help those who couldn’t always help themselves, and that meant driving off bullies and brutes. It even meant allying herself with thieves, if that was what it took. Unfortunately, she now had a better understanding of Marcus and his Guild. Her idealistic view of the honest thief crashed down around her.

Marcus was a lot of things, but he didn’t tolerate murderers in his ranks. His thieves took from anyone outside their district of Rogue’s Lane, whether those people could afford to be robbed or not. Within the Lane he fed and clothed the widows and orphans, because half the families in the district had direct connections to the Guild. However, murderers didn’t last long under Marcus’s rule. While Grace was of a mind that those who killed should suffer justice in the king’s court, Marcus, the self-proclaimed King of Thieves, decided his court was where justice would be doled out.

“I don’t like this. Harris is probably out of the city by now, and he has to live the rest of his life knowing that his folly led to two men’s deaths.” Grace sighed.

“Poor Adam. He wasn’t a bad man, and I wish things could have been different. I had my man end it quickly, and we have to find Harris to ensure he meets a similar and humane end. He shouldn’t suffer torture in the lockup, where those who kill guards get no mercy.”

Marcus tapped his feet on the floor, propped his head on his hands, and put his elbows on his knees. “These things happen, Grace. You saved my life, and for that I try to shield you from these things, but-”

“Punishments must be doled out,” she finished. They’d had this argument before. She sighed again and added, “Thank you for the boots.”

“Don’t let this cast dark clouds over your birthday.” He rose and ruffled her hair, and she scowled at his back as he left. He had no right to treat her like a child or to act like what happened to Adam Atkins was just a matter of course.

Grace crossed over to her window. Upon her arrival in the port city of Glenbard, she’d lived above the stables she worked in. It was a dank, musty place, with smells alternating between hay and manure. The ability to see the ocean from her current dwelling was a happy improvement, though sometimes she missed the comfort of the horses; their warmth and musk comforting her on the worst of days. The room she rented was dingy, small, and generally smelled of salt water and, on hot days, fish, but it was home. It was comfortable despite its smallness.

She recalled the dead men of the past. Now she added Adam to the list. It was easier to forget the guilt when she was happy, but these days her mind was consumed with it.

Outside, the fishmongers plied their trade and sailors walked the wharf. Dark clouds moved in off the coast, over the open ocean, and Grace saw jagged streaks of lightning. The storm was moving inland. Rain was a great reason to stay inside. No one would question that.

~*~*~

The storm broke in the evening. Claps of thunder and lightning flashes kept Grace from uninterrupted sleep, but she wouldn’t have slept well anyway. The ghosts of the murdered ones hovered over her. She felt them most acutely in the hours she should have been sleeping, when no one was around to distract her. The lightning flashed and she could almost swear she saw Adam’s sad face in the shadows. When dawn finally broke, the storm had yet to let up.

Grace dressed in a simple brown skirt and a matching sleeveless tunic, with a short sleeved white chemise underneath. She wrapped a shawl over her hair, although she knew it would do little to protect it against the downpour.

The reek of fish was more apparent as the water brought long lost entrails to the surface again. Grace covered her nose and mouth with a rag and scurried from overhang to overhang until she arrived at the Angel Inn and Tavern.

She hung her shawl to dry and grabbed an apron from behind the counter. After months of working in the stables, she was given a job as a barmaid. Sometimes she missed the physical labor of her old job, but on days like this, when no one wanted to venture out more than necessary, she enjoyed the calm of being a barmaid.

The common room of the Angel was generally clean. There were ten circular tables set around the room; each had four chairs, but some were lucky enough for five. One long table in the center of the room that sat eight was Marcus’s self-appointed “throne”. The fireplace was along the opposite wall of the entrance, and the tables around the fireplace were routinely moved to make room for dancing. Next to the innkeeper’s counter, stairs led up to the rooms available for rent. A door behind the counter went into the kitchen, while opposite the main entrance, near the fireplace, was the door that went into the stables.

Marcus was there with his man, Thom. Grace’s friend and Marcus’s adopted daughter, Ridley Hunewn, was absent. She was probably picking pockets in the rain.

“Stew and ale for His Majesty.” The innkeeper, Jim Little, gave a tray to Grace when she came into the kitchen. “He requested his favorite to serve it.” Grace took the tray and used her backside to push open the door. “And happy birthday, dear. I hope you didn’t decide to stay home and wallow over Jack when you could have been here celebrating.”

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