Authors: Boone Brux
Tags: #bane, #Fantasy, #fantasy romance, #demons, #Romance, #shield of fire, #Historical, #boone brux, #bringer
“Nonsense,” Willa said. “Think of them as battle scars.” She lined up the strand and pushed it through the needle. “If you’re married to Rhys, I’m sure these won’t be your last.”
The thought of more demon attacks nauseated Ravyn. How could she accept help from these fine people and lie to them at the same time? Her very existence here at the inn put their lives in danger. They helped her because they believed she was Lady Blackwell. A lie—all of it a lie.
“Let’s get you undressed.” Willa helped her stand. Ravyn’s head swam and fatigue pushed against her resolve. After unlacing the bodice, Willa widened the gap and slid the material down Ravyn’s shoulders. With a firm grip under her elbow, she levered Ravyn back down to sit on the bed. “This may hurt a bit.”
The innkeeper tugged at the fabric stuck to the dried blood. Ravyn gasped as the material peeled partly away from the stinging wounds. Willa stood to retrieve a warm bowl of water and a rag. She soaked the area around the wounds, dissolving the blood to free the dress. The pain was nearly as bad as the anticipation of the needle. Willa set the bowl on the floor and helped Ravyn extract her arms from the tight sleeves to fully expose the wounds.
“Would you rather sit up or lie back while I do this?”
“Lie back. I don’t trust myself to stay conscious.” A lump clogged her throat, making it hard to take a breath. “I really hate needles.”
Willa fluffed the pillows, and Ravyn slid up to lean against the cushions. “Close your eyes. I’ll be as gentle as I can.”
Though Willa’s tone was reassuring, Ravyn wasn’t fooled. This would hurt.
—it hurt. Every pinch of the needle, every pull of the thread through her raw and tattered flesh throbbed. She stared at the ceiling, unable to watch the slow, precise stitches. She held her breath, waiting for the each new poke of the needle.
After several teeth-gritting minutes, Willa stood. “All done. That wasn’t so bad, was it?”
The woman’s encouraging words did not hurt. Ravyn suspected she could endure a hundred such stitchings for the feel of someone’s caring touch. Not trusting her voice, she shook her head.
“Let’s get you bathed.” The innkeeper helped her to stand, but the floor tilted under her. Willa’s grip tightened and kept her standing before she plopped back on the bed. “Take it slow.”
After a few seconds, Ravyn found her balance. With expert hands, Willa stripped off the rest of the dress and led her to the bath.
The warm water massaged Ravyn’s legs and banished any shyness she might have felt at being nude with a near stranger. The Sisters rarely permitted full baths in the abbey. Such luxuries took place once a year, during spring at
The Time of Cleansing
. A bowl of cold water and a rough rag served her the rest of the year. Sometimes in the summer, she’d escaped to the small pond on the abbey’s property to swim and bathe.
The steaming liquid folded over her body. “I think the Afterlife must be filled with large marble tubs and warm pools.”
Willa chuckled and pulled a stool up next to the tub. She leaned forward, placing her arms along the edge of the bathtub. “Now then, why don’t you tell me about your adventures?”
“Oh, our adventures.” How would their hosts feel when they found out she and Rhys had known each other less than a day? “I was attacked by one of the Bane—Icarus, I believe Rhys called him.”
Willa bolted upright. “Icarus?”
“You’ve heard of him?”
“Oh yes, I know of Icarus. I’ve always believed that demon to be a myth. That’s unfortunate.” She leveled a serious look at Ravyn. “Why would such a high-ranking Bane be after you?”
“I don’t know.” Ravyn threw up her hands and splattered Willa with water. The woman barely flinched. “Sorry.”
Willa’s gaze didn’t waver.
“Until last night I’d never heard of Icarus. Actually, the only things I know about the Bane are what the Sisters at the abbey told me as a child. When I got older, I thought the stories were just tales spun to frighten me.”
Willa’s brow knit as her gaze narrowed. “But how can this be, considering what you are?”
Every thought froze in Ravyn’s head. Time seemed to slow. She stared at the steaming water. This mystery had plagued her all her life. Willa’s answer could define her, give her a place in the world. She met the woman’s eyes. “What do you mean, what I am?”
Willa’s scrutinizing stare was steady. The question hung in the air between them. “A Bringer.”
The pronouncement rang through the room like the tolling bell of the abbey. Waves of awakening rippled along Ravyn’s skin. She shuddered. Emotions tumbled and rolled.
A mythical warrior? She—part of something greater than herself? Hope mixed with disbelief. Could it be true? If the Bane were real, why not the Bringers? In every legend she’d ever heard, both had existed, the Bringers to defeat the Bane. She focused on the surface of the water, the meaning of Willa’s pronouncement taking hold.
“There’s no need to hide your identity from me. As with the Bane, we know of the Bringers. After all, you can’t have one without the other, can you?”
“No.” Her voice wavered. “No, you can’t.”
Questions formed and faded and new questions took their place. Ravyn tried to close her mind against the onslaught of possibilities, but they refused to be silenced. She grabbed onto the most basic question plaguing her. “Why would you think I’m Bringer?”
“I may not be one, but I’m not without my talents.”
Ravyn looked up. “Such as?”
A radiant smile spread across Willa’s face. “Such as knowing a Bringer when I see one.” The woman held Ravyn’s gaze and her smile slowly faded. “You didn’t know, did you?”
Ravyn looked away. She didn’t want to see the pity now apparent in Willa’s voice. “No, I didn’t know.”
“But, again I must ask, how can this be?” Willa pressed.
How would she ever survive if she couldn’t tell a simple lie? She pulled her knees to her chest and wrapped her arms around her legs. “I’ve always known I was different, but I never knew why.” She focused on the quivering drop of water at the end of the tap. “I thought there was something wrong with me.” She hugged her knees more tightly. “I thought the Sisters were right about me being cursed.”
Willa’s posture stiffened. “Your sisters?” Ravyn shook her head. “Sisters from The Order of the Saints?” Ravyn nodded. “But why hasn’t Lord Blackwell explained this to you?”
Ravyn covered her face. Shame over their deceit swamped her. She couldn’t lie to these trusting people. The muffled confession seeped from behind her hands. Surely, she had one foot in The Abyss. “We just met.”
Silence stretched. Unable to stand the stillness, she peeked from between fingers. The innkeeper rose, and for a second Ravyn thought she was leaving the room. Instead, Willa walked to the bed where the soaps and towel lay. Was she outraged by their ruse? Ravyn held her breath, waiting for judgment.
Willa picked up a jar, moved back to the tub, and slid the stool behind her. “Get your hair wet.”
Ravyn quickly obeyed and slipped partway beneath the water. Like black tendrils of seaweed, her tresses floated out around her. She ignored her stinging wounds, her attention riveted on Willa’s expressionless face hovering above her. When her hair was wet, Ravyn sat up and waited, unsure of what to do next.
Willa pressed a lump of soap into her hair and started to massage Ravyn’s scalp. She scrubbed and rinsed the muck from the long strands, speaking with only her hands, gently coaxing Ravyn to relax into her gentle touch.
“So,” Willa said, finally breaking the silence. “Let me understand this. You and Lord Blackwell have only recently met?”
“You’re not married?”
“No, and my name is Ravyn not Romelda.”
Willa smirked. “Well, there’s one lie that thankfully isn’t true.” She threaded her fingers through Ravyn’s hair, working the soap to the ends. “Knowing Rhys and seeing your wounds, I’m guessing he saved you from Icarus?”
“And up until a few minutes ago, you didn’t know you were a Bringer?”
“Up until a few minutes ago, I thought the Bringers were myth. Up until a day ago, I never knew the Bane existed. Then I met Icarus.” She could hear the tinge of hysteria in her voice.
More silence stretched between them as Willa continued her massage. Finally she said, “And now?”
Ravyn thought for a moment. No ringing revelations came to her. She should be happy that something in her life finally made sense. She should dance for joy that she was not evil, but her mind and body were too tired. Perhaps tomorrow would shed new light on what this discovery meant to her future.
She closed her eyes. “I don’t know how I feel.” Tension flowed from Ravyn’s muscles as Willa’s fingers continued to work their magic. “I guess it makes sense. I’ve never fit in. There’s a degree of comfort knowing I’m not cursed.”
“You’re far from that. Do you know anything of the Bringers?”
“Only what I heard as a child. I used to picture them as angels.”
Willa smiled. “It is a common misconception, but I think it serves the Bringers well. They’re able to remain anonymous among the common man.”
A barb of resentment darted through her. Maybe if the Bringers hadn’t been so secretive, she could have been a part of something instead of being locked away from the world. “Why would they do that? Legends trumpet the coming of the Bringers and their vow to protect humans from the Demon Bane. Why are they hiding?”
“Ouch.” Willa snatched her hand out of the water. “You need to calm down before you boil yourself alive.”
Steam rose from her bath. Ravyn’s eyes widened. “Did I do that?”
have no such talent,” Willa snapped.
“I—I’ve never heated water before.” She filtered the water through her fingers, letting the droplets fall back into the bath. “That would have come in quite handy at the abbey.”
“Your powers must be growing now that you’re in contact with another Bringer.”
She looked at the woman. “Another Bringer?”
“Rhys,” Willa said.
“Rhys. Of course. That makes sense.” She paused. “He makes sense now.”
“What do you mean?”
Ravyn swiped at a drop of water gliding down her cheek. “The way he takes command of a situation, and the way he protected me.” She wrapped her arms around her legs again. “And how he looks.” Her gaze cut to Willa. “He even looks like a warrior.”
Willa let out a heavy sigh. “He certainly does.” She rinsed the soap from Ravyn’s hair. “Bringers can be secretive to a fault.” Willa’s statement sounded like it came from personal experience. “Take Rhys for example,” she continued. “My family knows he’s a Bringer, and he knows that we know he’s a Bringer, but we all pretend that none of us know. It’s very civilized.”
Ravyn nodded. It seemed instead of answers, this new revelation would only give her more questions. Her head ached. Just once she’d like some aspect of her life not to be steeped in mystery.
“Will you tell me what you know of the Bringers?”
Her hands stilled in Ravyn’s hair. “Ask me after you speak with Rhys. He’s the one who can give you a deeper knowledge of your people.”
A thrill shot through Ravyn.
Rhys eased closer, careful not to wake Ravyn. He brushed back a damp curl from her forehead. Her pallor had darkened, and pink dusted her cheeks. For the first time he noticed a sprinkling of tiny freckles across her nose. How old was she? Perhaps twenty-two or twenty-three? Young, innocent, and far too trusting, despite her show of bravado last night.
She sighed and snuggled deeper into the pile of blankets.
Intimacy such as this made him uncomfortable. Closeness opened the way for hopes and expectations, two things he couldn’t give. With her asleep, he’d allow himself this one moment of indulgence, but it was a moment that could go no further. He lightly rubbed his finger against her cheek, the feel of her smooth skin so foreign against his callused hand.
Duty came first, which meant he needed to remain aloof. It had always been this way. Until now. Now he had Ravyn and all the chaos she stirred inside him. Bringer blood hummed in his veins, and being a Bringer Shield demanded he guard her from all peril. He wanted—no,
—to protect her. No other choice existed, but in order to do that, he couldn’t get involved.
Everything about her resonated Bringer, especially her fire, but at the same time she lacked some element of his race. For centuries the Bane had assassinated the full-bloods. Was she like him? Had she been protected for hundreds of years, safe and locked away? If so, did she know more than she was saying?
She rolled over to face him, her eyes slightly open. He pulled his hand away.
“Hello.” Her voice sounded sleepy and unguarded.
“Hello.” He sat up, intent on putting distance between them.
She smiled and closed her eyes. “Don’t go.”
Lavender, soap, and rainwater enveloped him.
scent. The low afternoon sun squeezed through a crack in the heavy drapes. The dusky dimness of the room and the soft pillows enticed him to lie next to her and rest. Every one of his years made themselves known, and he was more tired now than he could ever remember.
Ravyn’s peaceful smile pulled at his weary soul. What he would give for a few hours of soft caresses. What he would risk for a few hours of freedom from duty and honor. What he would venture to not feel alone for a few precious hours.
“You should have told me.”
Her statement pulled him from his reverie. “Told you what?”
“That I’m a Bringer.”
He eased his legs over the side of the bed and stood. “Are you?”
“Aren’t I?” She sat up, her sleepy expression gone. The blanket crept down her shoulders.
He noticed the fresh bandages, but more pointedly, he noticed the enticing swell of her breasts. He locked his hands behind his back and straightened. “To be honest, I don’t know what you are.”
Her expression fell, and a shard of guilt needled him.
“What I mean is, you’re not like any Bringer I’ve met.”
She settled against the massive headboard and pinned him with a stare. “Explain, please.”
He searched for words to describe the intangible gut feeling that governed his every move, an elusive instinct he’d come to depend on in almost every situation, an intuition that was nearly infallible. “You’re much stronger than other Bringers I’ve met.”
“Your powers are more obvious. The Bringers I know have talents, but nothing as blatant as yours.”
“And you have firsthand knowledge of my powers?” She sounded suspicious.
“I saw you try to attack the demon last night. Your skill of fire goes far beyond that of most mixed-bloods.”
She looked down, adjusting and readjusting the covers. “Maybe I’m full-blooded.”
He cocked his head to the side. “How old are you?”
“Then you’re not full-blooded.”
“How do you know?” She lifted her chin in defiance. “You know nothing of my past. I don’t even know who my parents are.”
He walked to the window and pushed aside the curtains, letting the afternoon sun bathe the room. “I’m not an expert on you, but I am an expert on the Bringers. The last full-blooded female died over three hundred years ago.” He paused. “My mother.”
Ravyn was silent for a moment. He resisted the urge to look at her.
“But that would make you over three hundred years old.”
“Three hundred and thirty-two, give or take a few years. The last living full-blooded Bringer.”
Very few people knew his real age. Luc, his best friend and captain of the rebel half-blooded Bringers, did, as well as Nattie and Jaspar. They had been starving orphans when Rhys had found them and took them under his wing. It seemed only days ago, but they were no longer children. Jaspar was in his eighties and Nattie not far behind. Though vital and healthy, they could no longer share in the thrill of the hunt like they had decades ago. As with every person he’d let into his life, Rhys knew one day they would pass through the Veil and leave him behind.
Ravyn scrutinized him as if contemplating his sanity. After a few seconds, her suspicion slowly softened. “You look very good for your age.”
“You believe me?”
“I don’t know what I believe.”
“Any sensible person would question such a mad declaration.”
“Well, that’s your first mistake. I’m obviously not sensible. Accepting that you’re three centuries old is like swallowing a spoonful of honey compared to the large dose of demons and legends I’ve been force-fed over the last day. You could tell me you’re a dragon or a vaporous genie and I’d believe you at this point.”
His smile faded. He searched her face for a hint that she knew more than she was saying, but no allusion surfaced. He turned away to stare out the window again. “You’ve been through a lot.”
“But how is it possible you don’t age? Are there others like you?”
“I wish I knew.” If he didn’t look at her, he wouldn’t see her pity—or disgust. “I’ve never found another Bringer like me. I aged normally as a boy, but over time, my aging process slowed.”
“Are you immortal?”
At the note of alarm in her voice, he peered over his shoulder, unable to stop himself. There it was, the look of revulsion he was used to. “A truly horrifying concept indeed.”
Eternal physical life. No light at the end of his dark existence. He couldn’t bear the thought.
“No, I’m not immortal,” he said more for his own reassurance. “I can be hurt and even killed, but it’s difficult to do. I heal quicker than most humans and mixed-bloods.”
“Descendants of the Bringers, but not full-blooded. They don’t possess the abilities I have.” He returned his attention to the window. “Or that you have.”
She said nothing, and he made no effort to fill the silence. Rehashing these memories shackled and dragged him deeper into the murky depth of his reality.
“I’m sorry about your parents.”
Her soft condolence floated across the room and hovered behind him. It would be so easy to sink into her sympathy and accept comfort. But indulging his pain would make him weak and unable to serve the greater good. Duty before self. Always.
“Thank you. It was a long time ago.”
“Perhaps, but I’m sure it’s still difficult.” She had an uncanny knack for finding the grain of truth in a situation, no matter how deeply he buried it.
“The sting has lessened over time,” he lied.
At the sound of rustling blankets he turned his head. She’d snuggled back into her nest of bedding.
“How did they die?”
He leaned his hands against the windowsill and stared blankly at the activity below, searching for the detachment that came naturally. The disconnection eluded him. “Murdered by the Bane.”
He heard her sharp intake of breath and pivoted to face her. Her eyes were wide and her knees tucked against her chest. As if by making herself smaller, she could shield herself.
“What do you know of the Bringers?” he asked.
“Nothing, really. Mainly that they protect humans from the Demon Bane.”
He crossed his arms and sat on the windowsill. “A thousand years ago, the Bane spread across this land like a plague of locusts.”
Ravyn’s eyes rounded but she said nothing.
“Queen Anna ruled this land at the time and journeyed to The Arch of the Mystics to beseech the Bringer King for help. Legend says she begged for three days, calling out to King Arron for his assistance in ridding the land of the demons.”
Ravyn sat forward, her attention riveted on him.
Rhys walked to the bed and perched on its edge. He kept a respectable distance, not trusting his reaction to the fact that she was probably naked under those blankets. “They say King Arron watched her, wondering how long the high ruler of Inness would grovel like the lowest peasant.”
“Did he help her?” Ravyn eased out of her cocoon to lean against the headboard.
“Oh yes, he helped. It’s rumored the longer he watched Queen Anna, the deeper in love he fell.”
A completely female sigh issued from her lovely mouth. The sound called to Rhys’s maleness. What would it take to make her sigh that way for him?
“When I was a child my parents regaled me with stories about the king and queen’s love and how they planned to rule the two worlds as one,” he said.
“What a wonderful love story. So what happened next?” Ravyn leaned her head back. A dreamy look glazed her eyes.
“Unfortunately, there’s no happy ending. King Arron died in battle, and Queen Anna wasted away from a broken heart.”
“Oh.” Ravyn sat forward. “That’s terrible. Why did you tell me such a horrible story?”
“Because the tale is part of who we are. May I continue?”
“I’m sorry.” She didn’t sound sorry.
“Though the king and queen were thrilled by their upcoming union, others weren’t.”
“The Order of the Saints, for one. They feared the Bringers would usurp their authority, and the Bringers didn’t wish to be saddled with the problems of the humans.”
She tugged the blanket around her as if wrapping herself in righteous anger. “That’s rather conceited.”
He suppressed a smile. If only he had more impassioned soldiers like Ravyn among his rebels.
“I think both sides had valid points,” he said. “The Order would have most certainly lost its power to the Bringers’ dominant ways. And the Bringers would have been expected to cure all ills of Inness. If somebody always cleans up your mess, you never become self-sufficient. When King Arron died, the Bringers agreed to honor his pact with Inness, as far as ridding the world of the Bane.”
“Is that why we’re called Bringers? To bring destruction to the Bane?”
“In part,” Rhys said. “Bringer was a name given to our people by Queen Anna.” He smiled. “My father said it was because she couldn’t pronounce the word in our ancient language.”
“Do you know the ancient word for Bringer?”
Her blanket slipped down her shoulders again and his concentration wavered.
“Vrydracozril. It means
“Faceless warrior? How odd.”
“Like most ancient things, the true meaning was probably lost in translation.”
“I suppose so. I certainly see why Queen Anna changed it.” She pulled the blanket tighter. “What is the connection between the Bringers and the Bane? Why are the Bringers able to kill the Bane but the humans can’t?”
“We can’t kill the Bane, though there are tales. My father spoke of immortal weapons used to battle the demons. I was very young and might not remember his account clearly, but as I got older I began to suspect his stories were part of the Bringers’ history.”
Her brows furrowed. “Have you ever found the weapons?”
“No. If they exist, I don’t know where they are, and I’ve discovered nothing capable of destroying the Bane.”
“Well, that’s not good, is it?” Her shoulders sagged as if defeated. “If they can’t be killed the Bringers can’t defeat them.”
“No, we can’t.” He stood and paced the length of the room. “Most of the Bringer lore has been handed down verbally. When the Bane assassinated the original Bringers, the stories died with them.”
Her head snapped up. “Assassinated?”
“In retaliation. When King Arron and the Bringers battled the Demon Bane a thousand years ago, the Bringers believed they had annihilated the demons.”
Ravyn gave an absent nod toward her bandages. “Obviously, they didn’t.”
“No. A demon named Vile, the same demon who had killed King Arron, slipped back to the Shadow World. Other demons must have escaped or never emerged from their hole to fight in the Upperland.” He continued to pace, pulling his parents’ stories from his memories. “With infinite patience, Vile rebuilt an army. He enticed every demon out of hiding with the promise of vengeance on their enemy.” He stopped and pinned her with his gaze to press the point. “There’s nothing the Bane love more than killing and vengeance.” He began to pace again. “After Vile recruited the demons, he targeted humans. Starting with those who wouldn’t be missed, orphans and the homeless, he stole their souls and turned them into demons.”