He made another noise, then crunched a few steps away. “Take off their blindfolds. We have nothing to hide from the likes of them.”
Rough hands yanked at my hair as the knots were untied, then the blindfold was pulled away and I saw him.
He stood a metre or so away, arms folded across the broad expanse of his chest. He wore dark cloth trousers and a similar tunic, with sturdy leather boots tied to his knees. Draped over his shoulders was a thick black fur cloak, which was clasped in the front with the tarnished bronze face of a bear. Tall and powerful, he watched us with dark eyes beneath thick, beetled brows; his hair was long and curled, pulled back from his face with a single braid down the side.
He was not young. Light from the many nearby torches made shadows dance in the dramatic lines in his face, and his temples and thick beard were streaked with grey. But even without reaching out, I could feel his spirit and the calm, controlled power he possessed.
He looked between us, face never changing expression. “I am Marco Crowstone.”
I bit my lip to try and keep my breathing under control. The last thing we needed was outright panic.
The King Without a Crown.
Standing before us looking like nothing more than a hunter with overgrown hair, was the most powerful cutthroat on Cyril. He had long ago become the stuff of legend; I had once doubted his existence and thought him nothing more than the monster in the stories told to me by my mother.
But he was a man, flesh and blood, and real as those standing around us.
“What were the three of you doing travelling north?” he asked. “It is known that when Captain Sophia Henson isn’t in Canton, she is in Nallis with the king; never before has she been seen so far north. And an abomination and boy so alike they could be twins? You are an odd party, to be sure.”
I glanced to my right, to Logan and Sophia. The latter was seething, glaring at Crowstone as if her mere look could kill him where he stood; Logan had his eyes shut and looked prepared to burst into tears.
Looking back at the King Without a Crown, I cleared my throat, wishing it wasn’t so dry, and said, “We met in Nallis, s-sir. Logan is the son of the Baron Benson Hession, who serves in the court of King Alistair. He and Sophia know each other. I-I’m Logan’s cousin.”
Dark eyes, gleaming with some hidden knowledge, turned on me. “You are bold for a mixed blood. So you say the three of you know each other through noble connections. But that does not answer my question. Why are you travelling north?”
I kept the eye contact steady and pushed a little ward of calming through me. My spirit remained restless, leaping through me as if desperate to find anything that would let it escape the confines of my body, but my mind was clear.
I could do this.
And if not, at least my parents would avenge me.
“We heard a story, sir,” I began, and coughed again, “about a—a risen corpse bordering the Old Lands. We were curious.”
His thick black brows arched. “A risen corpse in the Old Lands,” he repeated, and lifted a hand to his chin. “Is there a necromancer skulking about that I have not heard of?”
He ran his fingers along his beard. “This is what you Cyrilles call a zombie, is it not?”
The corner of his lip curled up and he chuckled. Lowering his hand, he tilted his head to the side and contemplated me. I managed to keep looking into his eyes, even knowing what he was. “Althaeans have no such legends. We speak your language and we follow many of your laws, but Cyril is not as advanced as her people believe. Legends should have substance. Truth. This is horse shit.”
“I—I would agree with you, s-sir,” I stammered, and managed a shaky smile. “But my cousin wanted to go an adventure.”
He laughed again. It was a startling sound, full of heart and rumbling with thunder. It belied his fearsome reputation. “An adventure! Tell me, child, how old is your cousin?”
“He’s sixteen, sir.”
“And you?” His smile widened and sparked a glint in his eye.
“And the world knows Captain Henson has barely seen the start of her third decade. By the old gods, you are a motley bunch.” He clapped his hands together and grinned just as my ward of calming faded. Relief followed close on its heels.
The King Without a Crown had a sense of humour.
The bandits surrounding the clearing laughed along with their leader. I glanced at him, heart skipping, then allowed myself a small smile. If he was a light-hearted man, I would work with it.
And I was bold for an abomination.
Crowstone folded his arms across his chest and lifted his chin. The man behind me grabbed my shoulders and yanked, nearly bringing me to the ground; I was a good head taller than him, which had caused much grumbling amongst them when we were being taken to the camp.
I gasped and barely caught myself before my knees buckled. Next to me, Sophia snarled Canton curses as the bandits grabbed her and Logan as well.
“Take them to the pen.” Crowstone smiled and looked at me. For an instant that made my blood run cold, I could see the shine of madness in his eyes—madness inflated by power. “We will keep them tonight and decide tomorrow what to do with them. The son and niece of the man who shares King Alistair’s ear will be a pretty bargaining piece. The Pretender is expendable. We will execute her at dawn.”
I had one last glimpse of him before the blindfold was bound about my eyes once more. He stood in the centre of a ring of dirt, surrounded by cutthroats, with dust on his clothes and scars on more than just his flesh.
“You are a bold girl, abomination. It is only unfortunate that you never had a chance to realize that your position in the world will never allow you to become more than you are. You are a fool blood girl. You will never outgrow that.”
Shivers danced through me as I was led, stumbling, down a path from the clearing.
This man was more of a king than those who ruled Cyril.