Deliverance Page 38

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Gregory and Peter step closer to Orion, their hands on their sword hilts, and I lay a hand on Frankie’s shoulder. His muscles bunch beneath my touch, but he slowly moves away from Orion without breaking eye contact with the guard.

I look past Orion to find the Commander watching me closely, his eyes narrowed as Smithson and Adam also obey my signal to disengage from the fight. Orion starts to say something, but the Commander cuts him off.

“This is finished.” His voice is hard. “Everyone back to your jobs.” He looks at Willow. “Any sign of the trackers?”

I’m not sure when the Commander decided Willow’s skills made her worth treating with a bare modicum of respect, but his ability to put his team’s survival ahead of his own prejudices when it matters is going to work to our advantage when we have to convince the other city-states to give us troops.

“Not anywhere close.” Her eyes are locked on Orion. “The horses are giving us the advantage in speed, but they’re also making it impossible to not leave a trail. If the trackers decide to push themselves to travel by night as well as by day, we’re in trouble.”

The Commander sweeps the group with his gaze. “Double the guard shifts. Use two-hour increments. We leave before dawn.”

We begin to disperse, and the Commander snatches Orion’s cloak and spins the guard around to face him. Leaning close, he says, “If I ever see a man of mine taken down by an untrained boy again, I will drive my sword through his useless chest and invite the beasts of the woods to rip him apart limb from limb.”

“But I—”

“Cooking duty, three days. Trail sweeping, four days. And if that doesn’t motivate you to be better at what I’ve trained you to do, then I will kill you where you stand.”

Orion’s mouth snaps shut, and he looks at the ground. The Commander shoves the guard away from him, turns on his heel, and stalks toward Peter to join him in guarding the southern perimeter.

I take my ration of nuts, dandelion, and rabbit jerky and move to sit near the horses for the first shift of guard duty. Smithson sits nearby, though he doesn’t really speak to anyone. Maybe he’s been like this since we left Lankenshire. Maybe he’s been like this since Sylph died, and I was too busy trying to keep everyone alive to notice.

Either way, tonight isn’t the night to pry into his thoughts. I imagine they’re filled with missing Sylph. With the ways he wishes his life was different. And since I’m part of the reason she’s gone, I must be the last person he’d like to share his memories with.

Besides, I have memories of my own to consider as the first stars pierce the sky, and the horses whicker softly to one another.

Like the fact that the last time I saw Rachel, she was weak from her injuries and struggling to handle the sheer weight of the grief and horror of the last few months. I should be with her. I should be holding her when she wakes from her nightmares.

She’s facing Ian alone, and she shouldn’t have to. He’s my brother. This mess started nineteen years ago with my father. Rachel shouldn’t have to bear the brunt of that, but I can’t save her from it. Not yet.

I know she can take care of herself. I know it. But that doesn’t make it easier to imagine her alone in Rowansmark, surrounded by a bunch of fanatics who all believe in pain atonement.

And it doesn’t make it easier to face each day without her by my side.

I miss Rachel. In my darkest moments, a voice in my head whispers that she might be gone forever. That no matter what I do, no matter how fast I travel, I won’t catch up to her in time. That she’ll die at the hands of my brother the madman, and I’ll be left with the terrible emptiness that threatens to consume me whenever I consider a future without her.

Nothing can fix that. It’s the one scenario for which I have no backup plan.

I have a lot of promises to keep—promises to deliver justice to Ian, to stop James Rowan, to take down the Commander—but the one promise that means more to me than all the rest is my promise to always find Rachel.

There is no best or worst case scenario for Rachel. There is only finding her before it’s too late.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

LOGAN

Hodenswald comes into view in the late afternoon of our fifth day of travel. Compact buildings in sturdy brown brick hug the ground behind a thick wall studded with stocky turrets that blend into the hills behind the city. The gate is plain, the field surrounding the city has been ruthlessly trimmed, and the sun gleams off a row of long metallic weapons fixed in regular increments along the wall. Hodenswald looks like a well-muscled warrior who has no intention of hiding his nature behind the pretense of decorative landscaping and fancy stonework.

“There it is,” I say, because silence has stretched between the Commander and his Brute Squad and the rest of us for the better part of the afternoon, and it’s time someone broke it. Even to say something painfully obvious.

“It’s rather ugly, isn’t it?” Connor asks with forced cheerfulness in his voice. “It reminds me of a freakishly large dog guarding a bone.”

“It’s serviceable. Not every city feels the need to sparkle.” The Commander brushes past us and moves his horse into the lead.

Orion laughs and bumps Connor hard as he passes by. “Get it? He said that because the stone in Lankenshire sparkles.”

“Does it really? Allow me a moment to gasp in surprise. You’d think after living there for eighteen years I’d have noticed.” Sarcasm barbs Connor’s words, but Orion doesn’t seem to hear it.

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