Post-apocalyptic paranormal romantic fantasy
Extract from Cloth of Grace, book 4
When the fate of the world rests on your shoulders, how do you choose between what you ought to do and the only thing you really want?
Leonie finally knows who she is. But now she needs to decide who she is going to be. Her choice will affect not just her family, not just those she knows, but tens, hundreds of thousands, millions of people that she doesn’t. And every path that’s open to her will put Perry under the pressures that caused his breakdown before. How can she do what she must and still protect Perry?
Perry desperately wants to make things easier for Leonie. Somehow he has to find the strength to face the things that all but destroyed him in the past. But every way he turns, some aspect of his past lies waiting to pounce – even during his happiest moments. And he can never forget that Leonie’s life is in danger from someone, somewhere.
Gabriel has managed to negotiate peace, at least in theory. Now he must put that into practice and reunite Leonie with the family she never knew she had. Then disaster strikes right in the middle of his own sanctuary. Can he still protect those he loves, or has he been harbouring a villain the whole time?
The sound of hooves impinged on his sleep, bringing him awake in a moment. He glanced around the room, still dark, with a faint moonlight glow outlining the window. There were voices too, some issuing quiet but urgent orders, others swearing and cursing. He hurried to his bedroom window, overlooking the main courtyard. Horses were milling around, riders dismounting and moving away. For a group that specialised in silence, there was a lot of noise. Many of the group appeared to be limping or hunched over in pain. And far too many of them were heading for the back entrance to the hospital rather than the courtyard rooms.
He shrugged and returned to bed. He’d find out more in the morning. Most of this community were here because of some misfortune. Gossiping about the misfortunes of others was one of their chief pleasures. As he started to drift back to sleep, his mind dwelled on his own situation.
He was the misfortune that had meant his parents had come here. Most of their people were nomadic but there was no place for a child on the road or on missions. There were perhaps three or four children here at any one time, with one or both of their parents. The rest of this settled community were older, either retired from active missions, or permanently incapacitated by some injury or accident.
He rolled over, punching his pillow, unable to get comfortable as he remembered his last conversation with his mother, just before she’d left on this mission.
“You’re nearly fifteen,” she’d said. “While I’m away, think about your future. If you want to stay as one of us, it’s almost time for you to leave for further training.”
“And if I don’t?” he’d asked, his voice high, betraying him.
She’d ignored his tone. “Then we’ll find you a conventional foster family, far away.”
Either way he’d be leaving the only home he’d known. His choice wasn’t about staying or leaving but about what he wanted to do in the future – and he still didn’t know. His final thought before sleep claimed him was that his mother had led this last mission. He hoped she hadn’t been badly injured.
At breakfast, he sat quietly, listening to all the gossip.
“That child’s the spawn of the devil.”
“She’s just a child. How much trouble can a four year old be? They must have made a right mess of things.”
“Old so-and-so’ll never work again. He’ll be lucky even to walk again.”
“There’s not a one of them came back without burns and bruises. Most have broken bones.”
“Must have been one heck of a contract to be worth it.”
He could have stayed listening all day but he had school, training – he was particularly good with anything that required marksmanship – and his chores on the farm and in the hospital.
The hospital fascinated him and he was toying with the idea of medicine as a future career. Today he ambled in through the back entrance and towards the janitor’s room, in no particular hurry to get there and have to start his cleaning duties. As he passed her room – the door slightly open – the child was whimpering and crying quietly. Although he had no duties that should take him in there, he pushed the door open further and went in.
She was curled up on the bed, clearly terrified and partly restrained. He knew she’d been brought here so they could implant a tracker, and her movement had been restricted so that she wouldn’t cause further damage at the implantation site, nor tear out the drip that had been inserted.
She watched his movements with huge dark scared eyes, so he sat on the bed beside her and tried to reassure her. He didn’t know whether she understood him. He had an aptitude for languages, indeed he was already fluent in several different ones, but he didn’t recognise any of the few words she uttered. He tried the various languages he knew but none seemed to spark more recognition in her eyes than any other. In the end perhaps it was just the tone of his voice that helped, but as he sat there talking to her and holding her hand, her body relaxed and eventually she slept.
The door creaked and his mother walked in to the room. She was dressed typically for someone on the road or on a mission for their clan – close fitting dark clothing, with her head and most of her face also covered. He shouldn’t have been in here and expected to be in serious trouble, but her voice was mild even if the words were a reprimand. “You shouldn’t really let either a client or a subject see your face,” she told him.
“She was scared,” he replied, trying to explain his actions.
His mother nodded. “I know. You did right. It may seem strange but compassion is important in our work.”
He knew that his parents – and the rest of the active adults of his clan – were Assassins, highly skilled and very expensive to commission. He had been brought up to believe that killing others for money was neither right nor wrong, simply a way of life. He didn’t understand how compassion could be part of that but for once his mother seemed willing to talk about it.
“This is unusual,” she said, gesturing at the child. “When we kill, we do so quickly and cleanly, and by surprise, with no period of fear or apprehension for our subjects. That is a form of compassion. And we don’t kill children.”
“So why is she here? And why so scared?” he asked.
His mother sighed and shook her head. “We set her price very high, unreasonably so, even for who she is. But still they paid. That means they’ll probably use amateurs as well which could be much worse for her. We will protect her from those until she is adult. Not from what life might bring – and this client is very specific about where she is to be placed now – but from capture or torture or being killed slowly and painfully by some amateur.”
“She’s still scared now,” he persisted.
“Yes,” his mother agreed. “I was coming back to soothe her but you got here first. She has abilities far beyond what we expected and that caused problems with our plans. Before she leaves we will block her memories of her time here so this will just be a short forgotten period of fear.”
“She’s still a child. How can a contract on a child be right?”
“It isn’t about right or wrong, not for us. Remember, we are merely the tool. We never make the decision that someone should be killed. That decision is always made by our clients. All we can do is be the very best tool possible.” She paused for a moment. “And maybe, just maybe, things will change in the next few years and this contract will be rescinded. I hope so. I always hope that, for the children.”
She ushered him out of the room, the moment of openness over. The next time his hospital duties took him that way the child was gone.
When the time came, he chose to leave the Assassins. They placed him in a foster family in a High House closely allied with the Great House of House Sabden. His memory of the child’s fear tipped his decision. Right or wrong, he couldn’t be a party to creating that sort of terror. But he soon forgot her in his new life. He was happy there, happier than he had expected and he quickly gave them his loyalty, considering his foster parents in the light of grandparents. He was welcomed and cared for and his foster family supported both his love of languages and his interest in medicine. When he had exhausted all that was offered by his new local school they encouraged him to go to college, which he did.
It was at college that he came across the Believers. He’d heard of them before that but had never paid them much attention. Now he was immersed in their beliefs and way of life and, captivated by something so different from his childhood culture, he embraced them whole heartedly. His faith grew steadily and he joined the monastic Order, revelling in the acceptance, the friendship, the sense of belonging to a family and the fresh start away from the secrets of his past.
Late July – At Castle Tennant
The Them loomed round me, arms outstretched, reaching for something. One of Them leaned over me to grab at Perry, sleeping peacefully beside me. No way, that was not happening. I was not going to let them touch Perry. I felt for the power, took hold…and it fizzled out.
No, I’m still me. Even without the power I’m still me. And I can deal with a bunch of the Them.
I rolled off the bed, using my body to knock their feet from under Them as I landed on the floor. They dissipated as I touched them, reforming behind me. Light shone from one side of the room so I headed towards it, the Them following. The light led to a rocky ledge, revealing a ravine beyond. I’d need my Gifts to get me across that. The Them coalesced in front of me, into one large Them with a Shield that was stopping me accessing the power.
I’d switched off Brin’s Shield; I could destroy this one. I twisted it until it blew up, grabbed the power and leapt through the fading Them.
The ground was soft beneath my feet as I landed. I risked a glance back over my shoulder. The giant Them had split up again into lots of little ones. I threw a blast of power at Them; it delayed Them only a moment. I had to lead them away but which way to go? A glow in the distance suggested fire. That would do, the Them hated fire and light. I sprinted that way. As I got closer, Katya appeared ahead of me.
Katya? But she’s dead. Who cares? This is a dream and Katya means safety.
I flung myself into her arms.
“Hush, lia. All is well. I have you.”
That wasn’t Katya’s voice. No, that was…Karina. My eyes flew open and I struggled to make sense of what I was seeing. Somehow I’d reached the Trader camp and Headwoman Karina was holding me close, Merchant Evan hovering nearby. I was in the centre, near the campfire and there was some sort of commotion happening over by the camp border which I ignored.
“Is anyone trying to hurt you? Chase you?” Merchant Evan asked, frowning. “Anyone from the Great House?” He turned, looking behind me, towards the camp border as if searching for some pursuer.
I shook my head. “No,” I whispered. “Just a nightmare.”
“Come, sit,” Karina said, wrapping a blanket round my shoulders and pushing me down onto a bench by the fire. “Get warm again.”
I tried to stand up. “Perry, he’ll be worrying. I need to get to Perry.”
The commotion at the camp border got louder, and Perry hurtled through, sliding to a stop on his knees in front of me. He cupped my face in his hands, staring into my eyes, his own eyes filled with concern. “I couldn’t tell where you were, what had happened,” he said. “Are you hurt? Was it a nightmare?”
“Not hurt,” I told him.
He sighed deeply and pulled me into his arms, cradling my head against his chest. “I was so worried,” he breathed.
He settled on the bench beside me, keeping his arms round me. Karina sat on my other side.
“What happened?” I asked. “What did I do?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. I don’t think you did anything. There seems to be something else going on, not just your nightmare.”
Merchant Evan grinned and gestured to the camp border. “I think we’re about to find out more,” he said.
Brin came striding across the camp towards us and bowed before me. “My deepest apologies, my Lady Leonie,” he said formally. “I regret that I was foolish enough to switch a Dampener Shield across the Castle tonight. I am so sorry for the trouble it caused you.”
“Idiot,” Perry muttered under his breath before staring more closely at Brin. “Was it actually you who did that?” he asked. “Or one of your squad?”
Brin glanced towards him. “It doesn’t matter whose finger was on the switch. It was still my responsibility.” He turned back to me. “Can you forgive me?”
Memories of the nightmare came back to me. “What actually happened to the Shield?” I asked cautiously.
“It blew up,” said Brin. “No one was hurt but there must have been a fault. We rarely use it but it is tested and serviced at night once a quarter. Inconveniently, that test fell tonight.”
“Um, Brin…” I said. “I don’t think there was a fault. In my nightmare I blew a Shield up.”
His jaw dropped and he stared at me, open mouthed and silent.
“That makes a lot of sense,” said Perry. “What I felt, the sensations, the inability to sense anyone. That would be the Shield giving way.”
I tugged at Brin’s tunic to get his attention. “Are you sure no one was hurt?” I asked.
He closed his mouth and nodded. “The physical explosion wasn’t very big,” he said. “And it’s pretty well protected anyway. We have very few adepts here. There are one or two with headaches, that’s all.”
Perry winced. “Talking of headaches…” he said.
I turned back to him, concerned. “Have you got one?” I asked.
He nodded and winced again. A moment later a Trader girl appeared at his side with a beaker which she held out to him, mutely.
“For the headache,” Karina said.
Perry looked at the beaker, frowning dubiously.
“Drink it,” I told him.
With another quick glance at me he obeyed, then gave the beaker back to the girl with his thanks.
Brin grinned at me. “Our service engineer is very pleased with you,” he said. “She’s been nagging us to replace that Shield for years. Says she’s just been nursing it along, and struggling to get parts.”
“Is it the same one from when I was last here?” Perry asked. “Or have you replaced it since then?”
“It’s the same one,” Brin confessed.
“Idiot,” Perry said. “That should have been replaced years ago. It was old even then. You were asking for trouble.”
“I know,” Brin said. “And I’m sorry. Am I forgiven?”
I nodded. “As long as I am, too. For the damage and the commotion.”
“Of course,” he told me. “Now, I think we should get you back.”
He thanked Evan and Karina formally, and they both hugged me.
“Take care, lia,” Karina whispered in my ear. “We are always here if you need us.”