Some of life's mysteries are solved within the protective walls of Foxglove Pass, but what do you do when there is a traitor among you? The Darktowers move on through the gates to stay with the mighty Duke Gallant and for a spell, the world seems to right itself...or does it?
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Daisha Korth Books
The path of duty and position brings Thorne and Aspen Darktower to the posh and luxurious city of Foxglove Pass where the charming Duke Gallant shows them comfort and friendship. Still, there are many dark corners where ...questions of terrible consequence beg to be answered...and the castle's gardens provoke the innocence of love. It is a place where the happiest in the territory smile in the sunshine and fear the Blood Thieves by night. The warmth of evil is felt upon the necks of the Darktowers... Tears fall like diamonds from the eyes of the penitent and fists fall as swords upon the condemned.
"Your prayers would be welcome...Perhaps God had grown weary of listening to mine..."
~ Breigh Berrybough
Duke Gallant surveyed the team that had shown up at his gates the night before looking ragged and weathered. Today they were vibrant and new, definitely looking the part of a grand duke and duchess. His eyes fell to the rock that hung around Aspen’s neck and then surveyed her hand and knew that the stories were true. The king did bestow his greatest affection upon this woman. She must be very special.
“Good morn to you both!” he greeted with a sweeping bow.
Sir Lernmoore smiled in approval of their appearance after so long a stretch of not being able to look appropriate.
“Thank you, my lord! We feel better indeed! And a good morn to you,” Thorne said returning his bow.
“I have come to escort you to the hall so that you may deliver your orders to your staff,” Arric said brightly.
“To be honest, we were so tired I settled the family in and went to sleep. I would like for my people to earn their keep while we are here, so I would like them to join with your crew but I am not sure how to make that happen, my lord. I do not want to place any impositions on you when you have been so generous to us,” Thorne replied bringing his arm around Aspen’s waist.
Sir Lernmoore held out a parchment and handed it to Thorne. “I knew you were exhausted, my lord, so I took the liberty of making assignments before I too fell asleep. Take a moment to look them over and see if you would like to change anything before we go down to them.”
Thorne unrolled the parchment and agreed that it would work to have the staff and men joining ranks with the staff for the busiest times of the day. If ever they were to need extra help, they would be able to pull the Darktowers in to be there.
“What is the agenda for the day?” Thorne asked.
“After the meeting in the hall, we have a meeting set to go over the things you wanted to. Today we can go over financials and speak of the issue that plagues this city. I have the other two earls and the baron that govern here coming as well…don’t worry, my lady, their wives come as well and entertain themselves with their needlepoint while we chat. Somewhere in there we will break for the midday and will be done by the evening meal. Have you decided if you are eating here or with us?” Gallant asked.
“We will break out fast together and be back here for the evening meal each day to eat with our children, but we will enjoy the midday with you each day. If you have activities planned, we will certainly join you,” Thorne said to not be rude.
“And your children are always welcome at our table, remember that. They don’t have to stay here caged like animals. Feel free to let them roam, ride the horses…do what they wish. They should have some fun and not all studies while they are young,” he smiled.
“Thank you, my lord, they will be most excited,” Thorne smiled.
“Where are the little darlings this morning anyway?” Gallant asked poking his head around.
Thorne gestured to the nursery door and led the way. “Children, you have a visitor.”
The Mira and Dalen stood quickly and lined up. Ophelia had to tear Devlin away from his toy and stand him up beside his brother. He started to stomp his little feet and stretch toward his toy. Ophelia whispered in his ear and he stopped to turn his head and look at the duke.
“My, oh my! What a beautiful family!” he breathed. Mira curtsied to him and Dalen bowed, Devlin barely attempted. Gallant laughed. “You have done very well by them, my lord. They are well mannered and as handsome as they come. Mira is such a beauty, she will stop a man’s heart in the not too distant future,” he said with his customary smile and a wink.
“Shall we get the day started?” Thorne asked rubbing his hands together.
Gallant laughed harder and shook his head. “No rest for the weary…well, except for last night. Right, my lord?”
“Correct!” Thorne chuckled taking Aspen’s hand and casting her a look that would put Cupid to shame. She smiled and had to stare at the floor wishing her blush would dissipate before anyone else could detect the hidden meaning in Thorne’s one word.
The meeting in the hall went very well, Thorne gave all the staff their assignments to share with the castle’s crew and made it clear that if they were called upon for help that it was their responsibility to help. He told Jackal and his men that they were to be training to stay in practice with their skills and also to be training Aarlon in the arts when they did not have a rotation. Again, if they were called upon for any need, they were to be at the service of the castle while they stayed.
Jackal stood tall and proud beside his lord in front of the men. Suddenly it seemed so insignificant to be at odds with him as powerful as he really was. When they were shut off from the world in Little Harbour, Thorne was just another man working to build a future for a group of people. Here in this grand palace, he was a leader…a great power not to be reckoned with. But as he snuck a peek at Aspen, she made his heart stutter and his lips curled into a sad smile knowing their time had passed and their innocent love affair was over. The love still hung in the air between them, but they both realized that the display could be no more. Jackal mentally prepared himself by imagining that he were building a wall and brick by brick, Lady Aspen was disappearing from his thoughts…but never from his heart.
Thorne thanked his loyal crew and followed Duke Gallant out of the hall and down several corridors to the large room where all the lords met. Gallant threw open the double doors and motioned them inside where there were four large desks sitting in a half circle in the middle of a room the size of the great hall at Cliffehaven. Large tall windows covered the wall behind the desks and several paintings had been hung on the opposite wall around the doors. There were benches in the far corner by the windows, Aspen was sure that would be her new prison.
Three men entered the room with their wives on their arm. Two were quite portly and one was tall and thin. The first man’s wife was as old and as heavy as he, the second had a wife that was several years younger than he and was a raving beauty. The tall man’s wife was small and timid with dark hair and dark eyes, an olive hue to her complexion. She looked as though she could be his daughter and stood only barely to his chest.
“Ah! My lords, you are here!” Gallant cheerfully observed.
The men joked around with each other for a time and then Arric called them to order.
“My lord Darktower, I would like you to meet the rest of my governing help…please welcome Lord Swyndell and his wife Amelia, there is Lord Brownstone and wife Abigail, and meet Lord Harrisson and Lady Cala. Lords and Ladies, you are looking upon the grand duke and duchess, Lord Darktower and Lady Aspen of Cliffehaven. And this, is Sir Lernmoore, advisor to the grand duke as well as the king!” Duke Gallant said.
All parties bowed and curtsied properly and then the other lords took their seats at their desks while the wives dispersed and sat upon their benches. Aspen watched them apprehensively for she did not wish to join them. She was terrible at needlepoint and she had brought no booklets to read. It would be a very boring day for her.
Thorne kissed her cheek and nudged her toward the women. She did not want to embarrass him so with one foot before the other, she walked that way and soon was seated with the others.
Duke Gallant had seen to it that two extra chairs had been brought in for Thorne and Sir Lernmoore and placed them at his desk. Thorne sat in his chair and stared at a parchment that was lined with figures. Many more than he was accustomed to seeing in Cliffehaven. Sir Lernmoore leaned over and pointed some out and explained them under his breath.
Gallant stood and called the meeting to order. He picked up his copy of the parchment and began explaining in detail each amount and how they arrived at it. They spoke of taxes they collected from the tenants, the percentage the villagers paid of their harvests, what coin they spent in repairing roads, what donations they made to the church, how they raised the coin to build the wall that surrounded their village in an attempt to keep their people safe, the salaries they paid the staffs at all castles and manors, the details kept coming until Thorne thought he would fall asleep listening to it all but in the end, Duke Gallant was able to prove that they were a profitable people and presented a chest filled with the tax that was asked for to take to the king. It was a strong city, one that others should model themselves after. Thorne made a mental note to require all leaders of all villages to visit Foxglove Pass and here, they would find the secret to their own success.
They broke for the midday and met in the hall for a meal of game birds and bread with cheese and cranberry sauces. It was not a large meal but it was satisfying.
“So, my Lord Gallant, we have not yet met the rest of your family. When will we have that pleasure?” Thorne asked as he chewed his food.
Gallant chuckled, his blue eyes merry…yet lost in a reverie it seemed to Aspen. “Eventually, my lord. All things come in time,” he said and popped a piece of meat into his mouth and chewed with a grin playing over his lips.
The meetings reconvened once they could all push themselves away from the table. Aspen had asked for one of the staff to show Sara to her quarters so she could bring her a booklet to read. Her request was granted, as she knew it would be.
“With the grand duke here, and for only a short time, I wanted to speak about the trouble we are having with the Blood Thieves. We call them that, my lord, because that is essentially what they do…steal the victim’s blood after they kill them. Or, perhaps that is how they kill them. We really have no idea. All we know is that we stumble upon dead people in the mornings and find their belongings gone as well as their blood,” Gallant explained as he had before.
The first short man stood and banged his hand on his desk. “Gallant! You must tell the entire story!”
“Swyndell, that is no one’s affair but my own!” Gallant looked mean for the first time Thorne could remember.
“What are you omitting, my lord?” Thorne asked curiously.
Gallant cast Swyndell a look that would burn him to cinders before clearing his throat and replacing his mask of tolerance on his face. “What he is referring to, my lord is that it was my wife that was the first to be killed by these people.”
Thorne could see Gallant’s shaking hands and watched him swallow convulsively. Thorne stared at him for a moment to collect his thoughts, for they were scattered within his head after that remark.
“I see,” Thorne said slowly. “If I may be so rude to inquire, my lord, but how long ago was this?”
“Just over three long years ago, my lord,” he said having to hang his head to hide his pain.
“My condolences to you and your family, Duke Gallant. So how have you combated these attacks since?” Thorne asked.
“We thought it was a very personal attack on me. But the killings went on about one every couple of months for a while, so we imposed a curfew and kept guards out on watch so the people would feel safe. The killings stopped for a while and robberies climbed. There were men who would enter the homes of the wealthier inhabitants, steal their belongings, rape their women and leave no clues. They were dressed in black with hoods to hide their faces all the way to their boots.
Then, after months of silence from the Blood Thieves, they struck us again. No one ever saw anything. We just woke up one morning to find a mother of two small children dead on her walk in front of her home. She had nothing to steal…except her children. Why would murderers want someone’s children?” he remarked as if in thought.
“Perhaps they killed them too and you just have not found them yet,” Thorne said. “Or perhaps they ran to stay with someone they knew they would be safe with…a neighbor or family member here in the city.”
“We scoured the city for them and no one saw them. The killings continued even when we stepped up the guards and patrolled the streets. We couldn’t stop them, no matter what we did. At that point, we met and decided we needed more protection…so we proposed to build the wall,” the duke explained.
“And have you noticed any change?” Thorne asked.
Arric hung his head. “We still find dead people after the gates are closed and yet we see no one enter. Many speculate that they are finding a way over the wall somewhere. I think they come in before we close the gates and meet somewhere in the city. Then they make their kills and go back to their meeting place and leave in the morning. I have heard stories of dragons dropping them off, I have heard of unnatural beings drinking the blood, I have heard every story there is. But I can’t stop them.”
“We will try to find a way, my lord,” Thorne said sympathetically.
Arric’s head snapped up and pure intensity filled his bright eyes. “But we did capture one of them. He has sat in my prison for the last two years. We have tried to get him to talk to us everyday with the exception of the Sabbath and he says nothing. I told the man that he if he will not speak to me, I will hang him when the leaves turn and the seasons change.”
Thorne knew what Gallant referred to when he said that they tried to get the prisoner to talk to them everyday…he meant that they were torturing the man to force his tongue.
“Have you extracted any information from him at all in these two years, my lord?” Thorne asked.
“We know his name… Amissus Rellit,” Gallant replied. “He rambles about nothing and twiddles his fingers as he cries. He is pitiful and I feel it is best for him if I put him out of his misery at long last.”
Thorne thought about this for a long time. Everyone was silent and all eyes were fixed on him. He took a deep breath and looked upon the lords in the room. “Before the man loses his life, I would like to try to get through to him. I wish to visit the prison on the morrow.”
“We can have the prisoner moved to a more private room where you can have access to what means you may need to make him speak,” Gallant said.
“No! I wish to see him in his environment, where he is comfortable…or as close to it as possible,” Thorne said vehemently.
“As you wish, my lord,” Gallant conceded.
Aspen had been sitting there with her nose shoved into the crease of her booklet, but her ears had heard everything that had been said. It was a bit unnerving that there were crazed people killing the inhabitants of this great city, and to have started with Lady Gallant put a little fear in Aspen’s belly. She prayed that Thorne could reach the man in the dungeons and get him to reveal some useful information so they could put a stop to all this nonsense before any of their own people were hurt…or worse, their poison spread to Cliffehaven one day.
“I feel that his crimes have been severe enough that he dies anyway. We need to get his information and then…” Swyndell said making a pulling motion around his neck.
“What exactly are his crimes, my lord? How can you punish one for something you do not know he did?” Thorne asked.
“He was captured, my lord, after stealing from a family’s table. He burst into their home with a wild look on his face, grabbed the loaf of bread from their table and ran out of the house into the night…no doubt to meet with the rest of his group. The father and the sons ran after him and raised a commotion so the guards were able to apprehend him before he could get away,” Gallant told the story of the man’s fate.
“And you think he is one of them because he stole a hunk of bread from a family at night?” Thorne asked. “Has it ever occurred to you that you are torturing an innocent that knows nothing? What if he was just hungry? What if he has no home?”
Gallant could feel Darktower’s wrath building and fought to diffuse it. “We have none without homes here, my lord. If he was hungry, that still does not give him the right to scare a family with his ashen appearance and his outburst nor does it make it all right to steal from them. He must be punished as they are all punished! I will have order in my city!” he bellowed as he brought his fist down upon his palm with conviction.
Thorne stood from his chair, his nostrils flaring. Sir Lernmoore politely cleared his throat to distract his lord, but Thorne barely took notice of the gesture.
“My Lord Gallant,” he began in his own booming tone that reverberated through the room, “I agree there must be order. However, to wrongly punish or kill a man to satisfy a thirst for justice is wrong on many levels! So, because he was hungry and stole from a family, you assume he is a part of the Blood Thieves. Am I correct? That is the only shred of evidence you have? How then, can you condemn him? How can you send him to the gallows without knowing he is a murderer?”
Gallant became very animated and slapped both of his hands down upon the desk leaning over it but looking up into Thorne’s dark eyes. “I spared his hand for his thievery on the condition he would tell me what he knew. All he would tell me was his name, my lord. I will not let him rot in my prisons any longer!
Here in Foxglove, if you commit adultery you are branded for all to see you are a harlot and cannot be trusted. If you steal, you lose your right hand so we all know you are a thief. If you are a liar, you are made a mute by…”
“Enough!” Lord Harrisson exclaimed standing with such force that he toppled his chair over. “There are delicate ladies present, my lords.”
“My apologies, Lord Harrisson, you are indeed correct. You understand, Lord Darktower, how the process works here. We are very strict but we have a very happy and content city. When there are those who threaten that, I take it very seriously. If the man was in need of food, he should have taken on some work to pay for a loaf in the market like everyone else. He committed a crime and deserves no mercy, thus he will get none from me,” Gallant said like ice, his eyes frigid and unfeeling.
Thorne hung his head shaking it in disagreement. “There is more than your black and white form of justice, Arric. There is an entire rainbow of color in between and I fear that many people have and will suffer at your hand needlessly.”
“This is my city, the last time I checked. If you think you could do better, perhaps the king will uproot me and place you here. Foxglove is not you little country village, my lord. You give these people any tiny measure of tolerance and they will steal your good graces before you know what happened. You could not possibly understand what goes on here, so stop pretending to!” Gallant vented.
Thorne drew a steadying breath itching to knock this man’s head off. “Are you through now?” he asked calmly.
Aspen was watching with her belly in knots, her booklet pulled down to her nose and her eyes wide.
“I am sorry, my lord. I meant no disrespect. It has been such a difficult journey to keep everyone from panic and trying to make sense of it all. If they killed your wife, you would want to find out who did it too,” Arric said quietly.
“You have done a marvelous job from what I have seen so far. I would enjoy a tour of the city, I want to inspect the wall for signs of intrusions and I want to visit the dungeons. I understand you wanting closure and I will do all in my power to ensure that you get that. I want you to promise me that you will be certain that those you execute actually deserve it though,” Thorne answered him just as quietly.
Gallant seemed relieved by Thorne’s words and could see that the man was dedicated to doing right by the territory. He was the answer they had been waiting for.
“Of course, my lord. We can take a tour on the morrow and visit the dungeons when we return,” he said.
“I want to visit this man first in the event he gives us some information that helps us as we tour. So, directly after the morning meal we will meet and see Rellit. Then we can begin the tour and perhaps purchase bread, cheese and some ale or wine from your market for the midday returning here for the evening meal with our families,” Thorne countered.
“As you wish, my lord. You make logical sense. My carriage should fit the four of us perfectly,” Gallant said with that gleam in his eye as if taunting Thorne.
“That will be fine, but I want her ladyship to accompany us to the dungeons to try to reach this soul. She has a way with people that far surpasses mine. If anyone can get through to him, she can,” Thorne said with thought. He hated to subject her to the horrors of the prisons after she had been through it all herself, but she was his only hope.
Gallant stared at Thorne in absolute shock and perhaps there was horror present there also. “Are you certain it is necessary? It could damage her severely.”
Thorne chuckled. “Her ladyship has seen much worse than what awaits her in any prison, my lord, and if you want the key to untying a tongue, torture is not it…Lady Darktower is.”
“If you are certain…” Gallant repeated as he flicked his eyes to where Aspen sat.
Aspen quickly shoved the booklet back over her face trying to look engrossed, but she was swallowing back her fear.