Home > Knightfall (Tangled Crowns #1)(2)

Knightfall (Tangled Crowns #1)(2)
Author: Ann Denton

Let the bastard go blind trying to catch me, I thought.

After the sun slipped below the horizon, I dove into some clouds. The wet chill clung to my skin. I couldn’t see, but I pressed forward. I had to make it to Cerena’s cottage. A few minutes there and I’d disappear again with a completely new body. I’d beg a spelled disguise out of her, even if I was short of coin. I’d no doubt I’d been her best customer for years.

Fear chilled my bones deeper than the wet clouds that clung to my skin.

Thunderation!

Was that how he’d found me? Did he know about Cerena?

I hadn’t been to her in months. I’d gotten two spelled disguises the last time I’d seen the hedge witch. She hadn’t even seen the newest face I was using. I hadn’t told her I’d been working at Kylee’s. The fear eased a bit. I was being silly. Paranoid. Kylee’s was a common way point in the Cerulean Forest. I’d chosen it for the gossip.

I hadn’t heard anything I’d been hoping for. But I’d heard plenty. I’d heard endless complaints about Duke Aiden and his lackadaisical management, his lean coffers, and his penchant for entertaining guests from the kingdom of Gitmore, the sworn enemies of Evaness.

I’d been planning on sending a dove home, to let my best friend know about the Duke’s tendencies. But, with the spy master complication, any communication would need to be put on hold.

I ducked beneath the clouds and swore. I’d overshot Cerena’s. I decided to land and make my way back on foot, rather than chance running into Quinn Byrne and his grey eyes in midair.

I landed in a pile of blue leaves, the yellow leached out of their summer green by the brisk change of season. The scent of dry, cool fall weather drifted over me. I inhaled and smiled into the twilight. Fall was my favorite season. The early nights meant respite from work for the poor farmhands (the few customers I actually liked serving). Fall meant warm stew that filled your belly as you put your feet near a roaring fire, inhaled the blissful smell of woodsmoke, and let the chill and heat fight for control of your body.

A fox darted out of the trees near me and I froze. I stood stock still and stared around me. Tingling anticipation crept up my spine. Something was out there. The question was whether it was the spy master.

The wind trailed its fingers over my neck and I suppressed a shiver.

My hands crept to my sword, but I didn’t unsheathe it. No need to draw attention to myself if the fox was simply escaping a predator.

My pulse raced, and I forced myself to breathe slowly and silently, as I’d learned in combat practice. I tried to use the adrenaline to remain alert. To stay focused. But the longer I failed to see anything, the harder that became. My hands started to tremble. My body had to release the tension.

Finally, when my hips grew sore from standing in the same position for so long, I decided the fox must have simply outfoxed another animal. I made my way through the woods to Cerena’s cottage.

I opened the door without knocking to find a wedded group already seated in front of the fire with my old friend. Three men and a woman swiveled their heads to glare at me.

“Excuse me,” Cerena stood from her wooden chair and gave me the stink eye. A proud old woman with wavy silver hair and a limp she disguised well, she was the best hedge witch for a hundred miles. Not good enough for my ultimate goals. But good enough to be of use.

I responded to her glare by putting my thumb and forefinger together in a circle, in the hand sign we’d agreed upon years ago, so she could identify me.

Cerena’s eyes widened but she turned to the group. “One moment. My … cousin needs a room for the evening. Let me just get her tucked away and we can continue.”

Cerena hurried me down the hall and up some rickety stairs. “You have the worst timing.”

“I’ll be out of your hair quickly.”

She rolled her eyes. “That group down there are lower nobles. Your appearance here is going to cause chatter.”

“Then I’ll take to the woods for a bit. No problem.” I shrugged.

Cerena rolled her eyes and opened the door to her bedroom. I shut it behind her as she opened the trunk where she kept her most potent spells. The spelled disguises that I desperately needed. “How many this time?”

“How many do you have?”

“Three prepared and I got a little creative with them. You know how you asked me to see about animal transformations. I worked that out. But …” she trailed off and held out her hand.

I sighed. I slipped my hand into my bag. The coins I had made at Kylee’s wouldn’t buy one disguise, let alone three. But with three … I’d be good for nearly a year. My hand clenched around a necklace. It’d be a dead giveaway, but I had to have those spells. “I need to trade this time.”

“Trade?” her lips curled back. “You know I don’t do trades.”

“I know you’re sick of fertility spells.” I jerk my head toward the stairs. “Let me guess, they want a girl.”

Cerena snorted. “Of course, they do.” The birth ratio in our country had been five men to one woman since the curse a thousand years ago. Every family group sought daughters like they sought gold. Because daughters would be worth gold, when sold to the right husband group.

She tucked the spell bottles into her pocket.

I pulled out the necklace. I let the rubies catch the moonlight. Let the diamonds wink at her.

Cerena’s eyes widened. “Where’d you get that?”

“The palace—”

“They’ll string me up if I’m found—”

“Melt it down. Sell the stones separately. It wasn’t the queen’s. It wasn’t stolen.”

“How—”

Bang. Bang. Bang.

I glanced over my shoulder. The front door downstairs creaked under someone’s vicious pounding. I had a good idea whose.

Cerena’s eyes turned back to mine and narrowed. She eyed me up and down. “Who’s after you? And why?”

I stepped up to her and placed the necklace in her hand. I heard a crash that could only have been the crash of the front door slamming open and hitting the wall. The family group’s exclamations drifted up through the wooden floor slats.

“Please,” I begged her.

“Who’s after you?”

“The palace spy master.”

She handed me one bottle.

“Why?”

I glared at her as footsteps pounded on the stairs. “Because I refuse to take the throne.”

I pried a second bottle from her shocked form and raced to the window as the door to her bedroom burst open.

I dove through the glass and twisted open a bottle as I fell. I put the vial to my lips as I met the spy master’s eyes.

Cat, I thought.

And then … I landed on four paws.

Chapter Two

I cursed myself as I ran. Cat? That was the best I could come up with? What shite! Why not mountain lion? Wolf? Wolf would have been a better choice. Yes, as a cat I was small, but I wasn’t well equipped to deal with the forest’s wild animals. And stupid magic. I hadn’t been specific when I was falling and shouted out an animal.

I glanced down at my four paws and saw they were all brown. But my legs were sarding grey. Light grey. Like a Siamese cat. Might as well have tied a flaming torch to my back. I was pretty sure moonlight was reflecting off my gorgeous bright grey fur as I dodged through the bushes. I would be ridiculously easy to spot. And I was stuck in this form until the spell wore off or someone reversed it. I wouldn’t be able to get to my sword, my money, or my clothes until then. They were all … I wasn’t really sure where they went. I’m sure the mage master had told me what happened to objects during a spell like this, but I hadn’t thought I’d needed to listen. Stupid younger me.

At least I matched Quinn’s eyes. Those piercing, arresting, storm-cloud eyes. I wondered how long he’d been pursuing me. This was the first time in four years he’d gotten close. At least, it was the first time I knew of. I wondered if he would chase me through the forest. I stopped to eye a nearby tree. Maybe I should climb and watch. Better than running all night. I could conserve my energy and watch where he went, then skulk off in the opposite direction.

I stopped at a promising massive oak. Twitching leaves set my nerves on high alert and sent me skittering up the trunk.

Plonk.

I fell backwards.

Apparently, climbing was an acquired cat skill, not an instinct.

I tried again. This time my claws latched on tight. I hugged the tree with all my strength and gradually worked out how to sink one set of claws at a time in. It was slow going up the trunk. I’d just reached the first branch when I heard a twig crack behind me. I shivered and lowered myself to clutch the branch in front of me.

From the bushes, a bobcat emerged. Its ears were pitched forward, listening. The cat’s lanky limbs stalked through the trees.

I couldn’t help a low hiss.

The bobcat immediately paused.

For a second, I wished that Quinn would come this way. The spy master’s tromping would scare off this beast. And I wouldn’t have to huddle here, shivering, cursing my stupid territorial cat aggression.

I crouched lower on the branch and tucked my tail around me.

That sliver of movement gave me away. One minute, the bobcat was on the ground, the next minute my wide eyes were facing its open jaw.

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