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The Duke's Wolf, Part Four by Amber E. Scott
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The Duke's Wolf, Part Two by Amber E. Scott

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The Duke's Wolf, Part Two
by Amber E. Scott
Illustrated by David Esbri

“Greetings, mistress. I am Kaeton, hunter for the duke. I’ve come for your vigilantes.”

Breathe, Bun told herself. Just keep breathing. Smile. No, don’t smile! Look him in the eye.

She looked the hunter in the eye. “I’m Anna Lengal, master Kaeton. And I’m afraid you’ve made a mistake; there are no vigilantes here anymore.”

The four hunters stepped further into the room. One snapped the door closed, muting the rush of wind and rain from outside. Kaeton laid one gloved hand on the green logbook on the counter. He rubbed the spackled corner of the book thoughtfully, as if testing to see if more gilt would flake off.

“Anymore?” Kaeton asked. “So they were here at one point?”

Bun clasped her hands behind her back. She didn’t lie very often, and wondered desperately how she looked when telling the truth. Are my eyes usually open this wide? Do I fidget more?

“Yes, they arrived — what would you say, Olna, about an hour ago?” The skinny maid bobbed her head like a chicken. “About an hour ago. I turned them away.”

“I see.” Kaeton opened the logbook with a slow, deliberate movement, setting the cover down soundlessly. He thumbed through the pages and said nothing more for the moment. His eyes stayed on the scrawls, but Bun still felt as if he was watching her.

The other hunters stayed silent as well. Bun’s nerves unraveled as the empty air grew heavier around her. The quiet pressed down on her chest and made it hard to breathe. She twisted her hands together behind her back and scrambled for words to fill the silence. “Well, we’d heard rumors that they were in the area. And that you were looking for them. We didn’t want to associate with people like that.”

Kaeton ran a gloved finger down the edge of one page, then lifted his hand and squinted as if checking for dust. “How did the rumors precede these criminals?”

“A letter arrived yesterday for the baker, from his brother in Valedeep. It said that the vigilantes had passed through and mentioned this — this town.” Bun almost said ‘this inn’ before she realized it might make her look suspicious. “The wagon must have passed the vigilantes on the road.”

The hunter slammed the book shut hard enough to puff dust from the green cover. Bun and Olna jumped. Bun put a hand on her chest and took a step back.

“Then it all makes sense,” Kaeton said. He finally looked up from the counter and studied Bun. She couldn’t discern his eye color in the dim light, but the intensity of the man’s gaze made her shiver. “They didn’t anger when you turned them away? Threaten you, perhaps?”

“No,” Bun said. “I mean, yes, but I didn’t take them seriously. One of them was wounded, and I knew I could scream for help if they tried anything. The gardener and his wife sleep upstairs, and he’s a hefty man.”

“Did you see which way they went after you turned them away?”

Bun shook her head. “I think perhaps north — up the road. But I’m not certain.”

Kaeton stalked towards her. The leather joints of his breastplate creaked loudly in the otherwise still room. Bun jumped again but regained enough composure to stand her ground. Remember, she told herself, you haven’t done anything wrong. Just keep thinking that.

The hunter brushed a strand of hair off Bun’s face. His leather gloves felt rough and cold against her skin. “Your hair is wet.”

She lifted a hand to touch her head, eyes widening as if surprised. For a moment she considered feigning shock: Oh my, how did that happen? Immediately she realized the stupidity of the plan.

“I was in the back,” she said. Her mind raced. “I heard a noise. I thought perhaps the vigilantes had come back. So I went to look, but it must have been your wagon I heard.”

Kaeton raised an eyebrow. “By yourself? That’s rather dangerous.”

Bun shrugged. “This is my inn.”

He stood so close to her that it made her nervous. Bun put her hands behind her back again, wondering if an innocent woman would stand still or step back.

Looking over her shoulder, Kaeton said, “And you, mistress? Did you see these vigilantes?”

Bun looked back to see Olna shaking her head vigorously. “Oh no, no indeed, no sir. That is, I was throwing out the dishwater when I saw the group coming up the road. I ran inside and got Bun, then locked myself in my room until I heard your knocking.”


Bun flushed. “My nickname, sir. I was a very round baby.”

Kaeton’s face cracked into a smile. “‘Bun.’ I see. And ‘Bun’ wasn’t around to answer the door?”

“I must have been out back.”

The hunter nodded. “My men and I will need rooms for the night. It’s too dark to track our quarry any further.” He stepped back.

“Of course.” Bun’s shoulders sagged and her jaw relaxed. She hadn’t even realized she’d been clenching it. While she wished Kaeton and his men would move on, she was enormously relieved that the interrogation was over. “We’ve got common rooms with four beds and a washstand for five silver a person, or private rooms for two gold pieces.”

“The common room will be fine,” Kaeton said. He counted out coins from his belt pouch and then laid them on the counter one at a time, in a straight line.

Bun slipped behind the counter, fetched their keys, and put the money away. “I’ll walk you to your room,” she said, handing Kaeton his key. “Olna will bring you up hot water and towels.”

Kaeton’s hand engulfed Bun’s hand as well as the key. Bun gasped and looked up into the hunter’s face, her skin cold. Her stomach turned liquid.

“Did you recognize any of the vigilantes?” Kaeton asked.

Bun tried to pull away but the hunter gripped her hand with the tenacity of a bear trap. A thousand thoughts collided in Bun’s mind and she struggled to resolve them into order. She wished she could answer no, claim she hadn’t recognized them at all, hadn’t even seen their faces. But Olna knew the truth. And what if Kaeton already knew that she knew Dein? What if he was testing her?

His fist tightened around hers. The key dug into Bun’s palm, and she inhaled sharply. “Yes,” she blurted. “I recognized a boy I used to know years ago. His name was Dein.”

Kaeton released her hand and plucked the key from between her fingers. Red lines on her skin marked where his fingers had gripped her. Bun snatched her hand back.

“I appreciate your honesty,” Kaeton said. He smiled without showing any teeth. “We’ll talk more about Dein tomorrow.”

Bun murmured an acknowledgement and fetched a candle from the kitchen. She led the hunters to their room, once a library, now converted to a neat bedchamber with four identical beds. She stayed awake until Olna had gone to bed, wishing she could risk checking on Dein and Selisai, but she worried that the moment she opened the secret door she’d look over her shoulder to find Kaeton watching.

She locked herself in her room that night, something she rarely did. Bun had slept in the same room since her birth. It occupied the corner of the second floor, a square room with three tall windows that looked north along the road. Pale green muslin curtains covered the windows. Bun’s mother had embroidered tiny pink flowers all along the curtain edges before she died fifteen years ago. Bun barely remembered her mother, but she liked the curtains.

She drew one aside now and looked out into the black. The dark clouds and the driving rain obscured the trade road. It was as if Bun looked into an endless raging sea of chaos that surrounded the sturdy inn. She shuddered and let the curtain drop.

In the excitement of Dein’s arrival, Bun had forgotten all about starching the pillowcases. They sat wrinkled and abandoned in the back room where Bun had been ironing when Olna had come to fetch her. Naked feather pillows lay on the floor next to her bed. Bun picked them up, fluffed them a bit, and set them by the headboard. Despite the countless fears that swarmed in her mind, she was exhausted. After blowing out her candle she climbed into the bed and hugged a pillow to her chest. She tossed and turned for some time before falling asleep.

Bun slept poorly and woke early. Nightmares had plagued her, nightmares where she fell endlessly down a dark shaft. For what seemed like the first time in her life, she dreaded getting out of bed and facing the day. Lying in bed fretting accomplished nothing, though, so Bun rose, dressed, and crept downstairs.

The clattering in the kitchen told Bun that one of the other girls had already arrived and was preparing the morning’s breakfast. As Bun headed to assist her, she heard another sound, one that nearly stopped her heart. A faint but unmistakable muffled cry of pain sifted through the wall into the hallway.

Bun stood stock-still, straining her ears. Perhaps I only imagined it, she thought hopefully. A moment later she heard a thump, as if someone had kicked a wall nearby. It’s Dein, she thought in a panic. What does he think he’s doing?

She’d intended to wait for the hunters to leave before she checked on Dein and the others, but she couldn’t risk Kaeton hearing those sounds. True, they wouldn’t carry to the taproom, but Bun didn’t put it past the hunter to skulk around the back hallways. She darted to the kitchen, peeked in the door to ensure her assistant was occupied, then raced to the pantry.

Bun pulled the hidden latch and the door swung open. A sickroom smell wafted out; the smell of sour, fevered flesh.

Garanel let out another cry of pain, muffled by Selisai’s hand clapped firmly over his mouth. The half-elf lay back against his sister, body twisted with the convulsions that shook him. One leg kicked out and banged against the wall. Dein sat with his knees pulled up under his chin to give Garanel and Selisai enough room to sit.

He blinked against the light now. “Bun? Is it morning?”

“Yes,” she hissed. “And the hunters are still here. Garanel’s going to draw them straight to your hiding place if you can’t keep him quiet.”

“He’s sick,” Selisai snapped. “He needs a healer. Or at least some water, another blanket, and a place to stretch out.”

Bun looked over her shoulder. “I can bring you some water.”

“We need to move,” Dein said. He climbed to his feet with a grimace and leaned over, his hands on his knees. “Gods, I feel like a fishhook.”

“You can’t move until the hunters go!”

Garanel let out another stunted moan. His face was dusky red and sweat rolled in big beads down his cheeks. “We’ve no choice,” Dein said. “Where else can we hide?”

Bun settled one hand on her hip and ran the other hand over her hair. She stared at the three vigilantes in her pantry. “The cellar,” she finally said. “There’s a bigger room there, it used to be a hidden wine cellar. I’ll get you some supplies from the kitchen and meet you down there.”

Selisai stood and hooked her hands under her brother’s arms. “If the cellar’s bigger, why didn’t you bring us there in the first place?”

“I was in a hurry last night,” Bun retorted. “And some of the servants know about the cellar room, so it’s not as secure. You won’t be able to stay there long. Now go. And for pity’s sake, Dein, step carefully. The hunters could be already up.”

Dein nodded. “We’ll be careful. See you in a minute.”

Leaving Dein to help his comrades along, Bun hurried to the kitchen. The girl on breakfast duty this morning was the seamstress’s daughter. She had sought employment at the Weary Wayside on account of having two older sisters, which left her mother with all the help she needed. She smiled at Bun. “Good morning!”

“To you as well,” Bun said. “Are our guests up yet?”

“Only the tinker. I’m cooking his porridge now, he says he has to be on the road early.”

“We’ll need extra, we had four more come in late last night.” Bun looked around the kitchen. “Would you go into the front pantry for me and fetch some — some brown sugar?”

The girl blinked. “Haven’t we enough?”

“Enough for the porridge, certainly,” Bun said. “But the thing is, I’m thinking of, well, making a glaze tonight. For a ham. I’d like to get it started now.”

The girl laughed. “You are an odd one this morning, Bun. I’ll be right back.” She left off stirring the porridge and tripped out of the room.

Bun heaved a sigh and raced to the cupboard. She pulled out a wrapped wheel of cheese and the heels of yesterday’s bread and threw them in an old flour sack. She dipped a big-bellied pitcher in the water jug and hurried downstairs.

The cellar was dark and crowded, crammed with boxes of dried staples and barrels of ale and vinegar. Bun took a few careful steps down the slatted stairs, balancing her load. “Dein?” she whispered.

“Under the stairs,” he replied, and she heard a moan from Garanel.

“I brought you some food.” She took another step down.

Selisai’s voice was quick and urgent in the dark. “Someone’s coming!”

Fear shot through Bun like lightning. Without stopping to think she dropped the sack of food over the side of the stairs and leaned down. “Take this, quick!” she hissed, lowering the pitcher. Someone grabbed it; water slopped over the cracked lip and wetted her hand. Bun jerked upright as a creak drifted down the stairs.

She looked up to see a tall figure silhouetted against the doorway. “Bun?” Kaeton asked. His voice was low and smooth. “Is that you?”

Bun swallowed. She concentrated on speaking in a normal voice. “Yes, it’s me. Good morning, milord.”

“What are you doing down there in the dark?”

Sweet lady of fortune, Bun prayed, please keep Garanel quiet just for a minute. “I had to bring up a few supplies for the kitchen,” she said aloud. “I always forget how dark it is down here. Leave the door open, would you? I’ll bring you breakfast in the taproom.”

She held her breath, and felt that her heart might give out entirely when Kaeton took a step down the stairs. The board groaned under his weight. Bun forced herself not to look down to where Dein and the others crouched beneath them. She held her chin almost unnaturally high.

“Is there anything I can help you carry?” Kaeton asked.

“No, thank you,” Bun said, trying to speak in a moderate tone, and not too fast. “Cooking for four doesn’t require as many provisions as you might think.”

“You only need cook for one,” Kaeton said. He took another step down, and now Bun could make out his features in the dark. “I sent my men on after the traitors earlier this morning. I’m staying behind in case they’re still in the area. They might come back seeking vengeance on you for turning them out, and I couldn’t leave you here defenseless.”

Bun hoped the darkness hid the flash of horror that registered on her face. “You don’t have to do that,” she stammered. “I’m sure I’ll be fine.”

“Most likely,” Kaeton said. “But I can’t take the risk of these criminals returning with no hunters here to capture them. Are you sure there’s nothing I can help you with?”

A muffled groan caught the edge of Bun’s hearing, and she almost slipped in her haste to step down the stairs. She hoped the creaking of boards under her feet masked the sound.

“I’m sure,” she blurted. “Just one breakfast, then.”

Kaeton’s gaze swept around the dark room, as if searching for something. Bun breathed loudly, hoping he couldn’t hear the others breathing.

“Very well,” Kaeton said. “We’ll speak more after breakfast.” He mounted the stairs and disappeared down the hall. His footsteps faded into silence.

Bun exploded into a sigh and sat down on the stairs. Through the slats she saw Dein and his friends huddled in the dark. Dein whispered, “He’s gone?”

“Yes, he’s gone.”

She showed them the hidden catch behind a false stone in the wall and opened up the wine cellar. Much larger than the pantry closet had been, the wine cellar hosted the trio comfortably. Bun fetched three scratchy grey blankets that smelled of mothballs out of one of the storage boxes and handed them to Dein. She found a handful of sweaty white candles in a box as well.

As the vigilantes settled themselves, Bun said, “Will he get better now, do you think?”

“Hopefully,” Selisai said. “Will you bring us more water this afternoon?”

“I’ll try. The floor here is so thick I doubt we’ll hear you upstairs. Just try not to scream.” She looked to Dein. “You heard what Kaeton said?”

Dein looked grim. “Put him off as long as you can. We’ll stay out of sight. With any luck, he’ll give up and leave in a day or two.”

He doesn’t seem the type to give up, Bun thought. But she nodded and shut the door, then hurried upstairs.

She found Kaeton sitting near the fire in the common room. Yesterday’s rain had slowed to gray drizzle against the windowpanes. Kaeton stared at the fire and didn’t look up when Bun entered the room.

“Breakfast,” she said, setting down the platter of eggs and leftover mutton.

Kaeton beckoned to her with a slow, deliberate movement. “Join me.”

Bun sat down and put her hands in her lap. She hated feeling this nervous. It wasn’t the nerves that bothered her so much as it was being unsettled in her own home. Bun knew every trick and turn of this building; every creaky floorboard, every winding stair, every stick of furniture seemed to be part of her. To feel uncomfortable here was worse than feeling uncomfortable anywhere else. It was like being a stranger in her own body.

Kaeton stirred his eggs. “So, Bun.” The name sounded exquisitely ridiculous in his measured voice. “You own this place?”

“Yes. My father used to own it, but he died four months ago. My mother died when I was a child. I’ve no siblings, so the place passed on to me.”

“You like it here?”

“Oh, yes!” She blushed; the words had come out more vehemently than she’d intended. “I mean, it’s my home. Everything I see triggers a memory…I recall when my father bricked that fireplace in, I remember running under these tables as a child.” She smoothed her hand over the old wood. “It’s where I belong.”

“I thought you might find it boring.”

“Never. Oh certainly, nothing that you might consider exciting happens here — in the last year our excitement has consisted of a runaway wagon, a darkmantle infestation, and Sid Beckett getting drunk and running through town in his pyjamas. Oh, and an ankheg eating two goats and a pig.” She lifted her head and met Kaeton’s gaze directly. “But it’s my home. Nothing means more to me than keeping my inn safe.”

“I see.” They sat in silence for a minute while Kaeton ate. Then he set down his fork precisely parallel to his plate. “Tell me about Dein.”

Bun lifted her hand to rub her shoulder. “We were friends when we were children. His father died in a hunting accident, and he liked spending time with me and my father. He left two years ago, and I hadn’t seen him again until last night.”

“Why did he leave?”

Bun dropped her hand back into her lap and looked at the fire; slow, rippling orange on the hearth. “Dein always dreamed big. Once he had an idea to build a cart that would go without horses. It did — for about ten feet, and then it fell apart. Another time he had a plan to build us a treehouse, but he never got farther than the frame. I think it’s still rotting away out in the woods somewhere. He wanted to make something of himself, he always said, but hadn’t the strength to follow through.” She picked her words carefully, trying to show Kaeton what kind of a boy Dein had been. Perhaps I can convince him he’s harmless, she thought.

“So Dein left to follow his dreams?” Kaeton asked. A smirk twisted his mouth.

Bun leaned forward. “You must understand, master Kaeton, I’d never even consider interfering with Duke Hessel’s business. I’m not interested in revolution. Dein went off with grand ideas in his head, but when he showed up on my step last night, I told him flat-out to leave, that I wasn’t going to get mixed up in any vigilante business. My only concern is my inn and my workers.”

And she’d meant it, too. I should have stood firm,she thought, should have turned him away and told him to do his worst. Maybe Kaeton wouldn’t have believed Dein. He seemed sensible. But how could she tell him now that Dein was hiding under the cellar stairs? She would only look twice as guilty.

Kaeton took three more bites of his breakfast, not looking at Bun, then set down his fork again. “A noble, and intelligent, sentiment. Dein knows this inn well then, would you say?”

“I suppose so. It hasn’t changed at all since he left.”

“Then I’ll take a few days to look around. Explore all the nooks and crannies. This is an enormous place, and it’s possible Dein and his companions crept back and let themselves in after you sent them off.” Kaeton smiled a thin, bloodless smile. “You couldn’t be expected to know, of course.”

Bun lowered her gaze. “Of course.”

This time, Kaeton leaned forward. “You remind me of a girl I once knew. Her name was Risa, and she was a maid too. A lawbreaker stayed in her inn for a few days. He was gone when I arrived, but Risa was still there.”

Bun’s skin chilled as she listened to Kaeton speak. “She wouldn’t tell me anything. Claimed she loved him. But love is no defense against the hunters. In time, she told me all she knew.”

His voice lowered, so soft Bun almost lost the words. But the sheer malice in his tone carried strongly, and the hairs on her arms lifted as her skin tightened. “A hunter cannot be distracted by rain, or darkness, or even love. A hunter cares for nothing but his quarry, and will do what’s necessary to track that quarry. Anything necessary. Now, Miss Bun, are you absolutely certain you don’t know where your friend Dein is?”

He will kill them, Bun thought. He’ll slaughter them all without a second thought.

Kaeton’s voice held the barest hint of hope in it. As if he meant for Bun to believe she would be alright if she confided in the hunter. But Bun’s hope vanished, snuffed out like a candleflame. Yesterday, she might have convinced herself that Dein deserved whatever came to him, that the stories from the south were exaggerated. But today she faced this lean man who smelled of wolf and thought of Dein as quarry. She knew he would show no mercy.

“I don’t know where he is,” she whispered.

Kaeton let the silence stretch for a long moment, then sat back. “Then I’ll begin my search once breakfast is over.”

Bun nodded, and when the hunter said nothing else, she fled from the room.

After washing the breakfast dishes, Bun went up to her room and cried.

Not very much, and not for very long, but she did cry. “What am I going to do now?” she whispered. “If I confess to Kaeton, he’ll kill Dein, and maybe arrest me for being involved. If I convince him I was pressured into helping? Dein did threaten me…but I can’t just let him die! But I’ll lose the inn…and what if Kaeton finds the cellar in his search? Then I’ll look even more guilty!”

She sat on the edge of her bed and buried her face in her hands. Her nightmare came back to her. Falling, falling. It felt as if the ground would give way beneath her at any moment.

A knock sounded on the door.

Bun jumped and wiped her face. “Yes?”

The door creaked open and Bun saw Olna’s fretful face. “Bun? Oh dear, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing, nothing,” Bun said. She stood up and wiped her face again. “Just…all the excitement. And I suppose I’m missing father.”

“No wonder,” Olna said sympathetically. She came into the room and shut the door behind her. “Poor dear. Soon this will all settle down and get back to normal.” Olna bit her lip. “I’ve something to ask you.”

Bun straightened her shoulders and forced her lingering discomfort away. “What is it?”

“It’s about last night. On my way to bed I could have sworn I heard something in the pantry. A voice. I didn’t say anything at the time, but…” She bit her lip. “Do you think I should tell the hunter?”

Bun started to say “no,” then caught herself. An idea blossomed in her mind. “Yes. Yes, I think you should go tell him, right now.”

“Will you come with me? He’s rather frightening—”

“I can’t,” Bun said. She darted across the floor and caught Olna by the shoulders. The skinny maid jumped. “I’ve just thought of something I must do right away. But please, Olna, please go tell Kaeton what you heard. This minute. It’s urgent.”

“I don’t know,” Olna said doubtfully.

Please, Olna. I can’t tell you how important this is.” Bun raced to the door and yanked it open. “Go now, hurry.”

She lurked at the top of the stairs and listened to the sound of Olna’s shrill voice in the taproom. Moments later, heavy booted feet strode to the back hallway, and the pantry. Olna’s voice trailed after the bootsteps.

Quick as thought, Bun raced down the stairs, keeping as silent as possible. She crept away from the back pantry and then hustled down into the cellar. She darted around the stairs, found the hidden catch, and threw the door open.

Weak candlelight trickled out of the secret door. Garanel lay on the ground wrapped in the scratchy gray blankets. He looked pale but seemed to be sleeping soundly. Dein blinked. “Bun?”

“You have to move,” Bun gasped. “Find another spot to hide. Kaeton’s searching the place today and he’s sure to come down here next. I got him diverted to the pantry, so we have to move you now!”

Dein leaped to his feet and moved up to Bun. “Listen to me. You can’t keep shuffling us around like this. If Kaeton’s going to search the inn, he’ll find all the hiding spots. He’s a hunter, Bun, he’s trained to search for small things like latches and tracks.”

“Then you have to run,” Bun said. “Out the back door, carry Garanel if you have to. Knock me out or something, I can say you attacked me. But I can’t hide you any longer; the more this draws out, the worse it looks for me. Dein, Dein, why did you come here?” She wrung her hands.

He caught her chin in hand. For a long moment he stared into her eyes, and Bun felt her heart beat with a painful, irregular rhythm. Dein’s next words took her by surprise.

“I came here because I thought your father was still alive.”

She stared at him wordlessly, then pulled her face away. “What?”

“There’s another cellar under the east wing. One of the walls holds a secret tunnel that leads out towards the Boneblack Hills. We can sneak out that way.”

“There’s no such tunnel,” Bun said. “I know every inch of this place, and I’ve never—”

“There is a tunnel,” Dein interrupted. “Your father dug it after he bought this place. Dammit, Bun, I don’t have time to explain.”

“Make time,” Bun hissed, standing her ground. “Why would my father dig a tunnel like that?”

“As an escape route. I didn’t pick this career on a lark. Your father led me into it. He was a vigilante too, he taught me all about it, and he would lead raids using this place as a base. Why do you think he bought such a strange old place to use as an inn? The secret rooms hid fellow vigilantes, smuggled weapons, and gold taken from the duke’s tax collectors.”

The floor seemed to tilt beneath Bun’s feet. Dein must have seen something in her face, because he grabbed her arm and held her steady. Bun felt as if she stood a long way away, looking at this scene from the outside.

“It’s not true,” she whispered.

“We can argue over it in the east wing. Demon’s breath, Bun,” his expletive was tinged with exasperation, “if he doesn’t find anything in the pantry, he’ll come here next. At our best we could have fought him, but we’re down two, and he’ll slaughter us. We have to move now!”

She couldn’t seem to say anything. Everyone was moving very quickly around her. Selisai helped her disoriented brother out of the hidden cellar. Dein scooped their provisions into the flour sack and shut the door. Selisai and Garanel were halfway up the stairs when Dein pulled on Bun’s arm.

“Come on, we have to go.”

Numbly, she followed him. They reached the upstairs hallway and Dein pointed east. The small party shuffled along as quickly as Garanel would permit.

They’d just rounded a bend when they heard footsteps behind. “Bun?” Kaeton’s voice called. “One moment, mistress.”

“Damn,” Dein hissed. “Selisai, is Garanel up for a distraction?”

“Not even close,” the half-elf replied as they hustled along. “He was too sick to prepare anything last night.”

“Then we’ll do this the old-fashioned way,” Dein replied. Grabbing Bun’s hand, he broke into a run.

Bun tried to protest but it was too late. They pounded down the corridor. Garanel let out a moan of pain as they ran, and Selisai gritted her teeth and dragged her brother along. They swung around the next corner and through the double doors that led to the east wing.

“Stop!” came the cry from behind them. “Turn yourselves in and I’ll show mercy!”

“Wait!” Bun finally sputtered. She wrenched free of Dein and grabbed an ornate knob on the corner of a gilt picture-frame. A secret panel swung open.

Dein skidded to a halt and turned towards the door. “No, no, keep running!” Bun urged. She pulled the door almost shut again and pushed them onward. “Around the corner and keep quiet!”

They tumbled around the corner and sat in a huddled, silent heap. Bun held her breath and shook. There can’t be a tunnel in this house I don’t know about, she thought. There can’t be.

Deliberate footsteps padded their way down the hall. Sweat trickled down the back of Bun’s neck. See it, see it, see it.

Garanel was awake now, his eyes bleary and confused. His face was twisted in pain and he hunched over awkwardly, guarding his midsection. Selisai and Dein both had weapons out, Bun noticed with shock. A short, thick blade in Dein’s grip and two curved lengths of steel in Selisai’s hands. They cocked their heads, listening.

“Bun?” Kaeton whispered from somewhere down the hall.

The footsteps stopped. Not too close to them, Bun decided. She heard the creak of the hidden door but didn’t dare let herself relax yet. She pictured Kaeton thumbing the concealed door open, peering into the darkness beyond it, then leaning back and looking down the hall towards them. Ebon Knave, let this work, she prayed.

Then she heard the hidden door creak closed again. Muffled footsteps faded away.

Bun whimpered and put her head in her hands. Dein and Selisai sheathed their blades. Selisai hauled her brother to his feet again. “Won’t he see the room is empty?” the half-elf woman asked.

“It’s not a room, it’s a tunnel,” Bun said. “It leads back down to the taproom.”

“Smart girl,” Dein said. “Come on.”

They hurried through the deserted east wing. This area held only two converted rooms. The rest still displayed patterned gilt wallpaper, heavy bookshelves, and opulent furniture obscured by tattered sheets. Bun’s father had always said there was no sense spending money on rooms they never used. He always kept this section deserted, sometimes locked up, but Bun had never found it odd. They had enough rooms in the rest of the manor to accommodate their guests. He couldn’t have been using it to — to do those things. To plan a revolt against the duke. Not for all that time without her knowing.

They reached the top of the east cellar stairs. Selisai and Garanel started down, but Dein stopped and turned around. “Bun,” he said. “You don’t have to come along. I’ll tie you up and knock you out. You can tell Kaeton we forced you to show us a way out, then dropped you.”

Bun had to swallow twice before she could speak. “He’d never believe that,” she said. It was a half-truth, but Bun had some practice with deception now. She thought Kaeton might let her go, eventually, but she had more pressing concerns now. “I need to know what you and my father did. I need to see this tunnel.”

Dein hesitated, then nodded. “Come along, then.”

The hairs on the back of Bun’s neck stood straight up. Though nothing had changed, her mind suddenly screamed “danger!” Bun whirled around and saw Kaeton standing at the end of the hallway. His outstretched arms held a bow steady, and he pulled the arrow back to his ear.

“Run!” Bun screamed.

They flung themselves into the cellar as the arrow whistled by. It grazed Bun’s cheek and hot blood splashed down her face. She staggered on the second step, almost lost her balance, then caught the edge of the door and slammed it closed.

“Bar!” she cried. “Over there!”

Dein took the stairs down three at a time, grabbed the hewn timber lying on the floor, and struggled back up with it. Bun pushed against the door with all her strength. Kaeton slammed into the door from the other side and Bun rocked back, almost thrown down the stairs. She pushed back, hard. “Hurry!”

Then Dein was beside her. They shoved their shoulders into the door long enough for him to fumble the bar into place. Kaeton pounded on the door and shouted, “Surrender!”

Bun and Dein raced down to the cellar floor. The room was small, dark and dusty, with an earthen floor and spiderwebbed walls. A rusting, empty coal bin sat in one corner, and Dein ran into it with all his weight. With a great heave he tipped the barrel over and scrabbled a hand across the bottom.

Something clicked loudly, and a section of wall rumbled back and slid to the side. Selisai hauled Garanel through the opening. Kaeton slammed into the door upstairs. Dein righted the barrel. “Come on, Bun!”

She grabbed his outstretched hand and they sprinted into the tunnel. Behind them, the door rumbled shut again and plunged them into darkness.

Continue to Part Three...

Amber E. Scott (known in some circles as Medesha) lives in a dark hole in the ground with her D&D books and an internet connection. Born in Canada, she now roams the land like a tumbleweed of gaming goodness, going wherever the wind may take her. She has had several articles published in Dragon Magazine, including the "Ecology of the Will-o'wisp" and "Giants of Xen'drik," with more scheduled to appear. Her first D&D sourcebook, Secrets of Xen'drik, is now available. Amber likes playing rogues and paladins the best, but prefers DMing because of the POWER. The absolute POWER! Yes, she really is a gamer chick, no, she's not available. She just celebrated six years of wedded bliss with her husband. Amber lives entirely on praise, and will starve if you do not feed her ego. You can read more about her at www.medeshafreelancing.com.

David Esbrí is an illustrator born in distant lands who struggles to squeeze his works in as many gaming products as possible. He's somewhere close to being the resident RPGA illustrator, as well as an usual suspect in many RPG publishers. He has published a few comic books in Europe and finally has fullfilled his dream of painting for his favorite CCG, A Game of Thrones. Now the sky, his physical exhaustion, and his lack of healthy habits are his only limits. Reach him at his website.