Lords of the Darkyn
The High Lord of the Immortal Darkyn has sent his most trusted warrior, Korvel, to retrieve a coveted scroll that's rumored to contain maps to Templar treasures and the secrets to eternal life. Uniting with Korvel to recover the dangerous artifact is Simone Derien, the daughter of the scroll's guardian, and a woman with many deadly secrets...
“Do you know what time it is?”
In complete darkness Simone Derien lifted a mass of worn, cream-colored cloth from her washbasin and gently twisted it to wring out the water. “Time to buy new bedsheets. These have so many holes they are turning into lace.”
With the slow but sure steps of a person who could not see in a very familiar space, Flavia Roux came in and sniffed the air, then bent and groped until she touched the clean, damp wash Simone had placed in a basket. “You should be sleeping, child.”
“The wind, and the broken shutter outside Terese’s room, would not allow it.” Simone dropped the sodden sheet onto the top of a basket before drying her hands on the threadbare towel pinned to her skirt. “Just as well. I wanted to get an early start so I can weed the winter vegetables.”
“That is Nichella’s responsibility,” Flavia scolded. “You have taken on enough chores.”
“Nichella hates bugs, and the last time I asked her to pick some potatoes, she brought me morels.” She reached for the clothespin bag hanging over the rust-edged sink and clipped it to her belt. “Besides, I have to pick out a baking pumpkin for you. Father Robere will be here for dinner tomorrow, and you know how much he loves your autumn bread.”
Flavia picked up a basket and followed Simone out to the moonlit yard. “I suspect the wind was not all that drove you from your bed tonight.”
Simone shook out the wrinkles from a pillowcase before she clipped the left corner to the clothesline. “I did try, as you suggested, to count sheep jumping over a fence. They ignored my wishes, stampeded over the pumpkins, and disappeared down the hill. I expect now they are grazing their way through Madame Lambert’s beet patch.”
She smiled down at the petite tyrant whom she had loved all her life. “You worry too much about me, Mother. You know I will sleep when I need it.” She bent and kissed her furrowed brow. “Now go back to bed, and I will see you at breakfast.”
“Which no doubt you will cook,” Flavia grumbled as she picked up an empty basket and went back to the laundry.
Simone continued hanging up the wash, but kept her eye on the old woman until she made her way safely back into the convent. Aside from the common ailment they all shared, most of the women who resided at La Roseraie suffered from the various frailties of advanced age.
Flavia, a former teacher from Milan, had still been quite young when her illness had ended her career. La Roseraie, an inheritance from her last living relative, had first provided her with a sanctuary as she learned how to cope with the abrupt change in her circumstances. Her faith had done the rest, and over the next thirty years she had opened the doors of the convent to other sisters who, by illness or injury, had found themselves in the same condition.
As soon as Simone’s father had brought her to live with him, he had taken her to the sisters to receive instruction. As young as she had been, Simone still remembered that brief, tense meeting.
“The girl is to be versed in all mathematics, sciences, literature, and world affairs,” her father said. “Teach her every language you and the others speak. She will come every morning except Sunday, until she is of age.”
“Monsieur, what you ask is simply impossible,” Flavia had protested. “No child could master so many subjects in so short a time.”
“I am not asking, madame.” He handed her a folded slip of paper. When she had passed her fingers over the strange bumps that covered it, he said, “I will send her to you at dawn tomorrow. My driver will return at noon to collect her.”
Whatever the bumpy paper had meant, it had convinced Flavia to accept the impossible demands of Simone’s father. For the next twelve years the little girl spent nearly all of her mornings among the sisters, and had soaked up their teachings like a withered sponge.
Simone had always been a quiet, obedient child who devoted herself to her lessons. Only gradually did the sisters discover the bruises and cuts, the sprains and bumps. This distressed them, most particularly when Simone had trouble walking. Finally Flavia had taken Simone into the garden for tea and butter cookies. As the little girl nibbled on the unexpected treat, the old woman touched her arm.
“Did your papa do this to you, child?” the old woman had asked as she gently skimmed her fingers over a gash just above Simone’s elbow.
“No, madame,” she answered truthfully. “It was my fault. Sometimes I am too slow.”
“I know you are trying not to limp in front of us, but I heard your shoe dragging on the path from the house.” When Simone didn’t reply, Flavia took hold of her hands. “Does your father beat you, child?”
“No, madame.” Simone couldn’t imagine her father doing anything to hurt her. “Papa never touches me.”
“I hear the truth in your voice, but these wounds . . .” Gentle fingertips caressed Simone’s cheek. “You must learn to be more careful with yourself, child.”
“Oui, madame.” Simone wanted to press a kiss against her palm, but such things were not permitted. It was enough to imagine that she did. “Will you be teaching me today?”
Over time Simone did learn to be faster, and her frequent injuries dwindled and then vanished altogether. By the time she was eleven, her father dispensed with sending her to the convent by car and instead had her run up the hill each morning. Like so many of his requirements, it had been difficult at first, but then her body grew accustomed to it.
In between her lessons Simone fell into the habit of helping Flavia and the other women by performing small chores for them. At first they had objected, but she begged to be allowed what were for her true pleasures.
“Papa does not keep chickens or cows, and all of our food comes from the market,” Simone had explained to Flavia. “I am good at finding eggs, and very fast. The hens never have a chance to peck my hands.”
Her lessons had been interesting, but it was those little chores she did that brightened each day. The women in turn taught her how to do many things that her father knew nothing of, from cooking to gardening to sewing.
When she was sixteen, Simone worked up the courage to ask her father whether she could join the sisters permanently. “There is plenty of room, and they like me. I can work for my keep. They have some land they are not using, and I can plant lavender and herbs to sell at market.”
For the first time since coming to live with her father, Simone did not run up the hill the next morning. Nor did she return for her lessons until a week later.
“We were so worried about you,” Flavia said as she met her at the gate. “What happened? Were you sick?”
Simone blinked back hot tears. “I am well, madame,” she lied. “Father needed me to stay at the manor with him.”
She could tell Flavia only what her father had instructed her to say. “It is family business.”
Flavia, ever sensitive to her moods, never asked her again about her absence, and in time Simone made peace with what had happened. Yet from that day she never called her father Papa, or the manor where they lived home.
Simone finished hanging the last load of laundry as the black sky slowly lightened. When she returned to the convent, the stars had winked out and a dusty orange glow hemmed the horizon. In the kitchen she found two sisters, Manon and Paulette, preparing the morning tea and toast and as usual bickering over which preserves to put on the table.
“Your hibiscus jelly is too sour this year,” Manon complained. “It puckers everyone’s mouth.”
“And your fig jam is not too sweet?” Paulette admonished. “Who complained that it made their teeth ache? Oh, yes. I remember now. Everyone except you.”
Simone smiled as she went to the sink to wash her hands. “You should mix them together, sisters. They might taste sweet and sour, like Sister Terese’s strawberry-rhubarb tarts.”
Manon chuckled. “As quickly as you eat, child, I’m surprised your mouth has the time to taste anything.”
The water spilled over her hands as she remembered how quickly they had been made to eat their meals at the château. Cinq had always made a game of it, racing with her other brothers to finish before her, teasing her in a whisper whenever their handlers were distracted. This time I will win, sister. . . .
“Simone, there you are.” Another sister appeared in the kitchen. “Flavia wishes you to come to the library.”
Simone stopped drying her hands. As the only person in the convent who used the library, she occasionally visited at night to rummage through the old collection. The sisters kept their books in their rooms or on the shelves in the salon where they all gathered after dark. Flavia used the library for only two reasons: to receive official visitors from Rome, or to deliver news she didn’t want anyone else to hear, for it was also the only soundproofed room in the convent.
It had to be someone from Rome.
“Merci, ma sœur.” Quickly Simone unpinned the towel from her skirt and smoothed back the tendrils that had come loose from her braids before she hurried up to the second floor.
When Simone reached the door, she stopped and took several calming breaths. The first year she had lived at the convent full-time had been the worst; she’d been convinced that every stranger who came to their door had been sent with a message for her. Only after another year passed did Simone begin to hope that the bargain she had made with her father would last a lifetime.
Her hand stopped shaking as she knocked twice and opened the door.
The stranger inside with Flavia was a young man who wore the casual clothes and backpack of a tourist. At first glance Simone thought he might be a wandering Spaniard who had gotten lost, until she noted the Rolex on his left wrist and the excellence of his grooming. The slight bulge under the right seam of his denim jacket made her close the door and flip the bolt.
Flavia spoke to Simone in English. “Thank you for attending us, sister. This is Brother Rudolpho, who brings from Rome a message of great importance.”
The Italian rose to his feet and dipped his head. “My superiors directed me to deliver a message from our brother, Helada. Madame advised me that it should be relayed to you.”
Simone forgot to breathe.
The courier produced a folded sheet of parchment sealed with a black-and-white oval, which he broke as he opened and read it aloud. “Helada writes, ‘The frost has ended, and so the harvest must begin.’”
Helada is the frost that descends everywhere. That kills everything it touches, her father had said so many times. The snow that falls from the heavens to cover everything in death.
I cannot do this. She had refused her father once, twice, a dozen times. I will not.
The last words he had spoken to her had been his terms of the bargain. Swear to me you will do this, and I will let you go.
The courier frowned as he looked up at Simone. “I do not understand the message.”
“I do.” In her misery Simone felt a small pang of sympathy for the courier. “Forgive us, brother.”
“Why should I—” A heavy thud proceeded Rudolpho’s groan, and he fell forward into Simone’s arms.
Behind him, Flavia lowered her cane. “Is he unconscious?”
“Yes.” Simone hauled the man’s limp body over to the window seat and placed him in a comfortable position on his side. “My father said the message would be sent only if our ruse had been discovered. The scroll is no longer safe here. I must leave at once.”
Flavia went to the desk, unlocking it to remove another key, which she placed in Simone’s hands before she embraced her. “I will pray for you, child.”
Not even God could intervene now, Simone thought as she removed the cross she wore around her neck and placed it in Flavia’s hands. “Would you put this in my room for me?” When the old lady nodded, she kissed her brow. “Good-bye, Mother.”
Simone ran from the room and down the hall to the linen closet. In the very back she moved three stacks of heavy quilts aside to expose a padlocked niche; she opened it with the key Flavia had given her.
The niche held a custom-fitted harness, a neatly folded habit, and a steel case. After donning the harness and habit, Simone opened the case and began removing the weapons inside. The short, razor-sharp blades she slid into each of the harness’s sheaths; the box of ammunition she opened and used to load the magazines of three semiautomatic pistols.
Twice a year she took out the guns to clean them before she took them into the hills to practice and check their accuracy. Whenever she’d considered discontinuing the unpleasant task, her father’s voice would begin ringing in her ears.
You must be prepared at all times.
She was not ready for this; she would never be ready. Yet as her father had predicted, her feelings didn’t matter in the slightest degree. He had once told her about Pavlov’s famous experiment in conditioned behavior, something that as a child of eleven she had not quite understood.
When the bell rings, the dog feeds.
Running downstairs, she had to dodge around several startled sisters, and kept silent as they called out their concern to her. From the convent she went to the stables, where the three horses they owned were placidly enjoying their morning feed. She took out the quickest, Georges, whom she used to pull the vegetable cart when they took their herbs to market. The gelding didn’t object to being saddled, although he seemed puzzled when Simone yanked up her skirts to mount him.
“Come, Geo.” She walked him out of the barn to the back of the yard, where a footpath led back into the hills. Three miles away, protected by fences and private-property signs, and nearly hidden among acres of ancient, hundred-foot-tall plane trees, lay her destination: Château Niege. Her father’s house, her childhood home.
The prison she would never escape.
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