The Brush of Black Wings (Master of Crows #2) by Grace Draven

CHAPTER ONE

On a snowy winter morning, Martise of Neith—once of Asher—opened a gate and awakened darkness.

Such hadn’t been her intent when she rose in the pre-dawn hours from the warm bed she shared with her husband. The coals in the brazier had long gone cold, and Martise’s breath drifted from her mouth and nose in ghostly pants as she threw on clothing as fast as her shaking hands allowed.

Silhara lay still in their bed facing her, half covered. Martise made out the silhouette of an arm and shoulder and the lock of long white hair that draped across his throat. She leaned over and twitched the blankets up to cover him. His eyes snapped open, and she fancied she glimpsed a tinge of red in the black irises as he stared at her.

He blinked slowly. “What are you doing up so early?” He captured her wrist and tugged. “Come back to bed. I’ll warm you.”

Martise smiled and resisted his gentle but relentless tugging. For Silhara, warming her meant making love to her until the sun’s first rays bled through the closed shutters. She enjoyed his methods for chasing away the cold, but this morning she couldn’t indulge.

She pulled her hand free. “You can warm me later. The snows have come, and I promised Gurn I’d hunt the blue parasol.”

Silhara rolled onto his back and flung an arm across his eyes. “Why can’t Gurn gather his precious mushrooms himself?”

Martise sat on the edge of the bed to roll on her stockings. She lightly slapped Silhara’s hand as it wandered over her leg toward the juncture of her thighs. “Because he’ll be preparing a nice hash for your breakfast while I get the mushrooms. Besides, it’s bitter out there right now, and his bones hurt when the cold settles in like this.”

“My bones hurt too, woman—one in particular. You should stay here and ease the ache.” Silhara rolled towards her, pressing an impressive erection against her back. He clasped her to him.

Martise laughed and looked over her shoulder. Silhara’s face was obscured in shadow, though she caught the wiggle of his eyebrows as he tried to coax her back to bed. “I’ll make it up to you this afternoon.”

Silhara growled, removed his arm and gave her a light push off the bed. “Go find your fungus and tell Gurn I’ll rip his entrails out after breakfast for ruining my morning.” He turned on his side away from her and yanked the covers over his head.

Martise slipped on her shoes and heavy cloak and left Silhara to his sullen pout. The third floor corridor was sepulchre-black, but she walked it without benefit of lamp or witchlight. In the nearly five years she’d lived at Neith, she’d grown accustomed to its pitched floors, creaking floor boards and occasional holes through which the careless might fall to the lower floors. Silhara and Gurn had repaired the worst of them, but anyone unfamiliar with the Master of Crows’ ramshackle fortress took their life in their hands trying to traverse the halls in the dark.

She found Gurn already in the kitchen. Dressed and busily chopping potatoes and a cut of mutton at one of the weather-beaten tables, the giant servant greeted her with a wave of his knife. A fire burned in the corner hearth, bathing the room in yellow light that reflected off Gurn’s bald pate. A skillet nestled in the heating coals alongside a kettle.

Cael lay stretched out in his usual place half under the main table. The scruffy magefinder’s tail thumped a dull tattoo on the floor when he saw her. He raised his head to give her a whuffled greeting but didn’t leave his spot. Martise took her place on the bench and rubbed her foot along the length of his side, sending up puffs of dust from his coarse gray fur.

She spotted the cup of hot tea Gurn had poured for her and toasted him in thanks. “This will go far to warm me up, Gurn.” She glanced at the basket on the table. “If there’s enough to pick, do you want me to fill the basket?”

He nodded and set the knife down so he could sign to her with both hands. Martise’s aptitude with languages had served her and Gurn well. She’d been able to translate his sign language during her first few weeks at Neith, and Gurn’s wordless commentary remained a source of amusement, often at his master’s expense. His latest remarks about his Holy Laziness still lolling about in bed made her grin.

She finished her tea and grabbed the basket. “You might want to hang onto that knife. He’s promised to disembowel you for destroying his morning.” She didn’t have to elaborate on how or why Gurn had accomplished such a feat. The servant knew him well.

Martise laughed as Gurn’s hands sketched symbols rapid-fire in the air. She had no doubt the servant would later repeat to his master what he just told her—that if Lord Horse’s Ass was that hard up for a swiving, he’d just have to make do with his hand this morning.

Her laughter ceased abruptly when she opened the door to the bailey and breathed the open air. A shudder racked her from head to toe. She froze her lungs with that inhalation. The sky was the color of lead, canopied by a low ceiling of clouds fat with snow. The bailey sparkled in the wan light, transformed from its usual muddy pit to a pristine white landscape.

Gurn predicted the previous day they’d have snow by evening. He’d rubbed his elbows and knees, wincing. His aches and pains proved prophetic. Snow began falling by mid afternoon and continued through the night—perfect weather for the sprouting of parasol mushrooms. Martise volunteered to gather the short-blooming delicacy, and Gurn eagerly accepted her offer.

She looked down at the warm weight suddenly pressed against her side. Cael emitted a soft bark before trotting into the bailey. He stopped, gazed at her and barked again as if to tell her to move it along. Martise pulled gloves over her chilly hands. “Looks like I’ll have company.” She waved to Gurn and joined Cael.

Woman and dog left the bailey and tromped through the snow blanketing the property. They passed the skeleton of the west wing with its shattered bones of stone blocks littering the ground. The broken bits of masonry lay hidden under powdery white drifts. The rusted gates separating the main grounds from Neith’s woodland screeched a protest as Martise nudged them open and slipped through with Cael beside her.

A wide boulevard bisected the forest that shielded Neith’s entrance. Beyond the dark trees, the vast plain of grassland, brittle and brown during the winter months, stretched toward the far coast. The wood itself, steeped in Silhara’s curse magic, kept out any wayward travelers looking for shelter. Towering oaks loomed dark and threatening along Neith’s northern border, their gnarled branches gripping each other in silent struggle.

The forest had frightened her when she’d first come here—a slave with a purpose, a spy with a mission. Everything about Neith did, most especially its master. Much had changed since then. Neith’s heretic mage was her husband, and the cursed wood a part of her home. She feared neither now.

She abandoned the broad avenue, choosing a narrow path leading into the forest. An arcade of colossal trees stretched into the gloom, fading to obscurity in the gray haze that filtered through the clerestory gaps in the branch canopy.

Cael bounded ahead, sending sprays of snow into the air. Martise caught a twitch of movement in the corner of her eye. The magefinder bolted after it, his dusky coat rendering him invisible as he disappeared into the leafless oaks’ shadows. Martise guessed he chased rabbit or fox. She hoped that whatever he ran to ground, he wouldn’t bring it back to share.

She strolled after him. The anemic morning light faded. Though bare during winter, the tree branches twined together so tightly in their grappling embrace, they left the ground below them in a perpetual gloaming, home to nocturnal hunters and things that thrived in half light.

Something swooped past her, lifting Martise’s hair with a brush of wings. An indignant caw followed, and she sighted a crow as it landed on a high branch above her. The bird shook vigorously, wings ruffling, and sent a shower of snow down on her.

Martise gave a small shriek, wiped at the snow dusting her hair and shoulders and raised a fist at the crow. “Stupid bird.” It stared at her from its perch, head cocked to one side. She fancied it laughed at her predicament.

She marched deeper into the wood, keeping an eye out for the parasol mushrooms growing on piles of snow-covered deadfall. The crow followed, hopping from branch to branch, tree to tree.

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