Votive - By Karen Brooks

TALLOW: THE CURSE OF THE BOND RIDERS BOOK I

This one is for the beloved Sara (Douglass) Warneke,

with whom I have shared the best of times and the worst.

My dearest, most courageous, loyal and wittiest of friends –

thank you, lovely lady, for being in my life. Long ago,

Sara pushed me down the path, one she lovingly prepared for

me and many others, and for that (and for so much more),

I am forever grateful.

Votive: a small candle often burned during a religious or other ceremony

Votive: given or dedicated in fulfilment of a vow or pledge

Votive: dedicated, consecrated, offered, sacrifice

My candle burns at both ends;

It will not last the night;

But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends –

It gives a lovely light!

Edna St. Vincent Millay

‘First Fig’

‘BY THE GODS! STOP!’

Katina stumbled into the clearing. Blood soaked the front of her shirt. Debora and Alessandro cried out and raced to her side. She shook them off and stared in horror at the spectacle before her. ‘I said, stop!’

She strode forward and struck the knife that had been about to slice open Baroque Scarpoli’s neck from Santo’s hand. It flew through the air before skidding to a halt in the dirt.

‘What are you doing?’ growled Santo, scrambling to collect his blade.

His partner Stefano made a noise of disgust and released Baroque, shoving him face first into the ground. The spy sprawled helpless, his hands and feet bound. ‘Where have you been?’ Stefano spat at Katina, his face inches from hers. ‘I waited for you at the pledge stone. But you never came.’

Katina swiped the spittle from her cheek, her mind racing as she searched for an answer that would satisfy him.

Before she could, Baroque, their captive for over a week, groaned. Santo scooped up his knife and landed a vicious kick in his side. ‘You can make enough noise now, can’t you? But you won’t tell us what we need to know.’ He thrust his boot into him again and bent down, dragging him to his feet by the collar, his dagger poised.

‘That’s enough!’ Katina pushed Santo hard in the chest. He staggered backwards and would have hit the ground forcefully but for Stefano. Katina went to snatch the knife.

‘I wouldn’t if I were you,’ drawled Stefano, stepping protectively in front of his partner, his hand shielding the blade.

They locked eyes. Tension made the air between them contract.

Katina shook her head but she lowered her arm. ‘Back off, Stefano,’ she growled. ‘Now is not the time and you know it. Call off your … lover.’ Her gaze slid to Santo, who slowly regained his feet, his face twisted in fury. A shift and whisper of movement behind her followed by a soft intake of breath let her know Alessandro and Debora, her own partners, had her back.

‘Now. Why don’t we all calm down?’ Katina said, moving away before anyone could challenge her, making sure she was positioned between Santo, his knife and Baroque. With deliberation she turned and, drawing her own dagger, knelt down and began to cut Baroque’s bindings.

‘What in the gods’ name are you doing?’ shouted Santo. ‘Let’s just slit his throat and get the hell out of here!’ Stefano had to prevent Santo from launching himself at Katina. Alessandro also blocked his way.

Katina stopped, her knife held out like a sharp finger. ‘Not until I say so. In case you’ve forgotten, I am in charge.’ Her voice was low and deadly. ‘Anyhow, Santo, don’t you think there’s been enough death already today?’ Her eyes bored into him.

He gave a bark of laughter. ‘We had instructions to kill the chandler, Katina. Remember?’

Katina held his gaze a fraction longer before she resumed cutting Baroque’s bonds. They were tight. ‘The Elders did not say that Dante’s death had to be so –’ she searched for the right word ‘– brutal. That particular bit was your contribution – your only one as far as I’m concerned.’

Santo frowned and shot a look at Stefano, who shook his head. He laughed again. ‘You’ve become weak, Katina. Your last stint here in Serenissima sapped your courage. It’s diluted your loyalties. You’ve developed affection for those who are our targets. And now you’re protecting someone who was trying to interfere with our mission.’ He flipped his hand towards Baroque. ‘Why, he’s nothing but a filthy spy!’ With a snort, he walked away.

Out of the corner of her eye, Katina watched as he began to untether his horse from the nearby trees. While it riled her, Santo had a point. She was not the

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