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      Alley
      Latest Chapter

      No one was sad to see him die, no one except me.  I had heard the whispers about him all my life, things they called him even now — pirate, warrior, traitor, murderer, but not me.  I called him Father.

      A week had passed since they lowered him into the cold hard ground.  A week since the Lord’s brother threatened to make me his mistress, whether I wanted to be or not.

      The frigid winter wind hit my face as I stood over his grave.  I wanted to cry but refused. Tears could not help him, not now.  Now it was time to be strong and follow the instructions he had drilled into me for the day I needed them.  A day he said was coming, but he never said when. Perhaps he’d not known.

      The sound of galloping horses drew my attention.  Lord Falcon and his brother Bration raced along the tree line just east of my hut as if the hounds of hell were after them.  Good, I hoped they found the vile brothers; extracting punishment for every one of their crimes including killing my Father. I did not know how they had done it, but one of them had poisoned Father. 

      I knelt next to Father's grave and watched them move further away.  “Don’t worry, Father. I won’t let them hurt me.”

      As they turned out of sight, I placed the small bundle of dried flowers on Father's grave.  It was not much, but it was all I had. I dusted off the small crumbles of dirt that had blown onto the stone. 

      “I will do as you asked and find your brothers.”  Sighing I stood. “I just wish I knew how.”

      With a final gaze at Father's grave, I started back toward my small one-room hut. I was ready to leave, but leaving was the hard part.  The thought of being away from Father was almost unbearable, but the alternative was far worse. Bration demanded I be his mistress, but I’d die before that would happen. 

      Shivering, I picked up my pace.  It was a twenty-minute walk back to my warm hut, and I was glad to reach it.  I was not looking forward to the trip ahead of me in the dead of winter, but what choice did I have?  Bration had given a fortnight to grieve before he came for me. I would not be here to meet him.

      Opening the door, I sighed as the smell of stew  warming from yesterday overtook me. I would miss this, but maybe one day I would find a place safe enough to build a new home.  I dreamed of one far from the danger that dogged our trail all of my childhood. Closing the door, I took my cloak off and hung it on the peg beside the door. 

      An arm appeared in my line of sight a split second before it wrapped around my arms and waist in a vice-like grip, immobilizing me as a razor-sharp dagger pressed against my throat. 

      Heart pounding, I froze.  One wrong move and I’d slit my own throat.  The coppery smell of blood wafted through my senses, no doubt from his last victim.  This man meant business. While it was good he did not kill me outright, it did not bode well for what might happen next. 

      A gruff voice spoke next to my ear.  “I don’t want to hurt you, girly.”

      I almost laughed at his ridiculous claim.  “Then why do you hold a dagger to my throat?”

      He paused for a moment as if he did not expect me to do any more than ask him what he wanted me to do. Most girls would have, but I was not like most girls. 

      “I need to know you won’t scream when I let you go.”

      “And if I do?” I asked. 

      “Then I would have to silence you, and I do not wish to.” He sounded weary.  Perhaps the person he killed had fought back, tiring him out. That would make escape easier.

      “What do you want?” I demanded. 

      He sighed.  “Freedom.” The wistfulness in his voice surprised me.  

      “Let me go.”

      He was still for a long moment before he drew his knife back and released me.  As I pulled away, I could feel the sticky blood on my dress, tugging at my back and reminding me how dangerous this man was. 

      Pivoting around to face him, I was surprised to find the blood belonged to this man and not another.  A deep gash ran from his shoulder to his stomach, with blood still seeping from the wound.

      His shirt hung, sliced open, revealing most of his chest.  My eyes widened when I spotted his blood-covered tattoo. A brotherhood knot with a dagger plunged through the middle, the same one Father had. The Brotherhood of Azaz. Assassins, bred for generations, and the men who had rescued and protected me. 

      “You’re one of them,” I gasped. 

      The man’s eyes narrowed, and he leaned into me.  “One of who?” he demanded in the same voice Father used when he was deadly serious.  The air reverberated with his unspoken threat.

      Gulping, I could hear Father's solemn voice, “No one can know who we are nor that we exist. It is too much of a danger to those we hold dear.  Anyone who learns we exist will be hunted down and executed in horrible ways. That is why it is important to greet with our codes, so we know friend from foe.  Now listen carefully as I tell you what you must say.”

      I repeated exactly what he told me to say.  “The laundry is drying, but I long for it to be dyed purple.”

      I don’t know what I expected, but his string of curses was not it.  “I’m sorry, girly. They are hunting me. Where is your Father? We will lead them away from you.”

      I swallowed hard, and he frowned.  “He … he’s dead.”

      He closed his eyes and let out a resigned sigh.  “I’ll lead them away.”

      “No,” I said a little too quickly.  His eyes snapped open. “Let me take care of your wound.”

      “If they find me here, you will have to run for your life,” he warned. 

      “It’s already dangerous without Father.”  Drawing in a breath, I rushed to finish before I lost the nerve.  “Father told me to travel to England to find the Brothers of Azaz, but you’re already here.” I stopped, unsure what else to say. 

      He watched me for several moments.  His face showed no sign of what he thought as he studied me.  I stood still, refusing to shrink under his assessment.

      Finally, he nodded.  “I will give you safe passage to your destination.  Get your thread to sew me up, and make haste. They won't be far behind.”

      Relieved I turned in the small room and did as instructed.  “Sit on the stool,” I told him as I pulled my sewing basket from under my bed. When I turned back, he was sitting, having taken his shirt off so I could sew him up.

      Wasting no time, I knelt in front of him and threaded my needle while glancing him over.  He was older than me, but I could not tell how much. His dark eyes and hair stood in stark contrast to his ashen face.  He must have lost a lot of blood if his pale skin were any indication.

      Shaking my head, I focused on what I was doing and took his angry red wound in my hands to work on the gash.  It was disconcerting to watch him hold perfectly still, never making a sound as if he did not feel the needle sliding through his flesh.  Instead, his focus was on all the ways in or out of my hut.

      “How long do you think we have?” I asked. 

      “Not long.”

      “What happened?”

      He was silent for so long I feared he would not answer.  “I’m being hunted.”

      My throat closed.  Memories flashed through my mind, memories of long nights on the run with Father fighting and barely escaping his would-be killers.  

      Wrapped in the past, I jumped when his hand touched mine.  His eyes were no longer the cold eyes of the man threatening me, but eyes filled with determination.  “You have my word; I won’t let them find you.” Swallowing again I nodded and resumed stitching his wound.  Today, time was our enemy.

      “What’s your name, girly?” I looked up to see his impassive face still watching the door and window. 

      “Isabella.  What’s yours?”

      “You may call me Indie.”  That name sounded familiar, but I could not remember where I heard it.  I searched my memory for several minutes before giving up as I tied the last knot of his stitches. 

      “Do you have a go bag?”

      Moving to the foot of my bed I picked up a small bundle.  “Of course. Always be prepared to …”

      “To take flight anywhere,” he finished nodding his approval. 

      Eyeing his half-dressed state, I moved to Father's bed and pulled out his knapsack.  My chest tightened upon seeing it. He had let me use it as a pillow many nights, on the run, as we slept under the stars. 

      Blinking tears from my eyes, I held it out to him.  “You should be able to fit into Father's clothes,” I choked. 

      As he took the bag, I pointed to the wall behind him.  “The cloak there should fit you as well.”

      He looked me over.  “You should change too.  We need to leave.”

      Remembering the blood on my dress, I slid behind the privacy curtain and hurried to change into brown clothing to help blend into the woods and a sturdy pair of boots that would last the trip. 

      Moving back to the main room, I stopped short.  Indie was already dressed in Father's clothing and standing beside the door.  His head cocked to the side as he listened intently to something. My heart skipped as he placed a finger to his lips. 

      He waved me closer, and I trembled as I joined him at the door.  His hand came to rest on my shoulder as if he knew how nervous I was. 

      Voices sounded from the other side of the door.  “Why do you care about her anyway? She’s as fat as a cow.” It was Lord Falcon’s voice.  Indie’s hand tightened on my shoulder.

      “Shut your mouth!  She is perfect. Her plush body will keep me warm long into the cold winter nights,” came Bration’s reply.

      My stomach turned.  I knew he wanted to force me to be his mistress, but part of me did not want to believe anyone could be as cruel as the men who hunted me. 

      “Will you stop worrying about what is in your pants and see if she has seen the spy?” Lord Falcon hissed. 

      Drawing in a sharp breath, I looked to Indie.  He leaned close and whispered, “They don’t know I’m here.  Tell them you know nothing and send them on their way.”

      “What about you?”

      He said nothing as he moved behind the privacy curtain and out of sight.  My eyes landed on his blood-stained clothing lying in front of Father's bed.  The knock made me jump forward and shove them under the bed before spinning around as the door was flung open. 

      Bration stormed inside with a smug grin on his face.  “Isabella, I’m here.”

      “You scared me!” I snapped. 

      He blinked at me once before his smile returned.  “So sorry, my love. We have come to check on you.” He moved closer as if a predator on the hunt.  Nervous, I took a step backward before stopping myself. I had to keep his attention away from the privacy curtain. 

      “We?”

      Lord Falcon stepped inside the hut with a silken smile on his face.  His eyes roamed over me stopping on my chest. I resisted the desire to cover them from his repulsive sight.  If I had to fight them, I would need both my hands.

      “I am fine, as you can see.” I berated myself as my voice choked giving my fear away. 

      Bration moved forward, circling me like a vulture.  “We can see you are alive, and fine,” he chuckled.

      Lord Falcon moved, grabbing my wrist and shoving me into the wall before I could react.  My head hit the wall sending light flashing behind my eyes for a moment as he pinned me there with his body.  His grip was painful on my wrist, bringing a whimper from me before I could stop myself.

      He held my hand palm up and smirked at me.  “What is this? Did you cut your hand cooking or is this from the bloodstained clothing under your bed.”  Jerking I tried to pull away from him, but he only pressed me harder into the wall until my chest felt crushed, and I fought for each breath. 

      “You will tell us where the spy is, and then you will compensate us for your betrayal,” he said suggestively. 

      Bration moved closer.  “No fair! She is mine!” he yelled like a spoiled child. 

      Lord Falcon shrugged.  “Don’t worry; the whore will repay us both.”

      Bration growled and launched forward with his hands aimed at Lord Falcon’s neck.  He never reached him, as Indie appeared, grabbing Bration’s head and twisting. A loud pop sounded before Bration crumpled at his brother’s feet. 

      Surprised Lord Falcon shifted just enough for me to move.  When he did, I jerked my knee into his manhood causing him to yelp in pain. Grabbed a handful of hair, I slammed his face into the stone hearth, knocking him unconscious. 

      “Good girl,” Indie said with a satisfied smile. 

      The sound of horse hooves pounded into the yard outside followed by men yelling.  “We have to go.” He scooped up both bags and shoved them at me.

      “There is a tunnel under my cot,” I said. 

      “Get the hatch door.” He ordered before he rushed forward to slam and bar the door.  Doing as he said, I dropped the bags near the cot. I had just pulled the cot away when banging started at the door.  Indie appeared beside me and lifted the door leading down to the tunnel.

      “Get in,” he barked, as he shoved both bags into the hole. 

      “Wait.” Jumping up I snatched the two jars of oil off the shelf where Father always kept them. 

      Indie growled, “We don’t have time.”

      I threw the first jar down, breaking it. The oil inside splashed across the whole floor.  Indie huffed, “Smart girl.”

      “Get in the tunnel,” I said. 

      “And leave you here?”

      “Father made me practice this a thousand times, now go!” I yelled as the pounding on the door became fierce. 

      He relented.

      I watched him flinch as he moved.  Whether or not he admitted it, he was far more hurt than he wanted to acknowledge. 

      As the pounding turned to violent kicks, I glanced around.  This was the first home I had ever known, and now uncertainty lay before me.  All the memories with Father in this hut crushed in on me, and I choked back a sob.  It was gone. He was gone. Nothing would ever be the same.

      “I’m down; now come on.” Indie snapped, drawing me from my grief. 

      Moving to the tunnel, I climbed onto the ladder, only making it a few rungs when the door splintered and gave way.  A man dressed in a dark cloak with a scar on his cheek rushed in the door and stopped cold when he saw the oil on the floor.  Other men ran in around him as his eyes locked with mine.

      He scanned my face. His mouth dropped open, and his eyes widened.  A smirk pulled at the corner of my mouth. I threw the second jar at the hearth with all my might.  The jar broke, and instantly the flames flew out of the hearth, catching the oil on the floor on fire. It moved so quickly I did not have time to escape. 

      Closing my eyes, I brought my arms up to shield my face as my footing gave way.  I screamed as I plummeted down the hole. At the last second, firm muscular arms caught me, followed by a pain-filled grunt. 

      “Are you alright, girly?” came Indie’s strained voice. 

      “Yes.” My voice shook, but he said nothing about it. 

      Lowering me to my feet, his hand lingered on my shoulder.  “I have your bags. Can you lead us out?”

      “I could do that in my sleep.”

      “Can you do it in the dark?”

      “Yes.”

      We both looked up as agonizing screams echoed down to us.  We were too far down to feel the heat but watched as fire danced and swirled around the hatch door. 

      “Good.  Lead the way before the oil burns out, and they are after us again.”

      A shudder worked through me.  Lord Falcon was most likely dead, and now we would be branded murderers.  If they caught us, they would see us hang.

      “Hold on to my shoulder.  It’s a maze down here.” I said as I turned, leaving the past behind.

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