He had been searching for a long time.
Just how long a time and just what it was he sought, Jax didn’t know. But something, and a very long time.
There were a lot of things Jax didn’t know. Many more things he wasn’t certain of. Nor did he think he wanted to know them.
Now, Jax stood in the shelter of deep forest with Crow circling and cawing overhead, and knew he had finally found what he had been seeking over such an undetermined age. She–not it, for now he’d found her, he knew the object of his search was a woman–she worked in a clearing of the forest, in a garden surrounding a tidy cottage.
She was tall and strong, the hoe she wielded biting deep into the earth as she fought encroachment by weeds. Her white-blond hair, the color of a ray of sunlight, was bound into a braid as thick as Jax’s own bony wrist, and it fell past her shoulder to brush the herb plants where she labored. She wore a brown dress, woven of some sturdy fiber, simple shapes sewn together that clung to the womanly figure it covered.
A faint chill went through him. Without seeing her face, Jax knew she was a beautiful woman, and beautiful women made him…uneasy. As did knowing things without understanding how he knew them. At this moment, though he stood motionless and unseen, blending into the shadows of the forest, inside his head Jax was rapidly descending into panic.
A tiny replica of himself ran screaming in circles, where no one could see or hear. Jax had no doubt whatsoever that this beautiful, terrifying woman meant something, and that same certainty told him he did not wish to know what that was.
Nor did he know what would happen next.
The woman straightened from her task and looked up, shading her eyes with a hand as she searched the sky for Crow. Jax faded deeper into the shadows, turning his face so its paleness would not catch her eye. His heart pounded, faster and harder than it had in as long as he could remember. Which wasn’t saying much.
“I know you’re in there.”
The sound of a human voice–her voice–startled Jax into looking up. Had it been so long since he’d heard anyone speak? He couldn’t remember.
She looked straight at him. How? And Lady–she was just as beautiful as he feared. Not young or dewy fresh, but the years and the knowledge made her stronger, more beautiful. Her skin was clear perfect sun-kissed gold, her mouth wide and generous, her chin stubborn, her jaw square, matching the strength in her arms. Her eyebrows flared like pale crow’s wings over eyes so blue, it seemed a piece of the sky had been stolen.
Jax wanted to look away, but could not.
He felt like a maiden in one of the tales he couldn’t remember hearing, mesmerized by the stare of a serpent. A dragon. But he was no maiden–he was fairly sure. And she was certainly–he hoped–no dragon.
“Did you hear me?” She raised her hoe, gripping it like a weapon. “I said, I know you are there. Come out.”
He would leave. Go back into the forest and live as he had been. Solitary. Safe. His mind formed the intention, sent messages to his limbs to turn and walk away. Yet somehow he found himself walking forward into the sunlight, and he knew that his life had made still another of those fateful changes he could not recall. Nothing would ever be the same again.
Not for him. Not for her. Not, he feared, for the whole world.
* * *
Amanusa squared her stance and lifted her hoe as the man walked out of the forest. She did not read danger in him, but she had not lived this many years without learning that pain and death often lurked behind an innocent face. And this man looked far from harmless.
He was big, taller than she, which was a rare thing in this corner of the Austrian Empire. Amanusa towered over most of her neighbors. This man was taller yet, broad-shouldered and rangy, with a loose-limbed stride as if he hadn’t been fastened together quite tightly enough. The features of his long narrow face had that same rough, not-quite-finished appearance, but there seemed to be neither anger nor cruelty in them. Overall, he seemed … brown.
He wore a long brown leather overcoat, almost to his ankles, brown trousers and a brown brocade waistcoat over a tan shirt. Even his silky neckcloth was a pale, creamy shade of brown. His thick hair glinted red in the sunlight, but despite the hints of russet, it was brown. Only his skin decried all the brown. He was pale, as if he had not seen the sun in a long time, even now, in high summer.
“Stop there,” Amanusa ordered. She should have bade him stop sooner, farther away, but she could sense no harm in him.
The man stopped, showed empty hands, and she opened her senses wide, tried to read his mood. She found only confusion and … fear?
What would a man his size have to fear from a woman?
“Who are you?” she demanded. “What do you want?”
Slowly, keeping his blue-green gaze fastened upon hers and his open hands spread wide, the man went down to one knee. “I am called Jax,” he said in a language Amanusa had not heard in far too long. She fought back the memories that wanted to rush over her, memories of home and safety, and of terror. How had this man come so far from that place?
“Whether Jax is my true name or I have another, I do not know. Only Jax. As for what I want?”
A shiver passed over him. When he blinked, someone else knelt before Amanusa, looking out at her through coffee-brown eyes. A shiver whispered through Amanusa as well. There was magic working here. Inside the man.
“Greetings to you, Blood Sorceress.” A different voice, bearing only the deep timbre of the man Jax, spoke through his mouth in the same foreign tongue.
Amanusa shuddered again with a sudden, deep chill.
“I left my search for an apprentice too late,” the voice said, “I am taken up–but the magic would have swallowed me soon even so. I am left with binding my servant Jax to this task, of finding the next blood sorceress. And so he has.
“He can teach you what I have given him to teach. He can show you where to find the other things you will need to know. He will serve whatever needs you may have. He is not a bad servant. I do not know that he is a good servant, but he is not a bad one. Now he will serve you, perhaps better than he did me.
“Listen to the words I have given him. The blood magic must not be lost. I have seen terrible things coming, and the blood will be needed. Knowledge is all very well in its place, but some things are so terrible, so dire and awful, that only the magic borne in blood and bone and flesh can hold them back.
“I can only hope that Jax has surpassed his usual cork-brained efforts and found you quickly. There is much to learn and little time to learn it. Do not waste a single minute. Honor to you, Blood Sorceress.”
As Amanusa watched horror-stricken, the man’s eyes faded from brown to blue and his face slowly filled back up with himself. Jax stared at her a moment, blood beginning to trickle from his nose. Then his eyes rolled up in his head and he toppled over onto the comfrey.
It was daylight again, nearing noon. And still the man–Jax–lay motionless in her bed, scarce seeming to breathe. Amanusa checked one more time to be sure he did indeed breathe and propped hands on hips. What was she supposed to do with him?
When he had collapsed yesterday, she’d been sorely tempted to leave him where he fell. He’d frightened her, appearing out of nowhere like that. She could admit her fear to herself, even if she’d learned better than to let it show. But no matter the temptation, she couldn’t have left him there. Not helpless as he was. It just wasn’t in her to be so cold.
For one thing, he’d been bleeding. For another, there was that strange magic that had crawled out of some depth to possess his eyes and his voice. Amanusa shuddered. Poor man. For all his lean strength and height and handsome face, he had no power against the magic. Woman’s magic, apparently.
A chill ran down Amanusa’s back at the memory of that eerie voice. She made a warding sign in the air, then spit on the earth outside her door for extra protection. Women couldn’t be magicians. Or sorceresses. Not here. Not in the Grand Principality of Transylvania, part of the Austrian Empire.
The Imperial Council of Magicians strictly enforced that rule, and Amanusa had no desire to bring them down upon her. She’d never seen their work, but she’d heard whispered tales of women left witless after the wizards’ and conjurers’ inquisition. As long as Amanusa stuck to small magics, the tiny spells allowed women, and denied her thirst for more, she would be safe. If this man and the magic that bound him called the council’s attention to her…
She had to get rid of him and the temptation that was the knowledge he carried.
But that nosebleed concerned her, coming on top of powerful magic as it did. She had sworn to tend the sick and helpless. When he was helpless no longer, she would send him on his way. After he explained a few things. Such as why he’d addressed her as Blood Sorceress.
A harsh caw brought Amanusa slowly around to see a crow walking through the open doorway of her cottage as though it were an invited guest. Amanusa tilted her head, watching it, and the crow cocked its head in seeming response, fixing her with one black beady eye. It cawed at her again, as if asking permission to be there. Amanusa wanted to laugh at herself for such fanciful notions, but couldn’t quite.
She bowed, gesturing a welcome. “Do come in, Master Crow.”
And with a flurry of black wings, it flew to perch at the head of her bed. Above the blue-green gaze of the man, Jax. The crow hopped down onto the blanket covering him and absently, the man raised a hand to stroke the ebony feathers of its breast, never taking his eyes off Amanusa.
“So, it wasn’t a dream,” he said in that same haunting language.
“You’re speaking English.” That wasn’t what she meant to say.
His lips twitched in a tiny, hesitant smile that vanished. “So are you.”
“Yes, but this is Transylvania. No one speaks English here.”
“Except, apparently, you and me.” He struggled to sit up, setting the crow to flapping until he stilled.
Amanusa quelled the urge to assist him. He was big. He was inside her home, in her bed, and she didn’t know how ill he might yet be. He hadn’t been armed, which eased some of her worries. At least he was still dressed, though now in shirt and trousers only, with all the buttons unfastened. After wrestling him into the house and the bed, she hadn’t wanted to wrestle him out of his clothing.
He wasn’t feverish. She’d found no open wounds or obvious injuries to cause his collapse. Nothing other than the magic. The bleeding had stopped soon after she got him inside.
“How did you get here?” she demanded. “What do you want? Where do you come from?”
Now that he was awake, the helplessness dropped away, transforming him into a dangerous creature, a man. Aggression was her best defense, she’d found, especially on her own ground. Fear made her angry, and she hid her trembling hands.
“England, apparently.” He moved the crow gently aside and reached beneath the blanket to button his trousers. “How is it that you speak English?”
She shook her head. “My questions first. What do you want?”
Jax gave her a wary look as he brought his bare, bony feet out from under the blanket and set them on the plank floor. “What did I say?”
“A great deal of nonsense. How do you feel? Any dizziness? Nausea?” His caution made her brave and she dared to step closer and lift his eyelids, searching his eyes for any sign of head injury.
Things swam past in their depths. Brown flecks appeared in the cool blue and faded again.
Amanusa held her hand steady, refusing to flinch at the strangeness. She knew enough about magic that it didn’t frighten her. She looked until she was satisfied she had seen all there was to see. Magic haunted this man, held him tight in its eerie grip. She took her hand from his face and stepped away.
“I didn’t–” He swallowed. “Greet you as Blood Sorceress?”
“Like I said, utter nonsense.” Amanusa turned away to set the kettle on the hearth, keep her hands busy so they wouldn’t shake. Keep her mind busy so it didn’t shatter. She was no blood sorceress. Blood magic killed. It lived on blood and pain and death, and it ate the soul of its user. She would never be a sorceress. Ever. “If you know what you said, why did you ask?”
He rubbed a hand over his eyes and thrust it into his too-long hair, shoving it back out of his face. “I don’t always–sometimes I remember things that didn’t happen, and most times I don’t remember things that did.” He met her eyes when she looked back at him, his eyes haunted by ghosts of things unrecalled. “The magic…mixes things up.”
“Are you a magician? A sorcerer or wizard?”
His bitter chuckle didn’t escape, but Amanusa could sense it there, in his throat, and she wondered at his bitterness.
“No,” he said. “No magician. Only a servant. Blood servant. Your servant now, Lady.”
He didn’t stand. He slid from the bed straight to one knee, his head bowed. “I am yours. Command me.”
“Oh for–” A tiny thrill of power sparked through her veins and Amanusa crushed it. She would not become what she hated simply because he would let her. She pushed aside the quiet whisper that said he might understand her fears, that he’d been where she was, that he might be there still. “Get up off the floor. That’s my command. Sit. Answer my questions.”
“As you will it.” Jax returned to his seat on the edge of her bed. The crow hopped close and he stroked its feathers again, as if the action comforted him.
“Why did you call me ‘Blood Sorceress?'” Amanusa measured tea into the pot.
“That is what you are.”
“No.” She shook her head emphatically. “I am not.”
Jax only ducked his head without speaking. As if he didn’t agree, but wouldn’t contradict her.
“Why would you say such a thing?” Amanusa poured hot water over the tea leaves and hung the kettle back on its hook, moving it near the fire but not over it. She pretended the title didn’t tempt her as much as horrify her. Think of the things she would know. The things she could do.
No. She wanted justice, not bloody vengeance. She wanted to set things right, stop the evil from ever happening again. But if in the process, those who’d done the evil paid for… No. She wouldn’t let the wicked things done to her carry the same evil into her own heart.
“It’s the truth.” Now Jax met her eyes. “At the very least, you have the talent necessary to become a blood sorceress.”
That was no comfort. Amanusa knew she isolated herself here in the forest, away from people. More so since her mentor, old Ilinca, had died. But that didn’t mean her heart was cold and callous enough to work blood magic. Did it? It had been battered and broken, but surely it wasn’t past mending.
“How did you get here? How did you find me?” She repeated the questions he hadn’t answered as she smacked a pair of mugs down on the table, grateful for their sturdy construction. She shouldn’t take her temper out on the crockery, even if the man and his words did upset her on so many levels. She peeked at the tea. Almost done.
“I walked from the station.” The man fidgeted, as if he couldn’t bear sitting still. “I should be serving you.”
Amanusa waved away his protest. “The train station is fifty miles from here, in Nagy Szeben.”
“Yes.” Jax took the mug of tea she handed him, wrapping his hands around it.
“Why? Why come here?” The things he’d said didn’t make sense, didn’t fit her understanding of the way the world worked, and she needed to understand, to know. Her thirst for knowledge had often caused her problems, but she couldn’t stop it, not at this late date. Amanusa sweetened her tea with a dollop of honey and offered it to the man who’d invaded her home. “Where were you coming from?”
Jax frowned, not seeming to see her. “I was searching. I didn’t know what I searched for until I found you, but… something drew me this way. The magic.” He looked at her helplessly. “I think that before I came this way, I was in Russia. Or perhaps…” His forehead creased as he struggled to remember. “Bulgaria?”
“Do you want honey?”
He blinked, as if startled by the question. “Yes, please.” He held his mug out and watched as she dripped the honey in. “Thank you.”
She would not feel sorry for him. She had nothing to do with the magic that addled his mind, therefore his problems were not hers. She would feed him–he hadn’t eaten since he collapsed yesterday afternoon, and who knew how long before that–and she would send him away. And she would feel safe again. “Do you feel well enough to eat?”
“I am fine.” He took a bigger swallow of the tea. “The dizziness always passes off quickly once I wake.”
“This has happened before?” Amanusa got out the bread she’d baked on Saturday and the cheese Danica had brought in payment for treating her boil and for the charm. The little charms Amanusa made were magic, yes, but not blood magic. Small things. Harmless. Helpful. Love charms, or charms against toothache or unwanted pregnancy. Magic too petty for the Inquisition to bother with. Women’s magic.
“Aye.” He frowned again as he puzzled things out. “I was Yvaine’s blood servant. I remember she often used me in her magic.” His frown cleared and he almost smiled. “I remember.”
“I do not use people.” Not even men. She wasn’t like that. Not like them. She cut cheese and bread and set them on the table, adding a jar of berry jam. Her own work. “Come. Eat.” She indicated a chair.
Jax hurried to set his mug on the table, his crow flapping its way out the door in protest against the disturbance. Jax held Amanusa’s chair, seating her like some grand lady in some great house. It made her feel odd and she didn’t like it. She was a hedge-witch with a lurid past. A scandal, not a lady.
“Sit down.” She gestured at the chair again, irritated by the man’s hesitation. “Stop hovering.”
“My place–” He waved a vague hand toward the hearth. “I’m not–I should–”
“Sit.” Amanusa ordered him. He was a guest in her house and she would treat him like one whether he wanted it or not. Whether she was comfortable with it–him–or not.
She didn’t want to think about why her discomfort with Jax differed from the way she felt around all the other men who’d passed through her life. She wasn’t afraid of him. Not any more. Not exactly. More like afraid of what he brought with him, what he might mean. And she didn’t want to think about it.
He sat, dropping into the chair as if his knees gave way. “Yes, my Lady.”
“Eat.” She pointed imperiously at the food before taking some onto her plate and making a sandwich. Bread and cheese with blackberry jam might sound strange, but she liked it.
The meal passed in silence until most of the loaf was gone and half the cheese. She?d forgotten how much a big man could eat. She felt strangely pleased to be able to fill him up.
Jax swallowed his last bite and cleared his throat. “If I might ask, my Lady–”
“Don’t call me that. I’m no one’s lady.” She was who she was. Nothing more.
“Yes, my L–” He made an effort and swallowed the name.
“Ask.” She was being rude and knew it. But she hadn’t asked him to come, hadn’t asked for the magic he’d brought. She wanted him to take himself and the temptation of magic–more, better magic–away again. Maybe if she was rude, he would.
He didn’t fit into the pattern of her life with his manners and his offers to serve. She didn’t know what to think about him or how she ought to feel, and she didn’t like the confusion. She didn’t like wanting things she couldn’t have. She didn’t like not being able to hold onto her fear around him. He was a man. She should be afraid, and she kept forgetting to be, and she didn’t like it.
“How did you wind up here in this Godforsaken part of the world?” he asked.
“God has not forsaken this place.” Amanusa poured the last of the tea into her mug. “He has only forsaken me.”
She found herself telling the story she hadn’t told in so many years. “My parents were servants, my father the English valet to one of the under ministers at the British embassy in Vienna. My mother was Romanian, from the village down by the road, come to the capital to find work in a grand household. She found Papa too, or they found each other. So Papa remained in Vienna when the minister was recalled. We were happy until the great revolt.”
“Eighteen forty-eight,” Jax murmured, naming the year it had all happened; rebellion and revolution in virtually every country of Europe, ruthlessly crushed in most of them.
She ignored him. “I was a child then. We fled the trouble in the city, Mama, Papa, my brother Stefan and me. I was eldest, almost twelve. Stefan was only six.”
Why was she telling him this? She never talked about it, not even with old Ilinca. Was it the language? The English? “Mama brought us here, to her home. But the trouble followed us. Papa was killed. Many of the rebels who escaped the government came here to hide.”
Amanusa gave a one-shouldered shrug, grateful she’d kept her voice calm for this much of the telling. Usually, just thinking of it brought tears, waking nightmares at the horrors in her memory. She didn’t want to remember more, not now, not with him here. She skimmed over the rest of it. The worst of it. “Mama died. Stefan died. I did not. After a time, the old healer woman who had this cottage taught me all she knew–no one else would–and here I am.”
“I am sorry for your loss.” Jax met her gaze when she looked up, his blue-green eyes warm with sympathy.
She had to clear her throat. It was why she never spoke of this. It made her weak, and she could not afford weakness. She could not afford the sympathy he offered. She had to be strong. Strength was the only thing they respected.
“Thank you.” The instant she said it, she wished she hadn’t.
Amanusa jumped up and began clearing the table. Jax crossed to the doorway where his boots waited, stockings draped over their tops, and put them on. He disappeared out the open door.
Good. She wouldn’t have the job of sending him away. Amanusa bustled around, content in her little world again. Until she heard the crack of ax on wood.
She dashed out of her cottage and around it, to the woodpile where the blasted man was placing another log to split. “What are you doing?”
Her cry startled him into dropping the ax, made him dance to avoid the falling blade. She was not amused. That was not a smile trying to get free, it was annoyance. She stomped to the woodpile and snatched up the ax. Who knew what he could do with such a weapon? “Did I say you could do this?”
“No, my L–” He flushed crimson. “No.”
“I don’t need you to cut my wood.” Amanusa waved a hand at her woodpile, high as her own very tall head, angry with herself for not anticipating the danger. “Does it look like I need more cut? If I did, I’m perfectly capable of doing it myself. Do I look delicate to you?”
She shouldn’t have said that either, for Jax slid his gaze along her, head to toe.
“You look magnificent,” he said. “Strong and beautiful with skin so delicate a butterfly’s kiss could bruise it.”
Her suspicion ratcheted up at those lovely words, even as they made her melt inside. Did he really think she was magnificent? What did he want? Men who said pretty things always wanted something. But the instant Amanusa narrowed her eyes and firmed her lips, there he went again, back down to one knee.
“Pardon, Mistress. I did not mean to offend.” The nape of his neck, exposed between his shirt collar and the slight wave of his hair, looked so vulnerable.
“I’m no man’s mistress,” she snapped out, annoyed that she had to keep reminding herself of this man’s threat. The word “mistress” triggered more anger than it deserved, but she couldn’t stop it. “Mistress” was just one step above “whore,” and she’d heard that word far too often.
“No, my–m–Madame.” Jax sounded horrified at the very idea, even as he stumbled over a way to address her.
“Call me by my name.” Amanusa was losing patience. She just wished she knew whether she lost it with herself or with him. Surely him. Which was a lie. Hadn’t she sworn never to lie to herself?
“I am to be allowed to know it?” He twitched, as if he wanted to look up at her but thought better of it.
Hadn’t she told him her name? She’d been ruder than she realized, and it shamed her. “I am Amanusa Whitcomb. Miss Whitcomb.”
She huffed a sigh. “Get up. I’m tired of you dropping to your knees all the time. Stand on your feet like a man.”
“Yes, Miss Whitcomb.” He stood, eyes still cast down. “But you should understand–I am not a man. I am a blood servant.”
That was so patently ridiculous, Amanusa stopped scolding herself for saying what she had and stared at him. Of course he was a man. How could he deny it? Granted, magic had swallowed up most of his mind.
Pity swelled and Amanusa fought it down yet again. He wouldn’t want her pity. Magic or not, he was still a man. She hefted the ax she held and marched around to the front door. After a moment, Jax followed, his crow fluttering from one side of the thatched roof to the other, as if to watch. Inside the cottage, Amanusa hid the ax under the bed–a bad hiding place, but she was in a hurry–and gathered up his clothes. When he came through the door, she bundled his waistcoat, cravat and jacket into his arms and picked his long greatcoat up off the table.
“You should leave now,” she said. “You’ve had a rest and a meal. You’ve delivered your message. I have no interest in ever learning blood magic, so I don’t need a blood servant. You’re free to go.”
The man looked uncertain, almost fearful. Why?
“Let me at least repay you for the care and the meal,” he said. “I have no coin–you saw that. If you do not need me to cut wood, surely there is something I can do. Carry water for your garden perhaps.”
Amanusa eyed the bright blue bowl of the sky and the dry state of her garden. It was a long hike from the stream, and filled water buckets were heavy even with her shoulder yoke. And he had offered. Maybe he would spill all the water on the first trip and give up and go away. A fine gentleman like him wouldn’t have the knack of handling the yoke.
As if he could sense her wavering, Jax laid his clothing on the table and stepped outside where the yoke and buckets lay against the cottage wall. Before she could actually say yes, he had disappeared down the path to the stream.
He didn’t spill any of the water. Not from what Amanusa could tell. Jax handled the buckets like an expert. Like a man who had done this before. Like a servant. He had the garden watered in half the time it took her to do it. Then he rolled down his sleeves, put on his waistcoat and jacket and tied his cravat. He tossed his greatcoat over one arm and took the bundle of food Amanusa had packed for him.
Food might help him bear his burden of magic. He had offered her no overt threat, had repaid the little she’d done for him. Food was the least she could do. A man needed to eat.
“Farewell, Miss Whitcomb.”” He bent in a graceful, flowing bow, like nothing she’d seen even as a child in Vienna. “I wish you all the best in your life.”
Amanusa gave him a fleeting smile–the only sort she had–and a nod, stifling the guilt trying to rise. “And to you the same.”
She was not shoving him out of the nest too early. This was her nest, not his. He was not like her. He was dangerous. In more ways than one.
When he disappeared into the forest, Amanusa turned back into her cottage. The day was almost half-gone and she needed to get working. She needed to make more love charms, as she was almost out. The silly girls who asked for them didn’t know what they were asking, but Amanusa always put protective magic in them too. No harm would come to the girls who used them.
She wouldn’t sell charms to men. If a man couldn’t get a woman through his own charm–the kind without magic–he didn’t deserve to have a woman. Her protective magic warded against any man using magic to seduce one of her clients against her will. At least she hoped it did. It was intended to.
A harsh cry alerted her to the crow’s presence just before it flew through her door to land on her striped rug. Amanusa almost laughed. “Your friend has gone.” She pointed at the forest. “If you hurry, you can catch him.”
The crow cawed again. It fluttered to perch on the head of her bed and began to preen its feathers.
Amanusa wasn’t the sort who needed company. She didn’t mind being alone. Preferred it, in truth. The man’s presence had been more of a nuisance than a pleasant change. She wasn’t lying to herself. Exactly. But a crow–a crow didn-t require attention, or conversation, or anything other than food, and even then, it could feed itself if need be.
If it preferred her company to the man’s, she didn’t blame it. The creature had taste and discernment. She wouldn’t chase it off. “But you’re not staying the night inside.”
The bird stopped preening and looked at her, making a tiny sound as if in assent. Then it went back to its work.
Amanusa shook her head. Jax and his magic burden had made her go fanciful. She lit her lantern and closed her door on the setting sun. She had charms to make once dark fell.