Shadow's Son

CHAPTER ONE

killer stalked in the shadows.

Hidden within the gloom shrouding the hall's lofty ceiling, he crept across the rafters to the flicker of the torch fires below. As unseen as the wind, silent as Death itself.

Festive music rose from the chamber beneath him. The flower of northern Nimea, two hundred lords and ladies, filled the great hall of Ostergoth Keep. The sharp crack of a whip cut through the din. The centerpiece of the evening was an aged hillman, stripped to the waist and bound to a wooden frame. Livid welts oozing blood crisscrossed his shoulders and back. While Duke Reinard's guests gorged on fine victuals, his torturer performed for their entertainment.

The bullwhip cracked again and the old man shuddered. The duke laughed so hard he spilled wine down his ermine-lined robes and spoiled the yellow dress of the pale, shuddering girl on his lap. She quivered as he blotted at her bodice with a stained napkin and then squeaked at an indiscretion committed under the table. She tried to squirm away, but the duke held her fast and laughed all the harder.

Calm's gloved hands curled into fists. It was time to go to work.

He dropped down to an empty balcony outthrust from the stone wall. Crouched behind the railing, he unslung a satchel from his shoulder and took out its contents. With sure movements he assembled a powerful bow made from two curved shafts of laminated horn. He opened a lacquered case and took out three arrows. Each projectile ended in brilliant indigo fletching, the design favored by the hill tribes of eastern Ostergoth, as requested by the client.

Caim fit an arrow to the string and lifted the bow. He took a deep breath as he sighted along the shaft. An uneasy sensation rumbled in the pit of his stomach. Nerves.

He adjusted his aim to allow for distance and declination. The girl managed to escape the Duke's lewd embrace, at least for the moment.

Don't worry, honey. Caim pulled the bowstring to full tension. He won't ever bother you again.

Just as he was about to shoot, his target leaned over to chortle into the ear of a lovely noblewoman beside him. The duke's ringed fingers fondled the strands of pearls looped across the lady's plunging d6colletage. Caim held his breath and counted by the slow, measured rhythm of his pulse.

Three ... four ...

Any moment now, the Duke would sit up and present the perfect target.

Seven ... eight ...

His aim was dead-on, his hands were steady.

Eleven ... twelve ...

A feathery tickle caressed his shoulders. Not taking his eyes off the Duke, Caim caught a glimpse of silver.

"Hello, lover," her voice whispered in his ear.

Ghostly fingers tickled Calm's waist, but his gaze never left the target. "Hello, Kit."

"Putting another notch in your belt, I see."

He winced at the volume of her voice as it carried over the revel. It didn't matter that no one else could hear her. She was throwing off his cadence.

"I'm busy. Go find a nest of bunnies to play with until I'm done here."

Kit pressed her face against his cheek to peer down the arrow shaft. Although he couldn't exactly feel her, tiny itches radiated everywhere she touched his skin. A strand of her silver hair fell across his left eye. Caim resisted the urge to blow it away, knowing it wouldn't do any good if he tried, and strained the bowstring another inch.

"Bunnies live in holes, not nests," she said. "And you're aiming too low."

"Leave me alone. I've got the shot."

"You're going to miss his neck by half a foot."

Caim ground his teeth as the duke turned away