He was watching her again, the old bugger. She could feel his eyes on her and they made her feel dirty. She quickened her steps and slipped out of the village, melting into the shadows of the forest.
William—why in the hell had he been out this late? It was past midnight. No reason for any sane soul to be awake.
Of course, she was awake. But there were things she needed to do. Out in the forest—the sort of things the good people of the village were better off not knowing about. The sort of things that would likely have her branded a witch, if they knew what she was doing.
And of course, she was a witch. She took no shame in it, either. It was a God-given gift—a gift that saved lives, a gift that helped people.
The skin on the back of her neck crawled. She could still feel the weight of his stare. Casting a look over her shoulder, Agnes stared through the trees, but she could not see him.
He was not there now.
But he had been.
He always seemed to be watching her. There was something about it that made her feel tainted, foul. Almost as bad as that one time he’d touched her.
Damn that bastard. She should have taught him a lesson then. Nessa moved deeper into the forest, trying to shrug off the nervy, twitchy feeling between her shoulder blades.
She was uneasy.
Not afraid, she insisted, squaring her shoulders as she continued to move through the night. Agnes was a Hunter of the Council. She did not fear the dark. She did not fear the monsters lurking there.
The darkness feared her. And she was quite certain if she told herself that enough, she would even believe it.
But something was not quite right tonight. She could feel it. Scent it. All but taste it. She wanted to go back to her home, cuddle in bed beside her man, Elias, and hold him tight. But she could not.
Something evil was afoot, and it called her.
Called her from the safety of her bed into the darkness of night.
Part of her still feared, no matter how much she might insist otherwise.
She did not rightly know if she would ever get over that fear. After all, she knew what monsters hid in the darkness—she knew them truly and well—she knew their names, their faces, the blood and their magic. She was right to fear them.
But fear or not, she had responsibilities. Uneasy or not, she had a sworn duty.
Agnes was more than just a witch.
She was a Hunter, called to protect others. She had been sent to this small village to deal with the rogue werewolves roaming in the forest, preying on the villagers. It had been the first task assigned to her and she knew she had done well.
The werewolves were gone.
They were not responsible for this uneasiness inside her. Perhaps it was just William, she thought. He always made her feel twitchy and jumpy. Dirty.
Not for much longer, though. Soon, she would be away from him and she would never have to see that nasty man again.
Soon she and Elias would be leaving Oneoak. First they would go to Brendain, the home of the Hunters. It had been home to her for nearly six years, since she was twelve. She was almost eighteen now. Although she had lived in Oneoak for the past year, it was not home. Not for her. No, Brendain was home and soon, she would return there, and this time, she would take her man with her.
The two of them would take a bit of a rest. Nessa would see if there was some place she was needed.
Needed . . . it warmed her heart to think of it.
Nessa was needed.
Absently, she fingered the tip of her braid, lost in thought. It was not just by the Hunters, either. She helped people. She had saved people. A grin lit her face as she thought of one person in particular—she had saved his arse, even if Elias tried to argue.
She knew the truth.
Elias could tease her and call her a foolish girl all he wanted.
He knew the truth. She had saved his life. It had been almost a year since she had met him, just one week after she’d come to Oneoak. The wolves would have torn him apart that night. There had just been too many of them—his silver dagger could kill them, but not if there were ten of them and only one of him.
They would have killed him if she had not come and burned them to nothing but dust and ashes.
The entire pack was gone now, the bloodthirsty monsters sent straight to hell where they belonged. A new pack would come here, a healthy pack, one that would roam this land and care for it the way it deserved to be cared for.
The taint in the land would be cleansed. And it was in part because of one little witch, a Hunter called Agnes.
Nessa. Elias called her that, said that Agnes just did not suit her. It was his mother’s name also, and she knew that was partly why he did not think it suited her. Thinking of him made that uneasiness return, stronger, more powerful.
“Stop it,” she muttered to herself. With a sigh, Nessa started to head south. One last trip through, just to be certain.
They would leave in the morning.
But she froze. Icy fear wrapped a fist around her heart.
Pain plunged a fist into her stomach.
Fire danced before her eyes.
A cacophony of voices assaulted her mind.
Witches—we have to kill them.
Do not kill him yet. We need him to get her back here. To make her confess before she dies.
She is just a girl—be sensible. A nice girl. We cannot do this. We will take them before the priests. If there is something wrong, they will know what to do.
Be silent, woman!
She is a witch . . . oh, aye. I have seen her, using fire, casting spells—she has tried to bewitch me. Tried to seduce me, that witch.
Rage wrapped its fiery grip around her. She knew that voice. It belonged to Sir William. Oh, she would tear his eyes out. Slamming a hand against the trunk of a tree, she braced herself to keep from stumbling as everything struck her at once.
Adrenaline surged through her and she spun around, running through the trees. The very night had fallen silent—too silent. The forest was never this still.
A voice rasped through her head and she heard him speak even though he was far away.
Run, Nessa. Do not come back here, Elias said in her mind. Elias had no magic, no power, nothing save the bond their love gave him. But he knew that if he spoke out to her, she would hear him.
And likely, he knew she would not listen.
The anger and fear in his voice added to her own fear, but it spurred the part inside her that made her warrior as well as witch. She only ran faster. If he thought she would run away when he was in danger, then Elias did not know his wife very well at all.
She tore into Oneoak looking exactly like what she was. One very angry witch.
William had been watching her—watching to make sure she left before he sprung this nasty trap.
Nessa knew she was losing control of her magic but she did not care. And then she saw that they had tied Elias to a pole, hay and branches at his feet.
Sir William, the sodding sheriff, stood at her husband’s side, ready to burn him. Nessa’s grasp on her control fractured even more.
Elias lifted his head, glaring at her. It was dark, but her eyesight had always been keen. Even in the dim light of the torches, she could see him well. They had beaten him. One eye was black, and both his nose and mouth had been busted, blood painting gory streaks on his handsome face.
“Nessa . . .”
She met his eyes and shook her head.
“Let him go,” she said quietly, clenching her hands into fists. There was nothing she wanted more than to release the power flooding her right now. Release it all, into the smug face of Sir William.
Oh, he would pay for this, Nessa swore, her body trembling with anger and fear. He’d pay for this.
William folded his face into pious lines. “Agnes, you and Elias have fallen into a dark path, practicing magic, worshipping dark, foul monsters.”
“We worship no monsters.” She arched a brow. “Elias practices no magic.”
But she’d be damned if she would lie about herself.
They leaped on the one simple thing that she left out. “So you admit it! Witch!”
They moved closer, and Nessa narrowed her eyes. “Stay back, you blind fools,” she said softly. “Let him go.”
William dared to take one step forward. “You say he is no witch—we cannot take the word of a woman who openly admits she uses the dark powers. If we let him go, will you let us bind you? Will you go through our tests? Cleanse yourself?”
She’d openly admitted nothing. She just had not denied it. Looking at William, she suppressed the urge to snort as she stared at him. Cleanse myself? “I do not fear your tests, William. Let Elias go. He has done nothing wrong.”
William smirked. “If he has done nothing wrong, then by all means . . .” He glanced at one of the men and nodded. “But first you must agree. You will be bound. You will submit to the tests. You will be cleansed.”
“Your men will untie him as I come to you. If you dare be foolish, Sir William, you will know pain like nothing you have ever felt,” she warned.
She lifted her head and stared across the distance separating them. They use ropes, Elias. You think I cannot get rid of a few paltry ropes? Run into the forest—to our cave. I will meet you there. And these simpletons can rot. We wasted months protecting them.
His dark brown eyes stared into hers with fury and desperation. Do not let him touch you, Nessa. I do not trust him—
She just shook her head. She would not risk Elias. She would not. She walked arrogantly toward William, holding her wrists out in front of her. He just smiled benevolently and gestured to one of his men.
“I shall deal with your husband,” William said, his voice quiet and dignified. His eyes gleamed though, with something she did not like, not one bit. He would deal with her husband? Lower himself to free him? Instead of ordering his men . . . ?
Her ears pricked at those words. Her instincts screamed.
Rough rope bit into her wrists but she barely even noticed as she watched William walk over the uneven ground to where his men were cutting Elias free.
Elias shrugged away from them and started toward Nessa. She shook her head at him and she could see the argument in his eyes. Run, she said into his mind. Now.
She heard the argument in his head. Felt his refusal.
And then there was nothing but icy, sharp pain. She felt the brutal echo of it in her own heart.
They were soul mates—meant for each other even before birth. It would have been better if that blade had killed her as well as Elias.
“No!” she screamed out. She shoved at the sheriff’s man, pushing away from him as though he was naught more than a child.
“Grab her—cover her eyes,” one of the men bellowed.
All around her people shouted—although some screamed in horror as they realized what one of William’s men had done.
She barely even heard them. She was aware of nothing.
Nothing but the screams . . . and the blood.
It was Elias’s blood, dripping from the dagger of a treacherous snake.
Without even looking at her wrists, she gave in to the rage and used her magic to set fire to the ropes, and they fell to the ground still flaming. Nessa didn’t remember closing the distance between her and Elias, just catching him as he sagged to the ground.
William stood behind him, his thin mouth curved up in a smile. In his hand, he held a jeweled dagger and the blade dripped with dark, dark red blood.
“You will be mine now, Agnes.”
“Not even in hell,” she whispered hotly, lifting her eyes from Elias’s face for one second. “And hell awaits you.”
William fell back a step as he looked at her. Behind her, she heard people moving up. Power exploded through her and then heat surrounded her. Fire now wrapped a deadly ring around the three of them, Elias, William and Agnes. He paled, his eyes widening as the fire seemed to reach out and grab him.
Elias laughed, the sound choked and full of pain. “Listen to him scream for help, love. You came and answered their cries. And this is what they have done.”
Nessa looked down at Elias, pressing her fingers to his lips. “Hush,” she whispered, forcing the words past the tears that were threatening to choke her.
Then she looked back at William. “Filthy swine—there is no help for you. Murderer, filthy, evil murderer. Rot in hell.”
William shrieked, the stench of his burning flesh heavy in the air. All around people screamed, and then they scattered. Their fear was ripe—she should have been choking on it, but she didn’t care.
Nothing but the sight of Elias lying so still in her arms, his face growing more and more pale as his blood flowed so hotly from his body.
She reached under Elias, pressing her hand to the wound. It was too close to his heart, though. “Elias . . . God, please,” she sobbed, hugging him to her. His breath rattled in and out of his chest. “Do not leave me!”
“Do not tell me to hush, you fool!” she shrieked. Magic sparked out of her and she tried to focus it. Witches could heal.
Damn it, she could heal him. She had not yet learned that magic, but she had to try.
She couldn’t focus it, though, not to save her life.
Or his, it seemed. More and more blood drained from him as she tried to use her wild magic to heal that nasty, jagged wound. “You cannot leave me, Elias,” she whispered. “You cannot leave me. You are my life.”
He reached up, touching his hand to her face. Nessa gave up trying to hold the jagged edges of the wound together and caught his hand, pressing it to her cheek. “Ah, Nessa . . . my beautiful, foolish, wonderful girl. I love you so much. I will come back . . . I will find you again.”
He coughed and a sob wracked her body as she saw the blood trickle from his lips. “Promise me!” she choked. “You promise me! Promise me you’ll come back.”
“Only God Himself could keep me from you, love,” Elias whispered. He sighed and his entire body trembled. She could feel the pain tearing through him and she forced herself in between, using her power to separate him from the pain as she filtered it away. She could not heal him, could not save him—but she could damn well stop him from hurting.
The tension eased from his body and he breathed a little easier.
“Elias . . .” she moaned, wrapping her arms around him.
“Just hold me, Nessa,” he murmured. His voice was weaker. Lifting her head, she stared down at him, brushing his hair back from his battered face. “I do wish I had listened to you, my beautiful witch.”
Closing her eyes, she whispered, “Just come back, Elias.”