A flash of defiance crossed the thief's face, but she sighed and acquiesced. With casual, but quick strides, he escorted her out of the marketplace and across the drawbridge to his quarters in the castle fortifications.
“Sit.” He gently nudged her into a oaken chair and dug the apples in question out of a pocket in the lining of her cloak. “Queen Cillan will have your head if she finds you. If I recognized you, it’s only a matter of time before someone else does.”
“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.”
“Lady Merewyn…enough. You’re presence here is risky, but thievery in the marketplace is plain lunacy. What if a different guard had intercepted you?”
She set her jaw. “My children must eat.”
“It is my understanding that you have been well provided for in The Outlands.”
“I left The Outlands a year ago. She cannot keep me from my son. Neither can you.”
“The queen was clear—you were never to come back to Lambir.”
“How can I not?”
“You would be wise to find a way.” Though he guarded his expression, he found himself amused by her stubbornness, her tenacity. How had a woman with two children traveled the treacherous back roads from The Outlands to Cherte proper and then made it all the way back to the capital duchy?
“How did you get here?” he asked.
“Does it matter? I’m here now.”
“I’d ask why but I know the answer to that question.”
She smoothed the crumpled fabric of her patched cloak, her gaze cast downward. “How is he?”
Ahron nodded. “He’s well. Owain is strong, like his father…and his mother.”
“He’s only a boy.”
“At twelve he’s nearly a man.”
Tears filled her velvety brown eyes. “What will she do with him once he’s of age?”
With a sigh, Ahron took a seat. “It’s a complex situation. She knows she cannot hold favor if she snatches the throne, but there are whispers that once king, Owain’s rule will not last long. Particularly not if he names her as his successor until he produces an heir.”
“Then you must make sure he does not do so.”
“There are limits to my power, milady.”
“You promised me—”
“I promised I would protect him as best I could. Unless a decision affects the army or the royal guard, the queen does not keep my counsel. Nor does your son.”
“Whose do they keep?”
“Cillan trusts few and of those few, there is only one who holds any sway with your son—the magus, Laentus.”
“She trusted you once, when you convinced her not to put me and my children to death.”
“Do not give me too much credit. I played upon lust for power and it didn’t hurt that Laentus told her a curse would fall upon her if she caused you harm. Above all else she is superstitious. If I may offer you a piece of advice, let well enough alone and take your leave while it is still yours to take.”
“Then it is my duty to arrest you. You know that.”
A faint smile played on her lips that resembled a ripe berry. “But you won’t.”
“Whatever gave you that idea?”
“You would’ve done it by now.”
Ahron raked a hand through his hair. “Where are Eadric and Bertana?”
“With an old friend on the outskirts of town.”
Rubbing one scruffy cheek, he shook his head. “It is not only you who faces death upon return. Your children are in danger as well.”
Merewyn blanched at his words. She clearly knew them to be true.
“Why come back? Why now?” he asked. “Was your gilded prison really all that bad?”
“He is my son. He is Eadric and Bertana’s brother. I am tired of feeling like part of me is missing. I am tired of endless mourning. And when he is king, he can make whatever decision he chooses regarding his family.”
“His birthday is almost three months away during which time you are in grave peril. And what makes you so sure he’ll welcome you with open arms?”
Her eyebrows drew together, surprise registering on her beautiful albeit dirty face. “Why wouldn’t he?”
“A child is easily misled. His memories of the day he was taken from you have been altered so that he believes you abandoned him.
“But I did not. You know I did not.”
“Again this is not a topic on which my views have been solicited. Cillan has convinced the boy she is his savior and he appears to be her loyal servant.”
Merewyn put a hand to her mouth, her fingers folded into a fist. Her other hand clutched her cloak. Shaking her head, she squeezed her eyes shut.
“I’m too late.” She hiccuped out a sob. “I’ve failed him.”
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