"Have another drink, m'lord."

"Ah love the way ya call me mlrd," he slurred, and accepted the cheap wine she offered him, downing it in a few swallows.

"Well, with Sir Landen gone, who else could be master of the fief?"

The man smiled through rotten teeth at her flattery. "Aye, he's gone away on a hunting trip again, but he always leaves that stupid bailiff over the manor…"

"Gone hunting? Did he take many men?"

"Never does—always leaves that stupid bailiff overseeing the manor…" his breath ran down, and he subsided into sleep. Alinea stepped over his corpulent body, musing. There had been several drunken fools that night, each eager to share what he knew of th e absent lord with a beautiful young woman. Landen was on a hunting trip, with few companions, unaware of his new status as prey. It would be an easy chase.

Alinea stalked the hunting party for two days, assessing her options. Kidnapping was a difficult assignment, which meant that the reward for delivering her captive would amount to a small fortune. It also meant that if everything didn't go exactly as she intended, she could easily be caught and exposed. It would be crucial to keep the young lord unconscious as much as possible. On this, of all assignments, she did not want to fail.

The ride to Lord Trenton's holdings had wasted several days; she wondered how the staff at Pinecrest had reacted to her staged tantrum. She knew they would not immediately bother to report to her father that she had "run away." She knew how long the staff would wait on her return before sending any sort of message to Lord Daventry, and calculated that she had another fortnight before their fear of sending a messenger would melt away before their fear of not sending a messenger.

Finally, on the third night, she felt prepared. She slit the sentry's throat and quickly tied her target's wrists and ankles. Draping him over his horse's back proved to be difficult despite her uncanny way with the beasts—the animal was stubborn beyond any she had encountered. It took her nearly half an hour to accomplish the task. At last, however, she mounted her own mare, and they slipped away into the shadows of night.

The next morning, when Landen began to stir, Alinea was ready, and promptly buried a sleeper dart in his shoulder. Within minutes he was once again as limp as a willow bough.

Alinea rode quickly, keeping to hard ground that would show no tracks, following every stream to wash their scent, and employing every trick she knew to confuse their trail. The sleeping lord was extremely popular—his many friends would soon be scouring their trail.

The forest would soon begin to thin, giving way to the approaching coastal terrain. Alinea knew the country well, so progress should have been swift and constant, but she continued to struggle with Landen's stubborn horse. It seemed the beast did not take well to any but its master, and she cursed herself for not choosing another. In the end, however, it mattered little what the animal was used to; the assassin of the Black Heart would stand for nothing less than obedience and success.

Their second morning, Alinea allowed Lord Trenton to wake.

He rolled awkwardly, mumbling incoherently, and groggily pulled his eyes open. His hands and feet were chafing at his bonds, but Alinea knew that he would do no more than cause himself to bleed. She tied excellent knots.

After several minutes of his inarticulate gargling, she was able to make out a question.

"Who are you?"

"I am the Black Heart," she replied from the safety of her dark cowl. Her voice deepened naturally whenever she wore the cloak, and she knew he didn't recognize her. She doubted he would even if she removed the hood.

The thought filled her with bitterness, both a strength and a weakness.

The name she gave affected him, though he did a noble job of trying to disguise it. "I have heard of you," he said, straining to see her face past the shadows.

"Most have," the Black Heart replied.

"What do you want of me?" he asked. The effects the drug had on his mind seemed to have worn away almost completely—his gaze was sharp, his tone more guarded.

Alinea sat and allowed his question to play in her mind, stirring yet higher the fires of her anger and bitterness. What did she want with him? A thousand answers, none of them polite, danced across her tongue.

Instead, she told him what she would have told any other assignment.

"I want nothing with you. It is my client with whom you have business."

"And who is your client?"

"That is not for you to know."

Alinea stood and retrieved their horses. Aware of his shrewd gaze, she was careful not to give anything away in her body movements. She then knelt to untie the man's ankles.

"Why are you untying me?" he asked. Alinea angled the opening of her hood towards him.

"So that I don't have to lift you onto your horse," she replied.

He discovered the other reason when he tried to stand. The pain immediately caused him to fall to the ground again, and Alinea kicked him in the tender area of his back.

"Get up and lay across the back of your horse," she demanded, and groaning, he tried to comply. The effects of the drug and the tight bonds were taking a savage toll on his body—and his chances of escape.

Alinea watched impassively as he struggled to rise to his feet, punctuating each of his failures with a well-placed kick in a tender area. Finally, his face white as new snow, he managed to stand and lean against his mount. Alinea provided him with a stirrup, and he collapsed into tremblings, and made no effort to resist her when she retied his ankles and secured him to the animal.

"Please," he moaned, "may I have a drink of water?"

Alinea studied him for a moment, then offered him a drink. He guzzled it like a man who'd just spent days wandering in the desert.

The jostling of their hard pace soon rendered him unconscious once more, and Alinea made sure that he stayed that way.

Their journey continued without incidence for several days, and Alinea estimated that it would only be one more night before she delivered Landen and collected her fee. Kidnappings were unusual, especially of the young and popular. Most would only risk such an operation for a sizable redemption sum and minimum social backlash. Alinea knew that in her line of work the fewer questions you asked the fewer dissatisfied customers you had, but as she stared at the sleeping man she couldn't help but wonder...so many things...and the old familiar anger and hatred coursed through her, heating her insides and burning in her golden eyes.

As she rode, there was little to occupy her mind. The landscape surrounding them was dreary at best—vast plains, with small copses to break the monotony, and an omnipresent fog that had settled with a heavy damp. It was stifling and retarded visibility, but Alinea knew that it would also make them more difficult to track. She tried to convince herself that the fog was good fortune, rather than hindrance.

It was midmorning when Alinea heard the call. It echoed clear and loud about her, an early warning that came too late. She spurred their mounts on to greater speed, until the rhythmic pounding of their hooves matched the beating of her heart.

Minutes later the call came again, and Alinea thought it sounded closer. The animals sensed her desperation, and they ran as fast as they were able. Alinea's breath was stolen by the speed of their flight, and she was glad that she had secured Lord Trenton with special care for his delivery.

When next the call came it seemed more distant, and Alinea released some of the tension in her muscles. She checked as best she could that the man beside her was still draped and tied on his horse's back. The landscape was a blur around her—all that existed was the path ahead.

Suddenly the call was again sounded, and with dread she realized that the pursuers were nearly upon her. Options passed through her mind, each less viable than the last. She could abandon the unconscious prisoner. She could press on toward the castle. She could throw off her persona and pose as a second victim. She could do all of these.

She would be caught trying to flee. They might not reach the castle in time. She wouldn't have time to stage things to appear a victim. She could do none of these.

Of all her choices, pressing on to the castle seemed the best. She could feel the animals' exhaustion and sense their fear. They were pushing themselves to the limits of their ability, trying to outrun that dreadful call.

It was gaining on them.

Suddenly, as though a curtain had lifted, Alinea glimpsed the castle gates through the fog. She redirected their mounts, and they thundered through the portcullis as the call sounded again, seeming to come from within themselves.

But they were safely within the castle walls.

No lord stepped forward to greet them. Alinea scanned the courtyard casually, noting the positions of the few armed servants, and possible places where more could be hiding. The servants seemed as frightened as the horses, still prancing, shaking and snorting. Alinea soothed her faithful mare, running a calming hand over her trembling flanks.

"I have delivered to you the Lord Trenton, as charged. I am prepared to collect my reward and leave him in your care. Who commands this post?"

One of the servants, a brawny man half the size of her horse, stepped forward. "I do."

The Black Heart nodded in acknowledgment, unseen eyes still assessing their new situation. Unconsciously, her hand moved to the hilt of her dagger, as an uneasy feeling settled in her stomach.

"Then I trust that you are prepared to accept responsibility for the prisoner; I will collect my pay and leave by the postern door."

"I'm afraid that won't work, m'lord. You arrived earlier than we anticipated—we must await the arrival of our master."

The uneasy feeling grew. "I have other business to attend to," she said. "Tell your master he can pay me through our contact."

"Our master desires you to await his arrival," the burly man repeated.

The curl of uneasiness flared and now reached her throat. Suddenly the servants seemed too close, their stances too sure. There was a flicker of movement in her peripheral vision, and as she was turning and drawing her dagger, there was a low thud, and Alinea felt a sharp pain in her arm, below her maille. She flung her dagger in the direction of the attacker, but it clinked uselessly against stone and fell to the ground.

Alinea pulled free a small crossbow arrow, its tip wickedly sharp. Already the poison was coursing through her body, and she felt her mind slipping as she tumbled into darkness.