Beguiled (The Fairest Maidens #2) - Jody Hedlund



Thick fog swirled around our boat like steam rising from a cauldron.

“We should return to camp.” I glanced around, unable to see past the white mist that hedged us in on every side. For midmorning, the fog was unusual in the estuary. “Something in the air bodes of evil.”

At the bow, Fowler tilted up his head and sniffed the air as if he were a hunting dog searching for prey. “Nay, the morn mist be hugging the shore longer this day. ’Tis naught more to it.”

“Sir Gregor?” I paused in hefting up the hemp net, which was wriggling under the weight of the salmon, trout, and flounder left by the tide when the water had dashed back to the sea. “What say you? Shall we make this our last haul and return to camp?”

Gregor peered into the woven reed baskets surrounding him at the stern. Even with his left eye covered by a black patch, he saw more than most people with perfect vision. “Perchance. We do have over half our catch.”

Fowler pulled at his end of the net, straining against the load. As a dwarf, his arms and legs were short, but they were also thick with bulging muscles. “The master’ll string us up and pelt us with rotten fish carcasses if we be returning without full baskets.”

The master would do no such thing. Blade might have a severe name and was spiteful toward his enemies. But in the two months I’d lived with his band on the Isle of Outcasts, he’d never been cruel to his own men.

At a splashing and plopping of water somewhere in the mist behind us, my spine stiffened. I peered around us, but there was nothing but fog. Even so, I sensed danger closing in. “What if the rumors about the Loch Ness monster awakening during the day are true?”

Fowler shook his head. “Nay. Couldn’t be. She ever only hunts at night.”

“But we cannot discount the recent sightings of her at dawn. And we cannot discount the possibility that all our fishing during the day might leave her with little to prey upon at night.”

Before coming to the island, I’d assumed the giant man-eating sea monster was nothing more than a creature of myths. However, the outcasts swore Loch Ness lived in the deep waters surrounding the isle.

On several occasions in the moonlight, I’d sighted an eel-like head poking out of the water. Part of me wished to hunt down and kill the beast. But the perpetuation of the frightening tales of the Loch Ness monster kept the outside world from venturing to the island and spewing their hate at the outcasts.

Except for the Inquisitor . . .

I paused, straining to see and hear beyond the low cloud covering. Was the zealous witch hunter closing in on us?

Several feet away, a dark form took shape in the mist, then vanished. Someone—or something—was drawing nigh.

“Fie upon you, Mikkel,” Fowler groused. “Stop your worrying and do your work. I may be an unusually strong man, but even I cannot be lifting this net on my own.”

I wanted to command him to silence, but whoever was out there had probably already heard us and knew our location. Instead, as I resumed hauling in my end of the net, I met Gregor’s gaze and attempted to communicate silently for him to be alert.

With oars lying idle in both hands, Gregor nodded and examined the mist too. His profile was normal, with smooth skin and perfect features. But as he shifted his head, the other side of his face, the one with the eye patch, came into view, revealing misshapen skin, puckered and splotchy from his temple down to his jaw and neck. The burn scars continued over most of the left half of his body, covering his arm and hand.

Since the May morn on the wharf when my father’s weapons master had introduced me to Gregor, I’d been curious how my scribe had sustained such serious burns. But he hadn’t offered an explanation, and I hadn’t pried. It had been enough to know the Lagting had chosen Gregor for me because his appearance gave us the excuse we needed to take up residence on the Isle of Outcasts.

Set off the western coast of Norland, the island with its thick forests and large rock formations, had become a refuge for the outcasts of society, particularly those with physical differences and deformities such as Gregor’s. In addition to being misfits, many were hardened criminals.

During the voyage from my home in