Chapter 2

The world came back to her in fits and starts. Voices. Light. Then darkness again before Rune finally regained her wits. A cold, wet stone floor pressed against her face. She groaned and tried to push herself up, but her hands were tied behind her back. Ignoring the strong fight or flight impulse, she forced herself to remain calm—struggling would only serve to weaken her. And Rune knew she would need all her strength for what would come next.

Chains rattled nearby and suddenly her arms wrenched upward. Rune rushed to get her knees underneath her while her arms threatened to rip from her shoulders. At that moment, panic and pain was all she knew. Only once she stumbled to her feet did the chains still, leaving her body aching.

Rune looked up as the door across from her grated open. A few familiar faces entered the room. Valdemar and Soren were among them. Father and son entered first with the others filing in behind them. No one spoke. Instead they glared at her with pure hatred or frowned as if they'd eaten a sour grape. None of them had ever liked her, merely tolerated her presence. But now they despised Rune with a fiery passion. She could see it in their eyes.

"Why Rune?" Were Valdemar's first words as he stepped forward. "Why have you betrayed me?"

Do you really have to ask?

"Yes, I do. Because I don't understand." He stopped just inches away. So close that Rune could have leaned in and kissed him. Not that it would have done her any good. Someone in the room was blocking her gift. "I took you in when no one else would have. If it wasn't for me, you'd be long dead. I saved you. I gave you everything."

Except a cure.

Valdemar shook his head."If you had only waited a little longer, we might have found it together. But now—now I must do something I really don't want to." He turned around, his words almost a whisper. "You were like a daughter to me." With his back straight, he went to stand with the others.

As he did, the door opened once again. This time a single man entered. He wore a hood to cover his face and an impressive array of devices on the belt around his waist.

"Because of all you've done for me, I will give you a chance to tell me what I need to know," Valdemar told her.

Rune looked him in the eyes and took a few deep breathes to keep her voice from quivering. I have faced death before. I am not afraid. "I have nothing to say."

"You should be," Valdemar's voice answered in her head.

The hooded man walked behind her. Unable to see him, Rune closed her eyes and concentrated on her breathing. Her arms trembled as she waited for the pain to come. And soon, it did.

Rune flinch as one of her fingers snapped. At first the pain was intense, but then it dulled to a slight throb. It didn't seem so bad until she felt another finger twist. Powerless to stop it, she clenched her jaw. It wasn't long before all five fingers on her left hand were broken.

"Where is the prince?" Valdemar asked her finally. He means nothing to you. Why are you protecting him?

Through her pain, Rune smiled. Because you betrayed me first. And if all I can do is destroy your plans before I die, then so be it.

Valdemar nodded and the man snapped the rest of Rune's fingers one by one. With each new broken bone she held back the groan trying to force its way up her throat. Moving sent a razor-sharp twinge through her throbbing fingers, so she remained as still as possible.

Only years of practice allowed Rune to control her thoughts through the pain. Even so, it would only take one tiny slip and Valdemar would know everything. She couldn't let that happen.

"Where is the prince, Rune?" Valdemar asked as the rest of group looked on with obvious pleasure gleaming in their eyes.

Rune ignored them. "You might as well kill me. I'll never tell you."

Soren pushed forward. No one attempted to stop him. Rune could only watch as his arm pulled back and then burst forward, smashing into the corner of her mouth. Her head flung sideways and she staggered in an attempt to keep her balance. The chains pulled at her hands and she hissed from the sudden flash of pain.

"You just wait, traitor," Soren said. "Before long, you'll be begging to tell us." He smiled.

Rune's arms jerked behind her. The sound of the chains rattling sent a new wave of panic rushing through her. Her heart raced as her bindings pulled higher and higher. When her arms raised straight back, Rune was forced to bend down. The tension felt unbearable, but the chains pulled higher still.

A scream exploded from her lungs. With a pop, Rune's left arm wrenched out of the socket. Unbidden, tears began to stream down her face. She wanted it to stop, wanted to beg them, but she couldn't. She wouldn't. The other arm followed shortly after. She screamed again.

Hanging by dislocated arms, with her tip toes brushing the stones, Rune wanted to die. But they weren't done with her yet.

Without warning, white-hot pain slashed across her back. The audible snap of a whip echoed through the room. It came again. Rune clenched her jaw so hard it almost shattered her teeth.

"Will you tell us now?" Valdemar asked. "If you tell us, this will all stop."

I've been through worse. The words weren't just for Valdemar, but to remind herself of what she'd been through, and the strength she possessed. It didn't matter that it hurt to breathe, to move. She had a purpose now. And if she was going to die, she would be more than just a murderer, an assassin. Rune had saved a life instead of taking it. In the end, it gave her peace.

Before she could lose her nerve, Rune opened her mouth and stuck out her tongue. She bit down. Blood gushed from her mouth and flowed down into the back of her throat. The metallic taste of it sickened her, making Rune gag.

"Where is he?" Valdemar screamed.

The whip ripped across her back. Rune could barely feel it, or the other dozen or more lashes that tore open her skin. Valdemar continued to scream. Now you will never know.

"Out!" Valdemar yelled. "Get out now!"

A minute later she felt the familiar itch of skin beginning to heal. With her gift free to do its job, Rune's body worked overtime to repair the damage. Her bones started to knit themselves back together, her tongue stopped bleeding, and the deep gashes in her back began to mend themselves. And some of the pain began to fade.

"Now, let's try this again."

Behind her the whip cracked.

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