Conrad Greene ran across the wet, sloping lead roof of the Banqueting House, his breath misting in the cool night air. Moonlight flashed on metal to his right. He caught a glimpse of a blade falling toward his neck and ducked. The sword skimmed past his head with a faint hum. Feet skidding on the slick surface, he spun around, dropped to one knee, and lifted the short, silver-gilded staff in his hands.
A grunt sounded above him as the burly swordsman brought his weapon down once more. The edge of the blade struck the staff hard, raising sparks in the gloom. The manís lips pulled back in a vicious grin, exposing two uneven rows of stained teeth. The muscles and veins in his neck and arms bulged with superhuman strength as he drove the sword into the staff.
Conradís elbows slowly folded toward his chest. Air left his lips in a low hiss as the tip of the manís blade inched closer to his left eye. He pushed back with the staff with all his might, dark spots dancing across his vision.
A figure dashed past them on the left. Conrad caught a glimpse of soft, brown curls. His heart stuttered inside his chest. He swore, fell back, and rolled out of the way of the falling blade.
He landed close to the balustrade that ran around the top of the building and climbed swiftly to his feet. Ignoring the swordsman charging toward him, he peered through the rainfall at the dark shapes engaged in a fast-paced and deadly battle on the moonlit rooftop. His eyes sought and found the woman who had run by him.
She was almost at the north end of the terrace, where a young man with brown hair and eyes stood confronted by three armed attackers; blood from the wounds on his left shoulder and flank had already soaked through his long-sleeved, ruffle shirt and stained his leather jerkin.
ëWilliam!í the woman yelled, her voice edged with fear and desperation. She passed the weather vane on the sloping roof and unsheathed the rapier at her waist.
Relief darted across the younger manís face at the sound of his name. He glanced at the woman over his attackersí shoulders and raised his own blade to block another strike.
Conrad clenched his teeth. He turned to face his opponent and twisted one of the metal rings on his short staff. The weapon extended and a spear blade sprang out at either end. A loud battle cry preceded the attack of the burly swordsman a heartbeat later.
Conrad blocked his blade, kicked him in the groin, and hooked the staff behind his neck. He yanked the manís head down at the same time that he drove his knee up into his face. A guttural groan left his adversaryís lips, and he slid to the ground, unconscious.
A flurry of activity to the right captured Conradís attention. Another group of men had rushed onto the rooftop terrace of the Banqueting House. He scanned the other fighters around him, anxiety twisting his stomach; he and his companions were now heavily outnumbered.
His eyes suddenly widened. The newcomers had drawn their swords and were heading resolutely for the running woman and the wounded man still fighting at the north end of the building. Knuckles whitening on his staff weapon, Conrad moved to intercept the men.
The woman reached the figures at the edge of the terrace. She stepped in front of the injured young man and swung her thin blade around in a flurry of strikes and blocks at his three attackers. Rage darkened her face and a roar left her lips. The men fell back under her fierce attack.
The wounded man sagged behind her and gripped his bleeding limb. Even from a distance, Conrad read the fear and confusion on his features. The man turned and flinched when he met Conradís eyes.
The expression on his face left no doubt in his mind. William Hartwell was the one who had betrayed them. Bile flooded the back of Conradís throat. Hartwell looked away. His lips moved, forming words that were lost in the stormy night as he shouted something at the men trying to kill him.
For an infinitesimal moment, the woman faltered, a flicker of incomprehension flashing across her face. She cast a quick look over her shoulder at the one she was trying to protect. Their closest assailant moved and brought down his sword. The blade arced across her left arm, carving a deep cut from her elbow to her wrist.
A cry escaped her lips. She took a step back and warded off another blow inches from her neck. Hartwell moved forward then, anger blazing across his face. He raised his sword and joined in the fray once more.
Conrad got to within twenty feet of them before he crossed paths with the four men he was trying to head off. He raised the double-bladed spear staff and spun it through the air. The gilded wood deflected the silver swirl of swords that danced toward his body while the jagged tips blurred, slicing and stabbing through flesh. One man fell, his fingers rising to the spurting crimson stream pouring from the wound on his neck. Another followed him to the ground seconds later.
A single scream suddenly shattered the night.
The sound was a knife that cut straight through Conradís soul. He blocked a blow to his head and looked to his left.
William Hartwell had backed up against the balustrade. Conrad froze and felt time slow down.
The young man tipped over the edge and fell from the terrace, dragging his three attackers with him. The woman leapt forward through the curtain of glittering rain, crystal drops crashing on her skin, her movements heavy and sluggish in that stolen moment of stillness. She leaned over the balcony, fingers clutching desperately at the figures plummeting toward the ground. Her hands closed on empty space.
The bodies struck the street three stories below with a dull thud.
Time unfroze in a cacophony of sounds and sensations. Thunder rumbled across the heavens, underscoring the battle cries around Conrad. Cold wetness drenched his hair and face, bringing the sharp scent of the storm to his nostrils and a tangy taste to his lips. Lightning tore a brilliant, jagged path across his vision and made him blink.
Heat suddenly erupted across his chest when a blade slashed his skin. Blood bloomed on his shirt. Conrad scowled and focused on his two remaining adversaries. By the time he had disposed of them, the woman had disappeared from the rooftop.
He looked at the other fighters around him and felt a rush of relief at the sight that met his eyes; despite the odds, his men were winning.
ëGo!í yelled someone to his right. The red-haired figure who had spoken danced nimbly out of the way of a blade and stabbed his opponent savagely in the chest. Pale eyes glanced at him for a second. ëWeíve got this, Greene!í
Conrad bobbed his head jerkily and twisted the ring that retracted the staffís spear blades. He raced for the door that led inside the building.
By the time he reached the ground floor, the wound on his chest had stopped bleeding. He knew without looking that the skin beneath his torn shirt was once more unblemished.
He found the woman on her knees by the pile of bodies that lay in an awkward tangle of broken limbs at the north base of the Banqueting House. She was leaning over William Hartwell, sobs shuddering through her as she stroked his pale face with shaking fingers; blood from the wound in her arm mingled with his where it seeped from the irregular depression on his temple. Hartwellís chest rose and fell shallowly with his breaths. He was unconscious.
The woman looked around at Conradís footsteps, her hazel eyes wild with anguish.
ëDo something, please!í she begged.
Conrad sank to the ground next to her, his voice frozen in his throat. He placed his left hand on the young manís head and closed his eyes.
A burst of energy flared inside his chest and pulsed down toward his elbow. It darted through the birthmark dancing along his forearm and flashed to the ends of his fingers. He inhaled deeply and guided the flow of his power inside the broken body of William Hartwell.
Bone popped beneath his hand. The young manís flesh slowly began to knit together.
Sweat broke across Conradís brow. The battle had drained him of much of his strength; he could feel Hartwellís torn tissues resisting his ability to heal them. He ground his teeth together and willed his exhausted body to cooperate.
ëWhatís happening?í said the woman. Panic raised the pitch of her voice. She grabbed Conradís shoulders and shook him, her fingers biting into his skin. ëWhy isnít he waking up?í
Conrad sagged as he felt his own life force start to ebb; he was nearing the limits of his ability. He blinked and swayed. Dark blotches clouded his vision. The womanís frantic words became a roar in his ears.
A moan suddenly broke through the rush of blood inside his head. He looked down and saw Hartwellís eyes open. Within the dark pupils of the man he had come to know and love as a brother, Conrad Greene read the words he could no longer utter.
William Hartwell wanted to die. He also yearned for something else.
Conrad gasped and slowly pulled his power back inside his own body, his fingers trembling on the cooling skin of the dying man. Hartwell shivered beneath his touch.
ëWhy are you stopping?í yelled the woman. ëSave him!í
Conrad knew there were only seconds left; he could feel Deathís shadow approaching through the thunderstorm raging across the city. He leaned down and brought his lips to Hartwellís ear.
ëI forgive you,í he whispered, his vision blurring with tears. He pulled back slightly and saw Hartwell blink once. The young manís last breath left his mouth and caressed Conradís cheek.
William Hartwell stared unseeingly at the rain falling from the night sky, his face serene and his body relaxing in death.
ëNo,í mumbled the woman. ëNo, this isnít happening!í Her voice rose to a scream. ëWhy did you let him die? Why? Goddamn youó!í Grief overwhelmed her and she wept brokenly.
Conradís heart shattered inside his chest as he looked at the woman he loved and saw hate dawn in the depths of her hazel eyes.