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Forbidden Fruit

Joelle Charbonneau



  Title Page

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Excerpt from Eden Conquered

  About the Author

  Books by Joelle Charbonneau

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  About the Publisher


  The blade sliced the air. Graylem ducked then pivoted in time to swing his own sword. The impact of metal against metal sang up his arm. The lord he was facing was better than most Graylem sparred against for his employer. The man was strong and faster than he looked, but Graylem was quicker. He leaped over the broadsword that aimed for his knees, hit the ground, rolled, then bounded back to his feet with his blade already flying toward his opponent.

  His sword clanged against the larger, dark-bearded lord’s weapon. The lord’s eyes narrowed as he swung again with both hands. His attack was a fraction too low, which pulled the man just a hair off balance. Graylem zeroed in on the opening. One pivot and twist of his own blade and the fight would be over. He could end this now.

  Instead, he held his ground and met the forward motion of the broadsword with a defensive parry. Grunting, he took a step back. Triumph flashed in the lord’s eyes. The bearded man swung again. Graylem reacted a second later than he normally would, met the attack successfully, but stumbled back again. When next the blades connected, Graylem allowed his own to slip from his grasp. Slowly, he put his hands up in surrender and panted for air.

  “You gave me a good fight,” the lord said, lowering his blade—victory bright in his eyes. “There was a moment where I thought you would emerge victorious from our exercise.”

  “You are far more agile than you appear, Lord Havershire,” Graylem said, making the burly lord laugh. “And,” he nodded at the shining broadsword in the man’s hand, “you have a far superior blade.”

  “The balance and workmanship exceed my expectations.” Lord Havershire turned toward the thick-chested, gray-haired man in a black smock who was standing nearby. “If anything, my friends understated your talent. You have earned your price and a bit more.” Lord Havershire pulled a small leather pouch from his belt and lobbed it at Goodman Bryant, who caught it with a wide smile.

  “I am flattered, my lord.” The blacksmith bowed his head before untying the purse to glance at its contents. “This is most generous.”

  “I believe in rewarding skill and efficiency. You have demonstrated both. As has your young friend.” Lord Havershire turned toward Graylem, and the smile disappeared. “You have skill, boy. If you ever have interest in trading your hammer and apron for a banner and shield and learning how to win a fight, I would be happy to have some of my men work with you.”

  “I’m honored, my lord,” Graylem said quietly, sheathing his sword as heat filled his cheeks. Between the red hair, freckles, and the now-red face, he most certainly looked like the strawberry his sister always claimed him to be.

  Behind his bushy beard, the lord’s smile grew. He reached into his pocket, pulled out his hand, and extended it toward Graylem. When the lord opened his fist there were three silver nicks in his palm. “There is no shame in losing to an older and more skilled foe.”

  Especially when he had never intended to win. One day he would win. Once he had fulfilled the promise he made to his mother he would enter Lord Blackthorn’s annual summer tournament and do his best to win not only his fights but the attention of Lord Blackthorn or one of the other lords that would be in attendance. He had heard of several lowborn men who had been given a position of respect and authority in a prestigious household’s guard after a strong tournament showing. He intended to do the same.

  But not just yet.

  Lord Bryant flipped the coins to Graylem, who caught two but missed the third. Lord Havershire chuckled as Graylem scurried to grab the coin as it rolled into the mud next to the wheel of Goodman Bryant’s rickety old cart.

  No. That wasn’t mud.

  Graylem dug the silver out of the splat of manure then ducked into the sweltering smithy to wash the grime off his coin and the sweat from his face while Goodman Bryant and Lord Havershire finished talking.

  The fire burned hot in the wide stone hearth along the side wall. The most experienced of Goodman Bryant’s apprentices gave him a fleeting glance before picking up his hammer and setting to work at the anvil, creating music with the steady clangs that transformed lumps of metal into weapons and tools. Something Graylem never had much luck doing no matter how much patience Goodman Bryant showed. The blacksmith, with his bulky build and thick muscles, looked as if he had been created and dropped down in Eden for the sole purpose of working in a smithy. Graylem—well, he looked more like what his father had tried to train him to be, a thief.

  Graylem placed the cleaned coins in a small leather pouch and tucked it safely into the pocket of his vest. Three silver nicks meant nothing to a lord, but to him they were priceless. Every day he added more to the pile he had stashed with the letter that had arrived a month ago from his mother’s childhood friend. She had moved to the other side of Eden when Graylem was small, but she had responded to his mother’s deathbed request and agreed to a match for Deevana. He just had to get enough coin together to make the journey. Then he’d break the news of the betrothal to his sister.

  “A good day’s work, I’d say.” Goodman Bryant’s thick frame filled the doorway.

  “Has Lord Havershire gone?” Graylem shouted over the ringing of hammer against iron.

  Goodman nodded. “Back to Lussuria. But he’ll be back in a month and has requested two daggers and a battle-ax be waiting for him when he returns.” Goodman pulled a gold coin from the pouch and smiled as he pressed it carefully into Graylem’s hand. “Much of that is thanks to you. I can stick someone with a sword if need be, but I’m not skilled enough to give someone like Lord Havershire a true contest. You made him think he was a better swordsman than he is, which makes my weapons look even better than they are. I counted three times you could have easily won that fight.”

  “Eight,” Graylem said quietly. The first several openings came because Lord Havershire had taken one look at his freckles and lean frame and automatically assumed he was young and inexperienced and lacked the strength to be any competition. That incorrect assessment would have been enough for Graylem to take the man in a tournament. But this wasn’t a true contest and winning wasn’t the point.

  Goodman Bryant clapped Graylem on the shoulder and laughed. “You should enter one of the High Lord Wynden’s tournaments. You’re old enough now. I could make a lot of money wagering on you, and you could stop pretending to have any interest in being a blacksmith.”

  Heat that had nothing to do with the smithy fires crept back into his face, making Goodman Bryant laugh harder.

  “I know you try,” Goodman Bryan said. “Your mother was a good woman. I know you asked for this job because of her, and you do serviceable enough work when you aren’t demonstrating the quality of my swords or keeping that sister of yours out of trouble. I heard she had some trouble with Mistress Suzanna recently.”

  Graylem winced. “Deevana has very firm opinions about how much day-old bread should cost.”

  “Mistress Suzanna seemed to believe that your sister was hoping to leave her shop without paying at all.”

  Their father had taught Deevana the same skills that Graylem had learned. Graylem often thought she had learned them better than he because she enjoyed the challenge of outwitting others far more.

  “Your sister has always wanted more than she has. She gave your parents a great deal of trouble before they passed, and
her impetuousness has only grown as she has gotten older.” Goodman Bryant mopped a line of sweat from his forehead and turned his now-serious eyes on Graylem. “You’re doing your best to honor what your mother wanted for both of you, but I know from experience that you can’t change someone who doesn’t want to be changed. You can lose yourself in the trying.”

  Graylem shook his head. “Deevana is just restless since our mother’s death. She misses the freedom our parents allowed her.” Not to mention she despised working in the kitchens at Blackthorn Keep. “She’ll be happier once we get to the District of Irae.” Although she might not be all that keen on the idea of her younger brother arranging that happiness for her.

  “For your sake, I hope you are right.” Although the way Goodman Bryant shook his head said he had serious doubts about that plan, he didn’t voice whatever worries he had. Instead, the blacksmith asked, “Have you decided when you and your sister will head south?”

  He thought about the coins in his pocket and those he had secreted away. “In a few weeks. Maybe before that.” He had answered the letter weeks ago, agreeing to the terms his mother’s friend had laid out and promising he and Deevana would, as requested, arrive before summer did. Spring had finally broken the back of winter, but it had yet to completely chase away the chill, so he felt they still had some time before they had to set out. But they would have start the journey soon, which meant he couldn’t put off telling his sister any longer.

  “Well, I for one will be sorry to see you go.”

  “Because I make your swords look good?”

  “Aye, there is that.” Goodman Bryant laughed, but his eyes were serious as he put a large, calloused hand on Graylem’s shoulder. “You’re a good boy who is growing into a fine man. Your mother and that father of yours would both be proud.”

  The pride in the steady blacksmith’s eyes warmed Graylem and pulled all words from his head. His face heated again, but this time he didn’t dip his head to hide it.

  Goodman Bryant awkwardly patted Graylem on the shoulder, cleared his throat, and said, “Well, since you’re still here yet, I guess you should get to work.”

  The work—even the minor smithy jobs of making wall hooks and hinges—was hot. By the time the sun was shifting downward, his shirt and hair were soaked with sweat. Waving farewell to Goodman Bryant, who was still sweating at the fire, Graylem stepped into the chill of the late afternoon and headed down the dirt road to the very edge of the village.

  The squat, two-room cottage looked small and tired in the fading light, but in another month the grounds around it would be blooming with the flowers and herbs his mother had planted and nurtured, first under the guidance of her father and then on her own after she took over as the village herbalist. It was among those flowers that his father first saw their mother. “Hair as red as the blooms she tended and a face far more beautiful than any flower could hope to be” was how he told the story that never failed to make his mother blush.

  Perhaps it was the love his parents shared that made him see the best in the cottage that despite his best attempts had was falling into disrepair. Deevana, however, only saw the roof that leaked and the latch on the door that stuck more often than not. Ever since they were kids she had coveted the expensive fabrics and decorations on the gowns the ladies wore. She envied their smooth, unblemished hands that never had to scrub a pot or sweep a floor or get singed by a spark as they stirred soup over the fire.

  “With what father taught us, the two of us could do far better than this cottage and this village,” she’d said more times than he could count since their mother passed.

  She wasn’t wrong, even if he knew it wasn’t right.

  He lit a fire in the hearth and set a pot with potatoes and carrots and water on the hook so his sister would see dinner was already under way when she arrived. He hoped that would put her in a cheerful mood.

  Knowing Deevana should be home soon, he quickly washed away the sweat from the day and changed into a fresh tunic and trousers. He untangled his wet hair with his fingers and walked to his cot in an alcove not far from the hearth.

  With a quick glance toward the door, he climbed onto the cot. The beam above it had warped, leaving a small gap between it and the roof thatching. Carefully, Graylem slipped the folded parchment and the small leather purse from the hiding spot and pocketed it. Deevana had sharp eyes and a curious mind that made it hard for most people to keep things from her notice. But his sister had some blind spots—one of which was that she never looked up.

  He was adding some rabbit he had hunted yesterday to the pot over the fire when the front door opened. His sister was breathing hard. The auburn hair that she pulled into a knot at her nap during the day had partially come free and her deep brown eyes were filled with alarm. Instinct had him crossing the room for his sword as Deevana stared at the road for several long heartbeats before closing the door and latching it.

  “What’s going on?” he asked.

  “I have no idea what you are talking about.” Deevana waved him off but glanced at the small window that faced town.

  “Deevana,” he said, sword lowered but still clutched tight in his hands.

  “I feel like taking a walk. How about you?” She shifted the satchel hanging from her shoulder, lowered her gaze, and headed for the bedchamber that she had moved into after their mother’s passing. “I think maybe—”

  “Deevana.” Graylem stepped in front of Deevana, blocking her retreat. When she finally lifted her eyes, he said, “Tell me. What’s wrong?”

  She pursed her lips and fisted her hands at her sides. “A few items might have gone missing at the keep.”

  Now Graylem looked toward the window. “Might have? What happened?” When she said nothing, he asked again. “Deevana, what did you do?”

  “I was careful, Gray,” she said quickly. Too quickly. Dread twisted his gut. “They shouldn’t have noticed anything. I don’t—”

  “Do they know it was you?” he asked, wishing he could shake her for being so foolish. The penalty for theft in the village was three days in the square’s stockade. Stealing from a lord or lady would result in the loss of a hand or worse. “Deevana,” he repeated when his sister said nothing. “Do they know?”

  “I was careful. But I saw Mistress Lillian look at me funny, so I followed her. She was talking to the captain of the guard and I heard my name. She couldn’t know—”

  “Pack your things,” Graylem said, feeling everything he had ever worked for slipping away—the tournament and the position in the guard and his life here in Blackthorn surrounded by the memories of those he loved—all because of his sister. “Get ready to go.” And when his sister hurried to the back bedroom that their parents once shared without a word of complaint, he knew there had never really been a choice for him to make. The guards would be coming, and whatever Deevana had taken would mean more than the loss of a hand. They had to move, and quickly.

  As the wardrobe door banged in the room next door, he hurried to his cot and pulled his father’s leather travel bag from beneath it. Quickly, he threw in several trousers, tunics, undergarments, and socks. He grabbed his father’s old pair of boots from beside the hearth and shoved those in then pulled on his own. He then rolled the blankets from his cot and tied them with string. Onto the cot next to those items he added bread, cheese, dried fruit, and jerky from the larder while trying to decide what else to take.

  He glanced out the window.

  The sun was setting, but there was still enough light to be certain there was no one coming down the road to their cottage.


  Deevana had snuck out of Blackthorn Keep before anyone was aware she was gone or had been alerted to their suspicion. The guards would sweep the Keep first before extending their search here. He and Deevana had to be gone before the guards turned their sights on this place.

  Heart pounding, Graylem stood in the center of the small room he had slept in, played in, sat on his mother’s lap learning
to read in, trying to decide what else to take. His father’s bow and cloak. The handkerchief his mother made for their father with his initials on it—a subtle reminder that it, unlike the others he had acquired, belonged to him. The first pot he made in the smithy. A small leather bag of what had been his mother’s favorite tea.

  That was all, and his father would say it was too much. The lighter a thief traveled, the faster he could run.

  Graylem shoved the items into another bag, fastened his cloak, and strapped on his sword. Slinging the bags and the bow over his shoulder, he hurried to where the soup bubbled, pulled a stick out of the tinderbox, and wrapped a rag around the top of it.

  Clutching the makeshift torch in his hand, he yelled, “Deevana, it’s time for us to go.”

  “I’m almost ready.”

  “Be ready now!”

  Deevana appeared in the doorway of her room, her red hair almost as vibrant as the scarlet cloak slung around her shoulders. Her blue eyes were bright despite the weight that she was juggling. A number of bags were slung over her shoulder, and still she held several more in her arms.

  “You can’t take all of that,” he warned. “It’s going to slow us down.”

  “The horses can carry this without a problem.”

  “We won’t be taking the horses.” Swallowing hard, he touched his torch to the fire and watched it smolder until it too was caught by flames. “I’ll meet you behind Cartrace Mound. Leave what you can’t carry quickly, because I’m not going to carry it for you. Make sure you aren’t seen.”

  “Graylem, we can—”

  “No horses,” he repeated, looking toward the window again. Night was almost here, and he knew in his gut that with the darkness would come the guards. “We will find mounts once we are safely away. Now go!”

  His sister looked at the lit torch in his hand, then lifted her eyes to meet him. Slowly she nodded. “I know how to move without being seen, brother. I will be waiting for you.” Without putting down a single bag, his sister hurried out the door.

  Turning, Graylem walked into the room Deevana had claimed after their mother’s passing—just a month after their father had toppled over with blood oozing from his ears. Poison. His mother knew plants enough to diagnose the cause, but never did they learn the culprit. And a month later, his mother died of what the Keep’s healer called falling disease. But the healer was wrong. His mother had died of a broken heart in the bed she and his father had shared for eighteen years. He was glad she wasn’t here for her heart to break again now.