A queer myth-inspired fantasy author with a love of the morally grey.

H.F Cunningham is the author of
Remnants of Blood (out now)

Remnants of Power (1st June 2023)

Enjoy this exclusive excerpt from the perspective of everyone’s favourite gruff bodyguard, Captain Attilo!

Chapter 20 – Breaking Bread (from the perspective of Captain Attilo)

“You’re cutting it fine, Captain.” Ava quipped from where she stood at the table sorting through sheafs of parchment as Attilo stalked into the crypt, pulling off his wet outer garments and stuffing them in a trunk out of sight.

As Ava’s bodyguard he rarely left her side but the ancient stone crypt they used as their base of operations was secure from all sides and Ava wasn’t the type to wander off. It was one of the fundamental terms of their agreement. She got all the freedom she wanted to go into the city to do the work she needed to do if and only if he deemed it safe and he was with her. On days like today where he was tailing a target she was to stay put until he got back. She was fine being left with her books but he still didn’t like leaving her. It amazed him sometimes where she seemingly forgot how much of a target she would be if anyone realised she wasn’t safely behind the castle walls. Just because she didn’t want to be a princess didn’t mean she wasn’t one.

“Tannin took a wee detour,” he said as he shed his wet cloak. “Didnae even look about once. If anybody but me was following that lass she’d have led them right here the wee eejit. She might no be dangerous, but she just might be a liability.”

Ava was determined to bring Tannin into the fold. Once Ava got her teeth into a mystery there was no distracting her. She’d wheedle out the answers if it took her a day or a year and the wee bakery girl was her newest riddle.

Attilo had been trailing her since the night she’d caught Ava’s interest and today was no exception. She was by far the easiest target he’d ever trailed. She didn’t look around once. The closest he’d come to blowing his cover was when she suddenly changed direction to dart into the bakery and had rushed right past him. She’d come out after only a few seconds looking very guilty and Attilo was convinced she stole something. He’d keep that information to himself, he decided, until he knew more.

Ava seemed to be about to ask something when there came a pounding from the trapdoor.

Attilo looked at Ava incredulously.

Tannin wouldn’t seriously make that much noise at the secret entrance would she?

Ava rolled her eyes and gestured for Attilo to let her in.

“Open. Up. Arseholes!” Tannin bellowed from outside. “I’m freezin’ out here!”

 Attilo scowled and opened up the trapdoor. It was immediately wrenched open full and a very soggy dishevelled Tannin dropped into the crypt.

“Finally!” She pushed strands of wet hair out of her face and gave him an offended look with her big brown eyes like he’d deliberately left her out in the rain.

“The whole point o’ a secret meetin’ place is that it’s a bloody secret,” Attilo growled. “Which means, no yellin’ yer head off at the door.”

Attilo knew he was an intimidating figure with his height, bulk and scar mangled face. Even at his age, his muscles were evident as were the weapons he carried but under his glare Tannin just shook water off her cloak as she shrugged out of it. “Well, let me in quicker then.”

“Were ye followed?”

Tannin hesitated. “I don’t think so.”

“Were you?”

“I dunno, I didn’t check.”

Attilo gave Ava a meaningful look. “This is what I was talkin’ about.”

“I’m new to this, remember.” Tannin reminded him.

He grumbled that she should still know better as she rubbed her hands together and blew on them to warm them up and stepped into the circle of light made by lanterns in the wrought iron sconces. The poor thing squelched as she walked.

“Tea?” Ava nodded to the canister perched on the sarcophagus that they used as a table.

“Oh please, aye,” Tannin said gratefully, helping herself to a steaming cup.  

“Uh.” She reached into the satchel that was slung around her shoulder. “This is for you.”

She fished a loaf of bread out from her bag and held it out awkwardly. Her eyes darted from it to Ava and then to Attilo, seemingly unsure.

So that’s what you were doing in the bakery.

His brain fired off all worse possible situations.

Hidden blades, poison, sedatives… or a simple gift.

But even gifts were rarely simple. To accept the bread would be a unspoken promise to observe the ancient rules of hospitality. In theory, it meant that they wouldn’t harm Tannin and she, in turn, wouldn’t harm them or bring trouble to their door. Of course, it was just an old custom. It didn’t guarantee a thing.

 “It’s not much, but I couldn’t come with nothin’ if we’re going to work together so, uh, here.” Tannin mumbled, thrusting the loaf at Ava.

“Thank you,” Ava replied graciously if a little amusedly, a smile hiding behind her serious face. Compared to the gifts she was used to receiving the sad slightly damp bread must seem a little ridiculous. If it wasn’t a death trap that is…

“Wait.” Attilo stormed over, snatched the bread out of her hand and started squishing in the sides, cracking the crust and sending crumbs all over the table. He didn’t take chances. Not where Ava was concerned.

“Hey!” Tannin protested. “What are you doin’?”

Ava sighed. “He’s checking it for weapons. You can never be too careful.”

“He’s ruinin’ it is what he’s doin’! The crust is the best part!”

Attilo ignored them both and completed his inspection of the bread. It looked fine. He sniffed and inhaled only the scent of fresh baked bread. Gods, it smells good.

Final test. He held out the loaf to Tannin. He wouldn’t be satisfied until she ate some herself. She rolled her eyes as she tore off a chunk and stuffed it in her mouth without hesitation. Attilo watched her closely as she chewed and swallowed.

“Satisfied?” She asked mockingly.

He grunted in affirmation and took a tentative bite. Oh gods it was good. Still warm. Pity she’d felt the need to steal it. It wasn’t like her money troubles weren’t known to him and Ava – it was the reason she was so easy to bring in. A desperate wee lass with no options. But then she’d be easy to bribe into betraying them.

“It’s good, right?”

He gave another grunt as he took a second bite. With a grudging nod, he placed the loaf down in the middle of the table. No death trap today then.

“Well,” Ava said a while later, brushing crumbs from her lap, “now that we’ve broken bread together, we can get started properly.”

Ava had eaten enough to be polite whereas Attilo and Tannin had dug in enthusiastically. He had to suppress a groan of contentment. It had been a long time since he had simple rustic food and the sweet nostalgia was threatening to engulf him. He rationalised that even if the bread was poisoned and Tannin somehow had immunity to it then it was better that he ate most of it and Ava only had a little. Then she would be safer. Plus, it was damn good bread.

“Okay, where do we start?” Tannin asked eagerly. Her focus drawn to the assortment of jars, gadgets and weaponry that lined the wooden cabinet shelves. They had built up quite the collection over the years.

“Here.” Ava dropped a tome onto the sarcophagus-table causing dust to puff up from either side.

“Yay, more books,” Tannin said sarcastically.

“Knowledge is the most important thing for what we’re doing.”

“I get that, but can’t we do somethin’ a bit more… I dunno. Just a bit less… dusty?”

“Books are where we start,” Ava said with a tone of finality.

Tannin rolled her eyes behind Ava’s back and wandered over to the cabinet regardless. Attilo subtly followed her. If she was going to make a move, then it was smart to check out the whole environment for weapons or hidden advantages.

“Ooh. What’s this?” Tannin asked, picking up a soft velvety pouch with silver stitching. It rattled when she shook it. She tipped the contents out into her hand and inspected the strange symbols carved into smooth black stones. It had taken them weeks of research and months of waiting to get a hold of those runestones. “What are these for?”

“Put that down.” Ava said sharply.

Attilo suppressed a smile as he saw the twitch in Ava’s jaw. She was meticulous about her artifacts, and he knew that Tannin messing with them was going to drive her crazy.

“Aye okay, I’m just lookin’,” Tannin said, dumping it back on the shelf in a completely different place to where she’d picked it up. Ava’s fingers tightened around the quill she was holding.

“Hey, when do I get a sword?” she asked crouching to examine the rack of dulled weaponry.

“Never. Those are for training,” Ava snapped.

“What’s the point of trainin’ to then not have a sword?” She picked one up out of its stand and hefted it in both hands. Attilo studied her stance while gripping the handle of his own blade. If she made one move towards Ava – even with a blunted sword – he would take action. It was clear the girl didn’t know what she was doing with the blade as she held it up, but she had her feet planted and her weight balanced. The first thing anyone learning about weapons would learn. His suspicions pricked.

It could be instinct but still…

“Put that down.” Ava’s voice carried the warning tone that he was well familiar with, but Tannin was seemingly oblivious.

“In a minute,” she grinned and swung the sword around loosely making exaggerated swishing, whooshing sounds with her mouth. She wasn’t arming herself. She was … playing with it. Attilo cocked his head amusedly. He knew Tannin and Ava were roughly the same age, but he often forgot just how young that was. Ava had never seemed like a child to him what with that calculating brain always ticking away.

“Attilo, I think we need to get some of the materials from my brother’s nursery so Tannin can start learning at an appropriate level for her maturity,” Ava snapped irritably. Her patience was at its end. Attilo felt a little sorry for Tannin for the telling off she was probably about to get.

He popped the last scrap of bread in his mouth as Ava barked, “I said put it down!”

“Oh, good idea,” Tannin replied mockingly, returning the sword to its place. “Hey, Attilo, do you think we could get some more candles down here too so the princess can lighten the fuck up?”

The snort and subsequent choked splutter that escaped him was undignified to say the least. Ava’s face was a picture. He doubted anyone had ever spoken to her like that in her life and her eyes had widened to saucers and her nostrils flared in indignation. She glared at him as he struggled to not laugh. He shrugged an apology, eyes watering.

“Or maybe we can just put all the shiny things up on the higher shelves out of reach,” Ava retorted, pointedly looking Tannin up and down.

“Oh, ha ha. Very funny, princess.” Tannin rolled her eyes. Attilo guessed she had heard just about every short joke there was. “Way to take the moral high ground.”

Ava took a deep breath and closed her eyes.

That’s it Ava, calm down and gain the control back.

“Will you please just pay attention for a few minutes?” She said resignedly.  

“Well, since you said please.”

Attilo stretched and groaned as his stiff joints popped. Once the girls were finished sniping at each other they’d finally gotten to work. They’d been reading and explaining theories and things for an age, albeit with the occasional jibe here and there, and his brain felt worn out as much as his old back.

He was reasonably satisfied with how it had gone though. The more time he spent around Tannin the more he was convinced that she was harmless. Not that he wouldn’t still be keeping an eye on her of course. There was still the Pine Street incident which was alarming to say the least. But if Ava was right about her theory – and he had to admit she usually was right – and Tannin had been cornered in the middle of the night then it was no wonder that whatever Remnant abilities she had had leapt to her defence. There was a lot of questions there still that needed answered.

But not tonight. She had just left and he was more than ready to call it a day. He was about to suggest going back to the castle but when he caught the glint in Ava’s eye he knew he wasn’t getting to bed any time soon and groaned internally.  

“We’re not done here. I wasn’t joking earlier. Everything rare, valuable or honestly even anything sharp, needs moved to the top shelves or locked away.” Ava said sternly turning to assess the damage done to her immaculately organised shelves. “Anything that Tannin will want to play with.”

Attilo laughed. “She’s jus’ curious.”

“She’s a coarse little pest!” Ava huffed frustratedly. “I need to reorganise everything.”

“Ye gonnae get rid of her for touching yer stuff?”

“Of course not,” she sighed. “I just wish she had the ability to be a little professional. Besides,” Ava said, plucking a ginger cat hair from his tunic and holding it up with a raised eyebrow. “I know how much you love a cute little stray.”

“Cute, eh?” He waggled a busy eyebrow.

Ava gave him an icy look that would have send a lot of men running.

“I was talking about the cat.” She said but not before he saw the blush colour her cheeks.

“It’ll be good for ye tae have someone yer own age around for once.”

She gave him another look. “We’ve had this conversation before, Attilo.”

They’d had that conversation many times before actually. He’d tried to convince her to get involved with things that should interest girls of her age. Things where she could talk to people. Make friends. She did go to some events with other noble born youths – jousting contests and dances and the like – if just to keep her parents from looking too closely at what she did with the rest of her time. She always came back from them in a thunderously bad mood.

“Cannae deny she brings a bit o life to this place.”

“Too much life.” She muttered.

She weighed the bag of runestones seemingly considering whether to move them to safety or not. She sighed before setting them back down muttering, “She can’t break these at least. We’ll keep bringing tea as well since she likes it. Sits still long enough to drink it anyway…”

He grinned. He hadn’t seen a person ever get in Ava’s head quite as much as Tannin did.

Aye, the cute wee stray will definitely make things interesting.