Run, Tempest, run!
Frigid air tore at Kambria’s hair and whistled past her ears as she silently spurred her mount onward through the bare trees and snow-crusted ground. The poor mare was struggling, gasping for air as she gamely plunged forward through the scraggly thicket of yew and pine. Hot air plumed from the horse’s nostrils and her hooves tore into the hard, icy earth, but her shaggy coat was covered in sweat and despite all of Kambria’s prayers to Morrigu, the Mother Goddess, the beast was struggling, losing ground.
Soon the hunters would be upon them. Holy men, dressed in black, intent upon seeing their own twisted justice meted upon her were chasing her with a wrathful, vengeful fire that no amount of reason or persuasion could dampen.
“Faster! Kambria leaned over her mare’s shoulders, hearing the poor horse labor, her breath whistling through her powerful lung. Strong equine muscles began to flag. Her mission was surely lost. It was too long until nightfall and even then, within the shroud of the night, she knew she would be tracked, followed, run to the ground. There was no darkness deep enough to hide her.
“Give me strength, lay your hands upon my mare,” Kambria prayed as the wind snarled her hair with icy fingers and she caught a glimpse of another horseman darting through the frigid undergrowth. Tugging on the reins, she veered west, toward the mountains and knew, with a sinking heart, that she was trapped. There would be no turning back, no circling around as the five horsemen had fanned out through the bare trees cutting off all chance of escape, all roads returning her to her home, to safety.
Frantic, she pulled on the reins, guiding the mare to a narrow, twisting path that climbed upward, through the lower hillocks toward a ridge. The territory was new. Foreign. Forbidden. But she had no other choice.
She heard their shouts.
Terror cut like ice through her heart.
Tempest struggled, her hooves slipping, her flanks quivering, foam beginning to spot her gray, wet coat. “Please . . . you can do it.”
Upward, ever more slowly, the beast ran as snow began to fall and Kambria felt a sharp cramp. She glanced down at her skirts, bundled high and sensed the warm ooze of blood that dripped down her leg and spackled, bright red, upon the snowy ground.
Her heart plummeted.
Not only was the blood a perfect trail, but would also strengthen their purpose.
“God’s teeth,” she said, placing the reins in her mouth and trying vainly to staunch the flow. From the corner of her eye, she saw movement, black robed figures upon fleet steeds flashing past a thicket of spindly trees. By the saints, they were upon her!
And all the while drips of blood spotted the ground and caught in the wind.
Somehow she had to stop this madness.
At the top of the ridge, she spurred her hose onward and the mare, finding footing, took off, cutting along a narrow deer trail. Heart pounding, skirts billowing, Kambria thought for a second that she would prevail, that her sure-footed jennet was more than a match for their bulkier steeds who would scramble upon this narrow mountain spine. “Good girl,” she whispered, barely believing her luck. At the crest of this hill, the trail split as neatly as a snake’s tongue and, if she were far enough ahead she might be able to tear off a bit of her clothes and allow some drops of blood to lead her pursuers on the wrong course. She glanced over her shoulder and saw no one, none of the dark horsemen following.
Had she lost them?
They would not give up. Their purpose was too strong. She dug her heels in deeper to the gasping gray’s sides and blood singing through her veins, she wound through the trees and saw the fork in the path, one trail leading downward toward the village and river, the other following the backbone of these sheer mountains. Surely those behind her would believe she would take the lower path to the town . . .
Suddenly her horse shied.
Kambria’s heart clutched. She fell forward, nearly toppling over Tempest’s bowed neck. Black, bristly hairs from her jennet’s mane stung her eyes and blinded her for a heartbeat. As the horse regained her footing and Kambria’s eyes focused again, she saw him. A single dark predator upon a white steed. His head was covered with a black cloak, only the cleric’s collar visible in the darkness, but she felt his eyes upon her, sensed his hideous intent.
She tried to pull her horse around, but it was too late, the others had closed in and she, upon her panting mare, was trapped.
Doom, it seemed, had found her.
“There is no escape for sinners,” the horseman blocking the fork stately bluntly.
“I’ve not sinned.”
“Have you not?” From deep in his cowl, his dark eyes slitted and he pointed a long accusatory finger at the ground where blood was staining the icy bits of snow. “Proof of your perfidy, Kambria, descendent of Llewellyn,” he said. “Of your heresy and adultery. You are a harlot and a whore of the worst order, a daughter of the devil.”
She felt, rather than saw the other horsemen draw closer to ring her more tightly and for a second she felt as if she couldn’t breathe. The mare beneath her quivered and Kambria laid a calming hand upon the frightened horse’s shoulder. Was there no way out? Could she force her little mare to break through this ring of soulless men? She turned her thoughts inward, to the strength that lay deep beneath her bones, the faith and courage that had brought her this far. There were ways to defeat these monsters, means not of the physical, but forces she had only to call upon.
As if he read her thoughts, the leader snagged the reins from her horse and dropped to the ground. “Dismount,” he ordered and when she hesitated, he nodded to one of the others. A big hooded man with shoulders as broad as woodcutter’s ax, hopped lithely off his bay, his boots hitting hard against the frozen terrain. Though she held fiercely onto the pommel of her saddle, it was no use, the big brute of a man dragged her from her horse and pinned her arms roughly behind her back, her shoulders screaming in pain. She felt the blood drain from her face but didn’t cry out as she faced the fury of these lying thugs. The leader was the worst, a zealot who spoke of piety and divinity but was, in truth, an abomination to all of mankind. He gave a quick nod to the others and they too slid to the ground, surrounding her.
Please, Great Mother, hear my prayer. If you do not save me, at least spare the life of my babe.
“Hypocritical spawn of Arawn,” she whispered defiantly, “go back to Annwn, the underworld of the dead. May you never see the light of day again!”
He froze, thunderstruck.
“I know you,” she whispered, holding his gaze. While he accused her for practicing the dark arts, yet, he, too, beneath his Christian cloak and collar, was familiar with the old ways. She saw it in the eerie, ethereal glow within his brown eyes. Zealous, determined eyes of a man who was not yet twenty years. “I know of your own sins, Hallyd, and they be many.”
For an instant he hesitated.
“Harm me now and you will forever look over your shoulder, chased by your own guilt and my vengeance.” As if to add credence to her words lightning split the sky. The forest trembled.
“Mother of God,” one of the men whispered nervously.
But the leader would not back down. Through lips that barely moved as the day darkened, he hissed, “You, Kambria of Tarth, daughter of Waylynn, descendent of Llewellyn, are an adulteress as well as a witch. The only way to save yourself is to tell me where you’ve hidden the dagger.”
She didn’t respond, though in her mind, she caught an image of a wicked little knife covered in jewels.
“You know where it is,” he accused, leaning closer.
She spat upon his face, the spittle sliding down his face and neck, burying itself behind his clerical collar.
Enraged, he yanked a rosary from a pocket, then forced it over her head, its sharp beads tangling in her hair. “For your sins against God and man, you are hereby condemned to death.” She saw it then, the traitorous gleam in his eye. Oh, he was a fraud, no better than she, a man of little Christian faith. He was doing this, sentencing her to die, to protect himself and his true mission. Her destruction had little to do with her, but much to do with him and his ambition.
“No amount of killing will save you,” she said, then closed her eyes and began to chant, conjuring up a spell as dark and deadly as any he could invoke. She sensed the wind shift as it rattled the branches of the trees and swept across the icy ridge. Without seeing she knew that thick clouds were suddenly forming, coming together, roiling toward the heavens, turning the color of aging steel. Far in the distance, thunder boomed.
“God in heaven,” one man whispered, his voice raspy. “What is this?”
“Is she really the progeny of Llewellyn the Great?” another asked and Kambria felt their fear. Used it.
“Ignore her cheap tricks,” Hallyd said but there was no note of conviction in his voice. “She is using your fear against you.”
“Save us all,” the other said again and she sensed he’d fallen to his knees and was crossing himself.
Still she chanted, praying to the spirits, whispering for the safety of her child and the destruction of her enemies.
“Stop! Jezebel! Call not your demons!”
And yet her words would not stop, the prayers of the old ones sprouting to her lips.
“Nay!” he cried, enraged at her calm, her inner peace. He wanted to see her fear, to feel her terror. He received no satisfaction from her serenity. “Tell me, witch!”
Her chant remained unbroken and she felt his vexation, and more, a slow growing fear that he couldn’t completely hide.
“Curse you, Hallyd and may your darkest fears be known.” Her eyes opened and she stared into the rage of his. “Your black soul will be condemned for all eternity and you will live in darkness forever, the pain of day too much to bear. From this day forward you will become a creature of the night.” She saw it then, the fear, causing the pupils of his eyes to dilate and knew they would never shrink. His would be a blindness not only of the soul, but of all daylight. And he would be marked, the very ring of color of one of his eyes turning to a pale gray.
His lips curled and his fists, clenched, showed every knuckle white.
“Go back to the bowels of hell from whence you were spawned--” she said, his eyes black and shining, dark mirrors that reflected her own image.
Enraged, he struck. His fist slammed into her face.
Her nose splintered. Blood sprayed over the earth, yet she didn’t flinch.
“Tell me, whore!” he railed and when he saw she was unmoved, he said, “So be it. You are to die, now! Do you hear me, whore? You cannot be saved. Go thee to Satan!” He shook her and more blood spewed, streaking his white collar red, dripping from his chin.
Jaw clenched, his pulse pounding at his temple, he reached into the voluminous folds of his robe, retrieving a sharp-edged rock. In that instant, still chanting, she closed her eyes again and gave herself over to the Great Mother. In a heartbeat, she felt her spirit rise into the tempest of clouds. As she looked down, far below, she spied her body standing defiantly upon the jagged cliff, her skirts billowing. He hurled the stone with a fury borne of fear. The rock crashed hard against her face, splintering her jaw. Her skin ripped, blood sprayed upon the ground, she fell backward. Another stone smashed against her forehead and she fell, the group of men upon her, demons dressed in black pounding at her flesh.
There was no pain.
Her child, Kambria knew, was saved.
And vengeance would be hers.
On hands and knees, Gavin slid through the undergrowth, moving stealthily, praying dusk would come quickly. His pursuers were nearby, ever close. He heard the snort of their horses’ breaths, the rumble of the great steeds’ hooves, smelled their horsehide and sweat and, above all else, sensed the eyes of his pursuers scouring the woods, searching. Always searching. For him.
But he heard no dogs.
No furry sentinels ready to bay to the heavens upon smelling his scent. For that alone he was grateful.
His body ached from the beating and he knew, if he were to look into a mirror he would see bruises and cuts all over his skin. Compliments of Craddock, the Sheriff of Agendor, a ruthless son of a cur if ever there was one.
And now a dead man.
Gavyn had no time to think of that now and would not let his mind wander to the fight, the battering of flesh, the smell of sweat or the oaths of fury. He refused to revisit the crack of bone as it shattered and Craddock fell, his head twisted at a horrid angle upon his broken neck.
Fingers digging into the wet earth, he dragged himself beneath the bracken and scrub brush, hoping the shadows of the massive yew and oak trees would hide him as he edged toward the edge of the cliff, where a single-wide path cut down the sheer face. No sane man nor intelligent beast would follow and ‘twas all he had, his only way of escape.
Jaw set, he edged ever nearer the ridge where the switch back was perilous, but safer than being anywhere close to the Lord of Agendor.
“Hey! What’s this?” a man shouted.
Held his breath.
Dared not move a muscle.
“I thought I saw something in the . . . Ach, ‘twas only a skunk!”
A horse neighed in distress and the stench of a skunk’s defenses seeped through the ivy and ferns. Gavyn’s eyes began to water and he held his breath.
“Aye, Seamus. What did ye do? Christ Jesus, that stinks! Oh, fer the love of God!”
“Holy Jesus!” one man cried while another coughed from somewhere close, though he was hidden in the gloom.
Gavyn witnessed offending skunk waddling quickly into the shadows of a fallen log.
“Shh!” An order.
Gavyn’s heart stilled as the putrid smell settled over the area. He knew his father’s hiss as surely as if he’d grown up with the snake, though of course he’d never set foot in the Lord of Agendor’s keep and had, instead, been raised by one of the old man’s mistresses. He forced back the bile in his throat, for the hatred between them was strong.
“He’s near!” his father’s voice again.
That much was true. Through the dense foliage Gavyn noticed the shadowy outline of a horse’s legs, close enough that were he to reach forward, he could touch the beast and startle it. ‘Twas his father’s mount, a stallion with one odd stocking. Gavyn’s heart knocked in his chest at the thought of being mere inches from the man who had sired him, the baron who detested him, the goddamned warrior who wanted him dead.
“Eww, but m’lord, the smell.”
“‘Twill not kill you, Badden!” Deverill said impatiently as several men further away coughed but were smart enough not to argue. Badden, his father’s guard, was big, burly man who wasn’t afraid to say what he thought, though he’d felt the back of Deverill’s hand or the more insidious ridicule from his lord more often than naught.
Gavyn took in a quick, hideous smelling breath.
The horse shifted, kicking up dry leaves and dirt as it turned, bridle jangling in the ever-darkening air. Were he to look up, he was certain he would find the angry countenance of his father, so like his own, glaring at the darkness, defying the night from falling so that he could finish his task.
“Damn but it’s dark,” Deverill admitted. “Find him! Find the murderer, now!”
“Leith should be back soon, with the dogs and fresh torches.” Again Badden had the nerve and lack of brains to speak up.
Gavyn’s heart turned to ice. Fear crawled up his spine. His father’s hunting mastiffs were trained to be vicious. Weighing his chances, he heard the first distant bays of the huge dogs with their long fangs.
He had no choice but to edge closer to the cliff and risk detection. With one eye on the white stockings of his father’s steed, he inched forward noiselessly. Jaw set, body screaming in pain, he dragged himself upward through the twilight and stench.
As he did a dry leaf rustled and the horse flinched.
Gavyn didn’t dare breathe.
“Shh!” the lord hissed again.
And the air grew quiet, as still as a dead man’s heart.
And then the horses began to move, to circle and Gavyn knew that the Baron of Agendor had motioned to his men without a word, silently instructing them to entrap him.
He had to move.
Risk exposure. Squinting he spied the large, split trunk of an oak that stood at the head of the path.
On his feet in an instant, Gavyn threw himself toward the cliff and the path that switch-backed down to the canyon floor.
“There!” Badden shouted. “Over there!”
Phhhht! An arrow zipped past his ear.
Ssst. Another deadly missile passed by him in the gathering dark.
His feet found the end of the path, dirt crumbling beneath his boots.
“Traitor!” his father roared.
He stumbled forward, heard the hiss and in a second, burning pain struck his shoulder, spinning him around to see, in the shadows, the Lord of Agendor’s bow raised to his shoulder, evidence that it was he who had found his mark.
Was that a smile that curved across his lips?
It was too dark to tell. In a heartbeat, Gavyn fell into the yawning darkness of the ravine.
It had started as with Isa’s death, Bryanna thought as rode beneath the portcullis of Castle Calon’s gate. The nursemaid’s violent end was the point when the madness had really begun. She’d visited the nursemaid, dead and cold, her eyes staring sightlessly toward the dark rafters and Bryanna had heard Isa’s voice. As clear as rainwater rushing through the gutters, the old woman had talked to her, instructed her, and she had listened.
I will be with you always Isa’s spirit had insisted.
You alone, of all your siblings, have the sight.
Trust me and I will teach you.
You Bryanna of Penbrooke will be called Sorceress.
Now, nary a fortnight later, Bryanna, upon her fleet mare, thought there was a good chance she was making the biggest mistake of her life. And that was not an idle musing. In her sixteen years, she’d erred often and had often been caught in her foolishness. Had she not recently nearly killed the wrong man in her fervent quest for justice? But this riding away from warmth and safety of Castle Calon seemed suddenly rash and foolish and she wondered if she were truly going mad. If the vision had not been so real, the images so strong, the voice inside her head so loud, she might have pushed thoughts of this journey aside, but she could not. And then there were the dreams that had been with her since child hood, dreams of gems raining from a night sky and the same chant that she’d heard since childhood:
An opal for the northern point
An emerald for the east
A topaz for the souther tip
A ruby for the west.
She’d never understood the words until now . . .
“God help me.”