At last he would become a man.
Gritting his teeth, Keegan pulled back on his oar with all the strength of his fifteen-year-old muscles. The wind shrieked and howled with the coming of the dawn, and the sea was choppy, white caps boiling around the small craft. Keegan's heart thudded wildly. His blood lust ran hot, the thrill of a battle at hand. Finally, his fingers curled around the oars in a death grip as he saw himself, sword drawn, ready to slay any of his father's enemies who attempted as much as the hint of a fight.
Others in the small craft were not as inflamed as he.
Hollis, the old goat, was the worst of the lot. Even now he was complaining.
"Ye be on a fool's mission, I tell ye, Captain Rourke," the old man warned Keegan's father as the tiny rowboat pitched and rolled on the angry dark waters of the bay. "There be no good come from this."
Rourke was having none of it. With a grunt he, too, rowed inland, helping drag the small craft toward the ever approaching shore. "'Tis time to face Jestin again." His eyes narrowed. "Past time."
"Ach, by the saints, ye be mad."
"I swore I'd return, and so I have. The term of the bet is up. Twenty years have passed. Now, row!" Captain Rourke ordered, and Keegan swallowed a prideful smile. His father would not be intimidated by the old man's ranting.
"For the love of all that be holy, listen to me. Ye may be the captain, but ye keep me on to be yer advisor, do ye not?"
"Oh, bloody Christ, why do I bother?"
Rourke's head snapped around, and he impaled the older man with his glare. "Quit worrying like an old woman. I say we meet Jestin, and we meet him. I vowed to see him in this lifetime again, and today be the day!"
"Tis better to forget what happened."
"And next ye'll be tellin' me to forgive as well," Rourke sneered as the wind licked at his hair.
"And ye'll not be listening to that, now, will ya?" Hollis threw up his hands as if in supplication to the stormy heavens, abandoning his oar. "I may as well be talkin' to the wind, but the fact of the matter, Rourke, is that what happened between ye and Jestin was long ago. It matters not now. Ye've got yer ship and yer son and —"
"Damn it, old man. Row!" Rourke barked as a wave splashed over the side. Salt water as cold as ice rained down on Keegan.
As one the crew threw their backs into maneuvering the craft over the rough waves. The smell of brine was thick in the dark morning air, the taste of salt settling on Keegan's lips, but his blood was on fire, his eager pulse pounding at the thought of meeting his father's old enemy. Oh, to finally be part of a battle, to embrace the fight, should there be one. 'Twas what he'd dreamed of, what he yearned for.
Hollis, true to his nature, would not stop forewarning doom. "If ye don't care about yerself, for the love of God, Rourke, think of the boy. Vengeance has no part in Keegan's life."
Keegan bristled and drew hard on his oar, nearly standing as the little boat pitched and bucked. He spat into the sea. He was no boy. Nearly fifteen, he was almost a man. His body was testament to it. His voice now cracked and lowered, the hint of whiskers speckled his chin, the muscles of his arms and legs had become strong, and more often than not he awoke with his manhood stiff and hard as the main spar of the Warrior, his father's ship. Nay, he would not think of himself as a lad. As usual, old Hollis with his hook of a nose and dark eyes sunk deep in his skull, was seeing the devil in every corner.
"My son stays with me," Rourke insisted.
"Even if ye go to yer grave? Will ye be takin' him with ye at his young age?"
"I'll not be dyin' today Hollis."
"I might remind ye that Jestin is the lord of Ogof, and he might not agree. He has no love of ye, Captain."
"Nor do I of him." Rourke snorted, and Keegan's heart swelled with pride. His father was captain of his own ship, a brave man who, though sometimes a swindler, smuggler, and thief, never fell victim to cowardice. Unlike jittery old Hollis. Oh, why hadn't Rourke left the anxious, aging man back on the ship where he belonged?
"Ye be temptin' fate, Rourke, ye know ye are," Hollis worried aloud, and the aging man's concern only served to irritate Keegan further. The old goat was forever worrying about storms, and sea serpents, and witches and the like. More often than not Hollis paced the deck, praying and crossing himself and glancing with anxious eyes at the heavens.
As if God was listening to him prattle on and on. Humph!
Even now the old worrywart was muttering a quick prayer. As if in response, his hood was snatched by the fingers of the wind, exposing his balding, spotted pate. Long silvery strands of his hair whipped over his face.
Keegan swallowed back a grin and, along with the other men, a few of his father's best archers and swordsmen, rowed as one, guiding the bobbing craft over the waves and ever closer to the rugged shoreline near Ogof just as dawn was breaking.
Sweating despite the bitter cold, Keegan hazarded a look at the mouth of the bay, where the Warrior, the only home he'd ever known, lay anchored. The sails had been lowered, and the masts, like long, skeletal fingers, stretched upward toward the dark clouds.
"What do ye hope to do, arriving here at the home of yer enemy unannounced?" Hollis demanded, taking up his litany of doom again.
Rourke's eyes narrowed. "Settle an old score."
In all of his fifteen years, through rough seas and stormy weather, Keegan had never witnessed the glint of raw vengeance that now possessed his father's eyes.
Hollis opened his mouth to speak, then snapped it shut as he took up his oar again. The small craft crested a final wave, and the men climbed out of the boat to pull it ashore.
Keegan caught his first glimpse of Castle Ogof. Spread upon the surrounding hills, the heavy gray curtain wall rose and dipped with the terrain and reminded Keegan of the spiny back of a slumbering dragon, napping in the foggy October air, ready to be awakened at the first scent of trouble. He pulled hard on the rowboat's line as his boots splashed through the tide pools. Sea foam and icy water swirled around his ankles, but he took no notice. His eyes were focused on the behemoth of a castle stretching above the bare limbed trees. So this was where the enemy abided. Fine. Good. Keegan couldn't wait.
"You," Rourke said, pointing a gloved hand at one of the Warrior dockhands, "stay with the boat." "Aye, sir," the sailor replied sharply, as if anxious not to face Rourke's old nemesis.
Probably a coward.
Keegan himself was unafraid. He lusted for the thrill of sword play, the exhilaration of besting another warrior. He wore his bone-handled knife proudly strapped to his waist, and inside one boot, another smaller knife with a wicked little blade was hidden. If there was to be trouble, he was ready. More than ready.
Rourke walked swiftly across the rocky beach, and the older man hobbled over the jagged stones to keep up with him. "Let us turn 'round quick as a flea jumpin' upon a cur." Hollis sent one last, longing glance back to the ship that rolled on the current far in the distance. "I've a bad feeling about this."
"You always have a bad feeling," Rourke countered, tall and strapping in a long surcoat. Deep brown and trimmed in black fur, the coat billowed as he walked without giving any evidence of the hidden pockets deep inside — pockets that held all manner of treasures, tricks and weapons. "'Tis better not to wake the demons of the past," Hollis grumbled, nearly slipping as his legs, used to the slippery, oft angled decks of the Warrior, had difficulty reacquainting themselves with land.
"And I say 'tis better to claim revenge." Hollis, pausing to catch his breath, stopped at the edge of the beach. Craggy cliffs rose overhead, stretching upward to the swollen gray clouds roiling overhead.
"Come along," Rourke said, eager to get to the castle.
Hollis struggled to keep up. "Ye lost Bertrice fair and square to Lord Jestin. I was there," he huffed, his voice strained. "Now, that be twenty years ago, 'tis over and done with. There is naught that can be accomplished by trying to best the lord now."
Rourke glowered at the shorter man, and his expression was as thunderous as the swirling waters of the sea.
"Some women ye never forget, Hollis. Ye know this yerself. Some women get into yer blood and burrow deep into yer heart. Ye have no say in it, no means to get rid of it." He glanced at Keegan and laid a big hand upon his son's shoulder. "That's the way of it, boy," he admitted, sadness tempering the rage that had been burning in his eyes. "Stay away from women. All of 'em. They be the curse of each and every man, I tell ye true. When first Eve gave Adam that apple in the garden, 'twas just the beginning of it, to be sure. Just the beginning. Now, 'twas twenty years to this day that I left; 'tis time to fulfill my promise.
Jaw set, Rourke hurried to a path that cut through a small barrier of leafless trees. There the trail widened and joined a muddy, rutted road that wound ever upward to the foreboding castle. Though the day had barely begun, Rourke's small band was not alone. Carts dragged by straining horses and filled with fine wares inched through the mud. Peddlers swung their whips and cursed their beasts.
Snap! "Hurry along there, Black."
Crack! "Ye can do it, ye miserable, useless piece of horseflesh. Put yer shoulders into it or I'll be sellin' ya to the tanner!"
Women lugging baskets, children clinging to their skirts, soldiers atop fine steeds, huntsmen dragging their early morning kills, all entered the behemoth of a castle through its great maw, where the portcullis, like sharp iron teeth, had been drawn up. Rourke stated his business to a sentry, and though few would recognize what he'd done, he quietly slipped the man a coin or two from on the many pockets within his robe.
"Ye may pass," the man said, his eyes, gleaming, thick fingers surrounding the silver pieces. Some of Keegan's bravado slipped a bit as he followed his father into the outer bailey of Ogof and noticed the wary sentinels standing guard on the wide curtain wall. Archers and swordsmen, soldiers, knights, and all manner of men who had sworn to defend this monstrous fortress regarded the procession through suspicious eyes.
Keegan doubted if his father had enough coins to bribe them all.
He swallowed back any bit of apprehension. Nay, he was not afraid.
Squaring his shoulders, he hurried to keep up with Rourke's long strides and took comfort in the knife strapped to his waist.
There was a rumble behind him, and a woman shrieked and jumped.
Hoofbeats, fast and furious, thundered through the gate.
"Halt!" a guard shouted.
Whirling, Keegan leaped. A sweating horse and rider flew past.
"God's teeth!" Hollis cried, scrambling out of harm's way.
Laughter trilled from the rider as the bay jennet, dark legs flashing, nostrils distended, ears flattened, bolted into the inner bailey. Astride the galloping beast was a girl, skirts bunched to her knees, her head tucked low, her dark red hair streaming behind her like a banner. Awestruck, Keegan could only stare.
The horse was wet, breathing hard, its chest splattered with the same mud that flecked the girl's oval face. Her skin was white, her small jaw set, her eyes flashing pure devilment. She pulled back on the reins. The bay slid to a stop, and the she?devil hopped lithely to the ground. Leaning forward, she patted the jennet's wet shoulder affectionately, and Keegan felt a tightness in his chest, a swelling in his breeches. "'Tis a fine horse you are, Shamrock," the girl said as the mare tossed her head. Flecks of lather speckled the horse's dark coat.
Breathless, her cheeks rosy, her eyes as blue as a summer sea, the rider swiped her sleeve over her face.
"What were ye doin' takin' the mare out so early?" a man admonished. He was crippled up and barely as tall as the girl, but he took the reins with curled fingers and clucked his tongue. "The lady, she'll not be happy."
Laughing, the redhead winked. "When is she ever? 'Tis not Fawn's nature." Wiping her hands on her skirt, she ignored the fact that she was being watched. "See that Shamrock is cooled, Del, and given extra oats as well."
The old man wavered. Frowned. Slid a worried look at the mare. "Farrell will report your takin' of the mare to yer father, I'm afraid.
"But he be the stable master, and —"
"And he cannot tell me what to do." She shook her mane of tangled red curls, and a precocious smile curved her small pink lips. "Asides, this will give him something to stew over."
Del snorted. "And stew he will, mark my words." He wrapped the reins around his gnarled fingers and, clucking to the horse, ambled off. The woman-child cast a look in Keegan's direction, paused but a second, arched one arrogant eyebrow, and then, as if he was of no interest whatsoever, turned on the heel of her muddy boots and half ran through a gate toward the center of the keep. Keegan could barely move. She was, without a doubt, the most beautiful girl he'd ever seen. A vision of innocence and mischief.
"Come along," Rourke prodded, his expression darkening as he caught his son's fascination. Hollis sniffed as he surveyed the interior of the castle.
"'Tis bigger than I thought." The grooves furrowing his brow deepened. "Lord Jestin has done well."
Rourke shot him a look that silenced the older man as they strode through the very gate where the girl had disappeared. Keegan, his father's mission temporarily forgotten, trained his eyes ahead to catch another glimpse of the fiery haired girl.
"Holy mother," Hollis whispered once inside. Men shouted orders, women chattered, and the smells of smoke, dung, and the sea blended together. Hammers rang, the skeps in the windmill whooshed, a potter's wheel creaked, and dogs barked over the hum and bustle of people working. Boys stacked firewood. Girls hung laundry. Young children scattered chicken feed or gathered eggs. The tanner was scraping a bear's hide clean, the blacksmith's bellows hissed and puffed, while a mason's chisels cut stone and women toted buckets of water toward the kitchen.
From the corner of his eye, through the knots of workers, Keegan spied the girl trying to shove her tangled hair into a circlet and veil and she hurried toward the chapel. At the door she smoothed her skirts, took a deep breath and, frantically making the sign of the cross over her small breasts, cast a glance over her shoulder. Her gaze collided with Keegan's again and his heart stopped.
She didn't move for a second. Blue eyes narrowed appraisingly. Keegan couldn't breathe.
Without a word, she dashed inside.
Absurdly, Keegan wanted to follow her, took a step in that direction, then felt a hand on his shoulder.
"Careful, lad," his father warned.
The door of the great hall opened fast, banged against the wall.
"Rourke!" a man's deep, resonant voice boomed from inside the great hall.
"Christ Jesus," Hollis whispered under his breath. "'Tis the devil Jestin himself." Dressed in polished boots, thick breeches, and a tunic lined in silver fur, the lord of Ogof strode onto the top step of the keep. Barrel-chested, with fiery hair stuffed under a hat, he oozed authority. His expression was harsh, his jaw as hard as the very stones that had built this castle. "So ye've finally returned, have ye?"
At the sound of his voice all work in the castle ceased. Hammers stilled, the blacksmith's forge was forgotten, chisels and files were set aside. Suddenly silent, the air in the bailey seemed to thicken.
A prickle of apprehension caused the hairs on the back of Keegan's neck to rise.
Rourke squinted up at the baron. "Aye, Jestin. I've returned. As I vowed."
"'Tis too late."
"Never. We agreed. Twenty years."
The lord's face folded in upon itself. "'Tis too late if it was wanting to see Bertrice again, you were. She's dead. Been gone five years."
Rourke paled, his knees seemed suddenly about to give way, and his mighty shoulders slumped. Not a sound was issued from the crowd that had circled around. "'Tis a lie ye speak." Rourke's voice was a whisper.
"Nay. 'Tis true."
The wind blew as cold as Keegan had ever felt. "For the love of God," the captain said in a low voice filled with despair. For the first time in his life Keegan saw his father sketch a quick sign of a cross over his chest and close his eyes. Seconds passed, then slowly, as if somehow finding a new sense of purpose, Rourke managed to straighten his spine. "My . . . my condolences."
"Accepted." Jestin cleared his throat. "I've a new wife now." Gesturing toward the open doorway, he motioned with his fingers, and a proud, pale woman, her abdomen huge with child, appeared. She stood next to her husband. Fair-skinned and radiant, she linked one arm through his. "This be Fawn," Jestin said as Rourke frowned, and somewhere far off a sheep bleated. "She's the lady of Ogof now."
In his peripheral vision Keegan saw the red-haired girl slip out of the door of the chapel. Yanking at the circlet, she moved silently and swiftly across the dead grass to stand near a doorway at the side of the keep. At the sight of the pale-haired woman standing next to the lord, the corners of the girl's mouth turned down. "Lady Fawn, this be Captain Rourke," Jestin introduced them.
"M'lady." Rourke, ashen-faced, managed a stiff bow.
She nodded slightly, a smooth, smug smile stitched tightly to her lips. "Welcome, Captain," she said, though her eyes belied her civility. Cold and calculating, they regarded Rourke and his small band of men with an icy consideration that chilled Keegan's blood.
Rourke studied the ground for a moment, then slowly raised his gaze to meet that of the lord of Ogof. He cleared his throat. A vein throbbed over one eye. His hands clenched. "'Tis sorry I am about Bertrice, Jestin. I loved her true." The lord's lips flattened as the first drops of rain began to fall from the heavens. Lady Fawn's eyebrows elevated just a fraction, as if she'd heard new gossip that she could use to her advantage at a later date.
"Since I be here already, I see no reason why ye and me, we can't have another toss of the dice," Rourke suggested as a pig squealed from a pen somewhere.
Raindrops began to fall more steadily, splashing against Keegan's head and running down his neck, sliding from the roofs and puddling on the ground.
Jestin shook his head as the peasants and servants gathered around. "There is no point to it now."
"Are ye no longer a gambling man?" the captain asked.
A pause. Jestin chewed the corner of his lip. "Mayhap your new wife disapproves," Rourke suggested.
The baron's spine stiffened. Red eyebrows slammed together. "I do as I wish, but 'tis busy I be." "Too busy for a quick game?"
Jestin cleared his throat, caught a disapproving glance from Lady Fawn, then disregarding her, said, "And what would be the stakes?"
"Oh, we will start small." From one of the many hidden pockets within his surcoat, Rourke withdrew a thick pouch that jingled and chinked invitingly. "Just a few coins, but . . . if it pleases ye, we could raise the stakes a bit after a game or two, just as we did before."
"And what would you have to offer?"
Rourke hitched his head backward in the direction of the bay. "If ye come up with somethin' interestin', I've got me ship I'd be willin' to wager."
Nay! The Warrior was their home.
Hollis lost all his color. "Do na be teasin'," he warned the captain in a harsh whisper. "Jestin, he hates ya sure, fer Bertrice loved ye once. He'd take yer ship without thinkin' twice, he would, and then where would ye be? Where would the boy be?"
"I'll not lose," Rourke insisted, then more loudly, "Have we a bet, then, Baron? What would ye put up?"
"Not my castle, you know that." The lord's eyes narrowed as he looked west and, as if he could see through the curtain wall and watch the Warrior rolling on the gray waters of the bay, a greedy, lustful expression took hold of his features. "Ye'll wager yer ship?"
"Aye. What have ye to put up?"
The baron's gaze landed full force on the captain. "I'll make it worth yer while, Rourke, if we get that far."
"I would not trust the captain," Lady Fawn admonished, touching her husband's arm again. "Nor would I, but 'twould be good to best him." Again Jestin's gaze narrowed on his old foe. "Then, in with you and we'll see if luck is on yer side this time." He snapped his fingers, servants scurried, and within minutes the captain, Hollis, Keegan, and the few other men who had rowed ashore were inside the great hall, the two old adversaries seated at a scarred trestle table, a wooden cup rattling with dice, mazers of wine at their fingertips. Rushlights and candles glowed from sconces, a huge fire crackled and popped in the grate, hungry flames licking logs that glowed red, while men and servants shuffled around, searching for a better view.
"Saints be with us," Hollis whispered as a crowd gathered around the game.
"Tell me of Bertrice," Keegan demanded.
The old man scowled so deeply that ridges appeared in his brow. "She was beautiful and sinful. Your father was in love with her. So was Jestin. She . . . ach, she flirted with both men, used one against the other, fanned the fires of this rivalry, let me tell you." Hollis sighed and shook his head as the dice rattled like bones in the hull of a ghost ship. "So finally, when she could not make up her mind, twenty years ago this very night, the two men threw the cups. With each toss of the dice the winner banished the loser to a year away from the woman who would be his bride. The game went long into the night, but as dawn approached, your father had lost not only his money but his woman, and twenty years of life that could have been here. 'Tis then he took to the sea forever."
"Why have I not heard this before?" Keegan demanded.
"Because the captain wished it so." The old man laid a hand on Keegan's shoulder. "Women, they be the bane of a man's existence."
"And how would you know?"
The old man snorted. "All men who have lived beyond their youth know."
Keegan asked no more but watched with the others. Pages poured wine. Lady Fawn, her once serene face drawn into a mask of silent condemnation, sat at her husband's side as the stakes were raised quickly. Merchants, peasants, even the priest, a potbellied man who rubbed his rosary beads nervously, huddled near the gaming table. Keegan stood close enough to see the sweat on his father's brow, the determined gleam in his eye. This was not mere sport. Nay. The tossing of the dice ran much deeper than simple gamesmanship. A tic above the lord's eye was proof enough that each man felt the same prideful need to win. Both men drank and gambled, and for a while they both won, but as the hours passed and the stakes increased, slowly Jestin's winnings mounted. He beamed and ordered more wine; Rourke frowned, counted his money, and tossed back mazer after mazer as more men — soldiers, merchants, visiting lords, and servants trying to look busy with their tasks — surrounded the table.
Keegan was jostled and pushed.
The stench of sour ale mingled with the odor of smoke and roasting meat wafting in from the kitchen.
"Out of me way, lad," a bear of a soldier with foul breath and a sheathed sword ordered, elbowing Keegan away from the table. "Aye, let me have a look," another insisted, one hand on the hilt of his weapon. He was as large as the first, had no teeth, and wore the scars of battle upon his brutish face. Keegan was elbowed and shoved farther from his father. It was not a good sign, and the fear in Hollis's eyes for once seemed well founded. Rourke had drunk far too much, was reckless with his bets, and Jestin's well-armed men were edgy and alert.
The coins on the table were piled high, and Jestin, with a flip of his wrist, threw the dice. As the cubes rolled out, he let out a whoop, and Fawn's face split with a wide, relieved grin. "Beat that if ya can," the lord crowed, pounding a triumphant fist on the table. His eyes gleamed, his face ruddy. A buzz swept through the crowd, and Rourke took up the cup, rattled the dice, and threw them across the table. A poor toss. He rolled again. No good. Keegan's heart nearly stopped, for in this game the third toss was the last.
Swearing under his breath, Rourke threw again. The cubed and marked pieces of bone rolled to a stop. The roll was better but not enough. The captain had lost.
Rourke's massive shoulders slumped. He swallowed without a sip of wine.
Keegan bit his lip.
"Christ Jesus," Hollis whispered as Jestin, his cheeks puffed by a self-satisfied grin of victory, leaned across the table and scraped all his winning across the table toward him.
"So ye've come to me door just to be beaten again," Jestin gloated, and several of the servants started back to their duties. Keegan's heart was hammering. Why had his father lost? It was unlike him. And unnecessary. "You're like a stupid cur, you are, Rourke, never knowing how to stop the beating." He laughed, and most of the men joined him.
Rourke mopped the sweat from his brow, settled back in his chair, and scowled. His color was high, his eyes dark with shame and rage. "We not be done yet."
"Nay?" Jestin said, and downed his mazer, then clapped his hands while a page hastily refilled the empty cup. "Face it, man, your luck's run out if you ever had any. Which I doubt." More laughter rolled through the cavernous room. "I've still got me ship."
The crowd stilled.
Keegan's heart leaped to his throat. Not the Warrior. Surely his father had brought up the ship only as a joke.
Hollis stepped forward and, placing a hand on the captain's sleeve, whispered loud enough for Keegan to hear, "Nay, Rourke, this bet, 'twould be no good. Let us be off, now. Ye came, ye had yer chance, but 'tis over."
"Shut up, old man." The captain fished inside his tunic and retrieved the title to his ship, a faded yellowed scrap that he slowly unrolled. "I'll wager the Warrior, but ye've got to come up with more than a pile of coins."
Jestin eyed the ownership papers. "Ye be sure of this, Rourke?"
"Nay, he's not certain," Hollis said, "Ye can see he's in his cups and —"
"What have ye got?" Rourke demanded.
Their eyes locked, and Jestin's mind was made up. "Give me but a minute," he said, and took his leave. In the time he was gone, Hollis pleaded with Rourke while Keegan, eyeing the restless crowd, worried about his father. The castle dogs, two gray, speckled beasts, watched his every move through suspicious gold eyes.
"Think, man," Hollis pleaded. "The Warrior, she be all ye have in the world aside from ye lad. What happens to Keegan if ye lose her?"
"Ye've said that before, but —"
"Enough!" Slap! Rourke cuffed the old man across his face. Hollis stumbled backward. Didn't so much as whimper. Just held his jaw.
"Don't —" Keegan jumped forward. Never had he seen his father strike the older man.
"Nay, lad, do na interfere," Hollis warned, holding his chin with one hand and stretching his arm outward as if to stop Keegan from tangling with the man who had sired him. Rubbing his jaw, he said to Rourke, "'Tis mad ye be, Captain."
"Go to hell," Rourke growled.
"Oh, I be already there," the old man said, "all because I've followed ye."
"'Twas nothing I asked of ye!" Rourke tore his eyes away from the wounded man and watched as Jestin and a solitary soldier, a swarthy, muscular man, returned.
"Will this do?" Jestin asked as he sat in his chair and opened his fist. Resting in his palm was the finest gold ring Keegan had ever seen. It glittered in the firelight, and the huge stone that was set into the heavy prongs winked a vibrant, seductive blue.
"Not the stone."
Several men gasped. The room went silent. Was it reverence that reverberated through the whitewashed walls, or foreboding?
Two stumbled backward quickly.
Hollis swore under his breath. "By the gods, 'tis the cursed Dark Sapphire."
The man near him swallowed — whether in lust or fear, Keegan knew not which. "Holy Mother protect us."
"'Tis said the owner will have good luck always," Jestin said, but Hollis shook his head violently. "'Tis cursed," he whispered loudly in the captain's ear. "Ye know as well as I do, 'tis the Dark Sapphire of Ogof." Hollis's thin skin was drawn tightly over his skull. "The jewel brings its owner not luck but damnation. 'Tis the downfall of men, and kingdoms and armies."
Rourke's eyes thinned. His lips flattened. "'Twas Bertrice's ring."
"Once," Jestin admitted. "I gave it to her. 'Tis the Dark Sapphire of Ogof."
"But it was to be mine," Fawn said swiftly. "Do you not remember, husband? You promised me the gem."
"If you bore me a son, which you have not."
Tears sprang to her eyes. "I am with child now! 'Tis but a few weeks until the babe be born, and he will be a strong, fine son to you, the boy you have always wished for. No longer will Sheena be your only issue." She reached for her husband's arm, her fingers curling in the fabric of his sleeve. "Do not risk the ring."
He yanked his hand away. "If I win, I'll name the damned ship for you, and we will still have the ring."
"Hush, woman!" He held the ring beneath the captain's nose, and the room was silent as a tomb. "What say you, Rourke?"
Keegan's father regarded the gem as if he couldn't draw his eyes from its seductive blue brilliance. He was not alone. Many within the thick walls of the keep were in awe of the sparkling stone. Rourke swallowed hard. "Aye, 'tis a bet," he said, and placed the Warrior's title on the table, securing the curling edges with a candle. "But not just the ring, the money as well."
"So be it." Jestin slapped the ring atop the raged, faded papers, shoved the pile of coins to the center of the table, and settled back in his chair. In the hushed room the blue gem glimmered.
Rourke picked up his cup.
"The ring is not yours to give!" a strong feminine voice — one that Keegan recognized — accused. "'Twas my mother's!"
Keegan's eyes were drawn to the girl with the wild red hair as she pushed her way to the table. Insolence held her chin high. Anger sparked in her blue eyes.
"Did she not ask that it be given to me when I marry? Is that not what you've told me again and again as I grew up?"
This girl was the lord's child? With her impertinent grin, wild hair, and smudged dress? "It was never to be given away. Not to her," she insisted, eyeing Fawn, "nor him." She pointed a condemning finger at Rourke.
"'Tis mine to do with as I please," Jestin said. "I need not answer to you."
"But — "
"Oh, for the love of Mary!" Fawn said in great irritation as she motioned wildly to an aging serving woman. "Zelda, please take her to her chamber and see that she caused no more trouble!" "Do not even try it," the girl spat.
Fawn looked at her husband, silently blaming him for his daughter's impudence, then wiggled bejeweled fingers impatiently at the maid. "Just get her out of here. Now."
Zelda nodded, attempted to do as she was bidden. Lanky and gaunt, she was as tall as most men but ungainly as well. Though she gave chase to the nearly grown girl, she was no match for the lord's daughter. The girl was as clever and agile as she was speedy. She darted through the throng as quickly as a mouse scurrying through sacks of grain. Sidestepping a page, she slipped around a column and ducked behind a curtain.
The older woman lost her, but Keegan followed the redhead's every move with his eyes. Aye, she was a sassy, impudent one, bound to give her father and whatever man dared try to tame her trouble. But she was as fascinating as the blue stone in the ring.
"Roll!" Baron Jestin ordered. Uninterested in his saucy daughter's antics, he turned his back to the stir and eyed the ownership papers of the Warrior with more than a trace of avarice. Rourke shook his head, sat back in his chair as the room grew still as the middle of the night. "'Tis your turn."
"So be it."
Keegan drew his eyes back to the table. Again a hush swept through the room. All his father owned in the world was at risk along with a pile of coins and a ring the likes of which few men had seen, a stone whose facets reflected blue crystal brilliance in the hundreds of candles that illuminated the great hall.
"'Tis a fool Lord Jestin be," one man, a merchant from the looks of him, whispered to another. He leaned heavily on a cane of polished wood.
"Aye, but this be not about the gem," the other said. Dressed in deep forest green with a thin beard, he rubbed the back of his neck. "Nor the ship."
Keegan, standing near the two, his heart drumming in his eardrums, strained to listen. His nerves were frayed, his stomach clenched.
"Bertrice of Llwydrew," the first man said, as if just now remembering the events of twenty years ago.
"Yes, Bertrice. A beauty like no other. Blessed with eyes the color of the sky and the reddest hair ye've ever seen." The man in green lifted one hand and fanned his fingers at the memory of the winsome Bertirce's tresses. "It seemed to catch fire in the morning light."
Just like her daughter's, Keegan thought, realizing that this girl was the daughter of his father's love.
"Who knows what she thought of Jestin and Rourke's wager over her? Or the fact that Jestin won."
Keegan listened for all he was worth.
"And Rourke took to the sea, he did. Swore he'd never marry. Had himself a bastard or two, methinks."
The top of Keegan's ears burned, for he knew little of his own mother — a tavern wench who hadn't wanted to be bothered with a child. He had no memory of her, and whenever he'd asked, his father had grown silent and stern. Even old Hollis, whose tongue was never still, could not be cajoled into speaking of her.
The two men moved on, and Keegan wove through the crowd to stand behind his father. It wasn't like Rourke to lose; not only was he clever but crooked as well. A blackheart who shamelessly drank and smuggled, Rourke was also a cheat who, if the situation called for it, would do anything to win.
Today was no exception. 'Twas hard to spot, but Keegan's trained eye had caught Rourke's sleight of hand more than once. In a game where a man was given three tries to best his score, Rourke had slowly lost. A few times Keegan was certain his father had switched the dice, but with each bit of trickery, the captain had not won. Now Keegan understood why. Only when the stakes were high enough would his father take advantage of his opponent.
Feet shuffled in the rushes. Servants peered through the curtains. From the corner one of the castle dogs growled, as if the shaggy cur could feel the tension in the room. Faces were strained, muscles taut, eyes focused on the battered planks of the table.
Side bets were being waged among the soldiers and peasants who had gathered.
"A sack of grain on the lord," one man with crooked teeth whispered to another.
"Amen to that. I'll put me best mule on the captain there."
"'Tis a fool ye be, Luke, but I'll not be arguin' with ye. I could use me a new ass."
Keegan swallowed hard, and as he found a spot behind his father's shoulder, he noticed the lord's red-haired daughter on the far side of the table, partially hidden in the shadows of a curtain. For a second she caught his gaze, and a hint of a smile brushed her lips. Though she didn't speak, he felt that they shared a secret together amid the crowd and the thickness of the air.
His head pounded and he bit his lip.
The dice rattled. "'Tis now the time ye will rue your wager," the lord said.
Keegan dragged his eyes back to the game.
Jestin tossed the cubes onto the table.
The bits of bone rolled to a stop.
A wide, self?satisfied smile stole across the baron's ruddy face. He snagged up two of the cubes, threw them again, then nearly leaped in the air when they landed beside the others.
"Beat that if ye can! I need not another roll." Keegan gulped. The baron's score was high, nearly impossible to break.
"I'll give it me best shot." The captain was solemn, but in his eyes there was a glitter of hatred that rivaled the gleam from the blue stone he sought to win.
He shook the dice in the cup.
All eyes followed the snap of his wrist.
Thwap! He dropped the cup onto the table, then poured out the tumbling bits of bone.
The first toss was no good.
Rourke grabbed the dice again. Rattled them hard. Slapped down the cup.
Smack. Again the pieces of marked bone spilled onto the planks.
Once more the score wasn't enough.
Jestin let out a breath of air, and to hide his smile, he took up his cup, threw back his head, and drained his mazer. The soldiers of Ogof hooted and clapped each other on the back. Fawn sighed. Laughter rippled through the great hall. Rourke snapped up the cup in a deft motion that defied most gazes, but Keegan saw the trickery as the new dice fell from his father's sleeve and the old ones were stashed within a hidden pocket. Easily. Perfectly. Seamlessly. Rourke gave the cup another shake. "May luck be with me," he whispered fervently.
Whap! The cup hit hard on the table. The dice tumbled rapidly. They rolled the length of the table to land directly in front of the Lord of Ogof. And they spelled his doom. Fawn gasped, looked about to faint.
"Christ Jesus," one man whispered.
"The captain won!" another, a man who had bet on Rourke cried. "Can ye believe the luck?" Jestin's jaw slackened.
"There ye be!" Rourke's smile belied his deceit. Half standing, he reached forward to scoop up his winnings.
Keegan's fingers sought the handle of his knife. Surely it wouldn't be easy.
"Nay, Captain," Fawn said. She'd turned the color of milk without any cream. "This . . . this . . ." — she pointed at the table where the game was so recently played — "is not right!" She turned accusing eyes upon her husband. Her voice was an octave higher than it had been. "Surely, you couldn't have lost the ring."
"'Tis done," Jestin said with a scowl. "Nay. It cannot be so." Slowly, she turned her head and her eyes fastened on Rourke. "He cheated," she said without much conviction. "No one could be so lucky. No one." "It seems I was."
She wasn't about to be dissuaded. "Didn't — didn't you see him cheat, Sir Manning?"
"That I did, m'lady," the brute of a knight beside Jestin agreed without a moment's hesitation. The smell of a fight charged the air. Swiftly, Manning unsheathed his dagger.
"Nay!" Keegan cried, but the warrior was lightning quick. The blade glinted in his hand. He slammed his wicked little knife down into the back of Rourke's hand. Pinned it flat to the table.
Blood spurted. Rourke roared in pain. Coins clattered to the floor. "Bastard," the captain hissed.
"Ye should never have tried to cheat!"
Stripping his knife from its scabbard, Keegan sprang forward.
A soldier with foul breath pushed Keegan. "Get back, boy!" Holding Keegan on the floor, he managed to scoop up a fistful of the scattering gold. Swords rattled. Women screamed. Men grabbed their weapons. Others scrambled for the coins. The captain reached for his own blade with his free hand.
"Kill the bastard," someone commanded.
"He tried to trick the lord."
"Nay, 'twas a fair game."
"The dice were weighted," Jestin snarled, throwing the bit of bones onto the floor. He reached for his sword. "You always were a filthy, lying cur, Rourke. 'Tis a blessing Bertrice never had to lay with the like of you!"
Reeling free of the big man, Keegan sprang at the baron. His fingers coiled around the hilt of the knife.
Crack! Pain exploded behind his eyes. His knees wobbled.
A huge arm threw him to the floor, where he sprawled upon the rushes. A soldier stripped him of his weapon, slashing his arm as he tried to roll away.
"Father," he cried, but his voice was drowned by the crowd. With horrified, blurry eyes he watched as Rourke struggled against the blade impaling his hand on the table.
"This'll teach ye for not playin' fair," Sir Manning snarled, holding fast to his knife so that the captain was nailed by his own flesh. Rourke writhed. His weight pulled over the table. Blood and coin and candles fell to the floor.
Hot beeswax from the candles sprayed Keegan's arm. Flames from the fallen tapers found the dry rushes and raced, crackling in deadly brilliance along the floor. Keegan's heart raced. Fear throbbed through his bloodstream.
"Bloody Christ, get the pails. We needs water here!"
"For the love of God, get water!" Smoke billowed through the keep.
Women shrieked, men grunted, swords clanged, bodies crashed into each other.
"Call the guards," Fawn screamed above the din, but the soldiers were already filling every inch of the smoky hall. Fire snapped, racing up the curtains. Sparks ignited the tapestries. Keegan struggled to climb to his feet.
"Let there be no blood spilled," the fat priest ordered, choking, but it was too late. Soldiers swarmed through the castle, and Rourke's few men, though struggling hard, were bested.
The papers declaring Rourke captain of the Warrior crackled as they caught fire. People ran in all directions. Babies cried. Water was thrown from buckets, and Keegan, struggling to his feet, fell against the table and saw the ring. Glowing with an eerie brilliance, it had slipped to the floor.
"The sapphire! Get it," Fawn screamed through the thickening acrid haze.
A woman's dress caught fire. She screamed and fell to the ground, rolling out the flames. Smoke clogged Keegan's lungs and filled the chamber. Keegan grabbed the gem.
"Take yer soul to hell, Captain," Jestin roared, and from the corner of his eye, Keegan saw the lord lunge at his father.
"Nay!" Keegan cried. Horror pounded through his head. He was too late. With a primal yell of triumph, Jestin rammed his sword through Rourke's chest. Blood gushed from the wound. Rourke screamed in pain. The blade protruded through his back.
"Noooo," Keegan screamed, horrified. He tried to reach his father, but was pushed down again by the crowd. No! No! No!
With a groan Rourke slumped to the floor. His eyes threatened to close, but his gaze fastened on his son. "Run, Keegan," he ordered weakly, blood oozing from his lips. "Save yourself. Oh Christ . . ."
"No!" Keegan cried again, barely able to breathe. Flames raged in the curtains, blackened timbers creaked ominously, and Keegan was sure he'd entered a portal of hell. Nearby a man howled in pain, and not far away someone was sobbing through strangled prayers. "Nay, Father —" Tears streamed down his cheeks, and his throat was raw, hot with smoke and utter defeat. "I cannot leave you." His father, his brave father, couldn't be dead.
"Get out!" Hollis cried as he was dragged away through a wall of smoke and flame. "Run! The devil be after ye!"
"Shut up, old man!" Manning kicked past a dying soldier, his eyes narrowing on Keegan. "No, oh, nay!" Again Keegan struggled to his feet, was knocked down, and as Manning swung his sword, Keegan caught hold of one meaty arm, raked the ring down already wounded flesh, and was flung across the room, the gem still clenched in his bloody fingers. "Meet yer doom," Manning yelled, raising his sword high as Keegan slithered along the floor, past burning tables and slain warriors, toward a corner. But the big man, swinging his deadly blade, stalked him. "Come here, boy," Sir Manning ordered, blood trickling from one eye. "There's no escape."
The tiny knife in Keegan's boot pressed hard against his flesh. He reached down, pulled out the weapon, was ready to lunge at the black knight but waited, his chest on fire, his head throbbing. When the murdering bastard was close enough, Keegan would leap to his feet and slice Manning's thick, ugly throat.
Through the smoke the big man trudged. Timbers groaned. People screamed. Keegan's fingers tightened over the hilt. I'll kill you, come on, just come on.
"Watch out!" a woman shrieked as a horrid rending sound ripped through the hall. The walls quaked. Crash! Thud! A huge beam collapsed. In a cloud of dust it bounced and landed between Manning and Keegan.
"Get the boy!" Manning yelled, blocked by the burning timber.
Another beam groaned, threatening to give way. Smoke and dust obscured in Keegan's eyes, but he scrambled through the rushes, crawling backward as more timbers gave way and stones began to tumble from the walls.
Water from buckets splashed. Flames sizzled. "Come with me." A voice — the woman-girl's voice — commanded.
His eyes burned and he couldn't see, but he felt her warm fingers nearly circle his wrist.
Scrambling to his feet, he ran blindly, stumbling forward, led by her hand as they dashed around corners and through a maze of smoke, crumbling stone, and flames.
"What?" He ran smack into a wall.
"Through here! Now!"
"I said, bend down!" she yelled, and he obeyed, coughing, still clinging to the damned blue ring in his free hand while his fingers of his others were twined with hers. Through a hallway and another door that led to the chapel. "This way. Hurry! By the gods, do you want to be burned alive or kilt by Manning's blade?"
Running swiftly, she led him through another door. Faster and faster, down steep stairs that led to a dark chamber that smelled of death, where the sounds of screams and fire were faraway, muted, and the scrape of rats' claws more defined. Slipping a key from her pocket, she unlocked a thick barred door and dragged him through. Once they were on the far side, she kicked the door closed. The lock clicked into place.
"Now, follow me." She, feeling along the narrow hallway, ran easily onward. The floor was moist, as if it were earthen, and slanted downward. He stumbled. She held him up. They ran as if Satan were breathing down their backs.
Unable to see her, he clung to her hand, trusted her. Around a sharp corner, through another door where the smell of must and decay entered his nostrils, he kept up with her, though he felt as if he were treading where no man had dared walk for centuries.
"Come along! Hurry!" she insisted, and still the floor sloped downward, steeper and steeper, as they were forced to slow to a walk. Another doorway and he smelled salt air. The temperature dropped and the sounds of voices, of fear, the smell of smoke had disappeared.
"What is this?" he asked. His voice echoed. Was it his imagination or could he hear the distant roar of the sea?
He felt one wall with the knuckles of the hand that held the cursed gem. It felt moist, cool, hard as granite.
"For the love of Morrigu, run! I lead you to safety."
"There be none."
"Come on!" she urged, and he smelled the ocean. "There be steps here. Be careful."
Not steps, but crumbling stairs that were slick and cold, yet Keegan hurried. The roar of the tide swelled louder in his ears, and the smell of salt air cleared his head. Slowly he saw a bit of light that became brighter as the stairway opened onto a vast underground cove. A rotting dock jutted into the deep chasm, and a tiny rowboat undulated with the movement of the tide.
"What is this?"
"There be no other way back to your ship. Sir Manning has killed the man who was guarding your rowboat and claimed it for Ogof. 'Tis only a matter of time, once the fire is put out, before the army will take over your father's ship."
He hesitated, bit his lip, and eyed the small boat and the cave's entrance to the open sea.
"Why did you do this?" he asked, looking at her for the first time since they'd reached daylight. Her face was smudged, her fine dress torn, her hair more tangled than ever. "Why did ye save me?"
"Because I want you to take me with you," she said earnestly.
"But you be the daughter of the lord."
"Aye, but not of Fawn. She — she is a witch." As if she hadn't expect him to disagree, she grabbed his mantle in desperation. "You must help me leave this place."
Keegan hesitated. What would he do with the girl aboard the ship? If he made it to the ship. Here she was a rich man's daughter. On the sea she would be at the mercy of the men. No longer would his father steer the helm. Nay, he could offer her nothing.
"You must." Her face fell, and for a second she seemed crushed. It was all he could do not to wrap his arms around her.
Something in Keegan's heart tore. "'Twould not be safe."
"But I would be free."
"I think not."
A look of hard determination crossed her features. She dropped her hands and glared at him. "Listen, boy, take me with you, or I myself will take you back to the soldiers and my father." To prove her point, she pulled a small knife from her pocket and waggled it under his nose.
Keegan nearly laughed, but she was serious, her chin thrust forward, her small pink lips compressed. So full of life. So demanding. So spirited. So much trouble.
"Well?" she said. "We have not much time."
"No, girl, we do not," and for the life of him, Keegan didn't know what possessed him, but he swept her and her silly little knife into his arms and kissed her hard on the lips. She gasped, tried to draw away, but instead dropped her weapon and sighed. Deep inside, he felt a new fire burn through his blood. In his breeches his manhood swelled and throbbed, and for a second he thought of nothing else but kissing her and touching her and . . . and . . .
He stopped then. Stepped away, stared into her suddenly glazed eyes, and took a deep breath. "By the saints," he whispered, then ran, down the slippery, rotting dock, to the small craft that looked as if it might sink at any minute. She let out a yelp and followed him, but he was fast, untied the boat, and shoved off. The current did the rest, pulled him out to sea so quickly that she couldn't jump on board.
"Curse you, boy!" she cried, stomping an angry foot in frustration. "Curse your soul to hell!"
"It's already there," he said, unable to call up a smile.
"Morrigu and Pwyl, hear my prayer against this son of the devil who would abandon me . . ." She raised her fists, and though he could no longer hear her voice, he was certain she was calling up all manner of spirits to arrest him. He took to the oars and refused to look at her standing at the dock, for there was something dangerous there, something that was far more frightening than any of Lord Jestin's soldiers. It had nothing to do with demons and curses but with emotions he'd heretofore not known.
The brave, impetuous girl had touched his soul somehow, and that would never do. Her kiss lingered on his lips, her curse ringing in his ears. He finally glanced over his shoulder as the tide swept him out to sea, and he saw the Warrior riding high above the waves. No, he had no time for a woman.
"There he be!" a hard voice yelled, and as he glanced toward the beach where his father's rowboat had been dragged, he saw three soldiers. An archer took aim and shot.
Keegan threw himself to the bottom of the boat.
The arrow hissed over his head. He flattened to the tiny craft's ribs. Prayed. Didn't move for heart-stopping minutes, but the little boat was drifting down the shoreline, out to sea, far from the Warrior. He had to get to the ship. Holding his breath, he sat upright, lifted the oars, and fought the sea.
He threw his back into the effort, saw, from the corner of his eye, another deadly missile sizzling. He flinched. Not quickly enough.
Sharp and hot, the arrow's steel tip pierced his clothes and skin, buried deep in his shoulder, burning like a flaming coal. Blood trickled from the wound. Thwack! Another shot aimed over the waves.
Hot pain exploded in his chest. His body was jolted.
The world seemed to topple and spin.
Sky and sea became one.
The boat rocked wildly.
Keegan fought the pain, battled the blackness that threatened him. He tried not to give into the seductive sleep that would dull the ache in his body and soul.
But he failed.
As he slipped beneath the gentle cover of darkness, his mind swam with vibrant thoughts of the plucky red-haired girl and her kiss — still warm upon his lips. 'Twas his first and, it seemed, 'twas destined to be his last.