The Forest Surrounding
Tower Lawenydd, North Wales
Father will kill you!
So what? I don’t care.
No? You will care because he’ll flog you until you can’t stand, then slit you like one of Cook’s fat eels and . . .
Kiera pushed all the horrid thoughts about punishment aside as she, astride the strongest stallion in all of Lawenydd, soared over the creek. She felt his magnificent muscles coil, then stretch as he hurtled across the stream, sailing through the cold winter air. Laughing in exhilaration, Kiera clung to his neck like a bur, her fingers tangled in the reins and his coarse black mane.
Aye, her father, the great baron, would be furious when he found out that she’d borrowed his most valuable steed and, dressed as a stable boy, had ridden Obsidian through the castle gates.
But it was worth it. Sharp hooves landed on the opposite bank, dug in, and took off. “Run you devil,” she whispered as the wind threatened to snatch her hood from her head. Her heart raced as rapidly as the horse’s legs. She deserved this night, she told herself, despite her father’s wrath. Hadn’t he, when the red mare was near foaling, promised this very steed to her . . . then taken back his word when the colt had been born.
Because Obsidian, black as night, with a jagged white blaze and the perfect musculature, was the finest horse ever bred at Lawenydd. So her father had gone back on his word. Kiera felt as if she was owed this crisp, breathless night.
The first stars were beginning to wink in the twilight skies and the forest was dark as death. She’d ridden far from the keep and as the moon rose, she realized it was time to sneak back, return the horse before the castle gates were shut. Dressed as a stable boy, she would be assumed to have taken the horse out for his evening exercise. Only Joseph, the stable master’s son, knew the truth.
Beneath her, Obsidian streaked along the wide path and she
found it impossible to return to the castle just yet. The night was so exhilarating, so still, so instead of turning back, she guided the black down a familiar trail, speeding past thickets of oak and brush, feeling the dampness of the evening collect on her brow. The path was straight and true, wide enough. She let out the reins and the steed’s strides lengthened.
She leaned forward. The wind screamed by. Slapped her face. Tangled her hair.
She kicked Obsidian as she tucked low. Tears blurred her eyes.
The dark shapes of the trees rushed past and her breath was sucked from her lungs. Joy claimed her soul. The thrill of the ride crackled through her veins. She’d never felt so alive, so vital, so–
A bevy of doves burst from the brush. Terrified chortles erupted. Wings whirred frantically. Feathers flew.
Throwing up his head, he misstepped. His body shifted to one side.
Kiera’s fingers lost her grip. Momentum pitched her forward. She scrabbled to keep hold of the reins, but the stallion neighed in terror and reared. Kiera flew through the air. The forest floor rushed up and she threw her arms up to protect her head.
She landed hard.
Her head cracked against the bole of an oak tree. Fiery lights blazed behind her eyelids. Pain screamed through her brain and down her shoulder. She heard horses hooves thundering . . . Obsidian? Oh, God, she couldn’t lose him. Her father would kill her.
Struggling, she tried to climb to her feet, but her arms and legs wouldn’t move and as she lay on the cold, unforgiving ground she sensed a blackness toying with the edge of her consciousness. Her body slumped and though she fought the sensation, she finally gave into the comfort of oblivion.
Darkness had descended when Kiera awoke on the cold, wet earth, mud and leaves clinging to her face. She had no idea how much time had passed, but the moon was high in the night sky and the forest was silent and still, not even a breeze rustling the branches. She ached all over, every bone in her body jarred,
every muscle seeming bruised and for a moment she couldn’t remember how she’d ended up here in the night-darkened forest alone.
She’d been riding, she thought and touched the coarse clothes covering her body. Yes, that was it, she’d disguised herself as a stableboy and . . . and had taken Obsidian out of the castle gates and oooohhh. Her head pounded and throbbed, seeming too tight for her skull. Rubbing her forehead, she felt a knot over one eye. Obsidian! Somehow she’d lost her father’s prized steed. She remembered the faint image of the black beast racing riderless through the murky undergrowth as she’d nearly been knocked unconscious. “God’s teeth,” Kiera muttered, “Obsidian! Come Back! Obsidian!” But the horse was long gone, having disappeared into the rising mist and trees minutes, perhaps hours ago. “Damned thing.” Struggling to her feet, she winced against the pain in her shoulder, then whistled long and hard.
She couldn’t return to the keep without the valuable steed, but she heard no sound of hooves racing toward her, no crack of twigs or rustle of wet branches as the stupid beast returned through the darkness. “Come, boy,” she called, as if the temperamental horse was one of the castle hounds.
But she heard no resounding echo of hoofbeats.
She’d lost him.
Angry with herself, she took a few steps forward and felt an eerie sensation, like the breath of the very devil, against the back of her neck. As if someone were watching her. Someone close, mayhap dangerous. Which was just plain silly. She was alone and several miles from the castle . . . . For the first time she realized that she might have more troubles than just a runaway horse. She whistled again and heard a faint echo of her own high-pitched call.
The blasted animal didn’t return. And she couldn’t find him in the darkness. The night was closing becoming thick. Mist collected on her skin as a thin fog rolled in from the sea.
“Bloody hell,” she swore kicking a clump of mud from her boot.
Stuffing wayward strands of hair into her hood, she started off in the direction the miserable beast and had taken. She’d barely taken two steps on her wobbly legs when she felt it again–the heart-stopping sensation that someone was watching her. She hazarded a glance over her shoulder.
Her heart froze. Through a thin curtain of fog she spied the faint image of a silent man astride a pale horse.
Fear congealed her blood. A night bird called. Had he seen
Of course. And he’d heard her calling for her horse. Stumbling back a step, she sensed that he was staring at her and that his gaze was sinister rather than kind.
Swallowing back her fear, she tried to convince herself he wouldn’t bother her. Even if he was an outlaw or thief or worse, what would he want with a scrawny stable lad? “I’m . .. I’m looking for my horse,” she explained gruffly, hoping to sound male. “Who are you? What do you want?”
“I think you know.”
“You don’t fool me.” His voice was low, gravelly and tinged with accusation. As if he knew her.
“I’m not trying to fool anyone,” she said. Liar! You deceived your father, the stable master, the guard at the gate . . . everyone. She tried a different tack. “I’m afraid I was riding and got thrown off and . . .”
He clucked his tongue and the buff colored horse moved closer, his gaze still fastened on her.
What the devil did he want?
“ . . . and I’m looking for my horse. A big, black stallion. Mayhap you’ve seen him?” She was backing up now, determined to run into the shadows the second she thought she had
a chance of disappearing into the fog and eluding him.
“‘Tis a silly disguise,” he sneered and her heart nearly stopped.
Her breath stilled and she didn’t move. Couldn’t. Surely he didn’t recognize her as the daughter of Baron Llwyd. How could he? She was dressed in rag-tag doeskin breeches and a woolen tunic with a deep cowl. This miserable cur of a man wouldn’t think to kidnap her and ransom her or worse would he?
But even in the gloom she saw a flash of white teeth within his irreverent, cruel smile. “Didn’t you know that I’d follow you here?”
“No . . . I . . .” Then she understood. Her hand flew to her throat and touched the gold chain surrounding her throat. When she’d been thrown from the horse the jeweled crucifix had slipped out of tunic’s neckline and now, even in the palest moonlight, it glittered against the leather laces and rough fabric. Her heart thudded as the stranger slowly dismounted.
“Where’d you get that?” he demanded, his eyes centered on the crucifix she was trying vainly to hide.
She didn’t answer. Couldn’t. If she admitted the cross was a gift form her mother as she lay dying, the outlaw would realize
who she was. “I stole it,” she said boldly, her voice low as she forced herself to edge closer to a dark thicket. “As well as the horse. From the baron.”
“So now you’re a thief?”
He snorted. “Surely you can do better than that.” He was so close now she could smell him, feel his hideous heat.
She had no weapon but a tiny knife in a pocket, but if he touched her she would surely use it–gladly jam it into his black heart. Carefully, barely moving, her heart beating frantically, she slid her fingers into the pocket. “Leave me alone,” she warned, still backing up.
“You started this.”
“I did nothing of the kind.”
Run! Now! While you still have a chance!
Twisting, she took off at a dead sprint, straight for the shadowed copse, but her toe caught in an exposed root and she fell forward, catching herself with her hands. Something in her wrist snapped. Pain splintered up her arm. “Ouch!”
“Where the devil do you think you’re going?” he demanded, his voice so horridly close she cringed. Her wrist throbbed painfully as he grabbed her by the shoulder and jerked her to her feet. “You can’t get away.”
“Leave me alone.”
“I don’t think so.”
Fear, cold as death, settled in her heart. She was alone with this . . . this outlaw. Far away from the castle. No one around to hear her scream. Strong fingers dug into the flesh.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Dear God, her whole arm ached.
“Teaching you a lesson.”
She thought he would try to rip the necklace from her throat. So be it. Slowly she reached into her pocket with her good hand. Her fingers found the tiny, wicked little blade. Quickly, she slipped the dagger into her palm. “Thought you’d get away, did you?” he snarled and to her horror his mouth crashed down on hers. He was rough, his fingers digging into her muscles, his beard scratching her face. So this was it. Not only did he mean to rob her, but rape her as well.
She’d die first.
And so would he.
He groaned and yanked her closer. Agony splintered up her wrist. She pulled out the knife. Ignored the pain. His tongue pressed hard against her clamped teeth. Bastard! In one quick movement, she jammed her tiny blade into his side.
He yelped, let go. “What the bloody—?”
She stumbled backward and tried to run, but he caught her arm. Whirling, she slashed her wicked little blade frantically as he cursed and dodged.
“Let go of me you miserable–oh!”
He twisted her arm back. Hot pain ripped through her shoulder.
“You little bitch!” Pain forced her to her knees. Her pathetically small blade fell from her blood-sticky fingers to the ground.
“Don’t, please . . .just take the necklace. Stop . . .” She tried to wriggle free but he was strong, breathing hard, smelling of sweat. Blinding pain ripped through her. It was all she could do to stay conscious. She was doomed. Without a weapon she was no match for him.
“The necklace?” he demanded.
“Aye, the crucifix.”
“As if that would be enough!” he growled as she nearly passed out again. She saw his teeth glint an evil white in the darkness. “Now let’s hear you beg.”
“Dear God, no . . .”
“You can do better than that.”
A twig snapped nearby.
The thug stiffened. “What the hell was that?”
Kiera’s legs were like water, her brain fuzzy, the pain so intense she heard a high pitch in her ears.
“Who goes there?” the outlaw demanded.
What was that?
“Ooowwhhh!” His body jerked. His grip loosened as he fell gasping to the ground.
Kiera didn’t wait. On her wobbly legs in an instant, she started running through the undergrowth, fear propelling her as wet branches slapped at her and her feet tangled in vines. She heard hoofbeats thudding behind her.
Oh, God, he’d gotten on his horse and was chasing her down. Or could it be Obsidian? She didn’t dare hope and crouching low, she scrambled through a thicket, her fingers scraping the bark, her shoulder and wrist throbbing in pain. Dewy fern fronds and spider webs brushed her face.
“Kiera!” Elyn’s voice slashed through the night.
Her sister was here? In the forest. Nay. Her mind was playing tricks on her.
“Kiera, for the love of St. Peter, where are you? Kiera!” Elyn’s voice rang with desperation.
What if the outlaw had somehow captured her sister? What if this was a trick?
“I can’t see a bloody inch in front of my eyes. Where the devil are you?”
Either way, she couldn’t abandon Elyn. Fingers scrabbling the forest floor she found a rock and palmed it. A poor weapon, but the best she could find. “Over here,” she said, tripping over a stick and picking it up though her wrist ached. ‘Twas little against the horrid beast, but she would bludgeon him with it if given half a chance.
Crouching she waited as the hoofbeats approached.
“For God’s sake, show yourself!” Elyn’s words seethed with anger and Kiera, making a sign of the cross over her chest, slunk from her hiding spot to a small clearing where, within seconds, Elyn arrived upon her sleek bay jennet. Small and compact upon her mare, she was leading the ghostly horse by the reins of its bridle. “Come on, let’s go!” she ordered furiously as she spied Kiera crouching in the shadows. “There is not much time. The
beast who attacked you is not yet dead. He could survive and follow us!”
That warning spurred Kiera to the pale animal. “What were you doing out here?”
“Saving you,” she snapped as her horse minced and danced nervously. “What were you doing?”
“Dressed as a pauper–don’t tell me, it was that damned horse. You stole Obsidian again, didn’t you?” She glanced around the night-shrouded glen. “And where is he? Where’s the damned steed?”
“Lost,” Kiera admitted miserably.
“Lost? How do you lose a prized stallion?”
“He threw me.”
“Oh, wonderful. Father will flail you within an inch of your life.”
“Don’t remind me,” Kiera sighed. She knew her punishment would be severe. Even if the steed was found unharmed.
“How did you get him out of the stable? Orson would never . . . Oh, don’t tell me. Joseph helped you, didn’t he?” She sighed audibly. “Foolish boy,” she muttered under her breath, then, with a glance at Kiera said, “Come on. There’s nothing more to do. Let’s go.” Elyn slapped the reins into Kiera’s frigid fingers while trying to control her edgy mare.
“Did you shoot him? The outlaw, I mean?” Kiera asked eyeing the bow and quiver slung over Elyn’s back. Her sister didn’t immediately answer, but ‘twas folly to think anything else. They were alone in the forest. Alone with a cruel man who could be a rapist or worse. She shuddered.
“Of course I shot him,” Elyn finally admitted, her words clipped. “There was naught else to do. Now either you ride with me or I’ll leave you here.”
“What about . . . ?”
“I think he can damned well rot in hell.”
“‘Twould be too good for him.” Despite the fact that her skin crawled being anywhere close to the vile thug and her one arm was useless, Kiera managed to climb upon his tall steed. As soon as she was astride, Elyn kicked her mount. The jennet bolted, running fast as the wind, swift dark legs eating up the wet ground. Kiera followed after, clinging to the saddle’s pommel and feeling the spray of mud as her own horse splashed through the puddles and bogs on this crooked path. She only prayed the horrid man who had attacked her didn’t awaken and call to his horse. This stallion might heed his master’s call and turn round.
Kiera shuddered at the thought. But the truth of the matter was that some animals obeyed better than that horrid Obsidian. She felt a pang of regret at the thought of the horse she loved so dearly. Biting her lip she silently prayed that her father’s stallion wasn’t hurt and would somehow return to Lawenydd
The path angled sharply and the forest gave way to the wide fields surrounding the castle. Elyn drew her horse to a stop, waiting for Kiera at the edge of the woods. The night was clear and moonlight gave the wheat stubble a silvery sheen. Far in the distance, rising on a cliff overlooking the sea, Lawenydd stood, six square towers seeming to disappear in the inky sky.
Kiera tugged on the reins, forcing her mount to slow. The big horse responded, tossing his yellowish head and breathing hard.
Elyn was glowering at her. “Father will kill us both,” she said, her features pulled into a dark scowl. She was the eldest by a year and a half. Kiera was next. Four years later Penelope had been born.
“You saved my life,” Kiera said, not worried about their father’s anger. Llwyd of Lawenydd was a blustery man who adored his wayward daughters and would punish them yes, but, in the end, forgive them. But Elyn had truly delivered Kiera from a horrid fate. At the thought of her attacker, Kiera trembled Had not her sister arrived when she had, had her aim not been true.
Elyn threw her a hard look. “You were foolish.”
“Yes, I know, but I owe you my life.”
“‘Twas fortunate that I was there.”
“Aye.” Kiera studied her sister’s frown. “What–what were you doing in the forest?”
“Looking for you.” Elyn’s hands tightened over the reins and her features hardened. “‘Twas lucky I found you. As for Obsidian, let’s hope he’s smart enough to return to the castle.”
“I can’t thank you enough,” Kiera said, glancing at her sister. “I–I want you to have this,” she added in rush as she pulled the necklace over her head. Pain surged through her but she ignored it. Urging her horse forward she dropped the crucifix into her sister’s hand. “Please, take it, and know that to repay you, I’ll do anything you ever ask.”
“But mother gave this to you. Before she died.”
“‘Tis yours now.”
“Hush. This is silly. Kiera, you don’t have to--”
“Yes, yes, I do. Please, Elyn. I . . I’m indebted to you for life,” Kiera insisted, overwhelmed. “And . . and whenever you wish the debt repaid, just give the necklace back to me and I’ll remember this vow. I’ll do anything for you.”
“Anything?” Elyn asked, shaking her head as if Kiera was talking nonsense.
“I mean it. Whatever you ask me to do, I’ll do it, Elyn. You saved my life. Of that I have no doubt. None. Now, please,
take this and remember to ask me to return the favor. Please.” She pressed the crucifix with it fine gold chain into her sister’s gloved palm.
“Mayhap I should have my punishment from father laid upon you.” Elyn said, and for the first time Kiera saw a flash of a white–a bit of a smile–upon her sister’s face.
“Yes!” Kiera lifted her chin proudly. “Ask him.”
Elyn laughed a little, though the sound that rippled over the night-shrouded fields sounded hollow. “Nay. You’ll suffer enough at his hand. I’ll save calling in your debt for later, when I need a favor, now, come on, we’re already in trouble. Let’s not make it any worse.”
“What will happen to . . . .” Kiera nodded toward the woods.
“The man who attacked you? And Obsidian?” With a sigh, Elyn blew a strand of hair from her eyes. “I thought we decided any form of torture would be too good for the outlaw and we should let him rot and die, but, I suppose we’ll have to tell father the truth. All of it. The horse will have to be found and the thug attended to before being imprisoned.”
“Unless he’s already dead.”
“‘Twould be a blessing, would it not?” Elyn said, then glanced up at the sky. “A blessing.”
“Yes.” Kiera shuddered. “I hope I never see him again.”
“Me, too,” Elyn said vehemently, her eyes slitting as she spurred her horse and the bay whirled, then shot forward across
the silvery fields. “Me, too.”