The voice was soft, but insistent, like a flax seed lodged in his collar, a tiny irritation relentlessly pricking the back of the neck, ever nagging. Reverberating through his head, it urged him onward as he slipped through the gloom of the keep.
You know you cannot wait any longer. Redemption is at hand. For you. For them.
He flicked an anxious tongue to his lips, tasted the salt of his sweat though it was freezing within the castle walls, his own breath fogging and mixing with the smoke from the smoldering rush lights. His muscles ached with tension and fear, his ears strained to hear the quietest footfall lest he be discovered. Still he hesitated.
You must do it. Now. All is in place. The guards are asleep from all the revelry, their minds sluggish from too much ale. The guests, too, with their full bellies and wine-sotted minds, sleep as if dead. And the lord's family, all of them, are near-dead already, their cups having been washed with the potion. Their rutting has ceased. Hear them snore through the doors to their chambers.
From the depths of his cowl, he looked over his shoulder, checking the hallway one last time and then, knowing God was speaking to him, lifted his torch to the embers of the hallway sconces. With a crackle and hiss, the oil-soaked tip caught fire, casting the dark corridor in flickering, deadly shadows. Swiftly he bent down and touched his torch to the bit of braided oil-doused cloth that he'd tucked under the doors moments earlier, then watched in fascination as the quick little flames sped beneath the door to the dried rushes spread thickly upon the chamber floor.
First the baron, he thought, then the rest.
He worked with speed, praying softly, lighting each wick in succession along the corridor. His heart hammered wildly, sweat and fear sliding down his spine. Should he be caught, he would be imprisoned, quickly judged a traitor, then hung until he was twitching, near death. Before he'd taken his last breath, he would be removed from the gallows, his body drawn and quartered, his entrails spilling out while he was yet alive and then, upon his death, his head skewered upon a pike and placed on display, high above the wide wall walk, an example to all who might consider this kind of treason.
Do not fear. Your cause is just. You are The Redeemer.
Smoke began to fill the hallway, seeping stealthily beneath the doors.
He calmed his fears. 'Twas done. The rest was in God's hands, or those of the devil. He knew not which, nor did he care. For the voice that urged him on came from within, the nagging insistence arising from a deep part of his own desire, the words only amplifying what he wanted so desperately. And yet he heard them as surely as if someone had whispered them against his ear. He told himself they came because God wanted vengeance. He was but the servant . . . unless it wasn't God who spoke so intimately to him.
Unless it was a demon or even Satan himself.
He glanced around the arched ceiling of the hallway, breathing shallowly as if expecting an angel of darkness to swoop down before him as the smoke rose in thin, evil wisps.
Yet no apparition appeared.
Whether the voice he heard was from heaven or hell, the deed was done. Redemption, and, aye, vengeance were at hand. At last.
At the end of the corridor, he tossed his torch onto the floor then swept rapidly down the stairs, his footsteps making no sound as he eased out of the keep and into the black, moonless night.
Soon someone would rouse.
Soon an alarm would sound.
Soon it would be over.
And justice, at long last, would be served.
Twelve, January, 1289
Morwenna moved upon the bed.
Lifting her head she saw the glowing embers of the fire, red coals casting golden shadows upon the castle walls. But what castle? Where is she? There were no windows and high above the walls, past creaking cross beams she spied the night sky, dozens of stars winking far in the distance.
Where was she?
In a prison? Held captive in an old, forsaken keep whose roof had blown away?
Her name echoed against the thick walls, reverberating and turning her blood to ice.
She twisted on the bed and stared into the shadows. "Who goes there?" she whispered, her heart thudding.
"‘Tis I." A deep male voice, one she should recognize, whispered from the dark corners of this seemingly endless chamber. Her skin crawled. With one hand she clamped the bedding to her breast and realized that she was naked. With the other hand she searched the bed, fingers scrabbling for her dagger, but it, like her clothes, was missing.
"Wh-who?" she demanded.
"Don't you know?"
Was he teasing her?
"Nay. Who are you?"
A deep chuckle from the gloom.
"Carrick?" she whispered as he appeared, stepping into the light, a tall warrior with broad shoulders, deep-set eyes and chiseled chin. She couldn't trust him. Not again. And yet a thrill pulsed through her veins and erotic images stole through her mind.
He stepped closer to the bed and her heart pounded, her mouth suddenly desert-dry. She couldn't help but remember the feel of his sinewy muscles beneath her finger-tips, the salty taste of his skin, the male smell of him that had always stirred her.
"What're you doing here . . . how did you get in?" she asked, but realized she didn't know where she was.
"I came for you," he said and she trembled inside.
"I don't believe you."
"You never did." He was close to the bed now and leaned even nearer. Her heart thudded as he slowly pulled his tunic over his head and the fire glow caught in his sinewy muscles as they moved. "Remember?"
Oh, yes . . . yes, she remembered.
And cursed herself for it.
"You should go," she told him.
"Anywhere but here." She forced the words out.
His smile flashed white. Knowing. Oh, he was a devil. Isa was right. Morwenna should never have allowed him close to her, let him into this room without a ceiling.
But you didn't. You don't even know where you are. Perhaps you're his captive and this is your prison cell. Could it not be that he is keeping you here as his slave, to minister to him, to lay with him, to do his bidding?
"If you won't leave, then I will," she said, her gaze sliding away from his face to search the floor and the pegs near the door for her clothes.
"Will you?" he taunted, settling onto the bed next to her and running a finger down the side of her jaw. Her skin prickled in delight. Her blood rippled with lust. "I think not."
He laughed at her, ran his finger ever lower, pushing aside the bed clothes, baring her breast, watching the nipple pucker under his perusal and though Morwenna knew she was making a devastating mistake, she turned her face up to his, felt the warmth of his breath against her skin, knew that she would never be able to resist him. A deep warmth invaded that most intimate of regions and she sighed as he worked his way lower, calloused fingers trickling down her willing flesh.
Lowering his head he placed a kiss upon her bare abdomen.
She moaned, heat pulsing through her body, when she sensed they were not alone; that unseen eyes were watching their every move. Someone or something with evil intent.
From where? The open ceiling where she saw stars shooting across the heavens . . . or closer? In the room with them?
"Morwenna!" Someone was calling her, but she could not be disturbed not when this man she had loved with all of her heart had returned. "Morwenna!"
Her eyes flew open.
The dream evaporated like a ghost chased by morning's light. And yet she was certain, she could feel it in her bones, that something was gravely amiss.