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That rough, dirty, greedy rascal of a horse trader was a gentleman compared to what lay ahead. Thanks to his warning, when next I heard the rhythm of hooves on stone, I turned aside from the track. If I had not lamed Annie, damn my stupidity, she could have carried me swiftly into the forest and away—but as it was, we did not have much time. I grabbed Annie by the forelock and whispered to her, “Hurry!” But she had not hobbled much more than ten limping steps off the path when, with his chain mail jangling and the saddle leather creaking under his armored weight, the knight rode past. All I could do was freeze like a rabbit, staring, and hope the knight did not look my way. Luck was with me. He rode with his visor down, so unless he turned his head he could see only straight before him. I noticed smears of brownish red on his shield and armor—at first I thought it was rust, but a moment later I knew better—then I had to choke back horror that would have made me cry out. At his knee, hanging by its hair, swung the severed, dripping head of what had once been a man.
He rode past, and I leaned against Annie’s solid warmth and took several deep breaths to keep from retching.
Then we went on. A small distance up the trail Annie shied; any horse will shy at the smell of fresh blood. Just off the path lay the beheaded body. I shuddered and passed by.
Later that same day I barely got Annie off the path before another knight passed by, this one with a squire riding behind him. The knight wore his visor, but it was just blind luck that the squire did not see us.
The next day luck turned against us.
That day for a wonder the sun shone golden through the green trees. The sunshine lifted my heart. But for years afterward I distrusted such green-gold days, as if they might mean a cruel trick of fate.
I remember how the sunlight gleamed on the black charger decked in scarlet as the knight rode up the path, as I watched him from between the trees with Annie by my side, as I kept silence, almost certain that he would pass by like the others. I remember how sun rays glistered on his hulking trunk draped in chain mail, his greaves, his gauntlets, his red-plumed helm, his visor behind which I could see only shadow. I remember how that golden light caught on his sword hilt and the device on his shield—a red griffin rampant. I remember how it glinted on the lance his squire carried—
I gasped. The squire was Thomas.
The knight heard my gasp and turned his head. “Oh ho,” he said, wheeling his charger and spurring it toward me.
I scarcely heard him or saw him, for Thomas’s wide-eyed gaze met mine, and time had stopped for me. Thomas. His shoulders broader, his jaw harder, and a shadow in his sky blue eyes that was new to me, but still that steady regard. True Thomas.
The knight halted his steed beside me, reached down and seized me above the elbow with a grasp of steel.
Shock made me scream and struggle even before I realized what was happening. With all my small strength I strove to wrench myself free from his rough grip, glimpsing his wintery eyes through his visor. My thrashings only made him scowl. “Stupid wench,” he growled, tightening his fingers. “Stop it. You’re mine.” Might meant right. Because he was stronger, he could take me and do what he would with me.
As if from another, kinder world I heard Thomas cry, “Annie!” and shout something I did not understand. Annie shrilled and reared, striking the knight full in his mailed chest with both forehooves.
She almost unseated him. Only the high cantle of his saddle kept him from toppling. He lost his grip on me, and let out a yell of anger. Off balance from pulling against him, I fell hard to the rocky ground, and there I lay with the breath knocked out of me, gawking up uselessly. I saw Thomas charging, riding low over his horse’s neck with lance couched, spurring the steed between trees, trying to save me. I saw Annie rear again—
The knight drew his broadsword and lopped off Annie’s head.
Just like that, like killing a rat.
I saw the sword flash like a brown trout leaping, saw the spurt of vivid red—heart’s blood, brighter than any flower that ever bloomed. Annie’s blood. I saw her head fly, her eyes still living and terrified for a moment as she died.
At the same time Thomas drove into the knight with the lance. But the knight wheeled, and Thomas’s blow slipped off his breastplate. The knight bellowed, “What! Traitor!” and his shield struck the lance aside. With his sword already reddened by Annie’s blood he turned on Thomas.
No. Please, no. I lurched to my feet. Thomas had no armor, no weapon, not even a leather jerkin to protect him. He threw up his arm to block the first blow and gave a shout more like a scream: “Morgan, run!”
I stood by Annie’s lifeless body. I saw blood, that reddest of all reds, well from Thomas’s arm and shoulder. The sword lifted again.
I snatched the milpreve out from under my dress; it blazed like blue fire, so bright it blinded me, so hot it burned my hand, but not as hot as the fire dragon inside me roaring, raging, rearing to smite. I shrieked, “Death to that knight! Kill him! Kill—”
The power knocked me off my feet, slammed me against an oak and drove me to the ground. I did not get to see the knight fall dead.
I awoke a few mo-ments later feeling as if his gauntleted fist had struck me down. Thomas crouched over me, clutching his wounded arm and panting with pain. Blood trickled between his fingers.
“Thomas!” Weak and dazed, I struggled to my knees beside him.
“You saved my life,” he whispered.
“Who saved whom?” I ripped at the frock I wore over my dress and managed to yank it off. Easing his hand aside, I started to wrap the wound, trying to stop the flow of blood.
“Morgan,” he murmured, and he leaned his head against my shoulder and fainted.
I piled on top of Annie’s body anything that I could find to keep the carrion birds off her: branches, stones, the dead knight’s shield and mail and armor.
I wrested all his warrior gear off him and left him sprawled in his woolens; the crows and ravens could have him. Let them feast on him soon; it galled me to see not a mark on him. His dead eyes staring out of his grizzled beard looked surprised, that was all. I wanted to put my heel to his cruel nose and cave his face in for hurting Thomas and killing Annie, but I didn’t do it; I knew the memory would sicken me later, and there was already enough to sicken me.
By the time I got Annie covered, I no longer noticed that I was crying. Sobs came out of me rhythmically, just a noise like the turning of a mill wheel. I kept an eye on Thomas lying wrapped in my mantle on a patch of moss under a gigantic tree. He had a deep cut in his shoulder and a long bloody gash in his arm. I had wrapped the wounds as tightly as I could and swaddled his arm against his body so that he would not move it, then laid him there. He had not stirred or moaned, and I hoped he was still unconscious of his pain, but as I finished building my makeshift cairn over Annie, he turned his head and whispered, “Morgan.”
I trotted over to him and knelt beside him. He looked up at me, his blue eyes narrow and clouded. His free hand wavered toward my face.
He murmured, “Don’t cry.”
Reminded that I was crying, I could barely hold back the sobs. Tears ran down my face. Thomas whispered, “Is it—Ongwynn?”
“No.” I rubbed my face dry with my blue velvet sleeve; it was filthy and I am sure so was I. “No, Ongwynn was well when I left.”
“She’s with Ongwynn.”
“But why—why are you—”
“Hush.” Later I would tell him why I was out here wandering the mountain, why I had gotten Annie killed, curse everything, curse Avalon and the sending that had brought me here, curse my idiocy that had made Annie lame, curse that foul knight—I felt fiercely glad that I had killed him. But at the same time the memory of my own power chilled me.
Could I kill people anytime I wanted now?
Could I plan for this? Or did rage make me do it?
Whom would I kill next?
I shivered and brushed the thoughts aside. There was no time for thinking right now. “We have to move,” I told Thomas. “Get away from here.” Away from the path and away from the bodies.
He nodded and struggled to sit up.
“Wait,” I told him, “let me bring your horse first.” I ran to where I had tethered the stolid bay nag and led it to him. He could not quite stand until I reached to help him; then he pulled himself to his feet, swaying. His blue gaze focused on my hand, still clutched in his.
“You’re hurt,” he declared in round-eyed bewilderment, as if this could not be so. Holding my hand palm up, he stared at a raw hole seared into the flesh, a burn about the size of a walnut.
“It’s nothing.” I had barely noticed the mark, not even to wonder what had done it to me; my hurts were not worth bothering about compared to his.
He kept hold of my hand. “You have a sweetheart?”
The ring woven of soft sable brown hair. “My mother.”
“Queen Igraine! I—I have been trying to find her. . . . He let go of me and grabbed for the nearest tree to stay upright, closing his eyes against his own weakness.
“Thomas, no more talking.” I snatched up my mantle from the ground. “We have to get you on this horse. Can you put your foot in the stirrup?”
He did, and grasped the mane with his free hand and tried to swing himself up, but could not make it. He slumped with his belly across the saddle.
“Stay there,” I told him.
He mumbled something. “ . . . try again.”
“Thomas, stay the way you are.”
I chirruped at the horse and tugged the reins to get it moving.
I led it at a gentle walk—but there is no such thing as gentle when the way leads up a wilderness mountain. Thomas was moaning by the time we had gone half a furlong. But only a little farther, I found a rocky scarp to give us shelter of sorts and, for a wonder, a trickle of water. I stopped the horse and eased Thomas off it.
He folded to the ground and gasped. “Morgan, what are you doing here?”
“Plaguing you,” I snapped, and I threw my mantle over him, then left him for a moment while I ran back for Annie’s packs and the knight’s black charger.
I threw the bags over the black horse, trotted it back to Thomas, and pulled the gear off both horses, dumping their saddles and bridles and packs in a mess on the ground. Then like a badger I started rooting through the baggage. That accursed knight was well provisioned; at least we would not lack food while Thomas healed. Soup, I thought vaguely. Might there be a kettle in this muddle? Make fire, make soup. Find a soft place for Thomas, moss, leaves, bracken, find blankets, make a proper bed for him—
“Morgan,” he murmured.
I left the packs and knelt beside him. It hurt me to look at him lying so pale, so beautiful, so perilously hurt. Blue shadows lay on his tender eyelids. He did not open his eyes.
“I’m right here,” I told him.
“Did he hurt you?”
“No! I’m fine.” Every part of me ached as if I had been thrashed, but my heart hurt worst. Annie. Thomas.
“Gypsy—pony,” Thomas whispered.
“Mane like—lady’s hair.”
“Yes.” Yes, I had kept Annie shining, even on the journey. My gentle Annie. I had never known it was in her to fight like that. To save me. “Morgan, you—you grew.”
He was lying there with his eyes closed, talking almost in his sleep, but I became suddenly, blushingly conscious of the way the velvet gown bared my neck and clung to my breasts.
“Hush,” I told him, my voice not quite under control. “Go to sleep before I take a rock to you.” I went off to tend campfire, make soup and all the rest of it. When I felt sure Thomas was deeply sleeping, I pulled off the ragged, filthy gown, washed myself at the icy trickle of springwater, and put on one of my old brown frocks.
“No,” said Thomas.
“But I am sure I can do it.”
“No. It’ll hurt you.”
We sat whispering like the trees in the night, leaning against the rocks and listening to the darkness, the forest breathing, the silences and screams and hootings and wild laughter of neither of us knew what. It was our third night in that wilderness, and Thomas felt strong enough now to sit up and keep watch with me for a while. But his face showed moon pale in the light of my milpreve.
I held it on my lap, and it shone there like a blue star. I had put out the cooking fire for fear of attracting unwelcome company; the milpreve was our only light.
“It won’t hurt me much,” I said doubtfully. I wanted to use the milpreve to heal him. All day every day the summons of Avalon tugged like a fishhook in me, and all night every night; I paced in the dark and could not sleep. I had to travel. But I could not leave him.
“Not much?” he mocked gently. “Just burn a hole in you, blacken your eyes, knock you down—”
“I don’t mind.”
“Morgan—” He sat forward to face me, his tone stark serious. “That stone terrifies me. Put it away. Please.”
I could not refuse him anything he asked of me in that way. I lifted the milpreve and let it drop inside my gown—some whim had made me wear the sea green gown, and I had plaited my hair in a crown and wound it with ivy just for something to do. I had put a garland of ivy on Thomas too, to amuse him. But neither of us could see the other in the dark.
His voice came to me out of shadows.
“The milpreve,” he said. “Is that the reason you must go to Avalon?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know who wants you there or why?”
I shook my head.
“Morgan?” He could not see me.
“I think it’s the moon,” I mumbled.
“That fits,” he said. “Lunacy.”
We had been through this. The first time I had mentioned the name of Avalon, it had shocked his breath away. It was a place where no one ventured, he had told me, not even warring lords, not even renegade knights. Or if knights ventured there, they came back mad and gibbering and unable to say what terror lay there, or they did not return at all. “The moon,” I said, “or the youngest fay, the primrose one.”
I did not have to explain to him.
He knew of these things, as Ongwynn had said the night he had guessed her name. The Gypsies had spoken of these things around their campfires. Some folk said that the language of the Gypsies
was the language of fays and magic, the language that spoke to flowers and animals, a language that could tell a placid little dapple-gray pony to rear up and strike an armored knight.
“You’re never likely to face a greater peril,” whispered Thomas.
“I know,” I said. Actually, I did not know. I did not understand then, or for years to come, how I carried my greatest peril to Avalon within my heart.
“Morgan, do you really have to go there?”
“Yes. The calling in me . . .” I could not begin to explain to him the yearning so strong it took away my fear and made me feel as if I should have been at Avalon yesterday. I murmured, “If only there were someplace safe for you to stay …;”
I let the thought trail away, for I knew of no safe place in the world except Caer Ongwynn, much too far away.
“No,” said Thomas, “I will go with you.”