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By Heather Graham
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2002 Shannon Drake
All rights reserved.
They were surely madmen.
From the hill, Igrainia could see the riders coming.
They flew the flags of Robert the Bruce.
They had to be mad.
She rode with a party of twenty men, selected carefully for their skill and courage — and, of course, the simple fact that they were still alive and well. They wore full armor and carried well-honed weapons with which they were very adept.
There were less than half that number coming toward them, a pathetically ragtag band, racing up the hill.
"My lady ...?" queried Sir Morton Hamill, head of her guard.
"Can we outrun them?" she asked.
Sir Morton let out a sound of disgust. "Outrun them!" He was indignant. "They are but rabble; their so-called king runs to the forests while his family is slain in his stead. The Bruce is aware that he is an outlaw to most of his own people. My lady, there is no reason to run."
"No reason," she said, her eyes narrowing, "except that more men will die. I am weary of death."
The riders were still gaining on them at a breakneck pace, racing from the site of the castle, where surely even they had realized that the black crosses covering the stone were no ploy of the enemy, but a true warning of the situation within.
Sir Morton was trying hard to hold his temper. "My lady, I am aware of the pain in your heart. But these are the very renegades who brought the terror to your home, who cost you ... who cost you everything."
"No man, or woman, asks for the plague, Sir Morton. And indeed, if you ask Father MacKinley, he will tell you that God sent the sickness in his anger that we should brutally make hostages of women and children, and execute our enemies so freely. We were warned of the sickness; we refused to believe the warnings of our foes. So now, if we can outrun the renegades, that is my choice. It was not my choice to leave Langley. I want no more death laid at my feet."
"Alas. We cannot outrun them," Sir Morton argued then. "They are almost upon us."
She stared at him angrily. "You would fight them rather than do your duty to bring me to safety."
"My lady, you are beside yourself with grief and cannot think clearly. I would fight such upstart rebels, aye, my lady, for that is my duty."
"Sir Morton, I am in my full senses, quite capable of coherent thought — "
"My lady, watch! Your position here on the hill is excellent; you may view the carnage as I take my revenge on these knaves!"
Furious, Igrainia reined in her horse as Sir Morton called out an order to his men. He did not intend to await the enemy. He meant to attack first.
"Sir Morton!" She raged with fury, her heart sick as she watched the men spur their horses to his command. In seconds, the liege men of her late lord, Afton of Langley, spurned her order and took flight down the hill.
They seemed to sail in a sea of silver, armor gleaming in the sun. The colors they flew, the rich blue and red, noble colors, created a riot of shades along with the silver stream. Down the hill, a display of might and power ...
Bearing down upon a sad rabble, scattered horsemen on fine enough mounts, some in tarnished armor, most in no more than leather jerkins to protect their hearts from the onslaught of steel that would soon come their way.
At her distance, she could see their leader. She frowned, wondering what madness would make a man risk certain death. She narrowed her eyes against the sun, studying the man. A small gasp escaped her.
She had seen him before. She knew, because he rode without protection; no helmet covered his head, and the length of his tangled blond hair glinted in the sun with almost as much of a sheen as the steel helmets worn by her own people. She had seen him dragged in with the other captured men, shackled in irons. He had looked like a wild man, uncivilized, a barbarian, yet despite the dirt and mud that marred his clothes, she had seen his eyes once, when they had met hers, and she had read something frightening in that glance. She had the odd feeling that he had allowed himself to be taken prisoner, though why, she didn't know. Or perhaps she did. Castle Langley, as her husband's home was called, had just been turned into quarters for the king's men when they had come through, bearing the families of Scottish outlaws to London, where they would be held until their rebel kin surrendered.
And offered their own necks to the axeman's blade.
Sir Morton's men were nearly upon the riders. In the glittering sunlight, it was almost a beautiful spectacle, the gleam and glint of steel and color ...
Until the riders came together in a hideous clash, horses screaming, men shouting, steel becoming drenched in the deep red of blood. Tears suddenly stung her eyes; Afton had wanted no part of this. He had been furious with the order to welcome the king's men, to house renegades who were his own people. He had demanded that the hostages not be treated as animals, even when they spoke with their highland language and strange burrs, and looked like wild creatures from heathen times. He had stood, a proud voice of reason and mercy, until he had fallen ...
And neither her love nor her prowess with herbs had managed to save him.
He would have been furious at this bloodbath, had he been with her.
Had he had his way, they would never have come to this ...
She gasped, bringing her hand to her lips as she saw that a rebel had met Sir Morton head on, ever ready to do battle. The rebel was the wild man with the tangled blond hair.
Sir Morton's sword never made contact with the rebel's flesh.
Sir Morton's head fell to the earth and bounced as his body continued through the mass upon his horse, until that part of him, too fell to the ground to be trampled upon.
Bile filled her throat. She closed her eyes, and lowered her head, fighting the sickness that threatened to overwhelm her. Dear God, she had just left plague victims, nursed the sick and the putrid and the rotting and ...
With her eyes closed, she could still see the head, bouncing.
The clash of steel seemed to rise in a cacophony around her; she heard more cries, shouts, the terrified whinnies of warhorses, animals accustomed to battle and mayhem. She forced herself to look up.
The finest armor to be found had not protected the men of Langley from the fury of the rebels' wrath. Men lay everywhere.
Armor glinting in the sun. The shining intermittent, against the bloodstained field. Some had survived. Unhorsed, the men milled in a circle. There were shouts and commands; the blond giant was on his feet as well, approaching the eight or so men of Langley who remained standing. Watching, appalled, she didn't realize her own danger. Voices carried on the air.
"Do we slay them now?" someone inquired.
The blond man replied, then shouted at the survivors. Swords fell to the ground. One man fell to his knees. Did he do so in absolute desolation, or in gratitude for his life?
Were they to be executed? Or were their lives to be spared?
She couldn't tell. Others were talking, but they spoke in softer voices.
One of the rebels pointed up the hill.
Then, suddenly, the blond man was staring at her.
She couldn't see his eyes in the distance. She could only remember them.
He started toward his horse.
Only then did she realize her own situation, and that he was mounting to ride once again, after her.
She spurred her horse, praying that she knew this region better than he, that her mare was a fresher mount, ready to take her to greater bursts of speed ...
For a far longer period of time.
She prayed ...
There had been a time, not so long ago, that she had wanted to die. When the death and despair had seemed so great that she would willingly have taken Afton's hand, and entered the afterlife with him. That moment when she realized that she had lost him, that he had breathed his last, that his laughter would never sound again.
And yet now ...
She did not want to depart this life at the hands of a furious barbarian, bent on some form of revenge. She thought of how Edward I had killed Wallace, of the horrors that had taken place, of the English furor at the crowning of Robert Bruce.
And she rode as she had never done before, flat against her mare's neck, heels jamming the beast's haunches, whispers begging her to ever greater speed. The rebel's horse had to be flagging; their animals had been foaming when they first met with the men of Langley. If she could just evade him for a distance ...
She galloped over the hill, through the thick grasses of the lea to the north. The forest beckoned beyond the hill, a forest she knew well, with twisting trails and sheltering oaks, a place in which to disappear. She could see the trees, the great branches waving high in the sky, the darkness of the trails beneath the canopy of leaves. She could smell the very richness of the earth and hear the leaves, as she could hear the thunder of her horse's hooves, the desperate, ragged catch of her own breath, the pulse of her heartbeat, echoed with each thunder of a hoof upon the earth. There ... just a moment away ...
She was never aware that his horse's hoofbeats thundered along with those of her mare; the first she knew of him was the hook of his arm, sweeping her from her horse in a deadly gamble. She was whisked from the mare and left to watch as the horse made the shelter of the trees. And for a moment, she looked on, in amazement, as she dangled from the great warhorse, a prisoner taken by a madman.
She began to twist and struggle, and bite — a sound enough attack so that he swore, and dropped her. His horse was huge; she fell a distance to the earth, stunned, then gathered her senses quickly and began to run. She headed for the dark trail, desperately, running with the speed of a hunted doe.
Yet again, she was swept off her feet, this time, lifted up, and thrown down, and the next thing she knew, he was on top of her, smelling of the earth and the blood of battle. She screamed, fought, kicked, yet found her hands vised above her head, and the barbarian straddled atop her, staring at her with a cold, wicked fury that allowed no mercy.
"You are the lady of Langley," he said.
"Igrainia," she replied.
"I don't give a damn about your name," he told her. "But you will come with me, and you will demand that the gates be opened."
She shook her head, "I cannot —"
She broke off as he raised a hand to strike her. The blow did not fall.
"You will," he said simply. "Or I will break you, bone by bone, until you do so."
"There is plague there, you idiot!"
"My wife is there, and my daughter," he told her.
"They are all dead or dying within the castle!"
"So you run in fear!" he said contemptuously.
"No! No," she raged, struggling to free herself again. Afraid? Of the plague? She was afraid only of life without Afton now.
Not quite true, she realized. She was afraid of this man who would carry out his every threat, and break her. Bone by bone. She had never seen anyone so coldly determined.
"I am not afraid of the plague for myself!" she managed to snap out with an amazing tone of contempt.
"Good. We will go back, my fine lady, and you will dirty your hands with caring for those who are ill. You will save my wife, if she is stricken, or so help me, you will forfeit your own life."
Dirty her hands? He thought she was afraid to dirty her hands after the days and nights she had been through?
Her temper rose like a battle flag, and she spat at him. "Kill me then, you stupid, savage fool! I have been in that castle. Death does not scare me. I don't care anymore. Can you comprehend that? Are such words in your vocabulary?"
She gasped as he stood, wrenching her to her feet.
"If my wife or my daughter should die because of the English king's cruelty against the innocent, my lady, you are the one who will pay."
"My husband is dead because of the sickness brought in by your people!" she cried, trying to wrench her arm free. She could not. She looked at the hand vised around her arm. Huge, long-fingered, covered in mud and earth and ...
His grip seemed stronger than steel. Not to be broken. She stood still, determined not to tremble or falter. His face was as muddied and filthy as his hand and tangled blond hair. Only those sky blue eyes peered at her uncovered by the remnants of battle, brilliant and hard.
He either hadn't heard her, or he didn't give a damn. His command of language seemed to be excellent, so she assumed it was the latter.
"Hear me again. If my wife dies, my lady, you will be forfeit to the mercy of the Scottish king's men."
"Mercy? There is no mercy to be had there."
"At this point? Perhaps you are quite right. Therefore, you had best save my wife."
"I, sir, have no difficulty doing anything in my power to save the stricken, though I can assure you — their lives are in God's hands, and no others. I was forced to leave Langley. I did not go of my own volition."
He arched a brow skeptically. "You were willing to serve the plague-stricken and dying?"
"Aye, I would have stayed there willingly. I had no reason to leave."
"You are the lady of Langley."
He didn't seem to care why she would have stayed.
"Then, as you say, it will be no hardship for you to return."
"Where I go, or what is done to me, does not matter in the least."
"You will save my wife, and my child." She raised her chin.
"As I have told you, and surely you must understand, their lives are in God's hands. What, then, if I cannot save them?"
"Then it will be fortunate that you seem to have so little care for your own life."
He shoved her forward.
With no other choice, Igrainia walked.
Yet her heart was sinking.
If your wife is among the women stricken, then I am afraid that she has already died! Igrainia thought.
Because she had lied. She had thought herself immune to fear when she left Langley. Immune to further pain. Now, she was discovering that she did fear for her life, that there was something inside her that instinctively craved survival.
She wanted to live.
But if she failed, so he proclaimed, he would break her. That was certainly no less savage than the commands given by Edward in regard to the wives and womenfolk of any man loyal to Robert the Bruce.
Break her. Bone by bone.
It was all in God's hands. But maybe this filthy and half-savage man, no matter how articulate, didn't comprehend that.
"I will save your wife and child, if you will give me a promise."
"You think that you can barter with me?" he demanded harshly.
"I am bartering with you."
"You will do as I command."
"No. No, I will not. Because you are welcome to lop off my head here and now if you will not barter with me."
"Do you think that I will not?"
"I don't care if you do or do not!"
"So the lord of Langley is dead!" he breathed bitterly.
"Indeed. So you have no power over me."
"Believe me, my lady, if I choose, I can show you that I have power over you. Death is simple. Life is not. The living can be made to suffer. Your grief means nothing to me. It was the lord of Langley who imprisoned the women and children."
She shook her head. "You're wrong! So foolishly wrong! What care they received was by his order. Those who will live will do so, because he commanded their care. And he is dead because of the wretched disease brought in by your women and your children."
"None of this matters!" he roared to her.
She ignored his rage, and the tightening vise of his fingers around her arm.
She stared at his hand upon her, and then into his eyes, so brilliantly blue and cold against the mud-stained darkness of his face.
"I will save your wife and child, if you will swear to let your prisoners live."
Again, he arched a brow and shrugged. "Their fates matter not in the least to me; save her, and they shall live."
She started forward again, then once more stopped. She had spoken with contempt and assurance. A bluff, a lie. And now, her hands were shaking. "What if I cannot? What if it has gone too far? God decides who lives and dies, and the black death is a brutal killer —"
"You will save them," he said.
They had reached his horse, an exceptionally fine mount. Stolen, she was certain, from a wealthy baron killed in battle. He lifted her carelessly upon the horse, then stared up at her, as if seeing her, really seeing her, perhaps for the first time.
Excerpted from Knight Triumphant by Heather Graham. Copyright © 2002 Shannon Drake. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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