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By Sarah McKerrigan
Warner ForeverCopyright © 2007 Sarah McKerrigan
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAutumn 1136
"He is coming." Miriel's eyes widened, and she stumbled out of her last taijiquan posture. She glanced anxiously about the chamber. "Who?"
She was always on guard now. Since the Knights of Cameliard had insinuated themselves into the household of Riv enloch Castle, she never knew when a Norman warrior might barge into her bedchamber.
"The Night," Sung Li replied mysteriously, continuing with the measured taijiquan poses, moving with a youthful grace that belied the wrinkled face and long snowy braid, shifting slowly from left foot to right, then arcing like a bow being drawn.
But Miriel's tranquillity of a moment before was irreparably shattered. "What knight?" she hissed.
Sung Li spoke serenely. "The Night that comes to swallow The Shadow."
Miriel scowled, her tense shoulders relaxing. So Sung Li was only being intentionally obtuse again. The old servant's prophecies were usually accurate, but sometimes Miriel's wise and wizened companion seemed impossibly inscrutable. And inevitably chose the most unfortunate times to deliv er the darkest omens.
Shivering out her rattled nerves, Miriel resumed her exercises, shadowing Sung Li in their daily ritual. Beyond and below the open shutters of the keep, the first slender spears of sunlight pierced through the Scots woods. But now that Sung Li had cast a stone into her pool ofcalm, rippling her meditativ e poise, Miriel's movements grew awkward.
What did that mean-the night that comes to swallow the shadow? A cloudy evening? A harsh winter? Another invasion by the English? Or could it mean something more ... personal?
Lost in thought, Miriel wobbled and wavered and lost her balance, coming down hard on one bare foot.
"Curse it all!" She crossed her arms, blowing a stray tendril of dark hair out of her eyes. "How can I concentrate when you deliv er such ominous tidings?"
Sung Li broke from the pose long enough to turn an amused, smug look upon her. "A true Master would not be distracted, not even by-"
"A dragon breathing its fiery breath upon his head," Miriel finished in a mutter. "I know. But you could have saved it for later."
Sung Li finished the last extended movement, bowed respectfully toward the sun, then faced Miriel with a solemn expression. "Later is too late. The Night is coming soon."
A slip of a breeze drifted through the window just then, bringing in the crisp October air. But the preternatural chill that shuddered Miriel's bones had naught to do with the season. Night was coming soon? 'Twas scarcely dawn.
Their gazes met, and Miriel thought she'd never seen her xiansheng, her teacher, look so grave. 'Twas as if those ancient black eyes bored into her soul, seeking out her weaknesses, weighing her worth.
Sung Li at last took hold of Miriel's forearm in a surprisingly firm grip. "You must be strong. And brave. And clever."
Miriel slowly nodded. She didn't always understand Sung Li, who spoke often in riddles, but there was no question the warning was serious.
Then Sung Li released her abruptly and, as if naught had happened, resumed the role of Miriel's maidservant, donning a roughspun kirtle over the loose hemp garments worn for taijiquan, pulling on stockings and slippers, then selecting a deep azure surcoat for Miriel from the great pine chest at the foot of the bed.
Miriel frowned, slithering into the soft wool gown while Sung Li dutifully turned away. They'd kept many secrets, the two of them, since the day five years ago, when Miriel had deigned to purchase, along with nunchakus and a pair of sais from the Orient, a Chinese servant from a traveling merchant.
Sung Li had insisted on being purchased. 'Twas Destiny, the curious peasant had sagely proclaimed. And at thirteen summers old, Miriel wasn't about to argue with Destiny.
Her father, Lord Gellir, had not approved, nor had her older sisters, Deirdre and Helena. For a long while, the denizens of Riv enloch turned disparaging Scots glares upon the wee foreigner with the strange eyes and impertinent tongue.
But they'd grown accustomed to Sung Li now, and no one questioned the presence of the crone of a maidservant who clung as tightly to Miriel as a duckling to its mother.
Of course, if they'd known that the wee old woman was in sooth a wee old man, if they'd known that he devoted most of his hours with Miriel teaching her the fine art of Chinese warfare, and if they'd suspected that under his tutelage, Miriel had blossomed from a timid child into a fierce combatant to riv al her warrior sisters, they might have taken exception.
But as Sung Li was fond of saying, The greatest weapon is the one no one knows you possess. Certainly no one suspected meek, innocent, docile Miriel of possessing the skills to kill a man.
"Hmph." Sung Li was staring out the window, his narrow white brows furrowed.
"Hmph, what?" Miriel fastened the silver girdle at her hips and wiggled her feet into her leather slippers.
"A knight arrives."
Miriel tensed instantly. "The Night that comes to swallow The Shadow?"
Knees bent, arms raised, she was ready to fight this very moment, whether against a human foe or the dark forces of nature.
Sung Li turned on her with an annoyed scowl, then shook his head. "You are like a child today, starting at your own shadow." He left the window and began tidying the chamber, clucking his tongue. "It is only a common knight."
Miriel lowered her hands and fired a scathing glare at the old man, a glare wasted on his back. A child. She was weary of being called a child. By Sung Li. By her father. By her sisters. She was not a child. She was a woman full grown.
With a sniff of disdain, she moved to the window to peer out for herself. There was a knight on horseback cresting the rise above Riv enloch. He was in full battle dress, chain mail and surcoat, a wise choice, since a stranger alone could make fast foes in the wilds of Scotland. As he rodedown the hill toward the castle, the silver helm beneath his arm caught the light of dawn, glinting like fire.
She couldn't make out the crest upon his brown tabard or see him clearly, not with the shaggy mane of chestnut hair that obscured his face and reached almost to his shoulders.
"Who do you suppose-" She looked around to Sung Li, but the elusiv e servant was already gone, probably on his way to filch the best bread from the kitchen for his mistress's breakfast before any of those ravenous Normans could take it.
Miriel returned to the window. Mayhap the knight was a guest arrivi ng early for Helena's wedding. He paused then, halfway down the rise, to scan his surroundings. As his gaze swept across the castle, Miriel felt an uncharacteristic shiv er of trepidation skitter up her spine. She ducked reflexiv ely behind a shutter, out of sight.
After a moment, scolding herself for her cowardice, she peered out again. The knight had changed course. He now reined his mount into the dense forest that surrounded Riv enloch.
Miriel frowned. 'Twas most irregular. Why would a strange knight travel all the way to the remote keep of Riv enloch, only to swerve at the last moment into the woods?
By the Saints, she intended to find out. With Deirdre and Helena distracted by their Norman lovers, someone had to keep an eye on the castle defenses.
Her sisters believed that Miriel had sealed up the secret exit from the castle, the one at the back of her workroom beneath the keep, after Riv enloch's soldiers had made use of the tunnel to defeat the attacking English army last spring.
But Miriel had done no such thing. That passageway was too useful to close off. After all, 'twas the only way Miriel could leave the keep without being under the constant scrutiny of her overprotective siblings.
So she'd hung a tapestry over the entrance, pushed her desk against the opening, and piled up books of accounts to obscure the passage. 'Twas little trouble to move them out of the way whenever she needed to escape.
As she did now.
'Twas yet early morn. Later, Helena would need her to help with wedding preparations. But Miriel could spy upon the stranger in the woods for a bit and steal back to the castle before anyone was the wiser.
She smiled grimly to herself. 'Twas clandestine adventures like these that relieved her of both the boredom of managing the castle accounts and the oppression of playing the helpless little sister of the Warrior Maids of Riv enloch.
Rand la Nuit sensed he was no longer alone in the forest. 'Twasn't that the intruder made a sound or exuded a scent or even cast a shadow. But years of training as a mercenary had honed Rand's senses to a keen edge. By the faint prickling at the back of his neck, he felt sure he was being watched.
He casually eased one hand over the pommel of his sword and moved to the far side of his horse, placing the beast between him and where he guessed the intruder to be. Then, hunkering down as if to check the horse's girth, he peered beneath the beast's belly, scouring the bushes for some trace of a trespasser.
Aside from a few wraiths of steam chased from the wet oak trunks by the warm glare of the rising sun, the misty copse was silent. Branches of lush cedar drooped in slumber. Thick ferns stood like quiet sentinels. Not a beetle stirred the leaf fall.
He frowned. Mayhap 'twas an owl late to bed. Or mayhap some lost spirit haunted the Borders woods. Or, he thought, patting his horse's flank and rising again, mayhap 'twas his imagination, and he was only growing weary of the hunt, like an old hound whose sense of smell was failing.
Still, he'd always trusted his instincts. Just because he couldn't locate the threat at this moment didn't mean it wasn't there. He'd have to keep one eye on his surroundings and one hand on his blade as he searched the woods.
He didn't know exactly what he was looking for yet. All he'd been told when the Lord of Morbroch hired him was that the outlaw he sought was a man who worked alone, an elusiv e thief who roamed the forests of Riv enloch.
The task had seemed simple enough at first. In Rand's experience, robbers were seldom clever. 'Twould be an easy matter to locate the fellow's hideaway, take him by force, and convey him to Morbroch for judgment.
But when Rand learned how much the lord and several of his neighboring barons were willing to pay him to catch the thief who had lightened their purses, he began to wonder if 'twas not so simple an undertaking after all.
Apparently, the denizens of Riv enloch didn't mind their local outlaw. To them, he was but the subject of fireside tales and jongleur's songs. Even knowing the scoundrel had relieved numerous traveling noblemen of a vast quantity of silver, they refused to expend any effort to capture the man. Nor did they welcome the interference of outsiders.
Thus Rand would have to work in secret beneath the noses of one of the most formidable forces in Britain, the Knights of Cameliard. The Norman knights had come last spring to take command of the Scots castle, and already they'd routed a huge force of rogue English lords who'd tried to lay siege to the keep. If they wished, they could easily prevent one paltry mercenary from capturing their outlaw.
So Rand would have to be clever.
He needed three things: a believable pretext for coming to Riv enloch, a reason to linger there, and access to the intimate workings of the keep. The Lord of Morbroch had offered him a deception that provided him with all three.
Of course, if he could catch the robber at once, there would be no need for deception.
He scanned the path again for signs of inhabitation- footprints, discarded bones from a meal, remnants of a fire. The sooner he could find some clue as to the thief's whereabouts, the sooner he could quit this place and collect his reward. But all he sensed as his gaze ranged the woods was that eerie feeling that he was being watched.
He'd been searching for some time when his ear caught a new sound intruding upon the silence of the forest. Footsteps.
'Twas not the stealthy passage of a thief he heard, but the purposeful approach of a pair of men.
He'd expected as much. Riv enloch's guards had likely spotted him as he'd approached the castle, and now they'd come to investigate the stranger lurking in their woods. They'd find him in another few moments.
He needed to act quickly. He stepped to the side of the path and casually began to whistle. Hefting his chain mail, he unlaced his braies. Then he swiftly yanked them down to relieve himself upon a bush.
A sudden loud gasp sounded from the branches high above him, his heart bolted, his whistle suddenly turned to air, and he almost missed the bush.
God's eyes! Someone was there. Nearly on top of him. And, he realized in wonder, by the sound of the gasp, that someone was distinctly female.
But the shrubbery along the path was already parting to make way for the approaching men. There was no time to confront the naughty spy hiding in the tree.
"Wicked lass," he softly chided, casting an amused grin up toward the concealing foliage.
Then, shaking his head, he resumed whistling and returned unabashedly to his task. The way he looked at it, if the sight of a man pissing offended the maid, she deserved as much for her mischief.
Miriel was appalled. Not by the man's rude display, though 'twas most audacious and disconcerting. But by the way she'd gasped.
For years she'd ranged these woods, as silent as mist, as invisible as air. Thanks to Sung Li's guidance, she knew how to make herself imperceptible, even to the keen-eyed owls that inhabited the trees. She could flit from branch to branch as nimbly as a squirrel and blend seamlessly into the foliage.
How the stranger had startled such a loud gasp from her, she didn't know. True, she'd never seen that part of a man before, but 'twas not so much different than she'd imagined.
Worse, she'd almost caught her breath again when he'd peered up in her direction with that smug grin. Not because he'd discovered her presence, but because his handsome face-that strong jaw, those curving lips, the unruly hair, the perplexed furrow between his brows, and those dark, sparkling eyes-literally took her breath away.
"Good morn!" Sir Rauve's booming voice almost toppled her out of her perch. She watched as the giant black-bearded Knight of Cameliard, dogged by young Sir Kenneth, tromped forward, one cautious hand on the hilt of his sheathed sword.
"Good morn!" the stranger called back cheerfully. His voice was rich and warm, like honey mead. "And pardon me," he apologized, making a show of hauling up his trews. "Just taking care of a bit of business."
Sir Rauve nodded, wasting no time and mincing no words. "And what type of business do you have at Riv enloch, sir?"
The man grinned companionably. By the Saints, Miriel thought, his smile was absolutely stunning, wide and bright, complete with endearing dimples. "That depends on who is asking."
Rauve drew himself up to his impressive height. "Sir Rauve of Riv enloch, Knight of Cameliard, defender of this keep."
"Sir Rauve." The stranger put his hand forth in greeting.
"I am Sir Rand of Morbroch."
Morbroch. Miriel knew that name.
When Sir Rauve only eyed him with suspicion, he added hopefully, "You might remember me from the tournament last month?"
Miriel frowned. The Lord of Morbroch had attended the tournament at Riv enloch with a half dozen knights. She recognized the crest on the man's tabard now, a boar's head on a ground of sable. But she didn't recall Sir Rand. And his was a face she wouldn't have easily forgotten.
At Rauve's lack of response, Sir Rand withdrew his hand and lowered his eyes with a sigh. "Then again, perchance not. I was knocked witless in the melee. Didn't recover for two days."
Miriel caught her lip beneath her teeth. That might be true. Someone was always getting knocked witless in a melee.
But Rauve was not convinced. "You've not answered my question."
"Why am I here?" Rand's brows wrinkled in charming discomfiture as he scratched at his temple. "'Tis a matter of some ... delicacy. I'd rather not say."
Rauve crossed his beefy arms over his chest. "And I'd rather not let you pass."
"I see." Rand took a deep breath and let it out in a bracing rush.
In that instant, Miriel saw his hand drift subtly yet purposefully toward the hilt of his sword. By the wink of danger in his eyes, she suddenly feared he was about to do something rash, like single-handedly challenge Rauve and Kenneth to battle.
But at the last moment, he hooked his thumb harmlessly into his leather sword belt and flashed them a sheepish grin. "If you must know then, sir ... I've come ... courting."
Miriel raised a brow. Courting? Then why had he been foraging through the leaves as if he were tracking prey?
"Courting?" Young Kenneth made a moue of displeasure, as if he'd said he'd come to swallow live eels. Rauve only grunted.
"Aye." Sir Rand let out a long, lovesick sigh that would curdle honey. "You see, I fear one of Riv enloch's bright angels has stolen my heart."
Miriel scowled. If there was one thing she despised, 'twas sappy proclamations of love. Especially when they were full of deceit. As this one was. Rand might have said the words, but she could tell by the amused glimmer in his eyes that he meant none of them.
Excerpted from Knight's Prize by Sarah McKerrigan Copyright © 2007 by Sarah McKerrigan. Excerpted by permission.
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