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The trees stood thickly, staring out from their unformed ranks, curling their gnarled fingers toward the sky. The road cut a straight line, barely wide enough for one coach, so that the branches almost interlaced above, adding gloom to the already gathering dusk. The sharp smell of decaying vegetation and damp soil filled the air, and the occasional rustle of the breeze spoke a song as old as time. She felt as if they watched her, those ancient ones, observing each step she took and despising her for being an interloper in their quiet, secret world.
It was the foolish notions of superstitious peasants that had her upset, Susanna assured herself hastily as she walked along. Yet fear, never a distant companion in the past two weeks, tugged at her throat and misted her eyes. Kate, the plump innkeeper, had continued to fill her ears with more such dark nonsense as she lingered while Susanna unpacked her meager belongings. She had mostly ignored her as best she could and briefly washed her hands and face to cleanse away the dirt of her long journey from Sussex. The avid stares of the villagers as she squared her shoulders and marched out the door toward the road hadn't been exactly comforting either.
No one seemed to have anything specific to base their innate fears upon, she thought pragmatically, trying to cheer up. Lord Fairmoor was not rumored to devour babies or whisk away and despoil young maidens. He was just a mysterious dark presence, important to the people because of his vast holdings, yet aloof, and as such, subject to speculation. He was compared to the exiled lord of the underworld, but not in deed, just in appearance. Since he valued his privacy, heperhaps relished the comparison for it meant he was left entirely alone.
Absolutely. That must be it. From what she knew of him, she was not all that surprised. Her father had said more than once that his former pupil was talented at hiding away from the world.
Yet, she did wish the inhabitants of the Lamb and Rose hadn't chosen to share their lurid tales and dire warnings. It was much darker on the wooded road, and even if the distance was not very far, she couldn't help but nervously glance side to side and quicken her pace, hugging her precious burden to her chest.
If Dare Weston, the seventh Earl of Fairmoor, refused her audience, she would have to walk back through this forest to the inn in the pitch darkness. If he did see her, she would still have to beg for his generosity in providing a ride back to the village. Neither notion pleased her.
But she had no choice.
The quest had been thrust upon her and she must not fail. Not even if every rustle of leaf and crack of branch made her want to jump right out of her skin. Her heart pounded so loud she could hear it throbbing in her ears and she hurried even faster, picking up her skirts with one hand and practically running down the darkening lane.
It took several seconds before she realized the pounding was not just her heart, but the sound of hoof beats behind her. Whirling around, she almost fell as her skirts tangled around her legs. To her horror, Susanna could make out two men on horseback coming down the road at a gallop.
"There she is! Just ahead," one of them called out.
The shout made panic surge up in a paralyzing wave. Frozen for a moment, she felt a sort of resigned terror over the fact that all of her careful preparations were in vain. It hadn't worked, not her abrupt departure from her uncle's house without a word to anyone, the convoluted journey, the hood of her cloak pulled forward to disguise her face whenever possible...
The force she battled was too strong, too canny.
It had found her easily.
She thought of the gift. Her father's dying wish was that she was to deliver his legacy to Lord Fairmoor.
Her muscles unlocked. Turning, she plunged into the dark, menacing cover of the forest, heedless of which way she ran. The underbrush was thick and tore at her skirts, but she fought and scrambled on, clutching her precious package with one arm and thrusting at the impeding branches with the other. Behind her, she heard the sounds of pursuit clearly as the men dismounted and came after her. The crash of heavy bodies through the vegetation and the utterance of loud curses spurred her forward in frantic flight.
Gloom, the inky imprint of spiky leaves high above against the gathering twilight, the fecund smell of earth and leaf, all of it was the merest impression. Susanna gasped and ran blindly, her arm encircling the package she'd traveled so far to bring, her mind wild with apprehension and dread. Darting between the trunks and casting around for any place to hide, she misjudged one low lying branch and knocked herself to her knees. A stinging pain throbbed in her right temple.
The package went flying. Cursing and frantic, she cast around for it, crawling on her hands and knees. Mercifully, she felt the familiar hard surface and caught it up with a grateful sob.
Her pursuers had gained much from her little accident.
Their heavy breathing seemed to singe the back of her neck. She got up and fled without any regard for injury or safety. Crying, she hurled herself forward recklessly. When the darkness of the forest gave way to a gilded glen filled with the dying light of the sun, she barely noticed
Neither did she realize just how close they were. Just as she tripped, arrested by the sudden light and space, a rough hand caught her cloak by the hood, spun her around, and dragged her into the grassy open space. Off-balance, she went to her knees, unwilling to part with her burden and still holding it protectively to her chest.
"Coy, what have we here?" The voice was rough and the accent thick and unrecognizable. Her captor jerked again and thankfully the fastening of her cloak tore free. Susanna managed a choked breath before his other hand twisted in her loosened hair. When he held her immobile in an implacable grip, he bent over her and asked harshly, "She be the one?"
Susanna heard the other man panting before he appeared on the periphery of her sight.
Though both were roughly-dressed, the two men were a study in opposites. One was tall and thick with the pugnacious features of a bulldog and a bristling black beard. The other was short and wiry, with sandy hair and black eyes sharp as shining marbles in his narrow face. The smaller man, who stood facing them, nodded in response to the question. "Very fair, he said, with hair as gold as the king's coffers."
The cloak had slid from her shoulders and the big man tossed it aside, still bent over her, never taking his gaze from her face. "'Tis a pity then, to have to kill such a lovely lass. Mayhaps we should keep her, just for a night or two."
A shudder ran up her spine at the leering look on the man's face and Susanna fought a surge of nausea. The smaller man glared at his companion. "Are ye really such a fool then, to think he wouldn't know? Don't be stupid and do it quick. These woods are creeping with the night and I want back to a warm bed and a bottle."
"All right, all right." It was a growl. The big one reached down and pulled a wicked knife from his belt. She heard the ominous scrape of metal on leather as he moved. An evil smile spread over his coarse features as he brandished it in her face. "Now then, my pretty one, because you're fair and please me, this will be quick and sweet."
For a split second of complete horror, Susanna hung there, arched backward in that relentless grip, her gaze riveted on the gleaming knife poised to plunge into her exposed throat. Her mind reeled with the knowledge that she was breathing her last and would die at the hands of this ruffian and be left to rot in the ferns and leaves.
She had failed.
God help her.
Yet even as he lifted his arm and a choked cry of despair left her lips, the weapon seemed to fly out of his hand and skitter across the clearing. With a roar of surprise, her assailant let her go. He tossed her aside like so much rubbish and spun around in obvious confusion, opening and closing his empty hand. He snarled, "What the devil?"
"Good evening, gentlemen."
The cool voice came from the edge of the woods. Sprawled in the grass, Susanna could see the figure of a tall man imposed against the shadows. Trembling, she lifted up on one elbow.
The nightmarish scene seemed to burn into her brain, rendering her immobile. Her two attackers facing this unknown arrival, the dying sunset with a low hung moon now appearing over the little clearing, her breath coming in frightened pants as she realized just how close to death she'd brushed by...
Two things happened at once. With a roar of anger, the big man dived for his lost knife, and, like a flash of lightning, the tall figure seemed to intercept him. There was the crack of something that sounded sickeningly like bone and an inhuman howl of pain followed by a dull thud. Wild curses followed, punctuated by more thuds.
Susanna almost forgot the little man until claw-like fingers dug into her arm and he viciously yanked her to her feet. He pressed a knife to her throat and a hiss came in her ear. "Now, I'll finish the task and be on my way while your gallant tries to get the best of my giant friend, eh?"
The package she had come so far to deliver lay discarded in the grass. She fastened upon it, and that symbol of her failure lent her strength and purpose. A certain odd energy flowed through her body like an electric charge. Both hands flew upward to grasp the hand holding the knife. She twisted and sunk her teeth in deep.
He shrieked. "Hellcat!"
Her attacker swung her around and took a wild swipe. The blade missed the side of her neck by mere inches. For a single second they faced each other, his black eyes flat and his thin mouth distorted with rage and pain. Then he lifted his arm and sprang forward.
She wasn't fast enough. Twisting away, she did manage to keep the blade from sinking into her heart, but it caught her shoulder instead, going deep. Mind-blanking agony tore a scream from her lips and Susanna felt herself stagger backwards in shock, the knife protruding from her chest. The weasely little ruffian followed, smiling, reaching for her to grasp the hilt, tear the weapon free, and finish the job.
Just as swiftly, he was gone.
Dare rose from his knees and turned just in time to see the girl sway. She was ashen pale, her knees bucking, but he caught her just before she hit the ground. He managed to lower her without jarring the knife that stuck out of her shoulder like an obscene symbol of evil. Glancing back over his shoulder at the prostrate bodies of her two attackers, he felt a murderous impulse to tug out that knife and slit their ugly throats, though it would have been a pointless gesture as they were both quite dead.
He looked back down. Lying on the leaf-strewn ground, the young woman looked fragile and lovely. A tumble of golden hair framed a pale oval face dominated by long-lashed dark eyes. Wide with pain, her wild gaze seemed to search his for some sort of reassurance. He felt her fear seeping through every pore of his body. The shallow gasps that escaped though her parted lips moved the knife sticking out from her shoulder in macabre little quivers.
"They cannot harm you any longer," he said gently, eyeing the growing wetness around her wound that soaked her plain, dark dress.
"Are they ... dead?" Her slender throat rippled in a hard swallow.
"I'm afraid so." Kneeling there in the damp grass, a cynical smile twisted Dare's lips. "It didn't seem to me there was much choice, my lady. Despite my polite greeting, they were most unfriendly fellows."
"Yes." A small shudder racked her slender form.
He pulled out his linen handkerchief and uttered a silent curse that he had nothing better. One square of cloth was not going to do much to stop her bleeding. As unemotionally as possible, he said, "The knife must come out. I will try to be as gentle as possible, but I fear this will hurt a great deal."
A weak laugh made her cough. "It already does."
Dare had never thought of himself as being squeamish in anyway, yet when he lifted his hand to grasp the protruding hilt of the weapon imbedded so deeply into her flesh, he felt a tiny wave of sickness. He was about to cause this delicate, feminine creature a moment of blinding agony. Putting his other hand just below her throat, bracing against her breastbone, he took a deep breath.
"Wait!" Her left hand flew upward and grasped his wrist. Those huge eyes, so lovely and dark, stared upward. She whispered, "Who are you?"
"Fairmoor," he said just before he pulled it free.
She fainted instantly without even uttering a cry. For a moment he sat back on his heels, holding the dripping knife. Then in revulsion, he tossed it away and pressed the cloth in his hand to the welling wound. The blade had gone to the bone. He'd felt the sickening scrape of it as it came free. She needed attention immediately.
Female undergarments were mostly a huge waste of cloth, he mused wryly as he lifted the young woman's dark skirts and tore off a strip of material from the bottom of her chemise. He used it to bind the pad of his handkerchief to her shoulder by winding it under her arm and tying it tightly as possible. Already the white square had turned crimson.
The impulse to touch her was strong. He knew her already, every feature of her pale, lovely face and every delectable inch of her lissome, lush body.
He was like the cat, he thought with somber fascination, so curious and so very foolish. Yet still, he needed to know. Tentatively, he reached out and ran one long finger over the porcelain curve of her cold cheek and opened his mind to search for answers.
The image was poised there, waiting. He knew this because of the swiftness of the invasion, of the very violation of his mind. It came, clear as the edge of a sword blade and as bright, a fiery picture frozen as brilliantly as a finely painted portrait. Only the vision was more compelling, the more real, because it was perfect as a treasured memory, every detail burned forever into his consciousness.
Seven figures in a blazing circle, arms lifted in supplication to the wrong gods...
Darkness poured over the scene, as ancient and evil as time itself. Violence, fear, passion, and danger all swarmed in a swirling maelstrom of furious, struggling emotion.
Snatching his hand away, he took a deep steadying breath.
The girl still lay there, bleeding.
He lifted her in his arms and whistled. A moment later, his stallion, Leviathan, trotted into the clearing, snorting his displeasure as he caught the scent of death that hung in the dank air. Reluctant though the animal might be, he also understood the will of his master, for he stood quietly enough as Dare put one foot in the stirrup and mounted, carefully carrying his unconscious burden.
If there were mercy in this world, Dare thought darkly, then the girl would stay in a swoon for the rest of the journey. Guiding the horse carefully through the encroaching wood, he sought the road, and finding it, drove in his heels. Leviathan sprang forward powerfully, graceful and thundering in the night. In the distance, Fairmoor Castle loomed, limed by a rising moon, the towering walls and stark turrets visible for miles because of its perch atop a high rise of rocky ground that rose above the surrounding forest. His ancestors had not been fools, choosing to rule and defend their domain from the vantage point of both the ability to see one's enemy, and to vanquish them.
Against him, the girl moaned and her lashes fluttered. Dare leaned forward and whispered to the stallion and they seemed to fly. Her fair hair streamed over his shoulder like a banner. The gates of the castle opened in welcome as they approached, swinging inward on massive, silent hinges. In the courtyard, they skittered to a halt and Dare dismounted, flinging a leg over and sliding to the ground. He left the stamping horse, reins trailing for the silent groom that slid out of the shadows and carried his slender burden up the steps to the house two at a time.
Once inside the vast main hallway, he nodded at the woman who waited at the base of the huge stairway. "Hot water and my case of medicines," he ordered curtly.
His servant, Agatha, a woman half his height, her features twisted and misshapen, bowed her head and slipped away. Taking a breath, he carried the half-conscious girl upstairs. When she murmured something, he halted and bent his head to make out the words.
He thought she said 'quest'.
Unfortunately, he had an inkling of what that might be. Shouldering his way through a doorway, he entered one of the few bedrooms not swathed in dust cloths and laid his bleeding charge upon the bed. His staff was ever efficient and he knew within moments he would have the requested items to tend the girl's wound. Pulling his knife from the sheath in his boot, he began to cut her clothing away, slicing the sleeve of her dress and undoing her bodice until he could peel back the blood-soaked cloth from her shoulder and discard his makeshift bandage.
The wound looked fearful, jagged and dark against her ivory skin and still bled profusely. He yanked off a pillowslip and used it to blot and stem the tide. He glanced at the doorway with impatience. Of course it would take a few minutes for the woman to return, but he resented the delay anyway.
You know the girl won't die, he told himself, studying her still features. The vision had told him so.
And, from that one touch, he knew so much more.