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Her forged steel battle sword clanked against an iron-plated chest cuirass. The shock of connection had ceased to clatter up her arms and vibrate in her molars. Over the course of the day, she'd become physically numb to violence, to blood. To her faith.
No, she still clung to faith, to blind trust and humble servitude. It was all she had.
A thunderous warrior's cry from behind her prompted her to spin about. Slick mud made footing unsure. The soles of her laced leather boots had worn thin; she could gauge the rises and fall of earth with a mere flex of foot. She maintained balance.
With no time to deliver an overhand slash of her sword, she plunged it up into the charging soldier's gut. The blade slid under her enemy's bloodied leather cuirass. She felt the soft acceptance as the sword tip sunk into flesh. The soul had been pierced. May God have mercy.
Blood purled down the flat of the blade. Her victim's triumphant cry changed to a gurgling requiem. A mace glinting with the blood of her fellow soldiers fell from his limp grasp. For a moment he loomed before her in the rain, arms spread, yet hands limp. Mouth open and eyes horrifically wide. Poised between life and death.
As a child she had enjoyed playing in the rain. The world would never again be so carefree.
A heel to his thigh pushed his body off balance. He dropped backward. Mud droplets spattered his face and her leg greaves.
Death proved far too easy.
The violet sky briefly teased at the corner of her eye where mud did not blemish her vision. Too pretty for battle. It promised an end to the abominable weather. A rainbow was swirled in an oily slick before the castle wall.
The familiar voice cut through the cacophony of warfare. Lieutenant Charlier. Just last night his wife had birthed a baby boy who was not breathing. The lieutenant mourned as a black cloud had entered his life. The child had not been baptized before burial, which Jeanne had protested until her throat ached. Now the lieutenant signaled and she followed him. He did not see the English infantryman swinging a deadly halberd behind him.
"No!" She rushed across the battlefield, slick with blood and mud.
A body lay between her and the lieutenant. In the moment Jeanne took to look down and leap over the sprawled enemy corpse, the tip of the armor-piercing halberd poked out from the lieutenant's chest. His arms flung backward as his torso curved unnaturally forward.
She swung madly, utilizing no martial skill save a fierce determination honed over the past months. Lieutenant Char-lier was dead before his palms hit the ground.
Jeanne's sword soughed the air. Impending death held an utterly voiceless tone, yet it sweetened the air as a bird's wings during flight. Her blade connected with the head of the Englishman who had gutted the lieutenant. Because he wore no helmet, the top of his skull was shaved off just above the eyes.
Gulping a surge of acrid bile, Jeanne thrust ferociously following the backswing, but the counterattack wasn't necessary. The man toppled at her feet, his dissected brain oozing out like fresh porridge.
Stumbling backward, metal slapped against metal. Caught by the shoulders, she slammed into an unmoving force. Unable to lift her sword, she struggled, but the man who held her against his armored chest was too strong.
"The Maid of Orleans," he growled. "Does your faith allow forgiveness for murder? You claim power with your sword, vile wench. It is not your power to own. I've never killed a woman, but you are no female. You are a"
Warm blood spattered her cheek. The man holding her suddenly fell away from her body. She didn't look down and back, because she'd seen too much death. Another man charged at her with a sword to match hers.
The clank of opposing weapons stung her ears. The enemy was right. Who was she to claim power with a battle sword when violence only seemed to beget further violence? Was this truly the path she had intended? How could God command such destruction?
Following a guttural battle cry, a new opponent slashed his bloodied sword toward her. Scrambling to counterattack, her blade tip caught on the screw at her knee greave. She wouldn't be able to deflect the blow. The blade would cut through her skull
A trilling alarm startled her upright on the bed. Slashing her arms out before her to deflect the blow, Annja Creed cried out, "No!"
When no armored soldier shouted back and she did not feel the agonizing slice of blade to skull, she realized she was sitting in her bed. No English solider stood before her. No mud, or shouts of vengeance, littered the scene. She could not even feel the sting of relentless rain.
The cell phone on her bedside dresser jingled.
The adrenaline rush of the dream did not dissipate. Breathing heavily, she clasped her chest. No wounds. No awkward armor to impede her movements. Not a slick of another's man blood. But it had felt so real. As if she had stood amid the carnage to swing against the enemy.
It is not your power to own.
It was a strange statement she couldn't resist pondering. What power? Had he meant the bloody, yet spiritual, quest that had seen Joan of Arc through countless battles all in the name of faith for her uncrowned king?
Had the people of the times known the Maid of Orleans carried a mystical sword?
Annja possessed that very sworda sword that had once been wielded by Joan of Arc.
She startled again at the insistent ring, and this time slapped a palm on the cell phone and croaked out a sleep-laced, "Hello?"
"I know it's early, but listen, Annja. I have an assignment for you. It's a really cool segment for the show." The voice on the line jabbered on, but Annja's attention remained divided.
She pressed her hand to her chest. Her heart still beat frantically. It pounded against her palm. She'd had some nasty nightmares about fire before, but not so much the Catholic saint. And never had a dream been so vivid. Almost as if she'd time traveled and acted out the scene herself. Did her forearms ache from swinging the sword as she traversed the muddy battlefield?
"Are you listening, Annja?"
"Yes, go on, Doug. Wait. Did you just say what I think you said?"
Annja caught her forehead against her palm. "Doug, I can't believe you asked me to go to Ireland to track "
She couldn't say the word. Not without laughing. She'd taken on some crazy assignments for her television host job, but this latest suggestion was really out there.
"Faeries," Doug Morrell, the producer of Chasing History's Monsters, confirmed.
That's what she thought he'd said.
"Annja, people have disappeared close to a County Cork village called Ballybeag. Rumors report that faeries are stealing them. It's like the legends say when you go wandering on faerie territory, they don't like it and will capture you and make you dance for a hundred years, or something like that. What was the name of that dude? Rip Van Winkle! Wait. He fell asleephe wasn't dancing."
"Doug. Stop. Please."
"Annja, I'm serious. The report comes from a trustworthy source. The Irish Times."
Ireland's leading newspaper reporting about make-believe creatures? Impossible. But then again, who knew? Faeries were big in Ireland. Or was that leprechauns?
Annja swiped a hand over her face, not wanting to wake up too much, because if she did she'd laugh herself right out of bed. "It was probably a puff piece, Doug. Did you find it in the Entertainment section? Go back to sleep. It's too early."
"I know it's, like, six in the morning. But in Ireland it's already lunchtime. Do you know they eat blood pudding there? Can you imagine? Anyway, real faeries have been reported kidnapping people. You have to fly to Ireland now. I've already booked the flight for you and the cameraman."
Tapping the cell phone against her chin, Annja exhaled. This was no way to start the day, especially not after her creepy dream. What she needed was another two or three hours of sleep. Not that she hadn't risen early countless times before and been ready for action, but she felt strangely unsettled.
"Doug, I have humiliated myself in more ways than a grown woman should have to endure. All for the sake of the show and its precious ratings."
"And I appreciate your efforts, Annja, you know that. The lost mermaids of Wales episode rocked."
"There were no tails on those women when we filmed them swimming in the ocean. Doug, I'm going to have to revoke your Photoshop license before the FCC catches on to your antics."
"You're kidding me. I thought the tails were realistic. I spent a small fortune on night classes learning how to create water effects."
Annja blew out an annoyed breath. There were much better things to do on a too-new Thursday morning than argue with her producer about an assignment she wouldn't be caught dead taking.
"Get Kristie to do it," she said.
Kristie Chatham, the other host of Chasing History's Monsters, would do anything as long as she was allowed to do it in skimpy clothing and suntan lotion was figured into travel expenses. Faeries seemed right up her alley.
"I have two tickets to Ireland in my hands, Annja. One for you, and one for the cameraman. I'll meet you at JFK airport in an hour?"
"I don't believe you heard my emphatic no," Annja said.
Doug never actually connected other people's lives with the fact they did not always sync with his own needs and desires. The kid was young, energetic, and while not exactly a buttoned-up businessman he had put Chasing History's Monsters high in the ratings with his quirky style of infusing real history along with legend and myth and making it all somehow work.
Annja grudgingly gave him kudos for that.
"You don't have to believe in faeries to go looking for them, Annja. Besides, when have you ever believed in any of the monsters the show has chased? Dracula? Come on!"
"Believe? Try harboring delusional fantasies," she said. "I could buy into the legend of a Romanian prince killing myriads and spilling so much blood that he was considered a vampire. But little winged creatures? They're fairy tales, Doug. Someone has been pulling your leg."
"Not according to the Irish Times. There's a piece about the disappearances in yesterday's Features section. Three people have gone missing in two weeks, the last one just yesterday. Can you imagine how many ways the show would rock if you got footage of faeries?"
"Nope. Not going to happen. I'll stick to Dracula and mermaids, thank you very much. Hell, I've even investigated the chupacabra for you, Doug. But seriously, I think you've been imbibing in too much faerie dust. The tiny critters exist only in kids' movies and, obviously, Doug Morrell's mind."
She heard the sharp slap of what must have been his palm being slapped against the counter.
"I was saving this part in the event you refused me," he announced tersely.
"What, you're going to actually offer to pay my travel expenses this time? Doug, I'd love to visit Ireland. The country's history gushes up like black gold under every footstep. But stumbling from stone circle to circle in search of magic faerie mushrooms is not my idea"
"It's on a dig!" he shouted.
Annja paused to recycle what he'd just said through her brain. The man cared little about her profession, and rarely showed interest in the real facts she worked into her hosting segments. She couldn't have heard him right. "As in an archaeological dig?"
"What other kinds of digs are there?"
"When you're the man behind the big white curtain, I'm not sure. Seriously, a dig?"
"Yep. Seems student volunteers have disappeared from a dig somewhere in County Cork. No trace of them wandering off or leaving the area. Just vanished. Poof! The localsand the Irish Timesare convinced it's faeries. As am I."
Now he had her interest. Not in the sparkly flying things. Skeptic was her middle name. Annja was an archaeologist before TV show host any day. Yet if the opportunity to participate inor even just hang arounda dig arose, she was so there.
"What's the focus of the dig?" she asked. "I don't know. They supposedly found some kind of spear. A faerie spear."
"Don't grumble, Annja, you know you want to do this. Your breathing is fast and I can picture you eyeing your hiking boots and boonie hat right now."
"The only reason I'm breathing fast is"
He didn't need to know about her nightmare. Doug had no clue about her connection to Joan of Arc or that she wielded a mystical sword.
"One hour, and I'll meet you at the airport with tickets in hand."
"Deal." She hung up and shook her head.
She didn't care that she'd just accepted the joke assignment of the century. The opportunity to hang around a dig on Irish soil was not to be missed.
A yellow cab dropped Annja off near the departures gate at Terminal 4. She'd packed light. A backpack with laptop and GPS, assorted survival gear and a small suitcase were all she needed. Thanks to both her careersarchaeologist and television hostshe was never sure what kind of hotel or living arrangements waited her arrival, and was accustomed to sleeping under the starstent or no tentif need be.
Doug stood on the sidewalk, beaming. His dark curly hair defied the existence of grooming products. Tall and gawky, his jeans hung low on his hips. Though he looked like he'd just jumped off the short bus in front of the high school gym, Annja knew he was just a little younger than her. Men always did come to maturity later than women. She just had to keep repeating that one whenever she spoke with Doug.
Beside Doug, a slender man with pale complexion and a shock of shoulder-length red hair sported an armload of camera equipment and a couple nylon bags slung over a shoulder. He was dressed for adventure in khakis and a long-sleeved shirt.
Annja nodded and received Doug's shoulder-slap man-hug. "Here's your ticket," he said. "I've already arranged for someone to meet you and drive you to Ballybeag. Thanks, Annja, this show is going to rock."
"Uh-huh. Who's this guy?" She cautioned the accusing tone of her voice. She had showered and thought to erase the sleep from her foggy brain, but maybe not so much. "Where's Michael, the usual field cameraman?"
"Sick with strep. This is Eric Kritz." Doug managed a high five with Eric, even though the redhead was loaded down with equipment. "He's the new guy and a buddy of mine."
A buddy of Doug's? That meant he was young, self-involved and one step away from a frat-party bender, Annja thought.
Eric lunged forward with an enthusiastic handshake. Annja had to tug to get her hand back. "I've watched all the episodes of the show," he said. "I'm a huge fan of yours, Miss Creed."
"Thanks. You can call me Annja. How old are you?"