Read an Excerpt
By Lisa Jackson
All right reserved.
"Hurry!" Megan ordered, her breath fogging in the frigid air as she leaned forward in the saddle. Her horse, a headstrong bay mare with an urge to nip, galloped through the forest as night closed in. "Faster, you beast, faster!" Megan glanced at the sky. Through the bare branches she saw clouds, thick and dark and menacing, ready to spill a shower of sleet over the countryside near the castle of Dwyrain, her home.
At least she hoped it was still her home. Her father might just banish her this time. "Please, God, no," she whispered, suddenly frightened and contrite. Why had she been so foolish as to let her younger sister Cayley goad her into an argument? Wouldn't she ever learn?
"Run, Shalimar, 'tis a good girl you be." The encouragement she gave slid through teeth that chattered.
The wind picked up. Megan shivered. Her gloved fingers turned to ice as she held the reins. The forest surrounding Dwyrain had always been an enchanted place in the summer where she'd ridden, hunted, laughed, and waded in the meandering streams. She'd picked berries and nuts, dug for herbs, and plucked wildflowers and ferns from their stalks.
But this afternoon, only a few days before the Christmas revels were to begin, the woods were gloomy; the dark-limbed trees with their naked branches appeared to be forgotten soldiers guarding secrets that no mortal man dared unearth. How many times had her mother warned her that the forests around Dwyrain were sinister, haunted by the spirits of ghosts, people who had believed in the old ways rather than the lawful teachings of the church?
Megan had always laughed at her mother's silly warnings, though Violet of Dwyrain was not the only one who believed in spirits boding both good and evil. Many servants in the castle professed Christianity and knelt on the cold stone floor of the chapel each day, but clung to the faith of their forefathers -- the ancient ways. Even old Rue, the nursemaid, trusted the runes and spells of her elders. Megan had spent years watching her, learning quickly, though knowing instinctively that she should never let anyone realize just how much of Rue's pagan magic she'd planted in her mind.
Gathering her cloak to her neck, she squinted as the first icy drops began to fall. The sky was nearly black, and again Megan cursed herself for her foolishness. Her father, Baron Ewan, would be furious with her and would probably send her to her chamber without food and order her to spend hours in the chapel on her knees while begging forgiveness of the Blessed Mother and Holy Father.
Saints in heaven, why had she been so foolish? Frozen cobwebs brushed her cheeks as she rode, guiding the animal down the narrow deer trail. The mare's quick hoofbeats echoed in the quiet forest. Gripping her hood about her neck with one hand, Megan leaned forward and the horse took the bit, running faster and faster along the narrow trail. " 'Tis good you are, Shalimar," Megan cried as a branch slapped her face. They weren't far now, just around the next bend and up a hill and --
The earth seemed to shift. Megan flew forward as Shalimar stumbled.
"Oh!" As she slid sideways in the saddle, leafless branches spun wildly in her vision. The slick reins slid from her fingers as she hung upside down. Her cloak fell over her face and swept the ground. Gamely, the horse plowed forward, limping. "Stop! Shalimar! Halt!" she commanded, scrambling to pull herself back into the saddle. The mare went down on one knee and Megan, barely astride again, pitched forward.
The ground rushed up at her. She landed hard on her shoulder. Pain screamed up her arm and she felt dizzy as she tried to sit up. Shalimar stood, sweating and mud-spattered, favoring a foreleg, her liquid eyes rimmed in white, her dirty coat trembling.
Gritting her teeth, Megan climbed to her feet and made her way to her horse. "What is it, girl?" she asked, but the mare shied and limped farther away.
"Your mount's lame." A deep, soft-spoken voice shook the rain from the leaves of the ivy that clung tenaciously to the trees.
Megan nearly jumped out of her skin. She whirled quickly, her boots sliding in the mud, her eyes narrowed as she squinted into the thicket. "Who are you?" she asked, her horse forgotten, her fingers searching through the slits in her cloak for the knife she had strapped to her belt. "Show yourself."
A soft chuckle followed and an owl hooted from the higher branches of a great fir tree.
"I said -- "
"I heard you." A man appeared from the shadows. Tall, broad-shouldered, with a ragged cape that nearly touched the ground, he stepped forward with a noticeable limp. His face was hidden by the hood of his cape, and for a second, Megan shivered in fear. "What are you doing out here alone, Megan of Dwyrain?"
Her throat went dry as her fingers clasped upon the hilt of her dagger. "I -- I went riding."
"Ahh. Because of a tiff with your sister Cayley, aye?"
Her heart pounded. "But how did you know? Were you in the keep standing with your ear to the door? Who are you?" she demanded, tossing her wet hair from her face and lifting her chin proudly, mimicking her older brother Bevan. Rain dripped off her nose and chin ignobly and dirt was probably smudged on her face, but she stood her ground, refusing to appear frightened.
"I...feel things," he said, looking suddenly vexed, as if he would like to come up with a better explanation, but could not. "Now, let's have a look at your mount."
He ignored Megan and spoke softly to the horse. His words were nearly hypnotic, a chant of sorts at which Shalimar, snorting nervously, didn't flinch; not even when he lifted her pained leg and examined it with long fingers that protruded from gloves that covered only his palms. What kind of man was he? The mare, anxious only seconds before, quieted under his hands, and when he reached beneath his cape and withdrew a fat leather pouch, she didn't so much as nicker.
"What're you doing?" Megan asked.
"Shh!" His command was sharp. "You'll scare her." Gently, holding his gloves in his teeth, he applied the jellylike salve, speaking nearly inaudibly to the horse, closing his eyes for a second as he wrapped his fingers around Shalimar's foreleg. The bay didn't move and appeared in a trance.
Rain pelted the ground, creating pools and splashing in icy droplets against Megan's face and cloak. Shuddering, she stepped away from the mystical man. Though she believed that there were powers on this earth that she didn't understand, powers greater than those given to men and accompanied by crown and scepter, powers that were invisible to most and granted to only a few, she felt a jab of fear.
"There now, you may go," the man said, turning toward her. His face was shadowed by his hood, but she saw that his eyes were blue as the sky in summer.
"Who are you?"
He slid his fingers through the holes in his gloves. " 'Tis of no consequence."
His smile was humble. "Would you want to think of me as such, so be it."
Shalimar ambled forward, no hint of her injury visible in her gait. "The horse is healed."
"Aye, but be careful. She's not meant to run on slick trails that are weakened by the burrows of moles and rabbits and badgers. Race her only where the earth is firm."
Megan, always impetuous, couldn't help her wayward tongue. "But you limp, sir," she said, motioning to his bad leg. "Why do you not heal yourself as you have the mare?"
"Ah yes, that." He thought for a second, those intense eyes studying her as if she were a mystery. "My injury is old. From my youth, before I knew how to heal. And it matters not. 'Tis a reminder to me that I am mortal and that there is suffering in the world."
"So you choose to be a cripple?" she asked aghast.
" 'Tis my fate." He threw her a crooked grin. "Now, be off. 'Tis nearly dark and the baron is not pleased."
She wanted to know more of this man, this would-be magician. "Please, come with me," she begged. "My father would want to thank you for helping me and my horse. He'd surely offer you a hot trencher of brawn or eel and a cup of wine along with the safety of the castle for the night."
The man's smile was odd. "Nay, child. I prefer the solitude of the forest." At that moment, the owl hooted again and the wizard -- for that's what she believed him to be -- glanced skyward. Rain ran down his face, but he didn't notice. "Hush, Owain, be patient," he said. The owl ignored him, letting loose another soft call, and the man grinned widely, showing off white teeth beneath a nose that wasn't quite straight. "He's a stubborn fellow, that one."
"You know my name," Megan said as he handed her Shalimar's reins, "but I know not yours."
" 'Tis better if you don't."
"Are you an enemy of Dwyrain?"
He hesitated and his eyes looked over her shoulder, to a distance that was of his own making. "Nay, child -- now, be gone."
As if rooted to the ground, she didn't move -- just stared, fascinated, into his eyes. "You speak with animals."
"I only see into their minds."
"Can you see into mine as well?" she asked.
"Perhaps." His sigh was as soft as the wind. "Is that what you'd like?"
"Nay -- aye -- I know not."
"Sometimes it is best if we know not what others think."
Shivering, Megan shook her head. "Tell me."
Eyeing her but a moment, he said, "So be it." He removed one glove and took her hand in his. She expected his fingers to be frigid as the sea, but a warmth traveled from his palm to hers. "I see not into your mind, but to the years of your life not yet lived."
"You see ahead in time -- you foretell what will be?"
"Aye. 'Tis my curse. Would you like to know of your unborn years?"
She could barely breathe and a part of her wanted to flee, to be rid of this odd forest-man with his gentle voice and knowing eyes, and yet she couldn't let go, for she trusted him. The warmth of his hand, his soothing voice, his trustworthy eyes. Nodding, she braced herself and wished she could stop her quaking, for surely he could feel the trembling that had suddenly afflicted her. "Tell me," she said, her words rushed.
"Aye, then." Closing his eyes, he held her fingers between his two hands. "There will be trouble at Dwyrain," he said, his voice sounding as if it had traveled a great distance through a long, narrow cavern. "Sickness. Deceit. Betrayal."
"The blame will be placed on you."
She recoiled, but he held her hand firmly.
"You will marry in the next few years at the bidding of your father, but the marriage will be cursed -- "
"No, I'll not listen -- " she said, but stood transfixed, unable to move.
"Your family and castle will be destroyed."
"Nay, sorcerer, I'll not believe -- "
"Only true love will restore Dwyrain and your honor," he continued, his eyes squeezed shut, his head moving slowly, as if he were listening to some higher order.
"Love?" So there was hope. If she allowed herself to believe in this foolishness.
"Aye, but the faces of love are many. Some treacherous. Some deceitful. Some as shadowy as candlelight. True love must be tested, Megan, and yours will come from an unlikely source."
Her insides turned to ice. "How will I know -- ?"
"The man will be dark-haired, fierce of countenance, unforgiving by nature."
"He sounds like a fiend."
"Beneath his mantle of hatred, he has a true heart."
Megan yanked back her hand. "I believe you not," she said, though a part of her trusted the horrid words. "You are the voice of the Devil."
"I speak only the truth, child," he said solemnly, and a blade of dread sliced through her heart. She wanted to laugh at him, to tell him he was addled, call him a fool, but she held her tongue. Did he not know who she was, who her father was? Did he not heal her lame horse?
Before she said another word, he slipped away, as if in his own mist, through the curtain of rain. Overhead, the wings of a great owl flapped wildly.
"Wait," she cried, but before the word was uttered, she knew he was gone.
Swallowing hard, she clucked softly to the horse, pulling on the reins as she led the beast back to the great gates of Dwyrain. The man was mad, she told herself, not to be trusted -- an imposter who performed some sort of trickery. But no matter how desperately she argued with herself, she couldn't cast off the premonition of doom that trailed after her, as unshakable as her own shadow, as dark as the deep waters of Hag's End Lake.
Copyright © 1995 by Susan Lynn Crose
Come now, smile, Megan. 'Tis your wedding day," Ewan cajoled, lying on the bed in his chamber. He patted the white fur coverlet and smiled up at his daughter.
Even in the flickering light from the candles, Megan saw the spots of age on his thin skin and noticed that his once-fleshy face had hollowed. In his youth, his eyes had been as clear and blue as a mountain lake, but now they had clouded, leaving him half blind.
"You'll not have to look after me much longer, child," he told her. "My time here is short."
"Nay, Father -- " she said, closing the door behind her and hurrying to his bedside. She sat on the edge of the feather mattress and took his cold fingers in her own.
"Aye, and I'll be expecting to see a grandson before I go, a strong, strapping lad as Bevan was," he said. Tears welled in Megan's eyes when she thought of her brother, a year older than she but now in his grave, the victim of the sickness that had taken so many in the castle, including her mother and tiny sister. Megan swallowed against a thick lump that had formed in her throat. She'd heard the gossip, knew that most of the servants and a few of the knights blamed her for the death and destruction that had befallen Dwyrain ever since she'd seen the lame prophet in the forest, and he'd cursed her as well as the castle.
Her father sighed sadly. "But ye'd best not wait too long with that grandson."
"Don't talk such madness," she chided, refusing to believe that her beloved father would soon die.
But 'twas as if he were deaf. "Holt, he will be a good husband to you," he said, patting her hands and smiling without reason, as if he had no mind left. There was hushed talk between his men that he was addled, that the loss of his wife and two children, coupled with his age, had finally caught up to him, that he'd taken one too many blows to the head in the heat of battle in his younger years. "A lucky lass ye be to marry a knight as brave as Sir Holt."
Despair raked sharp claws down her heart. "Nay, Father," she said boldly, knowing this was her last chance to change his mind.
"Do not argue with me."
Grasping his hand more urgently, she whispered, "But Father, I need not a husband -- "
"Shh," he said, then coughed loudly, his chest rattling, his body clenching against the pain. "God in heaven," he growled, once the attack had passed. He reached for a mazer of wine on a bedside table. His hounds, two gray hunters, lifted their heads and glared at Megan menacingly, as if she were the reason their master no longer rode wildly through the forests and underbrush, drinking mead, whooping loudly, and flushing out deer, boars, and pheasant for them to chase.
Beneath the dogs' yellow-eyed glare, Megan inched up her chin. Even the snarling beasts appeared to blame her for the ills that had plagued Dwyrain ever since that crippled old sorcerer had sealed her doom with his prophecy and Cayley, whom Megan had trusted with her secret, had told the story of the curse.
"But Father," she pressed on, "remember, the magician said that should I marry this man of your choosing, the marriage would be cursed, and -- "
"Shh, child! I believe not in such devilment!" Ewan grumbled, bellowing as he once had, only to end up in a deep, bone-jarring hack. " 'Tis against the teachings of the church. Father Timothy said 'twas a trick the cripple played upon you, a trick that toyed with your weak mind."
"My mind is far from weak," Megan said quickly, and silently cursed the priest for his false piety. The man was too swift to point to the fault in others, too hasty to give a tongue-lashing, too eager to see punishment meted out when none was needed. Unlike Father Andrew, a kind and wise man who, during his 12 years as chapel priest at Dwyrain, had always seen both sides of a disagreement, Father Timothy was young and all-knowing, with a glint of pleasure in his eye when anyone was caught in a sin. 'Twas as if he enjoyed watching others explain their sins and beg forgiveness.
"Aye, I know you not to be thick-skulled as Father Timothy proclaims, but I cannot believe in witchcraft and the dark arts. What would your mother, rest her soul, think?" With a deft movement, he crossed himself, as he sometimes did when his thoughts turned to Violet and her early death. Then there were other times when he acted as if he'd forgotten she'd left this earth.
"I know not."
"Well, I'll ask her, the next time she comes to visit," he said, and she looked for a hint of humor in his cloudy eyes, but found none. Nay, he believed that his wife, though dead, walked these halls and that she often carried baby Rosalind with her or spoke of Bevan.
"You trust not the sorcerer's prediction but you speak with Mother's ghost."
"Her spirit," he said, correcting her as he scooted upward on the bed and cleared his throat. The effort caused even more strain on his tired face. "You think I'm addled," he said, glaring at her through foggy eyes.
"Nay -- "
"It is my curse these days. The servants act as if I'm not only blind, but deaf as well, and that I have no mind left. The truth is that I do talk to your mother, Megan, and she asks about you. Aye, I know that she is dead, but believe it or not, at times her spirit glides down from heaven to be with me." He clapped a broad hand over his heart. "She was and always will be an angel. My angel."
Megan didn't know what to say; to argue against something he wanted so feverishly to cling to would be unwise. Why cause him any more pain? If he thought he could speak with his dead wife and children, what did it hurt? "Aye, Father. An angel she is."
He smiled beneath his snowy beard. "I'm glad you believe me, child, because your mother, she wants you to marry Holt!"
Megan jumped off the bed as if she'd been sitting on the red-hot embers of Cook's fires. "You tricked me!"
He laughed and the sound echoed in her heart. "No more than that silly prophet did a few years ago. Now, go on, get dressed and, please, daughter, be happy." Yawning broadly, he waved her away.
"I love Holt not," she said, and her father grimaced at the words.
" 'Twas the same for your mother and me." At the sharp lift of her head, he motioned awkwardly, as if scattering flies. "I know, I know, you thought differently, but love does not grow easily at times, even with your mother and me. Over the years I became devoted to her and she to me. Love sometimes comes with time, daughter, and you have long to live."
Too long, she thought, if I am to be Holt's wife. Shuddering inside, she watched as Ewan closed his eyes to rest. Within mere seconds, he was snoring gently, blissfully unaware of the treachery that was mounting against him, the treason she could feel in the hallways. Like rats scurrying through the rushes, the whispers of betrayal darted through the thick walls of Dwyrain.
"The baron, bless him, is not himself these days," Father Timothy had whispered to the steward months ago as the two men stood beside the miller's cart in the inner bailey beneath the open window where Megan had sat on the ledge. Their voices had risen up to her like smoke from a fire.
"Aye, and it's a sad day," Quinn had responded, shaking his head, his bald pate shining in the autumn sunlight.
"And without Bevan to become the baron...Ahh, I fear the worst and pray that a man like Sir Holt will step forward and marry the baron's daughter, Lady Megan, so that the castle will once again be secure."
"Aye. Holt would be a good choice."
Megan's heart had frozen for a second, but she had not believed that her father would insist upon the marriage.
Another time, she'd heard one of her father's most trusted soldiers, Cawfield, confide in the sheriff, " 'Tis a pity, that's what I say, when a man's mind goes. There was a time when Ewan of Dwyrain was a fierce warrior. Who would have thought?" Cawfield had been standing guard and his voice had drifted toward the bakery, where Megan was checking that Llyle was not wasting the flour that he was allotted and that there would be plenty of good-sized loaves of wastel, as Gwayne of Cysgod was visiting. But she'd stopped at the sound of the men and tarried in the rose garden, where Cawfield's voice could be heard clearly over the honks of geese and ducks waddling near the eel pond and the creak of the chain and bucket at the well. "Ewan was a strong leader," Cawfield continued. "I pray that he heals soon."
Others hadn't been so kind. The mason had grumbled, "Who can rely on an old relic with half a brain to protect us?" and Ellen, a woman who tended to the geese, had crossed herself and asked to be delivered from Satan as well as the protection of so weak a lord. Ellen, too, believed that Holt alone could rule Dwyrain as a strong, fair lord.
Was Megan the only one who doubted him?
Aye, Holt was a handsome man, tall and strong, with shoulders as broad as the handle of an ax and sharp features that had caused many a scullery maid to sigh and swoon. He was quick with his wit as well as his sword and had, in the past few years, wormed his way into her father's empty heart. From the beginning, he'd noticed Megan, even when she was but a lass, his dark eyes slitting a little as he stared at her, and Megan had always shivered inwardly, sensing that he was trying to imagine what she looked like without her clothes.
She'd overheard him tell ribald jokes to his men and had commented about one of the milking girls -- that he would like to drink from her big tits and do his own kind of milking. The men had laughed uproariously and Megan had thought Holt crude.
And now she would be his bride. A sour taste rose in the back of her throat.
Realizing there was no escape, she closed the door to her father's chamber behind her and swept down the hall, her footsteps muted by the new rushes laid upon the stone floor.
Despite the fires burning brightly in the great hall and the tapestries hung on the walls and doorways, the keep was drafty. Megan felt cold as death. In but a few weeks the Christmas revels would be upon them and she, God help her, would be Sir Holt's wife.
Not for the first time, she considered defying her father and fleeing. Once upon Shalimar's broad back, she could ride swiftly through the gatehouse before the portcullis could be lowered! She would race the mare deep into the forest, where she knew of hiding places where no one, not any of her father's soldiers or even the band of outlaws that resided in the wooded hills surrounding the castle, would find her. Yes, she could ride to freedom...ahh, would it were so!
She nearly bumped into one of the seamstresses, who was hastening down the hall with another young woman, but Megan ducked into an alcove before being seen.
"...doesn't know how lucky she is to be marrying the most handsome man in all of Dwyrain. I would gladly lift my skirts for that one and, oh, to be his wife..."
Megan's stomach clenched and she slid deeper into the shadows while the seamstress, a silly, freckled-skinned girl named Nell, paused to lean against the wall. Nell was carrying a white silk tunic with gold brocade and rabbit trim. Megan's heart dropped to the floor, for this was her best tunic, the one in which she was to be married.
"...if I were Lady Megan, I would lick my fingers to be Holt's bride."
"And what else would ye lick?" Grace, one of the cook's daughters who often worked in the kitchen, asked with a suggestive giggle.
Megan's stomach turned over, and she realized she should step forward and scold the girl for gossiping idly, but she wanted to overhear what the maid would say next.
"Shh, Grace -- such a tart ye be!"
A big girl with ample breasts and a gap between her front teeth, Grace flirted often with the soldiers.
Nell rambled on, " 'Tis true, the lady loves him not, and all the pain she's brought to this castle is but proof she has not a pure heart. Did ye not hear about the curse that prophet, the lame one Lady Megan met in the forest, laid on this castle?"
"Aye. Everyone in the castle and the villages heard, but I don't believe in prophets or curses of the pagan ones," Grace said, crossing her chest hastily, as if in fear that the very Devil himself might swoop down upon her.
"Well, ye'd better change yer way of thinkin', because since that time there have been strange deaths and evil within the walls of Dwyrain." Her voice dropped and Megan strained to hear. " 'Tis all because of her. Had Lady Megan not been out riding that day against the baron's wishes, she'd not have met the sorcerer and he'd not have laid the curse on this castle."
"'Tis not true," Grace said, though there was little conviction in her words.
"Aye, ye can say as much because ye did not lose a brother to the sickness that crept through Dwyrain like a thief and took the lives of many, including the baron's wife, his wee babe, and his only son. Ye remember Sir Bevan, Grace, and don't be lyin' to me and sayin' ye dinna. If ever there was one who could turn a lass's head, he was one." She sighed dreamily, clutching the tunic to her.
"Another one ye would lift yer soiled skirts for?" Grace asked, raising her eyebrow.
"Aye, quick as a cat jumping for spilt cream," Nell said with a laugh as they continued, making their way past the smoldering rush lights.
Megan didn't move. Her eyes were moist, her stomach tied in painful knots when she thought of her mother, tall, stately, prideful but loving, a woman whom everyone in the castle trusted. Violet of Dwyrain. Dead. "God be with you, Mama," Megan said with a sniff, then thought of her brother Bevan, one year older than she and a devil of a boy who loved mischief. He had not been felled by the sickness that claimed so many but had drowned in the creek near Hag's End Lake.
Bevan and Megan had been fast friends, always getting into trouble, forever telling secrets. As he'd grown, he'd been groomed to become baron. " 'Tis silly, really," Bevan had told her when they were riding far from the castle one day and they paused to let their mounts sip from a stream. Over the tops of the trees, the towering walls of Dwyrain were visible and Bevan squinted as he stared at them. "Ye'd be a much better lord than I. Too bad ye be younger and a girl."
"You'll be a great baron," she'd predicted and he'd grinned.
"Ye're right, sister. I'll be the best!" Then, yanking on the reins, he'd given a loud hoot, kicked his gray palfrey in the flanks, and raced off across the creek, splashing noisily through the water.
Aye, she missed her brother and tiny, giggling Rosalind as well. Not even 2 years old, with only a few teeth and a silly, bright smile, the baby had succumbed to the dark death that had stolen through the corridors of Dwyrain.
Losing his wife and Baby Roz had been the start of Ewan's ruin, Megan thought sadly, squeezing her eyes shut, remembering her father, strong then, kneeling in the mud and laying roses on the grave of his beloved Violet. He'd wept openly, and Holt had been with him, helping him up, whispering condolences, his hands steady.
Then, only weeks later, the tragedy of Bevan's drowning. Megan had heard her father's hoarse wails when he'd been told the news, then watched his stoic decline as his son had never again opened his eyes.
Before the deaths of family, friends, and servants, Ewan of Dwyrain had been a powerful ruler, one of the most envied of King Edward's barons, a fair man known for his good sense and coarse humor. Now, he was but a shell of the man he'd once been, a husk of that courageous soldier who had ridden into battle against the Scots.
There was a time when no one in the castle had dared defy him, no one questioned his judgment, no one considered going against him. At present, there was malcontent, and the soldiers guarding the gates of the tower were new men, unfamiliar faces who looked to Holt for leadership, or old, tired friends who whispered between themselves that Ewan was addled and ill fit to rule.
Megan leaned the back of her head against the cool stone walls of the alcove and remembered the prophet's words. You will marry in the next few years at the bidding of your father, but the marriage will be cursed --
"Dear God, no."
Sickness. Deceit. Betrayal.
The sorcerer's words rang in her head as they had been whispered through the keep. True, they'd all come to pass. The blame will be placed on you.
Had it not? Most of the servants would no longer look her in the eye. Even some of the peasants avoided her. 'Twas as if she were a leper or worse. She'd been blamed for the armorer's son falling off the north tower, and for the baker's wife delivering stillborn twins -- even Bevan's death, from drowning in the creek, was said to have been her fault. It mattered not that he'd been brought back to the castle barely alive and she and the doctor had tried to nurse him back to health, nor that she'd spent hours in the chapel under Father Timothy's watchful eye, praying for her brother's life.
Yet, despite all the horrors blamed on her, Holt wanted her.
Guilt chased after her as she hurried onward, toward her chamber and the cold, brittle fact that she was to become Holt's bride.
"Oh, would I were you!" Cayley eyed her sister with envy and Megan squirmed, uncomfortable in the long silk tunic that had been altered for her wedding.
She wanted nothing more than to shed this finery and ride Shalimar as fast and far away from the castle as she could. "If you want to be me so badly, then you marry Sir Holt," she said, mindful of Rue, the old nursemaid who was fidgeting with the hem of the tunic, her needle and thread working steadily.
"Shame on ye, lass," Rue muttered, but when her gaze met Megan's, there was no gladness in her tired eyes, and she quickly glanced away again, turning her attention and the conversation back to her work. "I know not why Nell could not mend this hem. Look at the way it droops! Sometimes methinks that girl has her head elsewhere!" Clucking her tongue, she worked swiftly.
Cayley pushed aside the window covering. A shaft of pale winter light slipped through the tanned hides and the noisy honks of geese rose up from the yard. There were shouts and the creak of wagon wheels and Megan bit her tongue, knowing that the few straggling guests who hadn't arrived the day before were now filing into the keep.
"Aye, Holt's a handsome one," Cayley persisted as she hoisted herself up to the window ledge. Tucking her knees beneath her chin, she stared down at the inner bailey and eyed the new visitors anxiously, searching, no doubt, for Gwayne of Cysgod.
"A handsome man does not a fine husband make."
"Oh, but it helps! Why not marry someone who is pleasing to the eye rather than an ugly old toad like Sir Oswald?"
"At least Oswald is kind." Megan finger-combed her hair and Rue squawked loudly.
"I spent hours on those plaits! Don't you be undoing them now; all the flowers will fall out!"
Megan cared not. Her worries about Holt were too deep for her to be concerned about the braids that were wound around her head.
Cayley was right, he was a handsome man with his thick brown hair, eyes as dark as midnight, and a quick, cold smile. Strong and able, Holt was considered her father's most trusted knight. He had courted Megan for nearly a year, and in that time, he'd done nothing but swear his undying affection for her and his loyalty to all that was Dwyrain. Yet she doubted him and didn't trust the glint in his eyes when he looked at her.
You will marry...at the bidding of your father...marriage will be cursed -- The cripple's words rang in circles in her head, round and round, spinning ever faster on this, the day of her wedding. There will be trouble at Dwyrain. Sickness. Deceit. Betrayal. The blame will be placed on you.
"Your Holt will make you happy, as Gwayne will me," Cayley said dreamily. Always a romantic, Cayley had envisioned herself as the lady of Castle Cysgod from the moment she'd met Gwayne when she was but 4 years old and he a boy of 8.
"Holt is Father's choice, not mine!"
"Shh, child!" Rue hissed, shaking her graying head as she straightened and rubbed the small of her back. "I would be careful were I ye," she said, giving advice as she always had. "The castle walls sometimes have ears, do they not? Holt would not be pleased were he to hear your thoughts."
"He will hear them soon enough," Megan said, for if she was to wed this man, he would find she had her own mind, her own plans, her own life...or did she? Her heart sank. Whereas Cayley had forever wanted to marry, Megan had longed for something other than being a soldier's or a baron's wife.
"Here, slip your arms through," Rue instructed as she held up a wine-red quilted surcoat with threads of gold. Megan did as she was bid, including donning a mantle of forest green that was trimmed with gold lace. The old nursemaid trained a practiced eye on her handiwork. " 'Tis lovely ye are, Megan girl."
"Aye," Cayley said, frowning slightly, twin little furrows growing in the skin between her honey-colored brows. "You are prettier than I thought you'd ever be."
Megan should have been pleased, but she was not. She'd looked forward to this day as if it were the beginning of her death sentence. She would no longer have this bedchamber to herself. Holt had been given Bevan's room and would share it with her. He was not a wealthy man and owned no keep of his own, but he had sworn to her father that he would take care of Megan for all her life and be true to Dwyrain.
Ewan believed him.
Megan did not.
Without much grace, Cayley hopped down from the ledge. "Think ye this keep is cursed?" she asked, biting her lower lip and running a hand along a bare, whitewashed wall.
Rue snorted. "Ye've been listening to idle gossip again."
"Well, I believe it!" Cayley said, staring at her sister with silent, unspoken accusations in her eyes. "Were it not, Mother, Bevan, and Baby Roz would yet be alive!"
"You blame me," Megan said, the knowledge as painful as a hot knife twisting in her heart. Even her sister had fallen prey to the curse.
"Nay, not you, but surely that monster of a cripple who you met in the forest. I remember that day, Megan, when you came riding into the castle, your skin the color of curdled cream, your eyes round and frightened, as if you'd just seen your own ghost!"
Megan remembered that dark day as well. She'd been scared to death and trembled inside. Late that night, she'd slipped from beneath her coverlet to kneel and whisper at Cayley's bedside. With the light of one lone candle chasing away the shadows of the night, she'd confided in her sister, telling an awestruck Cayley everything the sorcerer had said and done, including healing Shalimar's leg and predicting the dark fates that would befall the keep.
"He was the Devil!" Cayley had said, clutching her fur blanket to her chest.
"Nay, I think not."
"He's cursed us." Cayley sat bolt upright in bed and narrowed her eyes. "I wish I would have met him in the forest," she'd said, as she'd tossed her dark honey-colored curls over her shoulder, "for I would have laid a curse on his own black soul."
"Nay, Cayley, the man was true of heart."
Cayley had snorted her disbelief, and now, years later, as the sand drifted through the hourglass and 'twas nearing the time for her marriage to Holt, Megan feared her sister had been right after all. Dwyrain was cursed and she was the reason.
"Come now, child," Rue said with a sigh. "Father Timothy and Holt wait for ye in the chapel."
"I'm tellin' ye, 'tis a fool's mission we're on," Odell complained, rubbing his back and squinting through the underbrush to the castle rising in the distance. Astride a sorrel jennet he'd won in a dice game, he scowled against the surrounding gloom.
Wolf ignored the older man and stripped off his tunic. Odell was never happy lest he was grumbling. " 'Tis something I have to do." Untying the bag he'd brought with him, he reached inside and his fingers encountered the soft fabric of the clothes he'd stolen only a few hours earlier from a nobleman.
"For the love of Saint Peter, man, think. What needs we with a woman? Do ye not remember the law of our band?"
"I made the law," Wolf said through lips that barely moved. He patted his destrier's thick neck and stared at the throng of people moving along the road toward Dwyrain, the fortress he planned to plunder. Limestone walls knifed upward to thick battlements and towers; a wide moat was crossed by a single bridge spanning a river that surrounded the hill on which the castle was built. A town, hidden by walls cut from the same stone, lay to the east, with only the river separating it from the castle. Outside the walls were a few houses and fields that farmers tended, but the tilled land finally gave way to the woods Wolf now called home.
"Aye, ye made the law that there would be no women in our band, that women only cause trouble, that women -- "
"I know what I said," Wolf growled, sliding his arms and head through a silky black tunic.
"And yet ye're willing to break yer own rules. For this one? Why? What d'ye want with this cursed woman?" Odell asked, blowing on fingers that showed through the ends of his gloves.
"She's not important." His new mantle was black as well, trimmed in the fur of a silver fox. Metal studs decorated his new belt and gloves.
"Not important? Fer the love of Saint Jude, then why take her?"
"Because she belongs to Holt of Prydd," he said, and felt a cruel smile twist his lips as he tightened his belt and thought of his quest. "In that respect, you're right, Odell. She is cursed."
"I hate to be the one givin' ye the news, but in case ye havna noticed, this isna Prydd we're plannin' to enter -- "
"Not us. Only me," Wolf reminded him. "You're to wait for my signal then take Sir Kelvin's fine horse" -- he motioned to the tawny destrier they'd recently stolen -- "and ride back to camp."
"Aye, aye. Wait fer the signal. I know. But I'm tellin' ye, Wolf. This woman -- this daughter of the baron -- will only bring us trouble."
Wolf didn't bother answering, just stared across the great distance that separated them from the castle. His eyes were trained on the crenels of the north watch turret. Baron Ewan of Dwyrain's standard snapped in the wind, the colors red and gold bright against an ominous slate-colored sky. If ever there was a day for an omen, this was one. But Wolf trusted not in too much sorcery. Aye, he'd watched Morgana of Wenlock talk to the wind and see through a window into the future, and he'd witnessed great healing when Sorcha of Prydd had brought the near-dead back to life again, but he trusted not the dark arts. Nor did he trust God.
Mist was beginning to gather in the woods and would soon shroud his view. Then he'd have to rely on instincts rather than the help of spies within the castle. Somewhere in the surrounding trees, an owl hooted softly.
"There it is," Wolf said squinting hard. One of Dwyrain's sentries, a watchman in the north tower, paused, closed the shutters of the crenel, then opened them again. " 'Tis time."
Odell scratched his head. "Time fer what -- to open the gates of hell?"
Wolf chuckled and checked the knife he'd slid into his boot. "The marriage ceremony is about to begin." A hard smile crept over his lips as the sound of church bells peeled throughout the valley. "I wouldn't want to be late."
"For the wedding?" Odell asked, rolling his eyes as if he was certain his leader was daft. " 'Twill be hours before ye get there."
"I care not for the wedding." Wolf's smile faded and determination clenched his jaw. "But the kidnapping can't start without me."
Wolf entered the gates of Dwyrain easily. No one questioned a well-dressed nobleman on a swift mud-spattered destrier. He appeared tired, as if from a long journey, and rode across the drawbridge and beneath the great portcullis that was raised in the gatehouse. Through the outer bailey without so much as a question from the sentries, he followed others and trailed behind a lumbering team of horses pulling a hay cart. A boy he recognized as Jack, a young hunter for the castle, glanced his way, then went back to sharpening the blade of his knife. Though neither acknowledged the other, Wolf and Jack had met before when poachers had tried to steal from Dwyrain's forests and had nearly killed Jack to silence him. It had been Wolf's sword that had convinced them to take their dead stag and leave the boy alone.
Now, three years later, Jack sheathed his knife, met Wolf's gaze again briefly, then grabbed the reins of Wolf's mount before leading the stallion away.
The chapel bells had rung hours before, announcing that the marriage ceremony itself and the nuptial Mass following the ceremony had ended. Good. 'Twas important that Holt be married. Wolf only hoped Holt loved Ewan's daughter with all his black heart. She was the older of the baron's daughters, and some, including his allies within the castle walls, blamed her for their troubles, claiming she'd brought a curse upon the keep. They were only too eager to help him with his plot and be rid of Megan.
As if he had every right to enter, he half ran up the steps of the great hall and ignored a guard posted at the door, but he was stopped by a tall, lanky soldier with a scraggly red beard and a scar running down one side of his face.
"Excuse me, sir, but have you an invitation?"
Wolf paused and let a small, amused smile play upon his lips, the kind of knowing grin that one of superior birth rains on an underling. "Pardon me?"
The man's Adam's apple bobbed. "An invite, sir."
The knife in his boot rubbed against his leg and he wondered if he'd have to use the weapon. "Aye, from the baron himself."
"Yer name, sir?" the sentry persisted, glancing nervously about. No doubt he didn't want to offend any of Baron Ewan's friends.
"Do you not recognize Kelvin of Castle Hawarth?" another soldier, Sir Reginald, a man who owed Wolf his life, asked. Reginald, big and burly, looked Wolf straight in the eye and lowered his head a bit. "How be ye, sir?"
"Hawarth?" the sentry repeated, dully.
Wolf's gut tightened. "Aye."
"That's right, Wendall, Hawarth. Are you dense as a stone?"
Scarface's eyebrows drew into one thick line of concentration. "But I thought the baron was Osric."
"Aye, 'tis so. And his younger brother -- ?" Reginald prompted while he sent Wolf a glance that silently told him he'd gladly run scarface through with his sword if needs be.
"Lord Osric sends his best to Sir Holt and Lady Megan," Wolf said, though he nearly choked on the words.
Wendall scowled for a second and then, as if some dim thoughts appeared in his cloudy mind, he nodded slowly. "Kelvin of Hawarth," he repeated, "kindly pass. I'm afraid ye've missed the ceremony and the feast."
"'Tis of no matter -- just as long as I can give Sir Holt and his bride my gift."
Reginald's smile was as stiff as a dead dog's leg. Wolf slipped inside to mingle with the invited guests. The smells from the meal lingered, rising above the smoke and chatter, and Wolf's stomach growled at the scents of cooked salmon, venison, and pheasant. It had been years since he'd lived in a castle and the feasts he'd taken for granted as a youth were far distant.
Servants had cleared the room of tables and musicians tuned their lyres, viols, and lutes. Guests in silk, velvet, and fur gathered in groups filled with good wishes for the bride and groom.
Wolf's heart burned with a silent fury and he climbed the stairs to the second-floor landing for a better view of the newlyweds. A loud tapping interrupted the noise. Instruments stopped. Laughter and voices stilled.
On the dais, an old man pounded his cane. He was a tall man, now stooped, with a white beard and hair that had once been red. He smiled widely, though with effort, it appeared. "Please, please..." he said, his voice raspy. "Thank you all for coming to this, the celebration of my daughter's wedding. Please welcome Sir Holt, who has been like a son to me and now is truly part of my family." Leaning heavily on his cane, he added, "I only hope their union is blessed with many children and I live to see them. After I am gone, Holt will become the baron of Dwyrain!"
A bad taste rose in the back of Wolf's throat while everyone else in attendance clapped, laughed, and shouted congratulations. Holt beamed and his wife lost some of her color. As she held her husband's hand, no smile curved her lips, despair rounded her eyes, and Wolf was struck by her as he'd been when he'd seen her before. Though she was not as beautiful as the golden-haired one who was her sister, there was a spark to this woman that none other in the great hall held. So why did she appear unhappy? Was she already regretting her marriage vows?
"Now, musicians, play!" the old man commanded.
Immediately, music filled the great hall and the crowd parted. In the middle of the floor, Holt bowed to his bride, his eyes never leaving her face as he began to dance.
She was smaller than Wolf remembered, dressed in white, her dark hair braided with flowers and covered with a fine veil captured about her head with a thin gold band. Her eyes, when she looked at her groom, were filled with a quiet, seething fire that Wolf guessed was more than a hint of her spirit.
So this was the woman who was supposed to love Holt. Wolf had caught glimpses of her riding on horseback either coming or going to the castle these past few months, but never had he stared at her full in the face and never had he guessed her so prideful and gloriously beautiful. Her skin was pale but smooth, her eyes wide and warm gold with thick curling lashes and finely arched brows. White and gold ribbons were wound in her hair and small flowers framed a face far too lovely for the wife of Holt.
Wolf's fists clenched.
Holt was with his new bride. His gaze never left her face, his smile seductive and full of promise.
In his mind's eye, Wolf saw them coupling, Holt naked and dark, mounting this small, white-skinned lady...
For the love of Christ, what was he thinking? Cursing under his breath, he stared at the woman. What did it matter how Holt bedded this woman -- his wife? As long as the mating didn't happen before Wolf had kidnapped and ransomed her, it was none of Wolf's concern. Slowly, he opened his hands and started down to the dance floor. 'Twas time to meet Megan of Dwyrain.
It's over. I am Holt's wife. For now until eternity. Megan danced on leaden legs, allowing her new husband to twirl her around the great hall. He laughed and whispered into her ear, reminding her of everything he intended to do to her later that night. She shivered, not in eager anticipation, but in disgust.
"Ah, yes, my love," he said, his breath tickling her ear. "You will dance with me alone tonight and show me what kind of woman you are."
She didn't answer, couldn't think of lying with him, of having his hands touch her skin, of letting him pierce her maidenhead to spill his seed into her body. Her stomach clenched and she nearly retched as the musicians played on, the notes of their songs rising like the mist in the morning. Dear God, help me.
There was ever the chance of escape. Should she decide that she could not lie with this cur, she could run away, humiliate her father, and...and go where?
She felt Holt's lips on her neck, and her skin crawled. "Come, love, at least pretend you're having a good time," he cajoled. "I wouldn't want to get angry," he said, his eyes locking with hers, his fingers gripping her more tightly. "I have a nasty temper when I'm crossed, or don't you know?"
"I remember," she said, tilting up her chin. "I saw you kill the bear cub."
The corners of Holt's mouth cinched tight. "We needed his mother for the entertainment."
Megan had never considered bear-baiting entertainment.
"The cub didn't need to die."
"Of course he did, my sweet. He was distracting his mother. And he suffered not."
Megan closed her eyes, remembering Holt's orders and the mace that came down fast and hard, crushing the mewling, frightened animal's skull. She also remembered the furious roar of the mother bear, how the enraged beast had lunged despite the shackles on her back legs. The chains had slipped and the bear swept forward through the crowd in the outer bailey, swiping her powerful claws and leaving one soldier with deep gashes on the side of his face and severing the arm of the miller's son just below his elbow.
"Now, now, you hunt," Holt reminded her. "I've seen you with the carcasses of pheasant, stag, and boar."
She lifted her chin. "I kill not the young, nor the mothers of the young."
"So noble," he mocked. His chuckle was deep and throaty. "I'm going to enjoy you, Megan," he said, his eyes sliding down her body. "In every way."
"And I will detest you forever."
"Ah, ah, ah. Be careful what you say," he said, his eyes gleaming malevolently. "I wouldn't want to have to punish you tonight, on our wedding night." But the smile that curved his lips suggested otherwise, as if the anticipation of hurting her was somehow exciting and pleasured him.
A shiver of fear slid down her spine and she saw her father, smiling proudly, lifting his hands, asking the guests to join them in their wedding dance. Within minutes, the hall was filled with other couples who jostled and swayed, some laughing, others more serious -- men and women dressed in finery, celebrating what should have been the happiest day of her life.
Several men cut in on her dance with Holt and Megan was relieved. Holt, enjoying himself, danced with other ladies, and Megan endured the smiles, congratulations, and sweaty hands of new partners. She was about to make good her escape upstairs to her room when a deep voice asked, "May I?" to her partner, and before she could think twice, she was being swept around the chamber by a handsome stranger she didn't recognize.
Taller than Holt by an inch or two, he was built strong, with wide shoulders and trim waist. His movements were quick and sure. When his gaze touched hers, the breath in the back of her throat caught, for his eyes were an intense shade of blue that cut to her very soul.
"Lady Megan," he drawled lazily.
"And you are -- ?"
"A friend of Holt's," was his reply, and she noticed that his hands were not soft, but callused, and in the cleft of his eyebrow was a battle scar. He was handsome in a rugged, dangerous way that surprised her, and his smile, when he showed it, was crooked and secretive and scared her more than a little.
"Have you no name?" she asked, and he laughed, holding her closer than she thought was necessary. Yet she didn't draw away -- the heat of his body was distracting in a wicked way.
"None that you'd know."
"But if you're a friend of my...my...Sir Holt's -- " she couldn't say it. Holt was her husband but she could not speak the word, would not let it trip from her tongue.
"Come," he whispered into her ear so softly she wasn't certain she heard it correctly. "I have a wedding gift for you and your husband." He guided her to a spot near the door where a bit of a draft moved the tapestries.
"Now -- ?" She glanced around, eager for a chance to leave, though uncertain.
He pulled her behind the curtain.
"Now," he said against her ear and she tingled inside. What was she doing letting this man, this stranger, touch her so familiarly? He leaned forward as if to kiss her and she told herself to step away, to slap him for being so bold, but she couldn't. To her surprise he clamped a hand over her mouth.
Her body convulsed.
She tried to scream. What was happening? She fought, struggling, but he had one arm, strong as an oak log, wedged under her breasts, the other hand pressed over her mouth.
"Do not struggle, m'lady," he said with a sneer in his voice, "and your family will not be hurt."
She bit down hard on the callused hands, but they didn't shift one little bit.
"If you fight me," he growled, "you seal their fates and your precious husband, sister, and father will be killed. Slowly and painfully."
She went limp in his hands and Wolf felt not only a stab of regret for scaring her and lying to her, but a new emotion as well -- jealousy that this woman could love a bastard such as Holt of Prydd. With the cord tucked around his wrist, he quickly bound her hands. She cried out at the injustice of it, but he didn't have time to argue with her.
As he dragged her down the steps, smiling when he noticed the sentries missing from their posts, just as he'd planned, he heard the first shouts from the great hall. No more time.
Not only his horse, but hers as well, was waiting near the cistern. "Climb into the saddle and say not a word. As you can see, I have friends here, friends who have dispensed with the guards and stolen your horse. If you breathe too loudly, I swear, I will have them destroy all that you love!"
He removed his hand from her mouth and she opened hers, only to shut it again. He helped her into the saddle, then climbed onto his own steed while holding fast to her mare's reins.
As the doors of the great hall burst open, Wolf dug his heels into his mount's sides and the stallion took off, racing like the wind through the outer bailey, hooves clattering on the drawbridge.
The feisty mare kept up, her nose at the stallion's flank, her legs a blur. Wolf slid a glance at his prize and her eyes met his for an instant. He expected hatred, or fear, but saw neither. Instead, in that heartbeat, he noticed a glint of triumph in her gaze.
Almost as if she'd been expecting him.
Copyright © 1995 by Susan Lynn Crose
Excerpted from Outlaw by Lisa Jackson Copyright © 2005 by Lisa Jackson. Excerpted by permission.
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