Shadow Riderby Kathrynn Dennis
Sybilla Corbuc has an uncommon understanding of the horses she cares for, but there are men who distrust such wisdom in a woman. Forced to become a nobleman's servant to avoid prison, Sybilla finds herself bound by chains that are stronger still�she cannot deny her passionate feelings for her new master, Sir Guy of Warwick. Neither is prepared to submit to the… See more details below
Sybilla Corbuc has an uncommon understanding of the horses she cares for, but there are men who distrust such wisdom in a woman. Forced to become a nobleman's servant to avoid prison, Sybilla finds herself bound by chains that are stronger still�she cannot deny her passionate feelings for her new master, Sir Guy of Warwick. Neither is prepared to submit to the other, but his dark eyes and his unbridled desire are too potent a force to resist�
Brought together by the birth of a mysterious colt, an animal of supernatural power that may foretell their destiny, they embark upon a perilous journey as the kingdom crumbles around them, a journey that will bring them ever closer to each other�and to the danger that lies ahead. And only love can save them�
- Kensington Publishing Corporation
- Publication date:
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- 4.28(w) x 6.82(h) x 0.94(d)
Read an ExcerptShadow Rider
By Kathrynn Dennis ZEBRA BOOKS
Copyright © 2008 Kathrynn Dennis
All right reserved.
Chapter One Cornbury, England Four months later
Forbidden by the village priest to be here, she'd still do what she had to do. Sybilla Corbuc, at twenty years of age, unmarried and unspoken for, could not help herself.
Tonight, it was simply worth the risk.
She lifted her faded blue gown over her head and tossed it into the straw. The icy night air sucked her breath away as the feeble layer of warmth between her gown and her thin chemise vanished.
Better to remove the garment and suffer the cold than risk soiling it with telltale stains.
She folded her arms beneath her breasts and willed herself not to shake.
"Etienne," she whispered, "are you certain the night watch did not see you? The moon is bright tonight." Her warm breath, cloud-like and vaporous in the icy night air, rushed past her lips.
A boy with eager eyes and downy whiskers on his upper lip stamped his feet and rubbed his hands together. "No, mistress. They were all a sleepin' afore I left ta fetch you."
Sybilla shivered. Thick, wet snowflakes floated down and stuck to her cheeks and forehead. She wiped her face with the back of her hand and looked up. Sparkling snow drifted through a pie-sized hole in the roof.
She moved closer to Etienne. "I saw boot prints along the road. Someone is about. Please, snuff the candle. For this, thereis light enough." She slipped her arm from her chemise.
Shadows fell across the boy's face, but not before his cheeks flamed red and his eyes grew wide. Was it possible he was both embarrassed and afraid?
His voice trembled. "What will they do if they catch us, mistress?"
"To you, nothing. But to me ... prison. I'll be tried and branded as a Separate, and cast out naked in the woods."
A gasp slipped from Etienne's mouth. "'Tis a death sentence," he squeaked.
Sybilla shuddered at his words. "Tell no one about tonight, Etienne."
She clutched her half-removed chemise to her chest, wishing she had some goose grease, or a little dab of butter to help with the task at hand. "I'm forced to risk my life and work in secret, else I'll starve," she whispered, her voice low.
Etienne glanced down at his feet. "Why won't they let you help with the livestock birthings anymore?"
"The bishop has barred all women from working in the stables. He lost fifty of his foal crop this season, all aborted, slipped from the mares without warning. He does not understand what happened, so he blames the deaths on witches."
Etienne blew on his cold-shriveled hands. "Were it witches, mistress?"
Sybilla shook her head. "Nay. 'Twas a contagion. There was nothing anyone could do."
She dropped to her knees. "We'd best get on with it."
The old horse resting in the straw beside them rolled her eyes upward and stared at Sybilla, pleading.
Without another word, she plunged her arm into a bucket, a bucket filled with water so cold it stung like nettles. She gasped and sat back on her heels. A cloud of sweet mold and straw-dust billowed upward, then settled on her lips and eyelids. She pressed her face into her bare shoulder and held her breath. St. Genevieve, I beg you, just this one last time, do not let me be discovered.
And then she sneezed.
A wet, head-splitting sneeze. A sneeze loud enough to roust the pigeons from the rafters. Fear streaked though her as Etienne clamped his hand across his mouth and turned his head toward the door.
Sybilla sat as still as a statue and held up her freezing arm. Water ran in rivulets to her elbow and steam wafted from her soaking skin.
Minutes passed. She sat in silence while the wind whistled through the roof hole. Pigeons cooed and skittered in the loft above. Beams moaned and the whole structure overhead seemed to shift. Mother Mary. Would the rearrangement of half-starved pigeons be enough to bring the building down?
The withered barn suddenly creaked. The ancient beams groaned and settled without collapsing. The night watch, apparently, had not heard the ruckus.
Sybilla let out her breath and stroked the swollen flank of the downer horse, a faded sorrel mare with a sunken croup, a broomstick tail and an udder which was not as full as it should be. What little nutrition the old mare had taken in had gone to keeping herself warm and not to making milk. Even if the mare survived, the foal might not.
Sybilla patted the mare on the rump and scooted round behind her. "God's peace, Addy, why did you have to do this on the coldest night since Michaelmas?"
She slid her arm into the mare's velvet warmth and probed to find a tiny hoof trapped behind protruding pelvic bones. Wrapping her fingers around a small fetlock, she looked at Etienne, his youthful face pinched with worry. "Don't fret," she whispered. "This will be easier than I thought."
With one strong tug, she pulled as the mare pushed and grunted. The tiny limb straightened and the foal slithered out in a gush of shiny fluid, black hair, and legs.
Sybilla wiped the mucous from his mouth and nostrils. "Aren't you a handsome one?" she said softly, as she traced the perfect white stripe that began between his soulful eyes and ended with a splash across his muzzle.
She raised her eyebrows and pointed to his feet. The hair there was solid white, right up to his fetlocks, on all four hooves. "Mother Mary. You look like you danced in chalk-paint, or you robbed the nuns at St. Bertone's an' stole their stockings. But you're a beauty."
She glanced at Etienne and her joy faded.
His mouth agape, he took a step back as he stared at the newborn. "Mistress, he's marked like the magic horse from Hades! The one the seer told us would be born at Cornbury. You don't want this one, mistress. He'll bring you nothing but trouble."
"Etienne, that's tittle-tattle, a tale told by a seer to earn pennies at the fair. She'd say anything to earn coin to buy food." She ran her hand along the foal's graceful neck. "Marked as he is, he's mine. I spent my last chink to buy his mother. He's sired by the Duke of Marmount's champion Spanish stallion. I shall call him my Regalo, God's gift. Safely delivered, sent from heaven, not from hell."
Sybilla's words surprised her. She'd attended the births of hundreds of foals, but for this one, she felt an unprecedented sense of ownership.
Addy nickered and staggered to her feet. The remnants of the afterbirth clinging to her tail, she sniffed the foal and snorted her approval. Pray to the saints, her milk would come now that she'd seen and smelled her foal.
The foal, surprisingly alert for just a minute old, lifted his head and looked around. His bright eyes flickered with unusual acuity and with an eagerness that made Sybilla take a second look. He rolled himself upright, folded his legs beneath him, and boldly met her gaze. A whinny pealed from his throat, as if to say he would get up when he was damn near ready, but for now, he preferred to sit like the prince he knew he was.
Sybilla smiled. "Praise the saints, you're healthy." She splashed water on her freezing arm and mopped it dry with the hem of her chemise. "You are a fine colt, even marked as you are. I could not have hoped for better."
She tossed her braid behind her shoulders, and nudged Etienne. "Go and fetch your mother. She'll know what to do from here. I daren't stay any longer."
A pensive Etienne slipped out of the barn without bothering to close the doors fully. Through the crack, Sybilla watched him go, a boy on the verge of manhood. He raced across the snowy yard to the tiny mud-and-wattle house with a thatched roof and a crooked chimney. How his mother, the widow Margery, managed to feed all six children through the winter was a wonder, having not a penny or a man to help. They all might still starve to death. The April fields had not been planted, the ground still blanketed with a crusty mix of ice and mud. Even Sybilla was down to her last cabbage.
The foal floundered, struggling at his first attempt to stand. His muscles shook from the effort but, when at last he hoisted his gangly legs beneath him and stood squarely on all fours, he swung his head around and looked at Sybilla. His big round eyes filled with pride.
Sybilla grinned. She, too, had her pride. She was a free woman, cold and hungry, but free. Her parents, God rest their souls, had been freemen, too-her stepfather born that way, her mother blessedly released after years in servitude.
Sybilla took a deep breath, wondering how she would survive. If she could last another week or two, spring would be here. She'd planned to earn her keep by helping farmers with the foalings. But now what would she do? She'd been warned once already to cease practicing her trade.
"Mistress Corbuc," the wiry Father Ambrose had yelled one sunny day last spring, when he'd found her with her arm inside a mare who struggled to deliver her twins. "The church bars women from the practice of surgery and ministrations on animals. It cultivates the keeping of familiars and cavorting with the devil. I forbid you to be a midwife to a horse. 'Tis indecent."
Sybilla prickled. If she were caught tonight, they'd arrest her without witness or defense.
She put her hand to cheek, the place where they would hold the branding iron and burn the mark of a Separate into her skin ... She'd seen it done to other women-heard their screams, and smelled the nauseating scent of burnt flesh. 'Twas even worse if they scorched to the bone.
Her stomach roiled at the recollection. God in heaven, she had to leave Cornbury-to go anywhere a woman with her skill was free to earn her keep.
A squeal erupted from the foal, jolting Sybilla from her dark thoughts. He pranced and nipped at the glittering snowflakes drifting through the roof hole. The sparkling white powder that dusted his finely sculpted head gave him a definite aura, a spirit-like quality not of this world.
He was different, though she couldn't quite say why. But in that instant, she knew they shared a common bond. She would defend him with her life.
Heavy footsteps suddenly crunched across the frozen yard and headed toward the barn. Sybilla spun around and faced the door. Panic shook her heart. Those were not the feet of Etienne, or his mother!
Choking back a yelp, she shoved her arm through the sleeve of her chemise and dove beneath the feed trough. Shards of rotting wood snagged her scalp and cobwebs whisked across her mouth and lashes. She drew her knees to her chest and let the shadows fall across her face as she watched the scene unfold before her.
Men's voices shouted. Hinges squealed and the barn doors swung fully open. A blast of wind blew powdery snow across the threshold and she watched as a knight, a stubby man with a rounded belly and an icy red beard, stumbled inside, his short mantle swinging like a bell. He surveyed his surroundings. "This will do," he grumbled. He shoved his hood back, and brushed the snow off his shoulders and his red-topped head.
A second knight strode in past the first one, his cloak billowing around his powerful legs. The ice-glazed spurs at his heels glinted like crystal. His hood obscured the details of his features, but he was tall, towering, and the way he held his strong back, erect with assured purpose, suggested he was mayhap twenty five or thirty years of age-and the kind of man who could keep a woman safe-or destroy her.
He took a deep breath, expanding his hulking chest, his shoulders as wide as a church door. His presence filled the space around him like that of someone accustomed to taking and doing exactly what he wanted.
He rested his hand on the hilt of his sword as he turned his head slowly and scanned the barn. Stomping the snow from his booted feet, he strode toward the shadowy stall where Sybilla huddled.
She didn't dare breathe. The tall knight stopped, pushed off his hood and coif, and ran his fingers through his dark hair. He looked up and studied the column of snow that fell through the roof hole and spiraled down, swirling in the dim ray of light not two feet from Sybilla.
"'Tis a poor excuse for a barn, Simon," he called across his shoulder, his deep voice resonating bravado. "But it keeps out the wind, and given that we've lost our horses, it matters not."
"Hell to the devil, Guy. Hamon set us up. Those men were his soldiers, not common thieves. They waited for us and 'twas more than just our horses they meant to take. You should have finished off the one you pinned, not given quarter. Do you have to be so bloody noble?"
The tall knight ignored the comment and leaned across the stall boards. "Hah! There is actually a beast in here." He offered up his open palm and clucked. "Old girl, would you like some company tonight?" He patted Addy's neck while the foal, trembling on his spindly legs, took a few cautious steps and sniffed at the intruder.
The tall knight chuckled and let the foal lick his glove. "This one's just hit the ground. Within the hour I expect." He squatted and peered between the stall boards. "God's teeth, Simon. Look at it! Four white socks and born in Cornbury. It's him. My horse. Marked just like Morna said he would be."
Simon squinted. "Blessed saints. Would you look at that?"
The foal nickered, flagged his tail and stared, unblinking, at the knights.
The tall knight stood and faced his friend. "I am not a superstitious man, but I do believe I have found my horse, the one who will help me on my quest."
Sybilla's breath caught in her chest. Her colt? His quest?
Simon grunted. "You of all people should know you cannot trust the Lady Morna. The colt's got a white blaze down his forehead, like she said he would, but marked with four white feet, every horseman from here to France knows he won't amount to much. You know that too, but you've had too much to drink."
Sir Guy frowned. "Or Hamon's robber-man-at-arms knocked me silly." He rubbed his swollen cheek and studied the foal.
The wicked lump beneath his eye was so prominent it was visible even in the shadows.
Sir Guy spun around and slapped Simon on the back. "But I have a feeling about this colt. A feeling that I did not get with any of the others. This one is The One."
Simon furrowed his brow. His small eyes darted 'round the barn as if he sensed they were not alone. "You said that about the Lady Constance, and Mary Tanner, and the butcher's daughter, too. Proving that you cannot recognize a decent woman ... or decent horseflesh either. This wobbly-legged farm colt is not The One. His rump is higher than his withers and his ears curl like a lady's slippers. Now let's bed down afore the sheriff finds us. He'll be looking for the man who stole Lord Hamon's emerald."
Sir Guy scowled. "You know I didn't pinch Hamon's necklace. I am many things, but I am not a thief."
Simon strode a few steps back to the barn door and looked through the crack, his gaze assessing. He spread his cloak out in the straw and laid down, but kept his sword at his side. "You are true and honest, and I know you are no thief. But Hamon is a rich nobleman and we are both poor knights. He considers men like you and me just one step above the peasants. He was looking for a fight and it didn't help that you groped his sister. Bloody all, Guy, why do you provoke him? The rift between you two will never end."
Sir Guy stabbed his sword upright in the soft dirt floor. "I am falsely accused. I've never groped a woman, any woman. Certainly not the Lady Avelina. She's the spiteful type. I refused her advances and she got angry. 'Twas she who stole the emerald."
Simon rose to his elbows. "Why do dangerous women always seem to find you? You can spot a man who plots against the king when no one else suspects. Why can't you can tell the difference between a woman you can trust and one you cannot?"
Sir Guy surveyed the dark barn while he spoke to his friend. "I may miss my mark with the fairer sex, but not with horses ..." He pulled his sword from the dirt and pointed the weapon at the colt. "This colt is The One. I'll have a horse with four white socks when I avenge my sister's and my nephew's murderers. Morna said so."
Simon spoke, his voice tense. "Morna isn't always right. You've searched for months now, and the killer's trail has gone cold. Guy, give it up."
"Never. Especially, not now that I've found my horse. This horse was meant to be mine."
Sybilla nearly sprang from her hiding place. Sir Guy was talking about Regalo as if he owned him.
Excerpted from Shadow Rider by Kathrynn Dennis
Copyright © 2008 by Kathrynn Dennis. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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