Margaret Grace is the lady of Fletchers Landing, earning what she can as a beekeeper and mead maker, and playing a nerve-wracking game with the mercenaries who demand payment to ensure her village’s safety. When an unknown man appears on horseback one day, Meg knows she can’t trust him—especially when the dashing knight claims to be looking for fabled lost riches. But her desires are harder to control . . .
Tormented by the memories of his imprisonment at the hands of a vicious mercenary, Sir Nathan Staves is glad to be abroad on a quest for His Majesty. His task promises the chance to recover a legendary lost bounty, but also throws him into the path of the beguiling Meg. Their breathtaking passion awakens just as a familiar danger does, forcing Nathan to decide which is the greater prize—an elusive treasure, or the love of a woman he will die to protect . . .
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The impact of blade against blade shuddered up Sir Nathan Staves's arm. The mercenaries continued to come at him. They were like ants marching out of an anthill. He raised his broadsword and advanced his assault, pressing his enemies across Balforth's dungeon. Never again would he allow them to take him prisoner.
He found their leader, Sir Vincent DePierce, Lord of Balforth. Their blades met and swung again. One more strike and that damn man would no longer keep his head.
"I shall cut out your heart and feed it to the crows," Nathan swore. He drew back to land the deathblow.
"Sir Nathan," the voice worked its way into the battle. "Pax! Cease your advancement."
"Mercy!" someone shouted.
"For God's sake, Nathan. Stop!"
Nathan's arm hovered overhead. The sword wavered. He clawed his way through the nightmare's many veils. A shuddering breath racked his body, searing him as if it came from a fiery furnace.
Daylight seeped into his blood-red delusional state. He blinked at the bright sun. Clearmorrow Castle's tiltyard came into focus. The men he had trained with that afternoon now stared at him as if he were their enemy.
He wiped the blood and sweat from his brow. Why was Darrick lying on the ground?
"Darrick?" Nathan croaked as he struggled to find his way to reality.
"How could you," Lady Sabine cried as she ran to her husband. "Darrick is your dearest friend," she scolded as she elbowed her way past the soldiers working to staunch the bleeding.
"No." Nathan spun on his heel. Where was DePierce? His men?
"Is Darrick alive?" Elizabeth, the Lady of Clearmorrow cried. "Does my brother live?"
Her husband, Taron, Lord of Clearmorrow, shouted out orders to the men hovering around their wounded friend. "Fetch the surgeon."
"Bring me my sewing kit," Sabine said, kneeling on the ground.
"What have I done?" Nathan dropped his head in defeat. "Forgive me." He stumbled from the bailey yard like the monster that he had become.
* * *
Nathan stood on Clearmorrow's parapet and could not tear his gaze away from the stain spreading down his sword. 'Twas his friend, Sir Darrick, Lord of Lockwood's blood.
There was a time when he would have never noticed the sounds of clashing swords, the visceral grunts as power pushed through his limbs and his weapons made contact with his enemy. But that time was lost at the hands of Vincent De Pierce. The time in the torturous oubliette had seen to that.
It had taken months for his muscles to stop their cramping, seizing him as he slept, determined to remind him of every hour he was kept in darkness. The screams inside his head silenced everything and everyone until the swirl of pain brought him back to reality.
Nathan's callused hands trembled against the stone crenulation as he gripped the ledge. Sweat trickled under his gambeson. This time, the bout of agony had led him down a path that had nearly removed Darrick's life. He rubbed the stain of blood. His heart clutched. The sting of watery pain made him blink against the sun. How was he to live with the fear that he could no longer escape the terror of that damp, dark hole?
The oubliette had allowed for him to stand, his feet taking all his weight, his arms stretched overhead. His tormentors left him to rot for days, bringing him out when they felt the need to "play" with him. If not for Lady Sabine, he would still be in that place of death.
He glanced down at the Lockwood family huddled beside Darrick. Why did they not come for him and place him in Clearmorrow Castle's dungeon? The newly wedded Lady Sabine looked up as if searching for the madman who nearly killed her husband.
His breath caught. Instead of outrage, he saw sorrow and pity gleaming from her countenance. She offered him an unsteady smile before ducking her head to speak to Darrick.
Guilt hacked through Nathan like a broadsword. Although they had yet to make the announcement, Nathan knew that Darrick and Sabine were expecting their first child. He'd seen her run to the privy more times than he cared to count. She placed her hand over the life growing in her belly as if reading his thoughts.
The swelling of new life had begun to show and change everything. Gone were the days when he and Darrick fought side by side, against those who chose to take what was not theirs. His stomach twisted and he felt as green as the color usually associated with Sabine's pallor when they all broke their fast in the great hall. They could ill afford to have him around. What if the next time he cleaved Darrick's head from his neck? The ladies of Clearmorrow or Lockwood would never forgive him. And he would never be able to live with himself.
He no longer belonged. It was getting harder to be around Darrick and Sabine and that love-drenched couple, Taron and Elizabeth.
Their boy, Chance, was growing strong, toddling into trouble wherever the child could find it. It gave him shivers to think of the mischief waiting for his discovery. What if something were to happen to the babe while under his watch? Bile rose in this throat.
Nathan shoveled his hands through his hair, tugging as if it would release him from the growing pinch in his belly. His lungs burned and grappled for air. The world began its vicious spin off its axis.
Henry was still in France. Drem and Brigitte were in Wales along with Drem's sister Terrwyn and her husband, James Frost, and they too were in a family way. Tate, Taron, and Sabine's half-brother were sent off to be fostered. Once they had bided their time and done their duty to the king, they too might join the rank of knight. Their lives would fill with adventure and the challenges that brought some men to their knees. And one day, they too would find someone to lean on when they were feeling weak and afraid. Hell, even Thunder had found a mate.
Change had taken hold, and Nathan didn't know how to stop it. Family. Or rather, the lack of family had never mattered as long as he had a quest to have victory over. He'd had a year to wrestle the task of rebuilding and fortifying Clearmorrow. Now that the majority of the stronghold would stand against any attack mounted against it, he felt the itch between his shoulder blades.
Perhaps he was too broken to save. Destined to be alone. He saw the looks between his friends and knew they had all shared private conversations. Apparently, judging by the swiftness in which the subjects changed when he joined them, it had been about him.
Had they noted the nights that he prowled the halls, unable to escape the dreams that haunted every hour that he drew breath? He glanced down. His knuckles seemed to protrude through his skin. When had they begun to look like chicken bones? His wrists, too, had become thin.
The invisible weight he carried on his back threatened to bend him over. The memories of battles and lives taken were piling up like cords of wood. Others might not see it, but he could whenever he caught his reflection in a pool or his shadow trailed after him.
The ladies still had their appeal, but they could not hold his attention for long. Perhaps it was the lack of sleep and no appetite for life that kept him lost.
When sleep did come, the nightmares rose up from the hole that had burrowed into his mind. And when he did break free, the exhaustion left him weak in mind and body. He had tried the lists, beating the memories into submission with his sword. But this afternoon's time at the turns showed him that he was indeed a broken knight. Instead of Darrick and Taron in the tiltyard, he had seen DePierce and his mercenaries. They'd come at him, weapons drawn. And all he had wanted to do was end the torment and take their lives.
A shuddering breath broke through the wall forming in his chest. He needed to leave. Needed to go ... from this place so those he cared for were kept safe. To clear his mind. To fight the demons that had latched on to his soul. But where? Mayhap 'twas time to return to France. Perhaps King Henry would send him on another mission. He had no land to support him. All he had was his sword arm and even that was unpredictable.
"He knows you did not mean to harm him," Elizabeth said.
Nathan looked down at the slender fingers resting on his leather gauntlet. It took all the courage he could muster to raise his head. He did not want to see pity shadowing her gaze. "He is my friend and I could have killed him."
"But you didn't. Nathan, you are more than any friend." Her grip tightened around his wrist. "You are part of our family. We'll help you through this. Taron and I are still haunted by DePierce's ill treatment. We know the dark memories that take on a life of their own. Give yourself more time to heal."
He covered her hand with his. "I cannot take that chance. What if I became lost again in my mind and turned on someone else?"
"'Tis only a scratch," Darrick said from the stairway. He limped over, the old wound from their siege of Harfleur more pronounced today. "You'll stay here until you are well."
Nathan eyed his friend. They had shared so many years, fostering together with the same lord, serving their king, sharing the secrets of the brotherhood. They were Knights of the Swan and they were nearing their end. How many more years did they have on this earth?
A fresh linen bandage wrapped around Darrick's shoulder and held his injured appendage still. What made Lady Sabine give her approval to leave her care so soon? There was an air of apprehension in Darrick's stare.
"What truly brings you up on the parapet so soon after ...?" Nathan's attention drifted to the tiltyard.
"So soon after I let my guard down and let you almost defeat me?" Darrick finished for him. He gripped Nathan's forearm, as if to prove that he was hale and hearty. "'Twas an error on my part. Not yours."
Nathan itched under their scrutiny. Did he dare confront what they discussed behind closed doors? Hell, why not? "Both of you know this isn't true. I've known of the talk amongst you. Felt the shame that my hands tremble. My muscles still tire from a bit of swordplay." He swiped his palm over his overheated face. How did one feel hot and clammy at the same time? "I cannot sleep. The haunting dreams of that hole are so real that I fear I have been captured and returned to Balforth Castle." Taron and Sabine stepped out on to the parapet, united as brother and sister. Nathan began to wonder if perhaps they were about to lay siege to his sanity.
"And when you are awake, you have the look of a man being tortured. And you were," Taron said.
Nathan swallowed, hating the building panic. "Do you fear that I will turn on you? As I did today?"
Taron clasped Nathan's arm. "We all were harmed in some way by that bastard."
A growl threatened to prowl up his spine. "I know this," Nathan said through clenched teeth. "I am grateful that we survived. But when I see you all together, I cannot stop the thoughts. I am reminded all over again."
Nathan turned away from the only people he called family. "Working to rebuild Clearmorrow has allowed my body to regain some of its strength. But the wounds of the mind have refused to heal. I need to leave before anyone else is damaged."
"Then 'tis good that we've received word while you were working with the men in the bailey," Taron said. The smile he sported never seemed to warm his dark obsidian eyes.
"A messenger?" Darrick asked. He turned an accusing glare on his brother-in- law and was met with a shrug.
"I would have told you sooner," Sabine said as she unconsciously ran a soothing hand over her belly. The action proved worthy as it drew Darrick's ire away from her brother and made him, instead, think of their babe. "However, I thought staunching your blood loss was more important."
Worry creased Darrick's brows and shadowed his gaze as he placed his hand over hers. "I am safe and I thank you for your care." He lifted Sabine's hand to his lips.
Taron cleared his throat, saving Nathan from pitching himself over the battlement. 'Twould be a kinder fate than to continue seeing love all around you and knowing that it would never be yours. No land to lord over or name to pass on to your children. For what purpose would you sire a child if you had nothing to give them?
"The king's messenger waits in the great hall," Taron motioned for them to follow. "He bears a disc with a swan etched into its surface."
"Then we best be at it and hear what news he carries," Darrick said. He spun on his heel and made the descent down the narrow stairway.
Sabine and Elizabeth shared a look between them. Their rosy cheeks had paled as they clutched each other's hand. Did they fear for their men and the lives they had started to rebuild?
Nathan waited for them before taking his leave of the parapet. King Henry desired their service. The Knights of the Swan were needed once again.
He drew back his shoulders, stretching the tense muscles until they burned. Relief, the thrill of the hunt, the challenge, the quest, they burbled up like a spring coming to life. Did a peregrine feel the same way when released from the darkness under its hood? He imagined it soaring over the countryside, searching out its prey. And in its hunt, did it have a renewed sense of purpose? Aye, it had to. For in this simple possibility of change ... his change, he might find peace.
He clattered down the steps, nearly running to catch up with the only people foolish enough to include him in their family circle. They gathered in the solar that stood off from Clearmorrow's great hall. As lord, the missive was delivered first to Taron. He read it in silence, his face paling against two red splotches blooming on his cheeks. The vellum rustled as he passed it over to Darrick.
Nathan squinted, trying to see over his friend's sleeve. "By all the saints," he said. "I trust that it will be to return to France and continue Henry's good fight."
"I fear not," Darrick said. His mouth barely moved as he spoke. "Someone must ride north. Toward the debatable land."
"But is not Carlisle's keep nearby?" Sabine asked. "Surely they are closer."
He slid his thumb over her lip. "'Tis not what the king desires. He wishes for information."
The gray in Darrick's eyes turned the color of ice chips as his jaw worked to release the rest of the message. "We are to ride to Fletchers Landing."
Nathan grunted. "'Twas one of Vincent DePierce's holdings."
"No." Elizabeth and Sabine's gasp wove its way through their little group.
The messenger gripped his hat and pulled a leather packet from his cape. "If you please, my Lady Sabine, our king wishes to return this. He believes there may be clues in the land to the north and he asks that its meaning is discovered."
He slapped his woolen cap back on his head and waited for their reply.
Taron stepped forward. "Go to the kitchens. Ask Cook to find something to tide you over until this eve. If you wish, you may bed in the stables. On the morrow, we'll have a message for you to deliver."
"Aye, my lord, I thank you for your hospitality. 'Tis a fair long ride." Making a bow, he hurried off, a hungry look widening his eyes as he searched for the cook.
Sabine held out her hand. "Father's journal." They stared as she unfolded the leather wrapping. "'Tis the one that speaks of treasure that Rhys and DePierce were willing to kill for."
Nathan suppressed a shiver and lifted his chin in defiance. "I'll go. Alone."
"You can't," Taron said.
Nathan felt the boil of rage begin to hurl its way through his limbs. He tamped down the beast that he feared he may become. If he did not do something he knew it was only a matter of time before his friends' worries were confirmed. "And why not?"
"The memories," Elizabeth said. She caught her lip with her teeth. "Will you be able to manage them?"
Her concern warmed his soul. There had been a time in his boyhood, when he thought that his heart would break should Elizabeth never notice him. He knew that it was no longer possible for her love to be his. She had given her love to Sir Taron, Lord of Clearmorrow. But in those moments that he wandered the halls of late, he did dream of someone to care whether he lived or died. And he had come to decide that someone could only be found in another place other than Clearmorrow or Lockwood Castles.
"I am stronger than I look." He bent low, lifting her fingers to his lips. A bit of mischief made him linger over long until Taron shifted his feet into position so that his fist might make contact with Nathan's jaw.
Appreciating an uninjured face over the torment that he caused Elizabeth's new husband, he released her hand and ducked. The thought of being on the lands connected to the villain DePierce was nearly obliterated from his mind. At least until he closed his eyes. Time would reveal whether he could keep his sanity a while longer.
He pressed down the whispered questions that normally only tormented him in the dark hours of the night. He had to place his attention elsewhere, and swiftly.
Excerpted from "Knight Furies"
Copyright © 2018 C.C. Wiley.
Excerpted by permission of Lyrical Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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