What if the standing stones and stone circles across the old Celtic world had a secret origin and use?
What if some opened into another world?
What if the goddess of fire was trapped beneath one?
Lovely and innocent Brienne of Yester has always been able to manipulate fire, but when her powers suddenly surge, the simple life she once knew explodes.
Handsome, fearless, and commanding William de Brus has been summoned by the king to investigate a nobleman rumored to have powers linked to the fabled fire goddess. When he chances upon Brienne, his desire for her is immediate. But as his mystical quest unfolds, William realizes that she is at the center of it—for Brienne possesses the very power he has been sent to vanquish....
As their attraction deepens, William attempts to free Brienne from the dark force beginning to control her—even when his duty demands that he treat her as an enemy. With emotions flaring, fire rising, and evil threatening at every turn, can the two lovers survive the coming battle and save all of humanity?
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PRAISE FOR RISING FIRE
The earth buckled beneath her feet, its roar fearsome and deafening, and the sky tore itself open to hurl torrents of rain and lightning at her. Chaela soared through the air and laughed as the others used their powers against hers.
The goddess of fire and chaos, she inhaled the acrid smoke of the destruction she wrought as her enemies and their minions scattered before her might. Chaela savored the taste of ashes in her mouth that foretold of the victory that would soon be hers. Raising her voice, she formed the words and sounds that would bring forth the fire from within her. That fire would bring an end to this battle and to her enemies gathered there.
A moment away from sending brimstone and flames at the last of them, a freezing burst and a terrifying silence flooded through her mind. Like a woolen blanket swaddling a newborn, the silence strengthened, surrounding her until she could hear nothing, feel nothing, and think no words of incantation or spell-making. She gazed across the desolate plain and discovered the other six gathered among the only stones left standing. Her weakling son stood with them—against her!—but she would make sure he’d pay for his betrayal. Soon . . .
Another sound began, invading her thoughts, pushing her down to the ground and forcing even the breath from her body. Their voices rose, chanting words she did not know, until the eerie melody was everywhere.
“No!” she screamed against the overwhelming power of it. They could not defeat her! She could not let them.
She sought the words of a protective spell, but they scattered, as those who had chosen to follow the six traitors had. Chaela drew upon the fire inside her, searching for the power that was hers to burn and destroy, but it, too, was gone.
Cernunnos forced the ground beneath Chaela to thrust up, tossing her into the air. The winds, guided by Taranis’s powers, carried Chaela to the stone circle and held her motionless above it as the enchantment grew louder around her. And still she could not release herself from the bonds the six created.
“Chaela,” Belenus, the god of life and order, called out to her. “Cease this and you will be allowed to live.”
“Fools!” she roared back when her voice would serve her mind. “I cannot be destroyed!” Struggling against the bonds that held her, she could not do more than scream out in frustration. Elemental powers such as hers were created by the universe and could not be extinguished.
“You can be defeated, Chaela. You will be imprisoned in the endless pit and never return. Your name will be forbidden and forgotten,” Sucellus, the god of war and change, told her.
She would never be forgotten—she had seen to that. Her name and her legend—and her blood—would go on no matter what these betrayers were able to do here today. Her very being held an elemental power of the universe and could never be extinguished. Chaela laughed then, the sound echoing across the decimated landscape. The people who had served and gained powers from their gods should be afraid, very afraid, of her wrath and the extent of her powers. Gathering every bit of the power that lived in her blood, she pushed out one final time, trying to force herself loose from the binding spell.
Spiking tendrils of pain and terror seeped through her as she watched a huge black hole open beneath her in the center of the standing stones. The seven continued chanting, and each word pierced her like a sword, her powers leaching out of her as they forced her closer and closer to the yawning pit. Her body levitated over the chasm, and then she fell. Though free of the binding spell, she could not break through the barrier they placed over the opening.
“Free me!” she screamed, beating at the invisible wall between them.
Lashing out with her remaining powers, Chaela pounded against the wall that kept her from the world she would rule. She could feel a weakness in it, and she thrust all she had against it. She watched as the seven standing above her startled, and she threw her head back, laughing at their stupidity.
To bind a power such as hers to this place, there must be a sacrifice to strengthen the spell. A sacrifice of blood, of her blood.
“You do not deserve the powers we have!” she yelled through the barrier. “You do not—” She could not speak the rest because her words were cut off by the sight before her.
Her son, the only one of her human-kind children who’d inherited some of her power, threw himself over the pit. Sucellus sent a spear of iron through his heart, and his blood spilled across the barrier. Instead of freeing her, his sacrifice sealed the portal over her.
Chaela pounded fruitlessly against the now-impenetrable divide and then fell back into the blackness, unable to see or to feel an end to it. The opening of light disappeared above her as she fell farther and deeper into the void, but Chaela stopped fighting it and allowed herself to drift downward.
Let those traitors above believe her conquered. Let them believe themselves and the other puny humans safe. They may have won this battle and thrown her from the human world into this void, but they would not win in the end.
They would eventually die off in the human world while she lived on forever in this prison, searching for a way back.
And she would find a way back—to take her rightful place as ruler, to avenge this wrong, to destroy those who could band together against her.
She would find a way to return, and every one of them and their descendants would curse this day when they turned against her.
Late winter, AD 1286
An island off the Scottish coast
Marcus woke from a deep sleep with a scream tightening his throat. He caught himself before the sound escaped and sat up on his pallet. Sweat poured from him, and he pushed his hair back from his face as he climbed to his feet. Staggering in the dark of his hut, he found the jug of ale and downed a good portion, trying to ease the terror inside him. His heart raced in his chest, and his thoughts filled with danger and turmoil . . . and fire.
He pushed open the door and walked out into the cooler, misty air of night, hoping to regain his calm and clarity. Taking deep breaths did not help, and he found himself shaking as sheer and absolute terror filled his mind, heart, and soul.
This could mean only one thing, and he dreaded even thinking of such a possibility. Marcus shook his head, denying the thought before it could form completely. The crunching of leaves underfoot startled him, and he turned toward the sound.
Aislinn stood before him, her eyes glazed over and her body not her own. She was a seer of immense power, sent by her mother to him when still a child to train in the old ways. Her skills and power grew as she matured, and now she began to speak in the language from ages ago. The language of the time when priests like the two of them had served the old gods. The words floated into his mind, and he memorized them as she spoke them in the singsong voice of prophecy.
“When the threat is revealed, the sleepers awaken. A Warrior seeks the truth while Fire burns away the deception. Begin in the East, then North, then South, then West. . . . Find the true gate among the rest.”
Marcus’s rising blood told him that this was the moment they’d trained and prayed for throughout their lives and the lives of the generations of priests before them. Now he waited for the rest of the words that would give them guidance in their task to save humanity from the darkest evil they would face, but none followed. Instead Aislinn opened her eyes as if she were waking and stared at him in fear. She rarely remembered the prophecies or knowledge she gained, but she understood the import of what had come to her this night.
“Marcus? Is it begun?” she asked, walking to his side.
He wrapped his arms around her and drew her close, both giving and receiving comfort in the physical gesture. “Aye, I fear it is.”
“And she is . . .” Marcus put his fingers to her mouth to prevent her from speaking about her prophecy anymore. They could not afford to discuss it openly.
“Aye,” he repeated.
In the silence, he felt the heat of his powers rising in his blood. It replaced the fear and gave him the clarity to know what they must do, or at least whom they must seek. He knew that Aislinn would lead them throughout their quest, and as he watched the emotions flash across her face, he realized she must be feeling the same thing.
They had valuable weapons for their battle against the ancient evil one. For thousands of years, they’d prayed and worshipped the gods who had been forgotten or transmuted by other, newer religions. They’d studied the old legends. Marcus doubted that anyone in the outside world was as prepared for the bloody battles and tremendous displays of power that were about to unfold.
Suddenly, the skin of his forearm burned, and he raised his arm to look upon it. Aislinn did the same. A mark appeared in the same place on both of them.
They watched by the light of the moon as the ancient image of a small man burned a patch into his skin. Hissing against the searing pain, he nodded as others left their dwellings to join them in the center of their village. Each held out their arm as they were marked with the symbol of their power. Only Aislinn’s was different—the silver crescent moon marked her skin. Would she be for some higher purpose than the rest?
“It has begun,” he said, meeting their gazes and then closing his eyes in silent prayer. “Ready yourselves for the journey.”
As he watched his followers obey his instructions, he knew that some would fall, some would stand, and some would die in this war against true evil. Marcus offered up new prayers to the old gods, hoping they could still hear the pleas of those who remained faithful to the old ways.
By daybreak they were ready to leave their island for the first time in generations. Standing on the shore, staring into the thick mist that protected them from discovery and kept outsiders forever away, he uttered the words to disperse that fog. Four boats—twenty men and women—would leave on this perilous journey while the rest remained hidden here, protecting their knowledge from the outside world.
Marcus watched the island disappear from view as they crossed the miles to the mainland, where they would face dangers unlike any they had faced before. As he turned away from the island, he realized one cause for his fear—the seer had never finished her prophecy.
Gods help them all.
When the threat is revealed, the sleepers awaken,
A Warrior seeks the truth
while Fire burns away the deception.
Begin in the East, then North, then South, then West . . .
Find the true gate among the rest.
Late winter, AD 1286
With the morning’s cool mist long burned away by the strong rays of the midday sun, Brienne waited until the villagers were all seeing to their daily chores and tasks before deciding that this was the day.
And it was—she could feel it in her bones and in her blood. Something called to her, and some growing urge within her pushed her feet toward the place where she would find out the truth about what lived inside her. There had been tiny glimpses at what it might be, times when fire seemed to answer to her, but she would attempt something this day that she had not dared before.
Taking a deep breath, she lifted the latch and tugged the heavy door open a crack. It creaked on its hinges as she eased it open only wide enough for her to slip inside. Then, after stepping inside the smithy’s dark cottage, Brienne closed the door behind her, wanting no interruptions. Since her father was off on an errand, she expected none. Entering into the small building that served as his workshop, she circled the fire pit and tossed in more wood, watching as the existing fire licked at the new pieces and then consumed them. She leaned over and pressed down on the bellows that fed air to the fire, encouraging it to spread and grow hotter and hotter with each breath of air that blew from the pump.
The flames flared higher before her and she could not resist the urge to look deeper into them. Brienne tried to fight their call, tried to fight the strength of it, but lost the battle. She inhaled slowly, trying now to control the fear that simmered in her belly while she moved closer to the fire’s heat. As it called to her, icy tendrils slid along her skin in spite of the heat in the smithy. Shivering and sweating at the same time, she lifted trembling hands from her side and held them out.
Not knowing how to do what she planned, Brienne stretched her fingers, wiggling them, and watched as the flames did the same. Then she flexed each finger separately, and single bursts of flame followed each movement. When she twisted her hands, the reaction of the fire was overwhelming.
Each flame danced before her, swirling and dipping this way and that before joining the others in the growing swarm of heat and light. Even when she dropped her hands and closed her eyes, they remained vivid and shifting in her mind.
They danced for her—they danced for me!—moving in every direction when she simply thought it, and the sound of their movements surrounded her. Holding her arms out over the fire, she wiggled her fingers over the hearth and laughed as the flames writhed and swirled in answer to her gesture. This was not new to her. She’d done this many times before.
What she planned to do next was different and daring.
Moving her hands in a gathering motion, Brienne pulled the flames together and then spread them out until they filled the space before her, no longer limited to the fire pit and no longer dependent on wood or peat to fuel them. Staring into them, she searched for the center of the brightness and heat and waited.
She strained to keep her eyes on the fire and listened as the whispers came from the heart of it again.
“Come to me.”
A shudder coursed through her body, and the fear overwhelmed her as the whispered words surrounded her, enticing her, entreating and tempting her. The back of her neck tingled, and her skin burned as the heat of the flames—nay, the flames themselves—encircled her. Keeping her body still, she waited to hear more, waited to recognize the voice or to learn who called to her through the fire. From deep within her soul, she drew the strength she needed to regain control over the flames and, standing within their embrace, she listened and waited to hear more.
“Daughter of my blood.”
Brienne laughed aloud, feeling the power course through her, stronger and stronger each moment. The voice, the words, the flames at her command all confirmed her suspicion that she could control the fire. After hours or minutes—she knew not which—of her standing untouched within the flames, they began to sway and spark around her. As she gathered them once more under her control, they parted for her to move away.
When the voice disappeared completely, when she knew that presence was gone, her fear heightened. The heat began to burn her skin, so she tamped down the flames, guiding them back to the hearth of the smithy, easing them back into the coals of burning wood there so that they would be ready for her father’s use. A smile teased the corners of her mouth as inappropriate pride flooded her.
She had done it!
Each time she dared, her power over the fire seemed to grow. And grow stronger. But this day, this time, she had stepped within them without dire consequences. Next time she would—
She jumped at the interruption and spun around to face the door to the small building. Her father stood there, staring at her. Had he seen her move the fire? From the blank expression on her father’s face, she could not tell. Pressing her now-sweating palms on her gown and adjusting her veil back into place, she waited for his reaction.
He closed the door quickly behind himself and checked the shutters, just as she had before attempting to call forth the ability to command the flames. But she’d not barred the door, so he could have seen everything she’d done. Would the flames follow her commands if another were present, or was this something she could do only in secret?
Brienne watched as concern and wariness entered his gaze. Leaving some tools near the doorway, he walked slowly toward his hearth, glancing between it and her several times.
“Are you injured? Are you burned?” he asked as he took one hand of hers and then the other in his larger ones, searching for signs of damage. Then he met her gaze. “How is this possible? What have you done?”
His suspicious, accusatory tone hurt her, but Brienne understood that he was worried about her. She stepped away from him and away from the constant draw of the flames before answering.
“I . . . ,” she stammered, not truly knowing how to explain it all to him. Brienne glanced at him, imploring him to understand.
“Come here, lass,” he said softly, opening his strong arms to her as he always did.
Embraced by him, she felt safe . . . for the moment. These feelings, these powers, these changes that grew stronger and stronger with each passing day frightened her. There was no one she could speak with about them. No one who could understand or accept that she was more like her true father than anyone had guessed. Even though Gavin the blacksmith had raised her and loved her as his own, she was not.
She shuddered at the thought of her true father, and Gavin responded by hugging her even tighter. The tears gathered in her eyes as she kept silent.
“I will keep ye safe, Brienne,” he promised. His words and warm breath tickled her ear, and she nodded, accepting his pledge even if it were not the truth.
“I know you will, Father,” she said, nodding her head and granting herself another moment of comfort before moving out of his embrace. “I have so many questions.”
As always, her words stopped him. Gavin hated her questions. He hated the reminder that she was not his, that there was another who could step in at any time and take her. And though years had passed since any interest had been shown, all it would take was the untoward word and unguarded action to draw the wrong attention.
“I fear there is little I can add to what you’ve heard from your mother or ken already, lass. The lord had you brought here to us when you were but days old, giving you into our care. He gave no explanation, no instructions other than to care for you, and he has not interfered since that day,” he said. Staring off into the corner, Brienne knew he was thinking on that long-ago day. Turning back to her, he shrugged. “We never had the courage to ask his reasons or why he gave you to us for fear he would take you away.”
Brienne smiled at his admission. She knew of no one in Yester Village or in the area who would question Lord Hugh—or anyone who had survived questioning him. A shiver traced a path of icy sparks along her spine. She’d never even had the courage to approach him before, but now, now that she was discovering these powers and understanding he was the only person who could answer her questions, she might.
“Do not!” her father warned, taking hold of her arm and drawing her close. “Do not even think about speaking to him on such”—he glanced at the fires now banked low in his hearth—“such matters as these.”
The fear gazing back at her from his eyes should have been enough to steer her from such a path. The whispered warning should have been sufficient to caution anyone not a bairn or a fool. The need that grew ever deeper and stronger within her pushed her in that dangerous direction. The desire to know her origins and the extent of these strange powers that inhabited her never diminished.
Words drifted to her in that silent moment, and she shivered. The power in them tempted her and called to her deepest longings.
Mine. Come to me.
Daughter of my blood.
Brienne, who had belonged to no one, who could call none family or kin, longed to be part of something. And this whispered invitation called to that deep need within her. She tried to shake off the fear and the temptation, but it all settled within her, keeping her blood heated and that unspoken need stoked. Gavin’s sad expression called her back to this cottage and this moment.
“Nay, you are right, Father. ’Twould be foolish to speak to him,” Brienne assured him, nodding her head.
Gavin kissed her on the top of her head, just as he always had when reassuring her, and released her from his arms.
“You should be thinking about that offer from Dougal’s son James rather than . . .” He nodded his head, lifting his chin in the direction of the hearth. “Marriage and bairns should be your concern now, lass. Surely your mother has spoken of such matters to you?”
Brienne smiled, trying to convince him that such matters did interest her, while her heart broke over her deception.
“Aye. She has spoken of little other than Jamie’s offer.” That much was true. “I have taken her counsel on it seriously.” A truth, but getting closer to the lying. “It is appealing to me.” There was the lie. Would he believe it?
“Any man would be proud to have you to wife,” he said. “Your weaving skills do you much credit.”
No matter that the skills she wanted to practice and develop did not involve a loom and threads. Brienne let this lie stand between them as well.
Noises began to leach into the cocoon of silence that surrounded them, warning them of the approach of others and the return of their everyday tasks and chores. Gavin walked to the window, unlatched and opened the shutters, throwing them wide to allow the cooler breezes in. Though the cold air of winter had barely warmed these last weeks, Gavin could not work the smithy without a flow to feed the flames.
Strange. The flames needed no such flow when she called them forth. Even with the shutters and door closely firmly against intrusion, they grew stronger and higher at her command. Her fingers tingled, reminding her of the power that had directed the heat from within her. Shaking them for a moment, more to erase the memory than to ease any tightness, Brienne reached for the two buckets by the door.
“I will get water,” she said, tugging open the door. She found comfort in the ritual of helping her father work.
Brienne stepped into the path leading from the smithy to the well at the center of the small village, which was not as large as Gifford itself. Those who lived here worked the lands owned by Lord Hugh or provided some necessary service to those in the keep. Now, as she made her way through the village for the noon meal, she nodded to everyone who passed her by. Reaching the well, she chatted with the women there as she tossed the dipping bucket down and then tugged the rope up until it peeked over the stone wall’s edge.
An eerie feeling invaded her body and soul at that moment, just when everything around her seemed so much the norm as it was each day. Instead her blood raced through her veins, and Brienne could feel it as it moved through her. Her heart pumped so strongly that she was certain others must hear it. Glancing around at the gathered women, she saw that they took no untoward notice of her. Then her skin began to heat, and she was tempted to pour the cool contents of the recently filled bucket over her to ease the growing warmth that seemed to control her.
Only when the pounding grew too loud to ignore did she realize it was not her heart making the ground shake beneath her. A group of mounted knights broke through the bushes and headed along the pathway to the keep. Twenty armored men, none taking notice of the villagers as they passed—save one.
The one who led the group slowed his horse before passing the well and met her gaze. Brienne quickly lowered her eyes, whether out of respect or out of fear she knew not, but when Lord Hugh rode through the village, no one dared look directly upon him.
Now he directed his horse toward her. She watched as the other women began to edge away from the well and from her. No one wanted the lord’s attention, for it usually ended badly for anyone involved. Over the years she’d heard the warnings from her parents about the rumors of the lord’s powers and his attitude toward the women under his control, so Brienne tried to blend in with the others, lowering the buckets to her sides and shuffling back away from his approach. This time it did not work. Glancing up, she saw Gavin walking toward her from the direction of the smithy, but when the lord moved closer to her, Gavin stopped.
She put the buckets down and waited for Lord Hugh to say or do something. Silence filled the area, and she knew that many watched this encounter from safer distances and from behind cover that would keep them from their lord’s sight. No one wanted his molten-silver gaze to fall on them.
“You there,” he called out. “You, girl!”
She startled and began to shake, so she clasped her hands together as she nodded. How could she have wished for just this very thing a short time ago? It was as she raised her eyes that the skin on the inside of her forearm began to itch and sting. Trying to ignore it, she nodded and met his gaze.
And wished with all her heart and soul she had not.
Lord Hugh lifted his helm off and pushed back the chain-mail coif that covered his head. Tossing the helm to one of his men, he examined her from her head to her feet and then focused his fearsome gaze on her face. The patch on her arm stung now even more, and she covered it with one of her hands while waiting on Lord Hugh’s next words.
“Your name, girl,” he demanded as his horse fought his control and pranced in the dirt, throwing up dust and stones in his wake.
“Brienne,” she said. Though her voice shook as she spoke it, she surprised herself with being able to speak at all.
“Daughter of?” he asked, pulling the reins hard and forcing his mount to his will. The huge warhorse relented and stood still under the lord’s iron grip.
Brienne tried to force down her fears. Her bold idea to seek him out and ask him about the powers became one of such folly that she could not speak at all. Whose name did she give him? Should she declare her his get or claim the one who raised her?
“Gavin, my lord.”
Both she and Lord Hugh turned at the same moment as the blacksmith strode across the clearing and placed himself between the two of them. She stepped closer to him, but to his side so that she could yet watch the lord. Some look passed between the two men that she did not understand.
“Yours, then?” the lord asked.
Gavin reached out for her hand, which she gave him. ’Twas an expression of possession and belonging. She wondered if the lord would let it stand.
“Aye, my lord. Mine,” Gavin proclaimed in a low but somehow bold tone. Before any other words could be exchanged, the lord grabbed at his forearm and hissed. When a new flash of pain seared through hers, she fought to keep from doing the same thing.
Lord Hugh seemed to want to say something, but he pulled the reins tightly, causing his mount to sidestep and whinny its displeasure at the tight control. This time the lord released the reins, giving the horse its head. Spinning back toward the keep, he rode off without saying another word. Just when she believed them safe from additional scrutiny, the warhorse rose on its hind legs and spun to face her once more.
“Brienne, you are mine!”
Though no words were spoken aloud, they echoed in her mind. The same words as the one who called from within the flames, but these were in Lord Hugh’s voice. As the dust flew up, the horse and rider turned again and disappeared up the path out of the village.
The rumors about his otherworldly powers must be true—for he had sent those words into her thoughts without saying them. He had touched the same place on his arm as the stinging had affected on her own. Sliding her sleeve up, Brienne watched as the skin there burned away, leaving some kind of mark in its place. Shivering, she wondered at its origin. Gavin turned just then to face her and noticed her arm.
“You burned yourself on the flames, Brienne?” he asked, reaching out to touch the now-raised burn.
“Nay, not on the flames,” she replied.
It was hard to deny it, as the singed area now resembled any other burn gained from not tending the fires with care. The intricate pattern disappeared within the patch of reddened skin. Brienne met his eyes and read the doubt in them. He would have lifted her arm had she not pulled away from him.
“’Tis well, Father,” she said. If she’d not been looking in his direction, she would have missed the grimace that flashed across his face as she called him “father.”
Without another word, he bent over and picked up both buckets. Gavin did not wait for her or ask her to follow, but she did. But not before looking back at the road to the keep and wondering what other rumors about Lord Hugh were true.
If he had other powers, had she inherited them as well?
Early spring, AD 1286
Dunfermline Palace, Dunfermline, Kingdom of Fife, Scotland
William de Brus awaited the king’s pleasure, now for the fourth day in a row and with little patience or good cheer about these infernal delays. Still, as his friend Roger reminded him once again, this time for the twentieth time, beggars such as he could not afford to be demanding when it came to the king’s attentions. Called to Scotland by Alexander for a resolution to his problem—the other branch of the de Brus family’s intrusion onto the lands he would inherit at the king’s command—he tried to convince himself that it would be better if he did not anger the king or his ministers.
Standing in the crowded Presence Chamber of the palace, William gazed around at the others who also held out their hands to the king and wondered what their causes were. Would they, or he, be successful in their pleas to Alexander for help? He held one advantage over many of the others, one he hoped would soften the king’s heart toward his request to rid his lands of the other de Bruses.
Roger made his way through the crowds and held out a small, wrapped bundle to him. Peeling it open, William found a steaming pasty. Nodding to his friend, he bit into it. Since he dared not leave and risk being absent when finally called to the king’s chamber, Roger ran errands and brought food for him.
“Any news?” Roger asked.
Biting into the meat pie once more and chewing, he shook his head. After swallowing, he added, “The king is at his noon meal and will hold an audience after for . . . some.”
“The men wait for us at the inn,” Roger said. “Though they grow restless.” A company of twelve men had accompanied him on this journey, all hoping for a place at his board. Twelve knights would be critical in controlling his new lands and in convincing the king to award the title to him.
“Tell them—” William began. The herald’s call interrupted his orders.
“William de Brus! The king will speak with you now. Come forward!”
Heads turned to see who the lucky one was and then began to mutter as their names were not also called. William thrust the rest of the pasty back at Roger as he pushed his way to the other side of the chamber, where the herald waited. He’d forgotten his manners for a moment, and he turned back to Roger and handed him his helm, short dagger, and gloves. It would not do to appear in the king’s presence armed.
It took a few minutes to reach the herald and then a few more to walk down the long hallway to the king’s private chambers. The guards opened the door to him, and the herald announced him to the king.
“Come, William. Eat with me,” Alexander called out as William paused to bow before him. “My lord bishop, this is the son of my cousin, late of Brix in France.”
“I am familiar with the de Brus family, Your Grace,” the bishop of Dunfermline replied, inspecting William from his place at the king’s right hand. William approached the bishop and kissed his ring. He could read nothing from the churchman’s expression, though he surely knew William’s true parentage.
“Ah, but William is from a different branch of that family,” the king explained. Though the words sounded benign, the tone and the wink that accompanied them explained all the bishop needed to know.
William was a bastard. The king’s own.
“Come. Share this meal and tell me of your mother.”
A servant pulled out a chair at the table, and William sat there. Another presented platters of food until his expensive, silver plate was filled. A matching cup held what was certain to be a similarly expensive wine, for the king ate and drank only the best.
Whether strange or not, considering that the king had recently lost his own mother, William spoke about his mother as requested. ’Twas no secret at the royal court that William’s mother was the king’s cousin and something more. Madelyn of Coucy had caught the royal heir’s eye before he was crowned king and then she herself had been caught. She was married to a compliant de Brus before her condition was known, and William was given her husband’s name, but the truth of his parentage was widely known in France and Scotland. All because of the royal wink and nod.
William spoke of the time his mother had spent with the dowager queen in Picardy instead of their largely ignored personal relationship. Alexander did not suffer an empty bed, whether now or in his younger years, so William was but one of many royal seeds sown in willing woman. ’Twas simply the way of things for kings.
Soon the meal came to an end, and William waited on the king’s pleasure. With a wave of his hand, Alexander cleared the chamber. All of his servants and ministers, even the bishop, left with silent bows. The doors closed, and William waited to discover the true cost of his request of the king.
It was not long in coming.
“I know you wish me to rule in your favor in your dispute with the other de Bruses,” Alexander said in a quiet voice. “And I am willing to do that. . . .”
William heard the pause that signified the conditions of that ruling and waited, holding his breath on the coming words.
“But I have a small task for you to carry out first,” the king said.
“Anything, Your Grace,” William answered quickly. Truth be told, he would agree to do anything to have his claim settled and the lands his for the taking.
Alexander reached over and lifted the pitcher of wine before him, filling both of their cups and drinking half of his before continuing. And that worried William, as did the glances toward the doors and the king’s increased nervousness.
“Is there aught wrong, Your Grace?” he finally asked.
“Come,” the king directed. He rose and walked closer to the huge stone fireplace and as far, William noticed, away from the doors, windows, and tapestry-covered walls as one could get. William followed and waited, a shiver of warning tickling the back of his neck as he watched the ever-confident, ever-in-control king change into someone very different.
Mayhap the king’s grief had caught up with him? Mayhap the lack of suitable heirs and his yet-unfruitful new marriage and the possible end of the Canmore dynasty had changed him from the decisive strong king he had been?
“I have a matter that requires the utmost of discretion and cannot trust it to someone else,” he explained as he sat on a stone bench before the fire. “You . . . you I trust, William.”
“I am honored, Sire,” William began, but a furious wave of Alexander’s hand stopped further words.
“I am not so sure you will feel honored once you hear the matter. Sit close by and listen to my plight. I must have your word that you will speak of this to no one.”
William hesitated, both intrigued and wary of such secrecy as this seemed to be. Still, the king held the power to grant or deny him his lands, so he would be wise to carry out regardless of his feelings on it. “You have it.”
“Good. I’d hoped I could count on my kin in this, but none are so trustworthy as I know you to be,” he said, glancing toward the door once more. “For some time, I have begun to doubt the sincerity and loyalty of one of my councilors. Rumors persist, and his behavior answers not my questions about him. Strange stories abound. . . . ” He paused and glanced over his shoulder.
William wondered about this suspicious demeanor, but the man was his king and was to be obeyed without question. “Which of your councilors, Sire?”
“His advice has recently become less dependable and there are stories. . . .” The king shuddered as he spoke now. “Demons, William. ’Tis rumored that he calls forth demons from the other world.”
The silence in the chamber surrounded and pressed down on him at the accusations. The old beliefs were long gone from the lands of the Celts and Gaels, but there were always rumors of those who had ungodly and otherworldly powers. William never believed in such things. They were for the fearful and the weak. He believed in the one true God.
A sudden burning in his arm took him by surprise. Had he been sitting too closely to the fire? Tugging on his sleeve, he watched a patch of redness spread on his forearm.
He pulled the sleeve down to cover the strange spot and turned his attention back to the king. Meeting his gaze, William asked again, “Which of your councilors, Sire?”
William leaned back, shocked to hear this name. From another part of Brittany, the de Gifford family was old and powerful. The current lord, Hugh, was one of the most important men in the kingdom, having been one of Alexander’s regents. Lord de Gifford had continued in the king’s closest circle in the years since the king came of age and proceeded to succeed where his father had failed.
“Hugh de Gifford? The rumors are about him?”
“You must understand how important this is. My kingdom is at stake. My life and the life of my queen and”—the king paused to whisper—“and the possible heir she carries is at stake. I must know if I can trust his advice or if he has ulterior motives for his words and wisdom.”
William felt the irrational fear behind the words spoken as he considered them and did not answer immediately. So the queen was enceinte, then? Dredging up the logic that usually suited his purposes, he glanced at his king.
“Sire, what accusations have been made? What makes you suspicious about Lord Hugh?” He ran his hand through his hair and stood, staying close to the king so he did not have to raise his voice. “Demons, Sire? Who says such nonsense?”
Alexander’s gaze sharpened and darkened. “Many. And I am beginning to suspect there is more to this. I scoffed at the first reports brought to me.” The king brought his head up as though listening for something and then shook it. “I would not have believed it either had I not witnessed . . . something.”
It took only a glance at Alexander’s face for William’s urge to laugh to be quelled. The king took in a deep breath and let it out slowly and, for just a moment, the confidence of someone born to royalty slipped and Alexander appeared a tired, old man filled with fear.
“Tell me, Sire. What makes you think that Lord Hugh is something other than your man?” The king held out his cup, and William retrieved the pitcher from the table and filled it. Thinking on this situation, he filled his own and waited on the king once more.
“I was journeying south to visit Melrose Abbey, and we stopped to see the progress Hugh was making on his new keep. He invited us to stop to see the high tower he had designed himself. It was . . . ungodly,” the king ended on a whisper, as though afraid to say the words aloud. “He wore the strangest garb when he greeted us. A long robe unlike any I have seen before. It seemed to glow as he moved, and his hands shimmered,” he said, staring at his own hands as though living the moment again and again.
The king reached out and gripped William’s wrist. “And the sounds coming from the lowest vault made my skin crawl and caused me to want to rush forth from the place and never return. I prayed two novenas at the abbey and still the feeling of being near evil remained.” The shivers that shook the king’s body reinforced his words. “He controls demons, William. He casts spells. He”—he paused and swallowed several time before finishing the words—“he speaks to the otherworld.”
William stood then and walked away. How could this be happening? It did not surprise him that the king would not speak of such things before other witnesses, for the words would damn him as a madman. Demons? Spells? What folly was this that plagued the king’s mind? He turned back to urge the king away from such . . . fears when his arm began to burn once more. Clapping his hand over the intense pain, he tugged the sleeve of his tunic up to look at the area.
Where there had been nothing before, a raised and burning red patch took form on his arm. It changed before his eyes into something . . . something he could not yet discern. Covering it from the king’s view, he realized that this situation was quickly growing out of control. Worse, there was something now wrong with him.
William reached up to touch his head and felt the sweat pouring down his forehead. His lungs could not draw in a full breath, and his skin burned everywhere. His thoughts jumbled, and the chamber before him grew hazy and smeared as though rain had run over it all and washed away the colors and textures. He lifted his hand to find support and instead grasped the king’s hand.
With a jolt, his head cleared. Then plans for attack appeared before his eyes, as drawings would look. A stone castle surrounded by acres of farmland. The hills in the distance. As he watched the scene unfold, William knew the weaknesses in the castle’s defenses, the best path to approach and the strength and numbers of the guards. His blood heated and surged through him as his vision strengthened and his mind raced with options for deploying his men for the attack, how to control and even destroy Lord Hugh’s unholy demesne.
He stumbled back at the realization of the vision before him. The king watched without a word, slowly nodding as though he could see what William did.
“Something is awry in my kingdom, William. You are part of it.” At the solemn declaration, William shook his head, denying the truth of it.
“Sire, I know not of what you speak,” he argued, but the visions flooding his mind and the need to fight, defeat, destroy, and conquer filled him, body and soul. His fists clenched against the strength of the need now flowing through him. He shook his head again, but it convinced neither him nor the king.
“I was led to you, William. I cannot explain that part of it, but I knew you would be the one to help me in this task,” the king assured him.
Whether the king’s words were madness or part of some bigger plan, William knew not. He was publicly a minor member of a very large and powerful family, and the king had had no way of knowing that William would arrive to request his sanction against another branch of the family.
“I am your man, Sire, but this . . . this is not something I have experience in. Why not speak to Bishop—” Before he could continue with a list of possible people who could help him in this endeavor, the king leapt to his feet and grabbed William’s shoulders, forcing him close.
“You must do this for me, William. For my kingdom. For all of Scotland and more,” he demanded.
Regardless of the unexplainable things going on, no matter the strangeness of the request, this was his king. Obedience was a foregone conclusion, even if the methods of executing such a task were questionable.
“Aye, Sire,” he said, with a bow of his head. “I am at your service.”
The mad expression in the king’s eyes seeped away, leaving the one he recognized. With a nod of his head, Alexander released him. Stepping back, the king called out to his ministers.
“Speak to no one about this, William. No one. The royal Exchequer will provide what you need. Mention the name of your holdings and he will understand.”
The king’s councilors and servants returned quickly at his call, and soon they were surrounded with many other courtiers and concerns. William met the king’s gaze and bowed his head, acknowledging his orders. He backed from the chamber and turned down the hallway to return to Roger . . . and sanity.
But as he strode toward the larger waiting area, the intense burning on his arm increased as some shape was drawn—burned—into him. Between that and the plans rushing through his thoughts, he was convinced that he, too, might be part of the king’s madness.
* * *
With only hours left before darkness fell over the city of Edinburgh, William led his two closest and most able friends to a table in an alcove at a noisy inn. Doubting this whole endeavor, he had followed the king’s instructions and visited the Exchequer. The bag of gold coins now lay beneath his hauberk, tied firmly to his belt where none could see. They’d eaten their fill and consumed a fair share of the inn’s finest ale before he allowed himself to think on what to say to them.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for the Novels of Terri Brisbin
“Richly detailed [and] fascinating.”—Chicago Tribune
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