This night the gods were angry. The wind howled and the sea raged with a fury that tore at the cliffs on which Castle Prydd had stood for over a hundred years.
Deep within the keep Isolde, the midwife, held the newborn and the prophesy she’d heard since childhood, the prediction of the old ones, swam in a wild current in her mind.
Born during a tempest, with hair the color of a raven’s wind, eyes the blue of midnight, and the kiss of the moon upon skin like alabaster . . .
Isolde let her gaze wander over the pale folds of the baby’s flesh until she spied it, the birthing mark at the base of the infant’s neck, a perfect crescent . . . the kiss of the moon. “By the saints,” she whispered, swaddling the girl-child as the wind keened through the battlements. A tempest like no other tore through the land, pouring rain and sleet, screaming to the heavens.
In the flickering candlelight of the lady’s chamber, Isolde’s throat constricted in awe, for she knew she was looking upon the chosen one, the savior that would sacrifice herself for peace between her countrymen. She held the baby close, felt the infant’s warmth and closed her old, weary eyes. Aye, she saw in her mind’s eye the future, filled with bloodshed and deceit, and somehow she knew this little one’s destiny was wrapped in the words of the old people, in the kiss of the moon.
Isolde had heard of the visions–aye, she’d had more than her share of the sight herself–but never had she expected to help bring into the lady’s house the chosen one who would become the savior of Prydd. And such was this infant’s fate; the girl child to be named Sorcha.
The moon rode high in the midnight sky casting a silver glow over the frozen grounds of the inner bailey. The castle was asleep; even the sentries nodding at their posts as Sorcha led her favorite mount, her brother’s war-horse McBannon from the stables.
Only Isolde knew of her hastily-conceived plan. “’Tis tempting the fates, ye are,” Isolde said, her wrinkled features drawn into a frown of worry as the nervous horse sidestepped and snorted “This . . .this plot of yours . . . ’tis a fool’s journey! As the saints are my witness, if Baron Hagan finds out that you’ve entered his castle as an enemy–”
“The black-heart will discover me not. You heard Sir Robert last night; Hagan’s off warring with the Scots,” Sorcha assured the superstitious old woman. Hagan, that beast, I won’t have to fear.” She took the cloack and old burnet tunic from Isolde’s hands and stuffed both pieces of clothing into her pack.
“Then what of Hagan’s brother?” Isolde persisted as she gave Sorcha the basket she would use as part of her deception. “Sir Darton . . . he’s a mean one, he is. Ye’d best not be tryin’ to outfox him.”
“He won’t be expecting me.”
Isolde wrung her hands. “Holy Mother, you’re a stubborn one. Ye own brother will skin ye alive when he finds ye missin’ on the morrow.”
“He’ll not know I’m gone.”
“But takin’ his favorite horse–the one only a few can ride.” Isolde clucked her tongue with worry. “Satan himself would not be so foolish.”
“He knows not that I can tame McBannon,” Sorcha replied rebelliously. Tired of the argument, she climbed astride the anxious destrier, but Isolde’s fingers twined in the reins.
“If ye must go,” the midwife cautioned, her voice low and filled with premonition, “’twill end up in pain and bloodshed.” Her old eyes glazed as she stared up at Sorcha. In the light of the moon, Isolde’s face with its hooked nose and hollow cheeks seemed to have the visage of a witch as many had claimed.
“I’ve seen it.”
Sorcha’s lungs constricted, but she would not let her fear stop her. “You’ve had a vision.”
“Aye, the face I see when I sleep is yours. Always yours.”
Sorcha’s throat tightened in dread. “And what see you?”
“Ye are imprisoned in the towers of Erbyn and you are held captive by Lord Hagen himself.” She sighed sadly. “I see that you never return.”
“You’re trying to frighten me.”
“Aye, and I hope I have, m’lady, for the wrath of the devil Hagen is swift as the strike of an asp and twice as deadly. Like a dragon, he is, but more crafty. You’d best be staying.”
“You know I can’t. He has already captured my sister because of me. I must save Leah.”
“And sacrifice yerself.”
“If needs be.”
With a sorrowful sigh, Isolde said, “Then take this . . . “ She pressed a tiny necklace into Sorcha’s hand. “’Tis for protection. It’s magic, ye know. Wear it over your heart always. Never take it off. And may the fates be with ye . . .”
With breath as cold as a demon’s soul, the wind blew through the trees shaking the leafless black branches and bringing driving sleet that pounded on Hagan’s neck and head and dripped down his nose.
He rode on, and with every step of his war-horse, he gritted his teeth against the pain, as hot as it was cold, that seared his thigh.
The wound was two weeks old and healing well. He’d developed no fever and had wanted to return to battle, but King Edward had insisted Hagan return to Erbyn.
“Lord Hagan.” Sir Royce, astride a restless gray steed, commanded Hagan’s attention. Royce was a big man with good intentions and little brains. His courage and loyalty were never in doubt, though sometimes his judgement faltered. “Could I have a word?”
Hagan swung his head around, but didn’t allow his horse to stop. They trudged through the icy rain, splashing water from puddles and heading ever west. “What troubles you?”
“Mayhaps we should rest.” The heavy man’s gaze drifted from Hagan’s face to his thigh, the very thigh the arrow had pierced.
“We’re to close to Erbyn.”
“Yea, but Sir Darton expects us not to the morrow.”
“All the better.”
Royce seemed perplexed, but Hagan didn’t explain. For several years he had begun to worry about his twin brother’s ambitions, but he kept his fears to himself, content to observe. Darton had every reason to feel slighted; he’d inherited from their father, Richard, only a small piece of land in the northwest corner of Erbyn. And Anne, his sister, had been left with naught. Consequently Hagan was always at odds with his siblings. Leaving Erbyn in their care during his pilgrimage to help the king with the Scots had been difficult. ’Twould be interesting to see how Darton ran the castle without his brother’s wary eye upon him.
“We ride on,” Hagan said, setting his features in grim determination and allowing no evidence of pain to show upon his face. “We’ll be at Erbyn by nightfall and can plan the Christmas Revels.”
It was time for her to sneak into Darton’s keep. The darkness would help conceal her, and everyone in the castle would be too busy to notice a strange servant boy or so she hoped.
She stashed robe and long tunic behind the bee hives, slipped her dagger into a sleeve, then, with her hair tucked into the cowl of her short tunic, she spotted a boy staggering under the weight of a bundle of firewood. “Let me ’elp ye, with that, lad.”
“Nay. The cook–”
“’Tis too big a load. Asides, ’tis Christmas.”
Sorcha grabbed off the top half of the kindling and offered the boy a smile.
“’Tis kind ye are.”
She followed the boy into the kitchen, where the cook was busy slicing the boar’s head from its body and other kitchen aids were busy pouring sauces and ladling gravies. Sorcha placed the kindling in the fire box, then, holding her breath, walked through the kitchen as if she had every right to enter the castle. In the hallway she turned right, toward the staircase leading upward to the lord’s chamber, which, Robert had explained, was being used by Darton while Lord Hagan was away.
Her heart thundered, she expected someone to yell at her. She stole quietly up the stairs, hardly believing her good luck as no one accosted her. Biting her lip, she let her dagger slide into her palm an sent up a prayer for Leah’s safety. She didn’t move. Hidden in the shadows in a recessed alcove that once had been used as an wardrobe, she wrapped her fingers around the hilt of her deadly little knife and waited.
Though Erbyn was cold, nervous sweat collected over Sorcha’s forehead as she crept stealthy on her feet and eased through the partially opened door to the lord’s chamber. She’d heard him enter the room hours ago, stoke the fire, and command some poor servant to set a tub of hot water near the hearth. She’d imagined him washing his body, but knew he’d never scrape off enough dirt to cleanse his soul.
In her hand she carried her dagger as she slid into the room and saw the bastard, rolled on one side, snoring softly, his dark hair falling over his face. In the firelight his skin seemed bronzed, his eyebrows thick and black, his nose more hawkish than she imagined. His lips, partially hidden, were thin, quite probably cruel, though, in truth, should she let her thoughts wander in wanton a direction, she would have to admit that Darton was a far more handsome man than she’d heard. Dark, swirling hair covered a chest that was hard with lean muscles. He rolled over and she stopped dead in her tracks, her heart beating as fast as a sparrow’s wings. He cleared his throat, mumbled something, and began to snore again. Sorcha quietly let out her breath and wiped the sweat forming on her lips.
In the firelight she viewed his backside, and a few old wounds were visible on his shoulders and back, or what she could see of it before it disappeared before a coverlet of dark fur.
Well, he might be handsome and strong, but he was about to meet his match, she told herself. Fortunately no dogs were curled at his feet, and she had but to stealthily cross the rushes to his bed, seize his hair, and place the wicked little blade at his throat. But . . . oh, Lord, he was so large. She quickly made the sign of the cross over her breasts as she slowly inched across the room. Without making a sound, she prayed that all the saints would be with her.
Just a few more steps.
A quick movement.
She caught her breath.
He rolled over swiftly and his eyes flew open.
She lunged at him. Her blade sliced downward. A calloused had wrapped over her wrist in a viselike grip and stopped her short. Shadowed furious eyes assessed her harshly. “So this is what my brother meant when he spoke of games, eh, Bliss?”
“’Tis not bliss you’ll see, but hell,” she hissed, struggling and kicking.
To her horror one side of his mouth lifted into a crooked smile–a grin of the very devil himself. He smelled freshly scrubbed, but the scent of wine was thick in the air. “No doubt.”
She aimed her foot at his leg, but he yanked hard and she fell atop him, her hair spilling from her cowl, her body stretched over the hard contours of his. “You bloody bastard, let me go!”
“So you can kill me?”
“Aye, if I have to.”
Again his smile. Damn the man. Had he no fear?
Amusement flickered in eyes the color of purest gold. He released her wrist and stared up at her. She was suddenly aware of her breasts crushing against his chest, of the air that seemed to be lost in her lungs.
“Then kill me, Bliss,” he said evenly as he curled rough fingers in her hair, “and be done with it.”