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"Leah, please, take my place," Sorcha begged of her younger sister as they passed by the dovecote and scattered seeds for the birds. In a flutter of feathers, the doves picked through the frozen gravel of a path running through the bedraggled garden.
"I know not," Leah said, shaking her head as she threw another handful of seeds onto the ground.
Sorcha's cloak billowed in the icy wind blowing across the sea, and she felt more than a twinge of guilt, for it was her turn to sit through one of Father William's long masses and pass out alms to the poor. "I promise next week I'll do the same for you."
Leah rubbed her tiny chin thoughtfully. Her eyes, green as the forest, were unreadable. "And what will Tadd say?"
Sorcha's lips turned down at the thought of her brother. "I care not."
"If he catches us?"
"I shall take all the blame," Sorcha replied, anxious to be off. Leah could be so stubborn sometimes. "Asides, we won't be caught. You'll wear my cloak and ride my mare. Only the soldier who guards you will know the truth, and Sir Henry is easily bribed."
"I like this not. Tadd -- "
"Curse Tadd." Sorcha couldn't hide her disgust for her older brother. He'd tormented her for as long as she could remember, tricking her into making a fool of herself, laughing at her expense, treating her as if she were somehow no better than the manure in the stables. For years she'd endured his torture. He was seven years older and had convinced her at the age of five to try and suckle milk from the mother cat's teats, then, in the company of the other young boys, laughed at her. When she was seven he'd shorn her head under the guise of letting her become one of the boys, then made fun of her ugly scalp. Just after she'd turned twelve, he'd sold her to a sixteen-year-old stableboy whom she'd had to kick in the groin to escape.
But things had changed. Sorcha had realized that to protect herself from Tadd's cruelty, she had to become more devious than he. By befriending several of the knights in her father's service, she'd learned how to ride a war-horse, how to shoot arrows as straight and true as any archer in the castle, and how to use a knife to defend herself. Still she hadn't been convinced that these skills alone would keep her safe from her brother's treachery, so she'd taught herself how to use a whip and a mace and even the heavy military flail. However, it was her wits upon which she relied. Though Tadd was stronger and swifter, he wasn't as smart as she, thank the good Mother Mary.
Leah, as if reading her mind, bit down on her lip. "While Father's away, Tadd's the lord of the castle."
"Remind me not," Sorcha replied, unable to hide her disgust for her older brother. Ever since their father had ridden off to fight the bloody Scots, leaving his eldest in charge of the castle, life in Prydd had changed. Some of the knights neglected their duties, preferring to roll dice, drink wine, and seduce the kitchen wenches. Surly and often drunk, they seemed to have forgotten Baron Eaton and his strict moral code. Only a few of those who remained could be trusted. "If Mother were alive, Tadd would dare not to put the castle in such jeopardy."
"But she's not." Leah threw the rest of the seeds to the wind, brushed the dust from her gloved hands, and turned back to the great hall.
"I'd not ask if it were not important."
Leah smiled and tucked a strand of hair beneath the cowl of her cape. "'Tis Sir Keane you're meeting."
Sorcha's heart nearly stopped. She'd been so careful, and yet Leah had guessed the truth.
"It is, isn't it?"
"Aye," Sorcha admitted with a shrug, as if her secret romance were of no great concern. Truth to tell she cared for Keane, but knew that she didn't love him. "Is there gossip?"
"Not yet. But I've seen him watching you. You needs be careful or Tadd will get wind that you fancy Sir Keane."
She didn't have to say more. Tadd was sure to make life miserable for anyone interested in his sister. Why Tadd despised her, she knew not, but only guessed his hatred was because of her cursed birthmark. His feelings for Leah were not as bitter. But then Leah had always been the kind one, the pious one, the saint in the family, and Sorcha had been a thorn in her father's side from the day of her birth.
"Will you help me with the accounts?" Leah asked.
So simple. "Aye."
Leah scowled darkly. "I know not why Father insists we learn the duties of the steward. All those numbers...Ah, well, if you will do the work."
Sorcha couldn't help but smile. The accounts were easy for her, no task at all. "'Tis done," she said.
Within the hour, Leah had explained that she, too, wanted to attend mass, and Tadd, interested in a new dark-haired kitchen maid, waved her aside. With Sir Henry for protection and Leah's maid, Gwendolyn, as companion, they rode through the forest on the main road. Once Castle Prydd was out of sight, the two sisters exchanged cloaks and horses.
"You'll not be doing this," Henry insisted as he began to understand that he'd been played for a fool in part of a girlish scheme.
"M'lady, please, 'tis not a good idea," Gwendolyn agreed. A tiny woman with light hair, she worried far too much.
"'Tis all right." Sorcha slipped the hood of Leah's purple cloak over her head.
Henry reined in his horse. "No good will come of it. I forbid you -- "
"'Tis not for you to forbid," Sorcha cut in, and Leah stifled a giggle as she adjusted the folds of Sorcha's crimson mantle around her slender body. "Asides, I'll see that you get some of the baron's best wine on our return."
Henry's heavy face folded upon itself. "'Tis not drink that I need. 'Tis assurance that you'll be safe. With Castle Erbyn left in Sir Darton's hands while Lord Hagan is off fighting the war, no one is safe."
"Erbyn is far away," Leah said, though she seemed a little anxious.
Both Hagan and Darton, the twin brothers, were harsh men who ruled with cruel hands, but Hagan, the baron, was the more levelheaded of the two, and he had once traveled to Prydd to make peace with Sorcha's father. Sorcha had not been allowed to meet Hagan, as he was considered the enemy, but she'd hidden herself in the minstrel's loft and gazed down upon him as he'd walked arrogantly into the great hall. A big man with dark hair the color of a falcon's wing and eyes that were set well back in his head, he strode into the great hall and nodded curtly to her father. Hagan's nose was not straight, but his features were bold and chiseled, and he had an air about him that caused most of the guards to keep their distance. His shoulders were wider than her father's, and he towered above the older man. For the first time in her young life, Sorcha doubted her father's ability to command an army against so formidable an opponent.
Commanding. Assured. As if he were ruler of Prydd, he warmed himself by the fire and spoke in low tones that Sorcha, try as she might, could not overhear. He came in the company of soldiers, all wearing the green and gold of his colors, and there was another man with him, at his right hand, who looked much like the baron, though slightly smaller in stature and not quite as handsome. His twin, no doubt. Though she was but ten at the time, she knew, as she gazed at Hagan of Erbyn, she would never see a more powerful man.
Danger seemed to radiate from him, and when he glanced up, she gasped, giving herself away. His green-gold eyes focused on her, and the lips tightened a bit as his gaze caught hers for but an instant. At that moment Sorcha gleaned what it was to be a rabbit caught in the archer's sights.
Her little heart pounded, but rather than hide, she stood defiantly, tossing her hair off her shoulders, and met his arrogant glare with her own prideful stare.
"Who is the waif?" he asked her father, and Baron Eaton glanced upward, grunting as he recognized his daughter.
"Sorcha -- get down from there!" Eaton ordered.
The twin brother eyed her with interest, but it was Hagan who said, "Sorcha? Ahh...so she does exist. I have heard of you, little one." His eyes glinted in a kind mockery. "Some of the peasants -- the people who believe in the old ways -- have told me that you are to be the savior of this castle."
Sorcha lifted a brow and shrugged, trying not to notice how handsome a man he was. " 'Tis true," she replied, not knowing where her courage came from, but squaring her shoulders a bit.
"'Tis a lie, the mutterings of a crazy old midwife who thinks she be a witch," Tadd interjected as he hurried down the stairs, his face flushed in the seething rage that seemed to be constantly with him. Always spoiling for a fight, he eyed Hagan and the soldiers from Erbyn with obvious loathing.
Hagan ignored him and continued to stare up at Sorcha. "Will you strike me dead?" he asked. Again the gentle ridicule in his voice.
"If you ever try to capture Prydd. Yes, Lord Hagan, I will cut out your black heart myself."
He laughed then, and the harsh lines of his face disappeared. "Well, little waif, I quiver in my boots, as does the entire castle, just knowing that mayhaps your wrath will be cast in the direction of Erbyn."
"Hush this nonsense!" her father bellowed. "Go see to your lessons, Sorcha. Lord Hagan and I have a truce to discuss. Tadd come along with us. 'Tis time you learned how to bring peace to the land..."
Sorcha had never seen the baron again. Now, as her breath steamed in the cold winter air of the forest outside of Prydd and Sir Henry looked as if he were ready to strangle her for her impudence, she wondered if Lord Hagan or his brother or their men really did consort with outlaws and thieves as was rumored.
"Worry not about Sorcha, Sir Henry. She'll be in good company," Leah said, her nose wrinkling as she chuckled. "Safe in the arms of -- "
"Rest assured, Sir Henry, that I'll be fine, and breathe not a word of this to a soul." Sorcha climbed into the saddle of Leah's bay jennet as Leah tried in vain to scramble onto Sorcha's feisty black mare.
"This horse will be the very end of me," Leah said as she finally settled into the saddle.
"She'll be your savior," Sorcha predicted as she dug her heels into the little bay's flanks and tugged on the reins. The mare whirled and broke into an easy gallop, heading north, away from the village and toward the meadow where Keane had promised to meet her.
"God be with you," Henry shouted over the cold wind that rushed at Sorcha's face and chilled her bones. It screamed past her ears and shoved the hood off her head to tangle in the long waves of her hair. Sorcha felt free, her spirit riding with her on the wind. She urged Leah's jennet ever faster, but the bay was not as swift as her own mare, and the little horse labored up the forested hill until the road broke free to a frost-covered meadow of dry weeds and bent, bleached grass.
Keane, as promised, was waiting, standing beside his gray destrier as the big horse tried to graze. Sorcha's heart still soared at the sight of the tall knight. No more than twenty, he was broad-shouldered and trim, his skill in tournaments already established. His blond hair ruffled in the breeze, and his eyes, deep brown, flickered in recognition as she pulled on the reins and hopped to the ground.
"So you did come," he said, his breath making clouds in the crisp winter air.
"Did you doubt me?"
"Doubt you? Nay, but trust you..." His teasing smile stretched wide. "That is a different matter."
"'Tis I who shouldn't trust you," she quipped, wondering why she could not agree to marry him.
She threw herself into his waiting arms and felt the warmth of his mouth close over hers. Her heart, already racing, beat even a little more quickly, but she knew that she'd made the right choice to tell him that she could no longer meet him this way. Lying to Tadd, trading chores with Leah, deceiving everyone in the castle, and putting Sir Henry's pride on the line were worth a few stolen moments with Keane to tell him how she felt.
His arms clasped more firmly around her, and she pulled away. "Keane, there is something I must tell you."
"I've missed you, Sorcha," he said quickly, as if he knew her thoughts, gently shoving the hair off her neck and kissing her behind the ear. He traced her birthmark with his finger.
"No, Keane, please listen to me. I cannot -- "
"Hush, little one. Each night I dream of you and -- "
Keane's body flexed in her arms. "Holy Christ!" He sucked in his breath. "Sorcha, run!"
HISS! THUNK! Again his body jolted, and this time Sorcha saw the arrow buried deep in his shoulder. Another had hit his thigh, and blood stained his breeches.
"No!" she screamed, trying to hold him upright.
"RUN!" He fell to the ground, his fingers scrabbling for the hilt of his sword, but Sorcha stood as if rooted to the spot. Her head swung around and she stared into the trees, the dark undergrowth where their attacker lay hidden somewhere to the south, cutting off the road back to Prydd. As if he'd been following her.
"Come with me," she pleaded, pulling Keane to his feet and helping him to his destrier.
"I'll stand and fight."
"And die!" she half screamed. Her heart was thudding with fear that they would both be killed. "'Twill serve no purpose. Come! Now!"
"But -- "
Desperate, she clung to him. "There is no honor in giving up your life like this. Come! I need you!"
Keane, his face white, took her lead. With a scream of agony, he yanked the shaft of the arrow from his thigh and threw it onto the ground. "Take the other one."
Swallowing hard, she stared at the arrow buried in his shoulder. " 'Tis not safe to -- "
He leaned down, and Sorcha placed her fingers over the shaft. She tugged, but the arrowhead caught on flesh and wouldn't budge.
Fingers slick with blood, she pulled again, and the shaft of the arrow splintered in her hands. Blood smeared on the red folds of Leah's mantle.
Keane moaned, writhing away from her.
"Oh, God, I knew -- "
Another arrow screamed through the air, passing near Sorcha's ear.
"It matters not," Keane said raggedly, stains of scarlet discoloring his tunic. With an effort he whistled to his destrier. The war-horse was nervous, prancing anxiously, nose to the wind, his great ears flicking toward the woods. Keane hauled himself into the saddle as Sorcha climbed on Leah's little mare, yanked hard on the bridle, causing the jennet to rear as they turned.
"Run, you bloody nag," she yelled at the jennet. Her horse jumped forward, and Sorcha leaned low in the saddle, digging her heels into the mare's flanks, urging the tired bay to keep up with the longer, steady strides of Keane's charger.
The frozen ground whirled past and wind tore at Sorcha's face, bringing tears to her eyes. She could barely breathe, and fear grasped her heart in its terrible, clawlike grip. They couldn't die; not like this! Please, God, not like this!
Another arrow whizzed past Sorcha's shoulder and she glanced backward for just a second, long enough to see a band of outlaws moving out of the shadows. Filthy and ragged, five men she'd never seen in her life rode rangy horses, without using their hands. Bowstrings held taut, arrows in place, they took aim. "Oh, God, save us," she murmured, her throat constricting in terror.
"This way!" Keane shouted, turning into the woods again. The road they took was little more than a deer trail that wound through the dense undergrowth, and at the base of an ancient oak, split in several directions.
"We'll never lose them if they live here in the woods," she said as the horses slowed to a trot and picked their way through the gloomy undergrowth.
"We'll lose them," Keane vowed, though he had to hold on to the pommel of the saddle to keep himself astride.
As often as Sorcha had ridden in the woods, she'd never ventured this far from the castle. The dark forest felt hostile. Tall firs kept the ground in shadow while bare, black-barked oaks reached skyward and thorny, leafless briars rattled in a wind that was as cold as death.
"They'll expect us to double-back," Keane told her as they took a fork in the path leading farther north, away from Prydd.
She bit her lip anxiously. "Should you not rest?" she asked, eyeing the pained set of his mouth.
She watched as even more blood stained his tunic, but she said nothing. Keane was a proud man, and this time, Sorcha feared, his pride would become his undoing. "Please, let us stop. We can hide -- "
"Nay!" His skin was taut and white around his mouth. With determination, he clucked his horse forward. "We must return to Prydd by nightfall, but 'twill be a long ride as we needs make our circle wide so as not to run into the outlaws again."
She thought of the horrid creatures who had tried to kill them. "Who were those men?"
"But why would they attack us?"
"For money," he said with effort.
"I have no coin -- "
"Ransom, then. You're the baron's daughter, are you not?"
"The baron is away."
"Tadd is at Prydd."
"Tadd wouldn't pay a single gold piece for my release," she muttered as they finally turned southeast, beginning to double-back.
"It matters not. Now, hush, lest they hear us." His gaze held hers for just a second, and she saw death in his kind eyes. "Ride silently, and should I...be unable to stay astride, leave me and take my horse."
"Keane, no -- "
"Do not thwart me on this, woman. 'Tis our only chance!"
He kicked his mount onward. She saw him wobble in the saddle, and her heart leapt to her throat. He held on, but she knew he would not stay conscious much longer.
Hours later, they arrived at the gates of Prydd. Sorcha's body was numb from the cold, her fingers rigid in the frozen leather reins. Keane slumped forward, falling off his destrier as his wounded body finally gave out.
"Help! Guards! Please, help!" Sorcha screamed as she jumped from her own mount. The little horse sprinted into the outer bailey, and Sorcha fell to the ground, where she cradled Keane's head upon her lap. "Do not die," she whispered, tears hot against her eyelids. "Keane, please, you must not die!"
"He's dead," Isolde whispered, and Brother Ignatius murmured last rites over Keane's body.
"Noooo!" Sorcha wailed, her cries of grief resounding to the rafters of the solar. Her heart felt as if it had been ripped from her chest, and tears burned behind her eyes. "Use your magic, do whatever you must, but do not let him die!"
Keane lay upon the bed, his wounds bound, his face a gray mask.
Isolde touched his neck, feeling for signs of life, a pulse, then leaned down, her ear to his chest, as she listened for the smallest breath. "I'm sorry, m'lady -- "
"Nay! He cannot be dead. He cannot!" Sorcha wailed. She approached Isolde and grabbed the servant woman by the cloak. "Some say you are a witch. Have you no potion to cure this -- "
"I cannot save the dead."
"But you must!" Sorcha cried, refusing to accept that Keane's life was over. Had he not planned to meet her, he might still be alive. Guilt gnawed at her. She threw herself against his unmoving body, holding on to him, knowing she would never love another. "Keane, Keane...please...merciful God -- "
"Had there been more life force within him, mayhaps, but -- "
" 'Tis in God's hands now, my child," Brother Ignatius whispered, gently pulling Sorcha off Keane's lifeless form.
Tadd's voice rumbled through the hallway. "Bloody Christ, is there no end to her schemes?" he growled, kicking open the door. It banged against the stone wall. Sorcha jumped, blinking back tears as her brother strode into the room. He loomed above her, his shoulders as broad as an axe handle, his face twisted with a powerful rage. "You disobeyed me."
"I -- "
"Do not bother to lie to me again, for I will not believe you. Did you not bargain with Leah to go to mass in your stead?"
"Yea, but -- "
"With only Sir Henry as her guard?"
"Aye...and Gwendolyn," she answered more carefully.
"Even though she is not as quick with a knife as you be."
"I understand not why you care. Sir Keane is dead!" she said, finally accepting the terrible truth, her bones seeming to turn to water.
"Aye, and he's not the only one."
Tadd's words cut to her very soul. Sorcha's throat tightened and her pulse pounded with dread. Beyond the anger in Tadd's eyes there were vile accusations. "News of Father in the war?" she whispered, dread pulsing through her.
Suddenly Sorcha understood her brother's ire. Their sister. Where was Leah? In her worry for Keane's life, Sorcha had forgotten Leah. Now her stomach wrenched painfully and her tongue was thick with fear. "Not Leah."
Tadd didn't reply, and a new, horrid fear gripped Sorcha's heart. "Tell me," she demanded.
"Tell you," Tadd repeated, his rage retreating a little. Satisfaction gleamed in his eyes. He liked nothing better than to keep a secret from Sorcha, who deemed herself a princess, who was born with the damned birthmark, who, he suspected, might be his equal in everything but strength.
"Where is she?"
"Ask Sir Robert," he said, enjoying this game immensely.
"Sir Robert?" Sorcha repeated, stunned. Robert was one of Tadd's most trusted knights.
"The traitor in the dungeon. He has news from Castle Erbyn."
Sorcha felt as if a ghost had walked across her soul. Years ago, Hagan's father, Richard, had unsuccessfully tried to wrest control of Prydd from her father's hands. A black-heart himself, Richard had been known to consort with thieves and outlaws. His ambitions were boundless and were passed on to his sons, though for the past few years there had been no war, the peace the result of Hagan's fragile truce. No one at Prydd trusted him, and she remembered him well -- how powerful and determined and cruel he'd seemed. Handsome, too, but the kind of man who made others tremble in fear. She swallowed back her apprehension. "What news?" she asked, her voice barely a whisper.
"Henry and Gwendolyn were killed by a band of outlaw knights -- all sworn to serve Hagan."
"No!" Sorcha's knees threatened to buckle. "They were fine when I left them." Guilt swallowed her soul.
Surely there was some mistake. Numb, she whispered, "But Robert; you say he was part of this band."
Tadd's lips tightened angrily. "Aye."
"What of Leah?" she hardly dared ask.
"Our sister has been stolen away. To Erbyn. And why is that, Sorcha?" Tadd demanded, his face mottling scarlet in the firelight. Dark red-brown locks fell over his eyes, and his fists opened and closed in his rage.
Sorcha could hardly believe her ears. First she and Keane ambushed by outlaws, and now this horrid news of Leah. Sir Henry's flushed face swam before her eyes, and Gwendolyn's soft voice filled her ears. No more laughter...Oh, God, and Keane, noble Keane. Tears burned in her eyes. She bit her lip and prayed she was dreaming, that she would wake up and Keane would still be alive and strong, and Leah would be within the safe walls of Prydd, stitching her embroidery, or walking in the garden, or trying to make sense of the bloody castle accounts.
Tadd's nostrils quivered with fury and his lips were white and flat over his teeth.
"God preserve us," Isolde whispered.
Fear clutched at Sorcha's heart. Blind, numbing fear. Tadd was playing with her. For all his anger, he was toying with her, and he only did so when he was certain of winning, or humiliating her. Perhaps this was one of his tricks. "I believe not -- "
Tadd grabbed her arm in a grip that bruised, yanking her off her feet before dropping her on the floor again. "Believe, sister. Your disloyalty has led to death this time. Henry was a brave and trustworthy knight. He gave up his life so that you could meet your lover." He shoved her away as if her very touch disgusted him, and she fell back against the bed where Keane lay unmoving.
She felt like whimpering, but held back her cries, refusing to back down. "How is it that Sir Robert, if he be a traitor, has confided in you?"
Tadd's smile turned cruel. "Sir Henry managed to wound Robert in the attack. Robert's band of thugs left him to die, but a farmer found him and brought him, barely alive, back to Prydd. He's in the dungeon, and with a little encouragement, he told us that he was hired by the lord of Erbyn."
Sorcha felt sick. She had brought this horror to Leah. "Then you must gather all of your best knights and ride to Erbyn to free Leah at once," she said aloud.
"Nay, Sorcha. I'll not undo the mess you caused. You with your damned birthmark," he sneered, the malice in his eyes gleaming bright as the yellow eyes of the hounds. "The savior of Prydd, isn't that what the old woman says?" He cast a disdainful look at Isolde. " 'Tis the mark of the devil, methinks, and I be not the only one. Father William, too, sees the sign as blasphemy against the only true God."
As if Tadd were a Christian! However, Sorcha had no time for arguments. If what Tadd said was true, then Leah was in grave danger. Her virtue and her very life were at stake. Sorcha marched up to Tadd. "I will go with you."
"Go with me? Where?"
His laugh was harsh. "You did not hear me, sister."
"But we must free Leah!"
"By fighting Hagan or that brother of his, Darton?"
"Ah, Sorcha, so foolish," he said on a sigh that spoke of her naïveté. "I'll not risk the lives of any more good knights. No doubt Leah will be ransomed."
Keane's words haunted her. Had he not suspected that the outlaws planned to ransom her? A shiver slithered down her spine.
"Then you will do nothing?" she asked, inching her chin up defiantly. Then she saw it: the cowardice in her brother's features.
"I'll not battle Hagan of Erbyn for Leah, for that is what he wants."
"Hagan has upheld his truce in the past few years," Sorcha said, though she didn't trust that the black-heart would not break his word. The unsteady peace between the two castles had lasted seven years, but was always in jeopardy.
"Which is why, sister, 'tis best to wait. Hagan is rumored to be off fighting the Scots."
"Then his brother, Darton, is behind this treachery."
"Or Hagan has returned." Tadd rubbed his chin thoughtfully, obviously unhappy with this turn of his thoughts. "Hagan is a liar, but a powerful warrior. His people fear him. 'Twould be best not to anger him when so many of our knights are with our father."
"Even if he has taken Leah?" Sorcha asked, astounded at the depth of her brother's cowardice. Leah had to be freed!
Tadd's eyes swept up Sorcha's stained mantle. "I'll deal with Hagan my own way. As for you, sister, you will be punished for your lies and treachery. 'Tis your fault that two of my best knights needs be buried. Your fault that Gwendolyn was savagely murdered. You shall carry that burden on your soul, and your penance is that you, oh bearer of the 'kiss of the moon,' shall be locked in your chamber until the moon is next full."
Isolde lifted her old hands in supplication. "M'lord, 'twill be nearly a full cycle...twenty-eight days -- "
"Hush, old woman, or I shall punish you as well." He drew his sword swiftly.
Isolde stood firm, and Tadd merely admired the blade, pointed it into the oak floor, and leaned insolently on the hilt. He had to bend a bit, so that his nose was within inches of Sorcha's face. "You'll pray in your room, sister, and pray alone. Even Father William will abandon you during your penance. The old woman will bring you meals, but that is all." Standing quickly, he motioned with his sword. Two guards came into the room and grabbed her by the arms.
"I'll not be held prisoner in my own castle!" Sorcha cried.
"'Tis for your safety."
"In a pig's eye!"
He clucked his tongue as she was dragged out of the solar. Brother Ignatius prayed over Keane's still body, and Tadd grinned, as if he was glad for an excuse to lock her away.
Though Sorcha fought with all the strength of her young body, she was no match for the two burly knights, who flung her into her chamber and dropped the heavy oaken bar across her door.
Wretched and cold, she huddled on the floor. Henry lay dead. Dear Keane's soul, too, had departed. Gwendolyn had given up her life. Leah was a prisoner in the bowels of Castle Erbyn. Tadd held her as his prisoner.
Her life, so carefree this morn, had become wretched. Tadd, curse his soul to the devil, was correct, however. All the death and disaster that had been wreaked upon the castle was her fault and hers alone. Some savior of Prydd was she -- more like the plague of Prydd. Her insides felt as if they'd been torn apart by wolves, and it took all of her courage not to fall down and weep. But she couldn't. For, by the gods, she would have to find a way to avenge the deaths and save her sister.
Gritting her teeth, she pushed herself upright. She'd kneel to no man. Especially not to someone as dull and wicked as Tadd. Guilt drummed in her brain as she walked to the open window and stared at the night. Clouds drifted across the face of the full moon.
What tortures was Leah enduring in the dungeons of Erbyn? Sorcha's throat clogged with hot, unshed tears. Oh, if she could only trade places with her sister.
"By all that we hold dear, Sister Leah," Sorcha whispered onto the breeze, "I vow to save you." She shivered as the breath of wind blew against her hair and she thought of Baron Hagan, Lord of Erbyn. Since childhood, she'd heard of him, knew him to be a rogue, a treacherous man who would stop at nothing to gain his ends. For years he had wanted Prydd and the surrounding lands, but he'd bided his time, agreed to the truce, and now, while their father was off fighting the Scots, he had decided to make war, not with an army, mayhaps, but to the same end. "Hold on, Leah," she whispered over the rising wind. The castle walls seemed to mock her, for she was prisoner in her own beloved Prydd, but Sorcha was a woman who believed that no enemy was invincible, no dungeon without a means of escape, no plot complicated enough that it couldn't be thwarted.
She kicked off her boots and started planning her escape. 'Twould be easy to sneak out of this room; she only needed Isolde's help. The difficult part would come later.
Nay, freeing Leah would not be an easy matter, but she had no choice. For all of her sixteen years she had been selfish, only interested in her own needs, but as of this night, her destiny had changed.
She would avenge Henry's death.
She would see that Gwendolyn's murderer be held responsible.
She would seek vengeance, dark and brutal, for the killing of Keane.
She would free her sister.
No matter what the cost.
No force, not even the power of Baron Hagan of Erbyn, would stop her.
Copyright © 1994 by Susan Crose