The first in the
Dragons of Challon series
“…that something in thyne dominion, heed, it is a dragon…”
- the Mabinogion
Highlands of Scotland, April 1296
The shrill cry rent the stillness of the isolated Highland glen. Startled, scores of ravens took to the sky. Their cacophony echoed the call…my lady, my lady. For a peculiar instant the world held its breath as the heavens were turned black.
Tamlyn MacShane paused from picking the first violets of spring. Straightening, she arched her shoulders to relieve the crick in her back. Loch winds lifted, swirling about her, playfully tugging wisps of her honey-colored hair from the simple braid hanging down her back. She brushed the stray strands from her face, her eyes following the spiraling path of the noisy blackbirds.
An ill omen, whispered the kenning to her mind.
Her fey gift to sense things and the peculiar behavior of the birds summoned fragments of the lingering nightmare that had awoken her this morn. Vague, just at the edge of her thoughts…something about screaming ravens and a coming storm. She shivered.
When the lad topped the crest of the tor he cried once more, “My lady! He comes!”
Shaking the somber fit of mind, Tamlyn smiled at the boy tumbling to a stop at her feet. “Och, Connor Og, catch a breath before you turn the shade of these violets.”
“My pony tossed me. You must come, my lady,” he gasped, “so they can bar the gates.”
“Pray, who comes that we must close Glenrogha’s gates?”
“Him…the one heard tell about.” His words were whispered in fear. “Riders from Lochshane brought word―Kinmarch had been put to siege by the English king―the dread Edward Longshanks. Raised the Dragon Standard they did. Your da is feared dead.” Tears streaked down his dusty face.
Hadrian of Kinmarch dead? Nonsense. With the power of the kenning, she’d have felt that. “The laird is not dead, lad. I’d feel it here.” Her fisted hand clenched to the center of her chest.
The frown on the boy’s face softened. “Mayhap it is so. You were touched by the blood of the Sidhe. Still, they sighted his standard on the road from Lochshane near the sacred passes—the green dragon on the field of black!”
“The Dragon of Challon―he comes?” For an instant laughter bubbled up in her throat. Surely this was a jest. A dragon coming on St. George’s Day? Her smile faded, then her heart jumped as if she’d taken a pinch too much foxglove.
“Hurry to Glenrogha, Connor Og, and do not look back. I shall fetch my palfrey.”
Dropping the basket of violets, Tamlyn hastened to the far side of the hill where she’d left the mare munching grass. Bansidhe ignored her as she knelt to unfasten the leather straps hobbling its fetlocks. Pushing her mantle over her shoulders, she attempted to mount, but the horse jerked the reins from her hands, stubbornly wishing to remain and eat its fill of the spring faerygrass.
“Few animals dare to eat the blades within a faery ring, so you believe the Wee Ones think you special. Do not fash me or I shall speak to the tanner about lining my new mantle with dapple hide, you silly beastie.”
The mare’s head snapped up with the recoil of a whip. Its whole body stiffened. Taking advantage, Tamlyn scrambled upon its back. The palfrey ignored her heels kicking against its ribs as it issued a shrill whinny.
A rumble came from the distance, deep as thunder from a summer storm, only steady, persistent. The sound sent a shiver up her spine, the eerie noise preternatural― almost with the portent of the Bansidhe’s wail. Once more, dark impressions rose of the nightmare that had broke her slumber at dawn. Trembling, Tamlyn pushed the thoughts aside. A storm must be building on the other side of the passes. She turned to search the purple hills ringing Glen Shane. The morning sky near Dun Kinmarch was strangely gray.
Coldness streaked with icy fingers through her soul…as if someone of great power just crossed through the sacred passes.
Finally, the horse obeyed her tugging on the reins. Tamlyn felt a rising urgency to reach Glenrogha. Her mantle flying behind, she leaned forward, encouraging her mount to break into a gallop. Once they reached the flatland, she glanced over her shoulder. The skyline above Kinmarch was blacker. No storm filled the heavens with this spreading shadow.
Topping the rise, Tamlyn spotted warriors mounted upon heavy horses of war pouring into the glen. English! The mists that had shielded the sacred passes of Glen Shane for centuries had failed to hide their valley. How could this be?
A vanguard emerged from the stand of ancient evergreens. Breaking away, several riders traveled at a swift pace. Their monstrous horses chewed up the turf with broad strides. At first she thought they had not spotted her. Shouts told otherwise. Slapping the reins against the horse’s neck, Tamlyn chose a path into the grove. It curved around the hill, then along the steep cliffs of Lochshane Mòhr. She used the narrow trail to weave through the dense oaks, limes and elms.
The horsemen were compelled to pick their way amidst the undergrowth of rose briars and woodbine. Her smaller mount wove like a needle, threading passage into the forest. She breathed easier as the pursuers lagged behind.
Her best hope was to flank the riders, then double back to the sea caves that ran under Glenrogha’s cliffs. A secret passage connected beneath the ancient Pict Broch, which would allow her to come up within the safety of the fortress. Breaking free of the woods, she urged Bansidhe onward.
Five horsemen cleared the trees bordering Glenrogha’s dead-angle. The fearsome warhorses churned soft dirt clods high in the air.
Tamlyn’s mantle flew into her face and tangled about her arms and the bridle, costing precious time. Fleeing to the tidal caves would only reveal their existence to the men following. That path was now blocked. All she could do was make for her sister’s fief of Kinloch.
Her lips pressed thin, feeling the palfrey’s exertion. If she could just reach the forest of Kinloch, escape would be possible. Suddenly, the mares’s hoof hit a depression in the rain-soaked earth, and Tamlyn and the horse went flying heels over head into the ground. Head spinning, she staggered to her feet, then nearly fell as searing pain shot up her right leg.
Three warriors were upon her before the dizziness cleared. Shaking, she warily faced the enemy as they dismounted. In cornered animal panic, she tried to shove past them. With the twisted ankle she couldn’t run. Laughing, taunting, they shoved her from one to the other—pack dogs tormenting helpless prey. They wore the green and black of the Dragon of Challon, the dragon rampant emblazoned upon their chests.
“Comely wench,” one said, shoving a hood of mail off his head.
Tamlyn knew she was tall for a Scots lass, yet she had to look up at these Norman warriors. With helms off, their dark hair gleamed, a match to their piercing eyes.
“Seems the move northward offers some sport,” one smirked. “Come, give us a kiss, wench.”
“I’d rather kiss a bloody leper!” Tamlyn spat the words. Never would she allow them to see she tasted fear.
“No lepers here, but you may lavish kisses upon my pet snake.” The others laughed when the knight lowered his head trying to kiss her.
Tamlyn flinched as the meaning of the Norman words sank in. Widening, her eyes stared in revulsion. She shoved against his covered breastplate, sending him backward against his horse.
A handsome warrior stepped to box her in. He spoke in a soothing tone. “No need to fear us, sweetling. We’re a damn sight cleaner than your filthy, skirt-clad countrymen.”
Tamlyn swallowed the lump in her throat, the kenning seeing into their minds. These vile dogs intended to rape her! Forcing back mind-numbing dread, she focused on reaching the dagger in her boot.
Beginning a spell of warding, her lips barely mouthed the ancient words of empowerment, “Adhnadhe oothras beytharde dethiale―” She paused, horror spreading through her as she realized the ancient spell of protection summoned the breath of the dragon. Wrapped up in casting the charm, Tamlyn was caught off guard as the youngest knight seized her about the waist, then spun her around, pushing her back against the chest of another man.
Two more mounted warriors cantered up, wearing the Plantagenet colors of scarlet and gold. Three faded golden leopards were on their surcoats. One called, “Might’ve knowed Sir Dirk would flush out a bit of quim.”
Tamlyn pushed this knight as she had the other. Solid, immovable, he towered over her. Hard, jet-black eyes roamed over her peasant’s sark.
Placing a hand on either shoulder, Sir Dirk slid them up her throat, a bizarre gesture of threat and sensuality that paralyzed her. “You prove a surprise. They warned us Scots females were sisters to swine and had blue scales upon their bellies and breasts.”
Her blood vibrated. “Take your filthy hands off me, you cur.”
“These prideful Scots are raised with tongues too free. Let them learn,” the second man growled, “starting with this bitch.”
She tried to push away from the knight. Repulsed, Tamlyn watched as his hands splayed over her flesh. A smile curved his face as he clutched the bodice in his fists and ripped it down the middle. The thin material offered little resistance. Cheeks burning bright, her hands flew up to cover her full breasts.
Sword-callused hands took hold of her wrists. Bending them back, the knight compelled Tamlyn to release the grip on the torn sark. He leaned toward her and lowered his mouth to the slope of her pale breast. Her twisting against his hold only elicited an evil grin. Foul darkness possessed this man’s soul.
“Truly, Dirk of Pendegast deserves his name. He is the finest swordsman of the Black Dragon,” one laughed.
The knight nudged the material of the ripped sark with his nose until her pale breast was exposed. Leering, he announced, “No scale of any shade.”
Seething with humiliation and rage, her body arched as his hot lips latched around her areola and sucked painfully hard. A whimper, a wounded animal sound shuddered through her. Tears scalded her eyes. Again, she silently chanted the charm of making, this time to draw within herself, bespell her mind far away where it could not be touched by their brutality.
“Want us to hold her down for you?” a warrior offered.
The tall knight bore her down to the ground with the weight of his body. His muscular thigh pushed through the split in the long mail hauberk, shoving roughly between her legs. Swallowing bile, Tamlyn nearly strangled on the bitter, hot taste. She was terrified she might vomit, fearful she’d drown in it as they raped her.
Her shaking fingers brushed the top of her knife. As Sir Dirk raised up slightly to fumble with the lacings on his chausses, her hand closed about the hilt.
Another man heralded warning. Too late.
"Get up.” Tamlyn wedged the razor-honed blade against her attacker’s throat, forcing him to rise. “Else I’ll split your gullet and watch your blood water the earth.” Pearls of blood beaded from the pressure.
Another knight came up behind her. His rough hands wrapped around her wrist. The sudden movement jerked the knife tip to gouge into Sir Dirk’s flesh along his jaw.
“Leave go, bitch, else I will snap your wrist like a pigeon bone,” Sir Geoffrey threatened. He squeezed until the knife fell from her grip.
Sir Dirk’s countenance soured as his hand traced over his jaw, dragging the long fingers through the oozing blood. Black eyes narrowed on her, reptilian in their fury, utterly devoid of mercy. He roughly smeared his blood across her exposed breast. “Mayhap I shall kill the whore, then swive her.”
He backhanded Tamlyn, so hard her ears rang. Blinding pain drove her to her knees. She lifted the back of her hand to her nose and dabbed at the blood trickling from her right nostril. More pooled in her throat, tasting coppery.
Weak, forced to remain kneeling, her other hand pathetically clutched the front of her torn sark. Swallowing fear, Tamlyn raised her trembling chin in defiance. She flashed hatred through unwanted tears, awaiting his next blow, damning him. She braced herself as he drew his hand back.
A lone rider drove the magnificent black stallion across the dead-angle, bearing down on them, then reined the animal to a halt. It reared high, so powerful that its hooves slashed the air. The warrior dismounted with an inherent grace and recoiled power of a panther.
All five knights swung around to face him.
Hindered by their shifting positions, Tamlyn saw only glimpses of the sixth man. She held no hope for aid or mercy from one more of their breed. Just another dog of an English king, just another man to rape her.
Apprehension rippled through the guilt-ridden men as they fell back, creating room for him. Despite the heavy mail and plate weighting his body, he strode into the center of the group with regal bearing. Though a shade shorter than the others, he wasn’t in the least intimidated by the taller men. His presence conveyed a raw, elemental power, the likes Tamlyn had never encountered. The hairs on the back of her neck prickled as she stared at him.
The armor covering his upper arms and thighs, the mail habergeon, mantle and surcoat were black. All black.
He removed his helm and pushed back the mail hood. His locks of the same unrelenting shade of pitch were not in the Norman style, but long, curling softly about his ears and brushing the metal gorget that covered the back of his neck.
Tamlyn’s breath caught and held.
He was handsome—no, beautiful. The air surrounding this dark warrior seemed to stir as scorching energy discharged from him with the sizzle and crackle of lightning.
He handed the helm to Sir Geoffrey with no more regard than he would afford a servant. Aware of the men’s unease, he clearly played on that. Stalling, he removed his black leather gauntlets with deft precision and then passed them off as well. With an arch of the black brow he conveyed disdain for the other men.
His keen attention fixed on Tamlyn. Heads bowed, the others let him through to her without one word uttered. Tamlyn trembled, knowing few men wielded such a chilling command.
His elegant fingers captured her chin, lifted it, forcing her to meet his stare. Eyes the shade of green garnets, they were ringed with lashes so long a woman would cry envy. When she stared into them, the world narrowed. Nothing else existed.
There was only this knight all in black.
His jaw was strong, square. The small mouth, etched with sensual curves, was seductive, though touched with a trace of what might be cruelty. Two black curls carelessly fell over the high forehead, a countenance sinful in ways no mere mortal man had right to be.
Tamlyn sensed a willful, razor-sharp intelligence within this warrior. He was the last man she would want to face as an adversary.
Images possessed her, singed her with an ancient fire…of her hands on the bare flesh of his chest, how it would feel to be kissed by this black knight. Shocked, she nearly reeled backward. By what conjury did he put these visions in her mind? This warrior was dangerously beautiful, a killer angel with soul-stealing eyes. She trembled with fear, but could not take her gaze from him.
“My orders were not clear?” He turned to frown at the group, yet never wholly removed his focus from her. Angry green eyes encountered only downcast faces.
A mercenary blurted, “Bloody wench pulled a blade on Sir Dirk. She cut him.” He flipped the knife tip first into the soil at the commander’s feet.
“After he tried to rape her?” His voice was smooth as black velvet, compelling as the night. He smiled, warmth even flickered in the spellcasting eyes. Tamlyn sensed he was far from pleased by their actions. Had he been a cat, his tail would be snapping. “So, a mere Scots wench armed with a small knife held off five—five—of Edward’s warriors who dared disobey my command. You were warned to handle Glen Shane’s people softly.”
“We…she…” Sir Dirk’s words died under the glower of his liege.
“She’s naught but a common wench.” The second mercenary spit on the ground. “A castle worker or some swine girl from a croft.”
Disdain flashed in the warrior’s eyes, then they returned, roving over Tamlyn’s curves in a way that missed few details. Nevertheless, it was impossible for her to scry his feelings. He kept them behind a will of iron, a master of the game.
“What is your name, lass?” his husky voice asked, edged with impatience. He glanced at Bansidhe, grazing not far from them. “No serving wench has a mare of such quality. Yet your clothes are shabby. Do you work at Glenrogha?”
Tamlyn swallowed the dryness in her throat to force out the answer. “Bansidhe is mine, my lord.”
“How many soldiers are within Glenrogha?” he demanded.
“I am a simple lass, my lord. These are men’s matters.” Tamlyn felt sick considering how few of the guard remained within the fortress’ walls.
A faint lift of his brow signaled his doubt. “Simple? Not with unyielding audacity in those gold eyes. You grasp our language.” The man observed too much. Grabbing her free wrist, he examined her palm. “Not the hand of a highborn lady or a commoner. How long can Glenrogha hold against siege?”
“I ken not, my lord. Winter just passed. Supplies should be hard pressed.” No truth to that, the fortress could hold out for months.
His lips spread into a smile, slightly lopsided. “I repeat, what do they call you?’ His soft voice belied the steel underneath. A voice, if he so chose, could hold dark allure.
“Òinnseach,” she replied in a private jest at his expense, knowing he could not understand her godforsaken tongue.
He burst into a peal of laughter. “Fool? Your name is fool?”
Tamlyn’s eyes widened with astonishment. She was more startled than he’d been when she spoke French.
“Yes, cat-eyes, I comprehend enough of your patter to keep my throat from getting split.” He released the grip on her wrist. Bending down on his knee, he extracted the weapon from the ground and wiped the blade on the side of his thigh. “A sgian dubh― black knife.”
Tamlyn watched him study the details, his thumb rubbing the runes carved into the hilt. As she struggled to rise, he lifted the hem of her faded kirtle, locating the hidden sheath for the dagger inside the edge of the right boot.
“Leave go,” she snapped, skittish at being touched. This man terrified her in a manner she couldn’t understand.
Tucking her knife under his belt, he eyed Tamlyn in appraisal. “You conjure riddles, my fool. I might presume you to be leman to the lord here, only it seems the Earl Hadrian gives the fiefs of Lochshane, Kinloch and Glenrogha to his three lady daughters. In this backward land men commit the unnatural folly of allowing women to rule fortresses.”
“Hadrian MacShane is laird to the lands of Clan Shane, but he gives no power to his lady daughters. They hold titles in their own right through Clan Ogilvie.”
“Blatherskite,” he scoffed, raising a chuckle from his men, “women thinking they can control a fortress.”
Tamlyn glowered. “Alba breeds women with strength and intelligence. No ease will you discover in the taking of the lands of the Ogilvies.”
His sensual mouth lifted at the right corner. “Already I claimed Lochshane, my fool. We met little resistance.”
Clinging to aloof pride, Tamlyn stood her ground whilst he rose, nearly pressing his body against hers. Blood thundered within her as heat from his body buffeted her senses. Yet she refused to be bullyragged by a man only half a head taller than she. Unblinking, she met his warlock eyes as his breath fanned across her face.
“Lochshane fell before alarm could be raised. Riders reached Glenrogha. You will find no ease in this undertaking.”
“We shall see.” With an arch of his brow, he swung back to the soldiers. “I have little taste to find my men acting like a pack of rutting beasts. I shall deal with you after the fortresses are taken. Place her on Lasher. Fetch the palfrey. We rejoin my host.”
Fires of Bel! Tamlyn faced the terrible Black Dragon! She should’ve guessed by the midnight armor, mail and mantle. She’d pondered why the English called this lord the Black Dragon when his standard was a green dragon on a field of deepest black. One glimpse of the imposing warrior and she knew, it was not the colors of heraldry to which they referred, but the man himself. Awe filled her as she stared at him, trying not to gape.
Tales of Welsh villages leveled under the Dragon’s command were whispered so they didn’t carry to the ears of bairns. Worse were the rumors of the sack of Berwick, over a fortnight’s passing. Scots feared thousands had perished in a nightmare of slaughter and flames.
As she fumbled with the sark’s drawstring, tightening it to close the ripped front, her eyes strayed to the imposing figure of the knight in black. Tamlyn felt torn, unable to believe that this man with the angelic countenance was capable of slaughtering all in England’s path, putting them to the sword and scorching the very earth.
She jumped when hands took hold of her arms. Sir Dirk’s glower chilled Tamlyn’s blood as he obeyed his liege’s bidding. He shoved her toward the midnight charger of the Dragon.
The black saddle rested upon material of dark green, covering the animal from withers to flanks. Recoiling, she knew her fears were valid. This man was no ordinary commander, but the king’s champion, Julian Challon.
The earl mounted with lionesque grace, seating himself against the high back of the creaking saddle to leave room for her. Resisting for an instant, her heels dug into the soft ground.
The stallion reared slightly, bouncing upon hooves. “Beware, fool. Lasher is unaccustomed to carrying two. I hold no desire to see you trampled under his hooves. He is a trained killer,” the earl cautioned.
The knight picked her up and deposited her atop the horse. From above the knee, her legs were bared.
Worse, she rested against the leather and metal covered thighs of this Norman. She blushed hotly at the intimate position.
Tamlyn turned in the saddle. He was so close. Too close. His warm breath feathered across her cheek. Even so, she challenged and held his eyes.
The most beautiful eyes she’d ever seen.
“Like his master?”
“Aye. A truth you would do well to remember.”
A strange, almost poignant light flickered within those mysterious depths, then vanished as if never had been, displaced by the fierce determination in the set of his jaw.
The Dragon spurred the horse to rear, throwing her back against his armored chest. He placed his hand on her waist to anchor her. In reaction, her muscles tightened under the pressure. She couldn’t seem to breathe.
Tamlyn looked down to see his thumb rested on the bare skin exposed by the rip in the sark. The thumb burned, a brand on her flesh.
She was still dizzy from the fall. That little compared to the way this warrior’s touch sent her blood to thrumming. She turned to study his face. No emotions played in those green eyes, yet their force rocked her to the core.
“To Glenrogha!” he called.
End of Chapter 1
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