Book 2 of the Dragons of Challon
Her flashing eyes, her flame-red hair! -
How did this Lady of power and delight,
Choose to start her spells that night?
~ B Badger
May Day night, 1296 Glen Shane, Scotland
"You leave the Beltane festivities, Damian?" Guillaume Challon asked.
"The smoke from the fire & sees my head spin. I feel & unwell." Damian St. Giles had not actually uttered a lie to his cousin.
He was sick.
Not a typical ailment that might afflict a warrior who had lived with a sword in his hand for too many years. This disease rotted his soul. Devoured his heart. Had he been born a man of lesser character, he could easily have considered murder as a means of 'curing' his 'sickness' . A shame he had scruples. Murder would simplify the situation.
Little noticing the joyful May Day celebration about him, Damian turned away from the balefire. With mixed emotions, he paused and glanced over his shoulder at his cousin, Julian Challon. Tall, strong, black-haired, a handsome man, Challon―the feared Black Dragon, once
the king's champion―was now the new Earl of Glenrogha, lord of this valley and beyond.
At age five, Damian had been sent to serve as a page at Castle Challon in Normandy. Three years younger, Damian worshipped Julian. Later, he stayed to train as squire, then knight under the hand of Julian's lord father. With his black hair and green eyes so like the Challon sons, everyone assumed Damian another bastard dragon in Earl Michael' s litter.
Riches and glory had come to Julian, his birthright as the Challon heir. Damian truly loved his cousin, honored him above all others; not once had he ever begrudged Julian any of the accolades which had fallen to him. Over the decades their bond had only strengthened. It was a privilege to serve Julian, to stand at his side in battle, along with Guillaume and Simon―Julian's bastard half-brothers. The Dragons of Challon, they whispered. Men feared them. Women wanted them. Too many times to tally, they had saved each other's lives.
All these years, he 'd been proud to stand in his cousin's shadow and not see the specter of envy. Never had he envisaged anything could come between them.
Sighing, he closed his eyelids and struggled against the overwhelming despair washing through him. Because he did care for Julian, these circumstances were so difficult to bear. Sucking in a ragged breath to fortify himself, he opened his eyes and looked at his cousin. Though he tried not to, he also searched the throng circling the balefire, seeking Tamlyn MacShane, Lady of Glenrogha.
The woman who should have been his.
When he failed to locate her, he glanced once more to Julian, words rising up within him. Futile words. Words he'd never speak. Had there been a crumb of hope to change his cousin's mind, Damian would humble himself before all, go down on his knees in a plea to Julian, beg him to release Tamlyn from their betrothal.
He knew it would serve naught. His cousin wanted Tamlyn beyond reason.
Aye, their King Edward decreed that his Dragon wed one of the Earl of Kinmarch's daughters. Julian had chosen Tamlyn. A royal edict had naught to do with why Julian planned to take the Lady Tamlyn to wife. His cousin burned for her, craved to possess her with a driving need that was frightening. And in a sad way, Damian was happy for Challon. Too long Julian's soul had suffered in torment. The fey Tamlyn had the power to heal him, make him whole once more. Save him.
Damian knew Julian treasured the brotherly bond they shared. Only no man would come between Challon and his bride-to-be. Without hesitation, he would kill to own Tamlyn. He had already warned Damian of this.
In frustration, he bit back words that would merely turn his cousin's favor from him. Drowning his sorrow in mead was the only course that could see him through this night.
Tilting up the leather horn, he cursed to find it empty. Strange, he did not recall imbibing that much. He started to fling it away, when a huge man knocked against him.
Reeling, dizzy from the drink, he first assumed he had walked into a small mountain. His eyes traveled up the wall of unmoving flesh and gawked, his mind trying to come to grips with what he beheld. Tall, of Viking blood, the stranger stood in a defensive position before three young men.
Damian conceded he had drunk too much, but then it was not the first time. Never before had he experienced double vision―triple vision. The three young men appeared exactly alike, except for clothing. Same light red hair,
narrow effeminate countenances, same hazelnut eyes, they were dressed too finely to be anything but highborn. When he peered at their features he could hardly tell one from the other. Triplets? What Devil's work was this?
Mayhap the Scots put something more into mead than just honey. He blinked thrice, hoping to see only one smiling face, yet when he opened his eyelids they remained. Grinning at him, their countenances beamed delight for some unknown reason. Damn unnerving!
Damian's attention was pulled away as the Culdee―priest of the Auld Celtic Church― tossed dried herbs into the bonfire. The smoke thickened and spiraled outward, the scent heady, intoxicating. Sweat beaded on his brow.
The one in the middle held out his hand. "Hugh Ogilvie."
Still puzzled, Damian accepted it. "Damian St. Giles, Lord Ravenhawke."
Hugh nudged his look-alike to the left, who nudged back, then Hugh poked the brother on the right. That one sniggered, earning him a thump from the elbow, too, this time sharper, meant to silence him.
The one to the right offered him a cup. "I am Lewis. Try this, kind Sir. 'Tis a special brew. Made of heather, ale of the Picts."
A feral war-scream jerked Damian 's attention back to the celebration. A man soared over the flames of the sunken fire, almost seeming to split the smoke. Clad in doeskin breeches, they molded to his legs by the lacing of leather thongs up to his mid-thigh. He wore naught else, though a mask with antlers of a large buck sat upon his head. He executed high leaps, kicking to fly through the air, then with the grace of a cat, landed before Challon.
"Drink," Lewis urged, "and all your wishes shall come true."
" Wishes, bah," Damian scoffed. "Wishes are for fools. I just need to drink 'til I forget what cannot be mine."
Hugh pushed his elbow. "It shall do that, aye. Mayhap more & even grant all your deepest desires."
Nothing to lose, Damian shrugged and downed the contents of the tin cup, its fire spreading through his body. "I hope it does. This night I have need of it."
The last triplet refilled his cup, his words sounding as if they ran together. "I am Deward, come, drink your fill, it shall give your thoughts ease. You are not from hereabouts, Lord Damian, you travel far?"
"Nay, I come northward on a mission for Edward Longshanks."
"Then you do not stay at Glenrogha to serve your lord brother?" Lewis inquired.
"Challon is not my brother. I am but a lowly cousin. I merely tarry to see him settled here, then I move on to claim the holding of my grandfather."
The three men looked to each other, then grinned. "Cousin, you say? You look like him enough to be his mirror. Such as we are. "
Feeling the effects of the strange brew, his mood suddenly lightened. All the pageantry around the balefire receded to darkness as Damian laughed. "I am taller & and prettier."
The three idiots' smiles grew even wider, with Deward―at least Damian thought it was Deward―concurring in his run on fashion. "Oh aye, muckle prettier, I think, do you not agree, Brothers, near perfect, just what is needed, seems the hand of Fate, eh?"
The heads of the other two bobbed their agreement. "Oh aye. Perfect, indeed."
The melody lowered, pulling Damian's attention to a lone piper, playing a haunting refrain. The notes floated on the warm night air, swirled around him and filled his brain. The music sparked a deep, sexual throb within his blood, consuming his will. Hushed whispers descended over the gathering, followed by the crowd sucking in a collective breath.
Then Damian saw her.
Stepping into the glow of the balefire, her hands took hold of the long veil she wore. Drawing them up, she raised them skyward. Everyone seemed unable to breathe whilst she remained in that position of supplication, then gradually she allowed the netting to snake down her arms.
Bathed in amber firelight, Tamlyn's kirtle was gold, spun from Highland magic. It clung to her body, with splits up both her thighs. A chaplet of apple blooms crowned her unbound, honey-colored hair, rippling in the soft breeze. A heavy gold torque was about her neck and matching cuffs on her wrists, the only thing on her bare arms.
A Pictish princess conjured from timeless Scottish mists. And Damian wanted her more than he ever wanted anything in life. A second piper joined the first, playing the haunting tune, as Tamlyn rose up on her bare toes and swayed, rocking to the accent of the drum. The throbbing beat of the bohran provided cadence for the wanton roll of her hips. When the music swelled, bagpipers joined in. Her body undulated in a dance so carnal, so profane, that a blinding wave of lust seized Damian. The wall of desire slamming into him, through him, proved nearly crippling.
Tamlyn circled the fire. Her lithe, feline movements gained force, matching the power of the melody as she kicked her legs out and spun. She flung the net about, trailing it behind her like wings.
Held spellbound, the pounding of his heart echoed the drum, his blood thickening until he was lightheaded. He felt sick. This woman was not his. Would never be his. Unable to take his eyes from her, he watched as she danced on air, lifted by the strange music. A tune that had a life, a magic, all its own.
Only she danced for Julian. Just Julian.
Damian reeled from the sense of loss, a pain so deep his heart almost ceased to beat. For years that face had haunted his dreams, the woman who would be his. Instead, she danced for his cousin. How could his visions―which had never failed him before―be so wrong in this?
Hugh filled his cup again. "Come, fair stranger, drink your fill. Forget what pains you."
Damian did as they encouraged, eager to embrace anything that might hold the power to see him not remember. This time the effect seemed even stronger, burning a path to his stomach, the fever of the brew coursing through him. Glancing back to the fire, he saw Julian now danced with Tamlyn. The dance a prelude to mating. With a blistering anguish, he knew his cousin would take Tamlyn this night, make her his. The people of Glenrogha viewed this as the grand rite, a mating of the Lord of the Glen and the Queen of May. A good omen for Clan Shane and Clan Ogilvie.
Closing his eyes, he swayed, sickened to the bottom of his soul. Everything about him swirled until he feared he would pass out.
"Kind Sir, you appear wan. Come, drink," Hugh encouraged, once again refilling his cup. "Let it sooth what ails your troubled soul."
His warrior's mind warned mayhap they offered a drugged potion, though he knew not why. It little mattered. He glanced to see Julian kissing Tamlyn before the balefire. Nothing mattered anymore. Not giving a bloody damn, Damian eyed the cup, flecks of herbs floating on the liquid's surface, then lifted it to his mouth and downed it in one swallow.
"Your brothers have returned, rode hard to get back to Lyonglen." The old woman pressed, "You must hurry. The night wanes."
Aithinne Ogilvie nodded, glaring at the goblet in her hand. Specks of herbs swirled and danced on the cider's surface. "You are sure?"
The healer smiled. "Now you ask that question. Thought you were set on this path and naught could deter you."
Lightheaded, stomach nervous, Aithinne watched the pattern of the powder on the liquid shift in the cup. "Then it was talk. Now―"
Oonanne cackled, slowly circling her. "Now you have a braw man, naked as the day he was born, chained to the bed in the tower. Soon he awakens. Delay not. Drink the potion. Do the deed. You must lie with him for the seven nights of the waxing moon, and more than once a night. As many times as he will take you. I cast the Runes. They speak your path."
"Och, you and those Viking ways. You are a Scot, Cailleach."
"Hold the insults, Aithinne Ogilvie. I may be an old woman, but I am not the Crone Goddess. This night is our Beltane. Great magic rises. It touches your cousin Tamlyn at Glenrogha, and like the reflection of a mirror, it affects your life as well. Omens bespeak of a great coming. Tides of change ride on the mounting wind. 'Tis the will of the Auld Ones."
"Still..." Now the time had come to act, she hesitated to take this final step.
Oonanne smiled, her amber eyes reflecting aspects of a cat' s. "Kenning your brothers and their soft ways, they did well fetching this one back for you. Any woman still drawing breath would want him in her bed. Ooooo, he's a bonnie man that stands out amongst many.
"I do not want many. What this is all about," Aithinne grumbled, glaring at the silver goblet.
"You want Phelan Comyn or Dinsmore Campbell coming to Lyonglen to claim you? Then it would be rape, for you would never consent." She rotated about Aithinne, fixing her with bespelling eyes. "Of course, you could have had Robert Bruce. He paid you court. But no,
you turned him down."
"Edward's Lordling?" She huffed. "The new Lord Carrick merely wanted Lyonglen and Coinnleir Wood―the strongholds a sword to the back of the Comyns, simply to enlarge Clan Bruce's base of power in to the Highlands. I shan't be used for men's games of intrigue. Damn them all. They care naught about me, only want the holdings.
"Then damn them all. This way you keep the power. You wield the magic."
"But to lie with a stranger? Oona, I do not even ken his name." Aithinne's hand shook as she looked at the cup, which contained the power to change the rest of her life.
"Ah, my pretty lass, with a man like that in her bed & a woman takes first―then asks riddles. Time and tide are right." Her laugh was lusty. "The man is right. Aye, long of limb, built like a mighty steed. Ride him, take his seed within you, milk him dry. Learn your woman' s pleasure. This night and six more. Tarry not. The moon rises late. When its pale light floods the tower room, make him yours. The spell is cast. No turning back―for you or him."
Sucking in a deep breath, Aithinne tried to steady her hand. What a fool she had been to think this would be easy, a solution to the quagmire in which she found herself. First lies had been to keep the greedy wolves away from Lyonglen, then to prevent Dinsmore or Phelan from carrying her off, holding her hostage until one sired a bairn upon her, thinking to compel her into a Highland marriage. One lie begets many. Now she stood here, preparing to surrender her virginity to a stranger. How many lies would this deed breed?
Fear coursed through her. Shaking, she almost dashed the cup against the wall, calling an end to the madness. She could not go through with this harebrain scheme.
Oona had been specific in her instructions, how a man and a woman joined. Of course, living in a fortress it was hard not to have some ideas of the ways of breeding. There were horses breeding, cows breeding, sheep breeding. Her brow crinkled. Seemed the whole bloody world spent a large portion of their life breeding―or talking about it.
Everyone but her, she sighed.
Though Oonanne' s tutelage proved enlightening, Aithinne frankly did not understand how some of it was accomplished. She shuddered. No, she could not go through with this foolish, desperate plot. More lies piled upon the many. It was difficult to keep track of the falsehoods she had told over these past two months. Harder each day to sift mendacity from truth.
Oonanne watched her, clearly scrying her mind. Gifted with the kenning, the old witch read her every thought. Though possessed of the sight herself, Aithinne knew no shield against the woman's powers. Oona's words broke her deliberations. "You shall regret not following through on the course you already set into motion. Do not turn back, lass. There is but a moment of pinprick pain for a maid, then his flesh is within your body, deeper than you can imagine. Breathe slowly. Take him in, bond to him with fire. Your body has slept for too many years. Let him make you a woman."
She spoke in a singsong pattern, weaving the spell to see her lady prepared. Aithinne knew this. The pull of the words were dark.
"He will suckle your breasts, but not as a babe. Let him. Encourage him. You shall warm to this. He will pinch your nipples―"
"Why? That would hurt." Shocked, Aithinne's frown lifted from the goblet.
"What hurts you in this breath and what hurts when you are with him are two different turns. You shall like it, crave it. Mayhap beg for it. Such caresses prepare your body for his possession."
Fighting dizziness, strange hungers stirred to life in Aithinne. That scared her. Terrified her. Never had she known these things existed within her body, her mind. Despite the slow burn at the base of her belly, she was unsure about opening herself to any man in this manner.
Just as the muscles in her arm tensed to hurl the goblet aside, her brother Deward flung open the door and raced in.
"Aithinne! Dinsmore Campbell and his men are at the gates, they demand entry, say 'tis late and they require food and lodging, what shall we do, you cannot let them in."
Eyes wide, Aithinne lifted the goblet and downed the drugged cider in one gulp.
Instead of tasting foul as Oonanne's tansies usually did, this one was sweet. Heat flooded her stomach with the power of uisge-beatha―whisky. Tingling, vibrating in her blood, it spread through her, singeing her flesh. It caused a spasm within her womb, a clenching like a fist.
"Sister, fare you well?" Deward looked confused. But then, Deward always looked confused.
Steps clattered in the hall and two more young men rushed in, echoes of the first―Hugh and Lewis. When the Creator handed out brains, she figured her three brothers only received one amongst them. She could not even call them half-wits. The triplets were third-wits.
Thundering footfalls brought up the rear. The huge Viking ducked under the door's opening to enter. The instant he saw Aithinne he fell to his knees, fisted his hand and thumped his chest in a salute. "Princess Aithinne, the knave Campbell demands entrance."
She sighed wearily. "Einar, up off your knees and stop calling me Princess."
He arose, bowing. "Aye, Princess."
Aithinne closed her eyes, willing herself far away from this place. Hoping to find she was elsewhere, she lifted an eyelid. She sighed. Her spell of making failed. Four shining faces stared at her, eagerly awaiting guidance.
Oh, but for a man who could fight for her instead of lean upon her. Controlling her holding of Coinnleir Wood proved difficult enough. Now she lied and schemed to keep Lyonglen out of either the Comyns's greedy grasp or hands of the ever-voracious Campbells.
"Betwixt a hard place and a rock," she muttered.
It would be so satisfying to have a man to aid her. A helpmate to keep such troubles at bay, a man to share the burdens of both fiefs. Someone to hold her in the dark of night, lend his warmth.
Oonanne lifted her brow. "Careful what you wish, lass. The Auld Ones hear unspoken desires and can grant them."
"I wish that were so."
Aithinne blinked. "Hmm?"
"You wished it so. Remember for what you asked," Oonanne warned, shaking a finger at her.
So tired of these past months, Aithinne rubbed her forehead. She looked up at the Viking and summoned her cloak of lies. "The gates of Lyonglen remain closed. My lord husband feels unwell and wishes no visitors. His pennon does not fly from the rampart. That should tell even a lackwit Campbell our gates are closed to all comers, to seek shelter elsewhere."
Hugh let out with a shout and clapped his hands. "Siege! Can we pour boiling oil down upon their white-blond heads?"
She laughed. "Nay, but you may empty the chamber pots on them."
Lewis capered in delight, then scurried off after Hugh and the Viking, thrilled to have Campbells to torment. Only Deward remained, watching her with soulful eyes.
"Sister, how long shall you hide behind an ailing husband when he lies cold in the ground this moon's passing, and he was not your husband anyway, and you do not really have a claim to Lyonglen, and what happens when the dread Edward Longshanks, King of the English, comes and then you shall―"
"Deward, hush your gub. I am aware my predicament and the mounting deceits might see me in White Tower, prisoner before the English king. "
"What of the man in our tower, did we not do good, does he not please you? Whilst I look not upon men in fondness as a maid would, he is bonnie. Hugh, Lewis and Einar agree he is perfect for you, he is bonnie, a strong man, we tried to please you. Do you not like him, he is strong―"
"Deward, shush! She cupped her brother's pretty face with her hand and smiled into his warm amber eyes. She had hoped these childish ways of the triplets would lessen as they reached manhood. As they neared seven and ten years, hope faded fast. Still, she loved them. Caring brothers, they would do anything she asked―evidence of that lie in her bed upstairs in the north tower. They were just a little & hmm & absentminded at times.
Fortunately, Einar protected them. The tall man served as her guard of honor. Every lady of Coinnleir Wood received the gift of her personal Viking warrior-guard as part of an ancient agreement with the Norse King Rolv, some four centuries past. Pushing her to exasperation, Einar dogged her every step. While a braw warrior, he had as much commonsense as her three brothers. Perfect solution, set him to guarding the lads―that protected her Hugh, Deward and Lewis, but also kept the Norseman from trailing after her, calling her princess and driving her daft.
"I thank you for your concern and for fetching such a bonnie stranger. You did well, Brother. No sister could be so blessed." Or cursed, she chuckled to herself.
"Come, Deward! We tipped the chamber pots over on Dinsmore Campbell! Such glee!" Hugh shouted as he danced into the room, laughing. "Dunny Dinsmore! Dunny Dinsmore!"
"Hie yourself off with him," she encouraged with a smile.
Deward paused at the door, his eyes revealing more understanding than she thought possible from him. "Och, Aithinne, go see our stranger. He is bonnie, we did right by you. Though we love you, Sister, you are not getting any younger. Go to the braw man, let him take you this Beltane, and when you cry out in pleasure, we shall jeer at Campbell camped below and tell him your husband swives you again, it shall drive him around the bend."
His rare moment of seriousness past, he dashed out of the room without waiting for her response, his mirth echoing down the hall.
Aithinne stood, exhausted, shaking her head and feeling every one of her four and score years. Closing her eyes, she imagined the Beltane festival. This year the ceremony was held at her cousin Tamlyn's holding of Glenrogha. The hours of darkness were still warm; the heady scent of apple blossoms would fill the night air. The balefire would burn on the high tor until dawnbreak and Tamlyn had danced as the May Queen. Aithinne could almost inhale redolent blooms. Hear music floating on the breeze.
What she would not give to have been there, instead of hiding within the walls of Lyonglen, Dinsmore Campbell lurking about somewhere outside―
"Bolt the postern gate!" she yelled.
Einar popped his head in. "Aye, Princess, it shall be made as you wish."
Oonanne laughed softly as she placed a pot covered with a rag in Aithinne's hands. "Aye, you smell apple blossoms, lass. I set this to warm. My Beltane spelling."
Aithinne breathed deeply, letting the stimulating apple, lavender, mandrake and heather fill her mind. "What do I do with this?"
"You rub it on his chest―and elsewhere. Have him rub it on you where he takes whim. Nature will do the rest." With a lusty twinkle in the ancient eyes, the healer chuckled.
"Oona, nothing in my life is that simple anymore."
End of Chapter One
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