Scotland, December 1296

Chapter ONE

            Searing agony ripped through his back.  The muscles of his right side screamed a plaint, warning he erred in pushing too far this day.  Despite the spreading numbness, which always followed the intense burning, Noel de Servian struggled to stay upright in the saddle.  The icy winds cut like daggers against his stiff back, and with each ragged breath the pain increased tenfold. 

            At this late juncture, he realized he should have stayed in Berwick until spring as King Edward had suggested.  Even more to the point, mayhap he should not have rashly ridden on ahead of his small party.  His edginess had pressed him to dismiss customary safety measures and recklessly spur Brishen to the forefront, hoping to scout out the way to the passes.  Pulling off his helm, he looked about him and frowned.  His troops were nowhere in sight.  Clearly, he had ridden on too far ahead.  Noel exhaled his frustration.  Wagons traveled so slowly.  He chafed, impatient to reach Craigendan Keep.  His new home.  He would finally, for the first time in his adult life, have a home to call his own.

            Despite the snow swirling about him so thickly he could barely see to the end of his horse’s nose, or that fiery pain racked his poor muscles, the thought brought a smile to his lips.  One of Edward’s most trusted knights, Noel’s reward had been long in coming.  Too many battles.  So much sacrifice.  And it had nearly cost his life.

            His mind cast back over a score year ago when he had been a squire to the mighty King Edward, training alongside Julian Challon and Damian St. Giles.  They had been proud to serve one of the most powerful monarchs England had ever seen.  So naive they, little did any of them envision the horrors that lay ahead in their young lives, how bloody long the road to peace would be, the goal forevermore out of reach.  His green mind had not counted on the brutal ugliness of warfare, not counted upon Edward’s unquenchable thirst to be the king of the whole of Britain and beyond.

            “I had not counted on being unable to find the bloody passes to Glen Shane,” he groused to his steed, Brishen, as he reined him to a halt.  Reaching under his mantle, he withdrew the crude map from an oilskin pouch at his waist and studied it once more.  Blinking against the falling snow, he tried to shield the parchment with his heavy woolen cape to prevent the big flakes from hitting it and smearing the ink.  “The passes should be here.  We are close.  We damn well have to be.”

            The horse gave him a tired nicker and shook his head up and down, the fittings of the bridle jingling like faery bells in the stillness; then he looked straight ahead as if saying, right there, fool.  Noel wiped the snow from his eyes, squinting to see through the blinding storm.  Was the gap in the hills really there and he simply lacked the wherewithal to spot the opening in this impenetrable whiteness?

            Placing his hand behind him on the high cantle of the saddle, he turned to check his bearings.  A spasm, white hot, racked his muscles, nearly causing him to pass into blackness.  The throbbing was that bad.  That dangerous.  He could not lose his awakening thoughts in this storm or it might cost his life.  After all these years of service to the English king, he had finally been granted the title of baron and the smallholding in this rugged Northland. 
            “It would be sad, indeed, if I die out here in this blizzard, never to lay eyes upon the fief that is finally mine.”  Noel chuckled at the irony, but then flinched, as even that caused his back to ache more.

            Just four months past, Edward had convened Parliament in Berwick, a city once called ‘the pearl of Scotland.’  Of course, that had been before Edward’s troops had invested the town in a three-day sack.  The horrendous aftermath saw Noel waking in the deep of night, covered with sweat and unable to shake the ugly nightmares that plagued him.  A foul miasma of half-rotted corpses still polluted the air come August when Edward Plantagenet had humbled all of Scottish nobility, forcing them to kneel to him―not as overlord of Scotland, but as their new ruler.  After the rout of the Scottish army in April at the Battle of Dunbar, Edward had leisurely circled most of the conquered country.  With an eye to seeing their defiant spirit crushed, the king demonstrated with redoubtable power, his wealth, his might, hoping to impress upon the Scots that he now held the country in his fist. 

            “I have doubts on that, Brishen.  I see these Scotsmen watching Edward when the king is unawares.  A steeled obduracy bespeaks these Highlanders are not cowered by the English, but merely bide their time.  Already small pockets of resistance are causing mischief.  Soon, someone―like young Andrew de Moray―will light the fires of rebellion and the coming storm will roll across these untamed lands.  There will be no stopping it, I fear.”

            Brishen’s head bobbed up and down again, as if agreeing with the validity of his master’s words.  Noel gave a soft chuckle at the animal’s behavior.  Sometimes his horse was too bloody intelligent.

            “Why I am eager to take control of the fief Edward conferred upon me, horse.  I want everything settled before the impending madness erupts.”
            Slowing the transfer of the fief, in April he had taken a sword to his back in fierce single combat with the Baron Craigendan.  The wound proved slow to heal.  Oh, the muscles and flesh had mended.  Vexing, the wound site remained tender, sore.  The fever he battled after being injured had sapped his strength; he struggled still to regain it.  Ten year ago he would have healed much faster. 
            He sighed.  “Ten year ago I was a young man.  This day I feel old, seven and thirty years very old, so tired it hurts to breathe.”  With an exhausted resolve, Noel nudged Brishen forward with his knees.  “You are so bloody smart, horse, mayhap you can find the proper path into Glen Shane.  The damn passes have to be near.”
            A strange racket arose, spooking the charger, causing him to bounce on his hooves and rear slightly.  Ravens.  Thousands and thousands of screeching ravens, their racket deafening.  His horse had been through more battles than Noel cared to count, yet now stood trembling and refused to move any farther.  The cacophony increased as if a huge murder of ravens was taking flight.  So peculiar, he had seen flocks of birds do this in autumn, but never in a snowstorm such as this.  As the mount’s fear increased, he began to back up.  Noel tried to restrain the horse, but its alarm waxed out of control.  The ‘black mouth of hell’ opened before them.  The birds came straight at them, pushing Brishen to rear high. 

            “Merde!”  Noel’s back slammed hard against the high cantle of his saddle, the helm falling from his grip.  Agonizing pain lanced through his whole body, so intense he barely maintained his seat.  Numbness possessed his right hand.  He could not even flex his fingers.  His left hand grasped the squared pommel and held on, all he could manage.  The damn horse spun on his heels and fled, not responding to Noel’s knee commands, the reins flapping uselessly just out of his reach.

            Noel gritted his teeth.  Tears poured down his face and mixed with the melting snowflakes until he was not sure how long the animal ran.  And ran.  There was no stopping him.  Fighting waves of blackness that threatened to pull him into passing out, Noel lost all sense of direction as the horse galloped heedlessly along a narrow, steepening path, carrying him farther and farther away from the passes of Glen Shane and the shelter he hoped to seek with Julian Challon at his new fortress of Glenrogha.  With the snow heavy, limbs of the pine trees bowed low, forcing him to dodge them.  His mantle flapped each time he brushed one.  The snow covered his surcoat and leathern hose and fell inside the edge of his cross-laced boots, the icy moisture leaching away his body heat.  And still the crazed animal ran.

            Darkness swirled through his mind, as his back jarred against the cantle with every jump the horse took; so savage the agony that he lost the function of his hand to clutch the leather pommel before him.  Unable to focus, he was powerless to react fast enough when Brishen ran under a low limb.  The heavy bough caught Noel across the chest, sending hot irons of torture through his muscles as he was knocked from the saddle, a second time when he landed hard, his hip hitting first, then his tender side.

            He could not catch air.  Too much for his abused body, he simply laid there and with a detached distance watched the snow falling down upon him.  At first it was cold.  Deep shivers began to rack his body.  Brishen came over and nudged his master’s shoulder with his nose, trying to provoke Noel to stir.  As the snow continued to cover him, the shuddering lessened, nor did he feel the freezing chill any longer.  Little by little, he ceased to experience the bite of pain, just a strange soothing warmth.

            Noel closed his eyes.  “Brishen, have I traveled all these many miles, and fought so many ugly battles, only to have my fate mêted out by falling snow?”


            “Andrew!  Annis!”  Lady Skena MacIain lifted the fur-lined hood of the woolen mantle away from her face to listen, hoping to hear her children calling to her in response.  There was only silence, that deep hush, which came when snow blankets the land, as if nothing stirred but wisely stayed huddled by fireside or in some cozy nest.

            “Anyone with a thimble full of sense,” she grumbled.

            Trying not to give into rising panic, she waited.  For whatever harebrained reason, the twins had slipped off through the postern gate.  Finding two sets of small footprints heading away from Craigendan, she followed, thinking that surely in this storm they had not wandered far.  In hindsight, she should have turned back and fetched help in searching for them.  Too late now.  The blowing snow fell so thickly that it covered their trail, preventing her from pursuing them farther.  Daylight was waning; night came early this time of ‘the wheel.’  In this wonderland of white, losing one’s sense of direction could happen too easily.  It was imperative she find them before darkness descended completely.

            “If wishes were candles I could light the way back to Craigendan,” she said with growing despair.

            The stour was heavy for this early in the season.  The Yuletide celebrations were upon them―not that there would be much to celebrate.  Still, this part of Scotland generally never saw snow like this until deep winter, sennights yet away.  That worried her, as if wintertide had come early and would be a long, harsh one.  Just what Craigendan did not need. 

            But then, this whole year had been nothing but one disappointment after another.  First, everyone had lived with their hearts dark, anxious as the English had ridden north to invade Scotland.  Word spread throughout the Highlands of the sack of Berwick, where a thousand score perished in three days of killing.  Then the terror came closer―neighboring valleys of Glen Shane and Glen Eallach had been given in charters by Edward Longshanks to English lords, men of Norman descent.  Dragons of Challon, they called these warriors with whispered awe.

            “Bloody English dragons,” she spoke aloud, simply to hear some sound in this silent landscape.  “At least Craigendan is too small of a holding for a wee beastie to want to come and claim.  We have naught but a bunch of mouths to feed and damn little food.”

            She grimaced.  And no men to protect Craigendan or hunt for meat come harshest winter.  Nearly all their men had died on the field at Dunbar, her husband leading them.  Without someone to fetch fresh meat regularly, Craigendan’s people would be skin and bones come spring.  Scots called winter famine months.  This year she worried it could be the worst her people had ever faced.  The long summer had blistered the land, no rain for sennight upon sennight saw a drought grip the whole country, drying up burns and parching crops.  Her stomach knotted at the last thought.  Oh, Craigendan had enough food to eke by―for the nonce.  Howbeit, if this snow came as a portend of the months ahead, things could become dangerous for her smallholding. 

            Her lord husband had been killed in the battle back in April.  Aye, she had not spent long mourning his passing, for which she now struggled against that profound guilt.  Not that Angus had been a bad man.  Well-respected by two Scottish kings, he had proven a good lord to Craigendan, protected it and saw it prospered.  He had been kind to her, after a fashion.  Only, she had not married him for love, had not married by her choice either.  She honored her lord husband, tried to please him and make him happy.  Yet, in her naïve heart she always believed there was the other half of her soul out there waiting to find her.  Silly mooncalf dreams of a young lass that refused to die.  Angus was a score year older than she, and often treated her more like a daughter than a wife.  Unlike her cousins, Tamlyn, Rowanne, Raven and Aithinne, her lands were not part of the ancient charter that protected a female’s rights going back to Pictish times, which entitled her kinswomen to select their husbands.  No choice had she when their king, Alexander III, had betrothed her to a stranger―Angus Fadden, a Lowlander.  Still, as winter approached, she now missed Angus, missed the security he had meant to her people.  

            She shivered, thinking how the English king had sent knights to claim Glen Shane and Glen Eallach.  Two of her cousins were now wed to Englishmen, two more were betrothed to Edward’s warriors, and she walked as a widow.  So much had altered in less than a year.

            “Times change.  Sometimes not for better.”  Combating the biting fear, she glanced around for telltale signs the children had come this way.  “Andrew!  Annis!  Come.  It grows late.  Children, oh please answer me!”

            Fearful they were lost out there in the endless white, she pushed on.  Her wee ones were too small to survive long in this bitter storm.  Wolf tracks had come nearer to the stronghold this fortnight past, driven closer to the holding in search of prey.  People were not the only ones suffering after the dreadful summer. 

             “Children!  Answer me this instant!”  She attempted to sound stern, not panicked.           

While she had never loved Angus the way a wife should a husband, she did love the children he had given her.  Brother and sister born on the same night, Andrew and Annis were her whole world.          

            Another gust of spindrift swirled around her.  The snow covered her long auburn hair, soaking it, but she dare not lift the hood for protection, as the fur-lining muffled her hearing.  The wind whistled through the pines, whispering voices of the Auld Ones. 

            She closed her eyelids, then pulled her mind to that dark spot in her heart and listened, hoping her witch’s sense could guide the path.  Women of Ogilvie blood were oft touched with degrees of the kenning, a fey gift, the ability for the mind to reach beyond normal perceptions.  Her mother’s mother was an Ogilvie of the old line, thus she had inherited this power from their blood.  The trait had never been strong in her, not like her cousins Tamlyn or Aithinne, though she hoped this time it would serve her true.

            Off to her right, far up ahead, she thought she perceived a voice.  Opening her eyes she searched, but discerned naught in the blinding snow.  Had her mind been playing tricks?  Just as hope turned to disappointment, she heard it again.

            “Mama!”  So faint, she still did not trust the call to be real.  Then it came once more.  Louder.  “Mama!”

            Her heart leapt for joy as she gathered up her mantle, hurrying her steps through the deep snow.  Though the response was repeated, she still could not see Andrew.  But then, two small ghostly figures formed up ahead.  She hated that the snowdrifts made it hard to reach them, and that with each step she sank all the way to the tops of her boots.  The heavy wool of her kirtle saw the hem sodden and weighted.  The chill was reaching her body, sapping its heat. 

            Then she noticed a pale form behind the children.  A horse?

            Her relief shifted back to apprehension.  No steed would be out wandering in this.  The animal could only mean a rider was near, yet none was on his back.  As she drew close she saw it was a monstrous destrier, nearly as white as the snow; a beautiful stallion of power, an instrument of war, yet it followed behind her children with the mien of a puppy.

            “Mama!”  Annis cried and hurried toward her.

            Skena leaned down to hug her darling daughter, though after that first rush of blessed relief that they were safe, she itched to take a hand to their backsides where they would never do this again.  “You two are in trouble, you ken?”

            “Och, Mama, do not fash!”  Andrew grinned, while petting the mighty steed on its neck.  “Is he not wonderful?  The most valiant destrier in all of Scotland?  He’s a Kelpie, Mama.”

            “Nay, Kelpies are water horses, Andrew.”  She hugged him, and then ran her hands over his body to make sure he was unharmed.

            “Is snow not frozen water?  It tastes like water when I catch it on my tongue,” he argued, crinkling his forehead.  “I made a wish, Mama―my Yuletide wish―to the Cailleach, lady of winter.  I asked her to send us a warrior, a knight to protect us.”

            “A knight to care for us…to love us,” Annis added in her soft voice, lowering her lashes to hide the pain that her father had never loved her.

            Skena’s heart broke yet another time.  Annis was such a pretty little girl.  She had the same dark auburn hair and big brown eyes as Skena bore.  People spoke how her daughter was the spitting image of Skena when she was a child.  How any man could not adore the bairn, she had never understood.  Angus had doted on Andrew, his son and heir, but to ‘the girl’ he nearly denied her existence.  Tossing her mind back over the past seven years, she could not recall Angus ever calling their daughter by her given name.  It was always ‘the girl.’

            Skena’s trembling hand reached out and brushed the snow from Andrew’s shoulders and hair.  “Oh aye, a grand steed is he, too grand to be out in this winter storm.  But he is no Kelpie.”

            “He is, Mama.  He brought our knight, just as I asked,” Andrew insisted, getting that stubborn look upon his countenance.

            Skena sighed in exasperation, seeing Angus’s face stamped upon their son’s features.  The lad was hard to deal with when he fixed on something.  Oft losing the patience to deal with the willful child, Angus had wanted to foster him with his younger brother in the south on the Marches.  Skena refused to allow it, begging to keep her son one more year before he was sent away for training.  She did not want some man she had never met caring for her son.  Though she little regretted she had bent her husband’s resolve in this matter, she was apprehensive about Andrew’s willful streak now there was no man to show him the way of the world.

            Annis took her hand.  “Come see, Mama.  He is beautiful, a knight true, like some great warrior king of old that the Seanchaidh tells about around fireside.”

            “We need to get back to the dun―now.  Dark surrounds us.  You are aware night falls early now that the Solstice draws near.  You are soaked.  I am soaked.  We catch our death if we do not get back and dry ourselves―”

            “MA-MA,” Annis sobbed, tears streaming down her pale cheeks.  “We leave him out in the stour…the wolves will come…and get him.”

            Andrew took her other hand and tugged.  “Come, we must fetch him back with us.  He is ours now.  I asked the Kelpie if he was and he shook his head aye.  Watch.”  He stroked the horse’s velvety nose.  “The warrior belongs to us now.  You brought him for us, eh?”

            The beast shook his head up and down, and then looked at Skena with soulful eyes.  She blinked in shock.  Was this warrior steed indeed one of the Fae?

            “See, Mama?”  Annis hopped back and forth on her feet.  “Come, we must save the man.  Please…”

            Heaving a sigh, she saw the twins were in their obstinate mood and would refuse to listen to her.  If she pushed them to obey, they might run off in different directions―a ploy they had used more than once when defiant.  With the snow worsening, it was vital they get back to Craigendan quickly.  “Very well, one should not doubt a Kelpie, I suppose.”

            Taking the reins of the beautiful steed, she turned him in the direction the children had come.  Picking up Annis, she set the little girl in the saddle and then watched to make sure the horse would accept the small rider.  Some destriers were trained never to permit anyone upon their backs but their masters, yet this animal turned his neck and merely observed as Skena settled Annis’s hands on the high pommel.  The horse’s huge eyes seemed so gentle it was hard to believe this beast was trained to kill in war, was as valued a weapon as a lance or broadsword.

            “Hold tight and grip with your knees as I taught you.”  Skena pulled the hood on the child’s mantle about her small face.

            “Aye, Mama.”  Annis’s head bobbed in a nod.

            Taking the reins, she allowed her son to tug her in the direction he wanted.  Just as she feared this was a fool’s errand, her eyes spotted an odd shape on the earth up ahead.  As they neared, she grew alarmed some poor soul was on the ground covered by snow.  Passing off the reins to Andrew, she rushed forward.  By the length of the body she judged it to be a man.

            “We tried to clean him off, Mama,” Andrew said, “but the snow only covered him again.”

            “By the blessed lady, he must be the rider of the horse.”  Was he even alive?  Skena knelt beside the still body, and with her freezing hands swept the snow from his face. 

            As she brushed off the slope of the second cheek, a small gasp came from her lips; she stared, transfixed by his beautiful countenance.  Never had she seen a more perfect man.  The wavy brown hair was not a dark shade, not light, though made a measure deeper from the wet snow.  He had a beautiful chin, strong, yet not too square.  Angus’s face had been pleasant, but his jaw looked as if it had been carved from a block of wood.  This man’s showed strength, character, yet there was a sensual curve that caused her to run her thumb over his nearly clean-shaven cheek.  No face hair.  Norman?  Her hand stilled as a shiver crawled up her spine, one that had naught to do with the cold.  Dismissing that concern, she swept the snow from his neck and shoulders.  She rather liked that she could see his features; it allowed his perfection to show clearly.  Nice strong brows, not bushy like Angus.  And lips…so carnal, a woman would wonder what it would feel like to taste them, crave to discover such mysteries for herself.  Surely, this man was touched by the blood of the Sidhe; only one blessed by magic could be so lovely formed, a man possessed of the power to lure a woman into darkest sin, nary a thought of the risk to her soul.

            She jerked back slightly at the odd notions filling her mind, a yearning that had never come before.  Still, there was no time to fritter away on such nonsense.  Trembling in alarm, she feared he might be dead.  Great anguish arose within her that one so beautiful would have his life cut short.  As she touched his neck, she felt the throb of his blood.  Faint.  So very faint.  Relief filled her heart at that small flicker of life.  She had to get him to Craigendan and warm his blood or he might not survive.  Even then, it would be a fight to save him.  How long had he been lying in the snow?  In the fading light it was clear his skin was grey, his lips tingeing blue.

            Fretting at the urgency of the situation, Skena glanced up at her daughter.  There was no way the children and she could get this man onto the horse’s back.  As well, waiting until they were missed and her people came searching for them was not a choice.  Aid had to be summoned from the fortress.  The warrior’s life and theirs hung in the balance. 

            “If wishes were wings we could fly back to the dun,” she muttered under her breath.”

            Rising to her feet, she tried to decide what the best course of action was.  She could not abandon the man here alone, defenseless, while she went to fetch help, not with dark closing in.  Nor could she leave the children with him.  Grabbing Andrew by the waist, she swung him up behind his sister in the saddle.

            “Andrew, you must ride for help.  Do not run the horse.  I know you love to do that.  You must be careful he does not slip in the snow.  Hie you to Craigendan and tell them to fetch a cart…and furs…any warming stones if they are ready.  Tell Cook to heat water for baths and prepare hot broth for us all.”  She handed him the reins.

            “Aye, Mama.  I will be careful,” he promised solemnly, assuming the responsibilities of a man upon his small shoulders.

            “Our lives depend upon you, Andrew, my brave lad.”  She moved to the horse’s head and rubbed his forelock.  “My noble steed, carry my children safely to Craigendan…save us all and I shall see you get apples through the winter.”

            Closing her eyes tightly against the tears, she hugged him, and then said a silent prayer to the Auld Ones to keep her bairns safe.  Hoping she was doing the right thing, she gave the horse a light slap on his haunch and set him in motion.  With her heart pounding, she watched until the pale stallion disappeared in the blinding blizzard.

            Turning back to the man on the ground, she once again had to wipe the gathering flakes from his face.  She attempted to tug him to a sitting position, thinking she could wrap her mantel around them both and lend him what little body heat she still had.  When she went to lift him, she realized he still had his broadsword lashed crosswise over his back.  Finding the strap’s buckle on the center of his chest, she released it.

            Then froze as the howl came. 

            It was close by.  The man groaned as she urgently rolled his dead weight, enough to drag the sword out from under him, and then dropped the leather sheath as she freed the blade.  Holding the sword in her right hand, she used her left to release the clasp of her mantle.  She would need her arms free to swing the sword.  Keeping her eyes fixed upon the trees, she dragged her woolen cape over the man’s unmoving body.

            The deep growl sent a chill to her marrow as the threat of the snowstorm had failed to do.  Low tree limbs rustled and then parted as the set of glowing yellow eyes peeked through the wintry foliage.

            Swallowing hard, Skena brought the sword up, preparing to swing, and praying she had strength enough to wield the mighty sword true.



~ The Dragons of Challon series ~

Book 1 – A Restless Knight
Book 2 – In Her Bed

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~ Coming September 2010 ~

Book 4 – Redemption



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