Scotland, December 1296
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
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
I am eager to take control of the fief Edward conferred upon me,
horse. I want everything
settled before the impending madness erupts.”
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
“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.
with a thimble full of sense,” she grumbled.
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.
wishes were candles I could light the way back to Craigendan,” she
said with growing despair.
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
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.
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.”
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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.
she noticed a pale form behind the children. A horse?
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.
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
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,
Kelpies are water horses, Andrew.” She hugged him, and then ran her
hands over his body to make sure he was unharmed.
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.”
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
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.’
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.”
is, Mama. He brought our
knight, just as I asked,” Andrew insisted, getting that stubborn look
upon his countenance.
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
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.”
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―”
Annis sobbed, tears streaming down her pale cheeks. “We leave him out in the
stour…the wolves will come…and get him.”
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?”
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?
Mama?” Annis hopped back
and forth on her feet.
“Come, we must save the man. Please…”
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.”
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.
tight and grip with your knees as I taught you.” Skena pulled the hood on the
child’s mantle about her small face.
Mama.” Annis’s head
bobbed in a nod.
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.
tried to clean him off, Mama,” Andrew said, “but the snow only
covered him again.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
wishes were wings we could fly back to the dun,” she muttered
under her breath.”
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.
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.
Mama. I will be careful,”
he promised solemnly, assuming the responsibilities of a man upon his small
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
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.
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.
froze as the howl came.
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
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.
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 ~
1 – A Restless Knight
Book 2 – In Her Bed
~ Coming September 2010 ~
Book 4 – Redemption
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