Tudor England, April 155.
Torrential rains lashed the countryside with cataclysmic force, a mighty river pouring from angry clouds to punish the drowning lands. The deluge pounded the frost-nipped forest, stripped away pearl-gray daylight and churned the English soil into a sucking sea of mud. Through this treacherous mire, their valiant steeds galloped full out.
Rhiannon twisted to slant a desperate glance behind her, where the last of her defenders hammered at her heels. Faithful unto death, just as they’d sworn before the Goddess, no matter their hidden misgivings about this dangerous mission.
From the rear, a horse’s whinny pierced her like an arrow-the familiar timbre of Nineve, the white mare she’d raised from a foal.
An angry growl of thunder muffled the rider’s shout of despair as he tumbled from Nineve’s saddle. Rhiannon felt the lightning crack of pain through her own tender flesh as his shoulder struck the ground with crushing force. Her heart nearly stopping, she cried out as though stricken herself.
“Halt!” Healer’s instincts taking over, she struggled to slow her panicked mare.
“Nay, princess!” her foster-father shouted, pounding alongside. “Those brigands are but a breath behind. The devils ride as if hell-spawned.
“But Nineve and Cynyr-I will not abandon our friends.” Violently she shook her head, damp tendrils of silver hair flying around her shoulders. “Halt, I command it!”
“Nay, child.” Lord Ansgar Emrys gripped her bridle in his gauntlet and urged the mare on. “Your safety must be our paramount concern. Cynyr himself would be the first to say so.”
As their flight opened distance between her and the fallen, the searing bolt of pain eased, until her own healer’s bones no longer throbbed with Cynyr’s agony. But she would hear Nineve trumpeting for help until the day she died.
Cynyr could save them both if he kept the presence of mind to summon the Veil, thicken the mist swirling among the ancient oaks and wish himself back to Faerie. But nothing could mend bones snapped like kindling, save time and her own healing touch.
Tears of sorrow stung her rain-washed eyes, because Rhiannon knew her foster-father was right. If they were overtaken by that howling band of brigands-the horde who’d come ravening down on them from nowhere the moment they cleared the Veil, and hunted them for three days as though bewitched-if they were captured, all her friends’ precious lives would be lost in vain.
Only four of us left. A pang of grief and terror stabbed through her. Goddess, will they all fall-all those faithful souls who believed in me enough to follow me from Faerie? Every one of the stalwart seven she’d lost tore her heart anew.
But she would honor their sacrifice. Later she would grieve for them, those shining souls who should have lived forever, their immortal lives cut cruelly short by the sword. If she survived, she would never cease grieving them.
But they’d made their choices just as she made hers, sworn to preserve the fragile peace between the mortal realm and the Summer Lands behind the Veil where the Fae dwelled. She’d sworn to reach Catholic Queen Mary at the Tudor court, to deliver the precious treaty the Faerie Queene had crafted, to trigger the spell that would bind mortals and Fae to an enchanted peace. The desperate scheme had been Rhiannon’s, the Faerie magick her royal mother’s-and nearly every high noble at her court violently opposed the plan.
If Rhiannon failed to reach the Tudor Queen and persuade her to sign, the enchanted peace could not be triggered, and both realms would bleed. And as the Faerie realm faded, so too did the Faerie Queene. The bloody tide of war would rage between the realms and sweep Rhiannon’s mother from the throne. Then the Convergence would be upon them: the apocalyptic clash between mortals and Fae that erupted every thousand years when their twin realms, like ships on the sea of time, drifted too close in the mist between the worlds and collided in the night.
Beneath her, mist-gray Astolat stumbled and nearly went down. Rhiannon clung like a burr to her saddle, grimly ignoring the dull ache in her back and thighs.
It was the gray mare’s keen senses-that sudden veer of alarm, the startled prick of ears-that alerted her to the trap: a ragged line of horsemen, carnival-bright in a muddy patchwork of stolen finery, spread across the track before them. With a shout, Lord Ansgar wheeled their brave little band in a tight jostling arc, away from this new peril.
His stolid strength supported her, as he’d always done. Beneath a thatch of gray-streaked black curls, cropped short in the Roman style, her foster-father’s eyes flashed steel. Swiftly he scanned the gnarled oaks looming over them, too tangled for passage, storm-tossed branches lashing in the tempest.
“Too late,” Rhiannon whispered. “They’ve found us.”
Now the twisting road behind them filled with a black tide of men. Seeing their prey brought to bay, the pack slowed, horses jostling between the high sloping banks of the Queen’s Highway.
Chilled through from their desperate flight through this bewildering, half-drowned land, her hands turned to ice. Trepidation fluttered in her chest and knotted her stomach as she searched the harsh faces that ringed them.
“Trapped!” Ansgar cursed. His wicked saber flashed into view. He held the blade slantwise before them, cold fire burning in his lined features. In that instant, her foster-father was the knight of legend once more-the divine spear, the Queen’s champion. Except that the Queen he’d loved in his mortal life was a thousand years dead, and now his sword was Rhiannon’s.
Still, he was mortal. Blessed by the Faerie Queene with long life, he could yet die by violence-just as they all could. Lord and Lady, this will be a massacre. Our quest shall fail, and my people drown in blood and darkness.
The steel of resolve stiffened her spine. Tilting her chin, she spurred Astolat forward from the thin protection of their huddled quartet. Rashly she tossed aside her hood to bare her head. Sleet stung her face, drenching the pale ringlets that slipped from her coronet.
“Why do you hunt us through this realm like animals?” Her brave question echoed through the trees, words strong, voice shaking as she summoned the foreign mortal phrases. “We have done naught to thee. Indeed, we are strangers to this land, traveling the Queen’s Highway on a diplomatic mission to the Queen’s own Grace. For the sake of both our realms, I command thee, let us pass!”
Through sinking heart, she glimpsed no flicker of compassion in the ring of filthy faces, no trace of comprehension though she spoke clear English, even if her dialect was ages old. Truly, these mortals must be little better than beasts, just as her full-blooded Fae sister Morrigan always taunted her.
For Rhiannon bore their blood, her half-mortal strain mixed with the blood royal of Faerie. Surely, she could make them understand her.
Among a tall stand of firs on the high bank, a flash of movement drew her eye, where a ragged brigand knelt. She barely recognized the weapon stretched between his arms before the resonant thrum of a bowstring propelled the arrow toward her. Wildly she flung herself flat against Astolat’s neck. The clothyard shaft buried itself in her saddle, a handspan from her thigh.
Despite her fierce determination to betray no fear, Rhiannon flinched from the terrible weapon.
“Unchivalrous cur, to attack a lady!” Lord Ansgar spurred before her, a blur of motion wrapped in swirling wool, mailed hauberk glittering as his arm snapped forward. Silver streaked through the air. With a gurgling cry, her attacker toppled from the bank into the road, the knight’s dagger sprouting from his chest.
As though the stroke had unleashed them, the pack of human wolves howled and leaped toward them. High on the bank, more ragged figures slunk into view. Nearby, her companion Lady Linnet Norwood uttered a cry of dismay.
Merciful Goddess, this blind pursuit is unnatural. Even beasts would seek shelter in this unrelenting gale. Do mortals so thirst for blood, or is this Morrigan’s doing?
Suddenly her skin tingled, hair rising along her forearms with an electric charge. The air glowed blue around her. Then a blinding flash turned the forest white as a sizzling bolt of lightning slammed into a stately poplar. Horses screamed as the percussive crack of wood tore the air.
Astolat shied and reared, forelegs churning the air. Desperately Rhiannon flung her arms around the mare’s neck and let her scramble where she would, away from the smoking leviathan that swayed dangerously above.
The deep groan of wood sent men scattering in all directions, away from the massive shadow blotting out the heavens. The lightning-blasted tree slammed through a thicket of branches, smashing them to splinters and crashing across the road. Somewhere, lost in rain and darkness, a man’s shrill scream cut short.
Rhiannon huddled in her saddle and shuddered, sodden mantle doing nothing to warm her frozen flesh. For one dreadful moment, her head swirled.
Lord Ansgar gripped her arm, hauling her upright. “There, into the trees, child!”
Peering through the rain-lashed twilight, she spied the dark gap the fallen tree had made, beating down the high bank between road and forest. Astolat needed no second urging, but pounded into the darkness as though devil-driven.
So this was how it ended. She’d led them all to their deaths.
Rhiannon battled the rising tide of despair and stared at the turbulent river, tumbling in angry white eddies over jagged rocks too treacherous to cross. To her left rose a jumble of mossy rocks. To her right, a thorny thicket barred any passage. Behind, their pursuers were closing in.
Ansgar, at least, would go down fighting. Bravely his silver blade rang against steel, over the rush of rapids and the patter of rain. She, too, must arm herself.
Heart beating in her throat, Rhiannon reached for a sturdy oaken limb. The branch rooted deep in its mother tree, but she closed her eyes and whispered to the wood her desperate need. At last the branch yielded, coming away in her hand-the sort of minor magick she could sometimes summon, but rarely control. Beneath her touch, the barren bough flowered into unseasonable green.
As she wheeled her mare to face their attackers, her companions spread protectively before her-the guardsman Caedmon putting his back to the rocks, Lady Linnet slipping toward the thicket, her foster-father braced for battle ahead.
“Goddess protect us.” Rhiannon gripped the leafy branch until her fingers ached. At her belt, the unsigned treaty in its pouch pulsed warm with enchantment. She doubted the bandits would deliver it for her, nor even be able to read it after she’d perished.
The clash of steel on silver rang out; both Ansgar and Caedmon had engaged the foe. Rhiannon searched the darkness, every sense straining. She smelled the metallic tang of blood, the musky scent of wet horse, the faint stench of rotting earth. The looming Convergence sickened the very soil itself, as the twin realms of mortal and Faerie drew toward their fateful collision.
Yet beneath the smell of death, like a flicker of dying hope, she nosed the fresh green aroma of shoots and buds sleeping beneath the cold spring rains, waiting patiently for rebirth.
Caedmon toppled with an axe buried in his skull-two thousand years of wisdom and beauty crushed into fragments like an eggshell. Lady Linnet’s small cry sounded like a stricken rabbit. No help to be had from that quarter. Now Ansgar fought alone, saber whirling through the darkness, punctuated by the grunts and curses of the two-legged predators-a pack of snarling jackals around the lone knight.
You are a daughter of kings! Help him, she ordered her shaking limbs. Or he will perish defending you. You know what they’ll do to Linnet-what they’ll do to you. Even if we all die here, anything is better than waiting meekly for the slaughter.
But what could Rhiannon do? She, a healer who believed all life was sacred, had never wielded a weapon.
She heard the low evil thrum of a bowstring as someone loosed another wicked shaft. The sound curled her into herself, flesh shrinking. But it was Ansgar whose pain-filled cry pierced the night..
Silent lightning flashed through the clearing. Illuminated for an instant, a dozen brigands fanned across the muddy ground. Two crouched before Caedmon’s crumpled form, already pillaging though the man was not yet cold. More struggled to subdue Ansgar’s coal-black stallion, his saddle empty. The stallion reared, forelegs slashing the air, with a trumpeting scream of rage.
Lady Linnet was a slender struggling figure, tangled in saffron skirts, slipping and scrambling across the river’s moss-slick stones. Rhiannon caught a glimpse of her white face, those gentle eyes wild with terror. Water foamed around the girl as she fled-and who could blame her? The Fae had kept her against her will, a half-Scottish noblewoman who’d blundered through the Veil by mischance, with her precious knowledge of the Tudor court. The Fae had beguiled her to spill Tudor secrets while her family grieved and months stretched into years in the mortal world. What loyalty did Linnet owe them?.
On the earth, Ansgar the divine spear lay thrashing, a clothyard shaft jutting from his shoulder. A dark tide of blood spilled over his silver hauberk. Two human wolves circled him, eyes gleaming through matted hair, wary of the saber still flashing bravely in the fallen knight’s fist..
Rhiannon stared at the stricken form, the world spinning to a halt around her.
Directly before her, close enough to touch, reared an ogre of a brigand. Rotted black teeth showed through a thicket of dripping beard. Clutching her improvised weapon, she bared her teeth and hissed at him like a wildcat.
“Here be the girl,” he growled. “Kill her-and catch t’other one, ye half-wits.”.
“Damn you for a pack of spineless huddipicks!” Ansgar’s furious voice rang over the howling wind as he struggled to rise. “Attack me, blast you!.
To Rhiannon’s heightened senses, outlaws seemed to rise like demons from fissures in the ground. At last, her nerve failed her..
“Blessed Mother,” she whispered to the Faerie Queene and the Goddess herself. “Protect Ansgar, save your champion. Hide Linnet from their gaze, for she is innocent of all. As for myself, forgive me….
As if indeed she’d summoned forth a spell, though her half-mortal blood held no such power, the rain-lashed night went still around her. The forest held its breath. Falling rain shimmered in the dusky air..
From the forest a figure strode-a solitary man, storm-winds lashing the black cloak around him, advancing sure-footed across the treacherous ground. He gripped a cross-guarded broadsword in both hands, blazing gold like a cross of fire. To human eyes, he was a lone mortal. Still, Rhiannon knew at once he was more than human..
Her Faerie Sight discerned a fiery halo around that striding figure as he swept through the carnage. Superimposed over that mortal frame blazed a warrior clad in shining white-gold mail, a banner of silver hair streaming around features stern and fearless. Rising from his mighty shoulders, the shadow of iridescent wings spread wide: a shimmer of opal and turquoise and garnet feathers. Cold fire spilled from burning cobalt eyes to illuminate the clearing.
As this vision of divine wrath strode toward them, his mouth opened and he roared like a lion. On the ground, Ansgar dropped his sword and covered his ears-the stricken ears of a mortal who’d dwelled too long among the godless Fae.
The outlaws gaped at the fury bearing down on them as though their God himself had blown his trumpet. She could hardly guess what they saw-perhaps only the glimmer of an aura. Yet the man nearest that shining figure fell to his knees, crossing himself and babbling. The form of fire roared again, blazing sword sweeping around to cleave the air. When it struck the outlaw’s head from his shoulders, a blinding flash of white made Rhiannon cover her eyes. Sparks danced against the blackness of her closed lids.
When her vision cleared, the bandits were cowering on the earth. The bravest scrambled for fallen weapons. The bearded ogre who’d threatened her roared his own challenge and waded through the mud toward that dreadful apparition, hefting a blacksmith’s hammer baptized with Faerie blood..
Rhiannon sat frozen to her saddle as the outlaw’s brawny arm whirled his hammer overhead. Again that flaming sword carved the air and parted the fabric of night. When the sword smote, thunder shook the heavens. The smith’s hammer tumbled in two pieces from a nerveless grip. The outlaw himself fell screaming, legs cloven from his body.
Now the beast who’d slaughtered Caedmon rushed forward, his murdering axe dripping with gore. “God damn ye!.
The Name of God doubled Rhiannon over in the saddle. Though she held nothing against the Christian God, her mixed blood gave her all the Fair Folk’s vulnerabilities, and few of their strengths. Still on the ground, Ansgar moaned and covered his eyes..
As for the winged fury, he seemed to swell until that streaming hair brushed the wind-lashed branches overhead. The light that spilled from his eyes burned blue as the heart of flame, stabbing Rhiannon’s vision until she was nearly blinded..
Roaring like an avalanche, the fiery warrior extended an arm to point at the blasphemer. Before that accusing finger, the bearded face went blank with terror. Dropping the axe, the bandit fell stricken to the earth and covered his head with his arms.
The remaining outlaws required no further urging. Babbling with fright, they scattered in all directions. Some splashed into the river, lost their footing in the tumbling waters and vanished. Some flung themselves headlong into the thorny brambles, plunging into the thicket on foot when their horses balked. Their abandoned steeds veered away.
Rhiannon found herself alone in the clearing with that vengeful vision-alone save for Ansgar who lay like a dead man, arrow jutting from his shoulder..
Scarcely daring to breathe, she groped for the moonstone pendant that hung at her throat: the charm that disguised her Fae fairness from mortal eyes. But she feared no makeshift magick could deceive the godlike creature before her.
Indeed, her movement drew its gaze. Slowly, those burning cobalt eyes turned toward her. When their eyes met, a tingle swept through her, prickling her skin into gooseflesh. A breeze stirred her rose-red mantle, lifted her tumbled ringlets and tossed them around her shoulders..
For the first time since she’d ridden through the Veil into the mortal realm, she was warm, even burning. A scent like cherry-blossoms drenched the air. Somewhere music was playing, and she was drowning in the cerulean fire of those unearthly eyes.
“Lord of Light,” she whispered. “What are you?”
The fiery figure opened his mouth and spoke a word that sounded like the blast of trumpets. Sudden dizziness rushed through her; the earth seemed to shift beneath her feet. On the ground, Ansgar cried out and half rose as though lifted by an invisible hand. Then a silent flash of lightning washed the world white..
When the painful brightness faded, the wrathful angel had vanished. Around her, the storm had gentled, the wind gone still, rain soft as mist bathing the battle-churned soil..
In place of that fiery vision knelt the man himself, head lowered, weight braced on spread arms. Just a man in stark black garments, not even armored, with a cross-hilted broadsword strapped to his back..
Rhiannon fought to collect her scattered senses, make sense of what she’d seen. Ears ringing, the afterimage of that burning figure still seared into her eyes, she slipped from her saddle. When her legs buckled beneath her, she clung to the mare and braced her shaking limbs. As Astolat sidled, she stroked the damp silk coat and whispered reassurance-a comfort she herself badly needed..
Night had fallen, creeping through the clearing like fog. Overhead, pale clouds parted to reveal a lavender moon. By its unearthly glow, she fumbled for her basket of healing herbs and simples.
Ansgar’s plight compelled her immediate attention, though he’d wadded his cloak against the wound to slow the bleeding. At least he was still conscious and capable of rational thought, which was nearly more than she could manage herself. She started toward him and encountered the newcomer, still kneeling on hands and knees in the mud..
At her very feet he panted, head bowed, each exhalation a low groan of pain.
He saved our lives-he or whatever appeared through him. Duty and decency obliged her to aid him if she could. Yet she hesitated, curiosity mingling with caution, and stared down at his bent head..
Rain had soaked close-cropped golden hair in tawny spikes around his head. Massive shoulders bunched beneath a doublet of stark black velvet, broadsword strapped across his back, a scene of the Christian Day of Judgment stitched in gold and silver on the scabbard. The stiff white lace of a nobleman’s ruff framed his neck like a halo, stark against a sinewed column of sun-browned skin..
Though she understood poorly the sumptuary laws that governed how a man might attire himself in England, clearly this one possessed his share of wealth.
She stared at those capable hands spread in the mud, blunt-fingered, rough-knuckled-no lordling’s pampered paws, whatever his clothing might suggest. A heavy gold ring weighed one finger to the knuckle: the Scales of Justice stamped there like an accusation, smeared with what appeared to be fresh blood. That decided her.
Laying a gentle hand on his shoulder, she summoned her antiquated English. “Sir, thou art wounded?”
Without raising his head, he flung out an arm to thrust her away. Through the wet velvet beneath her fingers, the tensile flex of muscle bespoke strength. But his powerful frame was shuddering-too subtle for eye to discern, but she felt it.
Impressions flooded her healer’s senses, the floodgates opened by her tentative touch. Exhaustion burned in each trembling muscle. Every nerve in his body was raw, seared by the divine fire channeled through him.
He knelt in the soil because he lacked the strength to rise..
Still, miraculously, he seemed uninjured. Neither blade nor axe had so much as grazed his skin. The blood must belong to the men he’d slain, the tumbled corpses strewn around him like discarded dolls.
“Stand back.” Barely audible, a weary voice scraped from his throat. “It could happen again..
Startled to hear a mortal voice rumbling from his throat, she dropped her hand and stepped back. Fresh alarm sparked through her. If that monstrous form of fire came roaring back, would this tortured figure be unable to control it.
Yet the man was in agony. And mortal dread, if she read him right..
“Let me help thee,” she breathed. “I’m a healer..”
He uttered a harsh noise, somewhere between derision and a groan of pain. “No power under Heaven can heal this. If you love life, stand back.”
To this, she found nothing to say. She could not help the man if he refused to let her touch him, no matter his obvious torment. When her foster-father groaned, Rhiannon started and hurried to his side.
“Ansgar!” She dropped to her knees beside him, the fragile cage of her unfamiliar farthingale bunching beneath her skirts. She paused to wrestle with the accursed thing, the stiff point of the stomacher jabbing her belly like a dagger.
“Now why did you remove the arrow?” she said softly in the Roman tongue. “Do you want to bleed to death here in the mud?”
A bitter smile creased his pain-worn features. “If only I thought I might..”
Lord and Lady grant me patience! ‘Tis my day for difficult patients.
Clearly seeing her distress, the knight sighed and yielded to her careful fingers as she examined the wound. “Never mind, child. With Queene Maeve’s own blessing on these old bones, I’ll be striding the English isle until Christ’s second Coming.
By that slip alone, he betrayed his own exhaustion. Half-mortal as she was, the Name of Christ caused her no lasting harm, but the word made her flinch like a shout in her ear.
“Forgive me,” Ansgar murmured. “I am-not myself.”
“Hush, dear heart.” Swiftly she sorted through her healing basket for ground comfrey to knit the torn flesh. “No major vessel was severed, but this wound is wide. Lose enough blood, and the loss will kill you, whether you be blessed or nay. Once we stop the bleeding and I bind it up, you’re going to need rest.
“No time for that. Those wretched curs could return at any moment. I can’t understand what-” Sudden alarm flashed in his gray eyes, and he struggled to lever himself up. “Where’s Linnet?”
“Be still now.” Firmly Rhiannon eased him back to the ground, though fear for the hapless girl tightened her own chest. “She fled across the river. She is mortal, don’t forget, and lost a year or two of mortal time in Faerie-or so we hope.” Time seemed to flow ever faster in the mortal realm, though she’d thought just a few days passed while Linnet dwelled among the Fae. “Perhaps she’ll return to us. If not, she’ll seek shelter with her own kind, and manage well enough.”
Either way, Linnet stands a better chance of surviving these benighted mortal lands than we do. One grieving knight who last strode these shores a thousand years past, and a misfit princess who’d rather die than lift a weapon in her own defense. How long are we likely to last.
Like most warriors, Ansgar made a poor patient. His chivalrous nature wouldn’t allow him to rest while a lady might require his aid, and his stubborn struggles reopened the wound. His efforts ceased only when his eyes fluttered closed. Concerned, Rhiannon bent over him, pressing hard to stop the bleeding.
He was going to require true healing. Never mind that the enormous expenditure of healing energy would render her, too, helpless.
Uneasily she glanced toward the stranger, still hunched in the mud. Still breathing heavily, but no longer groaning with each breath. He’d managed to push to his feet, hands braced on knees as he fought for breath. Darkness obscured the rugged lines of his face. She glimpsed a strong jaw scraped free of whiskers, the wary flash of eyes, but could not read him. Still, undoubtedly, he was watching her.
Well, there was nothing to be done. Ansgar had nearly died, and could die still if she didn’t stop the bleeding, or fever set in.
Shaking her head, she bent over the unconscious knight and laid both hands against the mangled shoulder, fingers light as butterfly wings. Through the contact, she sensed the sluggish seep of blood, the raw pain of torn muscle and something else-the cruel cold touch of an evil wish, the tingle of dark enchantment, the taste of rust and iron in her throat.
It was as she’d suspected. Those brigands who’d hunted them so doggedly had been bewitched. Impossible to say who’d done it, with the long-buried magic of this ancient isle welling like blood from the war-torn lands as the two realms drew toward their fatal coupling. But Rhiannon had her suspicions.
Closing her eyes, she silenced the clamor of worry and focused on the evil wound. She gathered her strength like hanks of rough wool twisted into a spindle, spun the raw energy into a spool of smooth thread, woven of her own life force. Hands moving as though she drew needle through fabric, she used that pulsing thread of light to stitch the wound.
The dark spell evaded her, twisting and coiling like smoke around her fingers. Ansgar mumbled and tossed in his sleep as she clipped and knotted the thread. She fretted lest she’d sewn some trace of that vile sorcery into his flesh. Already the wound felt over-warm to her touch, but that might be no more than her own healing energy.
Weak as though she’d spilled her own blood, she swayed, almost fainting. For that was the price of her healing magick. The energy she consumed must be borrowed from her own body. And if she borrowed too much…
“A healer, are you?” The man’s gruff voice at her shoulder nearly made her leap from her skin. Startled as a flushed hare, she whirled toward him too quickly. The world blurred and revolved around her.
“More like a witch, if you ask me,” he rumbled. A trained orator’s voice, speaking the new English with an accent she could not place. Beneath the mortal words, she heard the clarion ring of distant trumpets..
“Nay, I’m a healer,” she murmured, hand raising to her brow to clear her head. He stood before her, flesh and blood, yet she could almost see that shining warrior with his flaming sword looming over her-at rest, but watchful, translucent hands folded over the cross-shaped hilt.
“The witch is my sister,” she said absently.
This made him pause. Eyes narrowing, the man stepped back and surveyed the carnage. For a man of his bulk, he moved lightly, lithe in high boots and traveling hose. A wicked-looking dagger swung at his belt, sinuous dragon twining around the hilt.
“She is far from here.” Hardly knowing what she said, Rhiannon clung to consciousness with both hands. She needed food, fire and a bracing cup of wine-none of which she was likely to get. “Thou cannot see her, unless she wishes to be seen. For which blessing thou should be thankful.”
“It’s not your sister who concerns me.” Intent, he studied her. “When you laid hands upon this fellow, your form and his were rimmed with unholy fire. What is that if not witchcraft?”
Uneasy with the threat of him looming over her, the sudden sense of danger, she deemed it wise to change the subject. “That fiery being who came to our aid-was it thou, or thy demon?”
“Demon?” He reared back as though she’d struck him, that proud tawny head coming up. Behind him, the angel’s eyes glowed like banked coals.
Respectfully, she gestured to the Presence, though now she could barely discern its fading form. “I see thy wings like a shadow looming over thee..
The mortal frowned, jaw clenching with unease and impatience. “You speak nonsense, healer. You’re in shock, asleep on your feet or mad.”
“I know what I saw, sir.” Stubborn, she struggled to rise. The effort brought another surge of dizziness. Suddenly she found herself sitting on the ground again, crushing a carpet of pale snowdrops that had pushed too early from the soil. Ivory skirts spilled around her as she stared up at him.
Whatever had ailed the man, he towered over her fully recovered, swirling black cape pinned carelessly back, greatsword jutting above one broad shoulder. Austere and unadorned, but for the ring with the Scales of Justice and the gold-and-steel medallion swinging over his heart: an inverted sword wide as her palm, cross-shaped, wreathed in flames.
“This must be what thou mortals call irony,” she said faintly, eyeing the holy symbol and his somber attire. “I am saved by a Catholic priest..
Senses dulled by exhaustion, vision swimming with black fog, still Rhiannon found the wit to appreciate her dilemma. It was this very collision-between the Romish influence that guided devout Mary Tudor’s every step, and the wild Faerie magic bursting its boundaries as the two lands approached their thousand-year conjunction-that caused the looming crisis Rhiannon must prevent.
“Thou should have let them kill me,” she murmured. “Thou wilt not appreciate this quest of mine.
“Quest, is it?” The man frowned, tawny brows knitting above cold eyes whose color she couldn’t discern by moonlight. “Why do you ride with only this man and his slain comrade for escort, if your need is so dire? Surely you know these English roads are plagued with cutthroats and thieves, displaced tenants and lesser rogues. These are no easy times for England.
He spoke as though this realm weren’t his own, though he seemed easy as a native with the English tongue. With furrowed brow he studied her, as though puzzling her out.
For a moment she lost herself looking at him. He was the first mortal man she’d ever beheld, except for Ansgar-and of course her father, in the vault where he’d slept since his mortal life ended-and both had dwelled too long among the Fair Folk not to be marked by it. But this priest was mortal to the marrow of his bones: earthy and formidable, pensive brow furrowed beneath close-cropped hair sparkling with rain, a raptor’s nose, firm lips pressed together. Droplets of mist clung to a stern jaw glittering with tawny stubble.
He was nothing beautiful or refined, despite his elegant cloth. The Fae would find him alarming and uncouth. Physical strength shouted from the muscled form beneath his stark attire.
To say nothing of the form of fire, though that unsettling image was thankfully fading.
She must think how to deal with him. Should she confide in him, beseech his assistance for her mission, when a Catholic priest must surely oppose it? Or should she lie, when she did it so poorly.
Uneasy with her vulnerable placement, spilled across the soil with only an unconscious knight for protection, Rhiannon scrambled to her feet-too quickly. The world darkened around her.
Suddenly the priest loomed over her, one muscled arm closing around her waist to hold her upright. The rich dark aroma of frankincense seeped from his cloak as the heavy fur-lined garment swirled around her, making her head spin. Worse was the sharp clean scent of steel from his blades-anathema to any Faerie.
If not for the ensorcelled rings that banded her little fingers, and the half-mortal blood that blunted the deadly aversion to steel, she could never have borne his touch.
“Stand back, I pray thee,” she gasped, even while her weakened body leaned into his thrumming heat. She gripped the hard calloused hand at her waist, a tingle like magick seeping through her blood. “Thy steel…”
“Frightens you, does it?” His gaze narrowed, grew thoughtful. “I mean you no harm in this place..
“Only in this place?” She meant it for a jest, but she was weary and frightened, and her voice too plaintive. “I tell thee I cannot bear it. I command thee, release me!”
He stepped back as she demanded, but gripped her hand in his warm hard fingers, so she couldn’t flee. “Madam, no more of this evasion. What manner of creature are you?”
Oh, she could show him evasion with a right good will; no mortal creature could evade like a Faerie. Yet the notion repulsed her-she, the daughter of Arthur of Camelot and the Faerie Queene, was proud of her honor as any knight. She was not her half-sister Morrigan, a full-blooded Fae who lied by instinct as well as inclination-the very rival who’d sworn on her own blood to undo Rhiannon’s plan for peace.
Nay, Morrigan might be heir to the Queene’s throne, but Rhiannon had inherited their mother’s gentle spirit and her father’s fabled fairness.
Clearly, this priest was a man of wealth and probable influence. She and Ansgar, and Linnet if she lived, desperately needed help from some quarter. Perhaps this man could be prevailed upon to bring her to the Tudor Queen. She couldn’t think it through, weigh risks and advantage, with him standing so near. The presence of his steel prickled her skin like an allergy. Any proper Fae would be screaming by now.
If she looked with her Sight, one of the few minor magicks aside from healing she could summon, a halo of fire still burned around him.
Through the desperate exhaustion swirling through her, she seized upon a strategy.
Chin tilting up, she summoned the pride of a king’s daughter. “I am Rhiannon le Fay, daughter of Queene Maeve and the Dreaming King Arthur, dispatched to the English court as a royal ambassador by the Faerie Queene herself. If thou art loyal to the Tudors, I command thy aid.
When she spoke her name and titles, harsh breath hissed from his lungs. His free hand sliced through the air, signing himself with the Cross. A fresh wave of weakness rolled through her. On the soil at her feet, the half-conscious Ansgar cried out.
“Woman, you must be a witch, a madwoman or a fool.” The stranger’s jaw hardened. “Don’t you know this symbol?”
Uncomprehending, she blinked at the flaming cross on its chain over his heart. “‘Tis the symbol of the Christian God, inverted, so it does not pain me to look.
He released her suddenly, with a flicker of distaste, as though he could no longer tolerate her nearness. Fired by a lifetime of survival instinct, she stepped quickly back-too late. His sword-calloused hand closed like a manacle around the fragile bones of her wrist: not cruel, but unavoidable as destiny.
“Peace, Father,” she whispered, frightened pulse fluttering like a trapped moth against the hollow of her throat. “I mean thee no harm, and I’ve no true claim upon thy service. Betimes the habit of command is too strong in me, I fear.
“I’m no priest,” he said abruptly. “I proved unworthy of that honor long ago, God pity me.”
After her terrifying flight and the dreadful drain of healing, the holy Name proved to be too much. With a despairing cry, she felt her knees turn to water beneath her, vision narrowed to a pinprick of feeble moonlight. Then even that much was gone. He was lifting her into his arms, handling her weight in her sodden skirts effortlessly as a feather. The dangerous aromas of steel and incense were filling her nose. Dizziness swirled through her. Floating, barely conscious, she sagged against him.
“Merely let us pass, I beseech thee.” Her faint voice sounded insubstantial as a spirit’s in her ears.
“Let you pass?” His voice rumbled through his chest, mighty heart thumping like a hammer against her cheek. “A witch and alleged Faerie-a self-proclaimed princess, no less? It’s God’s doing that I’ve found you, and God’s will that I keep you.
“Keep me? What does that mean?” A shaft of fear pierced her heart.
“I mean, you foolish, misguided girl, that I’m a witch-hunter and inquisitor,” he said flatly. “In the name of His Holiness the Pope, by my authority as a Blade of God, I’m placing you under arrest.”