Authors: Laura Parker
Una’s worst fear had come to life. “A quick death and God’s peace upon us,” she whispered as she closed her eyes.
* * *
From the imposing height of horseback, Revelin looked down into the hideous face. It was moon round, moon pale, and hairless. An uneven gash, as though cut by an impatient hand, opened as a toothless, dribbling mouth. Flat nostrils where a nose should have been gave it a piggish look. Blank, lashless eyes of milky blue gazed unseeingly at him. Blind. Where arms and legs should have been there were only pathetic webbed stumps. Held in his mother’s arms it was hard to tell whether the idiot child was two or twenty, but its sex, uncovered in squirming, was male.
Restraining himself to an inward shrinking, Revelin said calmly, “No. A girl.” Inhaling deeply, he grappled with his impatience, then sounded out the Gaelic words distinctly: “I am searching for a girl. So high.” He bent in the saddle to indicate a height five feet from the ground. “Her hair is black. Her only mark is a rose upon her left cheek.”
The members of the settlement murmured and shook their heads. There was no one among them who fit that description.
“Ye be looking for a particular changeling?” questioned a bold man as Revelin resignedly turned his mount away. “Ye were as readily chasing the rainbow’s end. One or another, ’tis all the same when said and done, ’tis folly to court the fairies!”
The word hummed through the air after Revelin like an angry bee as he urged his horse into a canter. For nearly a week he had been searching for the elusive slip of a girl he remembered no better than the remnant of a pleasant dream. Perhaps the man was right. At every settlement he passed he stopped to ask, yet none of them seemed to understand his quest. In the past three days he had been shown a wall-eyed old crone, a crippled girl of eight, a badly burned woman of twenty, and now the idiot boy. Changelings all, or so their kinsmen claimed. Perhaps the object of his quest was even less than that. It was said a drowning man dreams many dreams.
He touched the torn shirt tucked inside his cloak and smiled. She was no shadow or drifting gossamer of a regretful man’s
last thoughts. She was real, and he would find her. But not today.
“Ualter, heel,” he called to the dark quiet form sitting patiently at the edge of the settlement. Instantly the dog sprang forward, his long legs bringing him easily to pace beside the horse. “She’s not here,” Revelin said, as though he felt the animal was owed some explanation. “It seems we must give up the chase, after all.”
With a regretful sigh he gathered in the folds of his cloak and looked down to where it met the tops of the soft leather boots he had received as a gift from Lady Alison for his twenty-third birthday. The reminder of Lady Alison did little to lighten his mood. She would undoubtedly call his actions those of an excessively gallant gentleman. After all, he sought the girl only to prove that his eyes had not tricked him.
As he jerked the brim of his hat lower, Revelin wondered why he felt compelled to put forth so much effort. True, the girl had saved his life, but she seemed to want no reward. And there were pressing reasons why he should not dally. It had been no easy matter to persuade his companions to allow him to ride unescorted in the wilds of Ireland, where no English face was welcome.
Revelin smiled. Twelve years in London had ridded him of the lilting brogue that the English found loathsome, but his knowledge of the Gaelic tongue had not vanished. It made it possible for him to search for the girl and for his questions to bring replies…of a sort. It was his one advantage over the others in his group.
The countryside swarmed with settlements, but they had not passed a real town since entering Louth. The people were wary of strangers, and as often as not he received only silence in answer to his questions. If not for his good sense in hiding his English dress beneath his long cloak, he probably would have received in addition a pike in the back.
So absorbed was he in reviewing the fruitless day that he
did not hear the riders approaching until they were quite close. The rhythmic thuds of hoofs brought his hand automatically to the hilt of his sword even as he raised his head. Two horsemen came riding toward him, their dark cloaks wound tightly about their bodies. As they spurred their horses forward, he reined in his own and waited.
“Good day, hermit, and well met!” came the cry across the distance, and Revelin’s hand relaxed.
“Spying for John, Sir Robin?” Revelin asked dryly when the men had reined in beside him. “Are your days so dull?”
Robin removed his plumed hat with a sweeping gesture and tossed his head, offering the gray day the brilliance of his red-gold curls. “Lud, yes! With John prowling about in his best
imitation of a gut-sore wolf, and but parson here—” He
made a long face.
Revelin chuckled appreciatively but Sir Richard failed to find humor in the jest. He directed his words to Revelin. “Reade said, were we to find you, we were to bring you back by whatever means necessary.”
The idea of John’s concern amused Revelin further. “Reade said that? And I thought he cared little for my hide.”
“I’d say he fancied you’d found yourself a tidy armful and were loath to leave her,” Robin offered with a wink. “But by the looks of you ’twould seem she turned you off without a proper tumble.”
Revelin gave a small smile. “My journey had a much simpler goal—the repayment of a kindness. But you are right, I have failed.”
“Kindness is its own reward,” Sir Richard offered in consolation.
“I must remember that,” Revelin murmured and urged his mount forward. He knew he would be questioned relentlessly if they did not start for camp, and he had no desire to share his thoughts or feelings with anyone.
“I marvel at your indifference to your health,” Robin commented when he had caught up with Revelin. “With the ceaseless raiding and murdering that abounds in these environs, I would think you’d spare an errant thought for your own security.”
Robin continued irrepressibly. “I can’t imagine what sort of kindness demands that you scamper about the countryside to repay it. Perhaps you’ve simply grown homesick. Or would ‘lovesick’ be more to the point?”
“Peace and quiet would be more to the point,” Revelin answered between his teeth. “Five minutes in your company makes me yearn for the blessings of solitude.”
“Perhaps our young friend has sought the guidance of the Divine these past days.” Sir Richard’s tone was smug. “A man’s soul is ever in need of the strengthening offered by denial and prayer. Solitude, like a sojourn in the desert, makes mockery of most men’s glory. I’ve but recently thought myself that young Butler is a man suited to serve the better glory of his God.” That said, he spurred his horse forward to enter first beneath the ceiling offered by the forest’s trees.
“Greater glory of God!” Robin’s guffaw was without any pretense at moderation. “Some parson you’d make. Reverend Revelin, with half the ladies at court begging you for the chance to pray with their knees upward.”
Revelin turned a sour face toward his amused friend. “Gently, Robin. Our would-be martyr seems to be laboring under the false impression that I am making myself into pious meat.” His painful expression slid into a smile. “If you try to dissuade him of the notion by boasting of my prowess with the ladies, he will only redouble his efforts to save my damnable soul.”
“A parson’s pox on the man!” Robin replied unrepentantly. In an undertone he added, “’Tis the only kind he’s likely ever to catch!”
Ualter heard the sounds first. As he paused, his ears lifted, moving forward and back to pinpoint the source of the noise.
Revelin reined in beside him. “What is it, Ualter? Trouble?”
The dog listened a moment longer, his long powerful body perfectly, tensely still. And then with a yelp he sprang forward at a right angle to the path they had been following and disappeared into the twilight mist.
“Damn dog!” Robin murmured. “Should keep him leashed, Revelin. Revelin? Where are you? Hey!” Before his amazed gaze Revelin had wheeled his horse and taken off after the dog as if both of them knew what they were chasing. “A pox take him! Did you see that?” he questioned as Sir Richard rode back to him.
“What do you propose we do about it?”
Robin’s grin broadened to its limit. “Revelin’s been up to something this week. Stab me if I let him fob me off this time! Come along, Sir Richard, we’re going hunting.”
The chance for activity pleased Revelin. Frustrated by the week’s fruitless search, this possibility of adventure was too good to miss. Ualter had Satan’s own nose for trouble. He would not rest until he found it.
The sight when they came upon it was all a knight errant could have hoped for. In a small clearing beside a burning hut, a horde of ragged men were closing in on two hapless souls. Staffs raised threateningly, the men pelted their quarry with stones. The victims, crouched and bleeding, had raised their arms in a futile attempt to fend off the blows.
Without conscious decision, Revelin reined in and lifted his sword from its scabbard. “Ualter, attack!” he cried.
The dog, who had been trained to respond solely to his master’s commands, lunged forward, his vicious teeth bared for combat.
The shower of sharp-edged stones quickly beat Meghan and Una to their knees. They huddled together, arms locked over their heads to protect their faces. Meghan’s back and arms ached in a dozen places where rocks had bruised and bloodied her skin. But even the pain could not convince her that this was happening, that they would be made to die because of the ignorance of strangers.
When a fist-sized stone struck her in the small of the back, rage at the men’s brutality overwhelmed her and she leaped to her feet and cried, “Stop!”
Tears blurred her vision as she lifted her hands in a gesture of supplication. “Please stop before ye murder us!” But her cries only fed the bloodlust of the men; they redoubled their efforts, striking her in the right shoulder and hip.
“Aye, kill her!”
“Kill them both!”
It was impossible to duck every missile. A small, slingshot stone struck Meghan in the middle of the forehead and all
strength drained from her body as pain radiated through her skull.
Una caught Meghan as she collapsed and pulled her roughly to the ground. “Keep down!” she whispered urgently as she tried to cover Meghan’s slender body with her own. “Ye’ll only make it worse for us. We can—!” Her warning was cut short by the tip of a staff driven brutally into her side.
“That for the divil’s hag!” a man shouted triumphantly, and then: “Take hold of them, lads. There’s only one way to kill the divil’s spawn and that’s burning! Cast ’em into the flames of the hut!”
Una’s weight was lifted from Meghan. A moment later she was jerked from the ground by a brutal grip and hauled into a pair of sweaty arms.
“Holy Mother of God! No!
she screamed, flailing wildly. A rough hand engulfed her mouth, stopping her cries and cutting off her breath as her nose was flattened by the callused palm. She recoiled from the vicious grip, but there was nowhere to go. The hand pressed her tightly against the wall of her captor’s chest. The nausea of terror rose to sting her throat as she was spun around to face the heat of the burning inferno that had once been her home. Orange-red flames danced before her, their long hot tongues seeming to reach out for her.
This is how I am going to die!
The thought enveloped the chaos of her mind until it blocked every other emotion: the pain, the terror, and even the desire to struggle.
To have it over with—that was Meghan’s only desire when through the smoke-laden mist she saw the glint of steel. An errant breeze brushed past her cheek, clearing for an instant the sooty haze, and she saw a horseman galloping toward her. With a resigned sigh she closed her eyes. Dreams, always dreams, from the first moment to this, her last.
Revelin never questioned his ability to rout the men alone. He had fought few battles, yet he knew the power of surprise when used by a sure-handed man on horseback. And then there was Ualter.
Ualter’s long strides effortlessly matched those of his master’s mount. Instinct directed him. The girl’s voice was familiar. Her plaintive cries were what had first drawn his attention. As soon as he saw her, all 140 pounds of him sprang to her defense.
The young herdsman never saw the shaggy-coated lightning bolt that struck him. He felt only the sudden blow that knocked him off his feet and the jarring impact upon the ground that broke his grip upon the girl. A moment later he was crushed by a snarling, snapping weight as he looked up into the gaping jaws off the huge wolfhound.
Revelin rode down the other men, making a broad sweep with his blade to clear a path between them and the women lying in the dust. They scattered like hens before a hound, he observed with grim satisfaction. Clearly, they knew nothing of warfare. This was a mob. No matter what the women had done, they did not deserve death at the hands of rabble.
Reining in his horse so shortly that it reared, he turned and attacked again. Using the flat of his sword, he struck the head of the one man who dared to challenge him with a sickle. With a sound like the whack of an ax the blow felled the man in his tracks.