Authors: Susan Carroll
BALLANTINE BOOKS • NEW YORK
Table of Contents
To my son Ricky;
wherever your journey leads you,
always remember I love you.
And to my enthusiastic fan,
Patricia Ann Cute,
the lady who holds my brother’s heart.
The completion of each book marks the end of another journey. I could not have found my way to the end of this road without the help, encouragement, and sage advice of so many people: my agent, Andrea Cirillo, my editor, Charlotte Herscher, her assistant, Signe Pike, and my copy editor, Martha Trachtenberg. I am greatly indebted to Gina Centrello, Linda Marrow, and the entire Ballantine production staff.
For their continuing support, I also have to thank the ladies of my local RWA chapter, Jan Steffens, Elizabeth Bare, Leslie Thompson, and Teresa Davis. My friends: Julie Kistler for her aid with plot and research, and Stephanie Wilson and Kay Krewer for helping me understand the mysterious ways of horses.
And as always my heartfelt love and gratitude to my dearest friend and critique partner, Kim Cates, for taking this long and difficult journey with me and especially for seeing me down that last long mile. I couldn’t have made it without you, Frodo.
HE SUN SLIPPED
below the horizon, the last of the light fading like smoke from a snuffed-out candle. Darkness descended over the cliff side and the line of trees, turning the rugged Breton coastline into the kind of land Simon Aristide understood best. A land of night and shadow.
His hands encased in leather gloves, the witch-hunter gripped the reins of his mount. Like her master, the spirited ebony mare blended with the darkness. Aristide’s shoulder-length hair was as black as the horse’s mane and just as wild in the brisk wind blowing leeward. He was likewise garbed all in black from his thick boots to his leather jerkin. His beard-shadowed face cast no pale gleam to alert his enemies, his skin toughened from many days spent in the saddle, weathering the elements.
Simon had an angular countenance, the set of his mouth hard and uncompromising, rarely softened by a smile. His left eye was as dark as the rest of him, glinting with a piercing intelligence. His ravaged right eye he usually kept concealed beneath a black patch. A heavy scar, the result of a duel, bisected his forehead, disappearing beneath the patch only to emerge in a thin crease that marred his cheek. He was an intimidating figure, tall, with sinewy limbs. Anyone would have to be mad to attack him.
But Simon had concluded that the creatures stalking him
mad or else imbued with evil and malice to a chilling degree. On a night like this, alone, isolated from any signs of human habitation, he preferred to think his pursuers were merely insane. It was more comforting than the alternative.
As the shadows deepened around him, Simon resisted the urge to nudge Elle into a gallop. The barest pressure of his knees and they’d both be off like the wind. But it would be far too dangerous, the cliff path narrow and treacherous even in the full light of day. A full-out gallop in the dark would be pure suicide. An easier road beckoned to him through the trees that rimmed the cliffs, but the gnarled trunks, the thicket of shrubs and undergrowth offered far too many places for concealment.
Simon kept the mare to a sedate walk. He heard nothing beyond the steady clop of Elle’s hoofbeats, the wind rustling through the trees, the surf battering the rocks far below, and yet the back of his neck tingled with the awareness that he was not alone out here in the darkness.
They were here.
At least one of them. Perhaps the one he had sensed dogging him in the last village he had passed through.
Or perhaps exhaustion and only a few snatched hours of troubled sleep were starting to get the better of him. But he didn’t think so. Elle’s behavior told him otherwise. The mare had been twitchy the past mile or so, skittering, tossing her head, her ears pricked.
Simon reached down to pat her neck when the sound carried to his ears. At first he thought he imagined the faint wail of an infant. It could be no more than the wind keening over the rocky headland. Simon’s gut knotted with dread all the same.
Around the next bend, the land leveled off and the cries became louder and more plaintive. Simon drew Elle to a halt, tensely scanning the distance. Barely one hundred yards ahead, moonlight flooded an object abandoned perilously near the edge of the cliff. Anyone else might have mistaken it for a blanket roll left behind by a careless shepherd. But Simon had seen such bundles before, with one difference this time.
This one was still alive, the infant’s cries borne to him clearly on the wind. Simon’s heartbeat quickened, his first impulse to charge forward. But he’d narrowly avoided ambush too many times to be that rash.
He slid from Elle’s back and drew the mare into a stand of trees, tethering her to the trunk of a sturdy but pliant beech. Elle’s eyes did not roll in terror, but she was blowing and stamping. She shifted her sleek powerful chest and shoulders as though to block him from leaving the grove.
Simon stroked the horse to soothe her. He lingered in the shadow of the trees, his gaze tracking the path to the jutting of the cliff. The plateau where the child had been abandoned offered no place of concealment, no cover for anyone attempting to hide. It would not offer Simon any, either, if some assassin lurked farther down the path or even in the trees, preparing to lodge an arrow in his back.
But that was not his enemy’s usual mode of attack and the cries of the infant overrode his caution. They were growing weaker by the moment. It was just possible that they had never counted on Simon being here this soon.
Easing past Elle, Simon drew his sword and started forward. He could barely hear the child now, only one final whimper and then a terrible silence. All stealth and wariness forgotten, he ran, dislodging a hail of pebbles beneath his boots.
He hurtled toward the small bundle on the edge of the cliff, dropping to his knees beside it. The wind stirred the edge of the coarse blanket, but there was no movement from the tiny figure. Simon set down his sword and stripped off his gloves. He gathered the swathed infant into his arms with a gentleness that was as rare as his prayers.
Please. Please let me have arrived in time. Just this once.
He peeled back the flap of the blanket, his breath hitching sharply. The doll’s glass button eyes fixed him with an empty stare, the jagged mouth stitched onto the canvas face sneering at him.
He scarcely had time to register that fact before he heard the snap of a twig on his blind side. He jerked toward the sound and realized that there was a hollow in the ground below the place where he knelt. He caught the barest blur before the woman crouching there sprang at him.
Her teeth bared in a snarl, she launched into him, knocking him onto his back. Moonlight glinted off the weapon in her hand as she thrust at his neck. Simon deflected the blow with the doll and bucked upward, hurling his attacker off of him. She hit the ground with a furious screech. By the time he had regained his feet, she had also scrambled to hers. And she was between him and his sword. With a contemptuous smile, she kicked it farther out of his reach.
She was clad in baggy breeches and a peasant’s tunic, her dark hair unkempt, her eyes manic, her mouth cruel and cunning. Simon kept a knife hidden inside his boot, but he made no move to go for it.
“Keep back, woman,” he said. “I have no desire to harm you. Drop your weapon and I am willing to spare you if you answer my questions.”
The creature threw back her head, emitting an eerie imitation of an infant’s mewling cry. “What’s your question?” she mocked. “Where’s the babe? There is none, witch-hunter. Not this time. And that is the only answer you’ll get from me. Aside from this.” She brandished her weapon, circling in closer.
“No desire to harm me. Bah.” She spat in Simon’s direction, the spittle landing inches from his boot. “I know how you witch-hunters ask your questions. With the rack and the branding iron.”
“That is not my way,” he said, “If you attack me again, I will have to kill you.”
“What does that matter? I am not afraid to die. The Silver Rose will resurrect me.”
With a bloodcurdling screech, she leaped and was on him again. Simon caught her wrists to hold her back. No mere woman should have been so strong. Whatever madness or evil surged through her veins, it was all Simon could do to keep her at bay. He felt the heat of her breath, heard the gnash of her teeth as she came within an inch of tearing open his cheek.
He was more concerned with the strange weapon she clutched in her right hand. She stabbed at him, the tip tearing through his jerkin. Simon twisted her wrist until she cried out and dropped the weapon. She went into a fury, kicking, snapping, and trying to bite. When nothing else availed, she butted the top of her head beneath his chin. Simon reeled, his jaw exploding with pain. He lost his grip on her and staggered back, barely managing to stop himself from plunging over the edge of the cliff.
His attacker rushed at him in an effort to drive him over. He dodged her charge and it was she who teetered, the ground giving way beneath her. She fell, scrabbling wildly for purchase. Simon flung himself to the ground and caught her arm. She dangled below him, her legs and free arm flailing, her face white with rage. Her weight strained the muscles in his arm until they burned with pain.
“Who sent you?” he growled. “Who is this Silver Rose that you serve?”
“Go to hell,” she shrieked.
“Tell me what I want to know or—” Simon gasped as she clawed at his hand, digging her nails in so viciously, his grip slackened.
He felt her start to slip, made another desperate grab for her arm. But it was too late. She hurtled into the darkness, his last view her face gloating with insane triumph. He heard the thud of her body as it struck the cliff side on the way down and then a splash. The sea was like a dark, hungry beast, frothing at the mouth as it devoured the witch’s broken body and all the answers he so desperately sought along with her.
What demon possessed you, woman? Where does your coven hide when all of you are not out spreading terror and trying to kill me? And who is this she-devil you call the Silver Rose? This sorceress you all worship so much you are willing to die for her, believing she has the power to raise you from the dead.
And what if she could?
The thought sent a chill through Simon that had nothing to do with the wind whipping in from the sea. With a low groan, he retreated from the edge and rolled onto his back, seeking to recover his breath. He sat up slowly, brushing the tangle of hair from his face. He winced at the throb of his hand where the witch had lacerated him with her nails. The salty taste of blood filled his mouth. He had bitten his cheek when she had butted him with her head.
He worked his jaw carefully. It hurt like the devil, but she hadn’t managed to dislocate it or loosen any of his teeth. His injuries could have been a great deal worse, he reflected as his gaze fell upon the strange weapon he had forced from her hand. He had encountered such a hellish device before, witnessed the witch blade’s lethal power. But he had never managed to gain possession of one to study it more closely.
Simon picked it up carefully. At first glance the weapon looked like nothing more than a very thin stiletto with a needle-sharp tip. But once the stiletto punctured the skin, the hilt could be pushed, sending a poisonous liquid through the blade. Simon had no idea exactly how the witch blade worked, but he’d seen the results. The wound was small, looking far from mortal, but the death that it wrought was slow and agonizing.
Simon set the weapon down, seeking some safe way of transporting it. He found the discarded doll and stripped the blanket away. Out of its swaddling, the doll was a crude semblance of a child. No more than a cloth head and body carefully weighted with something to give it just the right feel of a small infant when wrapped in the blanket.
Simon seized the doll and hurled it off the cliff. His anger was tempered with relief, that that was all it had been this time—a fake. He’d witnessed more cruelty, death, and evil in the span of his twenty-eight years than most men twice his age. But he was not certain he could endure the sight of one more dead child. He’d lain awake far too many nights, picturing the torment of those helpless babes he’d been too late to save. Left exposed in some remote locale where their cries would go unheard, abandoned to perish slowly of hunger and neglect.
What kind of woman could command others to commit such horrors? The same woman who could craft a weapon like that poisonous stiletto, the strange silver flower that was her emblem arrogantly engraved on the hilt. No matter what it took, Simon intended to find the witch and put a stop to her ungodly crimes. Unless the Silver Rose got him first.
That was more than likely if he behaved as stupidly as he’d done tonight. Five years ago, even two, he would never have fallen for such a trap. But his lone crusade was wearing him so thin, he was surprised he still cast a shadow.
He wrapped the blanket around the stiletto. Retrieving his sword and gloves, he trudged back to where he had left Elle. She stamped, tossing her head and yanking on the lead, spooked by his battle with the witch. It took much soothing on his part before she settled down. He rested his forehead against the velvet softness of her nose.
“Lord, Elle, I’m so tired of all this. So damned tired.”
She whickered, her dark eye gleaming softly in the moonlight. She nuzzled his hair and lipped at the neckline of his shirt as though to comfort him. As absurd as it seemed, Simon sometimes thought the mare understood him.
Except Miri Cheney would not have thought it absurd. She would have said . . . Simon’s breath snagged in his throat as her image stole into his mind, so clear even after all these years. The memory of a young girl with hair pale as moonlight, a face as ethereal as an angel’s, eyes that could be the soft hue of morning mist or the dark color of a storm at sea. Fey eyes that could make a man forget who he was, what he needed to do. Or worse still, forget who she was. A daughter of the earth, a wise woman. That was how Miri had always referred to herself. No matter what she chose to call herself, a witch was still a witch. And yet, there had been something different about Miri.
Despite her unfortunate family background of sorcery, she had been more misguided than tainted by evil. The girl had possessed an innocence, a shining faith in the ultimate goodness of the world, a hope for the best in people. Girl? No, she’d be a mature woman by now and that light of hers had probably dimmed since her family had been forced to abandon their home on Faire Isle, driven into exile. Simon was in large part responsible for that.
Rumors had reached him this past year that one of the Cheney sisters had dared return to the island and was living there in quiet seclusion, a woman possessing an almost supernatural ability to cure any sick or wounded creature she came across. There was only one person that could be . . . Miri.
Simon tightened his grip on Elle’s bridle as he sought to banish the woman from his mind. Remembrance of her loosed upon him far too painful regrets. But Miri had been invading his thoughts more of late and he could no longer keep the gates of his mind barred against her. His enemies were gathering strength to an alarming degree. He was alone. He was exhausted. He was desperate. Each day inched him closer to the conclusion he stubbornly resisted. There was only one way he was going to defeat the Sisterhood of the Silver Rose.