Authors: Susan Carroll
But Miri was already on her feet, too alarmed, too outraged by his request to even speak. All she could do was vehemently shake her head.
“Miri, I am certain that you have to know where she is. You and your sisters were so close. You would never remain out of touch with them for long. What is more, I also know how you communicate. With those birds you have bewitched to carry messages over long distances.”
Miri found her voice enough to splutter. “
blast you. My pigeons are trained to deliver messages.”
“All right, all right.” Simon flung up his hands in a placating gesture. “Could you please get word to Ariane with one of these
creatures? I won’t make any effort to follow the bird if that is what you are afraid of. I could hardly do so even if I tried.
“I don’t even want to know where Ariane is, just to warn her about what is happening. Isn’t the Lady of Faire Isle supposed to be a guardian, keeping other wise women from doing harm as well as protecting them?”
“Ariane always tried to do just that. But she is not the Lady anymore, thanks to you. Maybe if you hadn’t driven Ariane away from Faire Isle, she would have found out about this Silver Rose and stopped her a long time ago. Did you ever think about that, Simon?”
“Yes, I have. You have no idea how often of late, I have regretted—” He checked himself, dragging one hand wearily through his hair. “But I can’t undo the past, Miri. All I can do is try not to repeat it.”
Stepping closer, he encircled her wrist, his fingers resting against the delicate skin above her pulse. “I need Ariane’s help, her connection with the community of witch—I mean wise women. No matter where she is, she is still the Lady of Faire Isle. Don’t you think she would want to know about this rising menace?”
“I am certain she would and that is exactly why I have no intention of telling her.” Miri pulled free of Simon’s grasp and shrank back, uncertain which she found more dangerously seductive, his gentle touch or his pleading gaze.
“If Ariane heard of this trouble, she would think it her duty to return to Faire Isle in spite of any risk to herself. And where Ariane goes, Renard would follow. Both of them lured back into any trap you might be setting. You already seem to half-suspect that Ariane might be your Silver Rose.”
“I told you that I don’t. Your sister is fundamentally a good woman, although I confess I do find some of her skills and knowledge a bit, er, disconcerting. The thing I most fault her for is her choice in husbands. But if Ariane returns, I promise she will be safe from me.” Simon added grudgingly, “And Monsieur le Comte, too.”
“You’ll have to pardon me if I don’t believe you. The last time you induced me to trust you, you nearly succeeded in destroying everyone and everything that I love.”
Simon opened his mouth to retort, only to close it, a myriad of emotions chasing across his face: sorrow, shame, regret.
“You are perfectly right. I have given you no reason to ever trust me again and every reason to go on hating me.”
“And that is exactly the problem. I don’t want to hate you, Simon. It hurts too much. I am so afraid that if you betray me again, the next time I might actually be able to use that knife.”
She paced away from him, rubbing her arms for comfort. “If the danger was only to me, I might be willing to take a chance on trusting you again. But to put Ariane and Renard at risk . . . I can’t do it. I
do it. My answer to your request must be no. So unless you mean to force me to tell you where Ariane is or—”
“I would never do anything like that.”
She peered at him over her shoulder, expecting to find him angry or wearing that cold, hardened expression. It was how he would have reacted in the past to her refusal to cooperate. But Simon merely looked defeated, his shoulders slumped like a man who had just seen his last hope burn and crumble to ash.
“I am sorry,” Miri said in a softer tone.
“Don’t be.” Simon’s mouth flickered in a sad semblance of a smile. “If anyone should be apologizing it is me. Given our past history, it was unreasonable for me to expect any different reply.”
He fetched his jerkin from the line and shrugged back into it. Striding past her to the door, he sank down upon the stool, and reached for his boots.
“What—what are you doing?” Miri faltered.
“You kept your end of our bargain. You listened to what I had to say. Now I am keeping mine.” Simon worked his foot back into the damp, mud-spattered leather. “I promised you I would leave you in peace.”
That would undoubtedly be the best thing. For both of them. So why then was she beset with this sharp pang? She drifted closer as he struggled with his second boot, resisting a strange urge to snatch it away from him.
“It is still pouring rain and likely to continue for hours. You look exhausted. I—I have no bed to offer you, but if you would like to stretch out on my hearth and—”
“I don’t think that would be a good idea. Far better that I return to the lady who is accustomed to sharing my nights.”
“Oh?” Miri was hard-pressed to conceal her dismay. Simon seemed so alone. It had never occurred to her he might have a woman waiting somewhere.
Simon levered himself to his feet with a smile as though he guessed exactly what she was thinking. “I meant Elle. She is the only lady in my life. I am used to bedding down in the stable with her.”
“Oh.” Miri was annoyed to feel herself blush. It was certainly no concern of hers if Simon had a woman or not. “That—that is good. Not that you have no other lady, but—but Elle . . . she will look out for you, warn you if danger approaches.”
“So she has. More times than I can count.”
Miri nodded. She and Simon stood only a foot apart, but already the distance seemed to yawn much greater. A long and awkward silence fell. All sounds of the storm had ceased, only the rain continuing to beat at the windows and roof of the cottage.
Strange. Miri had always found the sound of rain soothing, but this time it struck her as rather haunting and melancholy. Perhaps because she was so acutely aware that this might well be the last time she and Simon met. So how did one go about saying good-bye to a man who had once been both cherished friend and hated enemy, first love and lasting heartbreak?
Miri nervously entwined her fingers together. She wondered if she should offer him her hand or merely curtsy when Simon solved her dilemma by doing the last thing she would have expected.
He seized her about the waist and hauled her so hard against him, she emitted a soft gasp. Startled, she looked up at him, his face a dark blur. Before she could protest, his mouth descended upon hers, taking her in an embrace that drove the remaining breath from her body.
It was nothing like the gentle warmth of their first kiss. His beard abraded her skin as he devoured her with his lips, his embrace so fierce, it was as though he sought to claim a part of her very soul to carry away with him.
Miri felt helpless before the onslaught, her hands trapped between them, braced against the unyielding wall of his chest. She could feel the heat of his skin through the damp fabric of his shirt, the wild thunder of his heart. It echoed inside her, her own heart racing as Simon plundered her mouth and stirred her blood with a kiss born of heat and despair, desire and loneliness.
Simon’s emotions threatened to engulf her like a dark tide. Miri’s mind reeled, uncertain whether she wanted to fight or simply surrender, but once more Simon took the decision out of her hands.
He thrust her away, ending the kiss as abruptly as he’d begun. His chest rising and falling, he stared at her as though seeking to imprint her image upon his mind. Then without another word, he flung open the door and disappeared beneath the curtain of driving rain.
HE STAIRCASE WOUND
up and up into the clouds, the risers twisting and turning at mad angles. Miri trudged step after step, seeking to avoid trampling the lizards that darted about her feet. Sleek, slippery, and cold, the salamanders brushed against her ankles. Just as she despaired of ever reaching the top of the stair, she emerged into a room laid out like a gigantic chessboard, the black and white tiles lined with massive chess pieces carved of stone.
Miri froze as the black queen raised her scepter. She bellowed out a guttural command that sent her pawns marching forward. Miri cowered behind a white rook until she realized they were not charging at her, but the white knight astride his marble steed.
She tried to shriek out a warning but her cry was lost in the roar of the pawns’ attack. Cudgels upraised, they rained blow after blow upon the knight, shattering his mount, reducing him to a broken heap of limbs and armor.
Miri rushed to the knight, horrified to realize it was not a chess piece at all, but a man that lay there broken and bleeding. His black hair fell across his face, obscuring his visage . . .
Miri’s eyes flew open. Gasping, she bolted upright from her pillow, dislodging Necromancer, who was curled up on her chest. Oblivious to the cat’s offended meow, she kicked aside the coverlet and shot out of bed, straightening so suddenly she nearly banged her head on the low ceiling of the loft.
She reeled with one urgent thought. Simon. She needed to find him and warn him at once. Her heart hammering, Miri scrambled halfway down the ladder before she remembered.
Simon was long gone. How many nights ago had it been—two? Or three since he had vanished into the rain, leaving her plagued with troubled dreams of abandoned babes and sinister women harvesting deadly roses. But of all her nightmares, this last, the attack upon the man had been by far the worst, too much like her old dreams, the ones that had haunted her girlhood, strange and inexplicable portents of things to come.
She climbed the rest of the way down the ladder and clung to the lower rung, trembling. She had thought herself long past the age of her night terrors, something she had offered up thanks to God she had finally outgrown. It had been years since she had had such a dream, so strong and urgent; she still wanted to track Simon down and tell him.
But tell him what exactly? Beware of salamanders? Avoid chessboards? That his life was in danger? That someone was out to destroy him? Scarcely anything that Simon didn’t already know.
Sweeping her tangled hair out of her eyes, Miri stumbled out of the cottage, seeking the barrel she always left outside her door to gather the rain. Plunging her hands into the cold water, she splashed it over her face, welcoming its icy sting, hoping to shock away the last vestiges of her tormented sleep. She flung back her head and drew in a lungful of air, trying to breathe in the calm that blanketed the woods this morning.
Dawn . . . her favorite part of the day, when the world was newly washed with dew, the vivid greens of the forest soft and misty in the early morning light. On such a peaceful morn as this, the violent storm that had hurled Simon back into her life seemed like something that had never happened.
All traces of the man were gone, the net she had used to ensnare him removed from the tree, not a single one of his footprints or Elle’s tracks remaining. She could almost imagine that Simon’s visit had been no more than another dream except . . .
Miri ran her finger ruefully over her lower lip. Except for that kiss Simon had branded upon her mouth, so heated, so ruthless, her lips had been tender for a long time after he’d gone. Her mouth had recovered but her heart still felt bruised by the memory of Simon’s fierce embrace.
Blast the man. Why couldn’t he have just offered her his hand? Why had he had to seize her and kiss her as though . . . as though the sky was about to fall and the entire world come to an end? His embrace had not been merely the sad parting of a man who thought it unlikely their paths would ever cross again. No, more like the kind of desperate farewell a soldier bestows upon his sweetheart upon the eve of a battle he has no expectation of surviving. Simon didn’t expect to live to see her again and he could well be right.
Miri shivered as the images of her dream crept back into her mind, the blows of the cudgels, the dark tide of blood. She wrapped her arms about herself and shook her head in denial. There was no reason to suppose the man in her nightmare had been Simon. She had not even been able to see his face.
There was no doubt that Simon did have many enemies. He had done his best to make himself a feared and hated man, but he had managed to survive this long, hadn’t he? If only he hadn’t seemed so exhausted and alone.
But that was not what worried Miri the most. It was that shadow she sensed that had fallen over his spirit, making him no longer care whether he lived or died. Her refusal to help him might well have been the final blow, but what else could she have done? She could not put her family at risk by trusting him again, especially when she was not sure how much she believed his stories of this Sisterhood of the Silver Rose. He had offered her no real proof other than that extraordinary syringe he had called a witch blade, but Miri could only reflect wistfully what a boon such an instrument would be to healers everywhere.
It had been far easier to credit Simon’s sinister tales on a dark night with the wind and rain lashing at her windows. But in the clear light of day, the notion of a witch’s coven hatching some dire conspiracy against mankind seemed utterly fantastic. The bitter truth was Simon had lied and deceived her far too many times.
Miri started when something silky brushed up against her ankles. Glancing down, she saw that Necromancer had followed her from the cottage. He prowled about her legs, rubbing his scent against her. With his uncanny instinct for knowing when she was troubled and the source of it, the cat blinked up at her.
“I am trying.”
“Glib advice coming from a feline whose memory extends no further than his last nap, monsieur,” she retorted, giving the cat a playful nudge with her bare toes. But as she returned to the cottage to dress and tend to her morning chores, she made a concentrated effort to banish Simon back to the locked chamber of her mind where she had kept him for so long.
Once, such workaday tasks as milking her goat, feeding her pigeons, and currying her pony would have filled her with a simple contentment. But Miri completed her chores in a haze of distraction she could not entirely blame on Simon. She had felt restless and unsettled even before his visit.
Slinging a basket over her arm, she plunged into the forest to replenish the supply of wild roots and berries she used in brewing some of her elixirs. Necromancer prowled ahead of her, darting in and out of bushes, indulging his curiosity over some stray insect or butterfly he spotted.
She padded along after Necromancer, her toughened soles inured to the bracken beneath her feet. Carefully parting branches that blocked her way, she caressed her fingertips over the rough bark of a stately elm. Once she had been able to feel the thrum of life that pulsed upward from roots buried deep in the earth, the heartbeat of the island itself. Had the ancient magic truly fled? Or had her fingers merely grown too clumsy to sense it?
She still possessed her ability to whisper through the woods, doing nothing to disturb the peace of the wildlife, a small brown squirrel regarding her quizzically from its perch, the cheerful twittering of the birds undisturbed by her presence. Miri often found it strange to think she had learned this silence of movement not from her daughter of the earth mother, but her far more flamboyant father. The Chevalier Louis Cheney was a knight as noted for his ready wit and booming laugh as he was his valor, a welcome figure in court circles. But Miri had known little of the dashing gallant who cut such a swath in Paris. Her childhood memories were forged of the tall handsome man who had been the center of her small world, her chief co-conspirator and playfellow.
During those precious summers that Papa had returned from court to visit their island home, how often had they rambled through the woods hunting for fairies or crouched low in the bushes breathlessly waiting for a glimpse of the unicorn.
“You must be very still, ma petite,” he would whisper in her ear, his dark head bent close to hers. “Even such magical creatures develop a powerful thirst from roving about the island. Keep your eyes fixed there upon the stream and you’ll see him steal out from the trees for a drink.”
Although Miri had shivered with excitement, she had been unable to refrain from expressing her doubts. “But Papa, neither Ariane nor Gabrielle have ever seen the unicorn. So how will I be able to? I am so much younger and—and littler.”
“Ah, but out of all the daughters of the earth on this island, you are the one blessed with the gift for seeing what the rest of us poor mortals cannot. You are a bit of a fairy child yourself, my little Miri.”
Miri wondered if her father had any idea of the impact his words had had upon her. Born before her time, she had been a fragile babe, a delicate child, for a long time small for her age. She had always felt so much weaker and less capable than her strong, clever sisters. It filled her small heart with a fierce pride to think there was at least one gift she possessed, one thing that she could do that Ariane and Gabrielle could not.
She could see the unicorn. Or had she merely been under the spell of her father’s gift for telling tales, his ability to spin castles in the air with the mere power of his words?
Although Maman had always smiled at Miri’s excited descriptions of their adventures in the woods, she knew it had worried her practical mother as well. Once when she had believed Miri out of earshot, she had gently admonished Papa.
“Do you really think it wise to fill Miri’s head with so much fantasy, Louis? Between her beloved animals and her imagination, the child dwells far too much in her own realm. I fear it will make her ill prepared to deal with the real world.”
Papa had merely chuckled and replied, “A little fantasy never harmed anyone, my far too serious Lady of Faire Isle. The real world, as you call it, can be a damned unpleasant place. The child will learn that all too soon.”
So she had, Miri thought sadly. She had been but nine years old when her father had set sail on his voyage to the new world, promising to fetch her all manner of extravagant presents from mysterious far-off lands.
“You just keep watch for my ship sailing home, petite. I’ll be back before you know it. Wait for me . . .”
And wait she did, long after her sisters had given up hope. A part of her still longed for a time and place that could never come again. An enchanted world where fathers didn’t perish at sea and mothers did not die young. Where sisters were not torn apart and the handsome boy one loved and trusted did not turn out to be a dangerous adversary.
Her woods were always haunted, but they seemed more so than usual this morning, misted with bittersweet memories. Marie Claire had warned Miri about dwelling too much in the past.
“This island is no longer any place for you. It holds nothing but memories of a time that is gone forever . . . Leave Faire Isle, go back to Bearn and marry that young man who adores you.”
Her search for wild roots forgotten, Miri set down her basket. Leaning back against the broad trunk of a tree, she drew forth the locket tucked inside the bodice of her gown, tracing the etching of the wolf gazing longingly up at the moon. Her lips parted in a smile that was half tender, half sad as she thought of her own Wolf, Martin le Loup, with his roguish eyes, trim beard, and sable-colored hair. The last time she had seen him, they had been strolling through the gardens of Navarre’s palace, Martin resplendent in his embroidered jerkin, a short cape swirling off one broad shoulder, like a peacock flaunting his feathers before his much more somber peahen. Overcoming her reluctance to accept the locket, he had fastened it about her neck.
“It is not as though it is a betrothal ring, Miri. Only a token of—of friendship, a trinket.”
“A very expensive trinket,” Miri murmured, nervously fingering the braided chain, worrying how much of his hard-won coin Martin had spent. “It is pure silver.”
“Ah, but not as silvery as your eyes by moonlight. Now that is real treasure.”
Miri cast him a wry glance. Her dear friend could be a notorious flirt, extravagant and honey-tongued with his compliments. Martin’s hands lingered about her neck, but at Miri’s look, he sighed and drew back.
Miri fumbled with the catch. When she opened the locket and saw the inscription and the timepiece set inside, she was even more dismayed.
“Martin, this—this timepiece was a gift to you from the king himself.” A mark of Henry of Navarre’s esteem and gratitude for the dangerous mission Martin had undertaken, spying upon the powerful forces of the Catholic League, who threatened the borders of the tiny Huguenot kingdom.
“I can’t possibly accept this. If His Majesty were to discover you fashioned his gift into a necklace for me, he might well be offended.” But when she tried to take off the locket, Martin closed his hands over hers.
“Navarre of all men would understand. He is a great romantic himself when it comes to wooing the ladies. There is only one difference between us. He has been true to many women, I only ever to one. Besides, for what reason does a knight errant strive to acquire such gifts from a king? Only to lay them at the feet of his lady fair, ever trying to prove his worth.”
“You don’t have to prove anything to me.”
“Oh yes I do. Your knight has many more dragons to slay, many more quests to fill ere he deserves to win your heart, my lovely Lady of the Moon.”
Miri smiled ruefully. “Sometimes I think the knight enjoys his questing as much as the prospect of claiming his lady. Have you ever considered that the day you win her, your adventures would be over?”