King Arthur’s tomb lay hidden deep within an ancient wood. For centuries uncounted, the sheltering trees grew tall, spread wide, and fell to rot until barely a stone remained to mark its presence.
With a hand clamped upon the shoulder of his attendant, the other upon his stick, Máelodor limped the final yards through the tangled undergrowth to stand before the toppled burial site. The mere effort of walking from the carriage used much of his strength. His shirt clung damp and uncomfortable over his hunched back. The stump of his leg ground against his false limb, spots of blood soaking through his breeches. Every rattling breath burned his tired lungs.
“This is it,” he wheezed, eyes fixed upon the mossy slabs. “I feel it.”
He didn’t even bother to confirm his certainty. No need. Once decoded, the Rywlkoth tapestry had been clear enough. Its clues leading him unerringly to this forgotten Cornish grove.
Excitement licked along his damaged nerves and palsied limbs, casualties of his unyielding ambition. The Nine’s goals had been audacious, but Máelodor had known long before Scathach’s brotherhood of Amhas-draoi descended like a wrath of battle crows that, to succeed, authority must be vested in a single man—a master-mage with the commitment to sacrifice all. To allow no sentimentality to sway him. To use any means necessary to bring about a new age of Other dominance.
He was that man.
His continued existence obscured within a web of Unseelie concealment, he’d called upon the dark magics to re-create life. Resurrecting an ancient Welsh warrior as one of the Domnuathi. A soldier of Domnu in thrall to its master and imbued with all the sinister powers that inspired its rebirth.
That first trial had ended in failure. The creature escaping Máelodor’s control.
But he had learned from his mistakes. It would not happen a second time. Once resurrected, the High King would serve the man who restored his life and his crown. Would obey the mage who brought forth a host of Unseelie demons to fight for his cause. And would fear his master as all slaves must.
Mage energy danced pale in the green, humid air, mistaken by any who might stumble into this corner of the wood as dust caught within the filtered sunlight. Máelodor reveled in its play across his skin before it burrowed deep into his bloodstream. Melded and merged with his own Fey-born powers. Growing to a rush of magic so powerful he closed his eyes, his body suffused with exhilaration. The same uncontrolled arousal he usually sought in the bedchamber or the torture chamber.
His hand dug into the man’s shoulder until he felt bones give beneath his grip. No cry or flinch at such harsh treatment. He’d chosen Oss as much for his brute strength as his slit tongue. Máelodor’s body jumped and spasmed as bliss arced like lightning through him. And it was he who cried out with a groan in orgasm.
Sated, he motioned Oss forward, the two moving at a crawling pace over the uneven ground until he stood at the edge of the toppled granite slab, close enough to lay his hand upon the rock. The mage energy leapt high, buffeting him as it sought to understand this intruder. Moving through him in a questing, studying twining of powers.
Arthur’s bones lay only a mere stone’s thickness away. Once he possessed the Sh’vad Tual, Máelodor would finally have all he needed to unlock the tomb’s defenses. Triumph would be his at last, for who was left to stop him?
The Amhas-draoi had long ago assumed his execution. The rogue mage-warrior St. John doing much to turn the eyes of Scathach’s brotherhood toward another and discredit any rumors of Máelodor’s survival.
Brendan Douglas was their quarry. The treacherous dog could only hope they found him before Máelodor did. For once Douglas fell into his clutches, so too would the Sh’vad Tual. One would unlock the tomb. The other would feed Máelodor’s unholy desires for months.
It was fascinating how long one could string pain out. An unending plucked wire where a simple tug anywhere could bring excruciating agony, yet death remained always just beyond reach. It would be thus for Douglas. The man who had brought the Nine down would suffer for his betrayal before joining his father and the rest in Annwn’s deepest abyss.
Máelodor’s Domnuathi had captured the diary.
Máelodor himself had stolen the Rywlkoth tapestry.
Brendan Douglas would hand over the stone as he begged for his life.
“We’re close, Oss. No longer will the race of Other live in the shadows, fearing the mortal Duinedon. It will be our time again. We shall not so easily let it slip away from us again.”
The bear-like attendant nodded, his empty eyes never wavering. His stance wide, his arms hanging ape-like at his sides.
“Help me back to the carriage. I’m expecting news of Douglas.”
In silence, the pair—aged cripple and mute albino—stumbled through the tangle of brush, leaving the tomb behind.
But before the stones merged within the wood’s defenses, Máelodor turned back. Whispered the words that would unlock the door: “Mebyoa Uther hath Ygraine. Studhyesk esh Merlinus. Flogsk esh na est Erelth. Pila-vyghterneask. Klywea mest hath igosk agesha daresha.”
Trees shook as birds rose in a chattering black cloud. The sun dimmed, throwing the grove into sudden darkness. A faint chiming caught on a cold rush of wind. And refusal blossomed like a bloodstain in Máelodor’s chest. The answer came back to him—
Dun Eyre County Clare, Ireland
“Stand still, Elisabeth. The woman can’t do her work with you spinning about like a top.”
Elisabeth subsided under Aunt Fitz’s scolding. Inhaled a martyr’s breath, trying to ignore the burning muscles in her arms and the tingly numbness moving up from her fingertips. It was all very well for her aunt. She wasn’t forced to stand with her arms spread wide, pins poking her in the small of her back, the feeling draining from her appendages. She rolled her neck, hoping at least to ease the tension banding her shoulders.
“Stop fidgeting. You know, if you didn’t keep nibbling between meals, Miss Havisham wouldn’t have to adjust the gown.”
The modiste glanced up. “Mm. Phnnmp. Mnshph,” she mumbled around a mouthful of pins.
“And that’s very kind of you, I’m sure. But I’d rather Miss Fitzgerald refrain from extra desserts and late-night tea and biscuits.”
Elisabeth glared at her aunt’s reflection in the cheval mirror. It was a familiar argument between them. Aunt Fitz—her own figure rail-thin—had always viewed her niece’s voluptuous Renaissance body with displeasure. Or perhaps with jealousy. Either way, visits by the modiste always ended in short tempers and long silences. And an overwhelming urge in Elisabeth to eat something tooth-achingly sweet just out of spite.
She risked smoothing a hand over the swell of one hip, the slide of the pale silk cool against her palm. “Perhaps you could simply throw a sack over me and save all this bother.”
“Don’t be pert, dear,” came her aunt’s response as she sank into an armchair by the fire with a tired rub to her temples.
Miss Havisham stood with an accommodating smile. “There now, Miss Fitzgerald. You can take it off.”
With the assistance of her maid and the modiste, Elisabeth wiggled out of the gown.
“I’ll have the alterations completed by tomorrow. Oh, it shall be absolutely stunning. You’ll be a vision. Mr. Shaw will think he’s marrying an angel.”
Elisabeth stared hard into the mirror, doubting even the expensive and exclusive Dublin modiste could affect that kind of transformation. But it was pleasant to envision appreciation lighting Gordon’s eyes upon seeing her in the creamy lace-and-silk confection.
Miss Havisham chattered on as she packed up her bags. “It must be so exciting. Having all your relations gathered together. The anticipation of starting a new life with such a respected and very handsome young man.”
“It was exciting the first time,” Aunt Fitz groused. “This time, it’s simply tedious.”
Elisabeth blushed, color staining her neck and cheeks. Eyes may act as windows to the soul for others, but in her case, all thoughts and feelings appeared pink and splotchy upon her face. Not a pretty picture when combined with her red hair. “You didn’t have to make such a to-do over the wedding. In fact, I’d have been happier had you not.”
Her aunt’s lips quirked in a sympathetic grimace. “I know, child, but Aunt Pheeney would never have forgiven us. You know how she loves a spectacle. Let’s just hope this wedding comes off without a hitch. I don’t have the strength for a third. And neither you nor I are getting any younger. You’ll be twenty-six this summer. Most of your friends wed long ago, their nurseries full.”
Elisabeth stood still while her maid secured the tapes of her morning gown. “Thank you for reminding me of my approaching decrepitude.”
“I’m only saying that once a woman reaches a certain age, it becomes more difficult to entice the—”
“I know what you’re saying, Aunt Fitz. And you’re right. It’s just taken me this long to find a suitable man. Someone I could respect enough to build a life together. Gordon Shaw is that man.”
“I hope so, or we’ve gone to a lot of bother for nothing—again,” Aunt Fitz mumbled before plastering on a cheery smile at sight of Elisabeth’s tart frown. “No, you’re right, Lissa. He’s a fine man and a suitable husband.”
Lissa. Why had her aunt used that silly childhood pet name? Did she mean to confound her just when she most needed confidence? Or was it a slip of the tongue after an interminable day of wedding arrangements?
Only one other person had ever dared call her Lissa past her tenth birthday. One infuriating, exasperating, unconscionable, miserable horse’s arse.
The dis-Honorable Brendan Douglas.
Music reached her. Even in her bedchamber, so far from the light and color and laughter of the drawing room downstairs, strains of Mozart floated round her like a ghost. The second movement of his piano concerto no. 27, of all things. She’d once thought it her favorite piece. But that had been many years ago. Now, just hearing the familiar chords set her teeth on edge.
First Aunt Fitz’s use of that ridiculous pet name and now this. Memories hung heavier in the air tonight than they had in many a year. Like a fog, clinging to the back of her throat. Squeezing the air from her lungs. Though that might be her stays. Hard to tell.
She placed a drop of scent behind each ear. At the base of her throat. Repinned a straggling piece of hair. Silly things. Inconsequential things. But they kept her safely in her chair while that horrible, incessant tune played below-stairs.
As a final gesture, she lifted a hand to the necklace Gordon had presented her at dinner. Amid a chorus of oohs and ahs from female relations and the menfolk ribbing him mercilessly about his besotted state, Gordon had fastened the opulent and conspicuously expensive string of sapphires about her throat. She leaned back into his hands, but he retreated with a singularly un-lover-like pat on her shoulder.
The necklace was stunning. Spectacular. A work of art. And completely not to her taste.
She reached behind, undoing the clasp. Laying the gaudy choker carefully back in its box. The music swelled as she searched her jewelry case. Lifted out another pendant to wear in its place. A plain gold chain. A simple setting. And a stone more breathtakingly dramatic than any she’d ever seen.
Large as a baby’s fist and still chipped and rough as if it had only just been mined, the milky translucent crystal was slashed with veins of silver, gold, rosy pearl, and jet black. Depending upon the light, it could shimmer with flame-like incandescence or smolder like banked coals. Tonight it glimmered in the curve of her breasts. The subtleties of its colors accentuating the honey tones of her skin, pulling glints of gold into her brown eyes.
Would Gordon understand, or would he glimpse her neck and see only her refusal to wear his costly gift? Best to wear the sapphires tonight.
She started fumbling at the catch when the door burst open on the girlish round features of Aunt Pheeney.
“Are you still lolling about up here? My dear, everyone is beginning to think you’ve gotten cold feet. Even Gordon is concerned. You know what they say about time and tide. . . .”
“I’ll just be a moment.”
Aunt Pheeney would not be put off any longer. She dragged Elisabeth from her chair. “No more hiding away up here. This is meant to be a celebration. Not a wake.”
“I know, I only need to—”
“No more delays, young lady.” Aunt Pheeney had already bullied her halfway to the door. “Come downstairs now.” Her usually cheerful features rearranged themselves into what, for her, passed as stern lines. “That’s an order.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Elisabeth allowed herself to be led out, Gordon’s sapphires abandoned upon her dressing table.
As they descended the stairs, the music rearranged itself into a proper country dance. Men led their partners onto the drawing room floor, the furniture removed for the evening, doors flung wide to create one enormous, glittering, laughter-filled expanse.
Elisabeth cast her eyes over the sea of guests. Most of them family, though neighbors and friends, some from as far away as Dublin, had come to be a part of the wedding festivities. The marriage of the Fitzgerald heiress had been a long time coming. Everyone wanted to be there to witness it. Or, a more cynical voice nagged at her, say they were present when Elisabeth Fitzgerald was jilted a second time.
Aunt Fitz and Lord Taverner chatted in one corner. Elisabeth’s guardian no doubt discussing marriage settlements and jointures and land trusteeships. Aunt Fitz nodding thoughtfully, though she bore a hawkish scowl.
Cousin Rolf, dashing in his scarlet regimentals, and beautiful Cousin Francis, in white and gold, whirled their way through the set while Cousin Fanny and Sir James grazed from the passing platters.
Uncle McCafferty deep in conversation with a gentleman she didn’t recognize. Obviously one of the Dublin crowd invited by softhearted Aunt Pheeney, who felt anyone she so much as passed three words with merited an invitation.
Gordon and his half brother, Marcus, stood amid a group of sober-clad companions. Gordon’s handsome features and athletic physique, as usual, drawing the eye of every woman in the room. She squared her shoulders. Plastered a smile upon her face. In a few days, this absurd spectacle would be over. She would be wed.
“Come along, Elisabeth. They’re all waiting on you,” Aunt Pheeney coaxed. “Behold, the bride cometh.”
“I think that’s bridegroom, Aunt Pheeney.”
“Tish tush, close enough.”
The music ended. But only for a moment before the scrape of violins began again. Different couples. Same pairings and partings to the steps of the dance.
She held back, slightly breathless, a strange tightening in her stomach. “Let me just collect myself for a moment and I’ll be in.” At her aunt’s skeptical look, she added, “I promise,” and kissed her soft, dry cheek.
Her aunt patted her hand. “Very well, child. But a moment only.”
Elisabeth watched the scene below her as if she were a little girl sneaking down from the night nursery to catch a glimpse of her mother and father among the florid, laughing faces.
Even long after their deaths abroad, when Aunt Fitz and Aunt Pheeney had been the ones hosting the lavish balls and jolly house parties, Elisabeth’s gaze had always wandered over the tableaux below her as if she might spot her mother’s Titian hair or her father’s broad back amid the throng.
Taking a deep breath, she stepped from the comfortable shadows of the hall into the blaze of a thousand candles. Immediately, Gordon lifted a quizzing glass to his eye, studying her for a long moment before he lowered it, a question glinting in his eyes.
She tried smiling an apology, but he’d already turned back to the men in response to a chummy slap on the back that left them all guffawing in good humor.
But another had yet to look away. The stranger with Uncle McCafferty. The weight of his stare sent heat rising into her cheeks until she realized it wasn’t her face he was fixated upon but her chest. Hardly the first man to be so bold, though it unnerved her just the same. Let him ogle his fill, then. What did she care? She lifted her chin to return his steady regard with her own.
He stood well above her uncle, perhaps even of a height with Gordon. But whereas her betrothed possessed a wrestler’s build, this man’s lean muscularity spoke of agility and nuance. A swordsman. Not a pugilist.
His gaze narrowed as he bent to sip at his wine. Tossing Uncle McCafferty a word while keeping her under watch. There was something familiar about him. The way he stood, perhaps. Or the slash of his dark brows. His eyes finally moved from her breasts to her face, a rakish invitation playing at the edges of his mouth. Warmth became a flood of scalding heat. No, she certainly did not know such a forward, insinuating gentleman.
And with a regal twitch of her skirts, she entered the fray.
The hours passed in a haze of conversation and music. She barely sat out a single dance. Traded from partner to partner as each man sought to compliment her beauty and impart his good wishes. Gordon spoke for her first, of course. Led her to the floor, his hand gripping hers as if she might try to escape. He made only one comment upon her choice of adornment. “I’m sorry you didn’t like my gift. If you’d prefer, we can choose something more to your liking.”
Guilt dropped into the pit of her stomach, and she smiled more brightly than she otherwise would have done. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.” He arched a brow which made her words spill faster. “But it didn’t go with my gown, you see. Tomorrow evening. I promise. I have a new gown it will suit perfectly.” She went so far as to bat him playfully on the arm with her fan.
Gordon offered a pained smile. “Wear your little bauble, Elisabeth. Among this company, it’s quite beautiful enough.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“No need to fly into the boughs, my darling. I only meant that I find you faultless in anything you decide to wear.”
Her prickles smoothed, she gazed up at him in clear invitation. They could slip away for a moment or two. There were alcoves aplenty. And it wasn’t as if they weren’t going to be wed in a few days.
Unfortunately, Gordon stepped back at the same instant she leaned forward, almost unbalancing her. He cleared his throat, a decidedly proper expression on his face. “Careful, Elisabeth. Your great-aunt Charity is casting dagger glances our way.”
She straightened, smoothing her skirts. Tossed a demure smile over the crowd, all as if she meant to almost topple feet over head. “Oh, pooh for Great-aunt Charity. Glass houses and all that rot. If half the stories about her are true—”
“Still, my dear. It wouldn’t do to antagonize her unnecessarily. I don’t want her thinking I’m a scoundrel.”
“What if I like scoundrels?”
“You’re such a tease, my dear.” He acknowledged an impatient summons from his brother with a wave. “Marcus is after me to make a fourth, dear heart. Will you be all right on your own?” He smiled. “Silly question. Of course you will. You’re a natural at this sort of social small talk. And besides, it’s family. Not a bunch of strangers, eh?” He chucked her chin as he might a child’s before leaving without a backward glance.
She took advantage of the respite to snatch a savory and a glass of wine from a passing tray. Nibbled as she watched the crowd of parrot-bright ladies and dashing gentlemen. They laughed, danced, drank, and in one or two instances sang. Boisterous. At times rowdy. But always good-natured.
“Among this company . . .” What had Gordon been implying? And why did she feel she’d been chastised like a child? She shook off her questions with a sigh and a sharp flick of her fan.
“Abandoned at your own festivities?” came a voice from behind her, thick and dark as treacle. Definitely not Great-aunt Charity, who possessed a parade ground bellow.
No, Elisabeth knew that voice. That impudent tone.
She swung around to come up against an unyielding chest. Her glass of wine sloshed onto his coat, staining his shirtfront dark red. He stepped back with a quick oath. And the moment burst like a bubble. The man from earlier. A stranger. Not him. Not at all. What was wrong with her that she jumped at shadows?
“Forgive me.” She blotted at him with her napkin.
“Here, allow me.” He eased it from her hand as she belatedly realized the unintended intimacy of her actions.
“I . . . Oh, dear . . . you don’t think . . . oh, dear,” she babbled.
He dabbed at the spot before crushing the napkin and shoving it into his pocket. “No matter. At least it’s not blood this time.”
What on earth did he mean by that?
He lifted his head, his veiled gaze finally meeting hers dead-on. Eyes burning golden-yellow as suns, the irises ringed in darkest black.
She crushed a hand to her mouth to stifle the sound choking up through her belly.
His lips twitched with suppressed amusement. As if this were in any way funny. Earth-shattering, more like. “Hello, Lissa.”
© 2012 Alix Rickloff