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Chapter One

Orleans, Normandy, the Beginning

An old man, and he was only thirty-five.

His arms felt like lead, his back ached, and sweat streamed into his eyes, creating false tears. He’d fought the whole morning and well into the afternoon and felt every harsh moment, but he couldn’t show any weakness. Not to this crowd, not with so much at risk.

A hundred men had started the great tourney and now the numbers were whittled down, as they always were, to the final two. Himself, Richard, third son of Montague, the Duc d’Orleans, seasoned, hard . . . and that damned boy.

Richard had managed by a series of strategies, alliances, and pure skill to defeat some seventeen men. They had been strong, yet he had been stronger or smarter or both. But now, as he faced his final opponent across the shattered turf, now he was tired. More tired than he could remember. Every inch of him was bruised and his helmet, grown heavy from the constant battle, chafed around his neck.

Richard looked across to the galleries of the old Roman-built arena taken over for the contest. They had been nearly empty for most of the morning, but as the day’s climax neared, they fluttered with the movement of the onlookers. Even the duke his father had deigned to show his face at last along with his fat first born, swollen even now with the expectation of his inheritance. No such joy for the third son of most houses. For him was the bitterness of a few thin gold coins and the polite request to leave. Richard would go, eventually, but on his own terms and with honor. He would make a show for them they’d never forget.

It had been his only real misfortune, Richard d’Orleans, to be third born. Nothing other than that accident of timing could have marred him. He was tall, over six feet, and handsome. He had inherited his mother’s eyes, so he was told, of icy blue. He’d never seen her, for she had died bearing him, bleeding her life away as he was rushed to the wet nurse, screaming. He had cried for three days, whether from hunger or from grief no one ever knew. His fair hair came from his father, as did his size and strength. Montague d’Orleans had gained his place brutally over the bodies of many an enemy and not a few friends. His third child came by his streak of cold determination honestly. If you knew the father, you knew the son.

Richard’s childhood had been no better and no worse than anyone else’s of his station. A wry grin crossed his face as he thought of it. His station! The third son had no station. The first born inherited, the second went to the clergy, and the third? The third simply went, the farther away the better, unless he could earn his keeping.

Thank God for the tourneys. Early in his youth he had shown the unmistakable signs of being a natural warrior. In play as children, his older brothers were easy prey for one of his precocious strength and skill. In the course of his years of training he went on to ever older, larger opponents, and beat them all. Never once had he lost. When his body flagged, his brain saved him. He possessed a tenacity and intelligence that, coupled with his size, made him a natural champion. Pray God these qualities would not forsake him now. So long as he could continue as the favored champion of Orleans, bringing glory and honor to his family name, then his parsimonious father had good reason to allow him to remain home. Anything less and he would be shown the door quickly enough. Neither his father or oldest brother had said as much in so many words, but it was clearly understood. The outcome of this tourney would decide many things for them all for some time to come.

Richard d’Orleans looked to his callow opponent, studying him. The youth could have been no more than sixteen, the age of a squire, but was tall, muscled beyond his years, and heavy-boned in broken and ill-fitting mail. His breathing was labored as he leaned for a brief moment of respite on his sword. A bastard, thought Richard, and all the more dangerous for that. Longing for honor. Longing to make a name.

Because of his youth, he shouldn’t have been allowed in the tourney, though there were always exceptions. If the boy had had the good luck to capture a noble of some rank on the battlefield, rather than submit himself to be ransomed by an inferior, the noble would have knighted his captor on the spot, saving his name from the humiliation. Richard didn’t know or really care about this adversary’s past, his own future was all that mattered. The boy was nothing more than an obstacle to overcome.

The trumpets sounded their strident calls. The defeated had been carried from the field, either to be bandaged or buried, depending on their luck. Now it was the time of champions. The crowd would be silent, awed by strength and savagery, by the heat and the rush of blood and hope, until, as one of the champions fell, a great roar would go up in exultation of the victor. Richard stood straight as silence descended, facing his quarry, quiet as a statue. In past contests, so simple a ploy had often been enough to unman even the boldest fighter. Soon he would find out if this stripling was in that number.

The herald called their names out to the crowd, shouting what was already known, that the victor of this single combat would win not only the tourney purse, but all the arms and armor of the loser. Richard had little use for the boy’s shoddy equipment, but he wanted—needed—that purse of gold and all the important honors that went with it. Then would he have the freedom he craved, to make the choice to stay in his father’s court or to move on to serve in another, better house.

Despite his secure position as the first born with a son of his own to carry on the title, his oldest brother had made no secret of his jealousy for Richard’s abilities. The teasing rivalry they’d once shared as children had grown spiteful over the years, at least on his brother’s part. All too aware of his dependence on the good will of their father, Richard had grimly done his Christian duty and turned the other cheek to keep peace in the house, but it was damned difficult at times. More and more often his whispered confessions to the priests included his great temptation to pound Dear Brother to a jelly. Even after a day such as this he could do so without much effort, and oh, but didn’t Dear Brother know that well enough? The priests, of course, cautioned him against so grave a sin, and he reverently submitted to the penance without a murmur. No one could accuse him of disdaining the knightly virtues.

But enough of that. Memories of the past and fair dreams for the future could wait. All thought, all attention must be fixed upon what was to come. That purse of gold wasn’t yet tied to his belt; he had to first earn it. This new opponent had unquestionably fought well, defeating more than a dozen veteran fighters to get this far; it would be foolish to underestimate him just because he was a boy.

I was that young once, that desperate to prove myself. Why should he be any different?

Richard continued to hold still, letting his cold gaze pound against the boy’s scratched and dented helmet. He was distant enough to not be able to see the boy’s eyes, but still . . . Can you feel that, young pup?

The boy held still in turn, perhaps wise to Richard’s game and attempting to play as well. The stillness seemed to spread out from them, encompassing the field, the crowd, until the least murmur was stifled to silence. For the tiniest moment Richard thought he could hear their very breath in their throats.

Then in the stands, the kerchief fell. Battle was joined.

Those who watched would tell later that this was the greatest struggle they had ever witnessed. It was a struggle between man and boy, between experience and youth, confidence and desperation.

At first, little happened. The two adversaries circled each other warily, searching for weakness or fear. Then quick as lightning, they fell to it. For over an hour, the clanging of sword on shield, of metal against metal rang out across the damp Normandy countryside. For over an hour, it was the only sound to be heard, as if not merely this crowd of watchers but the whole world held its breath. No bird sang, no animal called, no infant cried. All was rapt attention, centered on the contest.

Initially, the young boy clearly had the upper hand. He’d used his moment of respite well, and was full of energy and spirit. He attacked with all the confidence of being sixteen and immortal. His sword arced through the air time and again, driving Richard back. It looked to all that the older man had finally, brutally met his match.

Richard, however, felt only serenity in his soul. He’d faced this many times before. Indeed, it was often a tactic of his to allow a brash opponent the upper hand in the early going to tire him out. Then he would come on full strength and finish off the unfortunate. He’d convinced himself that this was the case now, and sure enough, the boy was slowing, and the force behind his wild blows had faded. Richard chose to forget the fact that he had been truly shocked by the sheer ferocity of the boy’s initial rush.

Now it was his turn. He hefted his great sword and swung it into smooth, practiced motion, this time for attack, not defense. The boy staggered well back under the onslaught, and for the first time, a collective murmur arose from the crowd. Richard basked in their gift of approval, all but feasted on it in the brief pause as the boy fought to recover himself. Time now to undermine his confidence while he was yet vulnerable.

“I will have all you possess, all you desire. You are mine, boy.”

“Not yet, I’m not,” the younger man gasped. “I will not be beaten by an old man such as you.”

The words stung Richard. Unexpected, that, but easily returned. “Age, my lovely youth, is in the eye of the beholder.” And he struck again, down once to jar, then hard to the side and up, driving the boy’s sword from his, grasp to send it flying through the air, a flash of silver in the fading sunlight.

It was nearly over. An unarmed boy against Orleans’s greatest champion—all that remained to be decided was how much injury to give before Richard chose to stop. He should cripple the jumped-up bastard, for no champion wanted such a dangerous opponent to ever challenge him again. But as he prepared to deliver the blow the boy suddenly charged him, fast as the wind, faster than he could bring his sword around, arms wide to wrestle him to the ground. An old trick, was his fleeting thought, tried often and doomed to fail.

The boy crashed against him with a grunt, the shock of impact passing hard through his mail and padding beneath. More bruises for later. He felt burly arms wrapping around his waist, trying to lift him, to topple him. He twisted to break the boy’s hold. Just for an instant he saw their long shadows black against the churned, blood-soaked grass, saw their shapeless forms struggling, striving, one against the other. He lifted his sword high, the blade catching the lowering sun behind him. Sparks of light reflected off its polished surface, blinding him, but he didn’t need to see to accurately bring the thick pommel down on the back of the boy’s neck just below his helmet. It wouldn’t kill, but it would give Richard the moment he needed to tear free and finish the job. No mercy for this one, not after this humiliating trick. He could hear the hooting from the galleries already.

Just as he’d raised his arm high enough, the inexplicable happened. Not that he had time to work out exactly what caused it, all he understood was that an invisible hand seemed to seize the sword from his grip and send it flying through the air.

“Slipped away from him, by St. George!” someone crowed.

Thunderstruck, Richard’s mind howled a silent denial at this even as he tried to recover from the setback. Not slipped! He knew better. Something had . . . had taken it, plucked it right away from him when he needed it most.

Then his feet left the damp grass, he lost all purchase, all balance, and the world spun crazily beyond the confines of his helm. The earth came up and slammed him in the back, then another weight threw itself upon his laboring chest. He was down with the boy on top of him.

Even now, with his surprise about the sword necessarily fading against changing circumstance, he wasn’t worried. He’d been in this situation more than a few times before, wrestling in the mud before pinning his opponent and rising first to claim victory. But this time, he found it more difficult. The youth was heavy and fighting with all the ferocious recklessness of one who truly needed the victory. He wrested out of Richard’s grasp, quickly pushing himself to his knees. Richard clawed at his legs to drag him back, but the boy pulled out his dagger and slashed down at the older man’s hand, driving the thin blade between the protective rings of his mail glove like a hammer. Richard roared with equal parts of pain and outrage. Blood spurted, mingling with the mud as the boy yanked the blade free then twisted Richard’s helmet off. The sudden air was freezing against his sweat-soaked face and hair. Richard brought a now-clumsy arm up and over, barely managing to block the next fall of the knife. He tried to strike the boy’s face, but that poor fit of a helmet was sufficient protection. Not so for Richard. The boy’s own mailed fist connected like the club it was against the side of Richard’s now vulnerable skull. The sun whirled and flamed behind his eyes leaving behind a shuddering darkness.

The next thing he felt was a hand roughly grab his hair, pulling his head back, exposing his throat. For an awful, bottomless second he was utterly certain of his death. His time had finally come. All the victories of the years past meant nothing. He was lost. Everything he had was lost.

The boy’s leering face swam into view. “Yield, old man!”

His heaving breath stank, and the sweat dripped from his forehead onto Richard’s own streaming face. He pressed the dagger hard against Richard’s throat, cutting him. A thick trickle of blood slid hot over his cold skin.

“Your life, your possessions are mine no matter what. Yield to me and I will spare you. Old man.”

He spat the words out, and Richard knew he had no choice. He became aware of the clamoring crowd, the blaring trumpets, the screams, the laughter.

“I yield.”

The words came with no effort. Those words that he had fought so hard over the years never to have to say. They simply fell from his lips. Contemptuous, the boy released him and threw his arms skyward in victory and staggered like a drunk away to the welcoming shouts of his supporters.

Richard’s strength was quite gone. He could only lie in the grass and reddened mud, staring at an empty sky. His lungs labored painfully, his heart pounded far too hard and fast for comfort, but gradually both eased their breakneck pace, allowing him the single clear realization that he’d finally met defeat.

So it had happened at last, and strangely, very strangely, he felt free, released.

But God’s mercy, how he hurt.


Dusk fell as Richard squatted alone in his tent by the lake. His servants weren’t there when he’d returned from the field, nor had he expected to see them after his failure. They were, after all, attached to his father’s household, not to him. However, the boy’s new page and squire, grinning like fools, had most timely come to remove everything. His good chain mail, every trapping and weapon that he’d used in the tourney, all his best possessions were forfeit. Even his great broadsword, his soul as a fighter, disappeared, taken from him as he had taken it from his first victim. The spoils ever went to the victor in this kind of contest. It was a lesson Richard had learned long ago and benefited well from. Now, as though a great wheel had turned, it was his time to suffer.

“Our master will have your horse in the morning. He has no need of it tonight. Do not try to remove it,” the squire had sniffed as he went, “or he will surely remove your head.”

Richard said nothing. His left hand hurt like the devil. When he’d removed his mail glove to give to the page, his severed ring finger had fallen right out to the beaten earth. The smirking child doubled over, whooping with laughter at Richard’s surprise. The squire bent and picked up the finger to offer it back with mocking politeness. Richard stared at him until the youth shrugged, tossing it onto the old blanket that served as a bed. The two of them finally finished their scavenging and hurried away in the growing darkness, laden with their master’s booty, anxious to deliver it and pass along their tale. They’d left him the tent, too tattered to bother claiming, his clothing, a bed, such as it was, and an oil lamp. After fourteen years of service to his father’s house, this was all he had left, but he’d be damned before he begged for aught else.

And now Richard squatted by the lamp’s feeble light looking at the lifeless bit of flesh that had once been a part of him. The blood was all gone from it; it felt absurdly light and small.

What to do, he thought, what to do? The idea of taking his horse and riding like the wind for the coast and a ship to Britain or even Wales had, indeed, crossed his mind, but he dismissed it. Bad enough that he’d lost; he would not run away like a beaten dog. No honor in that, mores the pity.

Ah, yes. Pity. The most favorable response he could anticipate for his defeat . . . and the least tolerable to his temperament. God’s death, but it was easy enough to pity others, but for himself—better to be scorned as the defeated champion than to suffer charitable sympathy. The other response would certainly be contempt—especially from Father and Dear Brother—for what had happened.

And what had happened? How could he have lost his sword so easily, so damned carelessly? At the time he’d have sworn on the church altar that it had been solidly plucked away, and so it still seemed to him now, but that was ridiculous. It had to be. No one had been close enough to them to . . .

Had the young bastard had magical help? Had someone been working witchery in his favor? Richard was aware of such things, but in all his long years of fighting had yet to see any for himself. No, that couldn’t be it. That very morning he’d made his confession with all the others who were to fight, been absolved, prayed at mass, taken Communion, and worn his blessed cross all through the tourney. Surely no sorcery, no matter how strong, could have touched him. No, despite his strong impression of the incident, he must have mistaken things, somehow muddled them. The deed was done, anyway, over forever and the bleak consequences from the resulting loss were only just beginning to take root in his weary heart.

What to do?

He knew the fate of men in similar straits, having seen it often enough. He’d always thought them pathetic and somehow deserving of their ignominy, that they must have brought it upon themselves in some manner. He was well on the way to revising that belief, for it looked to be his future, too, wandering from court to court in hope that some lord would decide he was worth the keeping. If lucky, Richard might attach himself to a wealthy liege and train other men to fight. If not, then dead on a muddy road because . . . because he was an old man now and an easy kill. The bastard had been all too right.

Old man.

He could still hear the boy’s taunt in his mind, still feel the surprising pain of it. Thirty-five and an old man, at least as a fighter. News of this would spread far and wide, of how the great champion of Orleans was defeated by . . . what court would even have him after this?

Now who is raining pity upon you?

He looked up, sure someone had spoken aloud to him, but the tent was empty. He listened, hearing nothing except the distant noise of the revelers starting their celebrations, a feast he had no stomach to endure. The voice had been a fancy only. Perhaps he was getting a fever from the battering he’d taken, or from the lost finger. That would make a perfect end to the worst day of his life.

What to do?

Of course, if he really got desperate he could enter into God’s service. It would mean dawn to dusk toil, broken by an endless series of prayers and masses, but he was used to heavy work and at least he’d be fed regularly. Without money he could never hope to rise very far in the church hierarchy, nor did he have influence to make up for the lack. His second born brother, who had taken orders, bore as little love for him as the first born, scorning him for his success in the sinful vanity of tournaments. Perhaps if his younger sibling was sufficiently repentant might he be persuaded to have a change of heart.

But no, the cloistered walls of an abbey or monastery were not for Richard, not with his appetite for life’s fleshly joys. For once, his most recent confession had had nothing to do with his oldest brothers’ slights and everything to do with the comely wench whose company Richard had so thoroughly enjoyed the night before. He’d gotten a weary penance for that sport, but she’d been worth it. Where was she? Helping to celebrate the new champion’s victory no doubt. Not that he could afford her favors now. Sweet Jesus, but he didn’t even have enough money to get decently drunk.

It was an effort to drag his mind back to the unhappy cares of the moment, but back it came, encouraged by a legion of aches. A full day of hard combat was difficult enough to bear when victory came at the end of it. Now with the bitter gall of defeat, the pain of his body was almost unbearable.

You stink, Richard, he thought to himself. Go and bathe. Then have your wounds treated. Off to the good sisters with you.

It was his custom after any trial of arms to visit the Priory of Our Lady the Virgin, give generously to the sisters, and take advantage of their skills in healing if he needed it. Perhaps tonight they would remember his past generosities and treat him for nothing. He hoped so, for he was in grievous need of their help. His left hand throbbed as he tore a strip from the blanket and wrapped it clumsily over the still seeping wound. He’d have to find some hot wax to cauterize it, then have it properly seen to; unless carefully treated he could lose his whole arm to rot, perhaps even die from it.

There’s a comforting thought.

With an immense effort of body and will, he slowly stood and turned to leave, every separate stiffening muscle shrieking protest at the movement. It was then that he saw her, heard her soft voice drifting to him across the dim tent like a gentle summer breeze tousling the heads of wheat in a field.

“Bathing is an excellent idea, but if the good sisters possess any sense, they will have nothing to do with you.”

She stood just in the doorway of his tent, and for the first of many, many times, the Lady Sabra took his breath away. He wasn’t sure if she had spoken the words he’d heard, for he hadn’t seen her lips move. Certainly he didn’t know what to say in reply, particularly since she had commented upon his very thoughts. He stood like a dumbstruck fool for what seemed an age, drinking her in with his eyes like a pilgrim at the feet of a saint’s statue. Such was the feeling her presence inspired in him, as though he were in church, but instead of a bit of painted wood or stone this statue was alive, regarding him with ancient eyes, eyes that had seen all and could forgive anything. For an instant he wanted to fall to his knees before their terrifying beauty.

“Lady, you mistake your place,” he whispered, finally mastering himself enough to speak. “If you have lost your way . . .”

“I am not lost.” Her voice was as cool and smooth as the lake water, and she continued with her steady regard of him. Smiling.

No lady of any rank—and her clothing proclaimed her to be very high and wealthy, indeed—would have been alone as she seemed to be, but here she stood, looking at him as though nothing at all was amiss. He found it difficult to believe, but perhaps this angelic beauty was a camp follower dressing well beyond her station. Only one of that number would travel about after dark with no escort and boldly come to a man’s tent.

“You have no business here. I have nothing for you . . .” There, an inoffensive dismissal, an easy way for her to take her leave no matter who she might be.

“You are half-correct,” she said. “You have nothing for me, good Lord Richard, but I do have business here.” And she smiled that devastating smile again.

What kind of creature is she? he wondered. She was built like a girl, small, tiny compared to him, and yet there was a strange wisdom in her face. Her eyes were of the darkest brown, so dark that the black center was indistinguishable. Her skin was clear and milky white, and her ready smile showed strong, white, even teeth. But there was something else about her that he could not readily describe. She was confident, yes, and there was royalty in her bearing for sure, and at the same time, something disturbing. Then it came to him. It was a sense of power so vast and great that for an instant the hairs on the back of his neck began to rise, and he felt an almost overwhelming urge to run away as far and as fast as he could.

“I am the Lady Sabra. You may have heard of me.”

He tried his memory, but so unusual a name as hers meant nothing to him, and had he ever met her before he’d certainly have remembered. Had she been in the galleries? No, for he’d have surely noticed her there sparkling like a jewel amid the gold.

“No, Lady Sabra, I have not. Forgive me.” How abashed he felt, like an inexperienced lad with his first woman.

“It does not matter.”

“You are kind.” Why was she here, a lady of her rank? What could she want with him? A base idea crossed his mind, one of many possibilities, but he was reluctant to explore it too far. He’d learned long ago that the pursuit of carnal pleasures with noblewomen was often of far greater danger than any battlefield. Best to find out her business, then get rid of her as fast as politeness allowed.

“I would ask you to sit, but as you can see, there is nothing to sit on.” He gestured with his right hand, holding his left close to his body.

“I do not need to sit.” She continued to smile at him as she spoke, her gaze holding briefly on his injured hand before shifting back to his face; an unspoken challenge flashed from her remarkable eyes. “I watched you today at the tourney. You did well . . . for an old man.”

God’s mercy, but he did not need this now, no matter how beautiful she was. His lips tightened in an effort not to grimace. “I thank you, lady, your compliment is appreciated, though the ‘old’ is irksome. I have done better many times in the past. Perhaps Your Ladyship should have seen me then.” There, he’d almost sounded civil, even to his own ears.

“I saw all that I needed to see today,” she said evenly. Her gaze now swept over him from top to bottom, obviously judging, assessing, noting everything. He was more than aware of his ragged appearance, the muddy filth, blood and bruises. It was of no matter to him, if she wanted to talk to a gaudy peacock there were plenty to choose from in Father’s court. “I saw,” she continued, “a boy defeat a man. I saw a man humbled before a great throng. I saw youth bring pride low.”

God’s death, but he did not need this. Had a man voiced such things to him Richard would have given in to temper and challenged him on the spot. Instead, for the sake of her sex he must endure her insults. But she speaks the truth, so how is that an insult? Still, his jaw ached for holding back a sharp retort to her. A woman such as she would surely have a champion. However tempting it was, he didn’t want to offend her and get into another fight. At least not for a day or two. He took a deep, steadying breath before replying. “Indeed, lady. Forgive me, but I am not at my best, and truly do not need to be reminded of my defeat. Perhaps you should leave and allow an ‘old man’ ”—despite his wish for control his anger and voice rose as he spoke—“to be alone with the ends of his overweening pride, and to treat his hurts as best he can.”

“Forgive me Lord Richard.” Her demeanor abruptly softened and she seemed truly repentant. “I did not mean to add to your misery. I’ve not come here to gloat.”

How could she have known he was thinking that?

“I simply tell as I see. There is no judgment there. In truth, that boy will gain little from his victory. I see a short life for him . . .”

She stopped, as if uncertain whether to go on, then stepped toward him and looked up earnestly into his eyes.

“You are all my concern, Richard of Orleans.” She cocked her head to one side, for all the world, like a curious bird. “What will you do now?”

His temper melted away. First he wanted to forgive her, then he wanted to be angry all over again for plying him with the one question for which he had no answer. A few quick meaningless responses crossed his mind, but before that searching gaze, that gloriously beautiful gaze, he could only confess the unhappy truth.

“I do not know. I cannot stay here. I was only tolerated by my father because I was, it seemed, invincible. Now that there is a new champion they’ve no place for me.” Why am I telling her this? he thought as the words spilled from him. “I will move on. There is always need for those who train others.” He felt a great sadness creeping over him. “Other than that, I do not know . . .”

And he could not go on. Had he tried, his voice would have cracked and all the tears of his life, of his unspoken hurts, his loneliness, would have run uncontrollably down his bruised cheeks and betrayed his manhood, reducing him to being that little boy who had cried alone in the hayloft, longing for a mother’s gentle caress that would never come.

She reached up her hand and placed it against his cheek. Her pale skin was cool and soft and delicately scented. His heart leaped so hard he felt an instant of dizziness from her touch.

“You will never be alone again, this much I promise,” she told him with complete certainty. “Come to my pavilion tonight and we will talk further.” She moved away toward the door. “You will find it easily. It is nearest your father’s castle wall, on the west side. And Lord Richard . . .?” She arched one eyebrow.

“My lady?”

“Bathe first.” And as silently as she had come, she was gone.

“Yes, my lady,” he said to the darkness.

For a long time Richard stood looking at the opening of his tent, trying to decide what to do. He concluded that it was as before when the boy held the knife to his throat: he had no real choice. He needed work, a station to call his own, something honorable to do, and she’d offered to help him. But worldly practicalities aside, she was the most unsettling woman he’d ever encountered, bringing forth a multitude of feelings and reactions from him such as he’d never before experienced. His instincts screamed warnings to his mind that she was uncanny, and therefore dangerous, but his heart quietly assured him that he of all people would suffer no harm from her. With the back of his hand he touched again where her fingers had brushed his face. Had she said and done nothing else, that gesture alone would have sent him hurtling after her, unable to resist her invitation. Then he lowered his hand, grunted, and headed out to the lake. She was right. He did stink.


The water was freezing cold. His open wounds stung like wasps—especially his hand—his bruises were stiffening and like to remain so for days, but at least he was clean. As he stood naked at the edge of the shore, drying himself with handfuls of sweet-smelling grasses, he idly perused his body. For an old man he was yet well muscled and as hard as iron. There were scars aplenty, but none so bad as to be ugly, except maybe for the one on his shoulder from the sword blow that nearly took his arm a few years ago. The sisters had done well with their healing on that one. Not that his looks mattered. If Sabra had an interest in him, it would not be for the unblemished perfection of his hide. He was a soldier, not a reciter of poetry.

He pulled on his tunic and tied up his hose, slipped his feet into soft boots, and looped a belt loosely round his waist. These and a few other clothes were about all that he had left. Perhaps he could find a rich wife somewhere, a girl with a wealthy father anxious to have a share in the d’Orleans name even if it meant a penniless son-in-law. Oh, but did he want to be saddled with that kind of trouble? He couldn’t see himself ever getting quite that desperate, but it had happened to others. He shuddered at their lot as he walked from the lake.

The full moon had risen slowly, sluggishly above the trees and now hung heavy in the topmost branches like a huge yellow-gold ball. He could see his breath on the air in the chill of a late spring frost as he worked his way back toward the castle and the town. How he loved this time of year. He had ever since he was a boy. The new leaves, the damp smell of fresh-turned earth, and the wood smoke never failed to excite him. It was a time of breeding and of promise, trees heavy with blossom as the fallow deer was heavy with her fawn. It was also, it seemed to him, a time of magic and the unending mystery of life. As he looked past the trees, he saw the light of bonfires springing up far away across the fields, and the sounds of music and laughter carried to him on the gentle wind. Despite everything, all the calamities of the day, even despite himself and his failure, he smiled. Life could yet be good.

Soon the sounds of the castle came to him, and as he approached he could see busy servants running, shouting orders, making sure that all went well at his father’s celebration banquet. A banquet he had not been invited to, but that was only to be expected. He purposely avoided the light from the flaming torches, and made his way around to the west face of the castle. Here, all was much quieter, for here the great west wall stood in defiance of all who might try to force entry, windowless, doorless, solid. He strained his eyes into the darkness, and for a moment was sure he’d been cruelly duped, for he could see no tent, no lights to signify habitation. He turned, about to leave in disgust, when a voice disturbed the quiet.

“You are in the right place, Lord Richard. Come, my lady awaits.”

He turned again to the darkness, and became aware of a darker shape within it. A servant, no doubt. And sure enough, beyond the beckoning arm of the servant, there was the pavilion, torches lit, flags stirring in the gentle evening breeze.

The hair on the back of his neck rose again.

Magic? he thought, hesitating, feeling the cold air keen upon his flesh.

“Be so good as to follow me, Lord Richard,” the man patiently requested.

There was something strange about this servant as well. Something about his voice, though for the life of him, Richard couldn’t immediately fathom what it might be. It was neither high nor low, but of a disturbing middle tone, like that of a boy. Yet Richard was sure that this was no boy. Indeed, as they came into the light cast from one of the torches set in the ground near the front of the pavilion, he could see that the man was old, fat, and shiny-faced. Then it came to him: the man was no man at all, but a eunuch. Richard had once seen a dozen younger versions of such singing to God’s glory in a church. He’d also seen less fortunate ones working in some of the larger brothels of towns he’d visited.

“My lady waits within,” said the eunuch, gesturing politely.

Richard saw the pavilion door, invitingly open.

“I thank you . . .” and his voice trailed off, for the servant was nowhere to be seen. The man moved swiftly for one so large, and quietly. Richard swallowed his confusion, pushed away a last wave of trepidation, and went through the open door.

Even in the dim candlelight, he could see the luxury of the pavilion. A great pile of cushions lay atop a thick rug directly before him. A table stood to one side, laden with food, and on a smaller table near the cushions stood a gold pitcher of wine and jewel-encrusted goblets, also of gold. Brass braziers with smoldering charcoal warmed the air. This was a lady of some very high station, indeed. From somewhere he could hear muted music, the strains of a viol as sweet and plaintive as he had ever enjoyed. He stood waiting for some time, then crossed to the smaller table and poured himself some wine. It had a fine taste—deep red and full-bodied. He savored it and the rush of warmth it brought to his empty belly.

“I hope that it’s to your liking, Lord Richard.”

Her voice was as soft and sweet as it had been before. He turned, and there stood the Lady Sabra, breathtaking again in a gown of white with gold needlework, her long chestnut hair loose about her shoulders. Surrounded by candles, it seemed to Richard that she shone out like a beacon of hope for him in his misfortune. That feeling of reverence stole over him again and he stood rooted, goblet halfway to his mouth, unable to speak or move.

“My lady,” he finally managed to say by way of an inadequate greeting. He fell to one knee, head bowed, suddenly and utterly certain that he was in the presence of something more beautiful and powerful than any person, place, or thing he had ever known. The silence was broken only by the rustling of her dress as she moved toward him. Then he became aware of her outstretched hand. It was so small, so delicate, that it almost vanished within his as he took it to press to his mouth. Her scent drifted to him, sweeter than any bloom.

“Rise, Lord Richard. Come, sit with me, for there is much to talk about.”

He felt her hand pulling him upright and was surprised at the strength in one so small. Then she was sitting amid the cushions and beckoning him to join her, close by her side.

He hesitated. “My lady, it is not my place. I mistook you before. I did not know you to be one of such rank. Forgive me, but I have no right here.”

“My good Lord Richard, I have chosen you to be here. That gives you the right. Do not question my decision, for like it or no, I will have my way.”

He could see that behind her amused demeanor she would brook no argument, and it would be futile to try, not to mention bad-mannered. He obediently sat at her side, uncomfortable despite the soft cushions. He felt he should still be on his knees before her.

Her skin was clear and white and contrasted starkly with her hair and eyes. He hardly dared to look on her, lest he stare. Instead he tried to keep his gaze moving, taking in more details of her belongings, but not too much of that, either. He knew about the trappings of wealth, had lived with them all his life, but nothing like this. He abruptly felt like a swineherd in a palace.

What could she possibly want of me? She obviously had so much and he had nothing. Now. He was champion no more.

“You wonder why I asked you to come here,” she said suddenly.

Now he could permit himself to look at her, for as long as he liked, for as long as she spoke to him. “How did you know?”

“I know many things. I have the Gift, as you may have guessed.”

At once, Richard was all attention. He’d heard of such women before, women with the Gift of Sight: an uncanny, unholy ability, and linked to the Old Ways. His upbringing in the Church had taught him well the danger of the old magics. The priests who had tutored him told ghastly tales of unclean worship and bloody human sacrifice. He did not understand such things, nor ever wanted to, and so they frightened him, though he would never admit as much aloud. Finally comprehending the source of his earlier fears, he made to rise.

But she caught his hand, arresting him in midmovement. Her dark gaze held him as firmly as an iron chain. “Do not leave, Richard. Neither I nor she whom I worship will harm you. You should beware of believing all things that some of those of the Church would tell you of us. No one god monopolizes all the truth of the world.” She drew him back to sit by her again. “All holy ones possess a portion of it. It’s only their mortal servants who presume so much for them.”

He had no reply to that, having once heard it from a past tutor. The man had cautiously whispered it, fearful of being overheard by his more dogmatic brothers. It gave Richard the reassurance he needed to stay a little longer with her. Her talk of the Old Ways was perilous, but was mere talk all the same. If she tried any of the old magic on him he knew his own faith and the blessed cross he wore would protect him, though he could not imagine what she might do to him or why.

Sabra placed her hand lightly upon his injury and felt the rough bandages covering his wound. “A mean blow. And it hurts still.”

“Indeed it does, my lady,” he said, glad for the change of subject.

“I can make you whole again, restore it.”

His face fell, and he pulled his arm back. “The wound will heal, God willing, but my finger is lost, lady, nothing can restore it.”

She smiled. “That, we will see.”

She’s so sure of herself. Why?

Sabra stood and took the goblet that he had by now drained and went to the small table to refill it. This time she poured a clear, straw-colored draught from a different pitcher. “You’ll find this will give ease to the pains of your body.”

Mead, he thought, carefully sniffing it before taking the smallest of sips. It tasted of herbs and other elusive flavorings. The good sisters at the abbey had given him similar refreshment for past ills; this could be little different. More warmth flushed through him when he drank the rest, leaving him lightheaded. Drink without foodmost unwise, Richard.

The Gift must have served her again. Without a word, she went to the large table and brought back a tray laden with a fresh-baked loaf, a thick round of cheese, and several perfectly roasted squabs glistening with a glaze of honey.

“Please do not disappoint my cook,” she instructed him. She spoke most somberly, but with her head tilted to one side and a light of mischief in her eyes.

He felt a faint twinge of laughter trying to emerge in response, but was yet uncertain of her or of himself, so all he presented in return was a brief, shy smile. “Won’t you have a share as well?” he asked.

“Later. Take your fill. After the day you’ve had you must be quite starved.”

Indeed. The needs of his body had roared to full life at the sight of such provender, and he wasted no more time in satisfying the demands of a great hunger. She said nothing else until he’d finished. Only then did he think it strange that she should not speak the whole time. It hadn’t been an uneasy silence, at least not for him, which—given the oddity of his situation—was in itself strange. Perhaps there’d been more in the mead than simple healing herbs. Having reminded himself of it, he realized he was feeling much improved physically. Even the weary throbbing of his hand had lessened. If she was weaving a magical spell around him, then it was a benevolent one.

Through the open door, the fires that he had noticed earlier seemed to have become more numerous and brighter. Sabra, too, noticed them and stood by the door, looking, listening.

“Come here, Lord Richard.”

He stood and crossed to her, standing as close as he dared, nearly touching her. She was so small her head barely reached his shoulder. That flower-sweet scent of hers was in her very hair.

“Do you know what day this is?” she asked.

“I know it is a day of defeat and bitterness, but other than that I have no idea.”

“This is the feast of Beltane. Yonder are the Beltane fires. The people who light them are followers of the Old Way. They are my followers. They worship the Goddess as you worship your God.”

She unnerved him with her simple stating of such dangerous things. “I know nothing of these matters, lady.” He wanted to leave. “If my lady would permit . . .”

“Your lady does not permit. You will leave when I tell you and no sooner. Do you understand?”

He could feel the palpable power coming from her as strongly as though it had been a hand gripping his throat. He had no option, this he knew, and strangely the knowledge did not frighten him. Not too very much.

“I understand.”

“Stand by me and I will tell you of Beltane and then you will understand all and know no fear.”

God, he hoped so. As quick and as harsh as it had come, the power faded. No, that wasn’t right . . . she’d pulled it into herself. It was held in check. For how long? Until he displeased her and she let it free once again, only this time to crush him? She could do so, could do so without even moving. His heart hammered at that possibility, but he stood by her to look outside, their faces lit by the dancing flames of the fires, and the Lady Sabra spoke.

“Beltane is the holiest of days. It is the day of creation. It is the day on which the Goddess, through her priestesses, takes a man to her so as to create life. Only the Goddess can do that, Richard. Only the Earth can create new life. No man can create in that way. Most men only destroy. Watch the animals, Richard, their behavior tells us all. Only when the hind is ready can the stag go to her to breed, and only the stag that she chooses will be allowed. That is the natural way. Whenever a new worship perverts that natural order, chaos follows. Men fight wars, slaughter the innocents, destroy the sacred places of the Earth in the name of their gods, when it has ever really been because of their own selfishness. Even your holy Jesus was killed by such men. Ah, his poor mother.”

Sabra turned to Richard now, again unnervingly close to him, and as she looked up into his eyes he saw tears like clear gems upon her face and felt a great rush of pity for her. Perhaps he was in too much haste to condemn her beliefs, especially when she had spoken with unfeigned sorrow for his own Lord and His mother. Except for that one tutor he’d had, the priests had never been as charitable in their views of the Old Ways. Without thinking, Richard raised his uninjured hand to brush at her tears.

“Please do not weep, lady.”

“Yes, Richard, I must weep. I weep for the Earth that it is destroyed by men. I weep for the womb that is ravaged by men. I weep for our loss.”

She took his hand in hers.

“Once the whole world was of the Old Way. The whole world believed in the power and goodness of the Goddess, and now all that remains intact of it is that ancient isle known as Avalon.”

Avalon. The name had ever and only been a tale recited by poets to speed the hours of a winter night. How could she possibly be from a place that had no real existence?

“The world is wider than you can ever dream, Richard, and full with many wondrous things. What is legend in one place is the truth of life in another.”

The Gift again, hearing my thoughts.

“Open your mind to it; your heart already understands or you would not be here.”

“It is no easy thing you ask of me.”

“Yet you are capable. You have but to listen without judgment.”

A small enough request. “I shall try.”

When he said this such a light sparked in her eyes as to make his heart leap. He’d stay here all night and listen if she but looked at him like that again.

She’d held his hand this whole time, but now released it, turning slightly to better face him. “Know then, Richard, that I am one of the nine sisters of Avalon, a priestess of the Goddess, though not the highest. I have been sent from my home on a quest. You are the end of that quest, I feel it as strongly as anything I have ever felt. I have been searching and know now that you have been my goal. Listen to me well, for Avalon is in danger.”

“In what way?”

“Hundreds of years past the ways of goodness and the earth were trampled by the Romans. There was no creation in them, Richard. They had their gods and goddesses, but the great Goddess was nowhere in their eyes or their souls. They sought to convert by force. They destroyed the sacred groves, defiled our altars, burned the priestesses and priests, deprived the people of the wisdom of the way, plundered, and took captives away as slaves.”

“That was long ago,” he said.

“Not so long,” she whispered. “Not long at all. A mere moment of time as the stars make their wheel in the sky.”

She returned to the cushioned floor. He let fall the curtained door of the pavilion and unbidden sat by her side. He sat closer now, his unease lessened, feeling somehow a part of her, at one with her and her grief for things long perished.

“There is a king in Britain now who is blessed by Avalon,” she said, “one who is sworn to protect Avalon and the Old Way. He is to be the bridge between the old and the new, but he is threatened every day by the forces of chaos. He must be protected. You are the chosen protector. You are to be the keeper of the king.”

She was so certain, so damnably certain, and doomed to disappointment. After some thought on the best way to tell her Richard at last spoke. “My lady, you saw today that I am champion no more. I would be no great protector for your king. I am very sensible of the honor that you propose me, yet I know that I cannot fulfill it.”

“Not as you are, good Richard, but if you will allow, you will not be as you are. I have gifts, powers to give you that will make you the greatest champion that the world has ever known. I could force you to accept, yet I will not. You must make your choice freely.”

Choices. Gifts and powers. Of course she could promise much to him, since such promises were little more than air. But that certainty of hers—he’d seen its like before on the faces of believers in church—that certainty was enough to make him pause.

“What if I refuse?”

“If you choose to say no, all will be the same. Your life as it is will be yours to live out as you wish.”

As I wish. I did not wish for the day to have ended in defeat.

“If you choose to say yes, all will be beyond your dreams.”

“That could be perilous.”

“Indeed it could, but you’ve just been wise enough to see it. The Goddess has chosen well. Will you choose her?”

“To worship?”

“To serve as I serve. Anything more is a matter for your own heart to decide.”

Richard stood and crossed to the food-laden table, needing time to think. Idly, he picked up some fine exotic fruit, the like of which he had never seen before. Its taste was strange, but wholesome. Was its presence an example of her power, perhaps? Or was he enspelled by her already and only imagining he had a choice? He turned back to the Lady Sabra and was not surprised to find her gone and himself alone. She’d known he wanted privacy. The music of the viol had faded now, as had the noise of celebration outside, and silence lay heavy in the pavilion like a blanket.

Gnawing at the fruit, he mulled over the proposition that she had made. The greatest champion in all the world. That certainly attracted him. To be the protector of a king would be an honor indeed. And yet something stirred uneasily in his vitals as a warning. She had mentioned great powers, and he’d felt the hard touch of them during her one instant of impatience; that he could not deny to be real. Who was this Goddess? How dangerous was she? Why should she have chosen him of all men?

Or was it Sabra who had made the real choice, guided not by a goddess but by something more fundamental? He had enough experience of women to recognize when one had a specific interest in him. But if Sabra wanted but to sate her appetite for his body, there were less involved ways of going about it. She’d have found him more than willing and thankful for the privilege. No, all that she said about the Goddess was true, at least to her. He wasn’t so ready to believe himself, yet.

Could it be witchcraft? But he had met too many in the contests full of the confidence of some crone’s promised immortality and had defeated them as easily as any other opponent to give it much credence. This was a different land of power, then. And the power of the Old Ways was ever strong in the hearts of the simple folk. The tutor had once told him that when enough people believe in a thing, no matter how impossible, their belief makes it real. Did enough of Sabra’s followers believe to make a legend like Avalon real? Apparently so.

Then he thought of what faced him if he refused the offer. In truth, it was an empty prospect. Why should he not accept the challenge? His future with the Lady Sabra, whatever the risks posed by her Goddess and her magic, could be no worse than his future without. But still . . .

He dropped the remains of the fruit on a tray, scowling. Sabra had not told him everything, and that was why he was uneasy. And suddenly something made a great deal of sense to him, but he had to be sure; he had to get an answer from her on it.

“Then ask me what you will.”

He managed not to start at the sound of her voice. She’d returned unseen and was seated once more among the cushions. She smiled slightly, encouragingly against his frown.

“My last contest today . . . was it this power of yours that took away my sword when I most needed it?”


He’d expected a denial or some convoluted explanation or excuse, but not this simple admittance of guilt.

“Not guilt,” she said.

Now it was his time to show his anger, his power. “Saints damn you, woman, stop doing that!”

She flinched at his tone and her eyes flashed with temper, then subsided. “Forgive me, Lord Richard. You are quite right. I should respect the privacy of your thoughts.”

And not beforetime.

She made no response.

That annoyance settled, he asked, “Why did you do it? If you’ve been watching me as you say, then you knew how badly I needed to win. You cost me everything with your witchery.”

“Not so. Because of it you were spared.”

“Or did you want me to lose so as to more easily tempt me with this proposal?”

“Were that the truth, then I would have answered no.”

“But you caused me to lose, placing me in a position where I’d eagerly snap up the first bone tossed at me. Perhaps your Gift failed to show you that had I won I’d have left this place anyway. You’d have had a better chance persuading me into service then than you do now—”

“No, I would not, for you would not then be alive!” Her voice rang harsh in the confines of the tent, followed by an equally harsh silence.

“What is your meaning?” he demanded.

“The Gift told me—”

“The Gift!”

“—the outcome of your fight with the boy—and that he would defeat and kill you.”

Richard’s flesh prickled from a sudden chill from within. “You’re making this up.”

“Am I?” She stood, facing him squarely, her face white with suppressed fury. He felt the heat of it beating at him. “Then see for yourself, Richard d’Orleans.”

And Sabra, the pavilion, and all the world he saw ceased to be, and he was breathless on the tourney field again fighting for his life. The boy charged him, and as he’d done before Richard raised his sword high, but this time he held on to it and brought the knob of the hilt down hard as he’d intended. The boy’s forward motion faltered, but his weight still carried them to the ground to roll in the bloodied mud. The blow had stunned the boy somewhat, but not enough; he fought as one in a frenzy. Richard tried to bring his sword around but it was too long for close-in work.

Then the boy rammed a hard fist into Richard’s belly. Twice, thrice, knocking the breath from him. God, how it burned. Then he caught a glimpse of the knife in the boy’s hand, its thin blade liberally stained with blood.

My blood . . .

The boy stabbed him again and again—


—each wounding a burning trail of fire searing all the way through his flesh to Richard’s very spine—

Oh, God, no!

—until he lay still, mouth sagging wide, eyes open but sightless—

Noooo . . .

—dead. His last awareness was of sound, of the moan of disappointment from the crowd, the only mourning he would ever—

He could see again. Sabra, the richly furnished tent—all was as he’d left it, only now he was on his knees, blinking hard, arms wrapped tight around his belly to hold everything in, and a sheen of sweat coating his skin like hoarfrost. Shivering, he slowly, cautiously straightened, glancing fearfully down. No blood gushed from him; he was untouched.

The Gift of Sight. It’s true then.

“The Gift,” she repeated. “You saw the day as it would have happened. If I had not taken the sword from you in that moment, you would have surely died, and if you had not chosen to yield when bested, you again would have died. The power of the Goddess saved you, then you saved yourself. It is because of that inner wisdom you were chosen. It is not enough to have a man who knows only victory, but one who understands when defeat is also necessary.”

Sabra stood before him, arrow straight, arms at her side, her face alight with the power, almost too beautiful to look upon. The memory of his pain and fear faded, replaced by shame. How could he have doubted her? How could he have dared to be angry? Here in front of him was holiness, was something greater than any . . .

She touched his upturned face. “Dear Richard, worship me not. I am not the Goddess, only her servant.”

“Then shall I be your slave.”

“No, never that. Never.” Her fingers were warm and soft and real, made of flesh, not moonlight. He caught them in his good hand and kissed them. “Then your answer is yes.” It was a statement, not a question.

As before on the tourney field, the words came with no effort and this time with no shred of repentance to follow. “My answer is yes.”

She half-laughed, half-sighed. “I am glad.” Now she leaned down and kissed his lips, and his heart began to pound near to bursting. His breath quickened from desire for her. Did he dare do this? Would she?

That smile again, appraising and amused. Servant of something divine or no, she was a woman after all; her next words giving him all the invitation he needed. “For the Goddess, such fleshly wants are considered sacred so long as both are pleased to share them. Come to me, good Richard, for you are chosen of the Goddess . . . and I would have you.”

He smiled in turn. Does this mean the hind is ready for her stag?

In answer, she lay back among the cushions, her hair spilling over them, lips parted. Her eyes shone, almost glowed in the gathering darkness, for some of the candles had gone out. He crossed and knelt beside her. She reached up her hand to him, gently entwining her fingers in his hair, then suddenly, roughly pulled his mouth down onto hers. Her tongue forced its way between his lips, tasting him deep. They locked together in a long, long embrace. And in the embrace, it seemed to him that he heard her voice, echoing soft in his ears.

“I am yours, Richard, and you are mine. For tonight, and for evermore. For after tonight, there will only be forevermore. Come, the Goddess stirs within me and will not be refused.”

She stood, undid her dress, and let it slip to the floor. She was naked in the dim light, her breasts firm and full, hard tipped with desire, her belly flat and smooth, her wondrous hair cascading down over her shoulders. She smiled and moved to lie down once more, her body all light and shadow and full of promise. Richard hurriedly stripped from his clothes and all but fell next to her. His hand moved down to the gentle swell of her breasts. He winced as pain shot up his arm from the wound, then determinedly ignored it.

Once again, their mouths locked, wet, hot, tongues deeply exploring. Richard’s hands moved over her body, feeling its strength, its softness. He held her breasts, squeezing the hard nipples, bringing whimpers of pleasure from her sweet lips. Slowly, he moved his mouth down over her body, sucking, tasting her fullness. He could smell the muskiness of her womanhood, and as he touched her wetness, her back arched and a cry escaped her. Her hips moved against him, and her hands pushed his head down, down toward the darkness between her legs. As he tasted her, drank of her, she pulled him deep onto her and cried out yet again.

Then with unexpected strength she rolled him onto his back, and knelt astride him. He was hard, harder than he could ever remember, and a huge shudder seized him as she took him in her hands and engulfed him with the warmth of her mouth. His hands held her head rising and falling on him until she pulled away and, looking all the while into his eyes, lifted herself up above him and slid down, down, swallowing his great manhood inside her.

Their bodies moved together now, slowly at first, then faster and more urgent, uncontrollable, unstoppable. The sweat dripped down from her face onto his chest and there mingled with his own. He felt an intense heat growing deep within her most intimate embrace of him. It was nearly unbearable until, throwing her head back, convulsing in fulfillment, an almost inhuman cry escaped her. She hung on to him, nearly spent as he thrust himself deeper and deeper into her, his own need becoming more and more urgent. Then he too cried out as he pulsed inside her, pumping out his seed in that glorious moment of creation. Then his movements slowed, and still joined, she slumped against him to be cradled in his arms.

All was stillness as they slept.

He awoke to her hand caressing his chest with the touch of an angel. She lay next to him now, her fingers lingering upon his blessed cross. The night must be old for the candles had guttered, the darkness nearly complete. From within the darkness came her soft voice. Soft and sad.

“I will not bear your child, Richard. I cannot. You will know why. Yet I will have a child. You will be my child, my son, my lover, my best of all friends.”

He tried to speak, but could not find the words. Perhaps at times all women looked on their men in such a varied manner. Sabra could think of him in any way she willed, for he was pleased to be all things to her. Soon now he would be pleased to fulfill his place as her lover again. He shifted, turning to kiss her.

“Anything my lady wishes,” he murmured. His desire was as intense as the first time, but he moved slowly, savoring her, exploring her, finding out what she best liked, best wanted from him.

“This will pleasure you more than you can imagine,” she promised. “And do not fear.”

But there was no danger here, his inner knowledge told him that. All was well and as it should be. He was safe.

“Yes, Richard, you are safe. No mortal will ever be able to harm you again, for the Goddess protects you, and wills me to give you the gift of life.”

He wanted to say that he already had the gift of life and did not need it to be given again, but could not. Instead, he looked intently into the gloom. He was sure he could see her eyes shining there despite the dimness of the night. He felt both her hands now, reaching out to him once more, caressing his body in earnest. Her lips brushed his thighs, her tongue licking. Once more he hardened. The beating of his heart thundered in his ears, and once more, she sank onto him, engulfing him. But this was different. This was more. His whole body was sharply alive, his skin sensitive like a new-healed wound, his every pore tingling in the cool night air. Riding him, her mouth swiftly came to his, and again their tongues entwined, drinking of each other until she drew slightly away.

“Now, my Richard,” her voice was husky, low, “now I will give my life’s vigor to you as you gave yours to me. Now you will become my son.”

With a low growl she bit deep into his neck.

The abrupt pain of her sharp teeth tearing through his flesh made him cry out. He tried to push her away and could not. She held fast and would not be moved. He felt his life blood spurt into her mouth and her greedy forceful sucking at the wound she’d made. His heart thundered; without warning, he spasmed inside her, his seed gushing forth. He cried out again, this time in pleasure, in pleasure and pain together. It tore through him like a fire.

She lifted her head from her feeding. “See how we give life to each other in the name of the Goddess,” she whispered, rocking against him. “Circle and encircle . . . like the sun and the moon.”

He could just see her face, her stained lips, her eyes glowing from the unleashed power within. Her top corner teeth were unnaturally long, wolflike. She had promised he would understand everything. Now he did, all too clearly.

She bit down. It did not hurt this time, quite the contrary. Richard ceased struggling against her. What would be the point? He lay unmoving as the vampire fed on his living body. Every few moments a long shudder of ecstasy took him, each raising him a little higher than the one before, like an ocean’s tide. If this was to be his death, then he was a man to be envied, as his time of rapture continued on and on, surpassing anything he’d ever known.

Her quick breath hot on his skin, her body encompassing his writhed and trembled in such a way as to tell him her enjoyment was equal to his own. They moaned together, and he tilted his head farther aside, pressing the back of hers that her mouth settled more firmly against his throat.

Drain me to the dregs, my good lady. Take all that I have.

She drank until his arms had no strength to hold her. They slipped down and he could not raise them again. His hands and feet were like ice. Filling his lungs became a matter of conscious action, for the air had grown almost too thick to breathe. It was easier to take it in short, shallow gasps. His heart thumped and thudded at first, now it was reduced to a swift pattering.

Sabra drew back at last, her movements sluggish. She held his hand to her breasts, bowing her head once to kiss it. He could no longer feel her touching him.

“Do not fear, this will soon pass.”

He could hear his heart, could feel its frantic flutter against his breastbone, dying. He shook as though with burning fever, but in all his life he’d never felt such terrible cold.

“It will pass,” she promised him.

He listened as his heartbeat became weaker and weaker until, inevitably, it stopped. Her voice came to him, clear but as though from a vast and ever-increasing distance.

“Sleep, my love, my child, my friend. Sleep. All will be well.”


When he awoke, Richard’s first thought was of Sabra, their lovemaking, their long night of passion, but as his eyes drifted open he found himself sprawled alone upon the cushions. There was no sign of the Lady Sabra anywhere. He was not worried. She would return. He knew it.

He stretched mightily, breathing deep. The air was warm for a morning—if it was morning. He glanced at the curtained doorway. Thin slivers of sunlight peered through the cracks. The door faced west. By God, but he’d slept the whole day through. Not that he minded and certainly he had good enough reason to do so. She’d fairly worn him out, but he felt better, younger, more robust than he had in many a day. He’d heard other fighters swear that enjoying a woman after a battle was the best way to ease one’s wounds; perhaps there was something to that after all.

He sat up and looked about the pavilion, hungry. The food-laden table was untouched and waiting. He pulled his tunic on and padded over to investigate. Strangely, nothing there seemed at all appetizing to him, but nonetheless he broke apart a loaf of bread, dipped it into a dish of cold beef jelly, and took a healthy bite. At the first taste of it a heavy wave of choking nausea came over him, and he immediately spat the food out, retching until the last crumb was gone. Ugh. It must have gone bad during the night, or the wine had left his stomach too fragile for use just now. Such illness would soon pass, though; he’d suffered the like too many times before after a night of celebration to trouble much over it. Perhaps Sabra was also feeling the same and had retired elsewhere to physic herself.

He wondered just where his sweet lady had gone. The pavilion door was tied well shut, time he opened it and saw what was left of the day. The cords securing it came undone readily, and with an easy motion he threw it open.

The pavilion was on top of a rise with a fine view over the lake. The sun was close to the horizon; its red glow seemed to set the water aflame. He stretched again, embracing its heat.

Perhaps a little too hot, he thought, but so beautiful. A cooling swim in the lake would not be amiss. Sabra liked him clean, and if this evening held the same joys as the last, he wanted to do his best by her. Without further thought of it, he made his way barefoot down the slope, glancing back once at the pavilion and the castle behind it.

He was free and safe; he was to be the champion for a king in Britain and had the love of the most perfect woman in the world. His father and Dear Brother could go to the devil for all he cared.

His skin itched from the heat, but it wasn’t so bad once he’d made it to the shady cover of the woods below. It looked to be a very hot summer ahead.

He found a tree-sheltered place on the lake and, stripping from his tunic, waded out into the water. By all the saints, it was cold. Much colder than before, like midwinter. Worse than winter, so cold it burned. Puffing, he could only briefly splash himself before it was too much to bear and he had to rush back to the shore.

As he used the tunic to dry off he saw his skin had turned red as a cherry, and the itch was much worse, stinging like ant bites. He could hardly stand to cover himself again. Was there some sort of contagion in the lake? He’d once heard of people throwing poisoned snakes into wells to foul the water . . .

He’d work it out later. Now all he wanted was to get back to the cool repose of Sabra’s pavilion. He’d have more of that healing mead of hers again. That would take care of things.

As he emerged from the long tree shadows, the last of the sun struck him, as sudden and forceful as hammer to anvil. He fell back under the protective trees, cursing. What was wrong? Not half an hour past he’d felt superb, but now he was weak as a sickly babe. He faltered, caught himself, and gasping from the effort, sprinted up the hill for all he was worth.

The tent door was suddenly pulled open from within to receive him and closed just as quickly once he was inside. He stood panting from the pain and effort, face stinging, arms out from his body, not daring to move lest he further outrage his burned skin.

Sabra had been the one to hold the door. Despite his pain Richard had to pause a moment and drink in her unearthly beauty once again. Bands of gold-and-blue embroidery trimmed her gown, which was a rich brown, the same chestnut color as her hair. On her breast she wore a gold chain holding a gold and enamel medallion bearing the signs of the sun and moon with a cup between them. She’d braided her hair, the braid spilling over her right shoulder.

“What is wrong with me?” he finally asked, holding his red, now swollen arms out to her.

“It will quickly pass now that you are inside. From now forward, whenever direct sunlight strikes you, you will feel this way. It is a warning, if you like, that the sun is no longer your friend.”

“Why is that so?”

“Because of the new life you have from me. I hadn’t thought you would wake so soon, or I would have been here for you. Where did you go?”

“Just down to the lake to bathe.”

Her hand went to her mouth. “Oh, no.”

“What? Was that wrong?”

“No, but very dangerous. Like the sun, free flowing water is bad for you. Too much of either will kill you.”

“Kill me? The sun? How am I to be a champion for this king of yours if I cannot face the light of day?”

“The same way I do. I will teach you all you need to know. Was the water very cold?”

“Like a witch’s breath . . . that is . . . I mean—”

She made a calming gesture at him, smiling. “I’m not a witch as well you know. I should have been here but had to oversee something with my servants. I’m only glad you’re all right. Is the burn easing?”

He examined his arms. The redness had faded to an angry pink. His face no longer felt as stretched and tight. “Yes, a bit.”

“The sun’s nearly down. Once it is gone you will be healed.”

That was interesting. “Is this more of your Goddess’s power?”

“The power dwells within you now and is healing you. It takes a little time, but is far faster than it would be for other men. Have you not noticed your wounds and bruising are no more?”

Another look. Yesterday he’d had enough battering to leave him black and blue for a month. Now his flesh was whole, marred only by his old scars, and one blemish in particular: his maimed hand. The bandagings on it were soaked through by the water, but that was all right. Now he’d be able to change them without worrying about the fabric being glued to his skin by dried blood.

She came close. “Let me see your poor hand.”

He held out his injured limb and watched as she undid the rough dressing. Soon the bloodstained rags were gone and four good fingers and an ugly, scabrous stump were revealed. The wound had clotted over somewhat but would need stitching to properly heal.

“Is it a bad hurt?”

“Indeed it is, but I’ve lived with worse.”

“No more.” She glanced at the doorway. The light behind it had faded. “Good. The sun is gone. I can do something about this at last.” And then to his astonishment she produced his severed ring finger.

“What do you with that? How did . . .?”

“I sent my servants over to your tent to look. They were afraid you’d thrown it away or buried it.”

“But why? Of what use is it to you?”

“See the power that we have together. See the power the Goddess bestows.”

She took his hand, making him spread his fingers wide. Before he could ask what the devil she thought she was doing, she pressed the shriveled thing against his wound. He tried to pull back in disgust, but she held it firmly in place.

“Sabra . . .” he began impatiently. Then his breath deserted him as a shattering bolt of pain shot through his arm. He cried out, jerking away from her. His hand was afire, or so it seemed for much too long a moment . . . then, just as suddenly, the pain vanished.

Sabra smiled as she spread her arms, palms out. “See?”

Richard looked and gasped, for there was his ring finger attached again—for all the world as if it had never been touched. Only a white scar remained encircling the base where the flesh and bone had been rejoined. He gazed in bald-faced wonderment, unable to speak. He stared at her, a dozen questions hovering on his lips . . . then forgot them.

She was radiant. A strange hunger washed over him. For her.

“How is this possible?” he whispered, holding up his hand.

“Dear Richard, do not ask. Simply accept the bounties that are yours.”

“But I must know!”

“You will in time. Do you not remember last night? The last thing that we did?”

“I remember the lovemaking . . .” God, he’d never forget it. But then when she’d . . . his hand went to his throat. The skin was whole, smooth, but still . . . something hovered wraithlike beyond the edge of memory, and it was important. “There was more, I know somehow that there’s more.”

“Indeed, sweet Richard, there is more. I will tell you, but first you must feed.”

Distracted by so much he’d nearly forgotten his empty belly. Reminded, he felt hollow to the core as if he’d never before eaten in his life. He went to the table again, but the sight, the smell of its food repelled him.

“What is wrong with me?” he again demanded of her. “I hunger, but I cannot touch any of this.”

“You will be fed, do not fear.”

Without being called, her eunuch servant appeared, but he bore no tray of edibles. Richard’s hunger increased at this frustration, was becoming unbearable.

“Give me food!”

“My sweet, I have.” She gestured at her servant.

This was no time for games. Richard looked around him in desperation. The greatest, most incessant gnawing that he had ever felt was growing inside him and yet Sabra and the eunuch continued to stand unmoved.

“My love,” she said, “take what you will. Take what your soul desires and needs.”

The eunuch stepped forward, a beatific light on his face, the elated light of a believer. He looked at Sabra. “Thank you, lady, for giving me this honor.”

“Go to the Goddess with love and in peace,” she told him. “You will ever be remembered in this world. I swear it.”

He smiled and knelt with his back to her. Eyes shut, he raised his chin high, exposing his throat. She stood close behind him, bending over him, low enough now as though to whisper in his ear, then lower still until her mouth touched his neck. The old man trembled, smiling.

Richard watched with horrified fascination. She could not mean this. Then in a flood, the memories of the night came back to him—all of them—and Richard knew that, indeed, she did mean this, that this was the satiation for the terrible hunger inside him.

Sabra lifted away from her servant. Blood streamed from the man’s neck where she had bitten him. Her eyes were glowing; her lips parted, revealing the sharp wolflike fangs, the exultant expression on her face.

Unclean worship . . . bloody human sacrifice . . . was this what the priests of his youth had meant? Why they hated the Old Ways?

He caught the scent of the blood. Breathed in a great draught of it.

The eunuch opened his eyes, looked up at him.

“Come, my Lord Richard. You are the chosen of the Goddess. Let me honor her. Please.”

“You wish to die?”

“To be with the Goddess forever. Yes.” Closing his eyes, he continued to kneel, waiting.

Richard felt a snarl of impatience rise in his throat. He looked to Sabra.

“It is his dearest wish,” she said. “Deliver it to him. Feed!”

I cannot.

“You must.”

He could not tear his gaze from the blood. He licked his lips, felt the change of his teeth. I must look like her now, red of eye, wolfish, terrifying.

And then there was the hunger. Inescapable. Growing. He felt a cramp start deep in his vitals like the stab of a knife.

“Wait no more, Richard,” she urged. “Madness could take you if you wait too long. Feed now.”

Trembling from head to foot, he moved toward the eunuch until he stood close behind him. Blood still flowed from Sabra’s wounding of him.

Perhaps if I take only a little of it . . .

No, once begun he knew he would not stop. His need was that great.

“Sabra.” His voice was thick. He hardly knew the sound of it.


“Will he become like us?”

“No, he has chosen to go to the Goddess.”

“And there is no other way?”

She gave no answer.

The pain wanted to take him again. He fought against it. A moment longer was all he wanted. He willed his hands not to shake as he reached out.

“Stand,” he told the eunuch. “No one should have to die on their knees.”

He drew the old man upright, gently tilted his head to make taut the furrowed skin of his throat.

“With peace and in love,” Sabra whispered.

Richard reared his head back above the eunuch, then battened hard upon him, sank his teeth into the exposed willing neck, and for the first of so many times, felt the warm gush of blood coursing down his throat, the life of another flowing into him.

How good it was.


Afterwards Richard lay with Sabra on the cushions, gazing at the ceiling of the pavilion but not really seeing it. His malignant hunger was gone, but at such a price. What sort of Goddess demanded the death of her worshipers? But the old man had been willing, so joyfully willing to die that Richard might live, and unselfish sacrifice was central to all he had ever been taught in his own church.

Other servants came to bear away the eunuch’s drained body. She wept a little at this.

“Was this not for the glory of your Goddess?” Richard asked. He studied his arms; all sign of the burning had quite faded from his skin, as she’d promised.

“It was, and all is well with him. I weep because I shall not see him again. He was ever faithful and true. I will miss him.”

“I am sorry.” He leaned back, feeling heavy as though his bones were made of lead. The feeding’s done this to me. “Must we always kill to live ourselves?”

“All things must kill to live, but we need not. I took much from you and that blood had to be replaced. The next time you feed you won’t need a tenth of that quantity.”

“The next time? When will that be?”

“In a few nights. You will know it when it happens.”

“And who will I feed from?”

“I have many servants. We will teach you how not to bring permanent harm to the one you choose.”

That was good. “Will animal’s blood not do just as well?”

“Only if you’ve no other choice. Animals are for humans to feast on, but we are somewhat more than human—and like calls to like.”

“What we’ve . . . what I’ve done, the priests of my church would condemn me, drive me away.”

“Given the chance most people would kill you. There are those who hunt our land and seek to return us to the Earth by driving a stake of yew through our hearts, but even that doesn’t kill right away. It freezes us, pins us in place so we cannot move and feed. Those caught in this way die slowly, a lingering death of starvation. The lucky ones are beheaded.”

He had heard stories in his travels of how best to deal with certain night-living demons who fed on the blood of men. He’d dismissed them as fancies. No more.

“We are of the Earth, my love,” she said. “As immutable as the mountains, and as long living. This is the Goddess’s greatest gift. Left alone, we will never die.”

“And are we the first of our kind?”

“There are Others in the world, but I know them not. I was the first born of the Goddess. I will tell you how I came to be and about the Goddess if you wish.”

“I would like that, yes.”

“There is a goddess named Cerridwen, who has two sons, Gwynn and Gwythyr, and they fight eternally for her favor. Each year they fight. At Beltane, Gwythyr triumphs and Gwynn is banished to his home in the underworld, and we have springtime and bountiful summer. But at Samhain in the darkening of the year, they fight again, and this time, Gwynn is the victor, and then the gates of Annwyn are opened, and the wild hunt of winter begins. The great white hounds of Annwyn, eyes as red as blood, come forth and search out human souls to take back to Annwyn where they will await rebirth. We are the children of this eternal conflict, for we are descended of the Hounds of Annwyn.”

She stood and moved to the pavilion door to look out at the night. He followed her. The moon, just past its full, cast a brilliant cold light over the land. He could see every detail as though it were day.

“Cerridwen gave me eternal life so as to ensure that the ways of the Goddess would never be forgotten. She summoned Gwynn and instructed him to have his greatest hound feed on me, on my blood, and in the feeding, my mortal body was changed, immortality given in its stead. This is why the bright sun will destroy us, for the Hounds of Annwyn are creatures of darkness and the storm.”

It sounded like a tale to him, something for the poets to recite.

“You may believe or not,” she said. “Though here we are, proof of what I say.”

He gave a quiet laugh. “Will I be able to hear the thoughts of others as you do?”

“No. The Sight has ever been with me. If it had not been for the Goddess’s protection I’d have been killed for it by those who fear its truth. Your Gift is your strength, spirit, and mind. Soon you will put them all to good use. My people are even now preparing for the journey. Tomorrow we will leave for Britain.”

“For your king who has been chosen as a bridge between the old and the new.”

“As you are also in the same way a bridge.” She touched her medallion and then his cross. “He is and will be a great king, blessed of Cerridwen, the once and future king of all Britain. His name is Arthur, and you, my love, will be his strong right arm in all things. You are the Goddess’s gift to him, my gift to him.”

“I shall do my best.” He felt a familiar stirring within and put his arms around her, pulling her close. “In all things.”

After a long, quickening kiss, he easily scooped her up to carry back to their nest in the cushions. There he sought to undo the laces on the back of her gown.

She leaned forward so he could better work, and her hand strayed down between his legs. “Indeed, you will be his greatest champion. I do not need the Sight to tell me that.”

“Only touch,” he murmured, delighted with what she was doing. If she kept on like that he’d have to abandon the laces and simply raise her skirts.

“I am Sabra of the Lake, you know.”

“And very pleased I am to make my lady’s acquaintance.” There, the knot was loose and he could pull the cords freely.

“You are now my best weapon against Arthur’s enemies.” She gave him a firm squeeze that left him panting. “My lance. My lance of the lake . . .”

She laughed, until he covered her mouth with his own.

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