Authors: Lisa Jackson
Tags: #Impostors and Imposture, #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #Sisters, #Missing persons, #General, #Middle Ages
I would like to thank everyone who helped me with this book. Special thanks to Ari Okano, who spent endless hours with my characters—I couldn't have done it without you!—and helped with the transition between editors. Thanks to Claire Zion for working tirelessly on a project she inherited, and thanks to Nancy Richie and Kathy Okano for their help in reading and rereading the manuscript.
The Forest Surrounding
Tower Lawenydd, North Wales
Darkness had descended when Kiera awoke on the cold, wet earth, mud and leaves clinging to her face. She had no idea how much time had passed, but the moon was high in the night sky and the forest was silent and still, not even a breeze rustling the branches. She ached all over—every bone in her body jarred, every muscle seeming bruised—and for a moment she couldn't remember how she'd ended up here in the night-darkened forest alone.
She'd been riding, she thought, and touched the coarse clothes covering her body. Yes, that was it, she'd disguised herself as a stableboy and ... and had taken Obsidian out through the castle gates, and
Her head pounded and throbbed, seeming too tight for her skull. Rubbing her forehead, she felt a knot over one eye. Obsidian! Somehow she'd lost her father's prized steed. She remembered the faint image of the black beast racing riderless through the murky undergrowth as she'd nearly been knocked unconscious. "God's teeth," Kiera muttered. "Obsidian! Come back! Obsidian!" But the horse was long gone, having disappeared into the rising mist and trees minutes, perhaps hours, ago. "Damned thing." Struggling to her feet, she winced against the pain in her shoulder, then whistled long and hard.
She couldn't return to the keep without the valuable steed, but she heard no sound of hooves approaching, no crack of twigs or rustle of wet branches as the stupid beast returned through the darkness. "Come, boy," she called, as if the temperamental horse were one of the castle hounds.
But she heard no resounding echo of hoofbeats.
She'd lost him.
Angry with herself, she took a few steps forward and felt an eerie sensation, like the breath of the very devil, against the back of her neck. As if someone were watching her. Someone close, mayhap dangerous. Which was just plain silly. She was alone and several miles from the castle ... For the first time she realized that she might have more troubles than just a runaway horse. She whistled again and heard a faint echo of her own high-pitched call.
The blasted animal didn't return. And she couldn't find him in the darkness. The night was closing in, becoming thick. Mist collected on her skin as it began to rise from the ground.
"Bloody hell," she swore, kicking a clump of mud from her boot.
Stuffing wayward strands of hair into her hood, she started off in the direction in which the miserable beast had fled. She'd barely taken two steps on her wobbly legs when she felt it again—the heart-stopping sensation that someone was watching her.
She hazarded a glance over her shoulder. Was there a shadow, a movement in the mist?
Her heart froze. Her throat was suddenly dry.
Through the thin curtain of fog she spied a faint image of a huge, silent man astride a pale horse. Bearing down upon her.
Fear congealed her blood. A night bird warbled.
Had the rider seen her?
Of course he had.
And he'd heard her calling for her horse. Whistling and swearing.
Stumbling back a step, Kiera sensed that he was staring at her. Though she couldn't see his face, she knew in her heart that his gaze was hard. Sinister. Elsewise why, when he so obviously saw and heard her, would he not say something?
Swallowing back her fear, she tried to convince herself he wouldn't bother her. Even if he was an outlaw or thief or worse, what would he want with a scrawny stable lad? "I'm ... I'm looking for my horse," she explained gruffly, hoping to sound like a young man. "Who are you? What do you want?"
"I think you know."
"You don't fool me." His voice was low, gravelly, and tinged with accusation. As if he knew her.
"I'm not trying to fool anyone," she said, her voice still disguised.
Liar! You deceived your father, the stable master, the guard at the gate ... everyone.
She tried a different tack. "I'm afraid I was riding and got thrown off and ..."
He clucked his tongue and the buff-colored horse moved closer.
What the devil did he want?
"... and I'm looking for my horse. A big black stallion. Mayhap you've seen him?" She was backing up now, determined to run the second she thought she had a chance of disappearing into the fog and eluding him.
" 'Tis a silly disguise," he sneered, and her heart nearly stopped.
she was dressed to fool people, yet she couldn't make out his features.
Her breath stilled and she didn't move. Couldn't.
Surely he didn't recognize her as the daughter of Baron Llwyd. How could he? She wore ragtag doeskin breeches and a woolen tunic with a deep cowl. This miserable cur of a man wouldn't think to kidnap her and ransom her or worse, would he?
But even in the gloom she could see a flash of white teeth. "Didn't you know that I'd follow you here?"
"No ... I ..." Then she understood. Her hand flew up and touched the gold chain surrounding her throat. When she'd been thrown from the horse, the jeweled crucifix had slipped out of the tunic's neckline, and now, even in the palest moonlight, it glittered against the leather laces and rough fabric. Her heart thudded as the stranger slowly dismounted.
"Where'd you get that?" he demanded, his eyes centered on the crucifix she was trying vainly to hide.
She didn't answer for a second. If she admitted the cross was a gift from her mother as she lay dying, the outlaw would realize who she was. "1 stole it," she said boldly, her voice low as she forced herself to edge closer to a dark thicket. "As well as the horse. From the baron."
"So now you're a thief?"
He snorted. God, who was he? It seemed a deep hood covered his head, a dark beard his chin, but in the darkness, she couldn't be positive. "Surely you can do better than that." He was so close now she could smell him, feel his hideous heat, yet his face was hidden.
She had no weapon except a tiny knife in a pocket, but if he touched her she would surely use it—gladly jam it into his black heart. Carefully, barely moving, her heart beating frantically, she slid her fingers into her pocket. "Leave me alone," she warned, inching backward.
"You started this."
How? By falling off the damned horse?
"I did nothing of the kind."
"Silly girl. You think you can fool me?"
Run! Now! While you still have a chance!
She didn't think twice. Whirling, she took off at a dead run, deeper into the woods. Dear God, why had she not sprinted out of sight before he dismounted, before he saw her, before— Her toe caught in an exposed root. She pitched forward through the leaves and brush. She put out her hands to catch herself. With a painful snap, her left wrist buckled. Pain splintered up her arm. "Ouch!"
The bastard chased her. She heard his footsteps heavy in the forest. "Where the devil do you think you're going?" he demanded, his voice so horridly close she cringed. Her wrist throbbed painfully. She saw his shadow, a dark, dangerous figure who grabbed her by the shoulder and jerked her roughly to her feet. "You can't get away."
"Leave me alone."
"I don't think so."
Fear, cold as death, settled in her heart. She was alone with this ... this outlaw. Far away from the castle. No one around to hear her scream. Strong fingers dug into her flesh.
"What do you think you're doing?" Dear God, her whole arm ached. She could barely think.
"Teaching you a lesson."
She thought he would try to rip the necklace from her throat. So be it. Slowly she reached into her pocket with her good hand. Her fingers found the tiny, wicked blade. Quickly she slipped the dagger into her palm.
"Thought you'd get away, did you?" he snarled, and to her horror his mouth crashed down on hers. He was rough, his fingers digging into her muscles, his beard scratching her face. So this was it. Not only did he mean to rob her, but rape her as well.
She'd die first.
And so would he.
He groaned and yanked her closer. She pulled the knife from her pocket. Ignored the pain. His tongue pressed hard against her clamped teeth.
In one quick movement, with all her strength, she jammed her tiny blade into his side.
He yelped, let go. "What the bloody—?"
She stumbled backward and tried to run, but he caught her arm. Whirling, she slashed her wicked little blade frantically as he cursed and dodged.
"Let go of me, you miserable—oh!"
He twisted her arm back. Hot pain ripped through her shoulder.
"You little cur!" Pain forced her to her knees. Her pathetic blade fell from her blood-sticky fingers to the ground.
"Don't, please ... just take the necklace. Stop ..." She tried to wriggle free but he was strong, breathing hard, smelling of sweat. Blinding pain seared through her: It was all she could do to stay conscious. She was doomed. Without a weapon she was no match for him.
"The necklace?" he demanded.
"Aye, the crucifix."
"As if that would be enough!" he growled as she nearly passed out again. "You know better." She saw his teeth glint an evil white in the darkness. "Now let's hear you beg."
"Dear God, no ..."
"You can do better than that."
A twig snapped nearby.
The thug stiffened. "What the hell was that?"
Kiera's legs were like water, her brain fuzzy, the pain so intense she heard a high pitch in her ears.
"Who goes there?" the outlaw demanded.
What was that?
"Ooowwhhh!" His body jerked wildly as he screamed. His grip loosened as he fell with an earth-jarring thud to the ground.
Kiera scrambled to her feet. On wobbly legs she started running through the undergrowth, fear propelling her as wet branches slapped at her and her feet tangled in vines. She had to get away. Fast. Someone had become her savior—or had seen what was happening and wanted the cross for himself. She didn't wait to see which.
Hoofbeats thundered behind her. A horse crashed through the brush.
Her savior? Or the thug upon his horse again?
She ran desperately through the night, tree limbs clawing at her, thorns tearing at her clothes.
Could the horse behind her be Obsidian? She didn't dare hope, and crouching low, she scrambled through a thicket, her fingers scraping the bark, her shoulder and wrist throbbing in pain.
"Kiera!" Elyn's voice slashed through the night.
Her sister was here? In the forest?
Nay. Her mind was playing tricks on her.
"Kiera, for the love of St. Peter, where are you? Kiera!" Elyn's voice rang with desperation.
What if the outlaw had somehow captured her sister? What if this was a trick?