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Authors: The Maiden Warrior

Mary Reed McCall

M
ARY
R
EED
M
C
C
ALL
THE
M
AIDEN
W
ARRIOR

 

For six legendary women in my life: my sisters—Linda, Cindy, Susan, Sandy, Deb, and Carolyn. From first introducing me to the mystical fantasy of Merlin, with his strange language and gift of sweets that “fell from the sky,” to infinite hours jumping off the back porch playing Wonder Woman, singing in the kitchen as we cleaned up after supper, or tap dancing across the state in competitions and county fairs—you have helped to make my life a rich tapestry of happy memories and special times. Thank you for being such wonderful sisters—I love you all…

And for two other women who are legendary in their own right: Ruth Kagle and Lyssa Keusch. You have given freely and generously of your time, expertise, and support to help me pull my writing into the best shape possible; your ability to make wonderful—and tactfully offered—suggestions for smoothing over the rough spots never ceases to amaze me. You would be any author’s dream agent-and-editor team, and I’m so thankful that you’ve been mine!

Contents

Prologue

He was coming.

Chapter 1

She hadn’t come.

Chapter 2

The nightmare had come again last night, choking him with…

Chapter 3

Aidan clenched his fists, staring into the woods into which…

Chapter 4

Aidan’s men swung their heads to stare at him, their…

Chapter 5

Gwynne hunched over the fire, blowing on her fingers to…

Chapter 6

Aidan didn’t quite know how to handle what was happening…

Chapter 7

Diana stood up carefully, checking as she did to make…

Chapter 8

Aidan nudged his basket closer to the edge of the…

Chapter 9

“What do you mean, I’ve been spying on you?” Aidan…

Chapter 10

Gwynne stamped through the underbrush on her way to the…

Chapter 11

“I need to talk to you.”

Chapter 12

Gwynne watched Diana flitter around the great hall, already worked…

Chapter 13

Gwynne fought the urge to straighten her circlet as she…

Chapter 14

Aidan glanced into the great hall on his way out…

Chapter 15

Gwynne paced the confines of her chamber, glad that Aidan…

Chapter 16

Gwynne stood in the doorway, her heart racing. Her palms…

Chapter 17

Gwynne needed to leave; she didn’t know how much longer…

Chapter 18

Diana crouched behind the massive wooden table in the darkened…

Chapter 19

“Damn it, Aidan, just deny it and be done with…

Chapter 20

Gwynne paused before the solid span of the door to…

Chapter 21

Gwynne slumped in her chair in the corner of the…

Chapter 22

Gwynne’s breath rasped in her throat, burning her lungs as…

Chapter 23

Aidan rested beside Gwynne, his body spent and his spirit…

Chapter 24

Aidan stood atop Dunston’s battlements less than an hour later,…

Chapter 25

Gwynne slowed her pace, deciding that her stallion needed to…

Chapter 26

Aidan stumbled for what seemed like the twentieth time in…

Chapter 27

Gwynne awoke with a start. Wispy fragments of the dream…

Chapter 28

The square had fallen silent with Gwynne’s accusation; even Lucan…

Epilogue

Their wedding day shone clear and bright, the early autumn…

A forest in Northern Wales, 1163

H
e was coming.

Gwendolyn heard the baying of Owain’s hounds; they were close now, and their frenzied howls helped her to cover the distance to the clearing. Finally stumbling to a halt, she leaned against a tree, her legs numb and her breath rasping as she opened the fold of her tunic to check the babe nestled against her breast. Despite the jostling pace they’d been forced to take, her child still slept peacefully, one tiny thumb tucked into its rosebud mouth.

A rush of love so great that it threatened to stop what little breath was left in her swept through Gwendolyn; she blinked away her tears and leaned down to kiss the babe’s ebony curls. But as she moved, a tangled lock of her own golden hair fell forward, and with a mewling sound the child stirred, as if it would begin to cry.

“Hush, now, angel,” Gwendolyn murmured, stroking the silken cheek, even as her gaze frantically searched the wood around them. This was the spot; it had to be. A gnarled tree, bent almost to the ground with age, loomed ahead of her just as they’d described. A small circle of oddly shaped stones jutted from the mossy earth nearby. ’Twas the Druid place of worship, and ’twas here that she’d been told to bring her babe.

The clamoring of the dogs filled Gwendolyn’s ears again, their howls closer than before. They’d picked up her scent for sure. Panicked moans rose to her throat as she took a few more running steps, clinging to the soft, warm weight of her child; her tear-filled gaze swung from one end of the tiny clearing to the other. Sweet Jesu, what if the Druids hadn’t come?

At that moment a rustling noise drew her attention; as if fashioned from the forest itself, a woman stepped into the stone circle. She was dressed in a coarse bliaud of brown and green, and strange tattoos—Druid honor marks—rimmed her fingernails and continued up her hands to her arms.

With a kind nod, the woman reached out, saying softly, “Give me the babe now, my lady. There isn’t much time.”

Gwendolyn paused, but the hounds’ chorus rose again, vicious in its intensity. With a choked cry, she reached into her tunic and took her child from its haven against her skin. Murmuring wordless sounds of love, she cradled its head and pressed her lips once more to its downy curls. Tears blinded her as she kept up the sing-song humming, nuzzling her babe and breathing in its sweet, milky fragrance.

Knowing that she’d never have the chance again.

Too soon it was time. Her arms trembled violently as the Druid woman took the child from her with a gentle touch; her sobs gained in force while she watched the woman back away. As if from the end of a long tunnel, she
heard the quiet assurance that this was for the best. That they would keep the babe safe and secure. And then the Druid was gone, melted back into the woodland as if she were part of the trees and leaves that whispered their melancholy song to the sky.

Gwendolyn sank slowly to the ground, emptiness engulfing her—a huge black hole that had once been filled with the tender miracle of her child. All that kept her from curling up in the dirt and letting Owain’s dogs have her was the knowledge that she wasn’t done yet. A realization that told her she could still do more to protect her babe, still draw attention away from the Druid woman’s presence.

Dragging herself to her feet, Gwendolyn ran back toward the brutal howling of the dogs, the crashing sounds of the army Owain led in quest of her. She veered suddenly to the left, her feet flying over roots and stones, her heart thumping, and her chest aflame as she sought to divert her pursuers’ attention to her.

Before long the burning in her lungs forced her to stop again. She could go no farther, but she hoped against hope that it would be enough.

An eerie stillness settled over the woodland as she bent over, gasping for air. Dimly, she realized that it was odd to hear no chattering of animals or birds high in the trees. Even the baying of the dogs had fallen silent.

In the next instant, she knew why.

With a violent snapping of branches, Prince Owain strode into view before her. Slowly, she straightened and pushed aside her tangled hair to look up at him—the massive, stunning warrior that was her lord husband.

For a while he gazed at her without speaking, his face grim under the blue war designs painted on his cheeks and brow. Far off through the trees, she could see the sun winking on the weapons and shields of his vast army, kept
at a distance so that he could confront his errant wife in private. A shaft of light slanted down on him as well, turning his ebony hair to a blue-black halo above him, making him look like some kind of dark angel come to gain vengeance on her for her sins.

“What have you done with our child?” he finally asked, his voice gruff with suppressed emotion.

“Our babe is not the Legend, Owain,” she whispered, searching him with her gaze, trying to make him understand. “Why can’t you see? The birthmark, the signs…they mean nothing. The child is innocent, and I could not let you—”

“Where is she?” he growled, taking a threatening step toward her, his obsidian eyes glittering. “Do not toy with me, Gwendolyn. Give her to me now. I vow that you will not relish the consequences of disobeying me further.”

A kind of calm filled her as she faced this powerful man who’d once professed to love her above all else. This Welsh prince who’d bargained away nearly half of his fortunes only a year ago in order to gain the privilege of wedding her.

She raised one shaky, dirt-smeared hand to her face, brushing her fingers over her eyes. But her mind was clear, her heartbeat steady at last. He wouldn’t get her child. Nay, little Gwynne was safe from his plots and his obsessions. His dreams of war and glory. Nothing else mattered.

“She is gone, Owain. Gone for good, to a place that is safe from the bloodshed you planned for her. You will never see her again.” She paused, glancing away and blinking back her tears before adding huskily, “And neither will I.”

A metallic scraping sound pulled her gaze to her husband again. Light glinted off the deadly length of his
blade, reflecting the dangerous shadows shifting in his eyes.

“You are wrong, Gwendolyn,” he murmured, his voice all the more menacing for its softness. “I
will
see her again. Our child is the Legend reborn, and once I have finished what must be done here, I will scour every mountain, search beneath every rock and tree in all of Wales. I will move heaven and earth if need be—and I promise you, I will find her.”

He strode forward, then, coming at her with the confident gait of a predator who has finally cornered his prey.

Gwendolyn froze for an instant before gasping and leaping into action, spurred on by an impulse as old as time. Spinning away from him, she began to run again, though the branches whipped back to scratch her and sharp stones cut into her feet. She took final, hopeless flight, because she knew exactly what was happening here. She’d seen it in Owain’s eyes…

The wood beyond Dunston Castle
The border of England and Wales
Fourteen years later

S
he hadn’t come.

Frowning, Aidan ducked around one of the towering stones that ringed the clearing. The ancient circle stood as a remnant of times long ago—days of myth, sorcery, and legend. And it
was
magic, their secret meeting place. Here he and Gwynne had spent countless hours, free from the weight of prying eyes or the restraints others might wish to impose upon a gentle Welsh lass and her forbidden English suitor.

“Gwynne, are you here?” he called out, appalled to hear the quaver in his voice. He quelled his weakness with a grimace, saying more firmly, “Gwynne, answer me!”

That was better. It wouldn’t do for him to sound uncertain. Not today of all days. Today he must be confident
and strong, as befitted the fifteen-year-old son of Dunston’s lord. He must be sure of himself if he hoped to convince Gwynne that what he planned for them was right.

“Gwynne!” He stalked forward so quickly that the edge of his tunic caught on a felled branch, snapping the wood with a resounding crack.

“For goodness’ sake, Aidan, I’m over here. You needn’t bellow,” Gwynne scolded, making him jump as he spun to face her.

She sat cross-legged on top of one of the ancient stones only a few paces away, looking down at him with mischief in her silver gaze. The sun caressed her face and glinted on the fall of raven hair that hung past her waist like a cloak, concealing what she held cupped in her palms. He saw with a flush of pleasure that she wore the circlet of wildflowers he’d woven and left for her here this morning, when he’d departed Dunston on a pretext of hunting. Perching atop the stone, she looked like some kind of fey lass come to him through the misty veils of time.

Just beyond the stone, a crow with a splinted wing—one of the many creatures he knew she relished taking in and healing—hopped a little ways off, as if nonplussed by his thunderous entrance. She glanced at it, crooning softly before directing her sparkling gaze at Aidan once more.

He couldn’t help but smile at her daring. She was a fearless thing, he thought, biting the inside of his cheek. Especially for a girl.

“What are you doing up there?” he demanded with mock ire.

She didn’t respond, instead grinning as she shrugged her shoulders and arched her brow in that maddening way of hers.

“Well, you must come down at once. We may be almost of an age, but that doesn’t mean your bones won’t break as badly as a child’s if you fall from there.”

“Nay, I’ll not come down.” She shook her head, her hair rippling about her. “’Tis too good an angle.”

“For what?”

By the time his bemused mind caught up with his instincts, it was too late. With a shriek of glee, Gwynne sat up straight and began pelting him with the handfuls of acorns she’d been hoarding. He shouted as the nuts found their mark with stinging accuracy; then yelling a playful war cry, he launched himself at her and pulled her from the stone. She fell on him, scattering the flower petals from her circlet all around, and they laughed and rolled together on the soft grass, coming to rest, finally, with him lying half atop her.

Breathless, he smiled and gazed into her eyes as he brushed a tendril from her brow. He could wait no longer. Leaning down, he tasted her lips as he’d been aching to. His mouth slid smoothly against hers, and he was gratified when she lifted herself into him. She threaded her cool fingers through his hair, causing tingles of pleasure to tighten his groin and jolt every inch of his skin to full awareness.

No matter how many times he kissed her, he knew he’d never get enough. He knew it with the burning certainty of youth; he’d never stop feeling this rush of sensation—or the tantalizing thoughts that followed of what he wished to do with her, ways he wanted to touch her.

But that must needs come later, he reminded himself. Later, after he’d made her his own in truth and by law.

With a groan, he rolled away, settling for lying at her side. Wordlessly, she slipped her hand into his, and their fingers intertwined as naturally as the breeze wafting through the trees near their magic circle. Together they gazed up at the smooth blue canopy of the sky above them.

The splinted crow disturbed their peace for a moment
when he hopped over to peck at Gwynne’s tiny, expended weapons, but they ignored him. The late summer sun blanketed them with warmth; insects hummed, the grass felt soft beneath them, and the wind swished through the trees, adding music to the scented air around them.

It was time, Aidan decided.

“Gwynne, I have something to ask of you.”

“Aye?” she said softly, tilting her head to look at him.

He held his breath, focusing on her gaze; then he just let the words tumble out. “Marry me, Gwynne. Marry me here and now, in the circle. If we betroth ourselves in the age-old way, no one will ever be able to part us. Ever.”


Marry
you?” Gwynne sat up slowly. The smile faded from her face, replaced by an expression of wonder.

“Aye. Marry me today!” Aidan pushed himself up next to her. “I love you, Gwynne. I’ve loved you since the day I found you picking berries in the glen—so long that I cannot remember what my life was like before you. I want to pledge myself to you, if you’ll have me.”

“You wish to wed me?” Gwynne asked, her voice laced with tears and such heartbreaking uncertainty that he reached up to cup her face and gaze into her eyes again.

“Aye, love, truly. If you feel as I do, then this day we can become one.”

“Oh, Aidan, I wish it more than anything!”

Relief flooded him, and he leaned in to kiss her again. But she pulled back suddenly, taking his hands and frowning.

“What of your father? Will he not oppose this?”

Aidan stiffened.

“Mam will be furious when she learns that we’ve wed,” she continued, “and she has nothing to lose. But Lord Sutcliffe—”

“My father needn’t know anything of our betrothal,” he broke in harshly. “Not yet, anyway.”

She looked like she was going to cry again, and Aidan cursed himself. Softening his tone, he added, “I know my duty to my father and my family well, Gwynne. It has been bred into me from the cradle—whether I wish it or nay, I must become a knight without peer for King Henry, a warrior to carry on the de Brice name and reputation in England.” He looked down. “In truth, I learned only this morn that I must leave Dunston Castle within the week to foster as a squire with my father’s cousin, Rexford de Vere, the Earl of Warrick, so that I may begin to fulfill my service and my destiny.”


Leave
?”

Now ’twas Gwynne’s turn to press her gentle palms to his face, pulling him to her, forcing him to meet her gaze. Her eyes welled with tears; one crystalline drop escaped, its liquid path marring the silk of her cheek. “You will leave Dunston in a week, Aidan? You will leave
me
?”

“I must leave Dunston, Gwynne, aye,” he answered, his chest tightening as he said it. “But never you. Not in my heart. ’Tis why I wish to wed you here and now, in our magic circle, so that no matter how far I must go, or for how long, you will know that I am yours. Then, when the time comes and I am a man in my own right, we will make our union known. And then none, including my father, will dare deny it.”

Aidan clenched his fists as he spoke, as if by willing it so, it could be. By God, he would
make
it so. Only a few years more…

A few years more and his father would no longer be able to bargain with him as a political tool, valuing him for his promise of manhood and offering it to the highest bidder amongst the fathers of England’s many young heiresses. Nay. Then his father would have to accept that he was wed, bound body and soul to the gentle Welsh girl who’d captured his heart in the peace of this magic wood.

“I will make a good life for us, Gwynne, I swear it. But I must first make my way and free myself of the plans my father has laid for me.”

She swallowed hard, her face vulnerable with uncertainty and the hope that struggled against it. “If only it could be so, Aidan,” she whispered. She flung her arms around his neck and pulled him tight to her, breathing against his ear, “Yet only say it is, and I will believe.”

“Aye, Gwynne,” he answered huskily, cupping her head and threading his hands through her exquisite, silken hair. He breathed in her scent, fresh as the new leaves of spring, kissing her cheek and the tender spot at the top of her jaw.

“I vow that I will make it so.”

Pulling back, he gazed at her solemnly. Then he reached into his tunic and drew out a length of rich emerald-hued cloth, embroidered with colorful flowers woven through the openwork pattern of a snow-white cross. Gwynne gasped at the beauty of it, and Aidan took her hand and helped her to her feet before draping the fabric over her fingers.

“’Tis a length of de Brice sacramental cloth, taken from our chapel,” he said, placing his fingers beneath hers and wrapping the material round, encircling their joined hands. “’Twill serve as a sign of God’s presence in our union.”

Wide-eyed, Gwynne nodded. He reveled in the warmth of her palm against the back of his hand, held together by the sacred band. Her lips trembled, and she caught the tender, ruby fullness of the lower curve with her teeth. The sight of it made Aidan long to kiss her again, to soothe her cares away with the loving caress of his mouth.

Instead he dragged his gaze from her lips and up to her eyes, their distinctive color muted now with the depth of her emotions. She blinked, and he smiled, coaxing a smile
from her as well. Then he took a deep breath and began their vows.

“I, Aidan de Brice, son of Gavin de Brice, second Earl of Sutcliffe, do take thee, Gwynne ap Moran, to be my wife. I love thee with all my heart and soul, and will bind myself to thee forever, with this my eternal vow. I do so swear it.”

She smiled tremulously. “And I, Gwynne ap Moran, take thee, Aidan de Brice, to be my husband. I love thee with all that I am, and will keep only unto thee until the end of time. This I so swear and will abide, heart and soul, until I die.”

They stood for a moment, just gazing at each other. Finally, Aidan said quietly, “Then it is done, Gwynne. By the laws of England and Wales, we are husband and wife.” He swallowed. “All that remains now is the final consummation of our vows.”

Her cheeks flushed an enchanting pink, and she gave him a shy look before glancing away. Aidan grinned, his heart thudding madly in his chest as he considered their boldness and the joy he felt in what they’d just done—in what they had yet to do.

He loosened the embroidered fabric from their hands and pressed it into her palm. “Take this cloth as my pledge, Gwynne. I wish ’twas more, but it must needs suffice until I can earn a proper gift for you.”

“Nay, Aidan, ’tis far too costly.”

“’Tis yours, Gwynne,” he insisted gently. “Take it and know of my love for you each time you look upon it.”

“I do not know what to say,” she murmured at last, bringing the folded fabric to her breast. She gazed at him, emotion full in her gaze, and another burst of tenderness shot through him.

“I—I want to give you something too,” she said softly. Tucking the cloth into her over-tunic, she reached down
and slid his dagger from the sheath at his waist before he could speak against it, then brought it up to cut off a hand’s-length lock of her hair. With deft fingers, she braided the top to a close, so that when she handed it to him, the end curled around his palm like dark silk.

“’Tis not so fine a gift as yours,” she said, “but ’twill serve to comfort you, I hope, as your gift will comfort me during the time we must be parted.”

Aidan was speechless for a moment. He thought his breath might never flow freely again for the lump that seemed to have settled in his throat. “Gwynne…” he murmured hoarsely. He swallowed a few times. “I will treasure it always, Gwynne.” Then, tipping her chin up, he lowered his mouth to hers, melding their lips in a sacred kiss. A kiss that spoke more eloquently than his clumsy words ever could.

She pressed close to him, and he felt her sigh of longing shudder through every inch of his sensitized flesh. She reached her arms around him, sliding her palms up his back; the gentle swell of her breasts seemed to brand his chest, her thighs warm against his. He deepened their kiss, readying to lower her to the tender grasses within the circle, aching to complete the now consecrated promise of their love at long last…

Until a piercing scream rent the air.

A slight rumbling sound began to swell in the distance, increasing in power until the wood around them erupted into a cacophony of noises: branches breaking and men shouting. Men with wildly painted blue faces.

Sweet Lord in heaven…

Aidan stood stunned for a moment. Everything seemed to slow to a maddening, surreal pace as he swung his gaze to Gwynne; she was staring at him, wide-eyed, her mouth open in horror as she twisted her fingers into the front of his tunic.

Oh, God, he had to get her out of here.

Swallowing his panic, he tried to shout, but ’twas clear that she couldn’t hear him. He settled on jerking his head in the direction of her mother’s cottage, praying that she understood. Grasping her hands, he led her, stumbling at first, toward the edge of the stone circle…

And then they ran.

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