Authors: Janelle Taylor
Alysa shifted in the large tub to allow room for Gavin to join her. She sighed contentedly as he began to bathe her slowly and sensuously. The scent of countless wild-flowers filled her nostrils as she floated dreamily in the silky water and her trembling body responded eagerly to his tantalizing caresses.
Gavin bent forward and touched his lips to hers, and they shared a blazing moment of feverish passion. He lifted her from the tub and lay her on a bed of fragrant leaves. Sunlight filtered through the trees overhead and danced off the beads of water on their naked bodies as he joined her and his hands and lips began to work lovingly, urgently…
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For my good friends, MADELENE and RALPH LEONE, in appreciation for all you’ve done for me.
For my agent and close friend, ADELE LEONE MONACO, for your untiring support and assistance.
For my daughter, ANGELA TAYLOR, who was such a big part of this book.
For my good friend with many talents, KATE BARR, thanks for your help with the historical map.
Princess Alysa Malvern walked half the distance to where her horse, a muscular dun with black tail and mane, was tethered in a deep gully, far enough from the dirt road to go unseen. Well-trained and loyal, Calliope would remain there until his mistress’s return, alert yet quiet while he leisurely devoured the bunches of grass growing in his familiar hiding place.
The troubled girl followed a shallow stream which snaked its way into the ravine where Calliope awaited her, until the ground began to slope rapidly. The narrow stream abruptly widened and deepened, then gurgled over an entangled pile of rocks, vines, and twigs, tumbling into an oblong pool where minnows swam and lush greenery lined its banks.’
Alysa sat near the lip of the pool and trailed her fingers in the clear, cool liquid. She laughed softly as the startled minnows darted into hiding beneath the greenery which teased the water’s edge. Her gaze swept over the ferns, mosses, and wildflowers which thrived in abundance on the other bank. As a breeze fluttered leaves overhead, and shafts of sunlight sparkled almost painfully off the water’s surface, Alysa closed her eyes and inhaled, the deep woodsy odors teasing her nostrils. The tranquil setting always seemed to calm her, and
she needed to relax before returning home to face the coldness and hostilities there, so she lingered for a long time by the verdant pool, feeling the gentle breeze and listening to the sounds of insects, wildlife, and gurgling water.
Alysa did not care if it was a crime to leave the dirt road while traveling through the royal forest; she was the daughter of Prince Alric, this land’s ruler, and no one would dare halt her, unless she was mistaken for someone else because of her peasant dress. She knew she could not do without this sylvan setting, considering it her private domain. It offered escape from the demands and torments of her daily life, especially since her father’s marriage to Isobail four years ago, and his inexplicable changes in mind and body over the past year. Something was terribly wrong in the castle, in Damnonia, and with her father, but she could not unravel the mystery.
Alysa’s dark blue eyes narrowed in dismay; she did not want to spoil her stolen reprieve with thoughts of her stepmother, but she could not prevent it. She was concerned over the brigands who were raiding her land, and worried about her father’s health and strange behavior: he did not seem to care what was happening around him. Isobail was taking over more and more of his role as ruler. If her father did not vanquish his dazed state and soon take control again, Alysa angrily concluded, Isobail would rule everything and everyone!
At home she felt as if she were being watched constantly. Her stepsister Kyra, usually so cold, was acting friendly. But the servants—including her favorites, Piaras and Leitis—were wary and tense…
Alysa cast a cautious glance in all directions, but saw only nature’s lovely surroundings. She was not afraid of the woods, day or night, but it was always best to be wary. Since age eight she had sneaked into the forest with sons of knights or servants to play games and explore.
But she had never ventured this deeply into the royal forest until the day, seven years ago, when she had found Giselde’s hut.
The abode of her dear friend was constructed of timber and cruck, with a tightly thatched roof, and was larger and nicer than most peasant dwellings. The old woman’s presence in the woods was a secret, and Alysa knew Giselde had not been granted permission to cut wood or to live in the forest. She often wondered who helped Giselde commit those crimes, offenses which carried a stiff penalty, sometimes punishable by death.
The hut was snuggled in a grove of trees, and nearly hidden by overgrown vines and bushes. Alysa fondly remembered how the walls seemed to glitter in the dappled sunlight, before the entangling greenery had overrun it, and recalled wondering if the hut was the magical dwelling of a witch.
Near the dwelling Giselde cultivated a garden which thrived with colorful plants also used in the practice of the Black Arts: another crime against the old woman. She raised mandrake, vervain, monkshood, nightshade, hensbane, roses, and more. Hemlock, yew, thorn apple, and oak grew nearby like sentinels for this forbidden plot of ground. Exquisite water lilies filled a stagnant pond not far away, with marsh primrose and other potent plants growing within sight of it.
Alysa had been told that gardens that contained such plants and trees belonged to witches; most people believed as much. Yet she knew that Giselde was not crazy or evil. The plants were used in the healing and magical arts which Giselde possessed and shared freely with those ill or injured or bewitched, for her friend had told her so, and she would never lie to her. Hold silent about certain things, yes; but never lie.
Alysa also knew that Giselde still believed in the old ways of the Celtic Druids, as well as those of the new religion, Christianity. There were so many mysteries
and powers in life, forces and secrets that Giselde understood and used to help others.
Giselde had come with Alysa’s mother from the kingdom of Albany to serve as the princess’s waiting woman. Dearly loved and trusted by Princess Catriona, Alysa’s mother, Giselde had been privy to all that happened in the castle long ago, as she was now informed by friends who were still servants in or around the castle. Thus, it never surprised Alysa that Giselde knew so much about her parents and past events. In fact, she could not imagine her life without “Granmannie’s” love and friendship. She adored the gray-haired woman who had been her guardian and teacher at the castle, and had vanished mysteriously following the death of her mother.
Grieving for his lost love, for three years Alysa’s father had traveled the length and breadth of his domain to flee the remembrance of Catriona’s “presence” in the castle. Prince Alric had left his daughter in the care of servants until he could endure living there without his “heart,” and could bear looking into the small face that resembled his dead wife’s.
Those bleak months had been terrible for Alysa, until she had found Giselde secretly living in the prohibited forest only a few miles from the castle. Since that day, she had sneaked countless visits with her cherished friend.
Alysa did not know why Giselde lived hidden in the forest, for the old woman refused to reveal such things to her. She had made Alysa promise never to tell anyone—even her father—about their friendship. Loving Giselde and fearing to lose her best friend once more, Alysa had never broken that vow of silence. She was very careful to hide her trail to Giselde’s hut, and to make certain that no one followed her or suspected her actions.
When Alysa arrived at the hut earlier that morning,
she was surprised to find the front door closed, but unlocked. Once in the one-room dwelling, she removed the hooded cape of coarse green linen which cleverly helped her to blend into the dense forest, as did her peasant garments of matching yarn. She tossed the cape aside and shook her thick hair loose, then glanced about. The floor was firmly packed earth, and the hut was walled snugly with clay clump which had hardened over the years until it was as sturdy as stone. A small fire burned on an open hearth in the center of the left wall, its lacy smoke escaping through a chimney of mingled rocks and mud. The hut was clean, and a feeling of warmth and safety pervaded it.
Alysa glanced at the hearth, where a kettle was suspended over a low fire and from which delightful smells were rising. Her keen gaze drifted past a wooden table and two stools in the back corner before slipping over a large and colorful tapestry of a Druid ritual which concealed a small back door. Giselde had told her it was there for a quick escape in case of fire or other peril. She noticed the home-woven blankets, folded neatly and lain across the foot of a bed that had been constructed like a raised, oblong, wooden box, and filled with a straw mattress. A locked chest at the end of the bed held Giselde’s clothes and personal possessions, which no one was allowed to view, and frequently captured Alysa’s curiosity.
Yet it was the front right corner of the hut that most fascinated Alysa, for she had watched Giselde at work there many times. Above, below, and to both sides of a rough work bench were shelves holding numerous clay jars, straw baskets, cloth bags, and wooden boxes of varying sizes, in which all kinds of dried plants and curious items were stored. There were many copper and wooden bowls, knives, spoons, sticks, leather pouches, as well as pots for mixing and containing Giselde’s potions, mortar and pestles, candles and crucible holders.
Alysa sat down on the stool before the wooden bench to await Giselde’s return. A smile lit her eyes when the door creaked open and the older woman slowly entered, carrying a basket of plants for her work. She bounded forward to embrace and assist Giselde. “Granmannie, I feared you would not return before I had to leave. Must you work so hard?” she-entreated worriedly.
The older woman looked very tired and pale today, and moved as if every part of her body protested each exertion. Alysa watched the self-imposed change sweep over Giselde as she tried to mask her discomfort. The older woman’s dark blue eyes took on a sparkle as she placed one arm around Alysa’s waist and playfully scolded, “You should not have come to see me again so soon, little one. Others will pour questions on your head if they find you missing so often. Is there new trouble at your father’s castle?”
Alysa shrugged, not wanting to burden Giselde with her problems until her friend rested. Instead she asked, “Why do you not return to the castle, where it is warm and safe? You can become my teacher and waiting woman again. I would not work you hard, and I could take care of you. I worry about you living here alone, Granmannie. Why must you do so?”
Giselde placed her basket on the work bench and turned to look at the young woman. Her aging eyes admired Alysa’s beauty, and her heart surged with pride. Alysa’s brown hair was wavy and thick, tumbling over her shoulders almost to her waist. Her eyes were large and expressive, the color of deep, tranquil blue water and capable of displaying a wide range of emotions. The perfection and softly defined angles of Alysa’s features exposed her royal lineage, even though she did not wear the golden circlet around her head during these visits. How Giselde missed being with this girl each day, as she had been years ago. But things had changed…
Giselde’s voice was low as she replied, “It cannot be, my child, and I cannot tell you why. One day it will be different. Fret not; no harm can reach me here; the forest gods hide me and protect me. What troubles you, little one? I see pain in your eyes, and you fear to speak what is in your heart.”
Alysa retucked straying locks of the old woman’s gray hair into a carelessly rolled knot near her nape. Giselde was several inches shorter than Alysa’s five-foot, five-inch frame, and Alysa could easily wrap her arm around her aged and work-bowed shoulders, which she now did. “First, sit and let me prepare you something hot to eat and drink.”
“Later,” Giselde murmured, her mind on other matters. “You are so like your mother, little one; you have her courage and curiosity, her eagerness for life and adventure. But, alas, you are as innocent and trusting as she was. Things have changed much since my Catriona died and that wicked Isobail took her place.”
Both sat on the bed as they began to talk, all else forgotten for a time. Alysa said quietly “I am glad I was old enough to remember Mother before she was taken from me; yet, I was so young that I have forgotten much about her and those days. Tell me about them again,” she coaxed, clasping Giselde’s wrinkled hand between her smooth ones, ignoring the dirt stains upon its weathered surface.
Giselde laughed again—a clear and rich sound this time—and teased, “I have told you those stories many times, little one.”
Alysa knew that Giselde enjoyed retelling those tales as much as she enjoyed rehearing them. “But you must repeat them, lest I forget the past. You know Father and Isobail removed all signs of Mother from the castle and our lands. Your stories and my scattered memories are all I have left.”
Giselde’s eyes clouded briefly. “Yea, it is bad to forget
the past, and it is bad to destroy the memory of one so precious as Catriona. I will speak of days long past and of people far away.”
Her eyes glowed and her voice grew soft, almost caressing, as she began, “Connal, your great-grandfather, was a powerful chieftain whose village was attacked by fierce Vikings. They did not kill him, because he was a great warrior. Instead, they took him far away to their lands, where he cunningly earned their trust. There, he fell in love with a Viking woman, Astrid, and married her.”
Giselde continued as if she could see the story she was relating, “The lovers bravely escaped back to this island, and Astrid gave birth to a son and two daughters. When the Vikings finally found them, they attacked, and Connal’s son and oldest daughter were slain. One powerful Viking warrior named Rurik could not endure the sights and sounds of such brutal slayings and wanton destruction, so he left his people’s camp to join Connal. With his knowledge and help, your great-grandparents won that terrible battle. Rurik fell in love with Connal’s surviving daughter and married her…”
Giselde’s smile was warm with the memory, then her expression saddened. “Many of our tribe hated and mistrusted Rurik, and many despised your grandmother for choosing a Viking, but she loved Rurik with all her heart. The day he was slain was a dark and bitter one, as was the day when his daughter, Catriona—your mother—was lost to us. I wish such hatred and cruelty did not exist.”
When Giselde paused and stared into nothingness, Alysa read enormous anguish in the old woman’s expression. To distract her, Alysa quickly injected, “My grandmother’s name was Giselde, like yours.”
The old woman replied as if from far away, “Yea, like mine. Giselde and her barbarian lover Rurik had a daughter and they named her Catriona, which means
princess of the fair heart. Catriona grew into a beautiful young woman, and warriors pursued her. But her destiny was not with our people of Albany; it was with your father.