Guardian of the Freedom: Sample

Guardian of the Freedom by Irene RadfordMerlin’s Descendants #5

by Irene Radford

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Prologue

The Danube River Valley, Northwest of Belgrade, late October, 1763.

“YOU can’t do it,” Captain Roderick Whythe scoffed.

“Will you lay money on that?” I asked. I wanted more from him than just money. Hard to tell if he would be more horrified that I, a mercenary soldier, lusted after him, or that I, a mercenary soldier, was truly a woman.

Behind me, twenty mercenaries roared with laughter.

“Time limit!” one of them yelled over the top of the noise.

“A full minute by my timepiece,” another answered, drawing out his gold pocket piece, loot from some battle.

“Will you stake me with that gold bauble?” I asked my comrade.

He pulled the timepiece close to his chest and shook his head.

Whythe eyed me with skepticism. Almost reluctantly, he drew his wallet out of his scarlet uniform coat. He laid a single golden guinea on the table between us.

I reached to possess the coin.

His hand landed atop mine. “When you have won the bet.” His deep brown eyes twinkled with surety that I could not perform the feat he commanded.

“Very well,” I sighed as I stood and unsheathed my saber. My breast band was too tight and itched. I dared not adjust it in this company.

Three men stood up and exited toward the privy. I cursed inwardly. My bladder was as full of ale as theirs. But I couldn’t seek privacy while others were out there pissing against the wall.

I shrugged my shoulders and eased some of the tension in my back. Once more I had to prove to an Englishman that rules, even the rules of nature, meant little to me.

I would defy gravity as I defied life and death on a daily basis.

Whythe’s eyes grew wide at sight of my finely balanced Polish saber, a straight blade with a sweet spot well down the forte for more strength in the steel and better balance in my hand. Or on my fingertip.

I took three deep breaths, centering myself. Then I placed the tip of the saber on the index finger of my right hand. The weapon stood straight in the air, balanced as if stuck in stone.

“Geor-gie! Geor-gie! Geor-gie!” my mercenary companions chanted while pounding the crude tables in the smoky tavern.

I breathed in time to their chant, using the rhythm to maintain my center. The tip of my saber had yet to draw my blood. The blade fought me, wanting to return to Mother Earth. I tricked it, shifting and sidling to keep it in place.

“Geor-gie! Geor-gie! Geor-gie!”

“Where’d you learn to do that, Major George Kirkwood?” the Englishman, Captain Roderick Whythe, asked. He, alone of the troops, wore a clean uniform. A red coat over white breeches, waistcoat, and shirt. Shining black boots and powdered hair. At least he did not drip lace like so many of his foppish comrades.

My company showed the wear and tear of a mercenary camp on the border of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in this troubled year of 1763. Mud splotched our green coats and brown breeches. None of us powdered our hair or bothered to maintain a wig. Shining boots was a task for batmen, but we had few enough of those left and employed them better. Otherwise we occupied snowy winter nights, when even the Turks would not mount a raid, with the mundane chores of mending and polishing.

The Englishman was an outsider in more than dress. He had come to recruit light cavalry for some political favor between the English king and a German princeling. I’d been in Saxony a month ago acting as courier to my colonel’s banker, and had just returned to the front. I needed to stay away from the Germanies for a while. Just as I needed to stay away from England.

A summons to return home to Kirkenwood in the north of England weighed heavily in my pocket. I could replenish myself at Kirkenwood. My family could imprison me there as well.

I needed to win this bet to remind Whythe that he was not one of us; had not lived cheek by jowl with us, fought side by side with us, buried friends with us.

I also needed that guinea. Travel to and escape from Dresden had proved expensive. Travel home would cost me more than the guineas I did not have.

“I learned balance and concentration from my sword master, Captain Whythe,” I replied to his question. The saber wiggled a fraction, I corrected with a slight shift of my hand and arm.

“I heard that Giovanni Giacomo Casanova only passed on his art to his mistresses,” one of the Portuguese shouted above the noise of the rest of our company.

“Would you care to accuse me to my face of being Casanova’s ‘mistress’?” I asked. I snaked out my dagger with my left hand and held it level with the scrawny Portuguese’s nose.

He gulped but kept his countenance even.

A loud guffaw from the younger son of a Venetian doge masked any reply the Portuguese cared to make to my riposte. A round of laughter and backslapping followed.

The Earth thrummed through the soft soles of my boots. The vibrations set the hair on my arms and my nape a-tingle and hummed in my teeth disharmoniously

“Turks!” I called. I went cold. Everything I had worked for these last three years depended upon keeping the Turks away from Vienna. As long as they kept Belgrade as their frontier, I had no problem with them. The moment they crept into Austrian territory, they threatened all of Europe. All of England.

With a flick of my finger the saber spun upward. I caught the grip and sheathed the weapon before the men had a chance to react.

My comrades scrambled to their feet.

I snatched the guinea coin out from under Whythe’s nose and pelted out of the crude tavern ahead of them into noon sunshine. No time to relish the warmth on my back or blink away dazzle blindness. No time to think.

“Colonel, sir.” I burst into Heinrich der Reusse’s cabin with only the most cursory of knocks. The sight of Mathilde, the village barmaid and whore, naked and kneeling between my colonel’s equally naked knees with her face buried in his crotch brought me to a skidding halt. I turned my back on the intimate scene, jealous of the whore.

“Sir, the Turks are coming,” I blurted out my message before the man could curse me, or the woman could finish her ministrations.

“How many? Where from? When? By land, or up the river?” the colonel barked. The rustle of righted clothing and untangled limbs came after his questions.

“Five hundred cavalry, sir.” I sneaked a peek beneath my arm, admiring the colonel’s lusty proportions.

“Get yourself atop that hill, Major. I do not know how you do what you do, but you have never failed me yet. I need to know every detail of their raid to the fourth intention before they even think it.”

“Yes, sir!” I turned on my heel to face him and snap a salute.

The barmaid postured to emphasize her ample bosom. I spared her only the slightest glace. My gaze lingered a little too long and a little too low on the colonel.

“Out, brat,” he admonished me on a laugh.

I fled, blushing to my ears. Prince Heinrich from the Sovereign States of Reusse knew more of my history than any man. Only from him would I tolerate the semi-affectionate abuse.

Estovan, my batman, and as female (if not feminine) as I beneath her uniform, met me atop the knoll southeast of camp with my horse fully saddled and ready to ride. The big dun stallion pawed the ground and snorted, eager for battle. I paused long enough to check pistol and musket, though I knew Estovan would have primed and loaded them. I also checked the extra powder and shot in my kit.

Then I double-checked my French dagger-pistol, a custom-made blade with a tiny gun hidden in the hilt. This little treasure had come to me from my sword master, Casanova. It shot truer than most firearms and doubled as a blade. It rested comfortably in its scabbard, as much a part of me as my saber and rapier.

Then I donned my light armor: cuirass belted across my chest, gorget slung around my neck, greaves along my shins, gauntlets on my forearms, and a helmet.

With no more reason to delay, I took a deep breath and faced the approach the Turks must take. With feet planted firmly upon Mother Earth, I took a deep breath. On the exhale, I emptied myself of worry, of stray thoughts, of everything but the vibrations in my feet. My hands came up, palms out, fingers slightly curled, letting the wind off the Danube whisper information to my exposed skin.

Colonel der Reusse hovered behind my left shoulder, waiting for me to learn what I could. I breathed in the scent of his skin, still perfumed with male musk, his warmth, and his reassuring authority.

“One hundred toprakli—the irregulars—with muskets held in reserve on our left flank. Two hundred fifty miriaskerus —short-term levies—with pistols and scimitars for the main charge down the center. One hundred kapikulu—the salaried regulars—on our right flank, between us and the Danube, to come in a second wave behind the primary charge. They will come around that hill, hidden from our view until they are directly upon us. Those are the ones we need fear most. They will not surrender and they take no prisoners.”

“We only have two hundred men left!” Heinrich followed up with several colorful curses. Our trip to Saxony had been cut short before we could recruit new men.

“Sir, the cavalry is a ruse. To keep us from watching the river. Another five hundred on barges. They aim to push through all the way to Vienna!”

“Not while I guard this sector.” The colonel turned and shouted to his messengers. Post riders vaulted into their saddles and galloped away. Time to alert the Austrian regulars. They needed to get off their lazy arses and man the big guns on the bluffs above the Danube. Heinrich followed up with orders deploying his few men and resources.

“We’ve faced worse odds, sir,” I reminded him.

“I’ve got a bad feeling about this one, Georgie. Tell me, can you see far enough into the future to know if I survive this day?” We all knew that if he survived, at least some of us would as well. Heinrich was a true prince. He would die defending his men.

“My gift for seeing the future is imperfect at best. I know for certain only what the Earth Mother tells me. I know troop movement and placement. What we do with that information determines our future.”

“That’s what I needed to know, Georgie.” He squeezed my shoulder with affection. “Get to your horse. Take thirty men and keep the reserves on our right from coming to the aid of our enemies.”

Thirty men to hold off one hundred.

“Yes, sir.” I knew and trusted every one of my men. I considered the odds about even. The Turks fought with formidable courage and skill. We were better. We had to be. “Good luck, sir. I’ll join you for a drink one hour after sunset.” The stability of Europe, and therefore of England, depended upon keeping the Turks out of Austria.

“Thank you, Georgie. Oh, and take the pesky Englishman with you. Time he earned his keep.”

“He’s not one of us, sir,” I reminded him.

“Then let him see you and your men in action. If any of us survive this battle, Whythe is welcome to take us back to some safe uprising in the Germanies, or whatever. Closer to home anyway. From the Germanies I could check in on the wife and her herd of offspring.” He marched back down the hill to his own waiting horse. Orders streamed from his mouth with brisk efficiency.

“Major?” Estovan asked, always careful to observe protocol though we were, in truth, best of friends.

“I’ll not see the colonel after this. One of us will die this day.” A tear crept into my eye.

o0o

The clash of swords, gunfire reports, and screams of dying men off to my left made me clench my teeth and bite my lip. I dared no more reaction than that in front of my men. From the copse that hid us, I could not see how our comrades fared against the Turkish charge. I needed to be there with them, fighting to save them.

“Sir.” Estovan nudged my horse, making him sidle.

Automatically, I corrected for the slight movement and brought my attention back to my task.

A slight shift in the breeze brought me the scent of our quarry. The Turks’ sweat became more acrid than their horses’.

I unsheathed my saber and raised it. My men, plus the Englishman, duplicated my action. As one, we kissed our blades, murmuring private salutes and prayers. A deep breath steadied me. Then I whipped the blade down and away. I heard a satisfying snap of the air singing against the saber. All around me I heard similar cracks.

We charged out of the copse, downhill into a dell. The Turkish Aga hesitated a fraction of a heartbeat in mounting his horse.

I fired my musket, telling the ball where to go, willing it to find a target. The ball caught the commander in the throat. He dropped dead halfway into the saddle.

A volley of musket fire burst upon my ears. Ten or twelve more Turks fell.

The remainder of the enemy hesitated no longer. They vaulted into their saddles, spurring their mounts forward in a single motion. Scimitars swept out of their sashes. Eyes flashed and combatants yelled.

The curious ululation of their battle cry set the hairs on my nape to tingling.

I fired my French dagger-pistol. The ball lodged deep in the sword arm of an enemy. Then I drew my regulation firearm with the bigger and more deadly ball. The shot went wild, as they did so often.

Gunfire from my men and the Turks near deafened me. Swords clashed. Horses screamed and reared. Hooves beat the air.

Men fell.

The smell of blood burned in my nose. Dust choked me and set my eyes to watering.

I blinked away the impediment and selected my target. A big man with dark skin and a big jewel in the center of his turban, a corbaci or colonel, thundered toward me.

I caught the curve of his blade with my blade’s forte and pressed it away from my chest. A quick doublé and I came upward with a classic riposte. He countered with a neat parry and attack. I evaded by ducking low, trusting my horse to obey the command of my knees and remain in place.

The corbaci continued the lunge. His blade slashed my side as I dropped level with my saddle. My saber found his throat on a backhanded riposte while he and his horse corrected their balance.

He slumped and slid to the ground.

I moved on before he hit the dirt.

Two more Turks met death from my blade.

My arm grew weak. I shifted the weapon to my left hand and felt no stronger. I wanted to press my right hand against my side. My arm wouldn’t move. I looked down at the growing red stain that dripped onto my thigh.

The first Turk had sliced more than my coat.

Another was on me. He wove his scimitar with alarming speed. I was hard-pressed just to keep him at bay. My blade faltered.

My dun stallion reared, flashing his iron-shod hooves close to the enemy’s face.

As the horse came down, the beast circled, taking me farther from my opponent. Our two horses nipped at each others’ flanks. I hauled the dun back under control, putting another two yards between me and the Turk.

I risked a quick look around. My men acquitted themselves well. More of them remained ahorse and fighting than the Turks. An alarming number of both lay upon the ground bleeding. The Englishman was still up. His blade dripped red. He fired his pistol. Only a flash in the pan that exploded backward and did not ignite the powder in the barrel.

He threw his arm across his eyes, dazzle blinded. Whythe could not see a Turk galloping toward him. I pressed my horse between the two. The dun back-kicked in the face of the oncoming steed. That horse reared. The two beasts bit at each other.

The Englishman recovered and saluted with his blade. Then he dispatched his Turk, leaving me faced with one of my own.

Sweat poured into my eyes. I was flushed and cold at the same time. Too much blood was pouring from my side.

My opponent pressed his horse toward me, blade steady, eyes murderous.

Frantic, I slashed wildly, without pattern. I caught his shoulder with an uppercut. I pressed closer, driving home the point. Then I yanked the cutting edge sideways into his neck.

A red line appeared across his throat. His eyes opened in surprise. His mouth formed an “Oh.” Then his head lolled to the left, half severed.

My saber lodged against his spine. I no longer had the strength to pull it free.

His body fell from his horse.

Numbly, I tumbled after him.

o0o

The blackness receded a little from my vision. Rough hands pressed against my neck. I fought my right hand free. It clutched my dagger-pistol. “Filthy scavengers!” I screamed in the local trade patois. Then I slashed at the hands that pressed against my wound.

“Wheest, little ’un,” a man whispered in a rough Scottish brogue. The Englishman’s batman. Ian. Civilian, old family retainer. I knew no other name for him. “We’ll nay hurt ye.”

“I guess he’s alive if he can curse and fight in his condition,” I heard Roderick Whythe say. A chuckle of relief seemed to well up from his belly.

“Estovan?” I asked after my own batman. My voice croaked. Weakness threatened to rob me of any volume or authority.

“We have not seen him,” Captain Roderick Whythe replied.

“How many?”

“Of your thirty, ten still live.”

“Turks?” I asked before I dared breathe in relief.

“Nearly all dead. Ten or fifteen may have fled.”

“Heinrich… der Reusse?”

“That I do not know. Ian tells me that the main charge and the reserves have been repulsed. Dead and wounded still need to be assessed.”

Several long moments passed. I may have lost consciousness.

“Best we get him to the surgeon, Ian,” Whythe said.

Panic churned in my belly. My breathing became ragged and painful.

With an eye half open, I realized Whythe had pressed a wad of cloth torn from his shirt against my wound. Ian gently bound the cloth in place with strips from his own garments. Then he rolled me over and gently shoved one arm beneath my shoulders and the other beneath my knees. Without apparent effort, he rose to a full stand without hesitation.

“Not the surgeon,” I wheezed, barely able to breathe above the pain of being moved.

Both men looked at me strangely. “You are sorely hurt, Major Kirkwood.”

“The surgeon is a butcher. All he knows is lopping off limbs. Will chopping off my legs cure a punctured lung?”

“There is no other option… sir,” Ian said gently. He looked deeply into my eyes with understanding.

“A woods witch. Half a league to the east. Away from the river. A copse surrounded by stands of wheat gone wild. Round hut. Smells terrible.”

“The woods witch it is, then,” Ian said and began marching away.

“I do not know…” Whythe protested.

“Captain, swear to me by the Widow’s Son that you will not betray me to the surgeon.” That one sentence took nearly all my breath.

“I swear it,” Ian whispered.

I had not thought him a Freemason. Servants did not usually dare join. The hierarchy within Masonic Lodges paid no attention to nobility and social rank. A footman could become a Grand Master, holding authority over the baron who employed him. Private soldiers often rose above their officers in the secret society. The Lodge demanded secrecy upon terrible penalty. Equally terrible punishment came to the man who betrayed an oath to a brother Mason.

Whythe remained silent.

“Ye’d best take the oath, sir,” Ian muttered. “Major Kirkwood will not rest easy and heal unless you do.”

I almost heard him think a more dire consequence.

“Very well. By the Angle and the Compass, I swear to keep your hiding place secret.”

“By the Widow’s Son,” I insisted.

“By the Widow’s Son, I so swear,” he replied reluctantly.

Ian heaved a sigh and kept walking.

Safe now. I relinquished my secret to the big Scot. He’d keep it safe. He had to, he had sworn.

A secret that began back… when had it begun?

Chapter 1

Kirkenwood Manor, Northern England near Hadrian’s Wall, June 21, 1753.

I STOOD on the ramparts of the ancient castle of my clan, spyglass pressed firmly to my eye. The hills and curves of the land blocked my view of the road. The glass was just for show. Vibrations through the soles of my feet told me who approached our land and how far away they were.

My da had died seven months ago. Now the family gathered to confirm my older brother as successor to a heritage as old as the land, and more sacred than either the village priest or the king acknowledged.

At fourteen, I stood on the edge of the festivities, aware of them, affected by them, but not truly a part of them.

“It’s just the Marlowes,” I sighed in disgust.

“Lemme see, Aunt Georgie, lemme see.” My niece Emily jumped up and down beside me. Her blonde curls and clear blue eyes danced with excitement. Only three, she tagged behind me everywhere and wanted to do everything I did.

I was certain she did not understand what had set the household into total upset, but she had absorbed the excitement. Nearly twenty relatives thronged Kirkenwood Manor. Many of them had pets—cats, dogs, birds, snakes, even a hedgehog. Familiars really. The relatives insisted their animals must remain with them at all times. The house could not contain them all. We’d had to put many of them in the care of tenant farmers and the more wealthy in the village.

Gently, I knelt beside Emily and positioned the glass so that she could see through it. I did not care that dust stained my summer frock and rough rocks tore the lace on my petticoat. If Lady Emma, Emily’s mother and my sister-in-law, had allowed me to wear a coat and breeches, she would have no complaint about the cost of replacing my wardrobe.

“Fuzzy.” Emily stuck out her lower lip in a deep pout. I knew that look. She’d cry in a minute.

“Let’s focus it, then,” I said and twisted the eyepiece a little to the left.

“Ugh.”

That must mean the focus was worse. So I corrected to the right until a smile brightened her delicate features. “I can see the old chapel!” she crowed. “Raven’s perched above the door.”

There was always a raven perched there, if he wasn’t guarding the well head up here on the heights.

“Let’s look a little higher and farther along the road.” I lifted the end of the glass so that it pointed in the proper direction. “What do you see now, Emily?”

“Road, and a lot of dust.” She pouted again and returned the spyglass to me.

“Did you look with magic?” I asked quietly. At the age of three she wasn’t ready for formal training, so her father Drake had not bothered to test or question her. But I had.

Emily grinned from ear to ear. “Can we play the magic game?”

“Just a little of it. Now think about Mother Earth.”

“Earth isn’t my mama,” Emily giggled as she always did on this formulized reply.

“The Earth is mother to us all, even your mama. The Earth gives life to all. She feeds us with knowledge and power as well as food and water.” I recited the familiar litany.

Emily closed her eyes and scrunched her fair eyebrows together as she concentrated.

“Draw the power and knowledge from Mother Earth. Bring it to your feet.” I waited a moment until her expression cleared slightly. “Do you feel it, Emily? Can you feel the horses and carriages pound along the road?”

“Yes!” She opened her eyes in wonderment. “Aunt Budgie is riding behind the carriage. A long way behind.”

“Aunt Budgie!” I stood up and faced south by southeast and concentrated upon the road where it curved around and between a series of moors. One by one, I sorted through the various vibrations that tickled my feet. Three carriages, four horses for each. Three outriders ahead and three more behind the entourage. And then…

Yes! Aunt Budgie defied convention and rode a mile back with a footman. She mounted a fine Arabian steed that flowed along the road. Despite the fatigue of a long journey of over three hundred miles and creeping old age, the horse showed a fine spirit and alertness. Just like his mistress, Great-Aunt the Honorable Bridget Kirkwood. She carried a new title since her latest husband had died—I think he was her third. I didn’t bother keeping track. Budgie was a Kirkwood, as was I, and made her own rules.

Her presence and blessing on tonight’s proceedings made them special and validated them for me.

“They’re still five miles out. We have time to wash and change before they get here.” I grabbed Emily’s hand and hastened her across the rubble of the ancient castle toward the twisted path to the base of the tor and thence to the family manor by the lake.

Emily held up her arms for me to carry her.

“You are getting too big for this,” I complained as I lifted her into my arms.

She rested her head against my shoulder.

“Tired,” she murmured.

Of course. She’d used magic. I took for granted the simple tricks of watching and listening with senses beyond normal. I’d been practicing and building up stamina for nine of my fourteen years. Emily was just beginning. Magic drained her more readily than it did me.

I cursed every building stone, twig, and stray rock that made the path more treacherous than usual. If only I had defied Lady Emma and worn the coat, breeches, and stout boots I used for sword practice, this trip would be easier. But then, by denying me clothing suitable for running wild across the moors and engaging in sword play with my brother, my sister-in-law hoped to keep me within the manor learning to behave like a lady.

I’d never be a lady, even if I was the sister, daughter, and granddaughter to the Earls of Kirkenwood.

“Let me take her,” my brother Drake said the moment we mounted the steps to Kirkenwood Manor. He lifted his sleepy daughter from my arms and let her snuggle against his broad chest. He’d put on weight these last two years. His wine-colored suit and stock strained across his middle. His yellow waistcoat no longer buttoned closed. Shouldering the responsibilities of an earldom while Da lay dying of a weak heart had increased his appetite for rich food and decreased the time he spent actively moving about the estates. Drake didn’t have the time anymore to train with sword and rapier, or take his fine-blooded horses and wolfhound familiar on wild rides. Mostly he sat in his office shuffling papers about. He peered at everything squint-eyed and hunched his shoulders.

“Georgina!” Lady Emma protested as I trooped into the entry hall with my brother and niece. She carried her squalling second daughter, Belinda, on her shoulder, patting her back and murmuring soothing sounds to her.

“That frock was new not two months gone. You need to learn more respect for your clothing and your manners. You will not leave your room for the next three days. Not even to join the family in tonight’s celebration.”

“Now, Em,” Drake cajoled his wife. They made a charming picture standing there together, his dark auburn hair, straight and thick, matched the one-year-old on Em’s shoulder; Emma’s fair hair and porcelain delicate skin were twin to Emily’s. His dark suit with only a little lace contrasted nicely with her pink gown that dripped ornamentation. They gazed at each other lovingly.

“You know, Em, that tonight’s ritual is a duty, a responsibility for every Kirkwood with talent. ’Tis not a game. Georgie must come. My installation as the Pendragon of Britain will not be complete without her.” Drake stood a little straighter, a little taller as he spoke of the family tradition with pride.

“Oh, very well. I will need her help in dealing with all of the relatives coming out of the woodwork. But after they leave, Georgina, you will be confined to the manor for two weeks. You will learn to behave properly.”

“Yes, m’lady,” I said meekly, dropping a deep curtsy. I glanced up at Drake through my lowered lashes. We exchanged a merry twinkle. By the time all our relatives departed, Emma would have forgotten my punishment and the reasons for it.

Half an hour later we made a typical family portrait seated before the fire in the family parlor overlooking the lake when Simpson, the family butler, announced the arrival of our cousins.

“Dr. Milton Marlowe,” Simpson intoned.

Cousin Milton appeared behind the family retainer. Travel dust creased his sober brown clothing without a single thread of lace. Fatigue lines creased his long face. He only graced our home with his dour presence for major holidays and special occasions, like the installation of a new Pendragon as head of the family and guardian of Britain’s magical integrity.

His mother had been sister to my grandfather.

Drake stood and took Milton’s hand in his own. Belle, Drake’s wolfhound familiar, and the only dog allowed in the house, rose with him. She wove a herding path around Drake’s legs. He neatly avoided tripping over her. He’d had a lot of practice in the three years since her birth.

Belle’s teats hung heavily beneath her. She waddled stiffly with each movement. She looked as if she’d give birth any moment, right here on the Persian carpet.

Emma would be horrified, of course. But the timing was perfect. The dogs chose the next Pendragon. Fitting that Belle give birth to her first litter on the night of Drake’s confirmation—hopefully just after. She needed to attend the ceremony, as her ancestors had for so many human and dog generations that we’d given up counting them.

“You must be weary, Milton. Come, let’s get you settled. We’ve given you the gold room.” Drake eased our guest toward the staircase.

“My sons,” Milton said quietly. Two young men entered the room. Neville, the elder, wore a new scarlet uniform, also devoid of lace at cuff and neck, with lieutenant’s bars on his shoulders. His lean face and form with medium coloring might be handsome if he ever smiled. I’d certainly never seen anything but a perpetual sneer of distrust and dislike.

I allowed my eyes to cross slightly as I looked into the empty space near his left ear. His aura, a reflection of his life energy, seemed to jump outward in tight layers of yellow and orange with a small black smudge at the center.

Black on the left shoulder! Death sat there.

Oh, if only I had Drake’s healing talent I might see what disease ate at him. Or was it a personality flaw that drew him into death’s hungry maw?

His brother fairly danced into the room, interrupting my survey of Neville Marlowe. He wore a bright plum suit with a deep-purple waistcoat that demanded gobs of lace to accent the excellent cut of the cloth. But since his father had paid to outfit the boy, there was no ornamentation for Barclay, not even gold buttons, only plain bone ones.

“Barclay,” I held out my hand for him to kiss, as a proper lady with a courtesy title of Honourable should greet a relative with no title but some familiarity.

“Lady Georgina,” Barclay greeted me with a nod and a slight bow. He then turned his full attention upon Emma, the ranking lady in the room. He knew his manners and protocol better than I did.

Eventually, Barclay flashed a grin at me. Two years older than I, and already he stood as tall as his father and brother. We’d shared more than a few childhood adventures whenever the families met. His eyes lingered on my slight bosom—not enhanced or pushed up by a corset—and my green frock. He lifted one eyebrow in question. We’d not likely ride barely broken horses bareback, or explore the castle ruins while I dressed this way.

He looked disappointed. Then his eyes twinkled with mischief.

“So sorry you’ll have to share a room with your sons,” Drake said quietly to Milton. “We’re simply bursting at the seams with relatives.”

Milton closed his eyes wearily and nodded. When he opened them again, he glared at Barclay as if he were a smudge upon his pristine life.

Simpson cleared his throat to gain our attention. “Lady Bridget Kirkwood,” he said quietly when all eyes looked his direction.

“Aunt Budgie,” both Drake and I cried and rushed to be the first to embrace her short, round figure.

“Now, now, there is plenty of me for both of you,” Aunt Budgie giggled and swatted us away. “But only if you give me room to breathe.” She fluttered a black lace fan set against a layer of bright pink silk. Her riding habit was black as well, brightened by accents of pink, including the long feather in her hat. She wore her widow’s weeds with a flare of defiance.

“Come, Georgie, show me to my room. I must wash away this travel dust.” Aunt Budgie draped her arm around my waist—I was too tall for her to comfortably reach my shoulders.

“We have to share,” I said meekly, a little embarrassed that my brother’s wealth and grand position did not extend to more private rooms.

“All the better.”

“I’ll sleep on the floor if you need the bed to yourself,” I whispered. I’d sleep out on the moors if I thought I could get away with it.

“Not necessary. You are not so tall, yet, and I not so fat that we can’t both fit.” She guided me upstairs with more strength and haste than I thought she possessed. My grandfather’s youngest sister, she was more of an age with my father than her siblings. She still seemed old to me. I’d lost a lot of relatives to old age and disease lately.

Once comfortably ensconced in our room with hot wash water and a tea tray, Aunt Budgie patted the bed beside her for me to sit. “We have to talk, Georgie.”

“Is it bad?” She sounded very serious and adult.

“No. ’Tis a good thing. But you must be prepared for tonight.”

My eyes opened wide. We did not discuss the ceremonies of the Pendragon Society outside of formal meetings. I was only an Apprentice and I already knew the penalties for divulging secrets.

“Drake has written to me that he intends to make you a Knight tonight.”

I didn’t think my eyes could grow any wider. “Don’t I have to be sixteen? Doesn’t the entire Inner Circle have to vote me in?” I sank beside my great-aunt, letting the soft, down mattress support me. My legs wouldn’t hold me up much longer.

“Not tonight. We… the Inner Circle recognizes that your brother must now begin to build his own network of supporting magicians. One of the Knights will take his place within the Inner Circle, councilors to the Pendragon. Drake must replace that Knight with an Apprentice. You, my dear. You must be trained to stand beside your brother, to help him with magic as well as the politics of guarding Britain against magical incursions from outside this land and this world.”

I gulped rather than speak. Aunt Budgie had all but admitted that she was one of the Inner Circle. No one but those eleven councilors and the Pendragon knew the identity of the others. No one.

She had entrusted me with her greatest secret. And her life.

Inwardly, I vowed to never do anything to endanger that trust, or confidence.

“Now, you must be ready to prove yourself worthy of knighthood. You will be asked to perform a magical feat, one that will show your talent, your strength, and your willingness to serve.”

“What? What will they ask of me?” My mind spun with possibilities, with ideas, and with dread.

What if I failed?

“You will not fail, Georgie. And no, I did not read your mind,” Aunt Budgie laughed. “I read your face. You will not fail, because I will not allow you to.”

I swallowed heavily and nodded. “What will I have to do?”

“I don’t know. It is something only Drake knows. You have to be prepared for anything. You have to be prepared to risk your life. So, until midnight, this night of the Summer Solstice, you must rest, eat lightly, and meditate.”

I grimaced. I was rarely tired, had a prodigious appetite, and hated to sit still long enough to meditate.

“Do it, Georgie. Believe me, you will be glad you did at midnight.”

Copyright © 2005 by Phyllis Irene Radford Karr


Guardian of the Freedom by Irene RadfordMerlin’s Descendants #5
by Irene Radford

$4.99 (Novel) ISBN 978-1-61138-171-9

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