Kirkenwood Grange, near Hadrian’s Wall. Spring in the Year of Our Lord 1199. The tenth year of the reign of our beloved King Richard Coeur de Lion.
Henry Griffin, eighth baron of Kirkenwood, listened to the irregular rhythm of his heart. Thump, thum, thum. Kathump, thum. Consciously he slowed and steadied his breathing. He needed control over himself if he hoped to save Lotta.
Thump, thum, thum. Kathump, thum.
Nothing worked. His heart knew that part of him would be ripped to shreds if he let Lotta die tonight. He had to save her.
“Come, Resmiranda.” He held out his hand to his great-niece. Her childish fingers, sun-browned and toughened by hard work in the herb garden, seemed pure and innocent entwined with his own. The smoothness of her skin contrasted sharply with his, wrinkled and spotted with age and not so innocent anymore.
The world had turned upside down, and he had failed to set it right again. More than fifty years of harmony he had shared with his beloved Lotta. He didn’t know how he could go on without her.
Nothing would ever be right again without her.
Thump. Kathump, thump, thummmmmmm.
A tear escaped his eye. He tried to sniff it back, but more followed.
Resmiranda wiped away the tears gently with a piece of embroidered linen that showed smudges from her latest foray into the herb garden.
“Do not be afraid of death, child,” Henry whispered. He gulped back his tears, trying to convince himself as well as this precious child. “Death is a part of life, a transition that comes to us all. Sometimes we need to postpone it a little, though. Aunt Lotta’s work on this earth is not yet done. She needs to live just a little longer. Would you help us do that?”
He’d tried desperately to save his wife from that transition to death and heaven. But he couldn’t do it alone. Not even the presence of Diddosrwydd, his wolfhound familiar, had given him the talent and strength to work this ancient spell, handed down through the family for more generations than he cared to count.
Thump, kathump, thum, thummm.
Lotta had taken to her bed only yesterday. The day before she had filled Kirkenwood Grange with laughter as she scattered newly picked flowers into the floor rushes. Each step brought the fragrance of spring and fresh air.
Today the stink of sweat and fear and fever replaced the flower scent he usually associated with his wife.
Yesterday she had shouted with triumph as one of the serving maids brought a new son into the world. She’d scolded Cook only a little for scorching one side of the roast while he wrung his hands waiting for his son to bellow his displeasure at his abrupt entrance into this world. Another transition. One of joy, not sadness.
Lotta always made sure the entire grange celebrated the joy of life. What would they do without her? What would he do without her guidance, her steady will keeping him from giving in to the violence in his nature?
Even now his hands trembled with the need to lash out at something, someone. He clenched them tightly, until Resmiranda squealed a little protest at the intensity of his grip on her hand. Her fragile little hand, not a sword hilt. He’d put his soldiering days behind him over fifty years ago, when Lotta came into his life and showed him a different way of living. Still his need for violence haunted him.
He gulped and forced himself to continue what he’d started.
“I have to wash my hands before working magic, Uncle Henry,” Resmiranda insisted. She tugged free of his grasp and darted to the ewer and basin on the side table. Happily she splashed water over her hands and face. Just like the puppies she so loved, she slapped the collected water in the basin before returning to his side. Her wet hand slipped into his easily.
Mathilde, her mother, scowled at her and counted three more prayers on her beads.
“Aunt Lotta is a crone—an older wisewoman,” Henry explained, more to his nephew’s wife than to Resmiranda. “Your mother, counting her prayers in the corner, is a matron. And you, little Resmiranda, are yet a maid. Together the three of you can build the great healing magic.” At eight, the child manifested a wonderful understanding of arcane rituals. Mathilde, her mundane mother, hid from all references to magic.
Resmiranda stood behind him and squeezed his hand in understanding. He gently squeezed back, acknowledging her acceptance of the task before them.
Thump, thum, thump, thum. His heart beat in a rhythm nearer to normal. He took a deep, steadying breath.
They stood there for a long time, watching Lotta breathe. She had wasted away so much in only two days, she barely made a bump beneath the blankets and counterpane. Her gray hair spread out across the bolster looked dull against the white bedding.
Henry held the memory of the setting sun glinting off her rich black tresses, giving them deep blue highlights as she spun in place before the Beltane bonfire, nude and at home. He remembered the heaviness of her breasts, the slight rounding of her belly, the joy of joining with her that night….
Her hair had seemed a silken mantle fanning out around her head as she lay beneath him. The blue highlights within it seemed almost like the halo of a saint. The saint who had given him back his reasons for living. He had wept with joy.
She had been a young girl their first time together, barely old enough to marry. They had conceived their first child that night.
To him she would always be that beautiful young girl, full of life and love for the world and all who dwelled within it.
He still hardened with need every time he looked into her beautiful blue eyes.
Thump, thum. Holding his memories in his heart steadied him.
“Resmiranda,” Aunt Lotta whispered hoarsely. “Place your hand upon my chest. I need your strength.” Her cough deepened.
Henry didn’t like the terrible rattling sound. Resmiranda cringed away from it, too.
Thum, kathump. His heart skittered again in fear.
“Put your hand here, Resmiranda.” Henry guided her flattened palm atop Lotta’s shift, just above her shrunken breasts. He kept one hand on the child’s. Pulsing green light outlined Resmiranda’s tiny hand. Good. The magic had begun. “And you must hold my other hand, Mathilde.” He beckoned Resmiranda’s mother closer.
“I do not like this, Lord Henry.” Mathilde sidled nearer, hesitant, chin quivering. She ran her gold-and-ivory prayer beads through her fingers much too rapidly to actually recite any prayers. “Father Truman should be here. He should offer prayers for her soul. Only through a priest and the blessed saints can we request the miracle of healing.”
The golden cross of the prayer chain glinted in the flickering candlelight. The etching had been worn almost smooth over the generations. Mathilde used her wedding gift so much, she might have to replace the beads soon. They’d been new only two generations ago.
“Take my hand, Mathilde. Why would God give my family this special talent if not to use it? We seek to heal, not to harm.”
“Sometimes we are given tests. Not giving in to the temptation to use ‘special’ gifts can sanctify our souls,” Mathilde replied.
Henry wanted to scoff at her objections. “Being afraid of God-given talents is a sin as well. Come. Join us and learn that we do not abuse our gifts. We use our powers only for good.” He grasped the young woman’s hand, prayer beads and all. She didn’t pull away. Not yet anyway.
The vibrations of Lotta’s uneven breathing tingled through Resmiranda’s palm up into his arm to become a ringing in his back teeth. His heart found the rhythm of the growing power.
Mathilde tried jerking her hand away with a gasp of surprise. Henry strengthened his grip on her, not caring that the delicate bones seemed to shift beneath his fingers.
Resmiranda looked puzzled but did not withdraw. Diddosrwydd thumped her tail and laid her huge head upon Resmiranda’s foot. The dog offered her own strength to the spell, a substitute matron should Mathilde balk. Not a perfect substitute, but perhaps enough to complete the chain of power.
“Now think about warmth and calm, Resmiranda,” Henry whispered. Hers was the greater talent and strength at the moment. He was only a catalyst and guide. “Picture in your mind how evenly and smoothly you draw breath in and let it go. Breathe deep.” His voice took on a chanting quality. Resmiranda breathed in rhythm with his words. His heart settled into the same even cadence. He repeated his instructions in Welsh, the language of their origin.
He closed his eyes and listened to the fire sputter in the rushlights, to the rain on the roof above them, to the soft shift of stone and earth as the stone foundations settled into the earth just a little. When he knew all of them were breathing in harmony, how the dog Diddosrwydd joined them with her own rumbling moans, and the world circled around them in the rhythm of their lives, he spoke in Welsh again. “Picture in your mind, Resmiranda, how the air goes into Aunt Lotta’s chest, circles around, and leaves again. See it in your mind. Follow it through the cycle. Breathe in, breathe out.
“See in your mind that Lotta breathes as deeply, as evenly as you do. Nothing blocks the air in her body. Nothing slows it down. Smooth and even.”
Resmiranda’s hand grew hot beneath his. The rattling vibrations in Lotta’s chest faded to a smoother passage of air. Henry seemed to rise above his body, looking down on himself, Lotta, Resmiranda, and her mother. A bright green glow pulsed outward from their joined hands to envelop his wife in healing.
Witchchild! The word echoed through Henry’s mental and physical ears, jolting him out of rapport with the great healing magic that connected him to the three women. Pain assaulted his senses from the abrupt severance of the spell. They needed to ground and close before the magic backlashed and undid all the good they had achieved so far.
Shouts and the clash of metal echoed in the Hall. What? Who would dare?
Why hadn’t Diddosrwydd warned him of the invasion?
The answer came to him even as another soldier yanked him away from Lotta. Diddosrwydd had been caught up in the massive healing energy along with the rest of them. The peaceful green aura surrounding the spell might well have lulled the awareness of the sentries on duty as well.
Henry reached for the sword that had not ridden on his hip in over fifty years.
Armed men rushed into the room. Automatically he noted black braies, black chausses, and chainse covered in expensive black chain mail. Huge black helms covered their faces. No crests identified them. Henry couldn’t read their eyes as they kept long swords leveled and their knees bent, ready to spring into action with their weapons.
Momentarily blinded by the backlashing spell, he clutched his temples, trying to stop the white-hot metaphysical knives from penetrating his eyes. He had to think, had to react. “Where is my sword?”
A soldier’s work-hardened hands wrestled Resmiranda and her mother from his side. Mathilde escaped to the corner. Resmiranda jerked and tried to pull away from her restraints. When that failed, she kicked the man’s shins repeatedly. With no effect.
Diddosrwydd growled once, then snapped her massive jaws at an attacker. Her victim howled in pain.
Henry opened his eyes just in time to see a sword descending upon him. He grabbed the only weapon at hand, the branched iron candlestand. He whipped the post around in a flying arc as if it were a quarterstaff. Not his favorite weapon.
“Jesu, where did she hide my sword all these years!” The mailed soldier reared back from the molten wax and flickering flames. He tripped over Diddosrwydd who menaced another soldier’s throat.
A fifth man drove his sword at the dog. At the last moment the great beast twisted her head to snap at the danger from behind. The sword missed her, penetrating her victim instead. But he was already dead.
The passing of the soul tore Henry’s mind to shreds. He fought to regain control. Lotta had taught him to revere all life, share life with all. She had also taught him to guide souls through the pain of death and know the diminishing of himself at each life lost prematurely.
Diddosrwydd felled her next attacker with one lunge.
Henry shook all over, trying desperately to regain something of his warrior youth.
Resmiranda broke free of her captor, dropping to her knees. She retched and clutched her head. Her eyes glazed in pain. The deaths affected her as well.
Run, child. Run for your life!
Mathilde pressed against the tapestry-covered walls near the corner as she muttered her prayers. She brandished the precious beads as if they would protect her from the man who approached her, sword drawn, a feral snarl on his lips and in his eyes.
“God’s wounds!” Henry whispered as he instinctively fended off yet another attacker. Mathilde blocked the only escape from this chamber, though she didn’t know it. The main doorway was filled with yet more invaders.
Lotta nearly sat upright, teeth bared, eyes bulging. Blood dribbled from the corner of her mouth.
“NO!” Henry screamed. “Lotta, Lotta, my love, don’t leave me.” He cast aside the candlestand and flung himself across the richly embroidered counterpane, shielding his wife’s slight body from whoever had invaded his home and his private chamber.
An officer entered the chaotic room. The crest of a boar and a unicorn rampant facing each other on the wine-red tabard over his mail announced his claim to nobility. He grabbed Resmiranda by the shoulders, pulling her up from her crouch.
Henry didn’t need to see the man’s face to know his family, his history. “Bellecôte! Traitor,” he screamed. “You betrayed my son and left him to die in a Saracen prison.” He reached for the candlestand again, ready to kill the man, knowing his own sanity would flee with the act. What need had he of his mind or his soul if Lotta died?
“Enough,” a new man said. He kicked the wrought-iron stand aside with his white boots. He wore only white. White surcoat and boots. White cotehardie. White-blond hair and pale, youthful skin. Clean shaven. But a black shadow crowded around him, part of him. The Black One of legend.
“But you are too young to be he,” Henry whispered.
The Black One sneered at him.
A piece of Henry died.
A measure of quiet and order settled about the room.
Witchchild! The thought projected around the chamber loud enough for anyone to hear.
The Black One’s pale eyes gleamed with triumph as he spied Resmiranda. Avarice replaced the triumph.
Resmiranda took one step toward him. She snuffled back her tears, innocently trusting the false light created by his white clothing.
“No!” Henry lunged for him, hands reaching to encircle his neck.
“Ease off, old man. In the name of King John, we mean you no harm.” Bellecôte held him back.
“More treachery. Has John tried to usurp the crown again from his brother? I would expect you and your family to side with John Lackland,” Henry spat.
“Richard is dead. John is king.” The Black One held his hand toward Resmiranda. “Come, Little One, you and I belong together. You can feel it as well as I.”
Resmiranda stared at him. Then she scrunched her face in puzzlement.
“Why are you here?” Henry stepped between the man and his great-niece. He risked looking at the bed. Lotta lay quiet now. Too quiet. His muscles itched to rush to her. He dared not move until he knew what these men demanded.
“King John has need of troops and money. You owe him both.” The Black One shifted his gaze to Diddosrwydd who stood between him and the bed, growling softly.
“Such a request could have been made peacefully,” Henry said quietly. He shifted his gaze about, assessing his chance of grabbing Resmiranda and fleeing through the secret passage.
“Your pack of wolfhounds and your peasants menaced us from the moment we entered the village. We expected resistance within the grange and prepared for it,” Bellecôte replied and shrugged, dismissing a few deaths as lightly as if the victims were vermin.
“And what of Arthur of Brittany? John’s nephew by his older brother Geoffrey. By right of primogeniture, established by King Henry II, Arthur of Brittany is next in line to the throne. Surely Richard named the young man his heir?” Henry insisted.
The Black One ignored the question as he eased half a step away from the dog. But that brought him closer to Resmiranda.
“Did you state your mission to the sentries in the village? Or did you enter with swords drawn, creating resistance because you expected it—or wanted it? You should have presented John’s request politely, in writing as required by law.” Henry needed to shift the Black One’s attention away from Resmiranda. Why had his mind shouted Witchchild with triumph, as if the girl were his true quest and not King John’s mission?
“Your sentries are absent. The grange appeared abandoned. We entered without challenge to find the entire household asleep at their tasks,” Bellecôte explained. “After the fight in the village, we had reason to suspect ambush.”
A strange smile lit the Black One’s eyes.
Black magic! Magic of the foulest kind had sent the household to sleep. You set the spell to lull the suspicions of your underlings, Henry thought. He should have known the Black One would blithely invoke those powers to achieve what he wanted.
He wanted Resmiranda.
“We feared mischief and found it with your demon magic!” Bellecôte crossed himself. “You put your entire household to sleep rather than allow them to fight your foul spells.”
Mathilde nodded and repeated Bellecôte’s gesture. She seemed more enthralled with the invaders than concerned for her daughter.
“You interrupted… Lotta… my wife…” Henry stammered, daring to glance once more at his beloved. He had to see, had to know…. He knelt beside the high bed, reaching to hold Lotta’s hand one more time.
“Stay where you are, Griffin!” Bellecôte warned. “We’ll suffer no more of your witchcraft.”
Lotta opened her eyes a little. Rheumy tears brightened them.
“I love you,” she whispered, barely audible. A great rattling breath escaped her tired lungs. She grew rigid a moment and collapsed within herself, all traces of her life gone.
“I love you, Lotta,” Henry sobbed.
“You’ve killed her with your magic!” Bellecôte yelled, crossing himself three times in rapid succession. Then he yanked Henry up from his kneeling position, fist ready to slam into Henry’s face.
Henry ducked, breaking the man’s grip on his shirt.
“Get Resmiranda to sanctuary,” Henry shouted, looking directly into Mathilde’s bewildered eyes. He used the scattered remnants of his magic to compel her to move. “Take her now!”
He returned Bellecôte’s wild punch. His fist landed in the man’s jaw with a satisfactory crunch.
“Get the girl. Don’t let her escape,” the Black One yelled.
Henry saw swift movement out of the corner of his eyes.
The ancient family prayer beads flashed in Mathilde’s hands. Then an armored stranger held them. Henry grabbed the familiar Celtic cross away from the man with his mind. He made it tangle in Resmiranda’s fingers.
“Hide, Resmiranda. Don’t let them turn you away from the light,” Henry shouted.
Mathilde stubbornly stood before the secret exit. She clasped her hands in prayer and closed her eyes to the chaos in the chamber.
Resmiranda stared at the Black One, entranced, her hands reaching out to him in a compulsion imposed upon her by the evil descendant of Tryblith, the demon of chaos.
Witchchild! The word rang through Henry’s mind. Then a solid fist hit his jaw. Stars pricked his eyelids. Blackness crowded his vision.
Merlin’s Descendants #2
by Irene Radford
$4.99 (Novel) ISBN 978-1-61138-154-2