23 April, 1553, St. George’s Day, sixth year of the reign of our most sovereign King Edward VI, of England, Ireland, Wales, and France. The border hills beyond Carlisle.
I TURNED my face into the rising wind. My hair whipped away from my eyes. The bite of salt stung my cheeks and chin. My horse shied and tried to turn east, away from the approaching storm. I mastered his headstrong grasp of the bit and surged forward, north and west into the storm and toward our target.
I reveled in the savage lash of my primal element. It matched my anger in ferocity. The rain would come soon, covering the tracks of the two dozen mounted men who rode with me. We would be across the crumbling remnants of Hadrian’s Wall when the storm crashed around us. Our quarry retreated just beyond the border of Scotland, close enough to menace our home, far enough to be beyond our king’s laws and justice.
Justice. The thought hammered at the minds of my men.
The outlaws would lose their refuge tonight, and Meg would be avenged.
Our sister could regain her wits without fear.
To my right, Donovan, my twin, raised his hands to the storm, seeking to draw its power into himself. He could not, of course. I had inherited the magical talent from our grandmother that skipped my father and my twin.
With the wonders of magic comes responsibility, Grandmother Raven’s voice pounded inside my head.
I ignored her. This was man’s business. Meg must be avenged.
Peace is man’s business. There is always an alternative to war.
“Shut up, Raven!” I spoke into the wind, letting my element carry my opinion home.
You know I am right. You question everything I say, challenge the traditions I pound into your thick skull, Griffin Kirkwood. Now you must question yourself.
“Not in this, Raven. Not in this. We must avenge Meg. She cannot heal unless we bring her attackers to justice.”
I heard her mental snort of disgust. An inkling of doubt crept into my mind.
Helwriaeth, my wolfhound, mighty warrior that she was, let loose with the triumphant battle cry that I kept trapped within my throat. Seven more wolfhounds took up the trumpeting challenge. The sound rolled around the hills and vales as thunder.
“Quiet the dogs, Griffin,” Da snarled at me. “Those black raiders outnumber us and are well armed. We need surprise this night.”
I could surprise our enemies more effectively than Da and other mundanes who needed the silence and darkness of the night. But Grandmother Raven had warned us not to use magic to defeat our enemies.
Was a spell for invisibility black magic?
War is black magic, Raven’s voice reminded me like a sharp caw released with the thunder.
They started it! I replied instinctively.
Raven’s silence was always the worst reprimand she could give me.
I should be the one to break the mindless quest for vengeful violence. I knew it without Raven’s biting words in my head. I would be the Pendragon when she died. ’Twas my responsibility.
I needed to halt our forward plunge and think about this.
Donovan showed me the layout of the enemy village through our unique mind-to-mind communication. I instantly knew their vulnerabilities as well as their strengths.
“I know how to plan a raid,” he said with his voice. He grinned at me again. “I tumbled one of the maids yesterday while I scouted the terrain.”
“There.” Da pulled his horse to a halt atop a low ridge. He pointed to the broken silhouette of a destroyed castle on the next higher ridge. Only bats and ghosts threatened us from the ancient stronghold. But below it, nestled into the sheltered vale between us and the abandoned fortress, lay a cluster of thatched cottages. Two or three lights winked at us from behind closed shutters.
“The girl lives in the end cottage. Says she has a sister who’s just as accommodating.” Donovan grinned again. An image of hair the color of faded red autumn leaves and soft gray eyes came and went so fast I nearly lost the picture of her. She’d been eager for Donovan’s attentions and not a virgin.
Our sister Meg had not been willing and had prized her virginity.
“Remember, Donovan, what they did to your sister. To us! ” Da hissed at us both. He had four other daughters, by his three wives, But Meg was special. Meg was…
Not Meg anymore. The Scots must pay for what they did to her.
“All the more reason to plant our bastards in the bellies of their daughters.” Donovan kneed his horse forward, level with Da. “An eye for an eye!” But his mental images were heated by lust rather than anger. Did the girl manipulate his emotions from a distance, or was she truly the answer to his randy prayers?
“These raiders are so vile, their own lord begged us to clean out this viper’s nest. Paid us, too.” Da’s eyes gleamed in the dim light from our shielded lanterns. He was spoiling for a fight. Any fight. The Scots and Meg were merely an excuse.
Donovan looked at Da strangely at that statement. His clear and logical thinking tried to question something about Lord Douglas. Something…
Da raised his hand and signaled me forward. I, with my preternatural sight, led our little troop down the hillside. Helwriaeth came behind me, sniffing the true path for the rest of the pack. Youngster though she was, she kept the dogs quiet. War dogs one and all; they knew their business sometimes better than we.
By the time the ground leveled out beneath us, I had guessed why Lord Douglas wanted us to raid his own village. He wanted to steal something valuable from them, using the raid as cover, to blame us for his perfidy. He would trap and slaughter us at the same time, silencing our witness. I raised one hand to stop the others. We needed to go back, before Lord Douglas trapped us. I thought I knew a better way.
In the back of my head, I felt Raven smile. There is always a better way.
Lightning flashed and thunder rolled at that moment, unleashing the full fury of the storm upon our heads. In the flare of blue-white light, with my senses extended, I saw a score of mounted men waiting atop the next hill. Not our men.
Da pressed forward, too eager for the fray to exercise caution.
“Da, wait!” I called to him quietly, using magic as well as good sense to persuade him.
He ignored me. I raised my hand again, wanting a spell to hold him in place, not knowing how to do that.
The storm raged. More lightning and thunder ripped the skies apart. Energy crackled from the sky to my upthrust hand.
It grabbed hold of me. My mind fled. Power shot through me. Fire shot from my hand to thatch.
The largest cottage in the village burst into flames with a mighty explosion. Blinded, I rocked back in my saddle.
Power drained from me along with strength and will.
The leader of the border raiders resided in the now blazing cottage. ’Twas he who had led the men who stole and murdered within the boundaries of Kirkenwood. ’Twas he who raped Meg in the hut where she had gone as midwife. He had murdered the new mother and her babe. ’Twas he who would be the first to die this night.
By my hand.
Smoke blinded me. The smell of burning hair and flesh gagged in my throat. I doubled over in pain at the passing of a life.
Helwriaeth let loose another howl. Sadness ripped through me. I wanted to lift my head and match her note for note. But while she exulted, I mourned.
Endless moments of burning agony ripped through me/ my victim. We couldn’t breathe. Pain. PAIN.
And then nothing.
A silent numbness descended.
I looked upon the scene as if from a different body, a different mind.
And then the raiders were upon us. Cold steel clashed with cold steel. Crossbow bolts flew through the air. Smoke choked us. Horses reared and screamed. The dogs lunged, jaws snapping. I saw one break the leg of a riderless horse with his massive jaws.
All around me the confusion and noise of battle circled, leaving me isolated. And yet I was vastly aware of every life within the village, natives and invaders. I doubled over in empathic pain every time a life fled.
Raven had warned me. Sometime, when I least expected it, my powers would mature and grow into their full potential. I had to be cautious. I had to control that moment. And now…I shared each death with agonizing clarity.
The echoes and cries disappeared. My ears became as numb as the rest of me. I looked down upon it all and saw myself sitting dumbly upon my horse, inert, in the middle of the fray.
Donovan dragged a young woman from the end cottage. He held her easily with one arm around her throat. His other hand fumbled to release his now swollen codpiece. She screamed and kicked. She clawed at him. Not the willing maid of yesterday. Her gray eyes widened with panic and fear.
I shared the emotions with her and nearly fled the scene. Meg’s plight became more real. For a moment I relived her rape. I felt the shame, the stabbing pain, the humiliation and degradation. My privates withered.
Behind Donovan another maid, perhaps a year younger, with hair to match her sister’s, slammed an iron griddle into the back of his head. He sprawled headlong in the dirt, his clothing half undone and his foul deed incomplete. He was in danger of being trampled by our own men.
Donovan’s victim stared at me—or the spirit of me that hung above my body—from beneath Donovan’s inert body. Our gazes locked, hearts beating in the same erratic rhythm. The soulless depth of her gray eyes drew me in, threatened to drown me in her anger and despair. I knew her then for kin. Kin in talent if not blood.
“I will remember,” she said quietly.
I heard each syllable distinctly.
The two women fled into the arms of a waiting wall of warriors I did not recognize.
The men of the Black Douglas of Hermitage Castle.
He wanted the girl. He wanted her talents as well as her body.
My soul sank with a sickening lurch. My head reeled. I looked out upon the world through my own eyes. Ghostly double images superimposed upon real ones.
“Donovan!” I screamed with my mind and my voice as I kneed my horse closer to my fallen twin.
Friend and foe alike impeded me. With every pounding hoof I feared for my twin’s life.
I honed the link of communication with Donovan to a fine barb and aimed it to rouse him. He moaned and stirred. The pain in his neck and behind his eyes became my pain. Under this new onslaught, my heart stuttered and nearly failed.
Light flared all around us, bright white, smelling of strange acids. The sharp and deafening bang of gunfire.
“Donovan!” I cried again in panic. Who among us could afford enough powder to fire an arquebus? Who had the time to mount one upon a tripod and aim it? None of our men carried firearms, preferring cold steel to the expensive toys of clockmakers.
Lord Douglas had stockpiles of black powder stolen from a hundred raids across the border. Rumor placed at least three wheellock weapons in his possession.
All grew unnaturally still around me. I lost the ever-present awareness of Donovan in my mind. Helwriaeth’s comforting touch faded as well. I no longer sat atop a horse. The battle, the fires, the screams from the hurt and dying disappeared.
I stood alone and lost in the midst of the terrible light. Columns of white heat rose all around in an unbroken circle. No exit, no entrance.
Sweat slicked my body. I smelled my own fear.
I turned around and around, seeking escape, seeking answers, seeking…anything but this circle of blinding whiteness.
A golden sword with a jeweled hilt hung before my eyes. Ancient runes engraved on the blade burned red with power. All light seemd to radiate from that magical blade.
I knew that sword from my lessons and my dreams. It came from the past and lived on in the future. I knew the otherworldly power it contained. Only a chosen few wielded it with impunity.
I lunged for the weapon. It eluded me.
Again I reached, with my mind as well as my hands. Again it backed away before I could so much as brush the blade with my fingertips.
Then it shifted, molded, shrank, became three crowns one atop the other, forming a vague miter suspended within a pillar of blue flames. I had seen a simpler version of that crown before, on the head of a bishop at a great mourning procession in the streets of Carlisle after the death of the old king.
Da had bowed to the authority of the man wearing that mitered crown. Grandmother Raven had not.
But these visionary crowns were older, more powerful, filled with wisdom and kindness. I knew they came from God.
“Holy Mary, Mother of God,” I breathed.
I think I fell to my knees, hands clasped before me in prayer. Even with my eyes closed, the vision of the crowns and sword and the eldritch flames remained clear and bright within my mind.
The crowns grew brighter. Behind them, the sword hung suspended, its hilt forming a cross.
“I must become a man of God in support of the Holy Father in Rome,” I murmured. Only that could explain the triple crown. “I must defend the church from her enemies.”
I must defy family tradition and honor one religion over another. We had survived the persecutions of Henry VIII’s reformation of the church by switching allegiance quite readily. Mostly we realized that God had many names and no matter what we called Him, He would listen. I knew that when Edward VI died of a sickening of the lungs—as surely he must soon—we would survive his sister Mary’s restoration of the Catholic church just as easily.
But if I embraced the church, I must renounce the magic that governed much of my life; I must renounce any claim to being the Pendragon of Britain.
Raven would never forgive me.
Merlin’s Descendants #3
by Irene Radford
$4.99 (Novel) ISBN 978-1-61138-162-7