The destiny of three proud sons—and one courageous daughter—of a notorious criminal is revealed at last in medieval Scotland.
The evil legacy of a cursed Northumberland manor ensnares Effie Annesley when her young son is kidnapped from ravaged Darlyrede House. To save him, Effie must fulfill a King’s decree: bring in her fugitive father, Thomas Annesley, to face execution for his alleged crimes. It’s a search fraught with emotion as Effie races to Scotland, homeland of her warrior half-brothers, accompanied by a colorful band of thieves—and one determined knight . . .
Sir Lucan Montague has never been closer to delivering Annesley and reclaiming his inheritance. But his victory turns hollow as he comes to see strong, resilient Effie for who she truly is—and as distrust turns to healing passion. Returning to court to make the ultimate sacrifice, will love and loyalty conquer a maze of lies and treachery that threatens to destroy them all?
Release date: March 1, 2022
Publisher: Lyrical Press
Print pages: 352
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The Knight's Pledge
Euphemia was yet a mile away from the castle when she saw the glow against the inky night sky. There could be no mistake that the Montague hold burned.
She struggled through the winter-brittle underbrush, grateful for her thick woolen cloak as the thorns sought their way beneath the hem, ripping at her thin gown and lashing the flesh of her legs. They would soon discover her gone from the chamber that was her prison at Darlyrede, and so she must hurry—run, when the terrain allowed. Whether the rumors were true, and she found Thomas Annesley at Castle Dare or not, Euphemia now understood that she could never return to Darlyrede House if she wished to live.
She knew too much.
She must warn the Montagues at once of her suspicions—surely they would take her into their protection until the king could be told.
She at last came to the fringe of the wood and looked upon the chaos surrounding the once elegant stone keep. Smoke lay thick around the motte, the red glow of the forge revealing the survivors milling there as if lost. The creaking and popping of timbers being devoured only emphasized the significance of the charred shell. There was nothing left to save.
Euphemia made her way among the refugees without fear of being discovered—she already knew that in the plain cloak with the old, pale blue gown beneath, her hair flowing and tangled and littered with the detritus of her flight, no one would take her for the Hargraves’ supposedly pampered niece.
“The poor children. To lose both parents at once.”
Euphemia stopped and looked around with wild eyes, but could not discern from where the snippet of conversation had come.
Lord and Lady Montague were dead?
No. No, no, no…
The sound of a young child sobbing wafted through Euphemia’s shock, and she turned slowly to discover a little girl—not likely older than four—shivering in a heap on the frozen turf, her threadbare nursery gown stretched ineffectively over her knees.
“You’re just a baby,” Euphemia breathed to herself, and her fingers went at once to the clasp at her throat, forgetting for a moment the blow dealt to her plans. “Here,” she whispered as she crouched down near the girl and piled the warm wool about her. “Here you are. Why are you alone?”
“Mama?” the girl whimpered, and as she looked up, Euphemia beheld milky, sightless eyes surrounded by thick, sooty lashes in the perfect face. “Mama?”
Euphemia rushed to her feet and stumbled backward, staggering away from the child while trying to muffle her hysterical sob. This was a horrid dream, surely.
But until she woke, she couldn’t pause. She must find the Montague children. She must find them before Vaughn Hargrave did, for if he felt at liberty to commit such vile atrocities in the waking world, what would he do in a nightmare?
At last she saw them, there on the fringe of the inner circle, watching the last of the hold be consumed while their elderly nurse knelt in prayer nearby. Lucan, older than Euphemia’s ten and five by perhaps only a year, with little Iris clinging to his leg, still in her nightdress. Handsome, young Lucan still in his tunic and trousers, his eyes wild and red-rimmed, his narrow face pale beneath the fall of his dark hair. He held what appeared to be an orphaned slipper in his right hand.
Orphaned, perhaps like the blind girl child; orphaned like Euphemia. The Montague children were now orphans, too, and just as endangered as she was, even if they didn’t yet know it.
“Master Montague,” she rasped as she neared him with her arm out. “Lucan.”
He whirled around, giving her only the briefest glance. “I have nothing for you,” he barked. “Go with the others until the morn.”
“Lucan,” she pressed, glancing around nervously at the crowd. Vaughn Hargrave could be anywhere. “You must come away with me at once. You and your sister. We must go to the king. The Crown will aid us.” She reached him at last and took hold of his arm. “We must—”
He whirled around and struck Euphemia with the slipper in his hand, so unexpectedly and so soundly that she twisted and fell to the ground, her frozen cheek now burning from the blow. “I said, I have nothing for you, wretch,” he shouted. “I am lord here, now. You are not worthy to serve the house of Montague, let alone hold the king’s name in your filthy mouth.” He took a step toward her.
Iris still clung to his leg and she let out a fresh wail. “Lucan, stop!”
The elderly nurse had risen and was now coming toward them, her wrinkled face tear-streaked. Euphemia met the woman’s eyes until the young master of ruined Castle Dare recalled her attention.
“Go,” he growled at her. “I don’t ever want to see your face again, or I’ll cut you down myself.” He turned away from her, gathering his sister up from the cold, smoky ground, and half carrying little Iris further along the burning ruin.
“Are you alright, girl?” a man’s voice called out.
Euphemia looked up and saw a servant approaching near the Montague children’s nurse—a groom or the like, from his dress. Neither servant recognized her, she was sure. Behind them both though, Euphemia caught sight of steel gray hair…
She scrambled to her feet and turned back toward the wood, running, stumbling; tears leaving hot, wet tracks on her cold cheeks.
She would die in the forest rather than subject herself to the supposed mercy of any nobility ever again. From hell, all of them. She would freeze, or starve, or be devoured by wild animals—she didn’t care anymore.
Yes, Euphemia Hargrave would die that very night—she must. But she vowed she would never, for all eternity, forget the pain Lucan Montague had caused her.
Lucan Montague stared at the rich draperies gathered into an intricate swirl over his head, the hills and valleys of the canopy touched by the eternal sunset of the blazing hearth fire to his left. The hues predicted nighttime, and indeed the sun had set over Northumberland hours and hours ago, yet Lucan’s throbbing foot and the memory of bright blue eyes would not allow his furrowed brow to smooth into slumber. The smell of smoke still burned in his nostrils despite several irrigations, and he wondered if his hands would ever be free from the black soot stains. He wondered if he’d ever been free of them, really. Hadn’t they been lurking just beneath the thinnest layer of his skin? Lurking like a phantom miasma, the demons from his past now returned…
It had been two days since Darlyrede House had burned; two days since his sister Iris had married Padraig Boyd before the shell of the ruined estate; two days since they’d come to sturdy Steadport Hall as guests of Lord and Lady Hood to recover and make their plans.
Two days since Lucan had slept.
Padraig and Iris were already gone off to London now, and Lucan should have accompanied them. Tavish and Lachlan would be arriving there for the meeting he had summoned them to long ago, and Lucan’s presence would be demanded. But Lucan was unwell. Perhaps more unwell than he dared even admit to himself.
His head pounded, and his foot throbbed where Euphemia Hargrave’s arrow had pierced his boot, pinning him to the forest floor that day what seemed years ago now.
Nay, not Euphemia Hargrave, he reminded himself. She calls herself Effie now—Effie Annesley.
Lucan called her a criminal. A criminal whom he would report to the king when he made his disastrous testimony about the debacle of Darlyrede. Not only had Lucan lost the man he was charged with finding, one of England’s richest estates was now smoldering rubble and the nobles overseeing it—Vaughn and Caris Hargrave—were dead.
And Thomas Annesley, the man who’d been on the run from the Crown these past thirty years after being accused of killing his fiancée on the eve of their wedding, had a daughter. A daughter with eyes the color of the cornflowers that had carpeted the rolling hills between Castle Dare and Darlyrede House.
A daughter who had lived in the wood with a band of criminals for fifteen years.
A daughter who had shot Lucan through the foot.
Lucan would return to the king a failure. A disgrace to his station as a knight of the Royal Order of the Garter. He had no idea where Thomas Annesley was. Lucan had cost England a fortune and been laid up by a woman.
Lucan told himself he was only taking advantage of Lord Edwin Hood’s hospitality in order to recuperate and rest, but in reality, Lucan knew that he was hiding like the cowardly failure that he was. Thus, his being unable to sleep was perhaps justified.
He was thinking that perhaps he should simply own up to his new pusillanimous existence by retreating to France with his tail firmly between his legs when he heard the door to his borrowed chamber creak open in the dim light of the fire.
Lucan frowned and lifted his head from the cushions to peer down the length of his body, past the thick bedpost toward the door. It must be halfway to dawn—who could be creeping about the chambers at this hour?
A dark head poked into the room, the shielding door awash with reflected firelight at first shadowing the coloring and features of the face of his visitor with the blackest shadow. Then a thick-set body emerged to carefully close the door behind the intruder, and Lucan recognized the sturdy tunic, the dark red hair like sheep’s wool lying on the broad shoulders.
Lucan’s heretofore furrowed brow raised in surprise. “Rolf?”
Darlyrede’s steward flinched and turned immediately to face the bed. His already pale face was made the more so by the gloomy shadows beneath his hound-eyes, his dark red beard framing the man’s apparent distress.
“Sir Lucan,” Rolf said. “My apologies for disturbing you at such a late hour, but I fear it is most urgent.”
Lucan pushed himself to his elbows, his melancholy and self-pity vanishing. This was a very welcome distraction. “Is it Iris? Padraig?”
“Nay, lord,” Rolf said as he crossed the floor and began to gather Lucan’s discarded clothing.
Lucan threw back the bedclothes at once and grasped his left calf to lift his injured foot and swing it over the bedside, where it’s throbbing increased.
Many thanks, Effie Annesley. You hag.
“Ulric?” He reached out his arms to slide them into the sleeves of his partially laced gambeson and then pulled away to shimmy into the quilted piece. “He’s to already be arrived in London.”
“Nay, lord.” Rolf dropped to his knees to assist with fitting the trousers over Lucan’s bandaged foot and then fit his left boot—regrettably split up the shank to accommodate his swollen, crippled appendage.
Blasted Effie Annesley…
Lucan rose, drawing up his breeches and lacing them while Rolf assisted with the boots. The chamber seemed wont to tilt and wobble for a moment while the pounding in his head increased, but it passed almost as soon as it had begun.
Then Lucan took his belt and wrapped it around his waist, pulling the buckle tight against his flank. He glanced up as Rolf held forth Lucan’s sword.
“Where are we going?”
“I don’t wish to tell you, lord.”
“You don’t wish to—?” Lucan took the sword and slid it into his sheath. “You’re not the sort to play coy, Rolf, and your loyalty is stalwart, so I have no doubt of the sincerity of your plight. But I would know what we are about at this late hour, when you have come taking such pains to be unobserved.”
Rolf’s throat convulsed as if he forced himself to swallow, and his eyes were dark, wild. And yet he remained composed. “There is no time to waste. I will tell you to where we hie once there is no chance that we might be overheard.” He paused. “Please.”
A secret? A desperate secret. Lucan’s eyes narrowed for in instant, but then he shrugged. “Very well.”
It’s not as if he’d anything else better to do besides disparage himself, his foot, and blasted Effie Annesley.
It took only moments to be through the compact hold of Steadport Hall and into the stables to retrieve Agrios, who stood saddled and at the ready. Rolf’s mount, too, was waiting at the wide opening, loosely tethered with his muzzle in a bucket of oats, munching loudly in the darkness. It was clear even in the gloom that Darlyrede’s steward’s horse had been hurriedly wiped down after a hard ride, and the stable floor was dark with water near the trough while a sleepy stable boy dozed with his head in his hands on a nearby stool.
“I’ve got it,” Lucan muttered with gruff embarrassment when Rolf made motions of assisting him in mounting. The steward stepped away without argument to coax his reluctant mount from its treat. It took Lucan three awkward starts, but he at last sat astride as Rolf led his horse through the stable doorway and held the door while Lucan ducked beneath the lintel, his head pounding so that starbursts seemed to be exploding on the periphery of his vision.
Effie Annesley had turned him into a cripple, at the mercy of others’ aid, just as surely as if Lucan were an old widow woman.
Effie Annesley, risen from the dead.
A moment’s superstitious hesitation overcame Lucan as he followed the steward into the cold, black Northumberland night, Agrios’s hooves crunching into the snow. “Rolf,” he called out. “Tell me true: do we return to Darlyrede?”
Any other would perhaps have missed the man’s hesitation in answering, but Lucan had known Rolf Littlebrook since Lucan himself had been a boy, and so he saw the blink of a pause, heard the awkward guile in his lie. “Nay, lord.”
“I swear it, lord,” Rolf insisted. “We will pass by the place and, aye, ‘tis true that tonight’s misfortune is tied to Darlyrede House, but it is not our destination. Someone needs help, and by my word, you will know what can be done.”
Lucan blinked. “Who needs help?”
“Effie Annesley, lord.”
Lucan pulled up hard on Agrios’s reins, causing the destrier to balk at the uncharacteristically rough treatment. He turned the horse back toward the stable.
“No,” Lucan said.
“No,” he called loudly into the frigid air, the refusal manifesting like a crystal cloud in the January night. He heard the steward’s approach but did not turn toward him.
“Please, lord,” Rolf pleaded as they entered the barn again. The weary stable boy was just turning about once more, disappointment clear on his face. “You’re the only one who—”
“The only one who’s been crippled by Effie Annesley?”
Rolf looked decidedly uncomfortable. “I’m not certain that’s true.”
Lucan snorted. “I’d wager it’s not.” He only just managed to keep from crying out as he swung his leg over the saddle. “Wait,” he barked at the sleepy stable boy, who would have pulled Agrios away. A wave of dizziness washed over Lucan so that he was forced to grip the saddle with both hands and rest his forehead against the fragrant leather. Beads of sweat burst out along his hairline and raced down the sides of his face; nausea swirled in his stomach.
He heard Rolf bring his mount to a halt beside him, but Lucan could not raise his head to glance at the man derisively as he wished to.
“Leave us,” Rolf said, presumably to the attending boy. A moment later, he said in a low voice, “Lord, you’re not well.”
“All the more reason to once more seek my bed,” Lucan acknowledged. “I’d not waste what little strength I have to get Effie Annesley out of a snare she’s most likely made herself.”
“It’s not her in the snare, lord.”
“But you said—”
“It’s her boy.”
Lucan’s racing heart had slowed somewhat and so now he did turn his head to regard the steward, who seemed to have paled another two shades. Lucan remembered the red-haired lad from his sister’s wedding to Padraig Boyd.
I’m George Thomas Annesley, how do you do…
“What’s wrong with the boy?”
“He’s…missing.” Rolf seemed in greater pain that Lucan, although Lucan didn’t know how that was possible. “Please come,” he whispered.
Sweat seemed to be pouring down Lucan’s back now. “Why should I care what happens to a bandit’s brat? In fact, why should you?”
“Lord?” Rolf’s brows knit together. “Perhaps you should—”
“It’s not as though she can further your status now that Darlyrede is burnt and she is wanted by the Crown,” Lucan explained. “In fact, if I should see her, I would only arrest her, which I do doubt would be of any assistance in whatever plight she now finds herself in. Most deservedly, I should think, as well.” Lucan paused. “You seem to be quite far away just now, Rolf.”
* * * *
Rolf Littlebrook caught the knight just before he could slide to the stable floor, his noble battle steed having done his duty in just holding his master aright these past several moments. Agrios didn’t so much as flinch as Lucan crumpled.
Rolf lowered the knight to the hay-strewn ground, seeing clearly his gray, greasy pallor beneath the lock of black hair. He was more unwell than Rolf has guessed, and now he was unconscious—dead weight. Rolf didn’t relish the idea of the trip back through the hold to return Lucan to his bed, nor the calling of the surgeon and the questions that would arise. He’d already wasted precious time in traveling to Steadport Hall. Apparently, neither the surgeon nor the priest from Darlyrede had done Lucan any good thus far. For such a young man to lose his foot would be a tragedy. If Winnie were here, she would know how to treat him.
He stilled, thinking. Dare he?
In the next moment, Rolf haltingly folded the tall knight into an awkward embrace and then staggered to his feet. Agrios stood as still as any stone wall as Rolf draped his master across the saddle. He fastened the stirrup high up around one of Lucan’s upper thighs to keep him from sliding to the ground. It wouldn’t be a comfortable ride, but hopefully he would stay good and unconscious until they were deep in the wood.
By then, it would be too late to return.
Rolf pulled Agrios’s reins over the horse’s head and regained his own saddle, leading the fine, inky horse into the equally inky night. The well-trained animal followed obediently, seemingly knowing that the cargo he carried depended upon it.
It would take much longer to arrive at the Warren this way, but it was likely better to arrive late with Lucan Montague than not at all.
Perhaps for Lucan Montague most of all.
The words were whispered into Effie’s ear, but they roused her like a blast from Vaughn Hargrave’s arquebus. She opened her swollen eyes and looked up into Gorman’s face. His eyes, too, were red, dark-hollowed, above his thick beard. She made no reply, only held up her hand so that he could help her from George Thomas’s little bed. She followed him from the carved-out chamber in the rear of the warren of rooms and into the tall, twisting stone corridor toward the cathedral, still gripping the blasted parchment they’d found early yestermorning.
After fifteen years, Effie no longer noticed the mineral smell of the caves. Her eyes were exquisitely adjusted to the way the torches played off the chiseled-sharp, glittering planes of the walls and she knew them all as well as she knew the curves of George’s small face. There was no daylight in the caves, save for just inside the entrance, and in one chamber where a tiny sink hole in the forest floor far above sometimes allowed a beam of light to fall in the center of a tall, conical cell Gilboe had claimed as his oratory.
The lower portions and pathways of the corridors were worn smooth and rippled, perhaps by ancient, long evaporated rivers, but the upper portions of the caverns bore the marks of chisel and driven stone, the Warren having been stretched and widened by human hand for years to suit the hidden village it now contained. In addition to the common storage and stable areas, the Warren currently boasted seven private cells, as well as two large dormitory chambers where unpartnered adults slept. The echoey sound of the shallow, subterranean river grew louder, and beyond the next curve of stone wall the ceiling soared away into invisible darkness as Effie and Gorman entered the cathedral.
The cavern was filled with many of the residents of the Warren, and all were in a grim fluster as Effie drew nearer. She braced herself for the argument she knew was inevitable. Effie certainly hadn’t wanted to call for him, but Rolf and Gorman had convinced her that Lucan Montage could help them. And so help them, he would.
Gorman stopped suddenly in front of her, nearly causing her to run into his back.
“Rolf?” he queried in a strange tone.
Effie stepped around in time to see the man who had served as Darlyrede’s steward for decades place a dark, limp bundle on the floor. Rolf rose, and his usually placid face was troubled.
“Where is he?” Effie demanded.
To her dismay, Rolf Littlebrook glanced down at the motionless pile of rags on the stone.
“Did you need to render him unconscious in order to bring him?” The others moved aside deferentially as she stepped forward and then knelt at the side of Lucan Montague.
“That was a fortuitous coincidence, I fear,” Rolf sighed. “He’d outright refused before he fainted. He’s unwell, Effie. I thought perhaps Winnie…”
“He was fine two days ago,” she said curtly. His lashes were dark against his pale, chiseled cheekbone, like a crag from the Warren itself. His lips were bloodless and gray. Although the January cold still rolled off his clothes, Effie felt Lucan Montague’s forehead with her palm and found it fiery, and greasy with sweat. “He’s burning up with fever.”
Behind her, Gorman sounded incredulous. “You brought a sick man into the Warren, Rolf?”
“I don’t think ‘tis an illness, son,” Rolf corrected. “I believe his injury festers.”
Effie looked up quickly at Gorman’s father. “His foot?”
“Dammit,” Effie muttered. And then, louder, “Dammit!” She rose to her feet, confronting Rolf. “He’s useless to us in this condition.”
“Perhaps Winnie—” Rolf began again.
“I don’t have time for this, Rolf!” Effie shouted, hearing her voice growing dangerously shrill, but panic was rising within her again, panic she had only just been holding at bay with the hope that Lucan Montague might aid them in some way. Now, she could not seem to hold back the floodtide of terror that was crashing and climbing against the banks of her mind as the one supposed to be George’s savior lay feeble at her feet.
“They have my son! They have George!” she shrieked. “How am I to ever think of—”
Her words were interrupted by thin, cool bands encircling and squeezing her upper arm. Effie whipped her head around to find the serene, wizened face of Winnie, her white, white hair frizzed around her head like dandelion fluff. Her pale gray eyes bored into Effie’s as she pulled Effie away from the form of Lucan Montague and knelt in her place.
The old woman tugged up her draping sleeves, revealing spotted, skeletal arms. Her long fingers with their short, round, shiny nails skimmed over Lucan Montague’s form, pressing his body here and there, laying her ear atop first his chest then his abdomen. She moved toward his feet on her knees and waggled squeezed-together fingers at his left boot, which had been obviously altered to accommodate his foot. Effie knew she should have felt some shame for being the cause of the injury, but she could not muster any sympathy for the man, lying here in the Warren’s safe cathedral while George Thomas was missing.
His arrival had done nothing more than delay them further. He should just hurry up and die if he was wont.
As if the old woman had read her thoughts, Winnie looked up at her sharply.
Effie stared back. She didn’t care what Winnie thought of her, either.
That’s not true, her conscience warned, seeming to be of one mind with older woman.
Thankfully, Winnie sent her expressive gaze to Gorman, who flew to her side at once as the boot was painstakingly removed. Effie watched as Winnie’s withered hands motioned in the air, the fingers of her right hand tapping those on her left, then drawing a pair of circles on her palm. She brought her two fists together and then swiped her hand over her left forearm.
“Only one?” he queried.
The frizzy white head shook and Winnie held up two fingers. Then she patted her lips briefly and wrung her clasped hands in opposite directions.
Gorman gained his feet and disappeared into the rippling shadows along the perimeter of the cathedral, and Winnie seemed to forget him immediately as she withdrew her long, slender blade from the belt around her tiny midsection. She inserted the tip of the knife carefully into the top of the stained bandages wrapped past Lucan Montague’s . . .
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