From USA Today bestselling author Glynnis Campbell...A cursed knight storms a castle to claim his reluctant bride, but when they're trapped in a deadly rockslide, they must fight together to conquer despair and triumph over death.
To restore peace in the Borders between Scotland and England, two kings have betrothed Lady Hilaire Eliot to a cursed, thrice-widowed knight known as The Dire Dragan. Headstrong Hilaire will do anything to escape that fate, even confront her fear of the dark by fleeing her besieged castle through an ancient tunnel. Her bridegroom, Giric mac Leod, is just as determined to claim his rightful bride. But when he storms her fortress, his reckless actions trap him in an underground rockslide. The dispirited knight welcomes death's embrace...until he hears the one sound he can't ignore—the call of a maiden in distress.
Prequel novella for The Warrior Daughters of Rivenloch
Length: 24,000 words = 98 pages
Rating: R-rated for passionate passages
Key Themes: Scottish historical romance, English medieval love story, adventure, strong women, cursed knight, forced marriage, runaway bride, siege, cave-in, border castle, second marriage, betrothed to an enemy, Highland romance, trapped in the dark
More Historical Romances by Glynnis Campbell
The Warrior Maids of Rivenloch
THE SHIPWRECK (a novella)
A YULETIDE KISS (a short story)
The Knights of de Ware
THE HANDFASTING (a novella)
THE REIVER (a novella)
THE OUTCAST (a novella)
Release date: April 3, 2018
Publisher: Glynnis Campbell
Print pages: 94
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"Hurry, m’lady! This way!"
Lady Hilaire Eliot's feet slipped on the slimy steps as she scrambled down the dark, dank passageway, following the bobbling firebrand her maidservant held aloft.
Even here, deep beneath the keep, Hilaire could hear the ominous pounding of the battering ram shuddering the wooden gates and stone walls of the castle.
She breathed a silent prayer. What she attempted was perilous. But what would become of her if she remained behind was far more terrifying.
This way, God willing, if she didn't trip and break her neck along the way, she'd slip out of the tunnel on the outer side of the curtain wall. She’d be halfway through the forest by the time the enemy splintered the door to the inner bailey.
"Please, m’lady!" entreated Martha the maidservant, eyeing Hilaire’s harp. "Will ye not leave that cursed thing behind? In another moment—"
The thudding abruptly ceased, heralding the devastation of the outermost gates of the barbican, the first line of defense.
Martha emitted a fretful squeak.
But Hilaire only clutched the instrument closer. She'd been forced to abandon everything else—her home, her family, her friends. She’d be damned if she'd leave her precious harp behind.
She glanced at her shivering servant, who had always been more like an older sister to her. It had been unfair to drag Martha into this. The risk should have been Hilaire’s alone.
“Ye go on back, Martha,” she said, reaching for the firebrand. “I can make it on my own from here.”
But Martha snatched the torch back out of reach and raised her stubborn chin. “I’m not about to desert ye, m’lady.”
“’Tisn’t your battle.”
“I swore I’d keep ye safe. I don’t intend to break my vow.”
Hilaire shook her head. Martha’s loyalty was touching. But there was no need to make her suffer for Hilaire’s reckless choices.
“Don’t fret, Martha. I’ll keep safe, I promise,” she insisted with a confidence she didn’t quite feel. “Now hand me the torch so I can find my way out.”
But Martha wouldn’t hear of it. She shook her head once, then turned on her heel and continued down the passage, speaking over her shoulder. “I didn’t swear an oath o’ loyalty to Lord William just to abandon his daughter at the first sign o’ trouble.”
Hilaire appreciated Martha’s sense of honor, but she doubted very much that Lord William Eliot would approve. He’d likely prefer the maidservant bring his daughter, kicking and screaming, back to the keep.
Ahead the passage narrowed and the stone steps ran out, becoming less a corridor and more a burrow.
Hilaire's pulse raced.
Her legs threatened mutiny.
Usually, Hilaire’s daring exceeded her caution. She was as brave as her warrior brothers, as fearless as any of her father’s knights. But she had one secret weakness. She hated the dark—closed spaces in particular. Sometimes at night, even the prospect of pissing in the confining garderobe made her heart flutter so much that she'd languish in misery till morning.
This place smelled of mildew and decay, like a grave. She could imagine rats and beetles and worms slithering in the clammy chinks of moldering rock.
Swallowing hard to dislodge the lump of terror in her throat, she forced one foot in front of the other, reminding herself that the tunnel would eventually open up again. If she could endure the harrowing journey for a quarter of an hour, she’d emerge again in the fresh night air.
The passageway had been excavated more than a century ago by her Eliot ancestors, who had lived through constant war. But these were more peaceful times. In all her nineteen years, no one had needed to make use of the tunnel.
If the truth be known, the attack raging above them wasn't even a true battle. It had started as a negotiation—a reasonable refusal to an unreasonable demand.
But her enemy hadn’t accepted that refusal. He'd lost his patience. What had begun as a slow siege had become a storming—an assault severe enough to warrant drastic counter-measures.
"Wait!" Hilaire held up a hand, halting Martha. "Did ye hear that?"
The torchlight flickered across Martha's pinched features as she strained her ears. "What, m’lady?"
Hilaire's brow creased in worry. She thought she'd heard…
But perhaps it was only her bones creaking with cold or her knees rattling with fright.
She dismissed her fears with a shake of her head. “We should make haste."
The tunnel angled sharply downward as it passed underneath the curtain wall. Hilaire shuddered. Creeping down the incline was like descending into a cold hell.
"Mind the—” Martha warned, too late.
Hilaire's toe caught on a tree root. She stumbled and fell hard, landing on both knees in the soil. Her harp struck a discordant twang as she caught herself on one hand.
"Oh, m’lady! Are ye hurt?"
Hilaire silently cursed her clumsiness. Thankfully, her nubby woolen skirts had taken the brunt of the fall. Her palm was only bruised. "I’m fine."
But was she?
Here bold and courageous Lady Hilaire Eliot knelt like a pathetic wretch in the cold, dank mud. With nothing but her harp, a peasant’s kirtle on her back, and a scared servant, she was fleeing her home and a future she couldn't bear to face. The weight of her circumstances and the depth of her dread pressed down upon her like a millstone.
How had she come to such a coil?
If only Lord William had betrothed her to someone sooner, before the king had the chance to arrange her marriage…
She would have wed anyone her father named—bandy-legged Edmund Beattie, somber Lord Robert of Kinmont, even Sir Simon Duff, who stuttered and walked with a limp—anyone but the monster the king had chosen for her.
People spoke of The Dire Dragan in whispers, for fear that uttering the Highlander’s name might call his curse upon them. They claimed his countenance was dark with the shadow of damnation. His hair was as black as char. His eyes were as deep as a chasm. He never smiled, seldom spoke, and when he did, it was in a low growl more akin to an animal than a man.
Once, the pennant of The Dragan had flown proud. Its master, deserting his Highland home for the more civilized Borders, had been graced with the noble qualities of the creature blazoned on his crest—fierce power and a true heart. Once he’d been a warrior of great honor and renown.
But that was long ago.
Now it was said he need only sear a man's eyes with his burning gaze to send him cowering to his knees. The Dragan had become the most horrible of beasts, for he was ferocious, dangerous, and full of deadly fire.
Still, nothing was as terrible as the curse he placed upon women.
To them he brought death.
Three wives he'd already lain in the grave—one beside her young daughter, one with a babe still in her belly, and one before he could even get her with child. Three wives, and not one had borne him a son upon whom to bestow his title.
A woman would have to be mad to wed such a man.
And, by all that was holy, Hilaire was not mad.
Struggling to her feet, she set out with renewed determination.
They'd almost reached the lowest point in the passageway, where the curtain wall was anchored and where the tunnel thankfully ascended, when she heard it again—the sinister creaking of mortar and stone.
"Let me," she said, taking the firebrand from Martha in her free hand and squeezing past the maid to investigate the passage ahead.
The sound came from directly above her now. She turned back for an instant to see if Martha could hear it as well.
Then, with an unholy crack, the sky fell.
Giric mac Leod wiped his damp brow with the back of his sleeve and stabbed at the earth again with his spade, deepening the tunnel. He wondered for the hundredth time if he was doing the right thing.
What kind of fool stormed a bloody castle in the middle of the night, for God's sake?
It was a desperate action. And yet he could think of nothing else to do.
He'd known it was foolish to come. All his instincts told him this cursed wedding was not to be. But he had no choice.
King David of Scotland, on the brink of peace with the king of England, was intent on forging as many alliances as possible along the border. Besides, the king had pointed out, The Dire Dragan was in need of an heir.
Thus, King David had handpicked the mother of that heir—the daughter of an English border lord—and would brook no refusal.
Giric heaved a weary sigh. He wished the king had chosen another bride, one less vehemently unwilling.
He clamped his mouth into a grim line and shoveled the dirt aside.
A less unwilling bride? That was laughable. No woman in her right mind would wed a man like him.
Clenching his jaw, he gouged another wound into the soil and cast the dirt over his shoulder—unintentionally showering the captain of his knights, arriving behind him, with soil.
"God's blood!" Campbell swore, spitting dirt from his mouth. "There ye are! I've been lookin' high and low for ye, m'lord! What the devil d'ye think ye're doin'?"
“Go away." He didn't need nosy Campbell interfering in his affairs.
"Why, ye're sappin' the castle," Campbell said in wonder, standing his ground. "But ye can't undermine the wall, m'lord, not by yourself."
"Begone, I said."
"Are ye daft? There's nothin’ to shore it up. Ye haven't got the proper braces," Campbell insisted. "'Tis death to linger here!"
Giric didn't answer his man, only turned and continued shoveling. He might indeed have to sap the castle, but only as a last resort. What he intended was to dig a small passage, just enough to steal in under the curtain wall and claim his bride.
Campbell cursed again. "At least give me the spade then. I don't have any vassals I'm beholdin' to."
"Nay!" Giric barked over his shoulder, making the torch flicker. "The lady's to be my wife. 'Tis my risk."
He kept digging, jabbing at the soil with renewed resolve, punishing the earth for coming between him and his prize.
"But I came to tell ye the barbican's fallen," Campbell said. "Once we penetrate the inner wall—"
"Nay. Delay the attack. Just maintain the siege, and keep Eliot’s men distracted."
"But, m'lord, we can easily take the castle by force."
"And slay my bride's kin?" He tossed the spade aside, and dug a small boulder from the embankment with his hands. "Nay. 'Tis far easier to repair the barbican than make amends for slaughter."
"At least let me call the sappers. They'll put up decent props, and in a day or so—”
"I haven’t got a day or so," Giric grumbled, casting the stone away. "Besides, ‘tis a matter for stealth, not force."
Campbell blew out an exasperated breath. "Ye know, m'lord," he said, his voice as bitter as moldy ale, "if I didn’t know better, I'd say ye were itchin' to kiss death's arse."
There was some truth to that. Sometimes Giric didn’t feel like he had much to live for.
Then, as if Campbell’s words invoked some black doom, the air was suddenly severed by an ominous crack.
Silt sifted down over Giric's head, extinguishing the candlelight. Then an enormous slide of rock and earth pelted him, muting Campbell's shouts and utterly blotting out the night sky behind him.
Hilaire cried out as devil's thunder split the air. But the sound was lost beneath the violent, crashing deluge of ragged stone and fetid soil that sealed the tunnel. Her maid vanished from sight.
Dust filled her nose and mouth, clogging her throat, choking her, and most horrifying of all, smothering the flame of her torch. A brutal impact knocked her forward and sent her sprawling atop her harp. Shards of rock pummeled her back like sharp-sided hail. Then a heavy chunk of stone smashed her hand, and she grunted in pain.
The awful clamor seemed to go on forever, at last diminishing from a roar to a rustle as the boulders came to rest and pebbles continued to trickle down all around her. But as horrible as the noise was, it was not half as terrifying as the deadly silence that followed.
Hilaire struggled to hear anything, anything at all—her maid, a rat, the echo of the battering ram—but her own frantic gasps and the loud rushing of her pulse were the only sounds remaining.
The world had turned absolutely black.
Not the black of a starless night.
Not the black of the dungeon.
Not even the black of the close garderobe that set her heart to hammering.
This was a black so heavy, so tangible, it wrapped like a shroud about her.
She was afraid to get up, afraid she'd find the space around her had shrunk to the size of a coffin. Panic rattled the cage of her mind, and a squeal of dread lodged in her throat. She sucked what breath she could into her lungs, but it was impossibly thin.
Growing dizzy, she forced herself to calm, measuring out her shuddering breaths. If she succumbed to terror, she knew she'd be lost. She had to steel her nerves, get up, and assess her situation.
The harp dug painfully into her stomach, and her hand throbbed where it was caught beneath the rock. The slippery warmth of blood oozed between her crushed fingers. She was trapped.
Nay, she told herself. Nay.
Biting her lip to stave off panic, she brought her knees up under her. She scrabbled through the rubble, digging away the debris. She finally pried the heavy stone up enough to free her trapped hand, hissing between her teeth and cradling the injured member to her breast.
There was no time to lick her wounds. She had to find a way out. There must be a way out, she told herself, willing her breath to slow. The tunnel had collapsed between her and her maid. It followed then that she need only proceed forward to find her way to the other end and freedom.
Her pulse pounding in her temples, she groped the walls, looking for the exit, praying for a breach. She hobbled around the cave, stumbling, fumbling, searching. But as she circled the tiny enclosure again and again, she discovered the horrible truth. The falling earth had sealed both sides of the tunnel.
God’s bones—she was buried alive.
Breathless with dread, a scream threatening inside her, she retrieved her harp, clutching it to her chest like a drowning man clinging to a timber.
Her first cries were weak and thready, hoarse with fear. But desperation soon moved her to cry out for help at the top of her lungs.
Giric sat stunned. He should be dead. Enough debris had fallen around him to fill a decent-sized moat. But, somehow, God in his infinite mercy—or infinite cruelty—had spared him a quick death.
He'd still die. He had no doubts about that. He’d search every crevice of his new dungeon with the thoroughness of a captive plotting escape from The Tower. But it would be of no use. For when The Dire Dragan set about doing a thing, he did it properly.
The undermining had worked brilliantly. The castle curtain wall had collapsed, if prematurely, precisely as a sapper would have intended. Without the braces, however, Giric was imprisoned by his own hand under tons of rock and rubble.
His mouth twisted with black humor. It seemed he’d accomplished quite an admirable feat. By the complete lack of light, Giric was certain not even a chink remained for the wind to blow through.
Then his heart sank. Campbell. Why hadn’t the stubborn Highland captain left when Giric ordered him away? The poor wretch had probably been buried in the collapse. Even if by some miracle Campbell survived and could bring rescue, Giric would suffocate by the time his men could dig through the massive wall of granite.
Meanwhile, Giric would have time to dwell on his sins, to relive all the ugly passages of his life.
A small part of him, deep inside, felt a wrenching sort of satisfaction. After all, this was the end he deserved. At last Giric would suffer for his crimes and do penance for the innocent lives he'd destroyed.
And the young woman who waited within the castle walls to be his bride, whose father had stubbornly refused to surrender his maiden daughter in sacrifice to The Dire Dragan? She could stop wringing her hands in terror, for the beast she was betrothed to would be dead in a few hours.
Giric raised his hand to his forehead. His fingers came back slick with blood. He felt the sting of several scrapes and gashes along his bared forearms. All his bones seemed intact, though he was certain he'd be bruised on the morrow.
Then he chuckled bleakly. Bruised! He'd be dead on the morrow.
His laugh turned to coughing as the dust settled invisibly around him in the pitch black. Perhaps Campbell was right about him. Perhaps he had been courting death, for the idea of dying brought nothing but relief.
No more would he be haunted by the images of his loved ones' lifeless bodies.
No more would men cower as he passed, crossing themselves before him, making the sign of the devil behind his back.
No more would lords’ daughters quiver in fear at the prospect of becoming his bride.
Once he paid the debt of his soul, he'd be free.
He gathered dusty saliva in his mouth and spit it onto the ground. The thirst would be the worst of it, he supposed. Aside from that, once the air ran out, he'd likely just drift off to sleep.
No more worries.
No more responsibilities.
No more innocents to harm.
He crossed his battered arms over his chest, closed his eyes against the black oblivion, and gave up the fight, settling back against the jagged rock that would mark his grave.
The repose of eternity lasted exactly five measured breaths.
Then he heard it, faint at first, like the chirp of a cricket.
He opened one eye, as if that would make any difference in the utter dark.
It came again, louder this time, from beyond the inner wall of the tunnel.
He opened the other eye.
The sound was probably just a mouse, injured in the collapse. He hoped it would die soon. He wanted his last moments on earth to be peaceful.
He frowned, squirmed into a more relatively comfortable position, and closed his eyes tighter.
There it came again.
His eyes flew open.
That was no cricket, no mouse. There was something distinctly human about the cry.
He swallowed. When the forlorn cry came again, it sent a shudder through him like a battering ram pounding at his heart. There was no mistake. That voice belonged to a woman. And if there was one sound he couldn’t ignore, it was the call of a maiden in distress.
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