“IN THE BLEAK MIDWINTER”
The wind had turned cold in Éireann, forcing Brianna MacEgan inside the walls of her beehive-shaped stone hut. The fire had gone out, but she hadn’t built another yet. The chill within these walls matched the feelings of her heart. At any moment, she expected the door to open, with Murtagh sweeping inside to steal a kiss. But he wouldn’t. He’d been killed in a raid by a Lochlannach warrior of Gall Tír.
In her nightmares, she saw the frozen expression of shock on Murtagh’s face when the spear took his life. A cry of anguish had ripped from her throat as she’d rushed to his side, heedless of danger. Never in her life would she forget the cold expression of the Viking who had killed him. In a fraction of a second, he’d ended her world.
A part of her lay buried beneath the earth at his side. Worse, she’d never conceived a child during the marriage. There would be no son with Murtagh’s eyes, no daughter with his smile. The empty longing for a child ached within her, but she couldn’t imagine another man taking his place.
The walls seemed to close in on her, the grief shrouding her. Though her father had pleaded with her to return to Rionallís, her childhood home, she couldn’t bring herself to leave Laochre. All of her best memories were here, in this home. Inside this space, she could feel his presence, like a ghost haunting her. And though she knew it was time to let go of the past, she wasn’t ready.
A knock sounded at the door, and without waiting for an answer, her cousin Rhiannon came bursting inside. Her long brown hair was twisted into braids in a crown across her forehead, while the rest fell to her waist. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere. The guards saw riders approaching. Liam has returned . . . and he has a woman with him!”
“He’s back from the Crusade?” Brianna stood up, rubbing her arms against the cold. Their cousin had gone to the Holy Land, against his father’s orders. The king had been furious to learn of it, but he’d allowed his son to stay . . . provided that he remained in the service of King Richard the Lionheart. “Why do you think he brought a woman?”
Rhiannon lifted her shoulders. “Possibly to marry her. There are wagons behind them, and more riders.” Her cousin’s voice was filled with excitement at the prospect of visitors. “I might find a husband. Pray God, there’s someone handsome among them.”
The fervent prayer wasn’t entirely in jest. Rhiannon’s father believed there was no man alive good enough for his daughter. He’d forbidden any of their tribe to even look at her, much less ask her to marry.
“And if you do meet a handsome stranger?” she prompted.
Rhiannon sent her a secret smile. “I won’t be telling my father about him, you can be certain of that.” She rubbed her shoulders against the cold. “Come, and let’s greet Liam.”
“Go on without me,” Brianna urged. “I’ll follow in a few moments.” No doubt if Liam was getting married, there would be feasting and celebrations for days. The very thought of making merry was foreign, like a long-forgotten dream.
Her cousin’s face dimmed. “You’ve been hiding away for weeks. If I leave you alone, you won’t come.”
“I’m sorry.” The loneliness was so unbearable, she didn’t know how to force herself out of her melancholy. “It’s just that . . . today was difficult for me.”
“I’ll stand outside the door and wait for you,” Rhiannon warned. “And you wouldn’t want your best friend to die of cold, would you?”
Beneath the teasing, she heard the true concern. Her cousin was only trying to help, to draw her away from the sorrow. Perhaps Rhiannon was right. A distraction might take her mind away from her grief.
Brianna reached for her husband’s cloak and drew it around her shoulders. It was too large to fit, but at least she could hold a part of Murtagh to her. “All right, I’ll come.” Before she pulled the door shut behind her, her gaze fixed upon the spear standing in the corner. The tip gleamed in the dim light, the edge honed until it would slice through any man’s flesh.
She was torn between destroying the weapon that had claimed Murtagh’s life . . . or using it for vengeance.
“The Holly and the Viking”
I’ll cast a spell for you, cousin. And on the winter solstice, I promise you’ll find love.
Rhiannon MacEgan highly doubted that a twelve-year-old girl could conjure up a man, particularly one who would fall in love with her. But Alanna firmly believed in the Old Ways. Perhaps Druid blood ran within her veins, or perhaps her uncle Trahern had told her too many faery stories. Regardless, there was no harm in walking out to the stone dolmen that lay halfway between Laochre Castle and Gall Tír, the Viking settlement. Her cousin could cast whatever enchantments she wanted, and Rhiannon wouldn’t stop her.
The sky brooded with heavy clouds, and the air was so cold, her breath hung in misty circles. Frost crunched beneath her feet, and she drew her cloak tighter as she neared the dolmen. It resembled an ancient altar with two parallel stones at the base and a slanted stone table. Alanna waited near the Druid burial site, while beside her stood Cavan MacEgan. He looked annoyed at having to shadow his younger sister.
When Rhiannon reached them, Cavan sent her a dark look. “I cannot believe you agreed to her foolish superstitions. It’s freezing and about to snow.”
“It’s not foolishness,” Alanna protested. “I promise this will work.”
Cavan rolled his eyes, but Rhiannon sent the girl an encouraging smile. “What must I do?”
“I’ll need a lock of your hair.” The girl produced a bundle containing a blend of birch bark, and herbs, while Rhiannon used her knife to cut a small lock from the underside of her hair. Alanna wound the dark hair around the bundle and set it upon the dolmen. “Now we’ll light a fire, and I’ll cast the spell.”
Cavan withdrew flint and held it out to Rhiannon. She hesitated. “Perhaps you should light it. I’m not very good with striking a spark.”
“No,” Alanna protested. “If he does, then the love spell will fall upon him.”
“And we wouldn’t want that,” her cousin commented dryly. Rhiannon took the flint, holding it over the bundle of herbs.
“As you strike the flint, clear your mind and I shall conjure up the face of the man you will come to love. We’ll burn the charm and you’ll inhale the smoke.”
“Burning hair smells terrible,” Cavan pointed out. “She’ll probably choke.”
His younger sister sent him a furious look, but he only grinned, standing back with his nose pinched. “Go on, then, Rhiannon.”
It took several tries, but finally she managed to get a spark to land upon the small pile. It died instantly, sending up a tiny flare of smoke.
“Quick, breathe it in,” Alanna commanded.
Rhiannon gave a sniff, laughing as she did. “You’re right, Cavan. It does smell awful.”
“I think we should go back to Laochre for a hot drink,” her cousin suggested, glancing up at the clouded sky. “Before we’re buried in snow.”
“Not until I’ve finished.” Alanna squared her shoulders and commanded. “You must burn the love charm. And don’t forget to think of your lover’s face. It’s important.”
Rhiannon bit her lip to hold back the laughter. It was silly, but she understood that this meant something to Alanna. So many of the others had made fun of the gawky girl, teasing her about her beliefs. And she knew from her own experience, how painful it was to be ridiculed.
The young men avoided Rhiannon as if she had leprosy, because of her over-protective father. She’d never been kissed, nor had any suitors at all. Connor MacEgan had sworn to kill them if they so much as looked at her. And when one friend had dared to hold her hand during the feast of Bealtaine, her father had raged at the young man, threatening to cut off his fingers.
Though Rhiannon had more than enough female friends, she’d watched them marry one by one. She’d left her home in the west of Éireann and traveled to her uncle’s castle at Laochre, hoping to find a husband. But although a few had smiled at her, none had dared to court her. Her father’s interference continued to shadow her, and though she didn’t believe in love charms, she was running out of other ideas.
Striking another spark, she coaxed it to life with the warmth of her breath. The malodorous blend of herbs burned brightly, until it died to coals and finally ashes.
“There. It’s done now,” Alanna pronounced. “Did you see the face of your lover?”
“Yes,” Rhiannon lied, though she hadn’t thought of anyone. The wind tore into her cloak, making her shiver. “Let’s go back and we’ll see if it worked.”
Her cousin appeared troubled. “Of course it will work. But only if you believe in it.”
The weather shifted, and the first few flakes of snow drifted from the sky. It was growing darker, and Cavan took his sister’s hand. “We should go back while it’s still light.” They started to run, racing one another, while Rhiannon followed behind at a walk. They had to cross through another forest, and she wanted a few moments to herself.
But as the minutes passed, the storm worsened. Blinding white flakes swirled, and she pulled her cloak tighter, her eyes stinging from the wind. Cavan and Alanna had run so far ahead of her, she could no longer see them.
She held fast to her cloak, hurrying toward her cousins, but the clouded darkness made it impossible to see more than an arm’s length in front of her. Though she knew the direction of Laochre, the forest stretched out for half a mile. The trees did little to cut through the wind, and the ground quickly transformed from dark brown into snowy white.
Leaning against the wind, she kept her head down for the next mile. At any moment, she hoped to catch up to them. But as time stretched on, the coldness sinking into her skin went beyond the frigid storm—it was a darkening fear that she might not find them.
“A Season to Forgive”
“Liam MacEgan disobeyed my orders. And he deserves to die for it,”
King Richard spoke the words in a cold voice that revealed no mercy. He had ordered the deaths of over a thousand women and children hostages, and Liam’s refusal to lift his sword against them had resulted in his captivity and torture.
“Please,” Adriana whispered. “Spare him.” She couldn’t bear to think of what her betrothed husband was suffering at this moment.
But the king’s smile held the promise of death. He reached out and cupped her cheek, and his touch made her stomach twist with fear. Richard had been faithful to his Queen for a time, but his attentions had already wandered. When the king’s hand drifted down her throat in a caress, Adriana suppressed the shudder of revulsion.
“Then what would you do to save him?”
Adriana de Manzano awakened in the darkness, her body shaking with remembered fear. God help her, the horrifying vision never ceased to plague her. She closed her eyes, trying hard to silence it.
She slid out from her bed, the stones freezing against her feet as she tiptoed to the hallway outside. It was still the middle of the night, but she needed a moment to collect her thoughts and calm herself. The other women in her chamber continued to sleep, undisturbed by her departure.
The door to Liam’s chamber swung open, and in the dim light, she saw him approach. His handsome face was stoic, his gray eyes furrowed with concern.
“The same dream?”
She nodded, feeling guilty that she’d awakened him. Or perhaps it was his own dreams that had bothered him. Ever since they’d fled the Holy Land, they’d make an unspoken vow not to speak of that time. His scars were visible upon his skin, the physical manifestation of the tortures he’d suffered.
Hers lay within, buried so deep, she didn’t want him to ever know them.
Liam reached out to take her in his arms. “You’ve been having these dreams more and more.”
“They’re just dreams.” But she held him so tightly, she wanted him to silence the nightmares, to help her forget them. Her hands moved up to touch his dark gold hair, that had been cut short to better fit within an iron helm on the battlefield.
“I wish your parents would arrive soon,” he said, leading her down the hallway toward the stairs. “Then you’d be my bride and I’d sleep beside you. If the dreams returned, I would give you comfort.”
She managed a half-smile, and when Liam reached the stone steps, he sat and pulled her on to his lap. With his hands, he massaged the coldness from her feet.
While he touched her, she buried her face against his chest. He was alive and strong, and never would she reveal to him what had happened in the Holy Land. It was best forgotten, and she would find a way to leave the past where it belonged.
Liam need never know the terrible price she’d paid for his life.
From the book Warriors in Winter
Copyright © 2012 by Michelle Willingham
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The edition published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.
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