Gemma climbed the final hill, her horse’s reins in one hand, her kill hanging from a rope in the other. She walked barefoot in the soft, fresh grass of spring. There had been no rain for four days now, and the normally wet earth had dried. She had bathed earlier in the river, but with the unseasonably hot afternoon sun, her waist-length, chestnut-colored hair was nearly dry and she was already beginning to feel too warm beneath her dress.
Morning Glory, her horse, paused to graze, but she tugged on the reins as she was anxious to get home.
“Come on, girl,” she coaxed, clicking her tongue. “Let’s go home.”
The horse ignored her as usual and nudged her nose against Gemma’s face when she pulled again.
“Come on now,” she tried again.
Finally Morning Glory conceded, and they ascended to the top of the ridge. Gemma always loved the view from here, even with the estate in its current crumbling state. From this vantage point, it was as if the whole world had opened up just for her. Hills, valleys, and green grass disappeared into acres of thick wood.
But today, the sight that greeted her halted her heart and turned her blood to ice.
“No!” she called out, dropping the two pheasants she had killed for dinner and mounting Morning Glory while simultaneously urging the horse into a run. “No!”
Below her the blaze of a freshly set fire burned bright in the otherwise clear blue day. The two boys who worked the land ran from the burning barn only to be attacked by two of fifteen or so men on horseback. Their swords were drawn against the unarmed boys, and even at this distance Gemma could feel the violence emanating from the men.
She swore she heard laughter coming from the riders as one of the boys fell to the ground, barely escaping the hooves of the animal the warrior rode. The man stood out—the reins of his horse were so horribly ornate she could see them even from the top of the ridge.
Gemma charged as fast as Morning Glory would carry her, knowing all along she would be too late. The men were disappearing from her sight and into the woods before she had made it halfway down the hill.
She pulled Morning Glory to a stop and reached for an arrow, preparing the bow with a trembling hand. She would never reach them in time, but she could shoot some arrows and drop a few of the men from their horses. But before she had the arrow in place, the charging of another horse from behind her panicked Morning Glory, who bucked upright, sending the newly released arrow off into the sky. Gemma screamed as she tried to grip the reins, her saddle, anything to hold onto, but she only caught air. She would have toppled off the giant black beast if the man who had caused the incident in the first place hadn’t grabbed her and lifted her onto his own horse.
“Let me go!” she screamed, fighting him, dropping her bow in the process, and hearing the sound of the remaining arrows topple to the ground as they slipped out of the quiver. “Let me go!”
“Be still,” the man said, his voice gruff, as if he hadn’t spoken in a long time. “Quiet, if you don’t want them to come back for you.”
“Let me go! Get off me!” she screamed again, struggling in vain against the solid chest she was pressed against. “They’re getting away!”
“Aye, and that’s what you want,” he said.
“They set our barn on fire!”
“I know,” he said, his voice quieter as the rest of the men disappeared into the woods and Gemma’s struggles ceased.
She sat watching them leave, then turned her attention to the small barn that was now burning to the ground. The man who held her released his hold and set her gently on the ground.
“Who were those men?” she asked, turning to have a look at the stranger whom she knew had likely just saved her life.
“Mercenaries, outlaws,” he said. “Are you all right?” He dismounted his horse and stood before her.
She squinted her eyes, unable to see him clearly as he stood with his back to the sun. He was taller than she, a lot taller, and big from what she could make out. She moved to the side to see his face, sliding her hand beneath her sleeve to take hold of the small but sharp kitchen knife she kept sheathed to her arm. But when he moved out of the sun and she was able to see him fully, she recognized him. It took her a moment to speak, for her breath had momentarily caught somewhere inside her throat.
“You live on our land,” she managed, “in the small cottage.” Her already racing heart picked up even more speed. She hadn’t seen this man in a very long time.
He nodded. “That’s right.”
She stared up at him. She had first met him five years ago. She’d been thirteen at the time, and he had just come to her father to rent the small, decrepit cottage along with the parcel of land that surrounded it. He kept to himself, and she had been told not to bother him. Although she had caught glimpses of him now and again through the years, she had never spoken to him directly.
His dark blond hair had grown longer, looked thicker and wilder, and a beard now covered most of his face. But his bright blue eyes still carried an air of pride, that spark of both knowledge and wisdom as well as courage.
Her gaze travelled to his lips for a moment before returning to his eyes. She swallowed, finding them too raw, too full, and too confronting to hold his gaze. She flushed pink and turned to look to the edge of the woods behind him.
“Sir William,” she said.
He nodded. “You’re Abraham’s elder daughter.”
She nodded. “I’m Gemma.”
“Gather your kill. I’ll take you down to the house. We’ll see what damage they’ve done.”
She began to obey but then paused, turning back to him. “How did you know I had a kill?” she asked, lessons of the last years teaching her not to trust so easily, so naively.
He studied her for a moment. “I saw you drop them when your horse charged,” he answered smoothly.
“I didn’t know anyone was near.”
“You should pay better attention, especially since you’re alone in the woods without protection.”
“I don’t need anyone’s protection,” she said, stubborn pride forcing her chin upward and outward, her generous lips forming a hard line. She narrowed her eyes as she thought, suddenly feeling like she needed to defend herself. She had thought she had been alone all that time. Was she so oblivious? “Were you following me?” she dared ask.
He shook his head and picked up his horse’s reins, his tone changing to one of near reprimand. “I just saved your life, little girl.”
She stilled at his words, and he remained studying her.
“Let’s go,” he said.
* * *
William held her gaze, daring her to challenge him even as he felt ashamed that what she had just said was true. He watched her often when he came upon her in the woods. She was always unaware, a danger for a young girl alone, and even though he had vowed to remain a hermit, he’d naturally taken it upon himself to keep her safe. He hadn’t been following her this time, at least not consciously. But when he had first heard her and then seen her by the river, he’d kept himself hidden. He was ashamed to admit he had watched her bathe.
And he knew well she was no little girl beneath the cover of that dress.
“Gather your kill. No sense in wasting it. I’ll take you down to your father.”
“My father!” she said, panicked again. “Leave the kill.” She whistled for her horse while collecting her bow and fallen arrows.
“Get it. This is no time for wasting food.”
She ignored him as her horse loped out of the woods. She walked toward the animal and gripped the saddle with both hands, mounting the beast in one smooth, impressive motion. She spared one final glance at Sir William and clicked her tongue, urging her horse down the hill and toward the house.
Sir William watched her go, surprised. The waif-like girl who rode like a man was brave. And stubborn. The top of her head reached to about the middle of his chest, and she had weighed nothing when he had lifted her when her horse had bucked. Yet, she used a bow and arrow fairly accurately. She had managed to kill two pheasants and carried another weapon hidden inside her sleeve, this one concealed. He had seen her reach her hand to it before she had recognized him. Even though he hadn’t seen the weapon itself, he knew it must be a blade of some sort.
He smiled and galloped his horse back to fetch her kill before charging down the hill and on to Abraham’s house.
* * *
“Father!” Gemma called out. She dismounted Morning Glory and ran toward her father who stood outside the fallen, smoking structure that was once their barn.
“Child,” he said, turning to her.
Gemma’s step faltered. Her father, already older and weakened beyond his years, now stood leaning on Mary’s shoulder, their maid of forty-one years.
“What’s happened?” she asked, seeing the anguish in his eyes. He only stared at her, and she once again glanced at the barn where the boys worked to put out the last of the fire. “Where is Alys?”
Mary’s tears began to flow at the mention of Alys’ name. Gemma looked from one to the other as understanding dawned, and every hair on her body stood on end. “Alys!” she called out, running into the once-grand estate. “Alys!”
Alys was her younger sister. At twelve, they had six years between them, and as her mother had died in childbirth, Gemma had raised her with the help of Mary and her father. After her mother’s death, her father had become a ghost of the man he had once been. Her mother’s death had begun the descent of the family into ruin, and today, it seemed a new and final low had been reached.
“Where is Alys? Who were those men?” She ran back out, her eyes filling with tears as she asked the questions whose answers she already knew.
Sir William stood with a hand on Abraham’s shoulder while Abraham wept openly.
“Father?” Gemma asked, her step faltering. She hadn’t seen him cry in twelve years.
“They took her, Gemma,” he said, his voice breaking mid-sentence, his face just barely turning to her.
“Let’s go inside,” Sir William said, shifting Abraham’s weight over from Mary’s own slumped shoulders. “We can talk there.”
Gemma nodded once, then led them inside. Once everyone was settled, she went to kneel by her father’s feet. “Who were they? Who were those men, and why did they take Alys?” she asked.
Abraham placed a hand on the top of her head and caressed her hair. “Most likely they thought she was you, child.”
Gemma tilted her head, confused by his comment. “What do you mean?” she asked.
“They were outlaws, mercenaries. They ate the food we had left, drank our ale, burnt our barn, and took your sister.”
“For what? What would they do with her? She’s a child. And what do you mean they thought she was me?”
Abraham’s hand moved so his thumb pressed against the skin at the back of Gemma’s ear.
“The mark,” Gemma said, goose bumps rising all across her body.
“What mark?” Sir William asked.
She had forgotten he was in the room but turned quickly at the sound of his voice.
“Folklore. Peasant’s tales. The mark of the Fey—the twin serpents of Avalon. Catalina had it,” Abraham said, his eyes watering a little at the mention of his wife’s name. “Gemma inherited it. Alys did not.”
Sir William looked at Gemma with a worried expression before returning his gaze to Abraham.
“So they think she is at least part Fey. And what happens when they discover they took the wrong sister? Never mind the stupidity of their legend,” Gemma asked, rising to her feet.
“The Beltane fires will burn in six days’ time,” Sir William said.
“What does that mean to us?” Gemma asked, turning to her father.
Abraham’s eyes once again filled with tears. Sir William watched as they began to fall, and Mary came to hold Abraham’s hand, her expression expectant, almost pleading, as she looked to Sir William.
“I’m sorry, Abraham,” Sir William said. “They likely headed west to the altar there. She has six days before the ceremony takes place.”
“Where? What altar? What ceremony?” Gemma asked, frantic now as she looked from one man to the other.
“Sir William,” Abraham said, rising to his feet and pushing Mary’s hand away. He pulled himself up to his full height as Gemma watched, his demeanor changing, the father she’d not seen in many years returning.
Sir William turned to him, waiting. His expression told Gemma he had some idea what Abraham was about to say.
“I’m an old man. Mercenaries have come before, and they will come again. They will take what they can and destroy what they cannot take.” He faltered for a moment but regained control over himself. “I cannot protect my family, my daughters, any longer.”
Sir William exhaled, and Gemma could almost see the battle within his mind.
“Father?” she asked, her eyes on Sir William.
He ignored her and took a step toward Sir William. “I don’t have much by way of dowry. My land is poor and no longer what it was. I am an old man, and I have only daughters.” His voice broke at that. “Bring Alys back home to me, and I will give you Gemma’s hand in marriage. You will inherit all that is mine.”
“What? No!” Gemma yelled, her mouth falling open, not understanding this sudden change of events.
“Hush, child,” Abraham said to her, his gaze never leaving Sir William’s, who now stood staring at him, his expression even more serious than it had been moments ago. Abraham reached out a hand to Sir William’s sleeve. “I beg you,” he said. “You know as well as I what they plan to do to my daughter.”
“Father, no,” Gemma protested, her own eyes filling with tears.
Sir William straightened, growing even bigger if that were possible. “I will leave at first light,” he said. “I will bring your daughter back.” He turned to Gemma whose eyes grew wide as they looked at this rugged, gruff man with new understanding. “We will speak of the rest upon my return.”
They would not speak of the rest upon his return, Gemma determined, but there was something more important to consider now.
“I’m not waiting for first light,” she interjected.
Sir William’s tone was just a little different now when he addressed her directly. “You don’t have to wait for anything. You’ll be staying home with your father. This is not a task for a girl.”
“I’m not a girl, and you don’t get to tell me what to do,” she said, squaring her shoulders even though it made little difference next to this giant of a man.
She could see the effort it took for him to hold his tongue.
“Gemma,” Abraham said, sounding tired. “Sir William is right. This is not something for a young lady. You do not know the evil you will go against.”
“Young lady?” she shook her head. She took a step toward the door and turned her attention to Sir William. “She’s not your sister. What do you care anyway? I will not be married off as a bribe. I will never be married,” she said, walking to the door. “I’m old enough and capable enough to take care of my family.”
“And stubborn enough,” Sir William added.
“Gemma!” Abraham said sharply, halting her step.
She kept her gaze on Sir William’s now burning eyes.
“Apologize. Now,” Abraham said.
Her lip tightened, and she narrowed her eyes, fisting her hands. “I’m sorry, Father,” she said, her eyes still on Sir William’s face but unable to read his expression.
“Daughter…” Abraham began, but Sir William cut him off.
“It’s all right, Abraham. She is a young girl, afraid for her sister’s safety. No apology is necessary,” he said, his now steely blue eyes boring into hers, challenging her. He turned to Abraham. “Is there something I can take so that Alys will know to trust me once I have found her?”
“You’re very sure of yourself,” Gemma said. “Father, I am going now. You do not need to give him anything or make any promises you will be unable to keep.”
“I apologize for my daughter, Sir William.” Abraham raised his hand, twisting the ring with the family crest from his finger until he pulled it off. “Take this. She will know it is from me. I have no money to give you, only a few coins, but if it comes to that, you can use the ring to buy her back.”
William reached out and took the ring, looking it over before pressing it onto his own finger. “This will do. I need no money. I will have her back as soon as I can.”
“You cannot give him your ring! What if we never see him again?” Gemma broke in.
“Go to your room, child.”
“Now!” Abraham demanded, raising his voice in a way he hadn’t in years.
“I’ll take my leave and prepare for the journey,” Sir William said, ignoring her altogether and bowing his head to Abraham.
“I thank you, Sir William,” Abraham said.
Sir William didn’t smile but walked out the door.
“I can’t believe you just gave him your ring, not to mention what you promised! We don’t even know the man. He is a recluse, a hermit. He could be a criminal, no better than those men who took Alys.”
“His heart is pure,” Abraham said, watching as the door closed behind Sir William before turning to Gemma. He reached out a hand to take hers. “Open your eyes, child. See what is true. You have your mother’s magic—you simply must open your eyes.” He squeezed her hand. “As well as your heart.”
“There is no magic, Father,” she spat in familiar anger, walking out the door just in time to catch Sir William as he mounted his horse.
“Sir William,” she called out, the words sounding bitter.
She covered the few steps between them. “That ring belongs to my family. It’s the last thing of any value that my father owns,” she said, her voice more an angry hiss than anything else.
“I understand, and I shall bring your sister and it back to him. Go back inside to your father. He needs you now.”
“I won’t marry you.”
He ignored that. “Go inside.”
“At least let me come with you. You cannot stand against all those men alone.”
“No, it’s too dangerous for you.” He then spoke more slowly, as if she were hard of understanding. “Go back inside. Your father needs you now.”
“You’re going to lose the trail if you wait,” she said. “We have to go now.”
“There is no ‘we’. The men are headed west. I know that as well as their destination. It’s useless to go after them without first preparing. I will be of no use to your sister if I do not do that.”
Frustrated, she turned away and walked back into the house. She heard him mutter something under his breath but didn’t look back. Instead, she listened to the sound of the horse’s hooves as Sir William rode off.