Excerpt for Dragon's Breath by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

New Camelot’s



Brenda Gable

Book Fifteen

ISBN-13: 978-154426371

ISBN-10: 154423570

New Camelot Books in Publication

Rogue Prince

Crystal Sorceress

New Camelot’s Thief

Black Sorcerer

Fire Sorceress

Bernard the Bard

High Sheriff of New Camelot

New Camelot’s Lion

New Camelot’s Brewster

Rogue Dragon

New Camelot's Sally the Whore

New Camelot's Fafnir

¶New Camelot's Bronson

New Camelot's Tarnished Knight

New Camelot’s Dragon’s Breath

Chapter 1

Dragon’s Breath. It’s what the locals called the dense fog accumulating atop the still river and the island castle that shadowed the stone and thatch village. Like the leaves’ change of color, the fog appeared every fall. From Garrett’s position upon the castle parapets, he watched the dragon breathe; the grey moisture increasing until it butted against the stone foundations of the castle’s ramparts. He wanted to be swallowed up in that swirling fog. He wanted to disappear, pretend what happened didn’t and make the miserable day a figment of a perverse nightmare.

His father’s hand on his shoulder caused him to stiffen. Lost in thoughts of the past, he hadn’t heard Baron O’Brien approach. For Garrett, it wasn’t a loving hand or a gentle one. He’d felt the back of it often enough to know. It was his older brother who had gotten the pats on the back, the tousled hair, the smiles, the praise. At best, Garrett had gotten his father’s tolerance. He’d learned to stay out of the baron’s line of sight. With Dylan’s last rites accomplished, there’d be no reason to ever return to this forsaken castle or a father who hated him.

He controlled the rage he felt from the baron’s presence and made his face as calm as the River Suir lying beneath the fog. The effort to suppress his churning emotions behind a cold stone wall caused his fists to tighten. The offending hand fell away.

Diarmaid O’Brien’s voice was gravelled with age and grief as he shifted his position to stand beside Garrett and look out at the accumulating fog. The dragon continued to spew its impenetrable cloak around the island. It couldn’t devour the castle’s defenses, so it sought out an easier target. Over the river embankment and across the bridge that connected the island fortress to the mainland and down the dirt road of the village’s center, the coiling tendrils searched for the unwary to trap and blind.

“The future of Dragon’s Breath is in your hands now,” the old warrior pronounced.

Garrett knew when he returned to Dragon’s Breath for Dylan’s funeral that the old man would approach him. He didn’t want Dragon’s Breath. Not the demesne. Not the responsibilities of the clan chief. Not the memories. Not even the touch of his father’s hand on his shoulder. He wanted to return to his hunting, to his career of offering retrieval services for financial compensation, to his solitude, and to his comfortable town house in New Camelot’s capital.

Undeterred by Garrett’s continued stony silence, his father said, “Dylan wouldn’t listen when we said to geld the stallion. The beast was a rogue. It had bitten all the stableboys and tried to savage the stable master. But, Dylan said no, not to cut it. It was his spirit showing.” The old man’s hand trembled atop the crenelated barrier. “That rogue killed my son.”

Garrett’s jaw clenched. His rage, formulated from neglect and abuse in the past, grew like the Dragon’s Breath. Years of suppressed anger continued to expand beneath his bland exterior making his temples throb. With supreme effort, he remained a silent observer of the fog as it encompassed the village.

He watched mothers snatch children off the streets to the safety of their homes and dogs curl up on stone stoops. Even the Flower Fairies in the village gardens vanished and sought protection from the bone numbing chill of the dragon’s damp talons. He thought his father should also take shelter from the anger brewing within his tight chest. He took a deep breath to control the rage, control the magical sorcerer power that wanted to escape from his spine and turn this maze of rock into rubble fit only for making pavers and chimneys.

His contemplation of the fog and his focus on controlling the dam that held back the gut-wrenching memories of childhood was breached by Diarmaid. “I’m not getting any younger. All my peers are dying. Soon, there won’t be any veterans left from the Troll Wars. I’m too old to manage Dragon’s Breath and lead the clan. It needs a young man. It needs you.”

The baron’s voice kept hammering at Garrett’s defenses. “I thought my last seizure was going to be my last. I know my next one will send me to Danu’s arms. I won’t live to see the end of winter.”

Garrett felt sure it would be Donn waiting in his frozen hell for Diarmaid O’Brien to appear, not Danu in her sunny eternal gardens. The grizzled old bastard had never done a single thing for anyone but himself and Dylan.

“Now that Dylan has gone to his reward, we need to talk about you taking control and managing Dragon’s Breath and becoming the leader of the O’Brien clan.”

Garrett’s grey eyes, eyes the same color as the invasive fog, flicked up from his perusal of the village and shifted to his father. “I don’t want it.”

After a stunned moment, Diarmaid’s haggard features flushed. His brown eyes glittered with the faceted hardness of crystal. He snarled, “You’re the heir. It’s your duty to take control. I’m too infirm to even get on a horse let alone throw my power around. You have to assume the title and the responsibility, else it goes to Finbar or another steward appointed by the king.”

Garrett stepped away from Diarmaid and any entanglement with Dragon’s Breath. His head throbbed with each heartbeat from the stress of controlling his emotions, of keeping them locked behind the impenetrable walls he’d erected to protect his heart. He had to leave, shuck the roiling memories of Dragon’s Breath before he exploded. He needed to return to the comforts and profits city life offered.

Diarmaid grabbed his tunic sleeve. “Where are you going? We have to talk.”

He looked down on his father. At one time, Garrett had thought Diarmaid was a blond giant. Now he was just an old man. Garrett ran a hand through his thick black hair then quietly said, “The time to talk was years ago when I was still a lad. You didn’t have the time then. I don’t have the time now. I’ve come and given my final respects to Dylan as you requested and propriety demanded. I’m leaving before the fog gets worse.”

Garrett gave Diarmaid a curt nod. “Good day to you, sir.” He turned his back on the man who sired him then tossed him aside like the evening orts. Marching with determination to leave and never return, he continued toward the access door that led to the great hall.

Diarmaid bellowed behind him, “If you won’t take over Dragon’s Breath for me, will you do it for your sister?”

Garrett froze. The blood pounding in his veins increased in tempo creating a roaring sound in his ears. He slowly turned. “What sister?”

His father motioned with his hand. From out of the door came a nanny dressed in drab serviceable linen and a white wimple. She was holding a little girl’s hand. The child barely came up to Garrett’s kneecap. She was dressed in a lace accentuated brown tunic that matched her thick shoulder-length hair. Large brown eyes the color of old saddle leather, his father’s eyes, looked up at him in awe.

Diarmaid said, “Her name is Cassidy. She’s four.”

Shy at being presented to a stranger, the girl buried her face into the linen kirtle of her nursemaid and took nervous peeks at Garrett. The plump woman, long past her middle years, leaned over and whispered, “Say hello to your brother, Cassidy.”

Cassidy removed her face from the nanny’s skirts. A trembling smile lifted rosebud lips embedded in chubby childhood cheeks. From behind her back she retrieved a wilted posy and presented it with a soft whisper. “’Ello, Grit. ‘Ers some flers. I picked ‘em myself.”

Not thinking, Garrett automatically reached out and took the offering. Cassidy’s round little face burst into a sunbeam of happiness.

Stunned at the warmth the girl emoted, Garrett turned to his father, the flowers crushed in his fist. “Her mother?”

The plump woman faced him. “I’m Maggie. I’m her mother.”

He blinked. Not possible. Her hazel eyes twinkled. “No one was more surprised than Diarmaid and I when I conceived.”

Garrett was stunned speechless at this revelation. I have a sister! Impossible!

Diarmaid pressed his advantage in the battle of wills. “I know what you’re thinking. Cassidy is not a by-blow nor is she Dylan’s. Maggie is my wife. We’re legally married by a Druid. If you do not take on the responsibility of Dragon’s Breath, your cousin will petition the court as the closest heir. You know how Finbar and his mother hate all of us. The first thing they’ll do will be to throw Maggie and Cassidy out into the winter weather.”

Ambushed! His father had him trapped in a corridor between two portcullises and was raining arrows as fast as he could notch them. His mouth dry, Garrett looked from Cassidy to Maggie and then settled on Diarmaid. “What do you want from me?”

The baron straightened his frail shoulders, shoulders that used to be broad and powerful. “I want you to provide for Maggie and Cassidy’s comfort. I want you to make the land profitable. I want the taxes paid before we’re evicted. Most of all, I want assurances that Maggie and Cassidy will be able to live here under your protection after I’m gone.”

With every demand his father made, Garrett felt a link added to the chain and manacles that would bind him to Dragon’s Breath. “This place is in shambles. What you want requires copious amounts of funding. Do you have that kind of money? I certainly don’t.”

Maggie looked down at something interesting on the toe of her boots. A flush crossed Diarmaid’s weathered cheeks. “I had funds. Dylan gambled them away in a night of drunken revelry and whoring.”

Dylan was a gambler? Garrett had left when Dylan was a young man full of piss and vinegar, busy sowing his wild oats among the local maids. He’d never known him to be loose with his coin; his seed, yes, but not his money.

“Do you have any idea how I’m to come up with the lucre? Other than stealing it?”

Diarmaid’s lips lifted in a cat’s smile. “Why I expect you to get it the old-fashioned way.”

“By the sweat of my brow? The labor of my back?”

Diarmaid chuckled. “Nothing quite so tedious.” The wrinkles in his face multiplied ten-fold when he grinned. “I expect you to marry into it.”

* * * * *

Teagan Clarey stood before her uncle in righteous fury. She was so angry, her finger nails bit into the palms of her trembling fists. The grey-faced wolfhounds at her sides, sensing her distress, put their tails between their legs and whined. Her voice, scathing and accusatory, pealed against the walls of the stone-walled chamber in harmony with the rolling thunder outside. “You want to sell me to the highest bidder!”

Baron Tomas Clarey’s long square face settled into hard lines of determination. With the calmness of a bone-tired man, he said, “On the contrary. I am not selling you. I’m hosting a tournament. You will pick one of the contestants or the winner will claim your hand.”

She sneered, “And my sizeable dowry.”

Tomas took a deep calming breath. “You need a knight’s protection for you and your dowry.”

“But I love Roland.”

Tomas waved a negligent hand. “That pandering troubadour is after your money. I’ve sent him away.”

Teagan felt her face pale. Roland was the only person who understood her. He was her confidant, her friend. After her da had died last year and her uncle had taken control of the keep, she’d poured hot tears onto Roland’s tunic as he held her and listened with a sympathetic ear to her long list of grievances against the usurpers to her family home.

She fisted her hands on her hips and spread her stance in a threatening manner, just as her father had done when confronting recalcitrant men. She leaned forward and demanded, “What have you done with Roland?”

Tomas let out a tired sigh. He rubbed his temples with the tips of his forefingers. “Not to worry. I didn’t kill him.”

“You paid an Assassin!” Her shriek caused Tomas to wince.

“No. I put him on a boat. He’s off to sing for his meals in Galway.”

“Galway? Why, that’s a hundred miles away!”

Tomas muttered, “Not far enough.”

Teagan, not for the first time, nor likely the last, wished she were a man. If she were a male, this fiasco of an eviction would not be occurring. If she were a male, in a natural progression of events, she would have finished taking control of Castle Clarey when her father died.

Living in a caste system frozen in the twelfth century, a female had little recourse in addressing grievances, civil or personal. Because of a civil war over 800 years ago instigated by a power crazed King Arthur and the Druid Merlin; where human was pitted against human, fey against fey, and massive carnage ensued destroying the original Camelot and most of its magic with the murder of all the crystal sorceresses; the mother goddess Danu decided to create a New Camelot and keep the people in it in stasis where modern concepts, such as women’s equality, were prohibited along with industrialization and the deadly weapons it produced.

She muttered under her breath, “Damn Merlin’s barnacled butt.” If the infamous Druid hadn’t convinced Morgan Le Fey’s sister Morrigan to join forces with him and Arthur and their machines of war, social and technical advancements would have progressed in a natural order and Teagan would be living like the people in the Old World, the original Camelot. But Merlin and Arthur had sought to defeat Morgan Le Fey and lost—severely—resulting in Danu’s adamant edict that the modern machinery would never taint her land or people in the new world she created.

People from the Old World like Bethany Regina, a descendent of the only surviving crystal sorceress, had different views on a woman’s role in the world. The same could be said of the Elf Queen. She too was from the modern Old World where people flew in massive air machines instead of upon dragon back. Where women had more options than being a daughter, a ward, or a wife.

Out of the corner of her eye she saw a pregnant figure trying to be inconspicuous against the wall outside the Tomas’s receiving room. Insight hit her. “This is Oletta’s doing, isn’t it?” The shadowy figure jerked.

Tomas drew his green eyes upward as if soliciting Danu to grant him patience. “No. Oletta had nothing to do with my decision to host the tournament.”

Teagan waved her hands above her golden windblown tresses. She’d come in from an exhilarating ride across her homeland, visiting various crofters and ascertaining their needs only to be ambushed by her uncle. She paced before him in his “lord of the manor” chair, her deceased da’s chair.

“It’s because we disagree on the managing of the keep, isn’t it? You know she does everything wrong, don’t you? I’m trying to help her learn how to run a keep, but she wants to change everything! That’s why she’s making you marry me off!”

Tomas stood abruptly. His eyes flashed. With long black lashes surrounding them, those emerald orbs were identical to her father’s eyes and to hers. He shook a long, thick finger at her. “Believe it or not, I can make my own decisions. And I’ve come to the conclusion that this castle cannot withstand two mistresses. One of you has to go. As I’m overly fond of my wife and our children and I’m fed up with your overbearing ways, I’ve decided to see that you are secured in a solid marriage in your own keep where you can rule the roost to your heart’s content.”

Teagan gaped in surprise at his outburst. She’d always thought her uncle a meek sort of man, not at all like her boisterous father. She quickly collected her wits. “What do you mean ‘my own keep?’”

“You’re eighteen, ripe for a marriage contract. I’ve had suitors lined out the door requesting your hand in marriage, yet you’ve rebuffed every one of them. So, I’ve decided to present the cream of knightly manhood before you to select from. Every man invited to the tournament possesses substantial assets of their own. There will be no fortune hunters among them, so I can be assured that you won’t die in an accident a month after the wedding.”

Teagan’s pacing steps faltered at the implication in his words. Would someone marry her just to get their hands on her dowry then dispose of her in an unfortunate “accident?” Her belligerent jaw tightened even more. They’d have a tough time trying for she was a sorceress and not easy to kill.

Tomas droned on. “Believe it or not, I have your interests at heart. That’s why I’ve not already packed you up and sent you to the Priestesses of Danu.”

Teagan snapped her head towards him in surprise, her green eyes flashing with lightning. He wouldn’t dare send her to those old biddies! Static crackled around her, lifting her hair into a nimbus. Sparking fire leapt across the room’s wall sconces.

Before she could argue further he scowled, “Don’t get your kirtle twisted in a knot. I’d not want to do that to my enemy. However, I want peace in this castle and the only way to get it is to place you in someone else’s keeping. When you wed, you’ll be mistress of your own estate. Then you can give orders to your heart’s content and feel confident they will be obeyed.”

Her lips locked in fury and withheld all the vitriol she wanted to spew. This was her keep! She’d been born here. Racing atop her Gypsy-bred horse across the lush rolling hills in County Kilkenny, she’d felt a freedom few women were allowed to enjoy. As an only child and a surrogate for a son her father never had, he had taught her everything he knew of land stewardship. Eventually, as his health failed, he entrusted her with vast amounts of authority until she was both the mistress of the keep and the estate manager. Then disaster had struck in the form of a cave-in during his inspection of a slate quarry and her father was caught up in it. Shortly after that, her uncle and aunt with their set of twins and one on the way, arrived from the capital to usurp her authority with the king’s blessing. Now, she was being evicted! It wasn’t fair! It wasn’t! Among the rumbling thunder, a flash of lightning cleaved the heavens in twain.

Her uncle’s magic flamed from out of his spine and a yellow aura of sorcerer power encapsulated him. He, like so many of his peers, was a royal—a man capable of extracting powerful electricity from his spine and using it as a weapon. His voice was brusque. “Control yourself. I’ll not have you creating a sudden squall.”

Concentrating on her magical ability to control the weather elements, Teagan throttled back the power that threatened to wash across the demesne. It was a talent that brought relief to their crofters during times of drought and flood. It was the foundation of Castle Clarey’s wealth.

Tomas leaned forward and placed his palms atop the desk. “I can tell by that mulish look on your face that you’re going to be difficult. Let me set you straight. By the end of the tournament, if you haven’t selected a mate, I will give you to the winner, whether you like him or not.”

In automatic retaliation Teagan hissed, “You can’t do that!”

Tomas levelled a steady stare at her that could knock a wall down. She felt a sense of doom descend upon her. Yes, he could. As her guardian, he could do as he pleased so long as he didn’t touch her dowry or physically harm her.

Something he’d said fired up her spirit. Her eyes glared back at him. Overbearing? She wasn’t overbearing. She was only trying to instruct that insipid Oletta on how to properly run a keep. But would she listen? No! Oletta had newfangled ideas. Sure, they might work for a home in the city where access to food supplies was just down the street at the corner market. But a keep with vast tracks of land surrounding it required a different approach to laying in stores for the winter when the roads were nearly impassable.

Plus, you had to make contact with the villagers and the crofters. You had to give them tonics for pain relief, salves for treating festering sores, and warm clothing to fend off the chill. You had to ensure their needs were met and some of their wants provided. Oletta was afraid of them and their rugged appearances. They were farmers for Danu’s sake! They didn’t wear fine silks and gemstones. They toiled the fields and grew some of the best produce in the heartland of New Camelot.

Tomas’s waving finger brought her attention back to the present crisis. “Yes, I can. Do not push me, Teagan. It’s past time for you to have a mate and bairns of your own.”

She hated to admit it, but her uncle was right on both accounts. As lord of Castle Clarey, he could pack her off. And, according to local mores, she was an old spinster, practically dried on the vine. Most of her peers had wed years ago and were popping out heirs and spares left and right. She huffed. Was that to be her fate—a brood mare for some overlord that would try to trample her spirit?

She crossed her arms under her breasts. “What do you want from me?”

Tomas’s features took on the smugness of a man who had won a major battle. “When the tournament commences, I want you to act like a young miss and not the lord of the keep. I want you to offer our guests hospitality and not insult them. I want you to not subvert Oletta’s commands, no matter how you disagree with them. And if you can’t select a mate from among the participants, I want you to be gracious and accept the man who wins. For if you disobey me or try to run away, I will ship you off to the Priestesses of Danu.”

He was serious! Teagan’s jaw dropped in disbelief. Accepting a stranger based on the calibre of his sword arm? It was an asinine idea. It was barbaric. It reeked of slavery. And the priestesses! They’d beat her into submission and marry her off to the man who could afford to pay for her. This was not to be borne! She kept the thoughts tightly reined in. He was determined to be rid of her.

She tried another logical approach. “I’m a wealthy woman. Why can’t I manage my own finances? I could move to the capital and set myself up in a trade.”

Tomas’s features hardened. “And let an unwed sorceress loose upon the populace of New Camelot? Definitely not. The King Wolfrick would have my head.” He slapped the desk top. “I’m not arguing with you anymore. You have two choices on what your future is going to be. At this point, your options are limited to having your own demesne or to reside with the priestesses.” On those threatening words, he departed the room in a swish of tunics saying, “And get those old dogs out of the keep!”

Alone with the animals she’d had since they were pups, Teagan stewed in her own juices. Her father had given her the dogs when she started her menses years ago. He’d said, “No matter how old you grow, you’ll always be my little girl.”

In retrospect, perhaps she had been a little bossy with her aunt in delivering simple instructions on how to run a keep. After all, Oletta was a city woman, not used to country ways and a large staff. And her uncle didn’t have a clue on how to manage vast tracts of land. She’d thought her suggestions to him on crop rotation and seasonal planting schedules had been well received. Evidently not. Overbearing indeed! In a fit of spite, she mused, Tomas would find out that she was trying to help him soon enough. When a drought or unseasonable rains threatened the fields, he’d be begging for her assistance.

It appeared retaining control of Castle Clarey was under the bridge and over the waterfall. She’d never seen Tomas so adamant. Demanding her rights as a Clarey to stay in her ancestral home would only put a burr under his saddle and create tension in the keep. Facing eviction, she resolved to leave on her own terms and she wasn’t going to the priestesses. She’d wait and see what kind of men Tomas produced at this tournament of his. In the meantime, she’d make plans of her own. A woman with her brains, money and magical talent had far more than the avenues Tomas presented to her.

“Teagan?” Her maid’s voice was tentative, uncertain of her reception. When Teagan just scowled at the door Tomas departed through, Agnes entered saying, “Here, I thought you might need this after your discussion with your uncle.” Teagan turned at the concern in her maid’s voice. Agnes presented her a flagon. “It’s a fermented cherry cordial. I had Hobbs make it up special.”

Agnes was from the village. Sturdy and possessing womanly curves, she could work the fields all day and still have the energy and the inclination to embroider, tat, or make a window tapestry. In fact, while Teagan was out tending to the estate, Agnes stayed behind and created beautiful works of art with yarn and flax. She whispered with a conspiratorial air, “I heard most of the argument from the stairs above where Oletta was cowering.”

Teagan took a sip of the sweet cordial. It was good and just the thing to lift her spirits. She waved a hand at the door Tomas retreated through. “He has no right to do this. It isn’t fair, Agnes.”

“I know, dear.” Agnes had been with her, since Tomas descended upon the castle. Her uncle had insisted that she have a maid. Only four years older, and having lost her husband and child to fever, Agnes seemed much more mature, almost motherly, than her years would indicate.

Agnes’s voice held a dreamy quality to it. “But consider this, the finest eligible knights in the realm will be coming. Surely, among the lot of them, you can find one that you like?”

Teagan threw her hands in the air, “I don’t have a choice! If I don’t like any of them, the winner gets me! What if I detest him? What if he’s a brute? This is the worst thing that could possibly happen.”

Agnes had blue eyes the color of an early summer’s day. She turned those orbs, suddenly full of sorrow, onto Teagan. “No, dear. The worst thing that could possibly happen is to lose the love of your life and your child.” She moved her hands down her hips then lifted them to her full breasts. “Look at me. I’m built for breeding. I have so much love in me that has nowhere to go, no babe or man to give it to. Sometimes, I think I’ll go mad with loneliness.”

The room filled with her palpable sorrow. Stunned at Agnes’s revelation, Teagan didn’t know what to say. Agnes had always seemed the unflappable type, able to handle whatever was thrown at her. Teagan didn’t know the woman still pined for her dead husband and child.

She set the flagon down on the table to embrace her faithful maid while she desperately blinked to ward off tears.

Agnes dropped her head and in a wet mutter said, “Please, forgive me. I don’t know what came over me. It must be all the tension in the air and the thought of you being so unhappy.”

“Elixir!” The shrill shout destroyed the emotional moment. It was followed by the appearance of a bevy of castle fairies. Bluebell, leader of the troupe, released an avaricious smile as she hovered over the cherry cordial. “You don’t want this, do you?”

Confused at the fairies’ sudden appearance Teagan said, “Uh, no. I guess not.”

The flagon and fairy troupe promptly vanished leaving the table coated in pollen. Agnes chuckled, “I’d better tell Hobbs to make a larger batch of cherry cordial.”

Her composure returned, Agnes pulled out of Teagan’s embrace. “In the meantime, I have some sewing to do on your trousseau.”

Teagan grumped, “I don’t have a trousseau.”

Agnes beamed, “You soon will.” She gave a small nod to Teagan. “If you’ll excuse me, I need to puncture my fingers for you.”

Teagan watched her maid depart and mused. First Tomas had shown some spine and now this emotional outburst from Agnes. She guessed she didn’t know the people around her as well as she thought she did.

* * * * *

Diarmaid poured two flagons of spirits. He handed one to Garrett and kept the other. Garrett took a cautious sip and tasted the flavor of fermented peaches.

While Diarmaid settled himself in his chair, Garrett scanned the chamber his father used to conduct business. It appeared pretty much the same as when he left seventeen years ago. The bookcase containing financial records was against the far wall. The old oak desk was still there with a heavy ornate chair rested behind it. He’d carved his initials in the desk one day to force his father to recognize that he existed. Diarmaid had recognized him alright. Garrett had been soundly thrashed for his desire to be seen as a person and not as some ghost to be ignored. A table, an assortment of chairs, wall sconces, and an unlit fireplace completed the room’s contents.

Other than a few feminine touches—embroidered tapestries at the window, needle point cushions in the chairs, and a hand-woven rug covering the pavers in the center of the floor—nothing had changed.

That is, except for the addition of Flower Fairies. Their presence hadn’t been widely known when he was a child. Fifteen years ago, the Queen of the Fey’s healing magic brought them back from an 800-year-old sleep. A cluster of them, wearing a variety of diaphanous tunics, hovered in the overhead beams of the chamber and waited with avid curiosity to hear the upcoming discussion.

His father sat down with a sigh. “Dylan came across Finbar in New Camelot. One thing led to another and Finbar lured Dylan into games of chance. When all was said and done, Dylan had lost the contents of my treasury to that river rat.”

Garrett took another sip of the potent brew. “I gather spirts and ale were involved.”

Diarmaid nodded. “Oh, aye. Finbar got him skunk drunk. The man never stood a chance in that brothel. Between you and me, I think Finbar paid the ale wench to drug Dylan.”

Garrett’s lips tightened and he quietly simmered at the injustices perpetrated during his youth. There were always excuses for Dylan’s bad behaviour and never one allowed for his youthful frolics. As his father pondered the secrets of Danu’s gardens in his flagon, Garrett’s thoughts raced as he contemplated a means of eluding the chains his father was determined to fetter him with.

“When was this?”

Diarmaid looked up. “What?”

“When did Dylan lose the funds?”

“Right before the stallion killed him.”

Garrett calculated the number of years that had passed to cause the castle to fall in such disrepair. His calculations didn’t add up to his father’s tale of woe at the dastardly hands of Finbar. Funds had been leeching away from Dragon’s Breath for some time. Where did they go?

“Your income from the crops and cattle, has it been poor?”

Diarmaid tugged on a white beard streaked with the vestiges of its original yellow color. His veined hands dropped to rest upon a paunchy abdomen. “Ah, the crops. Bad weather season after season. Drought. Hail. Floods.” He shuddered with the memories. “To stave off hunger, I’ve had to augment the crofter’s food supplies with what Dylan didn’t lose. I’m down to pocket change. Garrison is empty. Couldn’t pay the lads. It’s just me, Maggie, Cassidy and a few drudges rambling about this place.” He poured more spirits into his flagon. From under his grizzled brows, his dark eyes nailed Garrett when he said, “Tax collector is coming by next month.”

Garrett stiffened with understanding. Ah, they were at the crux of the matter. The old man needed an immediate infusion of cash. His voice was without inflection. “How much?”

“In taxes? More than I have.”

Garrett closed his eyes. Why did he care? He wasn’t staying. Besides, he’d just thought of a way out of his predicament. Curiosity prodded him. “How much?”

“Two-hundred silvers.”

Garrett felt his gut clutch. That was a sizeable amount. If he sold his town house and the contents, he’d clear enough. Everything he’d worked for over the past fifteen years would be applied to correcting his brother’s poor judgement and fending off his cousin’s plans for revenge. Nothing in this magical world was going to convince him to make that sacrifice. He owed Diarmaid nothing. Finbar could have the pile of rubble with his blessing.

Despite the turmoil he felt, he calmly placed the unfinished flagon down on the desk and stood. “When Finbar throws them out, tell Maggie and Cassidy to come to New Camelot. They can have my protection there.”

Diarmaid scrambled to his feet. “What? What are you talking about? They have to stay here.”

Garrett gave a short bow of respect, not because Diarmaid deserved it, but because social mores required it. “As I said before, I’m leaving.”

When he turned away, Diarmaid bellowed, “Boy! You don’t understand!”

Garrett stopped but didn’t turn. His voice held the icy rage he’d been suppressing. “I’ve not been a boy for a long time.” He drew in a deep breath to control the emotions festering in him and shoved them behind his wall of unfeeling stone where they belonged.

Diarmaid yelled, “Don’t take your hatred of me out on them. They don’t deserve it.”

Garrett placed his hand on the door latch. He drew in another breath to cool the hot emotions boiling behind the wall and threatening to bubble over. When he thought his voice would be even tempered, he turned. “I don’t hate you. I don’t feel anything for you. I’ll provide for them, but I’m not staying here. Send them to New Camelot. I have a large house with ample room. I’m gone most of the time anyway.”

Deflated, Diarmaid slumped back into his chair. “Give me one more minute of your time. Let me prove to you that they can’t leave the safety Dragon’s Breath provides and mingle with the populace.”

That damnable curiosity prodded Garrett once again. What could the old man possibly do or say to make him stay in this cold, drafty hellhole full of bitter memories?

Diarmaid jerked his chin, “Call for Cassidy to come.”

“Cassidy? What—”

The baron removed a dirk from the desk drawer. “Just call for her. She’ll hear you. Nursery is the next room.”

The hair on his nape twitching with tension, Garrett turned from his father, opened the door and lifted his voice. “Cassidy, come here, please.”

When he faced his father, he was aghast to see him use the dirk to make a bloody trail across the palm of his hand. “What in Donn’s frozen hell are you doing?”

The sound of small booted feet and a faint knock on the door heralded Cassidy. ‘’Ello, Grit. Want to play with my doll?” She extended a silk-gowned toy bearing an ivory carved face, its features painted in a smile. “Her name is Fancy.”

Garrett knelt before the little sprite. “Not now, Cassidy. Diarmaid’s hurt himself.”

Spying her father bleeding, she cried out, “Da! You have an owie!” She padded over to where Diarmaid was slowly dripping blood onto the pavers. Placing the doll in Diarmaid’s lap, she smiled up at him. “I make it better.”

A crystal bracelet on her wrist that Garrett had not noticed before glowed with all the colors of the rainbow. Cassidy took Diarmaid’s gnarled hand into her two small ones and kissed the bleeding palm. “There, all better.”

Diarmaid held his hand up for Garrett to see. The wound was closed, a thin red line the only indication there had been a laceration.

A high-pitched shriek split the air. “She did it again!” The Flower Fairy troupe leader, dressed in yellow and white, ricocheted off the walls. Around her, her companions, their faces aglow, buzzed with a high intensity. “I can feel the new magic in the currents.” She threw out her arms as if savoring the sun’s heat on her face. “There is nothing better for the soul than freshly made magic.”

Ignoring the exuberant fey women, Diarmaid’s lips trembled and his eyes watered. Rapidly blinking, he encompassed Cassidy in a hug. “Thank you my sweet child. It feels much better already. Go down to the kitchen and tell cook to give you a tart. Have her put extra honey on it.”

Cassidy smiled at Diarmaid then up at Garrett. “I like tarts. Maybe the fairies will go down there with me and tell me a story.” After grabbing her doll, she paused at the door. “Grit, do you want a tart too? I’ll tell cook to hide one from the fairies for you.”

Garrett swallowed his disbelief and found his voice. “That would be thoughtful of you, Cassidy.”

The door shut behind her and he could hear her booted feet fade down the stairwell.

Garrett felt like he’d been spied by a mythological Medusa. He couldn’t move, couldn’t think about the repercussions of what he’d just witnessed. He could barely get a cohesive sentence out. “She…she healed your hand. She’s a crystal sorceress?”

Diarmaid’s head dropped with weariness onto his fingertips. “Looks like it.”

“But she’s just a child. She’s not even into puberty. How can she manifest that kind of healing power?”

“Danu only knows. And that’s not all she can do. We don’t know the extent of her powers and she’s only four! Now do you understand why she can’t leave the protection of the keep, why she has to have a strong arm to protect her? Do you know what people would do with her if they could get their hands on her? Unscrupulous bastards would use her to their own financial gain. They’d make her heal until they killed her.”

Bethany Regina, Queen of the Fey, was a crystal sorceress. Her healing magic had cured thousands of sick and damaged people of all ranks since she’d left the Old Word and come to New Camelot. It was her healing magic that had restarted the idle currents of magic in their realm and awakened the fey that now teemed across the land.

All other sorcerers pulled their power from their internal reserves. Bethany Regina could draw from crystal, even from the bedrock beneath her feet and from other sorcerers willing to share their reserves. She was so powerful, some said she was Danu’s daughter. Married to and protected by the most powerful warrior in the land, she had pet dragons patrolling her demesne that devoured anyone uninvited. She had multiple troupes of powerful fey in attendance to guard her and her family.

Garrett felt the weight of the castle upon his shoulders. How could he and a handful of Flower Fairies protect this precocious little girl in this crumbling pile of rock?

Diarmaid returned his dirk to the drawer. “I can see by the look of comprehension on your face that you now understand the most pressing problem at hand and why I sent for you.”

Garrett stared at the fading pink scar in his father’s palm and said, “I’m just one man. How can I protect her?”

“You can’t. You need a trained garrison and a powerful sorceress by your side.”

Garrett started. Suspicion bubbled up causing the hair on his arms to lift in wariness. “A sorceress? What are you talking about?”

The old man ignored Garrett’s interruption and continued. “I’ve found you a wife and the solution to our immediate problems. Lady Teagan is a very wealthy and powerful sorceress. We need both her magic and her funds to make Dragon’s Breath secure for Cassidy.

“A tournament is being held in two weeks. You need to be there and you need to win.”

Garrett shook his head in horrified denial. He lifted his flagon. “I don’t know how much of this stuff you’ve already drunk so I’ll speak clearly and slowly. I don’t want a wife. Besides, I never got my spurs. I never tourneyed. I can’t possibly defeat a small army of knights in a tournament.”

Diarmaid looked at the healed scar in his hand and then back up to Garrett. “There is only one way I can interpret the course of recent events—Danu’s will.” There was a heart-felt solemness in the depths of his brown eyes. Then they flashed silver.

Garrett leapt back. He didn’t know what was sitting before him, but it was no longer solely human. The voice out of Diarmaid’s throat was in the dulcet tones of a female. “I have given Dragon’s Breath a crystal sorceress to protect. I have made you Cassidy’s champion. Your mission is to make this castle a secure haven for my daughter until another champion comes to wed and protect her. To that end, I will provide you with a sword and a spear to guard and protect her.”

 Chapter 2

From her position on the bailey-facing wall of the barbican, Teagan watched the carpenters outfit the grounds for a tournament. She drew in a deep breath to ease her mounting tension and settle the energy roiling around under her skin. Action was in order to discharge it: go for a ride and check on the crofters, inventory the stores in the dungeon and middle floors of the keep, check on the crop of tubers recently planted.

Truthfully, she wanted to strangle someone; namely, Uncle Tomas. However, he had sorcerer-warrior powers to defend himself and would probably use them if attacked. That left Oletta’s slender neck. Her aunt’s only magical skills were to make ornamental flowers grow in profusion and to beget babies. The fairies liked the flora Oletta grew and Teagan was pretty sure they’d stop her from venting her rage on her aunt. So, another distraction was in order.

“Cousin Teagan! Cousin Teagan!” The shouts of her nephews broke into her fuming solitude. Dressed in stain-hiding brown and green superfine tunics and braes, the six-year-old twins were her constant shadows. Tomas explained that they dogged her steps because she went everywhere and got into everything. With their natural curiosity in high gear, they’d learned something from her every day since their precipitous arrival. She wished their ma and da were willing to spend the time for her to transfer the volumes of information her father had taught her on estate management. In a pique of annoyance at their reticence to learn from her, she thought to herself, I’d love to be nearby the first time they try to rob the beehives of their honey.

She looked down at the boys’ excited upturned faces. Their green eyes sparkled with anticipated adventure. Grins lifted lips, exposing missing and partly grown-in teeth. Not even her sullen mood could douse their bubbly enthusiasm.

“We’re going to have a tournament,” they announced in sing-song voices.

With stoic resignation, she replied, “Looks that way.” The upcoming event was doomed to arrive. However, she’d have preferred she had something in the say of selecting a mate, other than picking one at random out of the herd. As it was, she was just a trophy to be fought over. Maybe her suitors would kill each other off. The errant thought brought a perky smile to her dour face. She beamed down at her nephews and bent over to be at eye level.

“Tripper, Trevor, let’s go to the brewery and check on the wort. I bet Hobbs has some for us to taste.” The brewmaster had been given orders to prepare for a host of thirsty knights and their accompanying squires. Already, large barrels of ale were being rolled to cold storage where they would ferment to yield a spectacular refreshment that challenged the famous Eagle’s Landing brand.

Her offer to spend time with the twins had them bouncing on their toes. Tripper exclaimed, “I bet that’s where the fairies are.” Trevor added, “We’ve been looking for them.”

Teagan made her way down the steep staircase and over to one of the many outbuildings lined against the curtain wall in close proximity to the keep. The pungent aroma of roasting oats guided their footsteps to the oast house. Brewmaster Hobbs and his assistant were using large wooden paddles to stir the malt roasting atop a flat sheet of iron. Sweat dripped down their faces and dampened their homespun tunics. A tall imposing man, Hobbs gave her a nod of acknowledgement and kept on working.

She returned the taciturn salutation with a nod of her own. As her da had explained, crofters didn’t have a lot of time for idle conversation. When dealing with them be succinct and to the point. She lifted her voice over the scraping noise of the wooden paddles. “Do you have any wort that these fine young men can sample?”

A grin broke out on Hobb’s weathered face. “Inside. A vat is cooling in the sink. If the fairies haven’t drunk it all, you can have a taste.” He lifted an eyebrow. “They’re very excited about the upcoming tournament.”

Teagan mumbled under her breath, “I’m glad my forced wedding is making everyone excited.”

Taking her nephews by the hand, Teagan’s footsteps led them into a stone and thatch building where wheat, soaked into germination, roasted and then cracked and cooked, released the sugars that would ferment into alcohol. Their entry into the building was greeted with a plethora of winged female fairies. Gowned in translucent tunics in a rainbow of different colors, they lifted miniature silver cups in salutation. Their leader, dressed in a deep blue tunic, separated from the troupe and flitted over to Teagan.

Clasping an errant strand of golden hair, the magical creature, no bigger than a hand’s span, anchored herself to Teagan’s shoulders. “La, this brew is mighty fine, if I say so myself.”

Her teeth clenched in a forced smile, Teagan said, “I’m glad it meets with your approval, Bluebell. Wouldn’t want to serve inferior ale to all my suitors, now would we?”

Her sarcasm was met with a host of titters and snorts from the fey troupe. Bluebell retained hold of the hair and silver cup in one hand and petted Teagan’s sun- blushed cheek with the other. “Now, now, Lady Teagan. You might be surprised at what calibre of male is going to show up next week.”

Teagan ladled two cups of the wort and handed them to the twins with the admonishment to, “Sip it.” She replied to Bluebell, “I expect fortune hunters, old goats and scabrous dogs. No one has asked me if I want any of them.”

Her criticism elicited more giggling. Flower Fairies were concentrated magic. They sought out energy providing foods to feed that power. There was no better source than a fresh cooked mash or a sweet tart. If one wanted to know a secret or glean some information, the wee women could be bribed with offers of sweet goods or, in a pinch, a rollicking good tale. The small fairies were also notorious gossips and were easily enraptured by tales of adventure and love.

Bluebell took another sip of the sweet wort and hiccupped. The fey woman licked her lips in appreciation of Hobb’s brewing expertise. “Word has gone out across the land of your impending nuptials. There’s bound to be all kinds of fighting going on between the scheduled challenges. I’m expecting a host of other fairies to attend the tournament to observe.”

“Wonderful.” Teagan’s tone was flat. The would be on every fey creature’s lips throughout the land the moment a Druid completed the marriage rites.

Bluebell giggled again. “It won’t be all that bad. I’ve heard from my contemporaries that some mighty fine young knights are coming to fight for your hand.”

Teagan scoffed, “And my fortune.” She helped herself to a flagon of wort. “Nobody cares if I will love the winner or even like him.” She shuddered. “What if he’s ugly? Or mean? Or doesn’t like fairies?”

Bluebell wrinkled her nose. “Not like fairies? Preposterous!”

“Preposterous! My exact word for this tournament.” Teagan sighed. “If Da were alive, this wouldn’t be happening to me.”

“Ah, sweet Teagan, if a frog had wings like fairies, he wouldn’t bruise his arse every time he jumped.”

Hopping and flapping their elbows, the boys laughed uproariously at the thought of frogs having wings while Teagan stifled a snort. “Really, Bluebell, what if I can’t stand him?” She whispered, “What if I try to kill him? Accidently, of course.”

Bluebell’s eyes glittered with a secret. “Not to worry, Lady Teagan. The knight who defeats the throng clamoring for your hand will be a far better man than you will ever find on your own rusticating out here.”

Teagan’s attention swivelled from her misery to the silver sheen of power in Bluebell’s eyes. Her attention was riveted on the fey woman. Fairies eyes turned silver only when they were summoning or using their magical powers. “You know something, don’t you?”

Bluebell’s eyes returned to their normal dark blue. “Alas, fate is a fickle creature. I see two potential outcomes. There could be many more. Trust in Danu to take care of you.” With an elegant motion of the tiny woman’s hand, the entire troupe vanished leaving a powdering of fairy dust on the pavers and tables.

Trevor pulled on her tunic sleeve. “We’re done with the wort. What are we going to do now?”

Teagan muttered to herself, “Yes, indeed. What are we to do?” She looked down into identical anticipating faces bearing her green eyes. “Let’s go see if the hens are laying in spite of all the racket the carpenters are making. Cook is going to need as many eggs as she can get to feed the masses.”

Her suggestion deemed acceptable, the boys led their little procession to the hen house arguing about which one of them was brave enough to slip their hand beneath a broody hen prone to pecking and steal her eggs. Teagan walked behind them entertaining thoughts of bringing down lightening atop the tournament winner’s head.

* * * * *

With Danu’s ominous portent coming out of Diarmaid’s mouth and ringing in his ears, Garrett reluctantly signed the parchment deed with a flourish. He had no choice but to comply with Danu’s dictates, for to go against her wishes was not an option. He shuddered with the thought as did Diarmaid when he found out he had been a vessel for Danu to communicate her desires.

After handing over the deed to a land agent, depression settled over Garrett’s shoulders like a worn cloak. His home for the past five years was no longer his, nor the contents. Everything he’d accumulated since he left Dragon’s Breath was gone. He was leaving his career, his contacts, and his lady friends. On the brighter side, if one could be found, he’d driven a hard bargain. The buyer obviously wanted the two-storied building in the heart of the up-scale market section of town. Garrett gouged him for 500 silvers. It wasn’t a king’s ransom, but it was enough to pay one year’s taxes on that monstrosity of stone rubble that he now had to claim as home and still have some left over to purchase a suitable steed.

He turned his steps to O’Toole’s Livery. There were no finer animals to be purchased in New Camelot’s capital than at that stable. Seleta O’Toole traded mostly in black and white wagon horses. Occasionally, a destrier from Mount Carrauntoohill came in for sale. Garrett hoped he was in luck.

To save money, he decided to use his father’s armor in the tournament. He’d long since sold what few pieces he owned. In his current line of work, slashing and bashing wasn’t required. When conducting his retrieval business, he typically preferred non-descript superfine cloth for garments and a stealthy, light-fingered technique for acquisition. For the upcoming tournament, he needed something more knightly in daily wear—something with leather and metal studs. He’d purchase that with what he had left over from acquiring the horse and tack.

“Oi, Bronson!”

Garrett’s hail had the High Sheriff turning away from the corral where his wife Seleta was displaying a palfrey’s assets to a prospective buyer. Riding Bronson’s hip was his infant son, Liam. A broad smile cleaved Bronson’s face and he moved forward to greet Garrett.

“Are you on a case? What can I do to help?”

Garrett ran his tongue around his teeth in thought before answering. “I doubt there’s anything you can do for me. I’m wife hunting.”

Stunned, Bronson stumbled. True to his wolfish nature, he adeptly regained his balance and his son’s perch. Those in the criminal class feared having Bronson on their trail. The man’s perceptive logic always led him to what he sought. He was so canny, some even went so far as to say he was part wolf. He and Bronson had made a good team. That was then. This was now.

The law officer laughed at Garrett. “Hah! Good luck with that. Any particular wife?”

Garrett shrugged. “A rich one.”

Intrigued, Bronson motioned with his hand to the interior of the stable for privacy. “Does the future Lady O’Brien have a name?”

“Lady Teagan Clarey. Have you heard of the family?”

Bronson’s brow scrunched under sable curls. “Father died in a mine accident. Mother died in child birth. Wealthy estate. The girl has some sorceress powers.”

Garrett scratched the black growth on his chin and considered the brief assessment. He’d left his father two days ago and teleported to New Camelot to acquire the funds for the property taxes. Selling his town house was the easy part of keeping Cassidy safe. It only involved parting with the thing he loved most. Winning the fair maid was going to be the hard part. That would entail spilt blood and potential broken bones. He fumed, This woman better be worth it.

Curiosity piqued him. “Tell me, is she pretty?” Marrying an ugly woman would add salt to the sores created by the invisible fetters on his ankles and wrists.

“Teagan? Don’t know. Never met her.” Memory lit Bronson’s eyes and he chuckled. “You’re competing in the invitational tournament, aren’t you? I thought you were well set from your retrieval services. What’s caused you to seek a wife all of a sudden?”

Garrett’s spirits sank even lower with the prospect of being leg shackled to a woman he despised. However, the circumstances demanded the sacrifice. Cassidy must be protected at all costs, including, apparently, his happiness. “My situation has changed. It seems my ailing father has blessed me with a young sister. I’m returning home to care for her and take over the baronetcy.”

“And…” Bronson prodded.

“I need funds to restore the castle and improve the defenses.”

Bronson nodded. “Yeah, castles are expensive to maintain.”

“And drafty and arse-freezing cold in the winter,” added Garrett.

Bronson laughed. “And that’s why I live in town.”

Garrett lowered his head and wondered for the hundredth time, Why did that old goat have to go and impregnate the nursemaid with Danu’s child? Better yet, why did Danu choose him as Cassidy’s champion?

Seleta, apparently done with horse dealing, shook the buyer’s hand. A lead line and horse were exchanged for a hefty coin purse. With a smile on her face, she guided the buyer and horse out of the corral and approached them. Liam immediately reached for her. She laughed, “My little wolf pup must be getting hungry.” Positioning the babe on her hip she asked, “Is this a social call or are you on a case?”

As always, Garrett stood tongue-tied before the beauty Seleta radiated. Golden-headed and amber-eyed, she possessed the rare power of allure.

Bronson nudged Garrett in the ribs. “Quit drooling over my wife.” Although his lips smiled, his hazel eyes were rock hard. Informing Seleta, Bronson said, “He’s participating in the tournament for the Clarey girl’s hand. I suppose he’s come for a suitable horse.”

Embarrassed again at his lack of manners, Garrett grinned. “I just can’t get over the impact you have on me, Seleta.” If he could marry a woman half as beautiful as she was, he’d be a happy man.

Bronson muttered, “I’m working on that problem.”

She laughed while adjusting Liam’s perch. “I’m expecting another little wolf pup in the summer. Bronson thinks if he can bury me in babes, the allure won’t come through.”

Garrett winked at Bronson. “Good luck with that approach.” To Seleta he added, “Yes. I need a warhorse.”

She motioned to the rear of the stable. “You’re in luck. I have one that needs a job. He’s a big bruiser and is fully trained.”

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