Excerpt for Tarnished Knight by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

New Camelot’s

TARNISHED KNIGHT



By



Brenda Gable



Book Fourteen


ISBN-13: 978-1539008866

ISBN-10: 153900886X¶



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



Prologue


Laurel’s shoulders slumped in despair at the site before her. After months of traveling across the countryside, singing to fairies, telling them adventurous true stories, and feeding them sweet tarts in hopes they would tell her a tale that would bring her quest to fruition, this is all she got? This pile of detritus was’s castle?

Before her on an open plain under crystal blue skies was naught but a mound of sandstone impregnated dirt where shrubs and a few trees tenaciously clung. The rubble was a solemn testimony to what fearsome retribution could do to a once glorious castle.

Viola, dressed in a gauzy purple tunic that barely concealed her voluptuous figure, grasped a strand of loose hair at Laurel’s shoulder to anchor her in the cooling breeze. The hand-sized Flower Fairy murmured, “Questing has its ups and downs, doesn’t it sweet Laurel? You never know how it’s going to end.” Unconcerned with the depths of Laurel’s despair, Viola licked blackberry syrup off her fingers from a tart Laurel had stolen mere hours ago.

Gazing at the fruition of her month-long journey, Laurel’s heart couldn’t sink much lower. She knew in her bones that Morrigan’s lost treasure was located at the site of the castle ruins. However, she’d expected ivy covered crumbling stones, not a dirt motte. Her spirits fluttered upward with renewed hope. Could the treasure be buried in the tomb shaped mound? How long would it take for her to dig to the heart of it?

Pansy, attired in a bright yellow tunic rimmed in black, fluttered erratically against the summer breeze while trying to eat some of the same stolen tart and said, “By that look of speculation on your face, I can tell what you’re thinking. Laurel, I’d advise against stealing some poor crofter’s shovel. You’ll not find the treasure you seek here.”

Laurel shook her head in dismay. She just knew the fairy tales would lead her to the fabled treasure of Morrigan Le Fey. This couldn’t be the end of her quest. Laurel grasped at a straw. “It has to be here. Lilly in Glanworth said this is where Morrigan and Arthur plotted to overthrow Morgan Le Fey. This is her castle.” She ruefully added, “Or, what’s left of it.”

Sweet Pea, attired in gauzy green and white, caressed Laurel’s chin with one tiny hand and popped a berry into her mouth with the other. She spoke around the succulent treat. “Oh, aye. Both Merlin and Arthur put their heads together with Morrigan’s and did plan to usurp the rightful Queen of Camelot here. But when Danu turned against them and loaned her power to Morgan, the tide of war turned against them and they fled to the elves in a rout.”

Laurel had encountered Viola’s small troupe of charming Flower Fairies when she slipped across County Tipperary’s border into Limerick. Sweet tarts she’d stolen from a local farm house had elicited the exact location of Morrigan’s castle out of them. The offer of succulent treats had been a ploy she’d used to solicit information from the various troupes she’d come across since she’d left the Ring of Kerry in search of the mythical treasure. Each band of fairies she’d met since she’d begun her trek had led her further afield until she reached this lump of dirt. Her shoulders sagged. What now? She’d found the site of Morrigan’s castle for all the good it did for her.

The intermittent breeze carried the faint sound of a woman’s laughter to her. Laurel cringed. The goddess Danu was relishing Laurel’s disappointment! It was well known that the mother goddess had a wicked sense of humor. Had Laurel’s journey been nothing but a cosmic joke for the fey? Was this her punishment for opening up a wound that had split their world in twain over 800 years ago, creating New Camelot out of the carnage caused in the Old World by Arthur’s war machines? Would her name be bandied about in laughter among the fey? When human folly was the topic, was her name to be brought forth upon the delicate lips of the fey? She imagined the fairy ranks already abuzz with this latest human foible. Her lips turned down in a grimace. The fey loved a good rollicking tale.

Danu’s mocking laughter in her ears had Laurel turning away, almost in tears, from the conical mound. What direction should she take in pursuit of the 800-year-old myth? She really needed that gold if she were to remain an independent woman. Like her mother before her, she could not follow in her family’s traditional footsteps and kill for a living to provide for her needs...and wants.

Viola bestowed a kiss upon Laurel’s cheek. “Sweet Laurel, this is not the end of your quest, merely the beginning. Leave no stone unturned. Your heart’s desire is out there. Go find it.” On those cryptic words, she and her sisters vanished leaving Laurel alone on the windswept plain.

After securing a large osier basket to her draft pony’s scarred rump, Laurel headed back into the rural village of Knockgraffon simmering in anger over her great mistake in dealing with the fairies. They knew she was seeking the gold when she queried them about Morrigan’s castle. In their conversations, she told them she was in dire straits and needed the treasure to pursue her goals of independence and land to raise abandoned and abused fey animals.

Sympathetic to her plight, when she’d asked for interpretations to clues she’d gleaned of the castle’s location, the fairies had been very helpful in guiding her to this pile of rubble. She realized she’d made a big mistake in her communications with the fey. Instead of soliciting the location of the castle over stolen treats, she should have been more specific in her queries. She should have asked for the location of Morrigan’s lost gold. Now she was at the end of her journey, still with no means to support herself, and not a fairy in sight to entice a clue from.

Disheartened at the dead-end to her searching, she muttered under her breath, “Damn fairies. You can’t trust them any further than you can throw them.”

Her cheeks burned with mortification when the breeze blew Danu’s soft mocking laughter back at her.¶


Chapter 1


High Sheriff Bronson cast a disgruntled eye at the sight of Koosa, an irksome Red Cap, sitting atop his desk and sifting through a stack of complaints against the fey. Bronson knew from scanning the missives and setting them aside, that the complaints were bogus claims. The fey rarely took interest in humans, except when it furthered their own goals or entertained them. In fact, they were forbidden to get involved in human affairs by the Queen of the Fey. That didn’t mean they weren’t allowed to provide a few helpful hints and words of suggestion to those humans the fey liked.

Some intrepid individuals shared a symbiotic relationship with the fey such as Bethany Regina, the Crystal Sorceress. It was logical that she would encourage their presence since Bethany was their queen. Other powerful sorceresses and their consorts throughout New Camelot also encouraged the Flower Fairies’ attention and presence. However, the typical mortal man in the field or street feared them and rightfully so. Nobody in their right mind encouraged a Red Cap’s presence. Which is why he was annoyed that Koosa was in his gaol.

His appearance that of a disheveled dwarf, Koosa lifted his over-large head and grinned with a secret. Rows of sharp yellow canines, perfect for rendering human flesh, flashed at Bronson’s presence. The feral fey creature crossed his bowed legs and said, “Ah, High Sheriff, I see ye’ve pulled yerself away from the loving arms of yer wife and new babe.”

Not liking the mischievous look on Koosa’s face, Bronson cast a suspicious look at his unwanted guest. “Selena and Liam are faring well, thank you. What are you doing back here? Last I saw of you, you were happily cavorting with Layla.”

The Red Cap was an onus Bronson carried before his marriage to his Gypsy princess. The fey creature refused to leave the capital’s goal until Bronson found him a female Red Cap to wed. Since those creatures were extremely rare, it was fortunate that Koosa’s fancy was caught by a House Brownie and the eerie creature had been absent from his presence for many blissful months.

Koosa shrugged. “Ah, well. The course of true love rarely runs smoothly.”

The Red Cap should have been morose at loosing such a fine consort as Layla. Yet, his eyes glittered with excitement. A sense of doom settled on Bronson. Koosa’s presence could only bode ill tidings and the spilling of human blood. Bronson’s lips tightened into a dissatisfied line. “Layla kicked you out, didn’t she?”

A faint flush crossed the Red Cap’s features at Bronson’s correct guess. “Ah, well, as to that, there’s no need to cover old territory. We must look forward to the future.”

Bronson lit several of the torches in the stone chamber of his office. “Isn’t there somewhere else you can hang your cap while you peer into the future?” Oral legend said the Red Cap dipped his hat in his human victims’ blood after he killed and devoured them. Blessed be Danu, the Crystal Sorceress had declared there was to be no human fodder as part of any fey’s fare or they would personally face her wrath. So far, there were no reports of fey eating humans. It didn’t mean that it wasn’t happening. It just wasn’t reported.

Koosa scanned another missive from a county sheriff. He chuckled and tossed the parchment to the flagstones. “That one says the fey exchanged his infant with that of a banshee’s get. It won’t stop screaming. Really? It’s the fey’s fault the babe has colic?”

Bronson yanked another report from Koosa’s dirty hands. “Give me that. That’s official correspondence.” He’d have to respond to a fraction of them to appease King Wolfrick Asarlaís who wanted to keep peace between human and fey. Dried up ponds, non-lactating cows, and screaming infants were not high on his list of priorities at the moment. His foremost worry was that he strongly suspected that Selena’s numerous Gypsy kin were using her to fence expensive goods possessing questionable provenances.

“Ye might want to cast an eyeball over that stack.” Koosa nodded to a short sheaf of reports that were isolated at the corner of the desk.

Bronson took his seat behind the massive oaken desk that had serviced innumerable High Sheriffs. “No need. I’ve looked at all of them. Petty thievery, misplaced items, and the like. The fey are not involved in any of them.”

“Ah, yes. But those few,” he tipped his head to the corner stack, “are most interesting when ye look at the order in which they’re occurring.”

Bronson let out a huff of impatience. He had more important work to do than find out who raided a farmer’s smokehouse or stole a housewife’s cooling pie from a window ledge. When his deputy Cody came in, he’d send him out to investigate a few of them for appearances sake.

Koosa crossed his arms under his chest in pique when Bronson made no move to re-read the petitions for Bronson’s help in solving the petty crimes. Koosa urged, “Humor me. Go on. Put them in order.”

Bronson felt a chill of foreboding. The fey never got involved with human affairs. Why was Koosa so determined to embroil him with these lesser crimes?

Hoping not to find something that would take him away from the capital’s borders, Bronson shuffled the reports in order of perpetration. The sooner he obliged the magical creature, the sooner Koosa would leave…maybe. As he studied the documents, a tale of stolen baked tarts, cooked chickens, smoked cuts of lamb and beef, and the occasional unguarded coin sack evolved. The trail led eastward from County Kerry.

At the Galtee Mountains in the heartland of New Camelot, the thief backtracked and included in his purloined goods raw meats along with prepared fare. Bronson connected the reports with the map of New Camelot he kept in his head. There was a wandering line from County Kerry to the Galtees, with cooked food being the choice of fare. Then the thief’s appetite changed when he got to the Galtees. A shiver of foreboding went through him. What had happened in those mountains?

He muttered to himself. “Who would travel to the Galtees and back? There’s nothing in those mountains but rock and stray goats and sheep. What did he find?”

Koosa released a sly smile and tried to suppress his bubbling excitement. “Tell me. What feeds upon the occasional untended head of livestock? Hmm?”

“Dragons.” The shiver of foreboding turned into a clenched fist in Bronson’s gut. He was going to have to leave his wife and infant babe and go investigate this string of occurrences. If the king found out there was a human nursing a baby dragon… If Gisselle took exception to the kidnapping of one of her hatchlings… If the thief had magical powers and was of a foul nature… The thoughts were too gruesome to continue. He had to go and personally resolve the issue before it became a major problem and he conceivably lost his job.

The Red Cap’s chuckle turned into a torrential gale of laughter. In between snorts he said, “Off ye go, High Sheriff. Trust me and Cody to tend to business on the home front.”

Koosa tending to his wife and child. If that wasn’t a thought to make a man quake in his boots, Bronson didn’t know what would.


* * * * *


Sir Donovan of Baltimore cast a bilious blue eye over his shoulder at the trio of young freelancers sitting by the cold hearth. Full of piss and vinegar after a successful tourney and flush with funds, they were making a nuisance of themselves in the alehouse in which he and a room full of others sought a meal and refuge from an impending summer deluge. Not content in annoying the patrons, they'd gone beyond the lines of propriety with the ale wench. Clutching and squeezing, they made a mockery of the chivalric code of honor as they passed Tara around.

"Get your filthy hands off me." Her shrieks of outrage were loud enough to cause Donovan to wince.

"I'll cut your bollocks off and boil them in a stew if you don't let me go," was followed up with a thrown empty ale flagon lading in a glancing blow against the side of the tallest knight's head before rolling across the floor towards Donovan. The feeble attack only brought forth more lusty laughter out of the drunken trio.

Donovan assessed the situation and decided it looked like foreplay to him. He turned back around and sipped his own ale, ignoring the struggle going on behind him. She was an ale wench and demonstrated she might be able to take care of herself. If not, she was the proprietor's problem.

Her, "Touch me there again and I'll bite," was followed by a deep, "I've got something ye can wrap your mouth around."

Her curses and shrieks of outrage were getting on his last nerve as the freelancers yanked her from lap to lap. If they didn't settle down and drink their ale or take her upstairs to alleviate some of that excess energy, he was going to have to do something so he could enjoy the forthcoming meal he'd paid for out of scarce resources.

A high-pitched scream sliced through the voices of the diners as she fought against a black-haired warrior's embrace and groping fingers. Right on cue, the proprietor came out of the kitchen bringing with him the heady aroma of garlic and onions. Gaunt as a gar, he wiped his hands off on a soiled piece of linen and said in a squeaky voice, "'Ere now, let Tara go. Ye got no cause to handle her that way. Ye ain't paid for her services."

Donovan looked at the struggling wench with an assessing eye. Her kirtle was askew revealing the swell of full breasts and her honey colored hair had fallen into her face. Instead of her eyes sparking with anger, they glittered with avarice. Her hand fisted. Ignoring the knight’s rock-hard jaw, she directed her blow lower to a softer target at the juncture of the man's legs. Her captor howled in pain and outrage. She lept from his lax hands and retreated to the side of the skinny proprietor. Just as he thought, mused Donovan, the lass could take care of herself.

The owner held out his hand. "A silver from each of ye for roughing up the merchandise. If ye want a romp with her, that'll be another two silvers—each."

The youngest of the threesome gave a toothy grin as he handed over his coins. "One at a time or all three at once?"

With her maulers turned into paying customers, Tara's maidenly cries of outrage became a thing of the past. She swayed her hips with invitation and cooed, "Payers choice." With business settled, Tara headed upstairs with the tall knight and a modicum of peace descended once again inside the crowded alehouse.

Donovan cast a quick upward glance to the door when a woman carrying an osier basket over her arm entered accompanied by booming thunder. He watched as the cowl and cloak-covered figure placed her order then glided across the room, moving as though in complete control of every muscle, bone and sinew to an empty table in the shadows of a far corner.

The hair on Donovan's nape lifted in recognition. He was one of the few people who'd ever seen a person move like that and lived to tell the tale. What was she doing in here? The ear-shattering crack of tree-exploding lightening followed by the sound of a torrential downfall answered his question. Like himself and the three buffoons, the Assassin had sought shelter from the summer squall within the Rusty Nail Ale House.

Donovan kept a wary eye on the newcomer. If he kept a low profile and didn't annoy her, he might live to continue his journey after the storm passed in search of a new freelance contract. He needed one soon. His last contract came to an abrupt closure when his liege faced the King's justice and the High Sheriff's rope. With the gold the Gypsy had tossed to him to hand his vile employer over for trial, he'd purchased a new saddle for Sorcha and more armor for himself. He snorted silently to himself. Who knew Gypsies were endowed with Royal powers? That they too could throw powerballs generated from their spines?

That was then and this was now and months later, he was down to barely enough funds to purchase four more meals for himself and his horse. When that ran out, he was looking at spit cooked wild rabbit and pheasant to feed his belly and grazing for Sorcha.

Mayhap he'd direct Sorcha's hooves toward New Camelot’s capital instead of continuing to offer his services to the local barons in this bucolic area of Limerick County. Merchants trading with the Akkadians were always traversing from the capital to the frontier. He might be able to pick up a hefty purse for protecting a small caravan.

The remaining two rowdy knights, full of sap from their play with the wench, grew suddenly quiet. Donovan looked over his shoulder. Deprived of their toy, they were scanning the area looking for something else to amuse themselves with. When they pushed back from the table, they scraped their stools across the rush-scattered pavers. Donovan cringed when one of the young knights bellowed above the noise of the crowed room, "Whatcha got in that basket, lassie?"

The Assassin, realizing she'd been singled out, stiffened and turned her cowled head toward the knights. Within the shadowed depths of the fabric, Donovan spied the glint of speculating green eyes. With a surreptitious movement, the Assassin's arms dropped to her lap and her hands crept up the full sleeves of her homespun tunic.

Donovan knew from experience that there were throwing knives secured within that garment. More knives would be hidden in her boots and across her chest with a small sword secured to her back under her cloak. Seeming petite and defenseless, the stranger was death waiting patiently to be unleashed. It wasn't long ago he'd witnessed another mother Assassin, bearing her babe in a sling across her chest, efficiently kill six highwaymen in the time it would take for him to throw a saddle over Sorcha's back. That adventure nearly cost him his life.

Donovan released a tired sigh. If those two freelancers knew more about women than how to tumble them in bed, they'd know what was in the basket. "Save me from drunken fools," he muttered under his breath. This rapidly developing disaster needed to be aborted before innocents in the crowded room got caught in a bloodbath.

Placing his hands upon the table, he pushed himself erect in unison with the Assassin. Swooping up his empty flagon from the table and the flagon off the floor, he strode to the moving knights. Swinging with gusto, he landed heavy blows alongside their heads, effectively stunning their alcohol soaked brains into unconsciousness.

The room went silent at his surprise attack. He turned to the Assassin and with a polite bow said, "No need to be affronted. You won't be bothered."

The cowled head tilted in a regal nod of acknowledgement.

The room broke out into a hum of speculation, but true to his word, no one approached the figure in the corner. Donovan returned to his seat and waited with growing impatience as more victims of the sudden storm entered the crowded shelter. He lifted his lips in welcome when a trencher, brimming with roasted lamb and an assortment of vegetables, was dropped before him by a kitchen drudge along with a fresh flagon of ale. As he rendered the succulent meat into mouth-sized bites, he felt the Assassin's gaze studying him. He ate faster. He'd rather face the storm outside than remain inside with what was going through her thoughts.


* * * * *


Laurel saw the blond giant when she scanned the Rusty Nail’s interiors upon entering the wayside tavern and brothel at the base of the Galtee Mountains. How could she miss him? With the handsome square features of a mythical god and bearing a head of golden floss and a matching afternoon stubble on his chin, he made her fingers itch to reach out and caress him. Her thoughts screamed out, mine.

Wearing a green linen tabard and no armor, the lack of a heraldic icon advertised he was a freelancer and available for hire. Which meant he had no liege lord. He was a defensive shield and a strong sword arm available to anyone who could afford him.

Being of sound mind and having learnt well from her mother’s heartbreaking experience, she controlled her reflexes to caress all that firm muscle rippling under the loose-fitting tabard and opted to sit quietly in the corner where it would be easier to defend herself and wait for the squall to pass.

Laurel was surprised at her reaction to the stranger. Desire was a most unusual emotion for her since she’d never considered taking a mate before. Her people assumed that when she was ready, that she would select a male from the large and diverse clan of Assassins. Despite what her body urged in response to the knight’s virile appearance, her mind told her that getting emotionally involved with a freelancer was asking for abandonment and a broken heart. She quenched the unusual feeling of awareness and focused on her environment.

Reeking of piss, sweat and leather, the crowded room boasted serviceable round tables, sturdy chairs and a cold hearth. Rushes were thick along the walls to accommodate a comfortable sleeping location for those who could not afford a room or were too parsimonious to release the funds. Low timbered beams had blackened with generations of peat smoke. Thick stone walls also bore the grime of passing years. Behind a solid oak bar, a plump matron doled out flagons of ale and spirits. An assortment of kegs was stacked behind her. Laurel was pleased to catch sight of the Eagle’s Landing icon. There was no better ale in the land.

Constantly scanning the room for danger, she counted the seconds wishing the obnoxious young knights would take the wench upstairs and expend their energy. The powerful warrior's sudden subduing of the two idiots caught Laurel by surprise. It was a rare occurrence for her. She’d been mentally prepared to permanently end the knights’ carousing or at least put them down until morning.

The way the golden knight's blue eyes kept flicking to the kitchen door after he addressed her told her he was hungry. A low growl from Maeve in the basket echoed the knight’s hunger pangs. When his meal was delivered, he made haste to consume it, confirming her deductions. Laurel's eyes also frequently traveled with impatience to the kitchen door. If Maeve should escape the basket before she got her hands on the raw pheasants she ordered, Donn's own hell would burst loose in the crowded tavern.

Her gaze returned to the knight. Typical of the bred, he was large and undoubtedly powerful. His bold face bore the ravages of time and disappointment. Where once it may have been cherubic, it was now chiseled by the knowledge of man’s inhumanity to man. Above his high cheekbones, blue eyes, the startling color of a clear summer sky, glittered with intelligence.

Jocular male voices fueled with ale broke into her silent admiration of the knight who had caught her attention. A deep bassoon rumbled, "They're at it again. If you’re going towards the capital, you’re going to need some freelancers to protect you."

His companion replied in a slur, "Who’s at what?"

"The O’Dwyer and Shea clans are feuding."

Laurel's ears perked up at overhearing the small talk between traveling merchants. Dressed in dark travel-dusted linen tunics and protective cloaks, the two travelers obviously knew each other. They leaned together over the small table to continue their conversation under the hum of the other patrons and the steady downpour atop the thatched roof.

The rounder of the two asked, "What is it this time? A stolen cow? A missing ewe? A questionable parentage?"

The shorter one laughed. "Not this time. I hear they’re raiding each other’s crofts along the Tipperary and Limerick borders. Seems to have broken out overnight. Don’t rightly know the cause of it, but I speculate it’s a land grab. The Shea clan claims some worthless out-of-the-way sector and the O’Dwyer’s are willing to spill blood to keep it."

The fat man laughed. "Those two clans look for a reason to fight." He nudged his friend. "How long has it been since they first started hostilities?"

The tall man scratched his greying beard. "Oh, I'd say neigh onto a 100 years or so."

"It was a woman, wasn't it?"

"What else could cause such hostility among sane men?"

After a burst of ribald laughter, their conversation ebbed and then took another course. Laurel pondered the problem that had just been placed into her lap. The sporadic feuding between the two factions was legendary and indeed its root cause was a woman that both men wanted and neither obtained. What suddenly peaked her interest was that the disputed territory was in the route she was traveling to seek her fortune. And who was to say there weren’t more clans taking advantage of the summer weather to feud or rustle each other’s livestock? Keeping to the countryside and moving at night, she’d been lucky to get this far unchallenged.

In contemplation of her dilemma, her fingers silently rapped the tabletop. Not being a Royal, she couldn’t teleport and reach her destination. There was no witch or sorceress blood in her veins. For the most part, she was as normal a human as she could be. She worried her lip. Well, except for her training and one special talent that cropped up occasionally in the women of her lineage. Those assets would keep her alive if she had to employ them. However, she’d rather not draw the ire of the local sheriff using them.

So, it was hoofing it across the countryside for her. If she slipped through the disputed territory, using the woodlands as cover and traveling at night, she could avoid the clans and make her way to Mount Carrauntoohil in two weeks give or take. If she stuck to the main routes along the river, as she'd originally planned, she'd be there in ten days at most if she rode from sun up to sun down. The basket shuddered under her hand as Maeve resituated herself into a more comfortable position. The dragonet was growing at a rapid rate. In a week, she may not fit into the basket. Maeve's insatiable hunger and phenomenal growth was the deciding factor. Haste was required to finish the trek.

Her eyes were drawn back to the knight. There was a third option. She could have a Royal teleport her to her destination. She studied the blond giant. He reeked of being a sorcerer-warrior. When a couple of sodden travelers headed towards his table, the cold chill in his eyes encouraged them to divert their path to another occupied table. It wasn’t necessarily the air of authority or the innate arrogance he exuded that caused people to tread warily around him. It was an invisible aura about him that told strangers: Leave this one alone. He’s dangerous.

Like a bird dog eyeing its quarry, her chin lifted as the knight shoved his stool back and stood. Blessed Danu he was tall and well formed. Her heart fluttered in appreciation, or was it lust? With her lips parted in desire, she watched his sword arm flex and his thick neck muscles bob as he quaffed the last of his ale. Placing the flagon on the table, he turned toward the exit and moved away with long-legged strides.

The man obviously had been around the lists a time or two and knew how to think with the head on his shoulders instead of the one in his braes. Sure, she could manage to pass through the warring factions' property on her own. However, leaving a string of bodies in her wake would attract the High Sheriff’s attention. Since the man was newly married, she was loathed to get that wolf riled up and on her scent. Following in his predecessors’ example, should he catch her, he might hang her before she got a chance to defend herself.

Her eyes roamed back to the two unconscious knights. If she were to hire a Royal freelancer to teleport her and her animals, he wouldn’t come cheap. She was going to need funds and those two looked like a good source to mine. But first, she needed to secure the blond knight’s commission.

Grabbing the basket, she followed her transportation out the door and raced in the pelting rain across the muddy stable yard into the shelter of the barn. Upon entering the shadowy building, she found him tacking up a massive grey destrier and preparing to depart. A quick scan of the musty interior revealed a stableboy holding a large burlap sack for the knight while he adjusted the saddle girth on his warhorse. Another lad was filling a smaller sack with oats. A third was at work removing the horse’s manure from the stall.

Shoving her dripping cowl from her face, she placed a smile upon her lips. "Sir Knight, I'd like a word with you."

He pulled the heavy sack from the stableboy's hands and deftly attached it to the saddle. The metallic clang that came from within said that the burlap contained his armor. He gave her a cursory look then said, "Nope. Not interested." He collected up the destrier's reins and walked beside the horse’s head towards her with no intention of stopping. The combined moving wall of muscled mass caused her to skip out of his way and jostle Maeve.

Her lips flattened to a thin line at his rudeness. When it came to knighthood, manners were not important. Size, strength and skill were. She needed this knight to assist her if she were to accomplish her goal of finding Morrigan’s lost treasure.

After gently setting the basket down, she removed a leather thong out from under her cloak. Attached to each end of the thin strip was a round fist-sized rock. Twirling the weapon at her side, she focused on the knight's powerful legs and then released the tethered stones.


* * * * *


Donovan's quick look at the lass told him she was as beautiful as Maureen, the Assassin that played him for a fool and broke his heart when he was a green knight. With those same fascinating dark-green eyes with the black ring around the iris, the blond beauty would be able to seduce any man she wanted, once she got some curves on her. He walked faster towards the torrential downpour, his thoughts on his first heartbreak and his initiation into the untrustworthy nature of Assassins, especially female Assassins.

To be honest with himself, Maureen hadn't really tried to seduce him. He'd fallen in love with her from the shadows while under contract to another heartless baron. Unfortunately, she'd had eyes only for the baron's heir, Uric. What a disaster that had been. The lad had used her and then discarded her. A year later when Uric died a horrible death at Maureen's mother's hand, the bereaved Dunbar called to his men and sought out Maureen with the intention of taking her infant son, his bastard grandson.

Donovan tried to protect her from the baron's assault. However, she'd chosen an enchanted dragon named Teague over Donovan to be her champion and eventually wed him when Teague was returned to human form by the Crystal Sorceress. Even though Donovan had tumbled many a female since then, Maureen’s painful rejection and duplicity had made him wary of any woman’s charms.

He was almost at the barn door when his legs locked together and the ground came rushing up at him. Releasing Sorcha's reins, he caught himself just before his nose planted itself in the feces-tainted straw on the dirt floor. Knees and ankles stuck together, he flopped over onto his back like a landed trout to face his assailant.

The small Assassin stood over him, her hands akimbo on slim hips. The staccato lightening outside lit up the barn’s interior and highlighted her face. He looked into those mesmerizing eyes and blinked with realization—she was barely out of childhood. Her hair was tightly braided into two long plaits. Her pert nose had freckles running amok over it. Full lips were forced into a smile displaying even white teeth. Below them was a strong chin that contradicted the playfulness of her freckles. She held a delicate hand out to him in supplication.

"There's no need to run away from me and out into the danger of the storm. I'll not hurt you."

He snarled, "You just did." Assessing the weapon that took him down, he quickly unhooked the tangled stones and removed the leather bindings from his legs.

After scrambling to his feet, he held the snare out to her. "Whatever it is you're planning; I want no part of it."

He snatched up Sorcha’s reins and resumed his march into the torrential rain. She recovered quickly from Donovan’s rebuff and shouted at his retreating back. "I'll pay you for your services."

He hesitated at the edge of the downpour. His once secure position as a garrison captain had suddenly dissolved when his employer was hung. He needed funds in a dire way. With New Camelot enjoying a relative peace and cessation of hostilities with its enemies, freelance jobs were scarce as he’d found out over the past several months. Prospects in New Camelot’s capital may not be any better.

Not looking at her, he spoke over his shoulder, "Will I have to kill anyone?"

She released a disgusted sound. "Of course not. I want you to protect me."

He spun around. Protect an Assassin? "What? You need protection?"

Her forced smile dissipated and was replaced with a frown. "Don’t look so surprised. I'm headed west. There's a feud going on. The O’Dwyers and the Sheas are at each other's throats again. If you travel with me, they won't harass me and I won't have to kill any of them."

He let his eyes run slowly over her lithe body. She was definitely fetching with those eerie green eyes and tight braids the color of ripened wheat. He tamped down his rising sap. She was a child. Children having children ought to be a crime. He looked beneath the aura of her youth and saw that she had trouble painted all over her.

Donovan snorted in disgust. "I don't think they'd try to harass you. In fact, they're more likely to take you to bed, willing or not."

The Assassin gave him a beaming smile that re-stirred his manhood. Zounds! What a beauty. In a few years, after she filled out, she could have any male she wanted with that smile. He shook his head in bemusement at the situation he found himself in. An Assassin did not need protection; despite being encumbered with child. He knew this fact from his experiences with Maureen. This lass was a mother and probably had an irate and lethal husband chasing after her that she wanted defense against.

"Exactly!” Her cry of approval reengaged his attention. “I'm glad you understand my predicament. And since I neither want to wed nor bed nor kill anyone, I'd like to hire you to teleport me to Mount Carrauntoohil.”

She wanted to go to the highest peak in New Camelot, over in the south-western quadrant of the country in County Kerry. Donovan thought a moment on the inherent danger in teleporting. “Nope. Never been there and I’m not teleporting blind to an unknown destination.” He could end up in a tree or a boulder.

She huffed. “Well, then, escort me across the disputed lands, through Cork, and into Killarney territory."

Donovan stiffened. "Killarney? Why do you want to go to Killarney?" That was where he had encountered Teague. The sorcerer-warrior had been trapped in a dragon's body by Morrigan’s powerful spell for over 800 years. Their first meeting did not go well.

"I've got family in the area."

I bet you do. A whole clan of murdering, thieving kinfolk in the Ring of Kerry. The lass gave an answer yet not an answer. She was up to something. He went on the offensive. "Do you have a husband chasing you?"

She snorted. "No."

"Lover?"

"No."

"Father? Uncle? Cousin?"

"No. No. No."

"Sheriff?"

There was a slight hesitation before she emphatically said, "No!"

Trouble. It glowed around her fine features and childlike body. His mind said, Walk away. Don't do it. Don't do it. Don't do it. Yet, she was a child carrying another in that basket.

His mouth betrayed him. The words slipped past his screaming better judgement before he could stop them. "I'll take the commission. But only because of the babe and you’re not even full grown."

The glowing smile on her face at his acceptance just about took his breath away. He'd not had a woman honestly smile at him like that in…forever.

She was quick to discuss the terms of employment. "What is your rate?"

This was his opportunity to renege on his agreement and escape her seductive talons, immature though they may be. He threw out, "Twenty silvers a fortnight. Half in advance."

A muffled snort came from a stableboy. She fisted a hand on her slender hip. Her scathing sneer snapped him out of visions of plowing his seed into her. Taking her to bed would be like assaulting a youth. He shuddered in revulsion. What had come over him? She was a mere child. Was it Donn’s influence whispering vile thoughts in his ear?

The child had a healthy set of lungs. She shrieked, "Twenty silvers? What can you do that begs that kind of outrageous rate?"

He looked with exaggerated movements to the left and right. "I'm the only sober knight around. Take it or leave it. Or wait on those three buffoons to finish their business with the ale wench. But take care." He leered down at her. “You’re a tasty morsel for a hungry man.”

Her small booted foot tapped the barn's floor. Those kissable lips twisted up into a moue as she thought over his insulting offer. Good. She was going to reject him and then he could be on his way to New Camelot and seek an honest commission and get away from the danger she presented.

"Deal. You're under contract with me for twenty silvers a fortnight. However, I don't think I'll need you for that long."

Donovan blinked. "What?" He wasn’t expecting her acceptance of the outrageous fee.

"I said, we have a deal. I'm going into the tavern for my food. I'll eat it on the trail." Bending down to retrieve her basket, she directed those fascinating green eyes to a lad and issued an authoritative, "Saddle my pony and be quick about it."

Grabbing the basket in two hands, she loped under the abating storm back to the tavern. He watched her graceful progress and wondered should he mount Sorcha and gallop away? Sure as thunder followed lightening, someone was after her. From her minute hesitation at the mention of the sheriff, he'd bet his new saddle that he was never going to see all those twenty pieces of silver.

In mere moments, she was flying back across the yard, that osier basket in one hand, a laden sack held in the other. The stableboy finished the last buckle on the bridle of a sturdy tan draft pony that bore a thick cream-colored mane and tale. She threw a coin sack at Donovan and snapped, "Here’s your advance. Aren’t you ready?"

She secured the basket to the broad rump of the pony. The babe must have been annoyed with her jostling for it shuddered in the wicker. The Assassin's head snapped around and she studied the basket. When it went quiet she released her breath. He guessed trying to ride and suckle a babe was a feat that she'd rather not do at the same time. Although, Maureen had no difficulty with multitasking.

With an ease that spoke of a well-toned body, she mounted, holding the sack in one hand. "Let's go. Now!" Digging her heels into the pony’s sides, she tossed some copper coins to the stable lads when she passed them and said, "Tell the other knights that we headed north over the Galtees to Kilkenny." Once she cleared the barn's lentil, she broke into a lope in the drizzling rain and headed west down the muddy trail.

Donovan mounted Sorcha wondering, what bug flew up her arse? And, what was that misdirection all about?


* * * * *


Laurel cast a worried glance over her shoulder looking for pursuit from the tavern’s occupants. That knight she'd returned to slumber was eventually going to awaken with a pounding head and not a copper to his name. When she’d returned to the tavern, he was coming to and had lurched for Maeve. In a blur of action, Laurel had dropped him like a stone with a quick jab to the solar plexus followed by the point of her elbow to his nape. Bending over his prostrate body, she'd cried out for the diners' ears, "He’s tripped and fallen!" Deft fingers made quick work under the cover of her cloak as she relieved the bastard of his money sack with one hand and pinched his carotid artery with the other.

Sending the proprietor for a bucket of water, she then moved on to the second sleeping knight and gave a half-hearted effort to rouse him to come to the aide of his companion. Meanwhile, she relieved him of his funds.

That left the third one, currently romping between the plump thighs of the ale wench. When he finished spewing his wild oats, he'd be down to tend to his mates. Once they discovered their funds gone, they'd be after her seeking retribution. With any luck, they’d go north over the Galtees.

Her blood hummed with excitement. She shouldn't have robbed them. But she was glad she did. They deserved to pay for their boorishness. She considered her theft as an act of community service. The knights no longer had funds to carouse with and would have to seek gainful employment. As for herself, based on the weight of the money sacks, she now she had ample funding to finish paying her surly knight after he got her closer to home.

The big man maneuvered his massive warhorse up alongside her smaller Odin. Evidently annoyed at the pace she'd set, he growled in a low baritone, "There's no way that pony can canter all the way to Carrauntoohil today."

She scratched the thick neck of her steed and thought, He'd be surprised at what her Odin could do, wouldn’t he, my pet?

Odin shook his head up and down in agreement. There aren’t many like me. You understand me. I’m glad I found you, my very own special human.

Her lips lifted at Odin’s pleasure in her company. She turned to Donovan and gave him a wide-eyed look of innocence. "We need to make as much distance as we can before another squall blows in."

His non-committal grunt preceded slowing to a sedate walk. "Go on ahead. I'll catch up to you."

She cast a hasty look over her shoulder. The trail behind her was clear. Either it took longer for the tall knight to finish his business with the wench, or the threesome had gone to the north seeking their stolen funds and her. By the time they crossed over the Galtees north to Kilkenny and realized she wasn’t to be found, she’d be well on her way to finding Morrigan’s treasure.

Easing back in the saddle, she brought Odin down to an ambling walk. Maeve must have smelled the pheasant for the basket commenced to shudder with her attempts to escape.

“Aren’t you going to feed the babe?” He looked from her to Maeve’s basket. “He’s awake. He’s going to start screaming if you don’t feed him.”

Laurel was flabbergasted. How did he know about babes? Her spirits sank at the thought that this god-like creature might be married. “Uh, yes.” She needed seclusion to feed Maeve. She didn’t want anyone to know she was harboring man’s greatest enemy. Pushing her leg into Odin’s ribs, she urged him off the road and towards the underbrush.

The knight sat up straighter and eyed her retreating form. “Hey! Where are you going? As fast as you left the barn, I thought you’d suckle him on the trail.”

She shouted over her shoulder as she maneuvered Odin into the shrubs. “Her. Maeve is a her. And I like my privacy.”

“Fine. Her.” The knight’s voice was terse.

Laurel slipped to the ground. Pulling one of the raw pheasants out of the sack, she yanked the slip knot on the basket free and held the tantalizing feast before Maeve’s golden eyes.

She whispered, “I’ve got a bird for you, my beauty.”

Maeve’s eyes glowed with liquid butter at the offering. Her voice was a low growl as she rendered the flesh from the bone. “Yum. Maeve hungry.”

Laurel held a finger before her lips. “Shhhh. We’re being accompanied by a knight. Wouldn’t want him to get suspicious, would we? He might take the gold for himself.”

The size of a juvenile cat and the old gold color of Odin’s hide, Maeve was a hatchling dragon queen. Laurel had taken her from a pile of scree in the Galtee Mountains just as she was about to hatch. They’d imprinted on each other. Maeve’s long neck extended upward. Smoke curled from the dragon’s delicate nostrils. “Our gold.”

“Yes, dear. We’re going to share it after we find it.”

When Maeve got to full size, she’d have the body of a draft horse accompanied with massive wings, and a long counterbalanced sinewy tail and neck. Two people would be able to ride her with ease. That is, if Maeve decided not to eat them. Dragons were known to be voracious devourers, letting their stomachs make their decisions for them. It wasn’t uncommon for a rogue dragon, after destroying a village with fire and talon and consuming its occupants, to be hunted down and killed.

Some dragons were known to be more trustworthy than others. Bethany Regina’s consort, Prince Darren, often flew the skies over their territory upon an albino dragon named Abraxas. Rumor had it, their son and daughter had also taken to the skies on a black dragon. She planned to train Maeve to let her fly upon her leather back. Imagine it! Soaring with the eagles! Being able to go wherever she wanted to in a fraction of the time it took to travel overland.

Unlike her knight and others in the Royal caste, she had no impressive sorcery skills. She couldn’t teleport, or make fire, or lob powerballs, or foresee the future, or control the elements. All she could do was artfully steal or kill with the quiet stealth of a castle ghost. But one day soon, she’d be able to fly. That is, if she could keep Maeve fed and satisfied. And there was nothing like gold to make a dragon queen compliant.

Donovan’s impatient shout shook her from her daydreams. “What’s taking so long?” The knight did not bother to suppress his irritation at the delay. Laurel hastily shut the basket and retied the knot.

“Coming! She’s gone back to sleep.” On a stomach full of pheasant.

After pushing through the shrubs, Laurel met his skeptical glare. His eyes rove over her figure. “You’re awful skinny. Do you even have enough milk to feed the babe?”¶If she’d been a real mother, she would have been affronted at his callous remark. Placing an incensed look upon her face, she snapped back, “Is the babe crying? No. That means she’s satisfied.”

His handsome face drew up into a puzzled look. “Aren’t you going to change her swaddling and play with her?”

Zounds. The man was a veritable plethora on baby knowledge. Where did he glean it? Was there a herd of little golden gods bounding about in some croft awaiting their pa’s return? She sneered up at him. “You know what they say about sleeping babies.”

“No. I don’t. What do they say?”

“Let them sleep.” She gave Odin an encouraging nudge with her heels. “Come along, Sir Knight. We have a long ride ahead of us.”


* * * * *


Donovan was perplexed. When he’d escorted Maureen and her babe to the home of the Assassins, their progress had been governed by Aonghus’ stomach and bowels. She was forever stopping to change or feed him, which resulted in more changing and the need for Teague to steal some woman’s laundry for swaddling. This young lass did none of that. In fact, if he hadn’t seen the basket shudder a time or two over the past several hours, he’d have sworn there was no babe.

Under clearing skies, their travel passed in silent camaraderie over roads turned to muck with her in the lead. Following a west bound cart track, the path led them into an idyllic valley that receded under the towering presence of the regal Galtees. Their destination was the meandering River Blackwater where they would make camp for the night. Shallow hulled ships carrying livestock and produce flowed upon the river highway and a major road fell in step beside it allowing for foot and cart traffic to travel in an east to west direction. It was a major artery that carried commerce through New Camelot’s southlands. Other than via magical means, it was the fastest route to their destination.

Donovan kept an alert eye on the terrain around him for potential threats. Scattered about on the rocky grassland were ebony colored milk cows and black-faced sheep. Ownership of the various herds was identified by paint splotched hides. Small rocky cairns separated family lands. Kestrels soared over the green fields and forests of Macedonian firs looking for unwary hares and mice. Scattered sprays of wildflowers among the tors perfumed the fresh air with their heady scent. All in all, the scenery was as beautiful as Danu’s eternal gardens were promised to be.

Speaking of beauty. He eased Sorcha up beside his traveling companion, “What’s your name, lass?”

She rotated her slender neck and replied, “Laurel.”

“Laurel of where?”

She waved a delicate hand, “Oh, here and there.”

His gaze narrowed in disapproval at her evasion. When he asked a direct question, he was used to receiving a direct answer. He needed information. Danu knew who or what was chasing her. He persisted. “What were you doing at the base of the Galtee Mountains?”

She turned back around so he couldn’t see her eyes. “I’m making my way back to Killarney. When I heard about the feuding, I knew I needed to solicit help in getting there.”

“I was available so you approached me.” His tone was flat.

Her eyes glittered with laughter when her head snapped around. “Yes. You.” There was more than causal interest in her voice when it wafted behind her. “Now that we have a contract, what do I call you, Sir Knight?”

“Donovan.”

Without looking at him, she threw his query back at him. “Donovan of where?”

“Baltimore.”

His home town name got a reaction. She twisted around and practically devoured him with her eyes. She knew of him! How? It certainly wasn’t from any balladeer’s praising song. Was she one of Maureen’s immediate kin?

A pink tongue came out and licked her lips. “Uh, the same Donovan of Baltimore that accompanied Teague and Maureen on their adventures?”

Now it was his turn to be amazed. Teague had taken the Assassin Murdock’s visage and name when his spirit was freed from the dragon’s body. No one but Bethany Regina and her immediate family knew of Teague’s deception when he posed as Murdock and became King of the Assassins by marrying Maureen.

Donovan employed her evasive techniques to worm more information out of her. Betraying Teague’s identity to the Assassins would endanger his and possibly Maureen’s life. “I wouldn’t call making a mad dash away from the High Sheriff and a grief driven baron an adventure. It was more like a flight to freedom. By the way, how is Maureen? It’s been close to ten years since we last met.”

A delightful laugh floated back to him. “Do not worry about Teague’s true identity, Sir Donovan. His masquerade became known when Maureen delivered his first son. The man was in such a dither, he couldn’t keep Murdock’s image in place. He kept changing from Murdock to Teague and back so often, he made us dizzy.”

His curiosity peaked, he asked, “And when Maureen’s parents saw this, they didn’t try to kill him?”

“Oh, no. By then, Teague was soundly accepted as our leader. And with the arrival of a bonny grandson, Hagen and Moira were too besotted to care. They had a new mind to mold and train in the old ways. There are three more little Teagues now. Maureen is hoping the next babe will be a girl.”

“What about Aonghus?” Donovan’s spirits sagged. It’d been ten years since his adventure with Maureen and her infant. Teague presided over an extended clan and had four sons to carry on his memory. In comparison, Donovan had a war horse, new armor, and minimal prospects of changing his current hand-to-mouth situation. He forced his voice to be upbeat. “He’s what, close to eleven years old now?”

“Aye. He and his brothers follow Teague about like little shadows.”

“So. Teague was successful in giving your people the choice of a lifestyle they wanted?”

“Oh, aye. That is why I was able to go to the Galtees.”

“Why did you want to go the Galtees? There’s nothing there but rock.”

Her smile was that of a cat with a secret. “It was my choice.”

His voice took on a somber note. “And the babe, she was your choice too?”

Laurel reached behind and protectively touched the basket. “Aye. Maeve is mine by choice.”


* * * * *


Laurel had been away from the Ring of Kerry following subtle clues in fairy songs since the cessation of frost. Eight-hundred years ago, Morrigan Le Fey had enlisted King Arthur and the Druid Merlin to help her overthrow her sister Morgan Le Fey, the reigning Queen of Camelot. Their plotting allegedly had occurred at Castle Galtee in the country’s southlands. Human and fey chose sides. Bloody war erupted. Thousands were killed. When Danu joined Morgan’s forces, the tide of battle changed against Morrigan. She fled eastward to the forested land of the elves seeking their support.

Morgan found her. In her sorrow fueled fury at what Morrigan and Arthur had done to Camelot and her people, she’d turned the elves’ homelands into desert and imprisoned them with Morrigan under the shifting sands. Then she’d called upon Danu’s magic and created another world, a New Camelot, one bereft of Arthur’s killing machines. The new world and its people were locked in the 13th century where advances in technology were magically prevented. It was, until a short time ago, when the Crystal Sorceress came from the Old World, a world deprived of magic. It was Laurel’s world.

It was fourteen years ago that another magical queen, the Elfin Queen, arrived from the Old World, the home of the original Camelot. With the help of a powerful Asarlaís sorcerer, she freed her people from the dusty enchantment. Fortunately, Morrigan still remained bound, a seething mass of evil locked away, forever plotting her escape. And because of the Crystal Sorceress’s healing powers, more magic swelled the air daily. Where once fairies were a myth, now they occupied every available flower bed. Along with the wee creatures appeared other not so harmless fey—the Red Cap and the Woodwose. Both had an appetite for fresh human flesh.


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