About the book
While running away from her demons, she put a spell on him...
Falsely accused of being a witch, Morgana Taylor is doomed to live on the run. In an attempt to escape a terrible fate at the hands of a vicious man, she finds herself under the protection of a captivating Highlander.
Having lost both his wife and unborn child, Gregor Reid, Laird of Henwen, has dedicated his life to his people. Until he meets Morgana. Mesmerized by her eloquence, modesty, and abilities, he falls passionately in love with her.
When Morgana’s huntsman finds a way to imprison her, Gregor is haunted by his failure to protect her. With his time running short, he will have to enlist every ounce of his wit and bravery: the only way to save the woman he loves from the pyre is to uncover the witch hunter’s darkest secret.
The old woman, Tily, looked down her long nose at the pretty young redhead who stood at her door. It was obvious that she was tired and dirty and a bit too thin. Despite her ragged appearance though, the woman radiated beauty. Her wild, fiery, copper hair framed her creamy complexion and emphasized blue eyes. Eyes so blue, Tily wondered if they were human or of faery folk.
Wisps were known to lurk in Scottish woods, she remembered her mother had told her so as a wee lass. But this woman was real, of that she was sure. Obviously not of Scottish blood though, which piqued the old woman’s interest even more. Tily poked her head around the woman to see what she had with her and her eyes bulged.
The woman had nothing with her but a large pack on her back, an old leather bow case, and a rather large, muscular black dog that looked more horse than canine. The beast was astonishingly quiet. She hadn’t even realized he had been there. Despite his size, he appeared rather obedient to his mistress. Another mystery.
“Ye what?” she asked again gruffly.
“I would like to stay in the cottage on the far east end of your property,” the woman replied, her accent undeniably English.
Aha! Not Scottish at all.
“And why would ye want to do that, lass?” she asked, shaking her head. “Naught much out there but field and wood. No people at all.”
“That’s what I want,” the lass replied earnestly. “I’ll pay for what is fair, and I’m tidy and quiet.”
“Ye married?” Tily McDougal asked, her Henwen brogue thick in her words.
“No,” the young woman replied sharply, her bright eyes glittering steadily back into Tily’s dark brown ones.
Well, at least there wouldn’t be a man traipsing around trying to tell her what to do, as if he could. Still, Tily preferred her privacy. It had been her late husband’s place of work, tool shed, animal rescue, and whatever else he had needed it to be. After he had passed, Tily had soon forgotten it because it was so far away from anything. Which meant that the only way the lass could have known about it was if she was travelling through the wood herself and found it. There were no clans to the east that she knew of, which told Tily the girl had been traveling alone for a long time.
She needs rest. Her heart softened, if only slightly. Tily straightened her back, and thought of what to ask next. After all, if she was going to take on the girl as a tenant then she should know her a little.
Tily realized that an unmarried woman living alone would most likely have trouble paying rent on the property. She was curious to know how the lass was going to pay her way.
“What do ye do for money, lass?” she asked, eyeing her up. “Ye got a trade proper? Not one of these hoors, are ye? I’m nae judging, but I cannae be having that on me property. I run a respectable farm and plan on keeping it that way, ye understand?”
The young woman nodded her head calmly, seemingly not at all affected by Tily’s brashness.
“I make herbal medicines and I help people,” the redhead explained.
“I do have enough coin for now to cover the months I need in advance to get my garden started, madam, and the wood by the cottage is thick with all the necessities to start on simple remedies immediately. When my crops are ready, I’ll harvest and produce my stronger medicines, and then I’ll sell them to make my earnings.”
Well, certainly not what a hoor would do.
“Medicines ye say?” Tily asked, still contemplating. She thought of her wrists, and how they ached constantly when she worked. And her back too. After only a couple of hours in the field it would hurt so bad that she’d have to stop for several hours and rest. Perhaps having a gifted healer living on her property wouldn’t be so bad after all.
“Ye a doctor?”
For the first time the young woman smiled, a little flit of a thing that passed just for a second over her full lips before they set into a calm line again.
“Nowhere near as impressive as that, I’m afraid,” she replied softly, “I’m good with herbs, but I can’t set a bone, or perform a surgery. I have been getting better at my diagnoses though.”
Tily grunted. “Eh? What’s that be?”
In a patient voice the woman explained that she was able to listen to people’s ailments and help them determine what herbs they needed for treatment. Tily found her tale fascinating, if not odd. Men were doctors. Not women. Although she technically wasn’t a doctor.
As she contemplated the woman’s offer, Tily’s eyes looked over her, and lingered on her chest. Around her neck, just above her breasts rested an intricately-carved iron cross that hung on a string of leather cord.
There were tales of witches and warlocks roaming outside the Irish Isles and coming into Scotland. But the cross had told her all she needed to know about the young woman’s faith. It was common knowledge that no witch could stand the touch of iron or the holy symbol.
Continuing her inspection of the lass, Tily took in her simple maroon dress with a scooped bodice and full sleeves made of thick, sturdy fabric. It was a bit dirty, but all the tears had been patched up. Around her waist she wore a black sash with several satchels attached to it and around her shoulders was a dark-brown cape lined with matching fur.
It was plain to see that the lass was not high born by any case. Still, Tily wouldn’t go as far to think that she was a mere peasant either. There was too much intelligence in her eyes. The magnetism of the woman continued.
Tily looked up at the sky and noticed that it was getting rather dark and knew she needed to make a decision soon. Not just for the lass’ sake, but her own. She had supper over the fire and she was tired from a long day’s work. And if she was being honest with herself, she would be daft not take a chance on the lass.
She could use the extra coin now that Waryn was gone, and the woman, though single, seemed to be very mature for her age. Also if the lass was as good with herbs as she claimed to be, then perhaps she might finally find a remedy for her long-ailing back pain and swollen wrists. Her reasons to not rent out the cottage to her were running out.
Tily looked over the large black dog once more. He was sitting so still by the lass’ side that for a moment he appeared to be no more than a statue. His eyes were bright yellow, and they stared steadily into her soul, making her slightly uncomfortable.
“That beasty of yers going to bite me?” she asked.
This time the woman’s smile stayed. “Only if you try to bite me first,” she replied.
Tily’s huff of a chuckle surprised even herself, and she knew then she’d let the lass stay.
“Aye, fine,” she sighed, nodding her head toward the door. “But ye can move out to the cottage tomorrow when the light be out. For now, ye come in and get yerself a wash and a bowl of me rabbit stew. Yer skin and bones and in need of a proper meal.” She looked back over her shoulder at the dog again and grunted.
“He can come in too, but if he makes a mess on me floor he’ll be what’s in the stew tomorrow, alright?”
“Yes, mum,” Morgana replied, trying to hide her smile.
“Here we say ‘aye’, lass,” Tily called from over her shoulder.
Tily shut the door behind them all and crossed the wide living space to get to the kitchen hearth. Above a steady fire sat a black cauldron nearly halfway full of simmering stew.
“Warshin’ bowls to the left. Give yer hands and face a scrub and tell me yer name lass,” Tily instructed, adding a smidge of salt to the stew. After that she lifted the stone lid of the crock that sat in the embers, revealing a perfectly-browned loaf of bread. Behind her, she heard the lass’ stomach growl loudly. No doubt it had been days since she’d eaten.
“My name is Morgana.”
Although the old woman, or Tily, as she had been told to call her, was gruff at first, she had warmed to Morgana quickly after inviting her in. She was thankful for her generosity, and her open-mindedness, and answered what questions she felt comfortable with.
Tily had stopped asking about where she had previously been quite early, which Morgana was grateful for, and they had kept the talk mostly on farming and making medicines. By the end of dinner, they had come to a very agreeable deal. Morgana would take over the cottage and two fields, and in return she would pay Tily the sum they had agreed upon, and then work off the rest helping with the old woman’s crops.
After dinner, she helped tidy up the kitchen while Tily poked fun at her accent and attempted to teach her the harsh Scottish brogue of the village. Henwen, Tily had called it. A small village, barely bigger than a clan, but was looked over by a laird of the Royal Scottish court.
Tily had said that the nobles were kind people, not like the blue-blooded English lords Morgana was used to. She still wasn’t sure if she believed her. After all it was her experience that royals wanted her burned at the stake.
Now, hours later Morgana knew she should have been deep in slumber on her sleeping mat. Instead she rolled onto her back, wide awake, and couldn’t help but think of how badly she wanted a bath, and a clean dress.
Her body had been aching for weeks from the long journey from Southern England, and now on top of that her stomach ached from eating too much. It had been her first solid meal in a long time, and she should have eaten slower.
Trying to take her mind off of it all, she reached down and absently scratched at Zeus’ ears. He huffed in his sleep, and thrust his massive head further under Morgana’s nails. She smiled down at him affectionately, recalling how they had met. Like her, he had been abandoned in youth and left to fend for himself.
She had found him shortly after her eighteenth birthday, right after she had been chased from her first village. It was where she had found safety and maternal love from her mother’s sister, her Aunt Gwenivere. They had been living in what Morgana had thought was peace with the nearest villagers. Then one day they came in droves, with Fordun leading them to their front door, demanding that she be burned. Her beloved aunt had put herself between Morgana and the mob, and had lost her life in doing so.
Witnessing her aunt’s death had filled her with both heartache and horror, both had fueled her to run as fast as she could. She had run until her chest was on fire and her legs trembled from overuse. Then as she approached a ravine, she lost her footing, and had landed rather unpleasantly in a cave at the bottom. Sadly, not before crashing through a nasty thicket of briars that covered her face and arms with scratches.
Yet despite the pain, her tumble had turned out to be both of their saving graces. Inside she’d found the smallest black pup she’d ever seen, cold and limp. From the droppings in the cave, she could tell that the mother and the rest of the pups had moved on to a new home not too long ago. The wee runt of the litter just hadn’t been able to make it.
At first she was going to just bury the poor thing, but as she had scooped it up, the sounds of villagers came echoing through the ravine, and she had pressed it instinctively to her chest. The cave had been so well hidden by the thickets of briars that no one had even noticed the entrance, and they went right past her.
Still for minutes after she sat huddled in the back of the cave, her knees and pup drawn close her in utter fear. Silent tears trickled down her cheeks as she waited to be caught. It wasn’t until she heard the softest whimper did she uncurl her body and, to her utter surprise, found the pup had come back to life.
Overcome with the joy of not being alone, she pressed it to her cheek and thanked it for returning. Finding him alive had eased her fear enough to help her realize that the hunters had come and gone without even detecting her. Since then he had stayed protectively by her side. She had named him Zeus, the God of Thunder. He was one of her favorite gods from her aunt’s lessons in history.
Through the years, he had gathered quite a few scars protecting her and himself from Sir Nigel Fordun and his evil band of followers, but Zeus had never once left her side. In many ways, Morgana was just as much his pet as he was hers.
Each village they had traveled to had started out so well. They would arrive, treat ailments, and stay out of everyone’s way. But no matter how hard they had tried to blend in or help, they always had been chased away by small minds the moment the witch-hunter pointed his finger at her.
Like her father, she was simply good with herbs, with healing. But all people wanted to see was a witch and her familiar. It was during those times she actually wished she was a witch. If she was, perhaps she could have the power to pull stupidity from people’s brains.
Pulling her out of her thoughts, Zeus suddenly snorted, and jumped out of his sleep. His heavy paws clacked toward the door, then he turned to her and waited for her to join. When she didn’t move fast enough, he whimpered.
Stifling a laugh, Morgana wrapped her cloak around her, shouldered her bow and arrows, and went to the door. On her way out she stopped by the fireplace and grabbed the lantern that sat on the hearth to light it.
“Too much stew?” she teased, opening the door up for him. Zeus let out a small growl of annoyance before he darted outside to relieve himself.
In Tily’s front yard, Morgana trailed slowly behind as Zeus wandered away from the house and out into the first of many fields that stood between the main house and the cottage at the edge of the wood.
Above them the sky was slowly turning from midnight blue to royal purple, letting Morgana know that dawn would be approaching within the next hour or so. The new moon could be seen in the otherwise clear sky, offering her a sliver of hope and light for the new beginning.
Maybe it’s a sign. New cottage, new village, new moon.
She wanted it so much to be true. She was so unbelievably tired of running, of hiding. All she wanted to do, all she ever wanted to do, was to simple exist in harmony with the rest of the world. Thanks to Fordun though, it would never happen.
“Zeus, come,” she sighed, patting her side. Now feeling overwhelmed, she just wanted to return to her sleeping mat and hide under her blanket.
“Come on, boy,” she whispered once more. “It’s time to go back to bed.”
In response, Zeus barked playfully and took off through the fields. At first Morgana panicked. He had never done such a thing like that before. Then she realized something. They were finally away from England, away from the witch-hunters and the small-minded English townsfolk. Zeus, sensing the freedom, wanted to run. And despite it being so late, Morgana realized she wanted him to as well.
“Go on then,” she sighed, when he circled back. “Just don’t go too far, you hear?”
A cool breeze pushed the grassy fields toward her, their husk-brown leaves moving like an ocean as she slowly trailed behind him. She watched, happy, as he led her through them and then toward the wood. Soon the weather would warm and all that was brown would be consumed with new, virile green. It would be time to plant, to renew. Perhaps she could renew her life here, in Henwen.
Without light, Morgana was having trouble keeping track of Zeus. The jet black of his coat blended in perfectly with the night, and soon she was following nothing but the sound of his paw steps. She was just starting to think they should turn back when Zeus veered sharply, and led them to a clearing.
At the edge of the wood he stopped suddenly and let out a low growl. Immediately Morgana ducked behind a tree as she knocked an arrow and took aim. Zeus followed silently behind, knowing all too well what to do.
In England, rumor ran amok about the dangers of Scotland. Tales of wild beasts and even wilder people had been the reason she had stayed in her crazed country so long. It wasn’t until her last run-in with the witch-hunters that she realized that there was nothing more dangerous than a man with a zeal for violence by accusing her of witchcraft. Whatever it was Zeus had just found, she’d take it over Fordun the Murderer any day.
Poised for action, Morgana watched as a horse and rider appeared to stride past her not ten feet away. They weren’t moving fast at all. In fact, they were walking so slow that could have caught up to them and walked behind them easily. She had to admit, she was quite curious.
Who would be out here at this time of night? Well, save for her, of course, who couldn’t sleep.
Deciding to follow him, she motioned for Zeus to remain quiet, and then the two began to move forward, keeping to the trees for cover. The rider was definitely a man; tall and well-built, with a thick head of hair. The way he carried himself in his saddle implied that he was of some importance. A castle guard looking for thieves, perhaps? But where was his armor?
Perhaps he is a thief. They rarely traveled alone.
More curious than ever now, Morgana and Zeus followed the rider until he came to another clearing. They watched from the tree line as the man dismounted from his horse and walked to what looked like a very tiny fenced-in plot of land. Quickly she realized it was a graveyard, and out of respect, hid further in the trees.
God forgive me. Did I just spy on a priest?
“Good morn, me loves,” the stranger spoke.
Although a good twenty or more paces away, Morgana heard the soft words echo perfectly through the silent night. The man’s voice was deep, gravelly. And full of heartache. The sound of it made her own heart start to throb in an all-too-familiar pain, and she took a step back.
It seems that loss is something the people of Henwen knew well too.
For a moment, just a moment, she thought of her parents. She missed them terribly. What she wouldn’t give to go back and see them again, hug them again. And warn them.
Time slipped by silently as she watched him with an odd fascination. It wasn’t until the sky began to turn a faint shade of pink that she realized how long she and Zeus had been gone. Though she was still curious about the mystery rider, she didn’t want to be caught watching him. Softly, she knelt down to caress Zeus’ shoulder, and the two began to walk back to Tily’s.
As they walked, Morgana recalled watching the rising light slowly start to illuminate the man’s face. He had dark, shoulder-length hair, a clean jaw, and a stern nose. Chiseled lips had whispered prayers to the dead, and eyes had stayed closed, not revealing colors, or emotions. She wanted to go back then, if only to look into those eyes.
Like clockwork, he could feel her touch. It rested on his shoulder at the same time every morning. Isabel’s soft, gentle fingers prodding his muscles, imploring him to wake and kiss her like he had every morning for five years. He’d roll over, see her angelic face shrouded among her pale blonde curls smiling, and he’d revel in the way their lips met.
Except now, Isabel wasn’t really there. Hadn’t been for three years. Their boy Ian, a wee bairn, wasn’t there either. A familiar ache filled Gregor’s heart as his evergreen eyes slowly opened to the purple dusky morning. No matter how much time had passed, he still felt them in that small moment between slumber and waking.
Gregor turned onto his back, and stared up at the large expanse of canopy. He had no idea why this time was the magic time, but he could never sleep past it. For months he had tried, doing and taking everything the alchemists had told him to, so that he could regain his sleep. No matter what he tried though, nothing would work for him.
Whether he liked it or not, he was awake and fully alert. His bed, large and cold, was no comfort to him. Unable to stay in it a moment longer, he pulled back the furs and left the bed. Gregor dressed without the light of a candle, knowing where his worn tan breeches and loose long-sleeved white shirt were simply by how high the piles of clutter were.
Servants were allowed to bring him food and drink, but no one dared attempt to clean up the chambers he’d once shared with the late Lady of Henwen, Isabel Reid. The last time someone had attempted to do so, he had lost his temper horridly and had terrified the young lass that was only trying to do her job.
Outside his chambers he looked down the dimly-lit hallways. Even servants weren’t up yet, nor did he want them to be. It was an ungodly time to be awake, just before morn. It was when most men got their deepest sleep, when they regained their sanity. It was a blessing he missed tremendously.
Heading toward the back stairs, he took the servants halls to leave the castle and headed for the stables. Hermes neighed to him as he came through the doors, ready as always to run with his master. The steed was the only one in the stables that wasn’t a sturdy Highland Pony or a Clydesdale giant. A gift from Spain, it was his prized possession, a grey stallion born from one of the finest Andalusia lines.
Standing at sixteen hands high, he was tall even for his breed. Height meant nothing though when it came to the horse’s speed. The beast could cover fields twice as fast as any native breed and it was afraid of nothing, not even the fierce Scottish bears and other predators.
“Ay, there boy,” Gregor soothed, walking into the stallion’s stall. Hermes nickered in reply, and lowered his muzzle to his master’s hand where a wealth of oats waited for him.
“Ready to run, aye?”
In moments they were racing out of the stables and through the gates of the castle grounds. Hermes, ready as always for their morning run, charged full speed ahead into the forest and along their usual path.
The morning air rushed by him as they rode, numbing his body but softening his usual early-morning anger. Although at times it was difficult, he did his best to never visit Isabel and Ian when he was angry. To others it might have seemed ludicrous to worry about the feelings of the dead, but he did.
Above them, the sky was beginning to turn from dark blue to a light purple, signaling the arrival of a new day. For a long time, Gregor had hopes that the beautiful purple light would bring him some peace. That he’d wake up and see its beautiful hue and somehow feel ready to move on. But that time had passed, and he had accepted his life as a widower. Now it was simply a sign that it was time to visit the graves of his son and wife.
The journey out to the graveyard was a long one. When he walked it took him nearly two hours, but on Hermes it took just three quarters of an hour. Although most would find it an inconvenience, Gregor appreciated the distance between the castle and the graveyard. It gave him the space to prepare.
The other nobles on the castle grounds had been in an uproar when he had informed them that Isabel and Ian wouldn’t be buried in the royal tombs. They had demanded that they be put there for the sake of tradition, but he knew his beloved better. She may have married a royal but she had been a clanswoman through and through. She and their son needed to be put to rest in the wild, where they could be free.
It was only when the wrought-iron fences came into view that Hermes started to slow down. The steed knew the path well now, as well as what his master wanted. When Gregor hopped down from his saddle, Hermes simply lowered his head to the grass and began to graze without being staked down.
Gregor had marked Isabel and Ian’s graves with a hand-carved cross and a smoothed, rounded granite stone he had carved their names into. The wrought-iron fences had been put up next, as well as the small pathway. To complete the place of rest, he’d sown Isabel’s favorite plant, the cuckooflower beside her headstone, so that she was surrounded by comfort. It was perfect place for her and their boy to rest.
“Good morn, me loves,” he said aloud, his Scottish brogue husky and thick. He kissed the top of the cross, and then knelt down to kiss the stone before he bowed his head and began to pray.
God was an illusion to him by now, a fallacy for those that hadn’t lost something dear yet. Still, despite his lack of faith, he prayed over their graves every morning, no matter the weather. It was the only time in the day that he truly felt he was talking with them again.
Gregor didn’t stop praying until the orange sun had turned a glimmering gold and the purple sky had burned into a bright pink. Birds began to sing in the brush, and the world around him was awake once more. Which meant that duty called. The blood right of the village’s Laird waited for no one, and he had people to govern.
“Until tomorrow, me loves,” he whispered, kissing the cross goodbye.
At a much slower pace, Gregor began to guide Hermes back to the castle. As he looked throughout the wilder scenery of his land, he was reminded of the death of his father’s dear friend, Waryn. The two men had fought many wars in the Highlands together, but no matter how hard Gregor’s father had tried to convince them, Waryn and his wife Tily had always refused the invitation to live in the castle with their family.
When Waryn had first passed, shortly after his own father, Gregor had pleaded with Tily once more to move into the castle. She was older now, and with no one to tend their farm or protect her, he had feared she’d be victim to the wild animals or worse, thieves.
Yet despite the possible danger she had stayed, and done the best she could on her own. With her stubborn attitude, she had chased off anyone or anything that even so much as breathed in her direction. Even without Waryn she still produced plenty of crops in her fields, which he and the entire village were quite grateful for.
Gregor realized that it had been weeks since he had visited to check up on her. Of course, Tily always pretended to be annoyed when he showed up. She’d curse at him, tell him she was fine and tell him to look after the rest of the village. He never would though, and they always ended up laughing and having a good visit. Perhaps it was time for another. Using his strong, muscular thighs, Gregor steered Hermes toward Tily’s farm and further into the forest.
The morning chill was burning off earlier by the hour, and by the time he reached the edge of her property, his simple white shirt with leather lacing up his chest was moist with sweat. Between his thighs, he could feel Hermes’ flanks radiating heat and knew the beast needed a drink. In fact, he could use one too.
Knowing there was a brook that ran just within Tily’s property line, he shifted direction slightly so he could come in from the East. When they were nearly there he slowed Hermes down and hopped off his back, walking him the rest of the way toward the fresh water.
As soon as they arrived at the brook, beast and man dropped to their knees, and drank greedily. The cool water was a welcome reprieve, and Gregor took his time quenching his thirst. When he had his fill, he lifted his head and scooped a handful of the cool water and slid it through his hair, gliding over his scalp, down his neck, and over the sweating muscles of his back.
As he lifted his head, he looked toward the old cottage that stood just a few hundred yards away from the brook. No one had lived in it in years, even way before Waryn died. From what he recalled, the old man used it more as a shed and hunting lodge than an actual home.
But this morning a young woman with fiery curls down to her waist stood on the old thatched porch covered in wisteria vines. They would be full of white and purple blooms in the coming months, but for now they were still the gnarled brown vines of winter. The woman was wearing a maroon dress, providing a brilliant burst of color amid the dreary browns and grays; her hair like a flame of life in the early morning light.
Even from the distance he could see she was a woman of great beauty. Delicate cheekbones emphasized a button nose and almond shaped eyes. Her neck, long and graceful, gave way to an ample bosom that tapered down into a thin waist. Too thin, perhaps, but there was strength in her form.
In her arms she carried a bundle, and by her side stood what looked like a black pony with fangs. Gregor had never seen a dog that looked quite like that one before. It was as big as an Irish Wolfhound, but sleek and shiny as a hunting hound. It was a beautiful animal, though slightly terrifying at first glance.
What in God’s name is she doing?
As he watched the woman move things out of the cottage, he realized he had a vantage point. He had seen them, but he was certain they hadn’t seen him. Deciding to go investigate, he quietly staked down Hermes’ reins and made his way toward the cottage.
He made it about twenty yards closer before the great black beast let out a deadly growl, and bared his fangs in his direction. Immediately the woman stopped in her tracks, and turned to look at him. The crate in her arms dropped and in its place suddenly was a hand-carved bow tipped in gold, and a rather sharp arrow aimed directly at his chest.
“Don’t you take another step toward me, man!” she yelled, her accent undeniably English. Instant fury rolled off of her in waves so potent Gregor could feel it even from where he was.
“If my arrow doesn’t get you Zeus will, so I suggest you do as I say.”
Her voice sent a shiver down his spine. Yes, she was threatening to shoot him through the heart, but still. He’d never heard anything like it. It was soft, yet commanding. Refined, yet sensual and wild. It stirred something inside of him, something he had forgotten he could feel. However, now wasn’t the time for such realizations. Not with an arrow aimed at his chest.
“Easy there, lass!” he yelled, holding up his hands. Despite the dangerous situation he had the urge to laugh at her, but judging by how well she was holding her bow, he could tell that her aim would be true to its target if he made her mad. Instead, he rose up to the balls of his feet, ready to dive out of the way if she let the arrow loose.
“That’s not yer property to be taken there,” he called out, his eyes locked on hers. “I daenae ken what be yer plight, but it doesn’t give ye rights to take things that aren’t yours.”
“I’m not taking a thing,” she shot back, tightening her stance. “This is my house and I live here.”
For a second Gregor looked at her, genuinely puzzled. Then the laugh he had been holding back let loose, and he shook his head. Tily wouldn’t let anyone on her property, she liked her privacy too much.
“Now I ken for a fact that cannae be true, lass, for I ken the woman that owns this cottage and if she were here right now, ye’d be more afraid of her than me right now!”
A growl from the giant beast at her side drew his gaze away from her. The thing had taken on a predatory stance, with his eyes locked on Gregor. In the back of his mind, he tried to figure his chances on getting to Hermes without getting a bite to the arse. It didn’t look good.
“I have to say, I’ve nae kent a thief to ken Greek Gods,” he scoffed, referring to Zeus. “I’m impressed.”
“I told you I’m not a thief!” the woman yelled, her beautiful cheeks flushing red with anger. “Tily has granted me leave to move in and I have every right to be here!”
Genuinely flustered, Gregor was trying to figure out what was going on when he heard Tily’s familiar voice.
“Morgana? Morgana what be going on here…oh?”
From the other side of the porch Tily came into view. The old woman didn’t look afraid at all of the black beast or the fiery-haired armed woman, but rather well at ease with them. In fact, she was looking at Gregor as if he had been the unwelcome one. He began to wonder if perhaps he had made a mistake after all.
“Laird Henwen!” Tily called, slapping the young lass on the shoulder.
“Put that thing down lass,” she hissed in a lower tone. “This be the Laird of Henwen yer threatening!”
“Land’s sake, Laird Henwen!” Tily turned to Gregor, put her fists on her hips, and began to scold him. “What ye be doin’ out here? Ye usually come from the south. Not that ye should be coming at all, mind ye. I told ye over and over again I am just fine!”
Gregor’s lips twitched in amusement as the woman slowly lowered her bow, her eyes trained on him the entire time. There was a familiarity in her gaze, as if she knew him. Surely, they hadn’t met though. He would never dare to forget such a woman. Strong, beautiful, daring. No, he definitely had not met her yet.
“I’ll get to ye in a moment, old woman,” he responded playfully. Then he turned his gaze to the young woman.
“Let’s start this conversation over, aye?” he suggested, lowering his arms. He waited until he saw her mass of fiery curls nod in consent. Only when he was sure the two women were comfortable with his approach did he finish crossing the distance between them and the porch.
As he got closer, he was able to make out more of the woman’s stunning features. Her eyes were the clearest blue he’d even seen; the color of sky on a hot summer day. She stood tall and proud, her chin raised rather haughtily so that her adorable button nose was almost upturned. Her full lips, bowed like her weapon, were a startling dusky rose that contrasted stunningly with her milky-white skin.
To his surprise, he felt his fingers twitch. He wanted to caress that cheek, he realized, just so he could discover if that hard exterior was actually silken to the touch. His eyes wandered back up to hers again, and this time her gaze caught him like a stag in goddess Diana’s sights.
Something deep inside his soul stirred awake as he stared into her eyes. Something he’d never quite felt before. Whatever it was though, he was both drawn to and afraid of it. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to pull the woman into his arms, or turn on his heel and run fast away from her.
“I believe I owe ye an apology, lass,” he said calmly, choosing to do neither. He held his hand out to her and waited patiently.
The woman studied him coolly before finally deciding to accept his hand.
“Do you always accuse newcomers of thievery before you welcome them?” she asked sardonically. “Or am I just lucky today?”
Her fingers slid into his palm softly, tracing sparks along his flesh and sending heat to his groin. A deep chuckle rose from his chest at her wit, and he swept a chaste kiss over her knuckles.
“A Scottish tradition,” he quipped back, smiling at her. “Welcome. Me name is Gregor Reid. I’m the Laird of Henwen and protector of its lands. I offer ye me apologies and the warmest of welcomes to Scotland. I assure ye, we’re nae as bad as ye English make us out to be.”
With a wink, he bowed at the waist, and watched in amusement as a blush bloomed in her cheeks. The woman looked at him rather peculiarly again, as if she wasn’t sure if she knew him or not. When she didn’t respond, Tily elbowed her in the ribs, making her flinch and grant him a smile.
“My name is Morgana, Laird Henwen,” she offered at last, curtsying in full English fashion. There was more warmth in her voice this time, and Gregor noticed that something akin to playfulness in her gaze when looked back up at him.
“I appreciate your apologies and extend mine,” she continued. I… men make me a little nervous, you see. Thank you for the welcome. I promise I won’t be any trouble.”
Gregor raised an intrigued eyebrow.
I wouldn’t mind a little trouble from ye.
Tily, who seemed to like the way the two were talking, stepped in to be part of the conversation.
“She’ll be movin’ in here and taking over the bare fields,” Tily explained proudly. “Blessed lass. She’ll be helping look after the place too, so ye won’t have to worry about me so much.”
Gregor had to force himself to turn from Morgana to look down at the dear old woman and smiled. She was looking frailer than ever, now that Waryn was gone. But there was a light back in her eyes, and her wildling attitude was saltier than ever. Gregor had a feeling it had to do with Morgana.
“I only want me best lass safe,” he replied, bending down to give Tily a warm hug. She gave him a quick squeeze, then muttered about proprieties before pushing his arms away from her. He chuckled as pulled away, and looked back at Morgana.
“I suppose I owe ye a thank ye now too,” he told her. “I’m glad she’ll have some company out here now. She shouldnae be out here by herself.”
“Don’t talk about me like I’m a bairn,” Tily scolded, giving him a dirty look.
Gregor opened his mouth to speak, but closed it after letting out a sigh. There was no convincing the woman that she was too old or too frail for anything. But that’s what he loved about her. Tough as nails, Tily was. Which was probably why the two women got along well. From his perspective, Morgana seemed more than capable of handling herself.
For a few moments the tension on the porch eased, and the three fell into pleasant conversation. Morgana told him about her gift with herbs and her plans for the fields. At hearing her plans Gregor felt a sense of relief. His village had gone without a healer for too long.
As she relaxed, so did the giant beast. At one time, the thing even came close enough to sniff his hand. Slowly he reached out, letting the animal inspect him, and knew it was safe to pet him when he pressed the top of his head into Gregor’s palm. He was able to give the boy a good stroke behind the ears before the beast decided he’d had enough, and turned away from him to go to his mistress’ side.
Morgana seemed grateful when he told her how to get to the village market and where the main river was, and he had laughed heartily when she told him of her first meeting with Tily. All was going well until he asked where she came from.
The moment he did that Morgana closed herself off from him completely, even her body language changed. The dog, Zeus, sensed it and the hackles went up on his neck. The young woman’s lips drew into a thin line, and she refused to answer. This time Tily didn’t elbow her for her silence.
Instead, she appeared suddenly very interested in something inside the cottage, and turned away to go back in. Gregor didn’t know why, but suddenly he felt rather intimidated being there with Morgana alone.
Whatever her secret was, she and Tily were obviously going to keep it together. Gregor looked back at Morgana and tried to think of ways to save the conversation. However, it was clear from Morgana’s expression that she wasn’t interested in continuing it any further.
In the distance Toby, the sheep farmer’s son, suddenly sounded his horn as he did every morning. The sound bugled over the terrain, breaking the tension that had mounted on the tiny cottage’s porch. Gregor found it the perfect time to leave the exciting, if not confusing conversation, and took a step back.
“Well, my dear lady,” he announced, clearing his throat. “I’ve taken up enough of yer time. Ye’ve got a long day ahead of ye getting this place cleaned out, and I’ve got matters to deal with at the castle.” He turned to leave, then a thought struck him.
“Before I go,” he added, turning back to her once more. “If ye need any help, come into the village, aye? I can have a guard or two out here immediately to help ye.”
To his surprise the young woman laughed, and crossed her arms over her chest haughtily.
“That’s very generous of you, Laird Henwen,” she replied, smiling. “But I think you underestimate how strong Tily and I are.”
“I’ve nay doubt about that,” he murmured.
Gregor went down the steps and started to head toward Hermes. He made it halfway before he turned around and took a few steps back. Although he had already offered his protection, something told him to repeat it.
“In all seriousness,” he called out, his tone dropping deeper. “If ye have any problems, ye come to me, understand? This land and all those that live on it are under me protection. That includes ye, lassie.”
Morgana’s eyebrow shot up and she opened her mouth to speak. He waited for her sarcastic reply, but instead was given a curtsy.
Morgana of England, Gregor mused, pulling himself back into his saddle. Who are ye?
Cliff’s Point, England
Nigel Fordun glared angrily down at the three young women on their knees. Each had been pulled from their beds in the middle of the night by his trusted guard and brought to him to pay for the crimes against God and his children.
The young women, all fair, and of good stock, claimed their innocence through tear-stained cheeks and white-knuckled prayers. But Nigel Fordun, the Witch-Hunter, knew better. They all looked so pure, so innocent. But he knew better. In their souls they were dirty, just like their leader. She may have escaped, but he had at least found her accomplices.
At least the village would have someone to pay for their crimes.
“My dear ladies,” he said sweetly, taking the chin of the blonde furthest to the left into his gloved palm. Immediately they all hushed their whimpers and stared up at him in fear. Their mouths had been gagged and their hands had been tied behind their back.
Just the way they should be.
“This can all stop,” he told them, stroking the blonde’s cheek with his gloved finger.
“All you have to do is just tell me where she went. Then I’ll let you go. You can return to your families, ask forgiveness, and live better, more Christian lives.”
The calm in his tone would have a stranger thinking that this was not a man of violence. In fact on the outside, Fordun appeared to be shaped from the very hands of God himself. His dark brown eyes radiated warmth, and his sculpted jaw even made him handsome.
Though not a tall man, he had a muscular build that impressed most people. Of course, with his armor engraved with the holy cross on the chest and wings etched into the back, he looked ready to save any soul from the deepest depths of hell. If his armor or his good looks didn’t impress people, then his skill at finding and hanging witches always would.
Tired of getting nowhere and ready for them to start talking, Fordun ripped the gag away from the blonde woman’s mouth, making her cry out and coil away from him.
“I won’t ask you again, child,” he promised, his tone harsh now. “Morgana the witch and her demon wolf. Where did they run off to, hmm?”
“I swear,” the woman pleaded, her words coming out rushed. “We arrived in the morning like we always did and she just wasn’t there. None of her belongings were missing except for her dog and bow, my lord, I swear it!”
The young blonde threw herself down at his feet and sobbed for his forgiveness, utterly terrified for what Fordun might do to her. She swore to him over and over again that she wasn’t lying, but he refused to believe her.
“I beg you believe me, Sir,” she pleaded, sobbing. “We know nothin’! We thought she was a good, kind woman. She never hurt a soul. She helped everyone!”
“Stupid chit!” Fordun growled, pushing the woman savagely backwards. “You have no idea what she is.”
With her hands tied she lost her balance and fell back hard, hitting her head and causing her to cry out. Seeing their friend in so much pain, the other two women’s sobs also rose, and soon the room was filled with terror-filled whimpers.
Annoyed at the lack of progress, Fordun pressed his hands to his ears tightly and demanded them to be silent. Their cries stopped immediately, and they looked at him in pure horror. Losing his patience, he strode over to the girl that had fallen and yanked her back up to her knees harshly.
Twelve years. Twelve years he had been chasing the little witch. He should have been more careful with her after burning her parents. It had been the mistake of his life to let her live long enough to watch them die. He had gotten too cocky, too full of himself to think the little one was too young to work her magics.
He had taken his time to watch Samuel and his wife Victoria burn, taking pleasure in seeing them turn to ash. In fact, he had been so wrapped in the joy of catching his long-time target that he had brushed off his little girl as if she were no more than an annoying bird that kept chirping.
So wrapped up in watching the flames were he that he hadn’t even noticed that the chirping had stopped. When he had gone to her cage to bring her to the pyre, he had found naught but an empty cage with a broken lock. Somehow, she had vanished into the wood as if she were Fay, and he had never been able to catch her again.
Through the years he had been close time and time again to finally recapturing her, but his continued failure was as reliable as the change of seasons. It angered him deeply, and to sate his hunger for violence he had set the English countryside on fire executing witches. Some had been real, nearly as powerful as he was. Others didn’t have a drop of magic in them at all, but were simply too close in appearance to Morgana to not be tried for her sins.
Sometimes, in the earliest of mornings when sleep would elude him, he would weigh his life count, and feel a shred of guilt for the possible innocent blood he had spilt. But then not long after he would remember that God would sort them out and send them to their rightful place. Or at least that’s what he told his men if any questioned him.
Fordun looked over at the girls, tired and disgusted with them. He could torture them some more if he wanted to, really push them until they gave him something, but he knew he didn’t have to. They were telling the truth, even if he wished they weren’t.
Still, they did aid a witch, which was, to his pleasure, a criminal offense. And after all, he did so love to punish the guilty. He turned back to the young women once more, a twisted smile on his face. Their eyes widened as he moved toward them, and he drank in their fear like the finest wine.
Hours later, Fordun stared down at the mess he had made. As he had predicted, he’d gotten no new information, and after the second hour or so he had gotten tired of playing with them. At first it had filled him with the usual pleasure. But now, as it had been with every prisoner lately, he had no drive left in him.
Blood was splattered all across the dirt floor from the symbols he had carved between their thighs, but it brought him no joy. Neither had any of the other little cruelties that he had pressed upon them. Even when their light had faded from his eyes and he had absorbed their essence, he had felt nothing.
How could he?
They weren’t Morgana. None of them were, not even the ones that looked like her. Getting up from his chair, Fordun walked back over to the bodies and began his ritual. That was the trick about staying the most powerful warlock in the land. You had to make sure that there was no one to take your place.
Years ago when he was just a boy, Fordun had discovered that there was something different about him. God had gifted him with abilities very few had known; the ability to manipulate and hurt living things to derive peace. For years he had disguised his talent from everyone, acting as kind and willing to help as possible.
But then, one day, he met Althea. She had been a beautiful young woman who lived alone with her two aunts. He had been dissecting a crow, taking the organs out and studying them when she had discovered him near their cottage. The silly woman had thought he was a poor lost boy killing a bird for food.
She had been his first kill. As she died, something very odd happened to him. His entire body warmed up, his fingers tingled, and every single one of his senses sang with sensitivity. It was as if her life force had absorbed into him, making him stronger. He had realized then that that was what he was made for.
For a while, after that he had killed at random and oftentimes sloppily. He had done it so indiscreetly that it wasn’t long before he had gotten caught. Fordun had always thought that if caught he would lose his life for his dirty secret, but the man who had found him had celebrated him as if he’d just completed a work of art.
Damien had introduced himself as a powerful practitioner of black magic, and told Fordun of his true potential. Under his wing, he had mastered the dark arts, as well as learned how to better hide his habits in the broad light of day.
Human kills were delicious at first, but it wasn’t until he claimed his first witch under Damien’s tutelage that he understood his true cravings. Taking a human life was far easier, but witches quenched his thirst longer.
Because he fed off other witches and had been under the guise of an innocent boy, it had been too easy for him to convince the church that he was of Godly ways. With the protection of the cross, he was given a full pass to hunt and feed as often as he wanted, and he had relished in that power.
Until he had met Samuel, Morgana’s father. The Celtic warlock had a white light inside of him unlike any he’d ever seen. Whatever Fordun destroyed, Samuel repaired. Whatever life he tried to take, Samuel was there to save.
For years he had chased after the man, but like Morgana he was very good at disappearing. He would show just in time to free Fordun’s victims, and then vanish as if he hadn’t been there at all. It made him almost impossible to track down. Almost.
The sound of his guards approaching brought Fordun out of his reverie. Standing up, he walked over to the washstand and began to clean himself up as the guards came in.
“Clean it up,” he ordered, not even bothering to look at them.
Behind him two of the guards went quietly to the morbid work, while another asked if any information had been acquired. Not in the mood for questions, Fordun drew out his dagger. As he turned back around, he slid the blade into the man’s gut as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
He watched, unsatisfied, as the man’s dying eyes grew wide with shock before the light fled from them. When the body dropped to the ground, the two other guards didn’t look up from what they were doing at all, but kept to their work. For the first time that day, satisfaction filled Fordun.
It was good to be a god.
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