July, Year of our Laird 1260
William the Wolfe’s dark words rumbled through Duncan Sheehy’s mind. Unfortunately his foreboding warning had already come true. Duncan hadn’t opened the box, but he’d had to kill two guards at Castle Swan only a few moments ago to steal the faded and splintered, black, wooden box with the weathered red flower that he now held close to side. It was too small and too light to be filled with jewels or coins or gold. It was about the same size of a cymbal, but square, and lighter than one of Lady Jordon’s hand mirrors. Duncan hoped what was locked inside was worth the blood bath he’d left in the eerie tower.
Ever since he’d touched the box a heaviness weighed upon him, slowly wrapping around him, robbing him of every pleasant memory, every pleasant thought.
The heaviness opened a darkness he tried to bury—the day he’d struggled to compete with Alastair in dragon magic...the day he’d didn’t have control of his magic, the day he’d killed his mate.
Ever since his Marigold had died, he’d only been going through the motions of living. He’d sworn his allegiance to William de Wolfe, and giving him purpose.
That had been five long years ago.
The thunder of hooves pursued him, and he pushed that memory out of his mind. Laird Henry Brodie hadn’t hesitated in sending his knights to hunt Duncan down. Obviously, he thought what was secreted inside was worth killing for.
Duncan glanced over his shoulder—his lungs froze. He urged his horse faster. There were five knights, and they were gaining on him. And he was alone.
He rode Sir Robert hard. The great war horse panted and snorted and was slick with sweat, but he flew over the ground. Castle Swan was in the Southern Uplands built near the river Nith. He only had to follow the river to locate the castle, and now he needed it to help him escape.
Sir Robert raced over the thick green grass. Duncan headed them toward the dark forest that would slow down the determined pursuit. Suddenly, the box jerked against him. Pain shot up his arm like sizzling lightning bolts. With dragon determination, he pressed it against his side, ignoring the pulsing agony. The bloody thing hadn’t slipped. It had moved on its own. Was there something alive inside, or was it dark magic?
Maybe that’s why he’d found it locked and chained and guarded in the tallest turret at Castle Swan. But that wasn’t all he’d found there either.
The box had been resting on an altar carved with strange symbols: an upside down cross and a human skull and others that had set his dragon senses on alert. He had struggled to breathe, and uneasiness swept over his skin. Something watched him, assessed him—looking for weaknesses.
He had no doubt dark sacrifices had been practiced in the room. The rumors about Laird Henry Brodie were true. He practiced the dark arts, and his loyalty was to the Evil One.
The box shuddered violently against him. Duncan clutched it tighter. The vileness inside wanted out.
He summoned his dragon power to keep the evil inside, but he failed to draw the slightest tingle. He had used much of his magic when creeping into Castle Swan to blend in with his surroundings and move about undetected, but it had taken time, too much time. It had taken him until almost dawn to find the box. He’d had to conjure an ancient spell to lift the dark veil shrouding the box and protecting it from white magic. It had been a battle between good and evil.
His power had been drained quicker than usual, and now, he couldn’t even summon a simple spell to shield him from his pursuing enemies. A deep weariness sank into his bones. His head weighed heavy, falling to one side. He gritted his teeth and shook his head to stay awake.
He thought about reining Sir Robert into the churning Nith just to wake himself up, but it would be a deadly mistake. The river was flowing fast and bubbling. Sir Robert could easily be caught in the current, and they’d both drown.
A vile voice echoed in his ears. Or had he imagined it? He wasn’t sure with the thundering of Sir Robert’s hooves and the angry pursuit behind him.
The voice was stronger, and a temptation to slide off Sir Robert beckoned him. The lush grass would make such a nice bed after staying awake all night.
A tree branch knocked him in the head, breaking the wicked desire. He drew on all his will power to stay awake. Even if he wasn’t as powerful as his twin brother, he was a dragon knight of the Wolfe. He refused to give into temptation and evil.
The malice wouldn’t be denied and shook harder beneath his arm, as if it were laughing at his foolishness.
He glanced warily at the splintered black box. Shivers shot up his spine and squeezed his lungs, and he almost fell off Sir Robert. He’d swear the flower had grown darker, brighter, angrier.
The thunder of hooves drummed closer. With his dragon magic spent, Duncan’s mouth went dry, and dread tugged at his gut. He was a thread away from being hauled back to the castle and skinned alive. Laird Henry claimed to have the skins of his enemies tanned and made into rugs, and in the eerie tower, the walls had been covered with tanned leather hides. He shuddered. He had no intention of being added to Laird Henry’s collection.
Sir Robert would not be able to keep up the pace much longer. He needed rest. Duncan pressed his thighs against the sweating animal’s sides and maneuvered him into the thick forest to try to lose the men in the trees. Branches and leaves slapped against his face and arms, but he held on tight to the reins.
Sir Robert burst out of the thick forest into the bright sunlight. But Duncan’s flash of freedom sunk into despair. If it had been darkness, he might have had a chance to hide, but with the vast rolling hills and no trees to offer cover, his enemies would chase him down. Weariness washed over his limbs. He sucked in a tired breath. He had no choice. Time to fight. He pulled on Sir Robert’s reins and led him back into the forest behind a grove of gnarled trees, and they turned to face their enemies.
Duncan had trained the great war horse on how to charge, lunge, rear, pivot, and trample all by the slight movement of his thighs, calves, and heels. They’d seen many battles together and depended on each other for survival. He patted the animal’s broad shoulder. “Stay here, my friend.”
He hid the malevolent box in a hole of the gnarled tree. He hoped it would be safe there, and that the evil couldn’t escape and make its way back to Brodie’s men. Duncan unsheathed his sword and waited.
The first knight rode past his hiding place. Duncan slashed his sword, expertly catching the knight in the back of helm with enough force to dent it. The surprised knight swayed on his horse. Duncan swung again, this time severing the man’s head from his shoulders. Blood spurted into the air, spraying onto his tabard. He wouldn’t be as lucky with the other four. They surrounded him, swords, and lances aimed at him.
He recognized them—the McGregor brothers—Ian, Innes, IoIo, and Inke. A clan of truly evil men that delighted in maiming and torture. They all wore tabards and shields with Castle Swan’s symbol of a black swan, which left men in despair.
“Give us back the book, ye bastard.” A short knight lifted his lance and aimed it at Duncan’s chest. “And we’ll let ye live.” But his thick voice promised death.
“Yer a liar, Ian.” So, a book was inside the box. What madness was this? How could a book move? He studied their fierce stances, looking for strengths and weaknesses.
Innes spat on to the ground. He sat taller than Ian but twice as heavy. “My Laird needs a new rug.” He held up his sword. “Prepare to die.”
Duncan groaned. He recognized the glowing, jagged sword. It was straight from the underworld—powerful enough to kill a dragon knight. Brodie could only have gotten that sword from a demon or the devil himself. He glanced at the other knights, but only Innes held the black weapon.
Duncan might not have any magic left, but his dragon strength was far from gone. All he had to do was be quicker than Innes and keep the blade away from the other knights. He would have gladly handed the book over to them, but the Wolfe had been desperate. He’d said Lady Jordan’s life was at stake.
Innes urged his horse forward, his sword drawn. “I’ll kill ye—slow and painful, Sheehy. That was me cousin ye murdered.” Hate cut into every slippery word.
Duncan struck first again. His sword caught Innes in the throat, ousting him from the saddle. Still gripping the sword. Innes had made his last taunt and gurgled on his own blood.
The others charged. Swords and lances sliced into Duncan’s armor, but without the demonic sword, it was useless. Not only was he wearing chainmail, but even in human form, he had dragon hide. IoIo was the tallest and strongest of the brothers and was the only one that had won any tournaments.
“Die, bastard!” IoIo thrust his lance.
It hit Duncan in the chest and knocked him backward off Sir Robert. He slammed into the gnarled tree, a jagged branch sliced open his cheek, and then he fell onto the hard ground. Pain reverberated through him, and he gasped. Their weapons couldn’t kill him, but that hadn’t mean it hadn’t hurt.
Horses pranced around him. Duncan rolled to keep from being stomped to death. The last three brothers lifted their swords.
Damn it! IoIo had the demonic sword.
Duncan wasn’t done yet. With all his strength, he swung and clashed with IoIo’s sword. Sir Robert smashed into IoIo’s horse, unbalancing him. Duncan took advantage. He grabbed IoIo’s wrist and yanked him off the horse.
IoIo fell onto the ground and rolled before Duncan could stab him through the heart. He smashed his foot into Duncan’s shin, sending sharp pain into his leg. Duncan cried out and collapsed onto his knee. Sweat dripped into his eyes, blurring his vision, and soaked the hairline on the back of his neck. He shook his head as IoIo scrambled to his feet, then raised his sword and attacked with a plunging cut. Duncan countered, shifting his blade. Their swords clashed. IoIo thrust his weapon downward, aiming for Duncan’s throat. Duncan blocked the deadly lunge, twisted his body and then using all his strength, shoved IoIo’s sword away from him. IoIo made an exposed cut, slicing into Duncan’s mail, cutting into his bicep. Blazing, hot, pain surged through Duncan’s arm as blood gushed down his arm, turning his fingers red.
IoIo smiled. “Yer dead, dragon.”
“Not yet.” Drawing on his fading dragon strength, Duncan lunged. He slashed IoIo’s shield with his sword, shattering it.
IoIo screamed. His arm dropped, giving Duncan the edge to slit his throat, and then he knocked the dreaded sword out of IoIo’s now limp hand. Blood gushed from IoIo’s throat, spilling down his breastplate like long fingernails. He swayed and fell to the ground, dust flying into the air. He stared up at Duncan in horror as the life slowly faded from his eyes.
Ian pulled back on his horse. The whites of his eyes rolled with fear. “What are ye, Sheehy? No man can do this.”
Panting hard, Duncan stepped in front of the demonic sword, preventing either knight the opportunity to seize it. He readied for an attack. He could smell Ian’s fear—the air was thick with terror.
Although he was the youngest, Inke wasn’t a coward. He pressed his heels into his horse’s side and aimed his lance at Duncan. Duncan brought his sword down hard on the lance, forcing it out of his hand. Inke reached for his sword, but he was too slow. Using all of his strength, Duncan rammed his sword through Inke’s chest armor. Inke didn’t have time to scream before his arms and head went limp. Duncan dragged him off the horse—his body impaled on the crimson sword.
“Yer a demon!” Ian’s shrieking voice was a disgrace to his knighthood. He turned his horse and fled.
Duncan didn’t envy Ian’s fate when he returned to Castle Swan alone and empty-handed.
He put his foot on Inke’s lifeless corpse and pulled out his blood-drenched sword. So much blood, so much death, so much evil.
He put his hand on the gnarled tree to steady himself, and the tree trembled. Pain pierced his hand, and he jerked it back. Weariness swept over him, and trees, horses, and corpses spun around him in a crazy dance. He couldn’t breathe, and his legs crumpled beneath him. His last thought before he passed out was that the menace had cursed him.
A soft caress stroked his cheek. Duncan woke with a start. Sir Robert stood over him, guarding him. The sun had moved in the sky. One minute he’d been leaning on the tree to catch his breath, then he’d passed out from unbearable agony.
But he’d had a dream of the most beautiful woman. It hadn’t been Marigold. Marigold had red hair and blue eyes and was short. This woman had been taller and slender with blond hair, and she had eyes as dark and green as the thick trees of the Highlands. She’d been across an abyss. He hadn’t been able to get to her and she hadn’t been able to get to him. She’d been saying something, but he hadn’t been able to hear her. All he could remember was that she had worn a man’s tight blue trousers and he’d wanted to run his hands up those sculpted legs.
Dark magic was at work here. The malice watched him, gloating over its victory. More of his magic had been stolen. It was dangerous.
He patted Sir Robert on his neck. “Thanks for watchin’, me friend. Time to go.” Tiredness dragged down his words, but it was the guilt thumping through his veins that nettled him. He was a knight and a dragon, but dealing death didn’t come easy to him. And only the guilty should die.
He couldn’t shake the feeling that the malice had wanted death, fed on death. The knights had sacrificed their lives. The Wolfe had spoken true—anyone who opened this box did so at their own peril. Why in the hell did the Wolfe think his dainty wife could withstand the evil when it had almost defeated an immortal dragon knight and claimed the lives of seven mortal men? Duncan would have kept Marigold far away from the box, but Marigold hadn’t needed to fear the box. She should have feared him. If she had, maybe she would have survived.
Laird or no Laird, the Wolfe better have a damn good reason.