He came to her in dreams, always different, yet always the same, his fathomless gray eyes filled with quiet desperation and a silent plea for help.
Was he real, this dark-skinned man with the long inky black hair, or only a dark image sketched from the paint box of her imagination, a phantom warrior woven into the shadowed tapestry of her nighttime fantasies...
She was walking through a deep green forest dappled by shimmering fingers of sunlight. The air was warm, fragrant with the aroma of a thousand exotic ferns and flowers. She heard the joyful songs of birds praising the birth of a new day, the distant whisper of a waterfall thumping over stones.
Deeper and deeper she penetrated into the heart of the emerald forest, her footsteps muffled by a thick carpet of pine needles as she explored this strange new world that was so different from her own.
She saw a black-faced doe picking its graceful way along a narrow path, saw a pair of red-tailed squirrels chasing each other across the forest floor, saw a bird with bright yellow plumage flitting lightly from tree to tree.
And then she saw him, the man who lived only in her dreams. Her gaze moved over him will undisguised admiration. He was large of stature, his massive shoulders and well-muscled arms and legs accentuated by the gauzy white shirt and tight buff-colored breeches that he wore.
His eyes were gray, the color of clouds on a winter day. His hair fell to his waist, as deep and black as the Caves of Mouldour. His skin was the color of dark honey, smooth and unblemished. His nose was long and straight; his cheekbones prominent and well defined; his jaw strong and square.
His lips were firm, sensual, and when he smiled, as he was smiling now, it made her wish that he was a man of flesh and blood and not just an image conjured from the fathomless depths of sleep.
He came toward her, one hand out in a gesture of welcome, but still, in his eyes, she saw the same silent plea for help. And yet, how could she help him when she couldn’t help herself?
She stood in the middle of the inquisition chamber, her wrists tightly lashed to a thick iron bar suspended above her head.
“You will tell us what we wish to know,” the Lord High Sovereign’s interrogator demanded brusquely. “You will tell us today, or you will die tomorrow.”
Kylene shook her head. She’d been imprisoned for almost a fortnight, and she still had no idea why they thought she could help them find the elusive Hardane.
“The lash is a crude weapon,” the Interrogator mused. “Crude, but effective.”
He nodded in the Executioner’s direction and Kylene’s body tensed as she waited for the lash to fall. The thick leather strap cracked through the air with the sound of thunder, biting deep into her skin, sizzling like summer lightning.
“Dying under the lash is a most unpleasant way to perish,” the Interrogator remarked. “A way that, if done with care, can take a very long time.”
It was an effort to hold her head up, to stay the words of pleading that rose in her throat. It was fortunate she didn’t know where Hardane was, she thought, for she feared she would tell the Interrogator everything he wished to know if it would spare her the pain of the lash. But she could tell him nothing.
“Where is he?”
The whip fell again, and then again. Tears stung her eyes and clogged her throat. The blood trickling down her back felt like sunfire. A red haze hovered before her face,
making everything else seem distant and out of focus. Trembling convulsively, Kylene closed her eyes, and he was there, standing before her, his slate gray eyes warm with compassion. His hand reached out to her, the touch of his fingertips as soft as fairy mist as he gently wiped away her tears.
“Lady, come to me . . .”
Startled by the sound of his voice, so near, so real, she opened her eyes.
And he was gone.
Mad, she thought. I must be going mad. And yet his voice seemed to linger in the room, surrounding her with its strength, cocooning her in its warmth, lessening her fears, easing her pain.
“Where is he?”
The Interrogator’s voice cut through the silence, sharp as a blade.
Slowly, sadly, Kylene shook her head. “I don’t know. I don’t know who Hardane is. I don’t know where he is.”
The Interrogator nodded and the whip fell again.
She heard the sibilant hiss, felt it strike across her shoulders. From deep within her mind, she heard a low-pitched wail, like that of a man sobbing with fury.
As if from far away, she heard the Interrogator order the Executioner to put away the lash.
Sick with relief, she closed her eyes and surrendered to the darkness that dragged her down into blessed oblivion.
It was dark and she was alone beside an iridescent waterfall. Moonlight danced upon the face of the ink-black water. Countless shooting stars chased each other across the indigo sky. A night bird lifted its voice to the heavens, its three-note mating call begging for attention.
Sitting alone on a flat gray rock, she searched the darkness, a nameless fear making her shiver with apprehension.
There was a soft rustling in the underbrush as a huge black wolf materialized out of the shadows, its dark gray eyes fixed upon her face.
She should have been afraid. In her own world, she would have been afraid. But here, suspended in a dream world of illusion, she held out her hand.
The wolf drew closer, close enough to touch. A low whine erupted from its throat, and then it lowered its head and licked the palm of her hand. The velvet stroke of its tongue coursed through her, hot as molten lava,
sweet as sunbaked honey.
A soft sigh of pleasure escaped her lips. And then, to her disbelief, the wolf changed shape, its image blurring, until a man stood before her. A man with hair the color
of pitch and eyes the color of storm-tossed clouds.
“You.” The word whispered past her lips.
“My lady . . .”
“Your name,” she begged. “Tell me your name.”
“Search your heart, lady. You know who I am.”
“I don’t. Tell me, please.”
She wanted to plead with him, to tell him that it had to be now, this very night, because it was to be her last night. But the words seemed trapped in her throat.
And then he was touching her, his big, callused palm cupping her cheek, his dark gaze lingering on her face, as warm and sweet as a caress.
“I won’t leave you alone, lady.”
She heard the promise in his words, the underlying anguish in his voice.
He gazed deeply into her eyes, her soul. “Only swear you won’t betray me.”
“I swear,” she murmured.
His smile pierced the dark clouds of her despair, and then he was gone, leaving her alone once more, left to wonder how she could possibly betray him when she didn’t even know his name . . . when she was doomed to die by the Executioner’s hand.
They came for her a fortnight later. A priest of the Holy Brotherhood of Mouldour blessed her soul, and then her wrists were bound and she was led away to the inquisition chamber once again.
The Interrogator stood in the middle of the room, appropriately clad in funereal black from head to foot. He was a tall man, thin but with no hint of weakness. His eyes were cold and blue, like the Inland Sea. His hair, cropped short, was thick and blond. He would have been handsome but for the hideous scar that angled across his left cheek.
“This is your last chance,” he warned as Kylene stepped into the room. “Where is Hardane?”
“I’ve told you and told you, I don’t know who he is, or where he is.”
“Shall I refresh your memory for you? It is said that Hardane of Argone possesses mystical powers. His great grandmother’s mother was a Wolffan . . .”
Kylene frowned. “A Wolffan, my lord?”
The Interrogator shook his head impatiently. “Yes, a Wolffan, believed to have evolved from the union of a wolf and an Argonian woman. He’s a shapeshifter, as you well know.”
“I know nothing of the kind.”
“Perhaps she speaks the truth,” the Executioner remarked, idly tapping the butt of his whip against a well-muscled thigh.
The Interrogator stroked his jaw thoughtfully. Was it possible the Princess Selene didn’t know of Hardane’s whereabouts? But that was impossible. She was Carrick’s seventh daughter, betrothed since birth to marry Hardane. It was a match that had been prophesied by the White Witch of Mouldour on the eve of Selene’s birth. According
to the prophesy, a marriage between the seventh son of Argone and the seventh daughter of the rightful heir of Mouldour would produce twin sons who would one day rule the warring lands of Argone and Mouldour, thereby bringing eternal peace to the two countries.
Such a marriage would signal the beginning of the end of Bourke’s reign as Lord High Sovereign.
The Interrogator drew in a deep breath and let it out in a long, shuddering sigh. If Bourke were destroyed, the Interrogator’s life would also be forfeit, for he had sworn a blood oath to follow Bourke not only in life, but in death, as well. Bourke, the reigning Lord High Sovereign of Mouldour, had stolen the title from his elder brother, Carrick, through trickery and deceit. Carrick’s whereabouts were presently unknown, though it was feared he might be trying to muster an army in an attempt to regain his throne.
At the moment, Carrick was no threat. Bourke was confident that he could defeat his brother in battle, but an alliance between Carrick’s daughter and Hardane of Argone would be the first step in fulfilling the ancient prophecy. It was possible that the people, superstitious fools that they were, would read more into the marriage than there was. Weary of war, the common folk desired peace. But there was no profit to be made in peace, and neither Bourke or the Interrogator would rest secure until any possible alliance between Mouldour and Argone had been thwarted.
“She must know Hardane’s whereabouts,” the Interrogator insisted, his voice cracking with tension. “How could she not know? She is betrothed to the man.”
“You speak foolishness,” Kylene said. “I am betrothed to no one save the Sisterhood.”
“So you keep saying, but it is well known that you are Carrick’s daughter.”
Kylene frowned. “His daughter, my lord?”
The Interrogator took a step closer. His frigid blue eyes narrowed, his breath mingling with hers.
“I grow weary of these games. If you value your life, you will speak the truth. Are you not Carrick’s seventh daughter?”
“Has your hearing gone amiss, my lord?”
The Interrogator whirled around, his ice-blue eyes boring into the pale brown eyes of the Executioner. “Have you brought me the wrong woman?”
“I brought the woman you described,” the Executioner said quickly. “A woman with hair the color of dark fire and eyes the color of newly turned earth.” His voice softened with obvious admiration. “A woman with skin like alabaster come to life. . . .”
“I did not ask you to praise the girl’s beauty,” the Interrogator replied brusquely.
The Executioner shrugged, the movement causing the coarse material of his shirt to pull taut over his massive shoulders. Who could help but be spellbound by such a rare creature?
“Where was she found?”
“Cos and his men found her gathering herbs near the Motherhouse at the farthest reaches of Carrick’s holdings.”
Near the Motherhouse? The Interrogator muttered a mild oath. Was it possible that Carrick had returned to Mouldour? Was he even now plotting to depose his
brother and regain the crown?
The Interrogator shook his head. Even if Carrick had returned, it was unthinkable that he would allow his daughter to prowl around the countryside alone, gathering herbs, of all things!
His gaze moved from the Executioner’s pock-marked face to Selene’s. For the first time, he began to think the girl might be telling the truth, that they did, indeed, have the wrong woman.
“She fits the description,” the Executioner remarked.
“Aye,” the Interrogator agreed absently. “Tell me, girl, if you are not Carrick’s daughter, who might you be?”
“I am a foundling, my lord, allowed to live on the outskirts of my chieftain’s lands. I would have taken my final vows so that I might join the good sisters who raised me
if your men had not abducted me.”
Kylene’s heart began to pound erratically as confused looks spread over the faces of both men. Did they believe her? Would they now let her go?
The Interrogator stroked his bearded jaw thoughtfully. It was possible they had taken the wrong woman. It was just as possible that she was lying.
“Kill her,” he said curtly. “If she is the wrong woman, it matters not. If she is the right woman, so much the better.”
“And if Lord Carrick learns her fate?”
The Interrogator shrugged. “He need never know. Indeed, if she is not his daughter, he will not care.”
The Interrogator walked swiftly toward the door, only to pause with his hand on the latch. Glancing over his shoulder, he fixed his accomplice with a hard stare. “Attend me in my chambers when it is done.”
“Aye, my lord.”
With great deliberation, the Executioner secured Kylene’s hands to the iron bar, took a step back, and raised the whip.
“Do not make her passing too easy,” the Interrogator warned. He turned his narrow-eyed gaze on Kylene. “You should have told me that which I desired to know, princess.”
With a courtly bow, he left the room, closing the door behind him. He had hoped to locate Hardane’s whereabouts that he might procure for himself the secret of
shape-shifting, but he dared not wait longer to dispose of the Princess Selene, if indeed that was who she was. It seemed unlikely now. Perhaps her resemblance to Selene was mere happenstance. Perhaps not.
Still, he could take no chances. Better the woman die now and forever put an end to the possibility of her bearing the twin sons that had been prophesied. Each day she lived put Bourke that much closer to being deposed.
The Interrogator smiled faintly. There was still a chance that they would discover Hardane’s whereabouts. He fingered the ugly scar that puckered the skin on his left
cheek. It would give him great pleasure to slay Argone’s heir to the throne. But before he took Hardane’s life, he would discover the shapeshifter’s secrets.
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