T wo long years Malcom had prepared for this day, all the while kings and queens battled over a dimpled crown. Henry of England was two-years dead, leaving his Empress daughter to succeed him and even as the breath left the old king’s body, those who would not follow a woman had turned their eyes toward Stephen of Blois. Now, Britain was at war—brother against brother, brother against sister, cousin against cousin. But, at long last, Aldergh was his, little thanks to the Scots King—little thanks to anyone, save his lady mother and the sweat from his own brow. He’d learned the hard way how fickle kings could be. Shortly upon hearing the news of Stephen’s usurpation, David of Scotia had swept down into the border lands, laying claim to all he could seize, promising Aldergh to Malcom, only to rescind that promise. Face to face with Stephen, the Scot’s king returned much of what he’d taken in a treatise at Durham, keeping Carlisle and Newcastle for himself and relinquishing Aldergh to Stephen, thereby forcing Malcom to bend the knee to England for the return of his lands. And so he had, much to his father’s dismay. At long last, he had the legal right to call himself Aldergh’s lord. Come what may, he was prepared to fight for what should be his. He might not be flesh and blood to FitzSimon, but his step-mother was the dead lord’s only living heir and Malcom was her son by law. Besides, if he didn’t accept her behest, these lands would return to the English crown, unclaimed, and there was no one else to hold them in her father’s name—never a woman, obvious by the way the barons received Matilda, and certainly not her Scots husband, the infamous chieftain of a Highland clan. He sidled his mount closer to his mother, giving her a glance, acutely aware of the elder man at her side, and settled his gaze on the prize. A ghost from his past looming large, Aldergh appeared much as he recalled it—a sprawling monstrosity, with soaring corner towers and a twenty-foot thick curtain wall, built with old Roman ingenuity and stone. Sizable enough to house an entire village, it was designed to withstand a siege, but the castellan was no lord trained in the art of war.
With a bit of luck, the man would yield the castle without a fight. Up on the ramparts, armed men scurried between machicolations, the silver in their armor winking defiantly. But, of course, that was to be expected with an army at the gates. Eager to prove himself as a worthy commander, Malcom dispatched his messenger, handing the man a copy of the writ from Stephen, and then he himself rode to the front of the line, hoisting the flag with the dead-lord’s sigil—a two-headed falcon on a bloodred field, with one minor alteration: a silver-threaded thistle in one of the falcon’s beaks. It was a nod to his Scot’s brethren, and yet, absent, by design, were the colors of his father’s clan, the intent being, to send a clear message—that Malcom Ceann Ràs had not arrived here this day as a warden from the north, wearing his father’s cloak, but as the new and rightful lord of Aldergh, unfettered by obligations to his kin. He was ready, willing and able to serve a new sovereign… if that’s what it took to keep his lands. Careful to remain outside missile range, but moving close enough to read banners, he anticipated the castellan’s response, waiting until the suspense grew thick enough to cut with a blade. If tensions turned to hostilities, his father would rush his mother from the field. But so long as there was a chance for a peaceful transition, she’d insisted upon remaining. Never daring a glance at his father, he thrust the standard higher, watching as the messenger spoke to the ramparts, tossing the weighted parchment over the wall.
The gates did not open at once, but neither did they fire upon the man, and after what seemed an eternity, the messenger turned and trotted back. Even before he returned to the fold, a single, warbling horn-blast trumpeted across the landscape and the heavy portcullis began to rise, straining against ancient chains and groaning like a tired old man. The hairs on Malcom’s nape stood on end as the moment of truth arrived. Now, at long last, he cast a glance toward his brooding father… hoping for what? Seated atop his warhorse, Iain MacKinnon cut a daunting figure, even at his advanced age. The silver in his hair glinted more fiercely than did the steel in his scabbard, and his displeasure was evident in the set of his shoulders and the lock of his jaw, but he said not a word as his wife proceeded to tug her father’s signet ring from her finger. Once removed, she placed the heirloom into the palm of her hand, offering it up for Malcom to take—and this was the one concession she’d made to his father: that Malcom must knowingly and wittingly accept all that came with her father’s legacy. “Put it on your small finger, Malcom. And remember… what happens from the moment you ride through those gates determines how they will receive you. You are Aldergh’s new lord now.” Beside her, his father averted his gaze, his jaw clenching with barely suppressed fury.
If it were up to him, he would have tossed FitzSimon’s ring into a bog as readily as he had embraced his Sassenach bride. Time and again, he had beseeched Malcom to stay and bide his time. But Malcom had refused, soured by the prospect of waiting for his father to die before beginning a new life. Far better to take what was offered now and pray his old man lived to raise more sons. But his father did not see the world through Malcom’s eyes, and while he lent his sword to this cause—for his wife—he would not lend his heart. So be it. Resolved, Malcom plucked up the sigil ring from his step-mother’s palm and slid the golden two-headed falcon onto his small finger, then hesitated but a moment, thinking about the last time he and his father had stood here together… on this field before FitzSimon’s castle… thirteen years ago… a boy of six, unashamed to weep in his father’s arms. His mother must have misunderstood his hesitation because she said, “You have the writ from King Stephen and my father’s ring. It will be enough.” The gates were open now… waiting… still he lingered.
In truth, the best of all scenarios had occurred, and still, somehow, inexplicably, he felt a surge of loss in his heart. Had he hoped to fight today, if only to prove himself? Had he wanted his father to say, ‘Good show, son’? Perhaps, after all, he had but longed for a clap on the back, and a bit of reassurance that all was not lost? By God, he was old enough to choose his own path. He didn’t need his father’s approval, and so it seemed he wasn’t going to get it. “Art certain, mother? he asked—one last time. If she had a mind to now would be the time to change her mind. After he took possession of Aldergh, nothing would be the same. “You are my son,” she reassured, mistaking his question, and with a steel glint in his eyes, his father said, “Let us be done.” Malcom straightened his spine, raising his banner. “Aye,” he said. “Let us be done.
” And then, without a word, he spurred his mount forward, hardening his heart. Dressed in his grandfather’s cloak, and wearing a dead man’s sigil, he surged ahead of the troops, looking like a king in his own right and carrying with him all the fury of the north. Chapter One Llanthony Priory, Wales, July 1148 Elspeth reread her mother’s letter, her breath catching painfully. So, it seemed, for abetting a usurper, the prize should be an Earldom and King Henry’s favorite daughter… Elspeth. “Married,” her sisters said in unison. Elspeth nodded affirmation. “Married.” To the new lord of Blackwood. In her boundless greed, their mother had betrayed their grandmother, and in the process, forsook their rights to Blackwood. And for his prowess in battle, that legendary fortress now belonged to an assassin.
The estate would return to their family by virtue of marriage, but though the marriage would grant Elspeth the title of lady, it was still her mother d’Lucy was bound to. Sacred cauldron! It wasn’t enough that Morwen forsook them all these years past. Offered the chance to profit from her daughters, she meant to take it—and make no mistake, while she’d called it a wedding, Elspeth knew very well that she would be naught more than a prisoner changing hands from one gaoler to another. How sorely she missed the ivy-tangled courtyard and the view of the sea from Blackwood’s tower window, but as much as she relished the notion of returning to the home she’d shared with her grandmamau, she could never bear the thought of lying beneath a vassal of the Usurper. The thought made her feel wretched and filthy. “Lady of Blackwood,” said Arwyn with a note of wonder. “What I wouldn’t give to see our ancestral home, if only but once.” Rhiannon’s amber eyes glinted by the firelight as she turned to address the eldest twin. “And would you put our sister at the mercy of an assassin only to appease your curiosity?” “Of course not,” said Arwyn, defensively. “I was but saying—” “I know what you were saying,” Rhiannon snapped.
“Elspeth needs no more reason to accept this unholy alliance. I, too, would love to see Blackwood, but I will never step foot there if it means forsaking my flesh and blood.” “Sisters, please! Let us not fight,” Seren pleaded. “We all knew this time would come. We must steel our hearts and minds.” At twenty, Seren was the peacemaker. She was the middle child, possessed of their father’s rufous coloring, but with skin so pale and smooth it made the moon and stars weep with joy. At Nineteen, Rosalynde was the youngest of the living twins, only minutes younger than Arwyn. Rhiannon was the second eldest, only two years younger than Elspeth. Her amber eyes narrowed.
“The granddaughter of a witch is still a witch, even if she has no knowledge of the Craft. Have you forgotten what they do to witches, Seren? Would you truly wish Elspeth in the hands of a man such as that?” As always, Rose defended Arwyn and Seren. “There’s no reason for anyone to believe we are aught but good little servants of the realm. For all anyone knows, the sins of Avalon have passed away with our Grandmamau. Why would anyone accuse Elspeth?” “Sins of Avalon?” Rhiannon asked, incensed. “Do not speak such rubbish to me again! And do you truly believe they do not suspect Morwen?” “That is my point, precisely,” argued Seren. “Mother seems to have weathered suspicion well enough.” Elspeth understood that she was only trying to make the inevitable more palatable. “Elspeth,” she entreated, “For all we know, d’Lucy could be a gentle man. But you might never know it lest you give him a chance.
” “He’s an assassin, Seren!” Rhiannon exploded. “How gentle a man could he possibly be? You needn’t suffer this fate,” Rhiannon pleaded with Elspeth. “You can still leave. Tonight. We have the means and know the words.” Understanding intuitively what Rhiannon was saying, the sisters all exchanged nervous glances, then peered at the door. Tonight, as always, the guards had been called to vespers, but as soon as prayers were over, they would return, and in this day and age, when so many feared the Old Ways, the Craft must remain a closely guarded secret. Even the act of referring to sorcery put them all at risk. Elspeth shook her head, refusing to consider it. It wasn’t the first time Rhiannon had proposed such a plan.
Last time, she’d tried to get them all to leave together, but words or nay, it wasn’t likely all five sisters together would ever succeed in slipping past the guards. And even should they manage to escape, with no one left to delay them, it wouldn’t be long before their presence was missed, and they wouldn’t get very far. Therefore, Rose had steadfastly refused, deathly afraid of what the chaplain would do to them if they were caught. However, far more of a deterrent to Elspeth, was this: The “words” Rhiannon spoke of were rites of magik, never to be uttered lightly. While she would like to believe they could evoke them without consequence, it simply wasn’t true. Here, in the dominion of men, there was no leave to change the will of gods without altering the warp and woof of life. There could be no denying the Law of Three—which was to say, that any magik, good or bad, once unleashed into the world must return to the summoner threefold. And nevertheless, she deliberated, flicking a thumbnail across the frayed edge of the parchment, wishing things could be different. If only Matilda could win herself the throne… “Why should we care who wears father’s crown? It will never be Matilda.” Rhiannon said, clearly intruding on Elspeth’s thoughts.
“You are too beguiled by our father and his politiks. Say what you will about Morwen. At least she knows who she is.” “I know who we are,” countered Elspeth. Rhiannon lifted her chin. “I know who we are as well, Elspeth. We are Daughters of Avalon, and if we but join together, we can do what no other woman can do—including Matilda, for all our sister’s bold, brave words. In truth, she has never given any of us a passing thought—not even you, despite that you seem to enjoy defending her.” Elspeth overlooked Rhiannon’s bitter tone, realizing that her sister had just cause to feel aggrieved. “She’s had her hands full trying to unseat a usurper,” Elspeth reminded.
“What wouldst you have an Empress do? Come have tea in our little hovel?” Rhiannon said, “Why not? At least then she wouldst know how we live. She never acknowledged me, perhaps, but she knew you well enough. It would seem to me that if she cared at all, she would wish to see how you fared.” Elspeth sighed, wearied by that particular discussion. It wasn’t always so easy to defend Matilda, because it was true: Matilda had only once ever bothered to come to Llanthony, and even then, she’d never bothered to see her sisters. She’d come to remind Ersinius of his oath to support her. But, of course, that was fruitless. As had so many who’d knelt before Matilda whilst Henry still lived, Llanthony’s illustrious chaplain, like most of Stephen’s barons, would never abide a woman on England’s throne. “Elspeth? Please… you must trust me. I have a plan.
” “What plan?” “Trust me,” Rhiannon said, her eyes revealing her desperation as the first rays of twilight crept in through their window. The Golden Hour was swiftly approaching—that hour between times, when the veil between worlds was at its thinnest and the hud was at its strongest. Elspeth said, her eyes glinting with unshed tears, “I do trust you, Rhiannon, but what you propose may have consequences beyond our imagining. Remember the White Ship?” “Precisely,” Rhiannon argued. “And for that meddling, what price has Morwen paid? If you ask me, she has profited greatly, and to this day, I have never once seen any evidence that our mother suffered a single day.” Elspeth held her composure. “We know not what price she’ll pay, but I cannot be made responsible for the burden this could heap upon your shoulders. You are my sisters,” she said. “I love you dearly. Can you not understand? I would never forgive myself if aught should happen to any of you because of me.
Let us say no more. I’ll wed that man, come what may.” Silence met her declaration, and no one spoke another word. The weight of her decision sat like an anvil on each of their breasts, pressing the life and breath from their lungs. And nevertheless, to wed this man seemed Elspeth’s only legitimate choice. Fat tears shone in Rhiannon’s eyes. “I cannot bear it,” she said. “Come tomorrow evening, you would trade yourself like an old goat and a sack of meal.” “Nor I, in truth,” admitted Elspeth, and she rolled up the parchment and rose from her chair, leaving her sisters to stare helplessly at one another, while she tried to salvage her composure. She made her way to the window, tears spilling into her lashes.
For these past thirteen years they’d been trapped in this godforsaken priory, waiting and waiting… but for what? For this? Sweet Goddess, nay… She peered out the window, searching for the guards, some little part of her perhaps still considering Rhiannon’s plan, reckless as it might be. Despite the tumult in her heart, the evening seemed perfectly tranquil, with a blushing sky that brushed the rooftops with warm vestal light. Their crude little cottage lay at the back of the priory on the highest point of the hill, like a tower prison without a tower. And nevertheless, from this vantage, Elspeth could spy the entire vale of Ewyas. At this hour, the west-facing windows on the chapel glinted unevenly against a wellspent sun. The rare and expensive forest glass was smashed three sennights past—a keen reminder that so long as the Welsh had breath to resist, so they would. Mayhap her sisters could not remember, but Elspeth could never forget: This land was once hallowed land—not blessed by the dictums of the Holy Church or the men who sought to profit through her favor, but by the spirit of the Welsh, and the divinity of the land itself. It was changing now… more every day, but it still bore a trace of that wild, untamed country, where faeries whispered through swaying branches, and the wind blew sweet over mortal’s brows. The chapel of their hearts had been constructed of arches, but unlike those forged by men and scarred by chisels, these were built by the Goddess herself, whose loving hands had bowed the ancient heads of trees to create a magical place beneath. Now, like a cancer, the priory had grown and grown, stretching like a greedy lover in the middle of a verdant bed, unfurling farther and farther into Welsh territory.
What had begun as little more than a prison to hold the king’s “witchy daughters,” had become a strategic center of power for the Usurper. Llanthony was now the richest, most wellendowed priory in all of Britain, completely self-sufficient, despite its remoteness. There was even a new hatchery and once a week, wrapped in damp rushes, fresh fish were brought all the way from Llangorse. Likewise, from the newly consecrated Abbey Dore, came huge casks of ale. Ten years ago, at her mother’s direction, they’d built an aviary unlike any that graced the king’s land, filled with pigeons and white-necked ravens that could speak the king’s tongue. Both birds were bred for correspondence. But, unlike the messenger pigeons, which naturally returned to where they were born, the ravens were drawn to only one place—wherever Morwen should be, making her indispensable to her king. Alas, for all that these monks were “servants of God,” they were naught but conspirators with her mother and so long as Elspeth lived, she would never, never abet them… and yet, here she was… about to wed a man her mother ordained. The light in the cottage grew fragile now, as dust motes danced in the sun’s fading rays. The golden hour was here.
If, in truth, Elspeth meant to change her mind, she must do so now. Once the sun had set, it would be too late… Rhiannon must have sensed her wavering. “Elspeth, please… you must go.” “I cannot, Rhiannon. I have sworn to protect you.” Rhiannon pressed her. “And how will you do such a thing after you have gone? One way or another, you will go. Only think better of it, please! If you do not leave tonight, you will be forced to leave on the morrow. And how will you help us then?” It was true. One way or another—with or without her sisters—Elspeth would be forced to leave the priory… and still she hesitated.
Even white magik could be treacherous, though only their mother had ever dabbled in the hud du—black magic as the English were wont to call it. Before she was born Morwen had conjured a mist like the one Rhiannon would have them summon tonight. It lured the White Ship over the rocks, sinking the fated vessel, and carrying their father’s only legitimate male heir to the cold, black depths of the sea. That single conjuring changed the fate of nations and claimed two hundred and fifty innocent lives. So, then, it was not the intent that dictated consequences. Rather, it was the nature of the harm inflicted. And there was no way to foresee such a thing. Black hud or white, there was a price to be paid. Finally, Rhiannon offered the only argument that could possibly sway her. “A man such as d’Lucy might use your skills against Matilda—or worse…”