Knight of Sorrows: Prologue
Scotland, 1630 . . .
Iain wrapped the reins of his warhorse around a low branch along the edge of the garden. He patted the Destrier fondly as the beast lowered his head and started chomping on a patch of clover with a happy snort.
As if to welcome him home, the dismal rain that had plagued his journey for a fortnight had cleared, leaving the sky a brilliant blue.
Iain sniffed the sprig of heather he held and shivered in anticipation of the woman he’d picked it for.
Arabella had promised to wait for him every morning in their special place until the day he returned. The secluded garden outside the castle walls was well away from prying eyes and… interfering parents. It had been their sanctuary against her father’s disapproval, but such sanctuary was no longer needed.
This past year, Iain had won his fortune, title, and lands through hard-fought battles and bravery at the behest of his Clan, and he had done it all to earn the right to Arabella’s hand. No longer a mere blacksmith, He was now the wealthy and titled, Sir Iain MacLeod. Laird McCutcheon had no further excuse to refuse a union with his daughter. Arabella would finally be his.
He hurried through the trees, traversing the familiar path through the carefully trimmed hedges and patches of thistle and bluebells.
His breath caught as he found her seated upon a stone bench. Her red-gold hair hung long and loose down her back in shining waves. He watched as she raised her hand and cast something into the air to float away on the breeze.
Iain crept up behind her, watching as she laughed and then ruthlessly pulled a handful of petals from the bouquet on her lap and cast them into the air.
He let his hands settle upon her shoulders. “Tell me, Milady, what have the flowers done to offend you and I’ll do my utmost to make it right.”
Gasping, she stood in a rush that sent the offending blooms to scatter in a colorful quilt upon the ground.
As she turned to face him, Iain drank in the sight of her as one dying of thirst drank in precious water. The tight bodice of her green gown hugged her curves like a lover’s caress. Her gaze darted over him, taking him in, and she reached out a tentative hand to touch him as if to make certain he wasn’t an apparition.
“They were from the wrong man,” she said breathlessly.
He pulled the strand of heather from behind his back and tucked it gently behind her ear. “Is this fair bloom more to yer liking?”
“Aye,” she whispered. “But seeing you here – there could be no greater gift than that.”
He pulled her into his arms and kissed her, and something he meant to be chaste turned heated and hungry. She molded unresisting to his body as he lifted her onto her toes and crushed her against him, feeling every soft curve as he plundered her mouth. It had been months since he’d tasted the sweetness of her kiss. Months since he’d felt her skin beneath his hands. Iain drew back with a gasp, pulling away from her before he lost complete control. Tomorrow she would be his wife. He could wait one more day to claim her.
Panting, he cupped her face in his hands and kissed both of her cheeks. “Do you know how much I’ve missed you, Milady?” he whispered, his mouth close to her ear.
“Nae half as much as I’ve missed you,” she replied, leaning into him. “I’m so glad you’re home.”
Iain prodded the mutilated flowers with the toe of his boot. He knew very well whom they were from. They may have been apart, but Arabella had written him about the unwanted advances she’d suffered at the hands of Laird Blackwood. He had hounded Arabella, pressured, and relentlessly pursued her every hour that Iain had been gone. She had returned his gifts unopened – his letters unread – she had refused his visits, and even appealed to her father to dissuade his advances. Iain hadn’t expected any help from that quarter, and none had been given.
“Laird Blackwood persists, does he?”
“Aye,” she said. “He will nae give up.”
Iain ground what was left of the flowers beneath his heel. “We’ll see about that now that I’m home.”
“Home,” she repeated with a grin. “From now on, my home is anywhere you are. Promise me you’ll nae leave me again.”
“You’ve my oath as a gentleman and a Macleod. I will stay with ye always,” he kissed her again, drawing her in close.
“My, what a touching scene.”
The intrusion of that hated voice was like a slap across the face. Arabella trembled as she turned in the protection of his arms.
“You look lovely, Arabella,” Blackwood said, his gaze roving over her body in a way that made Iain want to knock the leer from his face.
Laird Blackwood was tall, but he was soft and pallid with his station – his auburn hair hung limp, and his blue eyes were watery.
He wore a broadsword at his hip, but Iain doubted the man had ever used it nor that he had any degree of skill with it if he had. Laird Blackwood was a man who was used to having things done for him. He was also used to getting what he wanted. Iain clenched his jaw. He wasn’t getting Arabella. Tightening his embrace, he drew Arabella back against his chest, and Blackwood’s attention shifted to him with a frown.
“Lord Blackwood,” Iain said with an edged smile, “how kind of you to come and welcome me home.”
“Aye, the triumphant Knight returns at last to claim his reward.”
Iain nuzzled his face in Arabella’s hair. “I have come home to claim my wife,” he corrected. “The fact that she chooses me is more miracle than reward – a miracle that I devoutly thank God for each day.”
She turned and smiled up at him. “The reward is mine, and there could be no greater treasure than your love.”
Blackwood cleared his throat, drawing their attention back to him. “Are you certain, Arabella that I cannot change your mind? You’ll nae want for anything were you to be mine.”
Arabella shivered with revulsion, and Iain drew her closer. What was Blackwood up to? He had no hope of besting Iain in a fight—at least not a fair one. The skin on the back of his neck prickled, and Iain scanned the tree-line, searching for signs of an ambush.
“As I’ve told you, Laird Blackwood, my choice is made. I love only Iain.” Arabella pulled Iain’s arms tighter around her. “I will never love another.”
“That might be a choice you will come to regret,” Blackwood said, his expression hardening.
Would he be so brazen to attack them here on McCutcheon land? It’s true, there was no love between the McCutcheons and the MacLeods, but even Arabella’s father would not stand for bloodshed in his own garden.
Iain’s left hand went from Arabella’s waist to the hilt of his sword. “You dare threaten my Lady?”
Blackwood sneered. “Nae. I dare threaten you, blacksmith.”
Arabella lifted her chin defiantly. “If you threaten Iain, you threaten me. Are you so quick to risk war between our clans?”
Blackwood shrugged. “Me and mine would nae touch a hair on your heads, Milady, but I canna speak for Valentijn.”
Arabella sucked in a sharp breath at the mention of that name.
As if by a conjurer’s trick, a tall shrouded form appeared at the edge of the trees. Hands hidden in the long sleeves of his cloak, the man glided forward and stopped at Lord Blackwood’s left elbow. An aura of power hung about the strange man that Iain felt on his skin like a prickle of heat.
The man beside Blackwood lowered his hood, exposing a shock of long white-blonde hair, and pale gray eyes. His skin was as white as a corpse’s, and the pagan symbol of a black six-point star marked his forehead. As the man fingered a silver and crystal pendant that hung about his neck, Iain noticed that the tip of each of his fingers bore a nail so long that it curved like a ram’s horns.
Making the sign of the cross in the air before them, Iain drew his sword and stepped in front of Arabella. “You’d make a pact with the devil?”
Blackwood’s gaze burned with a mad light. “I would sell my soul to have Arabella.”
“The only thing you’ll have is death. Leave now,” Iain told him, stepping forward, “or I’ll cut you down where you stand.” His gaze shifted to the sorcerer, “You and your demon too.”
Blackwood smirked. “You do love your wee sword, don’t you, MacLeod? Well, it will nae save you.”
Valentijn raised his hands and the warm spring breeze whipped into a gale that blew Iain’s hair into his eyes and flung the crushed flowers up into the air in a colorful vortex. The sorcerer started to chant - low and guttural in a language that Iain didn’t recognize.
Blackwood didn’t even bother to draw his weapon as Iain charged. He simply stood his ground and laughed. Something was wrong. Why wasn’t he running? Why wasn’t he afraid?
The sorcerer thrust his arms forward and the gale that blew through the garden wrapped around Iain, freezing him where he stood. He thrust and twisted, trying to move his leaden limbs, but he was trapped as if in a bog of ice.
“Run, Arabella!” Iain shouted as coldness penetrated his limbs, sapping his strength and stealing his breath.
He watched in helpless horror as his body dissolved, coming apart like a sandcastle in the tide. The very grains of his being swirled aloft in the vortex around him and then poured into the tip of the blade as his sword drank him down.
The last thing he heard before darkness consumed him was Arabella’s scream.