The Magic

The Magic

Virginia Brown

May 2019 $15.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-949-0

Will their desperate bargain end up costing them everything?

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The proposal . . .
Newly returned from the Crusades, Rhys ap Gryffin is tired of fighting. But he has one last battle—to regain his lands in Wales. Little does he guess that he’s in for a bigger challenge when he comes across a mysterious maid in an English meadow, a maid who so utterly beguiles him, he almost forgets his quest. So when they meet again—and she proposes a night in his arms in exchange for his combat on her behalf—he agrees.

The magic . . .
Sasha was born with the "gift” of reading minds, but this one knight eludes her talent. Still, she desperately needs his help to save her home. And since a seer predicted a gryffin would regain what she had lost, she must do whatever it takes to persuade this blond knight to be her champion.

The mystery . . .
Before they know it, they are both plunged into a battle for far more than simply land and heritage, and must fight to save their lives and those of the people they love. But will their desperate bargain end up costing them everything?

About the Author Virginia Brown has been nominated for Romantic Times’ Reviewer’s Choice, Career Achievement Award for Love and Laughter, Career Achievement Award for Adventure, EPIC eBook nomination for Historical Romance, and she received the RT Career Achievement Award for Historical Adventure, as well as the EPIC eBook Award for Mainstream Fiction. Her works have regularly appeared on national bestseller lists. She lives near her children in North Mississippi, surrounded by a menagerie of beloved dogs and cats while she writes.


Coming Soon!


Chapter One

England, 1192

"DID YOU HEAR THAT?” A mailed knight jerked nervously at the reins of his mount and cast quick, furtive glances into the gloom. Mist had begun to rise like smoke, drifting along the ground in vaporish wisps. It was too quiet—too ghostly in the dim, dusky silence of the forest. Tangled tree branches of ancient oaks formed a high ceiling overhead, as ribbed and vaulted as a French cathedral. Diffused sunlight pierced the tight-knit canopy of new leaves in thready streamers to light the narrow road, a hazy contrast to the air of expectant darkness looming beyond.

A faint tinkling sound like tiny bells carried on the wind. It faded so swiftly Rhys ap Griffyn wasn’t certain he heard it. He pulled off his hel­met to listen; light gleamed on blond hair, catching in thick strands damp­ened from the weight and heat of his helmet. Gray eyes narrowed as he surveyed the road and dense weald around them. Nothing stirred. No sound but the muffled thud of hooves on soft ground and the clink of harness disturbed the sudden hush.

The mailed knight rode closer to Rhys, looking around anxiously. "Did you hear it?”

Sir Brian was as full of superstition as an old woman. It would never do to let fear take hold of him. Rhys shrugged. "I heard only the wind.”

"Nay, this was different. It was strange. Like... faerie bells.” Brian glanced around the road nervously. His back stiffened, and one hand tightly gripped the loop of leather reins. His mount danced fretfully, pulling at the bridle’s bit.

One of the foot soldiers muttered uneasily, and Rhys sought to forestall more mention of faeries. "I heard only soldiers’ footsteps and the sound of hooves on deadfall.”

It was an unfortunate choice of words. Brian blanched, face paling beneath the noseguard of his helmet. "Do not look behind us, for the footsteps will be those of dead men.”

Losing patience, Rhys nudged his mount close and spoke low so only Brian would hear. "There are no footsteps of the dead. You frighten the men with such talk.”

Freckles stood out like splotches of mud against the pale skin stretch­ed taut over Brian’s cheekbones and nose. He was past hearing sense. "‘Tis Lá Bealtaine. We shouldn’t be out. Spirits roam on the borderline eve between spring and summer, when it’s not one season or the other.” He paused to suck in a deep breath. "It’s a borderline hour, neither day nor night, the time when the faeries and spirits roam most freely.”

Several of the soldiers within earshot glanced around, gripping wea­pons as if to fight the spirits. Silently cursing Brian’s superstitions, Rhys leaned on the pommel of his saddle to gaze at him with open amuse­ment. "Big as you are, do you think the Tylwyth Teg will be strong enough to carry you with them, Sir Brian?”

One of the Welsh archers laughed, although it sounded strained. Another said tensely, "Vsbrydnos.” The Welsh name for "spirit night” rippled through the ranks of Welshmen and only baffled the English soldiers and knights, yet they responded to growing anxiety with low murmurs.

Rhys settled his helmet atop his damp hair. "The spirit night will not harm us. Nor will the Tylwyth Teg.”

"In Ireland,” Brian said darkly, "we call them the Daoine Sidhe. And it’s been said about more than one man that the faeries captured him.”

"Pah! ‘Tis more likely wayward husbands invented excuses for angry wives,” Rhys said. "Claiming capture by the faeries would be enough to convince almost any goodwife that her husband was detained beyond his will.”

"You mock me,” Sir Brian said irritably when several of the men laughed. He glanced around, tugging off his helmet. Sweat plastered his red hair to his head. Splinters of light filtered through the roof of leaves, providing enough illumination to see the narrow road, but in the trees beyond, it had grown darker. Looking back at Rhys, he complained, "We should have lingered at the inn in the village. The maypole was lifted on the green, and there is to be feasting and merrymaking.”

"And winsome maids to go a’maying with—perhaps to get lost in the woods with while picking whitethorn flowers?” When Brian flushed, Rhys took advantage of the moment. "Nay, I know your way with the ladies. If we’d lingered, we’d not leave Wytham by Saint John’s Eve, nor reach Coventry in time to meet Owain’s messenger.”

"Aye, there is truth in that.” Brian turned his mount on the close road, his mood lighter. He moved to replace his helmet, but his horse gave a shrill whinny and half reared, huge hooves thrashing in the air. Leaves shuddered as the animal backed into a hawthorn hedge thick with white flowers and thorns, and Brian cursed loudly as his helmet fell to the ground, rolling out of sight.

Suddenly all the horses began to plunge and snort, throwing the knights into turmoil. When his own stallion threw up his head and snorted, Rhys drew his sword and adjusted his shield. He’d been too long a soldier and knight not to trust the instincts of his warhorse.

Brian’s sword flashed in the gloom, as did those of the other men. Some muttered curses, others offered prayers as they tried to calm their mounts without being unhorsed. Footmen drew their swords in a clang of steel. Then one of the men gave a shout.

Rhys looked up. The hair on the back of his neckprickled a warn­ing, and he fought his horse to a standstill before he was able to focus on the object of this terror. His blood chilled.

In the middle of the road just ahead stood a small figure, wreathed in shreds of mist as if newly sprung from the very ground. Flowing robes of deepest purple completely draped the motionless form. Rhys made the sign of the cross over his chest, an instinctive ward against evil. A light peal of derisive laughter emerged from the cloaked apparition. Discom­fited, he ignored the spurt of irrational dread and regained control of common sense.

He curbed his plunging mount and spurred forward a few steps. "Move from the road,” he ordered in English. Instead of immediately yielding, there was the sound of more amusement and a brittle tinkle like tiny bells.

"In nomine Patris,” Sir Brian moaned, crossing himself in a clink of chain mail that was echoed by the others. "Confiteor Deo omnipoténti, beátae María semper Virgini...” His prayer faded into silence.

Rhys lifted his sword; a runnel of sunlight skittered along the wicked edge of the blade. Light reflected from chain mail and shield in erratic sparks. It was warning and threat. He sought a conciliatory tone. "Seek the safety of the verge, ere you be trampled.”

Another laugh drifted toward him. Open denial of his authority. He could not see the face as the hood was pulled too far forward, leaving only a dark blur beneath. A spur to his horse or a quick thrust of his sword would remove the obstacle, yet he hesitated.

". . . beáto Michaéli Archángelo, beáto Joánni Baptíste,” Brian wheezed, inviting panic.

Enough. He risked rampant rebellion from his soldiers if he did not prevail, for they would scatter through the weald like crows. He would pluck this miscreant from the road.

He kneed his mount, but Malik only pranced nervously, tossing his head and snorting instead of charging. Rhys swore, uncertain if he was more angry or amazed at the horse’s refusal to obey a command.

Finally, the figure moved. One arm lifted slowly. A small hand was barely noticeable beneath the flowing garment. Rhys saw only a deep shimmering green on the underside; no weapon was visible in the folds.

The horses grew still, and an unnerving hush descended upon the forest road. Tiny bells chimed in the wind, and from the shadows of the hooded cloak came words in an exotic language Rhys had never heard—high, soft, and mysterious.

His horse shuddered, sleek black muscles rippling as the head stretch­ed toward the source of the song. Rhys nudged him to move closer, but with a jangle of curb chain and bridle bit, the great head shook hard enough to whip the long mane about in a stinging brush. It wasn’t until the figure spoke again that the stallion calmed, but the words were smothered by Brian’s droning Latin prayer.

". . . sanctis Apóstolis Petro et Paulo, ómnibus sanctis, et tibi pater...”

Sir Brian’s confessional entreaty grated on Rhys’s uncertain temper. Devil, faerie, or enemy, this creature could not be allowed to make a mockery of him.

Clenching his teeth hard, he ordered, "Move from the path, or be ridden over. I have no time for foolishness.”

A snort of unfaerielike laughter greeted his command, and a gust of wind blew, shaking tree limbs and bells. His eyes narrowed. No mystical faerie bells, just the wind.

". . . quia peccávi nimis cogitatióne, verbo et ópere...”

"Cease, Sir Brian.” Rhys glanced over his shoulder in exasperation. When he turned back, the purple robe glided toward him. He tightened his grip on the hilt of his sword. Nay, this was no reckless man barring the road, but a woman. There was a fluid grace and fragility to the dainty form that could not be achieved by any man he’d ever seen. It was almost as if this were a faerie on winged feet.

Curse Brian’s talk of elves and faeries—he had little patience with such superstitions. Life had taught him much harsher lessons than to believe in enchantment. It was not magic that ruled men’s fates, but the might of the sword.

A full score of knights and soldiers awaited his response. Squires and followers straggled behind. Wind rustled tree branches overhead with an eerie clacking sound, then it grew very still. No birds chirped; no normal forest sounds could be heard. Mist crawled along the ground, rising slowly, curling around the specter.

"Why do you block the road?” he demanded, switching from English to French. "We would pass.”

A sudden wind eddy lifted a spiral of dry leaves into the air in a slight whisper, and the figure stepped forward. A graceful lift of one hand push­ed back the hood of her cloak. Rhys stared at her.

She was beautiful. Faerie-fragile and as luminous as moonlight on dark water, the maid staring up at him with a faint smile left him speechless. Lustrous hair, black as a raven’s wings, straight and shining, fell around her face, and her eyes—Jésu, but her eyes were as deep and dark as the night. She stared directly at him, and he was caught by the intensity of the eyes holding mysterious promises in their depths.

For what seemed like hours but in truth could only have been a moment, he stared into that liquid gaze. Until she broke the spell.

"Greetings, fair knight,” she said in soft, perfect French. "I bar your path only to warn you. The bridge ahead has been washed away, and is not easily seen until too late to stop. I thought you should know of the danger.”

"God’s mercy on you for the warning.” He cleared his throat and gestured with his sword. "Did we frighten you?”

Soft laughter was accompanied by the tinkling of tiny bells as she shook her head. The movement dislodged a skein of her unbound hair; it fell in a gleaming ribbon over one shoulder nearly to her waist. She was close enough now he could almost touch her.

"Nay, brave knight. I was not frightened. Were you?”

"Frightened? By a wisp of a maid? Do you think we are children?”

"I thought perhaps you would fear the Beltane Eve, as many do.”

Sweet Mary, but she was bold to taunt him with a subtle, feline smile and sly words. "I fear naught,” he said shortly.

"Is that so? Courage is always needed in these fearsome times.” She took a step to one side, scattering shreds of mist that curled up around her like smoke. The teasing smile still played at the corners of her mouth.

Provoked, he said, "Times would be fearsome indeed, if the king’s knights were to fear a simple maiden in the midst of the road.”

The maid paused. Her gaze was eloquent and rich with scorn. "Yea, English knights are valorous indeed, as courageous as the king is said to be. Yet I’ve heard that Richard slaughters children.”

Rhys swung his shield over his shoulder again. A gleam of sunlight caught the metallic edge and flashed into his eyes. Blinking, he looked back at her. He could hardly deny it when it was true, but it didn’t sweet­en his temper to be reminded of it. "Are you Richard’s enemy?”

The air grew radiantly bright. A thin shaft of light speared the gloom to fall directly on the maid’s face. She waved an imperious hand, and the sunlight shifted from her eyes as if commanded away.

"Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa,” Brian choked out, striking his chest with a mailed fist, and Rhys turned to give him a quelling glance.

When he turned back, the maid had faded into the shade of an an­cient hawthorn; snow-white flower petals trembled delicately. Shadows darkened, obscuring all but her voice. "I am no man’s enemy. And I fear no man.”

Rhys blinked again, and the dwindling sunlight disappeared with a start­ling swiftness, as if an oil lamp had been doused. Staring into the black void, his first instinct was to call her back. "Demoiselle—you should not be alone in the night.”

Faint laughter drifted back on a sudden gust of wind. The sweet scent of hawthorn blended with a vaguely familiar, intriguing fragrance. In a trice, Rhys dismounted to follow her. His spurs clinked softly as he step­pedinto the tangle of trees.

Brian flung himself from his horse, catching up to Rhys to tug frantically at his mantle. "Nay, Rhys—do not. If you follow her, she will take you into the faerie world, and you will never escape.”

Rhys shook his arm loose impatiently. "Do not act a fool, Brian.”

But when he moved deeper into the trees where the maid had disappeared, he saw no sign of her presence. No broken branch gave indication of her passage. Only the faintly familiar whiff of fragrance remained as a teasing reminder. A gust of wind caught a slender branch that swayed toward his face, and he put up a hand to grab it. He grasped a handful of hawthorn flowers and swore softly when a barb found its way through the metal links of his gauntlets to prick him. No one could just disappear like that, like—like mist.

Brian nudged close to him, his voice rough with fear. "I cannot say if the maid was elf or faerie, but whatever, she has frightening powers.”

"Do you think she summoned the dark?” Derision hid his own misgivings; he knew not what to believe. "She’s only a simple maiden warning us of danger ahead. If she has any sense, she’s wise enough not to become too friendly with roaming knights.”

"Still, I cannot like this,” Brian muttered. Rhys fell silent. There was no point in arguing deeply held superstitions. Pointing out to Brian now that dark oft came abruptly in the deep forests would do nothing to abate his belief that the maid had summoned the night. Nay, it would be a waste of breath even to attempt it.

The maid certainly wasn’t a faerie. But who was she? If she was from the village they had passed through, she was too far from home and safety. No young maiden should be alone in the forest, day or night. But was she alone? She could be a ruse, a distraction, while villains lay in the trees ahead to fall upon them. Mercenaries could always set upon them, for the forests were thick with thieves on the roads in England these days.

Yet it was not a mortal enemy his men feared....

Just a glance at their strained faces and wide eyes was enough to convince him they would be worthless the rest of the night. It would take a miracle to put them at ease—or more magic to counter what they feared.

He summoned Sir Robert, an older knight with experience and sense. "We will return to the clearing we passed earlier. We’ll camp and light a coelcerth for the Beltane Eve.”

"Aye, my lord.” Sir Robert turned and gave orders to prepare to halt for the night.

Some of the Welsh soldiers nodded in relief. A ritual bonfire to chase away the demons should restore their courage, so that the morrow would find the men free of the numbing fear that seemed to grip them now. It seemed to ease the worst of their fright. When they returned to the clearing, the sounds of making camp lent a reassuring normalcy to the night. Welshmen readied themselves to gather the sticks from nine different kinds of trees to perform their ceremony, removing all metal from their bodies, including mail and swords.

Rhys looked down. He still held his naked sword. Slowly, he sheathed it. This sword had been used on the field of battle at Acre and was forged of the finest steel, with a hilt of carved copper and bronze. He had captured it while on Crusade with King Richard, and it had served him well.

He thought of those distant, sun-drenched lands where towering stone fortresses stood stark against barren hills. It hit him then, as he stared into the enveloping darkness, that the intriguing fragrance he had detected among the hedges was Turkish jasmine.

"THAT WAS FOOLISH,” Elspeth said sourly.

Sasha flushed with annoyance. Her chin came up instinctively as she caught Elspeth’s unspoken words: Reckless—and proud as Lucifer’s own daughter...

Ignoring the thought and addressing the spoken reprimand, Sasha said, "What, to warn the knights of the bridge? Nay, ‘twas only kind­ness.”

"They could have killed you. I’ve noticed no kindness from wan­dering knights to solitary maidens.” Elspeth shook her head. A long shadow wavered on the cave wall. "Your Gift won’t protect you from folly. It was foolish.”

Sasha didn’t want to admit how unsettled the encounter had left her. She managed a careless shrug as she seated herself before the fire and held her hands out to warm them. She still shook with reaction. Faintly amazed at her own daring, she’d not expected to have such an effect on the knights. She couldn’t say she was sorry for frightening them, but she had expected the full use of her Gift to learn how best to approach the tall, lean knight who was their leader.

Instead, she’d encountered only a brilliant silence when she bent her talent toward the knight. No identity, unspoken words, or images had come to her when bid, only that bright, brittle band of silence. Alarmed, she’d turned her talent to the score of men ranging behind the blond knight. Jumbled impressions couched in several languages had come from the armed men with him, restoring a shaky faith in her Gift. It was not gone, only powerless with this one man. She’d found the lack be­wildering, then frightening.

Why couldn’t she read his thoughts? It had never happened to her before. So she’d stood staring up at him while mist coiled along the ground in annoying shreds, dampening her cloak and veiling the knight in gauzy streamers. And then, bright and swift as a bolt of lightning had come the illuminating explanation: He must be the answer to the pro­phecy.

Elspeth made a soft clucking sound in the back of her throat, and Sasha looked up. Firelight danced over craggy walls and ceiling. Tucked beneath a shelf of rock and heavy brush not far from the road, the cave was well hidden and not easily seen, a perfect spot for travelers seeking safe shelter for a night. The low roof grew higher toward the back, and a bone-deep chill emanated from the rock walls. She also felt the chill of Elspeth’s disapproval, and Sasha answered her at last.

"Not so foolish, if you will. My Gift has always given me the ability to see the true nature of men. The blond knight is not evil. I knew that when I spoke with him, even without using my Gift.”

"Bah. He is arrogant and proud,” Elspeth grumbled. "You should have fled, as did Biagio and I.”

"Biagio fled with you?” she murmured. "‘Twould be the first time that brash youth abandoned danger.”

Elspeth shrugged. "I did not say he came with me willingly. But at least he gave heed to my warnings. When I saw you were not with us—if those men had taken you...”

She let her voice fade, but Sasha did not need to hear thoughts or spoken words to know what she meant. Outlaw knights had little com­punction about taking a woman against her will, even killing her. Richard was on his Crusades, and all of England had been left in the hands of his brother Prince John. With a villain as their ruler, villains roamed freely.

"Where is Biagio now?” she asked to avoid more censure from Elspeth. "We must re-pack the cart for the morrow.”

"He went back to look for you.”

Elspeth turned her head, but Sasha intercepted a brief mental vision of Biagio’s face, contorted and angry, his words sharp. Dio—I am going back... I will find her... should not have left... Then Elspeth firmly fo­cused on the leaping flames of the fire, and her mental images of Biagio dis­appeared to be replaced by a resolute study of the flames.

Sasha’s cheeks puffed out in a sigh. Elspeth and Biagio worried unduly. But she couldn’t change that. And in truth, there was often reason for apprehension. "I hope Biagio is careful,” was all she said.

Biagio could take care of himself well enough. The young Italian seemed to have a multitude of talents, none of them fully developed, some of them irritating, but all accompanied by a strong sense of self-preservation. He was reckless and insolent, and though she would never have admitted it to him for fear his head would swell with conceit, she blessed the day he had joined them. And she was infinitely grateful that he had not interfered in the weald.

She thought again of the knight who had resented her warning. Having newly come from the ruined bridge that barred their path, they’d had only enough time to hide in the trees upon first sighting the approaching knights, peering out at them through thorny branches. The men made no effort to be quiet, and Sasha found herself greatly amused by the man named Rhys’s disbelief in superstitions. His arrogant denials had prompted her to mischief, to tweak him a little. It was easy for her to agitate their horses. And it had been worth it to see Richard’s stalwart knights struggle with uncontrollable mounts, swearing and praying and sweating. She’d not been able to contain her laughter. There was a deep-seated belief in the world of elves and faeries in all men, whether they wished to acknowledge it or not.

But then the leader had shifted his shield, and she’d glimpsed a mythical beast on the hammered metal surface. The gryffin—it was the sign she had long sought.

Half-closing her eyes, Sasha gazed into the leaping flames. She’d not expected the answer to the prophecy to be so young. She’d envisioned a grizzled warrior with battle scars aplenty, savage and impressive, bellowing threats and even defying the heavens. But not this, not a man who looked more like a princely knight in a chansons de geste than a fierce fighter. She didn’t want a romantic hero. She wanted a proficient warrior. That was what it would take to succeed.

Elspeth was right. It had been very foolish to stand in the midst of the forest road, gazing up at an angry knight and gaping like a lackwit, but she’d been so startled by the lack of her Gift that she couldn’t react. And then she’d seen the emblem he wore and really looked at him. That had almost been her undoing. He could have been Apollo stepped down from the sun—as blinding, blond, and beautiful as the Greek god. No helmet hid his bright hair or clean-shaven features, and she’d found herself staring at him as if struck dumb, thinking that he couldn’t be the man for whom she’d searched so long.

But perhaps he was....

There was character in his noble visage, in high cheekbones not at all marred by the scar curving from one temple, integrity in the pale eyes beneath a slash of dark brows, strength in the hard, arrogant set of his jaw. The very air had seemed to shimmer, as it did in the midst of a summer storm, when lightning charged the air.... Yea, perhaps he was the man she’d been promised, the champion who would fulfill the prophecy.


Drifting to her through leaping flame and smoke, the unspoken word had all the raw power of a scream. Sasha looked up from the fire, reluctantly meeting Elspeth’s eyes. As usual, she knew what the older woman was thinking. She slowly shook her head, and the tiny bells sewn into the lining of her cloak tinkled lightly.

"Elspeth, I must confess. His mind is closed to me. But this is the one—I’m certain that he is the man of the prophecy.”

Elspeth stared at her. A frail hand moved up to her throat with a small flutter. "The prophecy... child, child, you were only eight years old when Rina told you of it. She was just a crazy Kievan Rus seer. Who could know if this prophecy is true?”

"It’s true. Nothing else makes sense.” She drew in a deep breath. "It has to be true. I have searched so long for my champion, and now he is come.”

Elspeth moaned. "Nay, Sasha, he’s a rogue knight. He cannot be the one. You said yourself his mind is closed to you. It must be a mistake. We shall yet find the one who was promised. Perhaps when we get to my village—”

"It’s this one. I’m certain of it. Do not ask me how I know. It’s a feeling... think of the prophecy, the chance meeting with a fierce knight who is half eagle, half lion.”

"How can you be so certain it’s this one?” Elspeth’s veined hands shook as she held them out. "Your Gift cannot foretell the future—”

"You didn’t see his crest before you fled.” Sasha’s eyes began to burn, and she closed them against the smoke and doubt. "He wore the sign of the gryffin on his shield and surcoat. It was the half eagle, half lion that has haunted my dreams since I was only a child. ‘Tis he, I know it. I cannot be wrong—”

"Because he wears the gryffin? Perchance, it’s only his overlord’s colors he wears, and not his.”

"That’s a possibility, of course, but it doesn’t matter. He wears the sign. This is the one. I feel it, Elspeth.”

"Holy Mary, child.” Her voice quavered. "What if you’re wrong? You know your Gift is truly useful, but it cannot save you from disaster.”

"Yea, I know that well. Too well. There are times this Gift is a curse, though it’s often helped me learn truths others cannot see. He must be the one, Elspeth, he must—or I would be able to see in his mind as I can all others. He’s too strong for me to penetrate the wall of light around him, too powerful for my Gift.” She opened her eyes. "I intend to ask him to help us.”

"Aiee! Child, you frighten me. Have you no regard for your own safety?” Elspeth rocked back and forth, her arms crossed over her bony chest in a gesture of grief. "I fear for you if you deal with hedge knights. They’re evil men, with no regard for others, devouring all in their paths. If it’s meant to be, it will happen. Do not ask him, I beg of you.”

"But this knight is different.” She searched for the words to explain herself, to make Elspeth understand. "When I look at him, I see a gryffin. We need such a fabled beast, need a man with the strength of a lion and the fierce courage of an eagle. Take heart. He is the knight that was promised, and he will help us. I know he will.”

Elspeth subsided, but the discussion was not ended. Sasha knew better. In truth, she had misgivings of her own. What if Elspeth was right? What if she’d made a mistake? But even if she had, wasn’t anything better than what yawned before her—living out her years in a remote English village so far from everything? In a moment of despair and weakness she had yielded to Elspeth’s pleas, and now they were so close to the village where Elspeth had been born, so close to the end of their long journey across most of Europe and all of England. Years of wan­dering, from gilded palaces to burning desert sands, over towering mountain heights and down into valleys beautiful enough to hurt the eyes, would soon be over. It hadn’t all been wonderful. There had been terrifying times, times when she was certain they would be killed and their bodies left in a desolate wilderness, but they’d survived. She had done what she must—donned disguises, foretold futures at county fairs, even danced with a bear once on frozen tundra. She’d perched atop the bare backs of racing horses and won the admiration of a French count—the most dangerous kind of attention for a maiden, and one that had sent them scurrying from the chateau in midnight hours. Yet the enmity of a powerful prince may well see them ruined if she did not hide away. Yea, she had not spent the past thirteen years idly.

But for what? If she gave up now, what would have been the purpose of surviving when those she loved had not?

"Remember,” Elspeth said softly, coming to stand in front of the fire, "that you are a princess. Men oft grow greedy, or swollen with the lust for power. Do not trust too readily, child.”

Sasha’s mouth twisted wryly. "A princess without a throne or a country, hunted by those who would slay me for an accident of birth. I have riches but not enough to buy an army, royal blood but no title. Not even the name I use is my own. No, you don’t have to remind me. It would be impossible to forget who I am. Or who I once was...”

Those days were gone, vanished in the uprising of fierce men who had swept over her father’s land, seizing the white-washed towers and minarets, slaying all those in their path. Her mother, the fair English rose renowned for beauty and wisdom, had been slain as well. Dark days, dark memories... The inherited Gift, passed from mother to daughter, had not been enough to save Elfreda from death. It had only allowed her to see her daughter and maidservant safely away, forfeiting her life to ensure theirs. That was the ultimate gift, the ultimate sacrifice, and it had been for love of her child. No, she would not allow that sacrifice to be in vain, not allow the murderer of her parents to go unpunished. And she would take back that which was hers.

Al-Amir would not be allowed to keep what he’d stolen; neither would he succeed in annihilating all of Ben Al-Farouk’s heirs, for she was still alive, the last one. And if her enemies knew it, she would die as well.

Rising, Sasha removed her cloak, laying aside the useful garment. It was royal purple on one side, green on the other, suiting whichever mood was on her, as changeable as she needed it to be. She moved to a bundle and rummaged inside until she found what she sought. Then she returned to the fire and knelt before it. After carefully inscribing a few words on a chip of sandalwood, she placed it in a brass censer.

"What do you wish for?” Elspeth asked.

Sasha looked up, pausing. "Only for an answer to the prophecy. What is meant to be, will come to us. I wish for another sign to prove that I am not wrong.”

She lit the sandalwood with a burning twig; a fragrant coil of smoke rose to mingle with the scent of burning oak. She closed her eyes. Joy and peace, all the things that eluded her, were written on the sandalwood. The prophecy would come true. Opening her eyes, she stared intently at the brass censer, thinking hard of the wish rising with the smoke, repeating it over and over, until the wood was nothing but ash.

Eyes half-closed, she turned her head to stare into the fire. Among the leaping flames and curling smoke she saw a land of sunshine and warmth, peace and beauty—and the knight who could win it all back for her.

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