Seren stood before the aged guild masters with all her hopes showing brightly on her face as they examined the workmanship of her precious scarlet cloth. They reminded her of a group of crows, swathed in black, gathered over their latest victim. But not even that thought could dampen her hopes that they each held in their gnarled hands.
For the last three years, she had worked diligently on the scarlet cloth they examined, using every spare coin, every spare moment to prepare it. Like a woman possessed, she had dragged out her mother’s old, wooden loom at night and worked with only the firelight to guide her.
With every brush of her comb, every thread, she had felt the power of her creation.
It was perfect. There were no discrepancies in the dye or stitches.
Truly, it was a masterpiece.
And if they accepted it, then she would finally be a journeywoman and a guild member. At long last, she would be her own person! All her dreams of freedom and of being paid coin for her hard work would come true. There would be no more days of working from sunup to sundown for room and board from Master Rufus, of having to scrub clothes late at night for Mistress Maude to pay for her supplies.
She could sell her own cloth…
“Not good enough.”
Seren blinked at the harsh pronouncement as she stared at the four men before her. “P-pardon?”
“Not good enough,” the master craftsman said with a curl to his lips as he looked at her precious cloth. “I wouldn’t use it for a horse blanket.”
Seren couldn’t breathe. Nay! He was wrong. He had to be. “But IÃ¢â‚¬â€œ”
“Take it,” he said, tossing it at her. “Come back to us when you’re worthy of the trade.”
The red cloth stung her face from the force of his throw. Unable to move, she stood there with it falling from her head to her arms. Instinctively, she held it to her even though she didn’t know why she bothered to protect it.
Her soul cried out in disappointment as all her dreams withered and died in the cold room.
How could they say such a thing about her work? It was a lie. She knew it. Her cloth was perfect.
She wanted to scream that word out, but her all the bitter disappointment gathered in her throat to tighten it and choke her. This couldn’t be happening. It couldn’t be real.
Someone came forward and pulled her away from the masters, toward the door in the back. Tears fell uncontrollably from her face as the harsh words echoed repeatedly in her head.
How could her cloth not be worthy?
“I spent all my time on this,” she whispered, her heart breaking. “All my precious coin.” She wore rags so that she could buy the materials she’d needed to produce the cloth. She’d gone all winter with holes in her shoes only to be told that all her sacrifices had been in vain.
How could this be?
“Ã¢â‚¬ËœTis not your cloth,” the man whispered as he pulled her from the hall. “There are too many weavers here. They will admit no more to the guild until one leaves or dies.”
Was that supposed to comfort her? To feed her?
Damn them all for this!
“Take my word for it, child, you are better off without being in the guild.”
He placed her hand on her cloth. “You have bigger problems than being an apprentice. Believe me.”
Before she could ask him what he meant, the man pushed her out into the street. She heard him bolt the door behind her.
Seren stood there on the stoop of the guild hall with all her dreams shattered. She was apprentice still and so long as she bore that title, she couldn’t charge a fee for her work. Couldn’t marry. Couldn’t do anything more than what Master Rufus or Mistress Maude told her to do.
She had no life to call her own. And from the looks of it, she never would.
Bitter anger washed through her as she stared at her perfect, useless cloth.
“What good are you!” she sobbed. By law, she couldn’t even use the cloth to make a gown for herself. Only those of noble birth could wear it. She couldn’t sell it. It was fit for naught but burning.
All was lost.
Seren wiped at the tears on her face as she turned to see a tall, well-dressed knight behind her. His golden blond hair brushed his incredibly wide shoulders. He was dressed in mail armor that was covered by a deep green surcoat that bore a rampant silver stag… The weave of said garment was not nearly so fine as her scarlet cloth and yet she held no doubt it had been made by someone those beasts had granted guild status to while denying it to her!
Stop it, Seren.
The cloth he wore wasn’t important. The fact that a man of his class spoke to her was. She couldn’t imagine what he might want with her.
Making sure that she didn’t offend him by meeting his gaze, she spoke in an even, calm tone. “Is there something I can do for you, my lord?”
He glanced behind him toward another handsome knight who looked close enough in features to be a relation of some sort. Only that knight had his blond hair cut shorter and wore a well-trimmed beard.
“Are you Seren, the weaver’s apprentice?”
She cocked her head suspiciously, wondering how noblemen had learned her name and why they would know it. “Why do you ask such, my lord?”
“I am Gawain,” he said with an eager gentle smile, “and this is my brother Agravain.”
The names surprised her. She’d only heard of them in one place. “As in the tales of King Arthur?”
His face lightened instantly. “You know us?”
“Nay, my lord, I do not. I only know of the stories the old men and minstrels tell at night for food and shelter, or in the street when they seek coin.”
He frowned at her. “But you do know of the knights of Arthur’s Round Table?”
“Aye, my lord. Are there any who does not?”
His smile returned. “Then you know us. We are the same. My brother and I have been sent here to find you. You are to be mother of the next merlin and you must come with us so that we can protect you.”
Seren went cold at his words. Mother to the next merlin? What was this game they played?
But then she feared that she knew. It was more than common for a nobleman to set his sights on a peasant girl for his pleasure. There was nothing she could do to stop it. Peasants had no rights before their noble masters.
Yet if she went with them and Master Rufus learned of it, he’d throw her out. Both he and his wife required chastity of all their apprentices. Gilda had been turned out just last year when they had learned she’d done nothing more than walk home from mass with a young man.
“Please, my lord, do not ask this of me. I am a good and decent woman. I have nothing in this world except my untarnished reputation. I am sure there is goodness in you that you would not see an innocent woman suffer for your lust.”
He looked confused by her words.
“You’re blowing it, Wain,” the other knight said. He moved past him and bowed low before her. “My lady, please. We mean you no harm. We are only here to protect you.”
It was a struggle not to look up at them. “Protect me from what, my lord?”
The only thing she needed protection from was men such as these.
It was the one called Gawain who answered. “Morgen’s clutches. You belong with us and are to be a bride of Avalon and as such we need you to come with us now before the mods find you and take you to Camelot.”
Mods? What the devil was a mod?
They were mad! Both of them. Seren took a step back, her heart hammering. What could she do? If she called out for help, they could claim her as one of their serfs. She wasn’t even sure if Master Rufus would help her. He wouldn’t dare contradict a nobleman.
God save her!
There was nothing to be done about it. She’d have to run and pray she escaped them.
Holding tight to her cloth, she dodged into the street, away from them, and ran with all her might. She heard the men shouting at her to stop. But there was no way she would allow them to catch her.
Darting down an alleyway, she stumbled over a piece of broken cobblestone, then caught herself. She looked about for an escape.
There was a small, narrow pass between two buildings that would only just let her through. The men should be too large to follow.
Seren ran to it and pressed herself against the wall before she inched her way down it. There was an awful smell here and it was a struggle not to breathe through her nose. Even so, smelly or not, it was better than the alternative. Better her nose be assaulted than her body.
She heard the men enter the alley behind her and curse.
“Where is she?”
“Merlin will kill us if we don’t return with her.”
“You and your bright ideas. I swear, Gawain, I should have strangled you at birth.” He changed his tone to a high-pitched mocking one. “We’ll just tell her who we are and she’ll come with us. No problem. Damn you for the stupidity.”
“What was your idea? Huh? You didn’t have one at all, did you, brother intellect?”
While they argued and berated each other, she continued on her way toward the end.
“There she is!”
She turned her head to see the knights at the opening behind her. They tried to follow and couldn’t so then they pulled back to run around the building.
Seren popped out, then ran headlong down the narrow, cobblestone street. There were people everywhere, going to market and to businesses. With any luck, the knights would lose sight of her in the crowd.
Or at least she thought so until she rounded a corner and found herself face to face with Gawain again.
How had he gotten here so quickly?
“You can’t hide from us, Seren.” He took her arm.
Seren twisted away from him and bolted again into the thronging mass. People cursed and pushed at her as she collided with them in her haste. Her heart felt as though it would explode from her fear and panic.
What was she going to do?
Looking behind her to see them still in pursuit, she darted into the street, then skidded to a stop as she heard a horse shrieking.
Seren glanced up to see a large black destrier rearing before her. It’s shiny hooves pawed the air as if it wanted nothing more than to pummel her with them. She held her arm up to protect herself and prayed the animal stopped before it savaged her.
The knight spoke to the horse in a language she didn’t understand as he brought the beast under control. “Are you trying to kill yourself, woman,” he snarled at her.
But the anger on his face faded as he looked at her and his features softened to something less than severe. “Forgive me for my rudeness, good woman. I hope that I didn’t frighten you overmuch. It was only the surprise of my horse rearing that caused me to snap.”
Seren could only gape at the handsomeness of the man on horseback. His raven black hair fell in waves around the perfect features of his clean-shaven face. Eyes so black that they didn’t even appear to have a pupil stared at her with an intensity that left her even more breathless than her run through the streets.
She heard the men behind her curse.
The knight on horseback looked past her to see them running toward them. “Have you need of assistance, good woman?”
“Aye, my lord,” she breathed. “I need to escape them before they catch me.”
“Then as a knight and champion, I offer my most humble services to you. Come, and I shall see you home without harm.” He extended his hand.
“Nay!” the knight called Gawain shouted as they ran toward her.
Before she could think better of it, Seren placed her hand into his.
The knight pulled her astride his saddle to ride before him, then set his heels to the horse’s flanks. They tore through the crowd at a speed that amazed her. It was as if his great black steed had wings.
For the first time since she had arisen that morning, Seren took a deep breath as relief coursed through her.
“Thank you, my lord,” she said to the knight holding her. “You have truly saved my life this day. I can never repay you for your kindness.”
The chase didn’t seem to concern him at all as he guided his horse with expert hand through the town. “And how is it I have saved your life?”
“Those men who were after me. They were mad.”
“They claimed that I was to be the mother of the wizard Merlin. Mayhap they were only drunk, but…” She shivered as she considered what had almost befallen her. “Thank the Lord and all his saints that you came when you did. I shudder to think what they would have done to me.”
He gave her a knowing look. “Aye, there was a higher power that brought me to you. Of that I have no doubt.”
Seren had just started to relax when she heard the sound of hooves behind them.
The knight turned to look.
“It’s them!” she breathed, her panic returning as she saw the two knights again in pursuit. “Why won’t they let me go?”
“Have no fear. I won’t let them take you.”
His words thrilled her. Who would have believed that such a handsome knight would defend a simple peasant maid? “You are truly a kind and noble knight, sir.”
But as he looked down at her, Seren would have sworn that his eyes flashed red before he spurred his horse to an even greater speed. The other two knights continued to give chase. They raced through town until they flew over the bridge that took them out into the countryside.
Seren cringed. “I’m not to leave the town,” she told the knight. “My master will have me beaten for leaving without his permission.”
“There is nothing I can do. Should we return, they will take you. Is that what you want?”
“Then hold tight until we lose them.”
Seren did as he said. She wrapped her arms about his waist and inhaled the scent of leather, man and beast. His horse flew over the open meadow, racing toward the dense woods that lay before them.
All of a sudden, something exploded by their side.
“Accero, accero domini doyan,” the knight said in his deep, resonate voice.
Seren gasped in terror as the gargoyle decorations on the horse’s bridle lifted themselves off and took flight. They screeched like banshees before they headed toward the men pursing them.
“What is this?” she asked.
“You’re in a dream.” His voice was inside her head. “Sleep.” Seren blinked her eyes as exhaustion overtook her. She tried desperately to remain awake, but couldn’t.
Before she knew what was happening, darkness consumed her.
Kerrigan pulled the woman closer to him as he felt her go limp from his spell. She was completely soft and pliant in his arms. Satisfied that she couldn’t fight him, he slowed his horse so that he could turn around to see Gawain and Agravain fighting his gargoyles.
He let his malevolent laughter ring out. “She is ours,” he called to them.
Gawain launched a sorcerer’s fire blast at him. Kerrigan dissolved it before it came near him.
“You know what we want, Gawain. Tell Merlin to give it or see this woman die.” With his words spoken, Kerrigan spoke the sacred words that took him away from the world of man, into the realm of Camelot.
In an eerie black mist, the world of man faded into darkness. The veil that separated the two realms mingled until he found himself once more on the black soil of Camelot.
Here the Kerrigan was more than a knight. Here he was king. Laughing in triumph, Kerrigan rode over the black drawbridge, into the outer, then inner bailey. As he reined his horse before the donjon, a misshapen grayling male came forward to take his horse.
Kerrigan gripped the woman tightly in his arms before he slid to the ground with his precious bundle.
“Give him extra oats,” he told the fey grayling.
“Aye, my lord.”
Kerrigan shifted the woman’s slight weight before he headed toward the blackened doors of the once famed castle. They parted of their own volition as he approached, allowing him to enter as his heels and spurs clicked eerily against the stone floor.
As he walked through the hallway that was scented with nutmeg and mace, torches lit themselves to illuminate the way to the turret stairs. He was headed to a bedchamber on the uppermost floor. One that would guarantee this woman had no choice except to stay here until they killed her.
It was a room that was segregated in the northernmost tower where no one could hear her screams. Not that it would matter. There were none here, including him, who would ever render aid to another.
Like the rest of the castle, the room was decorated in black and gray. The only color in this land was found in Morgen’s direct domain. The fey queen wanted nothing to detract from her beauty or her presence.
Kerrigan laid the woman down upon the black bed and pulled back the covers for her. She was pale and fragile against the darkness. Her long, straight hair was so fair as to be almost white.
To his surprise, she wasn’t a beautiful woman. In truth, her features leaned toward plain, except for her eyes. A clear, crystal green, they were large and almond-shaped like a cat’s. Her nose was of average shape and form, and her lips were full. Her body was undernourished and thin, with next to no feminine curves to cushion a man who might take her.
There was nothing remarkable about her. Nothing that marked her as the future mother of a merlin.
She reminded him of a simple mouse.
And even unconscious, she still clung to the vibrant red cloth in her hands. He frowned at her actions, wondering why she bothered. He started to take it away from her, then paused for reasons unknown.
“You trusting fool,” he snarled at her. He couldn’t imagine ever reaching out his hand to someone for help.
And what had it gotten her? Nothing but her own doom.
A shadow slithered into the room from the keyhole of the door. “Mistress Morgen wants word with you, my lord.”
“Tell her I will come in my own good time.” It never boded well to keep her waiting. Morgen possessed a nasty temperament that was only matched by his own. But then Kerrigan refused to let anyone, even Morgen command him.
Besides there was nothing more the fey queen could do to him. He was already damned by his own actions and no one, not even she, could kill him.
The sharoc or shadow-fey, continued to hover beside him as if it were trying to rush him.
“Leave me,” Kerrigan snarled.
The sharoc retreated immediately. Again alone with the unknown woman, Kerrigan found himself studying her curiously. She was unlike the women who lived here in Camelot. Granted they, due to their magic, were all beautiful to behold, but none of them possessed the spark that seemed to glow from within her.
Her skin appeared somehow softer, more appealing. Inviting.
You are being a fool. She is nothing but a stupid mortal.
Aye. And she most certainly wasn’t worth his time.
“Anir!” he called for his gargoyle servant.
The beast flew through the open window and hovered over the bed where the woman rested. Anir’s stark yellow eyes glowed against his dark gray stone-like skin. “Aye, my lord?”
“Guard her and let me know the instant she wakes.”
The gargoyle nodded, then came to rest on the foot of the bed. It crouched there in a small, watchful pose, then hardened back into its true form of stone.
Kerrigan paused as he took one last look at the woman who beguiled him. He still didn’t understand her appeal. Not that it mattered. The time she had left to live was extremely finite. Even if those at Avalon gave over the table he sought, she would still be killed.
She was to be the mother of a merlin. That alone carried with it a death sentence.
“What do you mean he got away?”
Gawain cringed at Merlin’s question. He looked to Agravain for some reprieve, but none was forthcoming.
“Lord Smooth,” Agravain said snidely, “told her she was going to be the mother of the next merlin so she panicked and ran.”
Merlin pressed her hand to her head as if she had a fierce ache above her brow. A tall, slender woman, Merlin was the epitome of beauty. She held long, flaxen hair that flowed around her lithe body that was covered by a white gown trimmed in gold. Truly, there was no woman more fair.
Or more angry than she was at present.
She glared at them as a book appeared before her and hovered there, suspended by nothing. The pages of the book turned to a passage. “Let me see if I have this right.”
She read from the book. “Gawain the noble and chivalrous knight of Arthur. A king’s champion, his prowess with women was unsurpassed.” She looked up from the book to pin Gawain with a most unhappy glare. “This is you, is it not?”
Gawain chafed under her angry scrutiny. The pages of the book then turned to another passage so that he could read from it. “And according to that book, Merlin, you’re an old, bald man.”
Merlin’s eyes widened as the book burst into flames. “Have you a wish to die?”
“I can’t. I’m immortal.”
Agravain sucked his breath in sharply between his teeth. “Caution, brother. The last man to anger Merlin now sits locked in a cage underneath our precious home.”
That was true. Merlin had vowed to never forgive Sir Thomas Malory for what he wrote of them.
“I’m sorry, Merlin,” Gawain said, trying to calm them all down. “Believe me, you are no angrier over this than I am. How did the Kerrigan know to be there?”
Merlin sighed. “His powers have grown much over the centuries. If we do not stop him soon, they will be stronger than even mine.”
Gawain exchanged a nervous look with his brother. No one needed to tell them what would happen should that occur. The Kerrigan held no heart, no compassion. He was the male counterpart to Morgen and he was her champion. If he grew stronger than Merlin, there would be no stopping them from taking over the world and enslaving them all.
Gawain stroked his chin thoughtfully. “I shall have Percival research him. Maybe there is something written that can expose a weakness-”
“Nay,” Merlin said. “Morgen is more intelligent than that. Unlike us, she seems to be able to keep her minions out of written legends.”
Agravain snorted. “Not our fault Thom got drunk and started talking. I still think we should have killed him.”
“It wasn’t the talking that was bad,” Gawain said snidely. “It was the writing.”
Merlin stiffened. “Thank you for that reminder.”
“Sorry, Merlin,” they said in unison.
“So what do we do now?” Agravain asked Merlin.
Merlin sighed. “We wait to see what Kerrigan does. We can’t give over the table to him… at least not without a wheelbarrow and a bucket. And even if we do, I am sure he will kill Seren and end her bloodline for us.” Merlin took up pacing the hall. “Somehow we must find a way to get Seren out of Camelot.”
Gawain looked up to the seal of the Pendragon that hung on the wall above them. A brightly colored fresco, it held the image of a dragon with a lion sleeping at its feet. Fire curled around the beast that stood with its wings spread wide. The dragon was alert and ready to defend its power and territory.
Behind that seal, lying asleep in a tomb wasn’t the king of legend.
It was one of his true sons that he’d sired with Queen Guinevere.
“Should we wake Draig for this?”
“Nay,” Merlin said. “His time to rise isn’t now. Summon the others. Whatever we do, we cannot allow evil to win. If they do…”
Everything good would die.
Kerrigan entered Morgen’s room with his arms folded over his chest. Her receiving room was open and light, decorated in pale yellows and gold. Her white-blond hair was striking against her darker skin. She looked like an angel, but Kerrigan knew from experience that those looks were definitely deceiving.
Her gown was a vivid, unnatural red that moved like blood on her body. She was dancing in the room with her Adoni. Unlike the graylings, they were tall, fair of form and agile. Humans oft called them elves, but they should never be confused with their Germanic cousins. The Adoni were a vicious race that preyed on mankind whenever they could. It was what endeared them so to Morgen.
She paused in her dancing as she saw him. “So you’ve come to me finally.”
He shrugged nonchalantly. “Why did you send for me?”
“I want you to keep a very close eye on our guest. If I know that bitchtress, Merlin, and I do, she will set loose her dogs to come here and liberate her.”
He scoffed at the witch. “I don’t make such mistakes. Neither Merlin nor her bastard minions will ever be able to breech these walls.”
Morgen smiled at that as she crossed the room to stand beside him. She reached out to brush his hair back from his face. Her touch was as icy as her heart. “Why do you never come to my bed anymore, Kerrigan?”
He cut a glare to the Adoni male who watched them with jealousy and interest. “I find your bed too crowded for my tastes.”
She laughed coldly at that. “There was a time when you didn’t mind crowds. But you are very daring, my evil heart. I’m not sure why I allow you to speak to me thus.”
“Then kill me, Morgen.”
She sighed at that as she continued to toy in his hair. “We both know I can’t so long as you carry the sword Caliburn and its scabbard.” She gave him a pretty, seductive pout. “You have been with me all these centuries past, Kerrigan. Always serving my needs. Always killing and torturing others for my whims. You remind me so much of my son.”
Hardly. Mordred was a weakling milksop compared to Kerrigan. “But I am not Mordred.”
Her eyes sparked at the reminder of her son who lay in stasis, awaiting the time when he would awaken again to torture the world of man. “Nay, you are not.” She pulled his head down to hers so that she could kiss him.
Kerrigan didn’t respond. He’d long ago grown tired of her cold, demanding touch.
She pulled back from him with a curse, then shoved him back. “Begone from me.”
He inclined his head to her and for once, obeyed.
Seren rubbed her eyes as she felt herself waking up. What a terrible dream she’d had. First she’d thought the guild had turned her down, then she’d been chased by strange knights.
“I shall have to tell…” her voice trailed off as she opened her eyes and saw the eerie room. She lay on a bed that was completely black. The covers, the wood, even the curtains. The windows were open to show her a dark, overcast sky that held gray clouds and no trace of sunshine.
“Where am I?” She sat up slowly, trying to remember how she could have come to such a place.
A sudden movement drew her attention to the foot of her bed. She shrieked as she saw the gargoyle statue come alive. It’s eerie yellow eyes focused on her as its forked, stone tail whipped around it.
“Fear not, human,” it said in a deep, ragged voice. “I won’t eat your heart from you. At least not yet.”
“Nay,” it said in a sinister tone as he eyed her with malice. “No dreams here, bobbin. Only nightmares.”
The gargoyle launched itself into the air to fly about as it watched her. “Kerrigan, Kerrigan,” it called. “My Lord Darkness, Ã¢â‚¬Ëœtis time for you to return.”
A wispy smoke appeared beside her bed.
Seren scooted to the opposite side of the bed and watched as the smoke took the form of a man with glowing red eyes. The smoke solidified into the knight who had rescued her. The cinders of his eyes flared to flames, then turned as dark and cold as coal.
As soon as he appeared, the gargoyle flew from the window and vanished into the eerie sky.
She whispered a prayer as she crossed herself. “What are you?”
She didn’t want to believe that. And yet, how could she not? “But you helped me to escape the others.”
His gaze was cold, blank. “Nay, I helped myself.”
“I don’t understand. Why is this happening to me?”
He watched her without mercy or compassion. “Why should it happen to someone else? What is so special about you that you should be immune to the callus machinations of fate?”
She swallowed at his harsh tone. “I never said I should be immune to anything. I want only to know why this is happening. Where am I?”
“You are in Camelot.”
She looked around at the cold, sinister walls that bore no resemblance to the place of legend. “Camelot?”
“Aye,” he said. “Can you not see the beauty of it? The magic? Here is where Arthur united a kingdom and saw his whole world crumble before his own nephew brutally killed him at Camlann.”
She knew the famed legend well, but she’d never imagined Camelot looking like this. “Are you one of his knights of the Round Table?”
He laughed coldly at that. “Do I look like such? Nay, woman, I am their scourge. You ran from your blessed knights of the Round Table in town when they would have saved you.”
“Saved me from what?”
Seren bolted from the bed and ran for the door. Before she could reach it, the knight was before her, blocking her way. “There is no way out of here, little mouse.”
“Please,” she begged, terrified of that was happening to her. “Please, let me go. I am just a peasant. I am nothing special, nothing out of the ordinary. I want only to go home and become a journeywoman.”
A faraway look came into his cold eyes. “And I, too, was just a peasant. A liar and a thief, I spent my entire youth running from those who would beat me. Now I am king of Camelot. The wheel of fate is ever on the move. Today you are a simple apprentice without prospects, but in the days to come your destiny was to marry and breed with one of Arthur’s famed knights.”
But that didn’t make sense to her. It wasn’t possible. “I don’t understand. I cannot marry a knight. I am a peasant.”
His eyes flashed red as he skimmed his evil gaze over her body.
Kerrigan felt himself growing hard as he watched her standing so courageously before him. She was terrified, he could smell it and yet she continued to fight even though she knew it was hopeless.
She wasn’t anything special and yet…
His body reacted to her nearness in a way it had never reacted to anyone before. He found himself curious over why Dame Fortuna had chosen this meek little mouse to birth one of the greatest powers on earth. What a strange vessel to nurture and breed a Merlin.
“Have you ever taken a man into your body, little mouse?”
Her face flushed instantly as she sputtered.
“So you are a virgin.”
His little mouse straightened her spine. “And I intend to stay one until the day I marry.”
One corner of his mouth turned up at her challenge. “You could hardly stop me if I decided to take you.”
“There is no satisfaction in stealing someone’s property, my lord. True value only lies when you earn it or the owner gives it to you of her own free will.”
Her brave words gave him pause as he considered them. “I know nothing of gifts.”
“Then that is a shame. Perhaps if you were to ask instead of take, then you might have knowledge of them.”
She was a quick little mouse. Surprisingly intelligent, point of fact. “Would you give me your virginity if I asked it?”
“Then what is the point of asking when the only way to have something is to take it?”
“Then take it if you must,” she said bravely, her eyes flashing a vivid shade of green. “but know that by doing so, you are stealing away the only thing I have that is truly mine alone to give. I hope it gives you great satisfaction to leave me with absolutely nothing.” She lifted her chin as if readying herself to take his blow.
The voice in his head was overwhelming and normally when it issued a command, he followed it regardless of consequence, and yet he couldn’t quite muster the desire to do so now. There was a rare fire in her green eyes that burned away the coldness inside him.
It was her dignity, he realized.
He remembered a time once when he had held such. But those days were past him. His dignity had been stripped from him, layer by layer, until it left him a hollow shell.
Before he could think better of it, he lifted his hand up to touch her soft, delicate cheek. Her skin was warm, soothing. Sweet.
He lowered his gaze down to her small breasts that would barely fill his palm, then lower to the rest of her body. She was a scrawny woman in need of food and care. He could snap her neck with barely more than a thought.
Even if she tried to fight him, she would have no strength for it.
“What is your name, girl?”
She hesitated before she answered. “Seren.”
Seren. In his language that had meant star. “And what would you give me, Seren, to preserve your virginity?”
“I don’t understand.”
He let his hand fall from her face as he watched her curiously as she shivered from his nearness. “You speak of gifts that are so valuable. Show me one that is more special than the gratification I can have with your body and I shall sate my desire with another.”
She cast her gaze around the room as if seeking something to give him. Her eyes widened as her gaze fell to the bed where her red cloth rested. “All I have is my scarlet cloth.”
He sneered at that. “I have no need of cloth.”
He saw the panic on her face and for once he felt no satisfaction from having caused it.
“I have nothing else,” she said.
“Then give me a kiss.”
Her eyes widened as if he shocked her. “A kiss?”
“Aye,” he said, enjoying this strange game of teasing her without malice. “Let me see the benefit of having something that is freely given and not taken. Kiss me, Seren, and let me judge the value of your gift.”
Seren swallowed at his words, petrified and yet oddly curious. There was something about the knight that appealed to her even though he scared her beyond reason.
Why would he be pacified by a single kiss?
“I have never kissed a man before.”
He scowled at her. “You’ve never kissed. Never tasted a man’s body? How old are you?”
“A score and four.”
He tsked. “A woman full grown. How is it you have remained so chaste in a world of hungry men?”
“By choice, my lord. By my choice.”
He snorted at that. “And now I give you another choice, little mouse. A kiss or your body. So what’s it to be?”
Seren shivered as she wondered if a kiss would truly sate this powerful man. “And what if I don’t kiss you correctly? Will my actions be for naught?”
His gaze was blank, cold. “You ask a liar for the truth? Are you that trusting or that foolish?”
“Then how do I know you won’t take my body after my kiss?”
She swallowed at his dispassionate words. At least he was being honest. But then she had no real choice in this matter. She was at his utter mercy and they both knew it. “Then I shall trust you to be a man of your word. I pray you, don’t disappoint me, my lord. I have had quite enough of disappointments this day.”
Before Kerrigan could ask her anything more, she laid a chaste kiss to his lips. His body fired at the innocence he tasted, at the knowledge that no other man had ever tread upon these mouth before him.
His heart pounding, he nudged her lips apart with his and swept his tongue deep inside her sweet, decadent mouth to taste the first innocent kiss he’d ever known. It washed over him in waves of desire, making his groin hard and aching.
Seren moaned at the taste of him. His skin was cold as ice, as his tongue danced through her mouth, licking and teasing her. She’d never experienced anything like it before.
He pulled her roughly into his arms and held her close as he deepened his kiss even more. She felt him bulging against her hip and knew exactly how much he wanted to take her.
He left her mouth to trail his kisses over her cheek, then down to her neck where he buried his cold lips against her throat. Her breasts tightened as desire pooled itself to the center of her body.
She’d never known desire before, but she felt the heat of it stinging her now. A foreign, frightening part of her wouldn’t even mind if he pressed her for more…
“Aye, Seren,” he breathed against her ear in a ragged tone that sent chills the length of her body. “A kiss freely given is most sweet indeed.”
Seren felt his hand against her back lift the hem of her gown. She went ramrod stiff in fear of what he was about to do.
Kerrigan’s body was molten. All he could think of was tasting more of her virgin flesh. Of spreading her creamy thighs wide and driving himself deep inside her wet heat over and over again until he was fully spent.
But she had trusted him.
No one had ever given him trust before. No one.
And she had kissed him of her own freewill.
His body screaming out in protest, he let loose her dress and forced himself to step away from her. Even so, his lips still burned from the taste of hers.
And he wanted more. He craved it with a ferocity that stunned him.
Seren watched him carefully, half afraid that he would rape her after all.
He didn’t. But there was something painful in his eyes. Something so deeply tormented that it made her chest ache for him and she didn’t understand why.
He cleared his throat. “Are you hungry, little mouse?”
“I shall have food prepared for you.” He paused at the door and looked back at her.
“Aye,” he said quietly as he swept her from head to toe with his gaze. “That’s much better. I could never abide a woman in rags.”
It wasn’t until after he left that she realized her tattered dress was no longer on her body. Instead, she wore a shimmering gown of pale blue samite with a gold girdle and soft leather shoes that matched it.
Seren’s legs went weak. It was all she could do to keep standing. Surely this was all a vivid dream. How could it be real?
“Wake up, Seren.” But it wasn’t a dream. Somehow this place was real.
The black knight was real. And something inside her warned that if she didn’t find a way to escape this place, she would be doomed and damned here forever.