The man in black ran through the forest. Blood trickled between his fingers where they clamped over the wound in his arm, sword dangling from his hand, near useless. His breath sounded loud in his ears as he ran on, lungs laboring, legs heavy as millstones, rage burning hot in his gut.He wanted to turn. To fight the cowards pursuing him. But alone and wounded as he was, he knew he could not prevail against so many. Even so, he would do it. Were it not for his quest.
His quest. He could not fail, could not turn aside. The fate of the world depended on him alone.
Something roared past overhead. The man in black ducked reflexively, though it was high above the trees. His foot caught on a protruding root and he fell, rolling down a short, sharp slope to the dry bed of a brook. Biting back a shout of pain at the insult to his wound, he gathered his strength to rise and run again, listening intently for sounds of his enemies.
He heard nothing at all. Even the forest creatures remained silent, frightened by the noise of his passage. Perhaps he had eluded them. Rising to his knees, he snorted in derision. And perhaps a mule could sing madrigals. The blood he was losing made a signpost leading the murderers directly to him. Tightening his grip on his sword, he struggled to his feet and staggered on, following the stream path uphill.
The loss of blood weakened him, but he refused to quit. The man in black kept running, breathing in great gasping sobs as he climbed. The closer he came to the top of the ridge, the greater his chances of success, or so he had been told. He intended to stand upon the summit.
Hounds bayed at a distance, the sound chilling him to the marrow. But they were yet far off. He ducked low, hoping to keep below the earthen banks to either side. The quest was all.
A shout! They’d found him. Somehow picking up his pace, he ran on as excited voices called to each other, coming too close. The forest filled with the whap-whine of weapons fire. They shot as if they hoped to bring him down by sheer chance.
The banks dwindled and vanished, and the man in black began to weave through the trees, trying to keep them between himself and his hunters. If he could stay ahead of the devils just a few moments longer…
He could not hold back his cry as pain sliced through his leg and he fell. Looking up, he saw them closing in, moving wide to encircle him. He clawed his way up the bole of a tree. This would have to be close enough. Reaching over his shoulder, he drew his sword from its scabbard.
The man in black raised the weapon, pointing it not at his enemies, but at the sky. His eyes followed it upwards, past the jeweled hilt and the blood stained blade, past the canopy of leaves to the brilliant blue overhead.
“Put the sword down, sir,” one of his pursuers said quietly. “You don’t want to hurt anyone with it.”
The man in black kept his eyes on the sky. Wickedness deserved no recognition. He stretched his arms to their fullest, ignoring the stabbing pain as he held the sword aloft in both hands.
“Saint Olav!” he cried, “Preserve me!”
Light flared along the length of the blade, growing brighter as it neared the tip. It leaped out, caught a ray from the sun, and ignited into a brilliance that drove back the dark men and came near to blinding him. His quest beckoned.
Harald Aldred’s Son walked forward into whatever doom might await him.
At 2:15 on a sunny Sunday afternoon in June, Shayna MacAvoy received the first proposal of marriage in her twenty-eight years of life. She was certain about the time, because she’d just looked at her watch. She was not, however, so certain about the proposal.
“What?” she asked, just wanting to be sure she’d heard what she thought she did. “What did you say?”
She flinched as Spence Hargood bellowed at his nine-year-old son. “Don’t you dare even pretend to throw your sister in that river!” His face turned red with his shouting. It usually did.
Brandon released five-year-old Mindy and ran down the riverbank like nothing had happened.
“Sorry.” Spence turned his attention back to Shayna with an apologetic grin. “What was that? Did I miss your answer?”
“I think maybe I missed the question.” She trailed along after him as he started down the park’s meandering trail at his previous brisk pace, wishing she dared ask him to slow down. She’d come for a stroll in the park, not a hike.
“Well, I had made the comment that my children seem to like you,” he said impatiently. “Did you hear that?”
“Yes, Spencer, I did.” She stifled her sigh. Spence hated to repeat himself.
“And I said that you get along pretty well with them too.”
“Yes, I do.” They were noisy and rambunctious like most kids, but Shayna had nothing against noise. They were just your basic good kids.
“And I like you, too, of course.” Spence beamed at her.
She thought for a second he might reach over and take her hand, but he apparently thought better of it, settling for a wink instead.
“I like you, too, Spence.” Shayna didn’t recall this in the previous conversation, however. It was new.
“And we would be happy to welcome you as a member of the Hargood team.”
That’s what she thought he had said. Was he trying to hire her, or marry her?
“What do you say?” He halted on the cinder path and turned to face her.
Breathing hard from the hike, Shayna stopped beside him. The heady perfume of blooming lilacs sailed into her lungs with every panting breath. It was a beautiful day–the sky shimmering blue overhead, the river roaring over the rocks and brush of the falls that named the town, flowers everywhere. The perfect romantic setting. Except that she didn’t feel the least bit romanced.
“Shayna?” Spence touched her elbow, seeking a response.
“I’m not sure I understand.” She tried to read his face and got nothing. “Are you asking me to marry you?”
“Well, yes.” He looked almost taken aback. “I mean, if you want to put it that way.”
“What other way is there to put it?”
Spence blinked at her, startled, and Shayna slapped on a smile to show him she meant it only in the nicest possible way. However, a marriage was between two people. Husband and wife. Not a whole team. Other family members were important, yes. Especially the children.
But Shayna had spent her life watching the love between her parents glow brighter and grow deeper through each year of their life together. She knew what made a marriage.
He threw up his hands. “Okay. If that’s what you want. Shayna, will you marry me?”
“Why?” She really wanted to know. “Why do you want to marry me?”
“Oh for–” He cut himself off and took a deep breath. “I explained that already.”
“Because I like your kids? That’s a reason to get married?”
“It’s one, and a very valid reason. But it’s not the only one.”
“Oh. Right. You like me, too.” She gave him half a smile. He likes me. Big whoop. What happened to love?
“Shayna.” He looked pained, embarrassed, as he edged a few steps closer to her. “You know I love you. Now please, don’t make a scene.”
Shayna frowned. Was she really “making a scene?” She looked around at the park and saw only Spence’s kids chasing each other, a silver-haired couple race-walking down near the water, and a duck out on the river. Mallard, female. She identified it in a glance. None of them seemed to be paying any attention. Except the duck. It lurched out of the water and waddled toward them, looking for handouts.
“What scene?” she asked.
Spence just looked at her. One of “those” looks.
“Beyond the emotional elements of the arrangement,” he went on, “there are other aspects to be considered. Companionship. Security. You wouldn’t have to be alone any more. You’d have someone to take care of you when you need it.”
He took her hand between both of his, patting it. “I really don’t understand your attitude. I should think you’d leap at the chance.”
She heard the words he left unspoken. They had echoed through her head in her own voice enough times before. It’s not like you have dozens of other men lined up at your door, just waiting to get to know you.
Shayna had never been, and never would be a spectacular beauty. Oh, she wouldn’t set dogs to howling, but she was nothing special to look at. Add that to an unconquerable shyness around men, and it meant that she didn’t get asked out often.
It was why she’d gone out with Spence in the first place. He was nice. He was polite. And he’d asked her.
Now, he’d asked her to marry him.
“I guess–” she began, not quite knowing what she intended to say.
“Good.” Spence showed all his perfectly capped teeth in a brilliant smile. “It’s all settled then.” He leaned forward and kissed her cheek, stunning Shayna into speechlessness. Spence never, ever showed any affection in public. He scarcely ever kissed her in daylight, and only then if they were inside, alone, with the doors closed and the blinds shut.
“What do you think about August for a wedding date?” He tucked her hand under his arm and dragged her along with him as he started on his hike again. “That would be enough time to make plans and get everything organized. I suppose your brother would have to come up from California for the wedding.”
“What?” Shayna stumbled over a rock in the path, feeling as if she were swept along in a flood. “Wait a minute.”
She had missed something somewhere. Like the point where she actually agreed to marry Spence. Had she said yes? Spencer seemed to think so. Now, what was she going to do?
The ripples on the surface of Loon Lake quieted, but Shayna kept her binoculars focused on the spot. She’d seen the duck’s tail as it dove and she knew that it would surface in a moment. And in a moment, it did. Shayna identified it in the second it took her to see it clearly. A common loon, male. She’d seen dozens already. Nothing new so far today.
What else would you expect to see at Loon Lake, you dope? She dropped her binoculars, letting them dangle from the strap around her neck. And why in the world did you tell Spencer Hargood that you would marry him?
Although it was yet to be proved to her satisfaction that she had indeed said such a thing, Spencer acted as if it were settled. And usually, when he said a thing was so, it was so. Better just to accept it and go on from there.
She’d come out to the lake to think immediately after he dropped her off, a precise thirty minutes after the proposal. Shayna thought better with only the birds as distraction, where her dirty dishes couldn’t see her and remind her they needed washing.
So what did she want to do about this marriage thing Spencer had come up with? She had two choices. Either go through with it and marry him, or break it off.
She liked Spence well enough, and she always had a nice time when she was with him. But she wasn’t sure she loved him.
Shayna sighed and picked up her binoculars again, scanning the pines and aspens around the lake for perching birds. She spotted a speck of blue and hoped for a mountain bluebird but finally realized it was the sky beyond the trees. Disgusted, she pulled the strap to her binoculars over her head and laid them on the log where she sat. She was in bad shape, looking at the sky and thinking it was birds. This business with Spence had her all muddled.
Did she want to marry him, or didn’t she? If she did want to marry him, then why did she feel so scared and unhappy and mixed up? A bride was supposed to be excited and thrilled and radiant, not miserable. So what was the problem?
She didn’t think it was Spence’s kids. They weren’t angels, but what kids were? And it wasn’t that she was against marriage, per se. She had always intended to get married. It wasn’t the be all and end all goal of her life, but it was something she wanted to do.
So what was the problem? Maybe she felt this way because she really, truly did not want to marry Spencer. But if she didn’t want to marry him, why not? Spence was a good man. He had a good job, he was good with his kids, he was good to her. Okay, maybe he was a little controlling now and then, but how controlling did a man have to be for it to be a bad sign? How could she not want all that goodness?
Shayna shoved her notebook onto the log with her binoculars and sprang to her feet. She couldn’t sit still. She paced along the water’s edge, deaf and blind to the birds chirping overhead and the flowers hiding beneath the trees.
Maybe it was just the way he proposed. Absolutely no romance to it at all. Not even a kiss, much less a romantic dinner with music or a moonlight stroll. But then Spencer did not have a romantic bone in his body. No spark of romance lived anywhere in his soul.
But so what? What was the big deal about romance anyway? It was a teenager’s dream, something for girls who had never faced the world head on.
Romance was not reality, and almost-thirty year old never-married medical lab technicians had to deal with reality. Spencer Hargood was reality. That knight in shining armor she used to dream about did not exist, and she might as well get used to the fact. It was time to quit hoping.
Shayna kicked viciously at a columbine that dared nod its head at her. “Stupid flower!”
Then a resounding crash echoed through the woods. The aspens quivered in answer and Shayna quaked right along with them. She whirled in a full circle, trying to see which tree had fallen. She turned again, more slowly, and saw the bushes rustling in the direction of her car. Shayna clutched the slender white trunk of a sapling in sudden alarm. Bears? Or some of those North Idaho neo Nazis moved south?
Shayna’s jaw hit her chest as a man staggered out of the underbrush. Not just a man. A knight. In armor. But the armor didn’t shine. The helmet hiding his face and the linked chain tunic were black. Blood stained the metal of the tunic and the black quilted shirt he wore beneath it.
Tall, broad and ominous, the knight terrified Shayna. Especially when she spotted the sword.
Long and impossibly sharp, the sword was held in a hand marked with runnels of scarlet. More red droplets slid their way down the brilliant steel of the blade. Bright red, like fresh– No. She didn’t want that word anywhere in her head.
The knight advanced on her. Shayna scrambled backwards, too scared to outright turn and run. The only thought that floated through her brain was that this was not the kind of knight she had in mind.