From Chapter One
LONG THIN FINGERS OF LIGHT SLOWLY BEGAN THEIR ritualistic climb into the darkness, uninhibited by clusters of pale and empty clouds, in their unchallenged bid to bring forth the dawn. Elizabeth leaned against the splintered frame of the hut's open doorway and watched the progress of the sun for several long minutes before she straightened and walked outside.
A massive hawk, gliding effortlessly in wide circles high above the trees, saw the slender figure emerge from the hut and increased his speed, descending to a large mud-splattered boulder adjacent to the girl. His screech and vigorous flapping of brown and gray wings announced his arrival.
"There you are, my proud one," Elizabeth greeted.
"You are early today. Could you not find sleep either?" she questioned in a soft voice. She regarded her pet with a tender smile and then slowly raised her right arm until it was stretched taut just slightly above her slender waist. "Come," she commanded in a gentle voice.
The hawk tilted his head from side to side, his piercing gaze never leaving her face, and began to emit a gargled sound from deep within his throat. His eyes were the color of marigold, and though there was a wildness about them, she was unafraid. Indeed, she met his stare with complete trust and again bid him come to her. Within a whisper of a second, the hawk had landed on her bare arm, but she did not flinch from either his weight or his touch. His jagged claws were blade sharp, yet she wore no glove. Her smooth and unblemished arm gave testimony to the hawk's gentleness with his mistress.
"What am I to do with you?" Elizabeth asked. Her blue eyes sparkled with laughter as she studied her pet. "You grow fat and lazy, my friend, and though I have given you your freedom, you refuse to accept it. Oh, my faithful pet, if only men were as loyal as you." The laughter was gone from her eyes, replaced by overwhelming sadness.
The sound of approaching horse and rider startled Elizabeth. "Go," she commanded the hawk, and he immediately took to the sky. Panic edged her voice as she called to her two wolfhounds and ran for the safety of the surrounding forest. The two dogs were at her side by the time she had flattened herself against the thick bark of the nearest tree, and she gave them the hand signal to be still. Her heart was racing wildly as she waited, silently cursing herself for leaving the dagger in the hut.
Marauders, entire gangs of displaced, unclaimed destitutes, roamed the countryside, and all those outside the protection of the walls were easy prey for their violence and depravity.
"My lady?" The sound of her faithful servant's voice penetrated the terror gripping Elizabeth, bringing relief immediately. Elizabeth slumped forward, her head bent, while she recovered her breath. "My lady? It is Joseph. Are you there?"
The rising alarm in his voice forced Elizabeth from her hiding place. She quietly rounded the tree and slipped up behind Joseph, gently tapping his stooped shoulder with one trembling hand.
With a startled yelp the old man jumped back and whirled around, very nearly knocking down his mistress in the process. "You gave me quite a start," he chided, but at the look of distress on Elizabeth's face, he forced a smile, showing an absence of several teeth in the process. "Even though you frown, your lovely face still has the power to humble me."
"You flatter me as always, Joseph," Elizabeth responded with a grin, and her servant was again bewitched by the husky yet musical lilt in her voice. He watched her as she turned and walked to the door of the hut and was mildly surprised that her beauty still had the power to startle him each time he would gaze upon her, for he had seen her raised since infancy.
"Come and share a cool drink with me and tell me what brings you here this day," Elizabeth said. Her proud bearing faltered then, confusion clouding her eyes. "I have not forgotten the day, have I? This isn't your usual day to bring me food, is it? Or have I truly lost all sense of time?"
Joseph noted the despair in her voice and wanted to take her into his arms and offer comfort. It was an impossible ambition, he realized, for she was his mistress and he her humble servant.
"It has been nearly a month since my family—"
"Do not speak of it, my lady, and do not fret," Joseph soothed. "You do not go daft, for I was here just two days past. Today I bring important news and have a plan I wish you to consider."
"Joseph, if you again suggest that I go to my grandfather, then you have wasted a trip. My answer will be the same today. Never! I will stay close to my home until I can bring vengeance to my family's murderers. This I have vowed!" She stood glaring at him as she spoke, her stubbornness outlined by the defiant tilt of her chin, and Joseph found that he was forced to gaze at his boots in order to escape the chill from her eyes.
Elizabeth folded her arms and waited. "What say you?" she demanded. When her servant did not immediately reply, Elizabeth sighed with exasperation and continued in a softer voice. "Be content, Joseph. I have sent little Thomas to safety. That must be enough."
His reply was not what she expected. Elizabeth watched his shoulders slump even further than was their natural inclination. The servant rubbed his bald head and cleared his voice. "The evil ones have gone."
"Gone? What do you mean, gone? How can this be? Where have they gone?" Her voice increased in volume with each question, and she was unaware that she had grabbed the loyal servant by his cloak and was vigorously shaking him.
Joseph raised his hands and gently pulled free from her grip. "Please, my lady, calm yourself. Let us go inside," he suggested, "and I will tell you all I know."
Elizabeth agreed with a quick nod and hurried inside. She tried to compose herself as was befitting her position, but her mind rebelled at the task, concentrating on the number of unanswered questions and conflicting emotions instead.
Copyright © 1985 by Julie Garwood