Chapter 1 France 1513
Three ropes bound Linness of Sauvage to the pole, one at her shoulders, one at her waist, and one at her feet. The kindling sticks formed a small mountain below her.
She looked across the courtyard to see Bishop comte de Berry. The man, with his one hideously white blind eye, stared up to the heavens. A crimson cap covered his balding head, matching the long rich robes that draped his stocky frame, all of the finery splashed with mud now and pressed against his frame by a goodly breeze. His hands held the parchment where the edict was writ. She and two others had been condemned by the ecclesiastic court to burn at the stake. A half dozen priests and monks followed behind him. Two of the brown-robed monks held torches, while one held the torture-saving noose. They had all witnessed her short trial.
"How did you know Mistress Pram's third child was breeched?"
"I am a seer. I have the sight."
"From Satan! The Bible says — "
"Nay." She shook her head, horrified at the charge. " ‘Tis from heaven. I have seen angels and heaven. Like our Lord Christ, I only help the poor and common folk — "
She lied, "Only what folks can pay!"
"Deceit and treachery..."
The girl was possessed....
Linness stared at the noose. If you confessed your crime and begged for God's forgiveness, they would snap your neck before the flames licked at your skin. She dropped her head to the small mountain of kindling sticks at her feet before lifting her gaze to heaven.
Save me, Mary, I am not strong!
Twice as many knights as priests followed behind the imperial man. They were knights of the bishop's guard, the Jesuit priests, here to fight the advancing menace of the archpriest once and for all. More knights manned the feeble battlements that surrounded the abbey walls. Beyond the walls, the burning village of Sauvage created a bright red glow in the night sky. Thick smoke filled the air as the people wailed against this senseless loss. The outlawed army— made up of fifty demons wearing men's skins— had demanded the bishop's coffers and treasures, or promised death to everyone and everything with a heart. The foolish bishop had refused. He had sent word to faraway Gaillard, and Rouergue, begging the lords of these places for knights to fight the archpriest who had terrified the French countryside for two years now and had eluded even the royal knights of Francis, the King of France.
As he waited for these knights he thought to pacify the peasants and God by a sacrifice of the burning of the unfaithful in return for His mercy. Fingers had quickly turned to her, fingers had always pointed at her.
The common folks fanned in a perfect half circle behind the priests and knights. Some shouted curses up at the condemned. Others cried hysterically that the world had ended and the apocalypse had begun, while most of the poor chanted prayers that begged for salvation.
Outside the wooden stakes of the abbey walls, black smoke poured from the burning village nestled along the hillside and billowed into the sky above. The outlawed brigandine army shot flaming arrows over the battlements. They were close. Screams sounded in the distance. A baby wailed furiously, trying to escape the safety of her mother's arms as she knelt in prayer. The smell of fire filled the creatures with fear: the hounds bayed angrily, tugging at their ropes in the kennel, horses neighed and kicked helplessly, and the pigs, with their eerily humanlike screams, called out from the pen. Two goats raced across the courtyard, searching for an exit.
The bishop and his priests stood before the old woman first. She, too, was tied to the pole, kindling sticks piled beneath her bare feet. The gray hair formed a perfect halo about her head; her old, dark eyes were blank and unseeing with the ignorance of the truly mad. Unaware of what was happening to her, she smiled down at the audience of priests, who appeared as black and brown silhouettes against the gray sky. She nodded at the familiar faces among them, mumbling bits and pieces of the rosary that she remembered.
Linness knew the old woman well; everyone in the Sauvage valley knew her. Old mad Mistress Grilldue. She had been born in the year Mercury crossed Venus in the twelfth month, an auspicious sign borne out by her sixty-odd years of a rich life, but one fated to end in violence. The many times Linness had told the old woman's fortune, she had never told of the tragic death she had foreseen. She had never mentioned the ropes or the flames. And what bitter irony that she never saw herself in this picture.
Long ago, when Mistress Grilldue had been in the first blush of her beauty, she had caught the eye of the late Charles de St. Pol, a minor land baron of Sauvage. She had given him a cherished daughter and he had given her a sturdy stone house on the hillside and all the land to the river Her grief, upon witnessing her daughter's death, was too great to fit in her heart; it spilled into her mind and had made her go mad. The poor, witless common folks were easy prey for the church's voracious appetite for land. After convening for less than five minutes, the court decided her madness was demonic possession and her punishment was death at the stake.
Linness had shaken her head when she heard how the bishop had proclaimed that if the church rid the Sauvage valley of the unfaithful, God would send an avenging army of righteous knights to reach them in time and beat back the outlawed army at the abbey gates. Such a foolish old cock! Prancing about in his fine crimson robes, screeching about the devil and damnation with nary a word about heaven and hope and our dear Mother Mary . . .
Yet now the old woman's eyes, feverish from the light of the fire, focused on the bishop's crimson robes as he called up to her, "Do you renounce your pact with Satan and accept Christ as your Lord and Master, and Savior of all sinners?"
The old woman looked to the darkening sky and coughed.
The bishop repeated the words as if it were a question of deafness. "Do you .. ."
The crowd shifted nervously, waiting for her "aye." A terrified, squawking chicken flew into the midst of the people, causing a shuffle as they attempted to shoo away the bird. A man grabbed it and snapped its neck.
Linness felt it as if it were the snap of her own slender bones. As if she had suddenly woken in a nightmare played in the light of day. Her heart pounded wildly against this destiny.
She did not want to die! She was too young! She wanted to live!
In her mind's eye she saw the life she had yet to live. She was unmarried still, a virgin. She had never felt a man's lips on her mouth or his flesh in her womb. She had never seen her child's face or felt a mother's love. A hundred as yet unlived events came to her: she had never worn silk, walked in Notre Dame, tasted an orange, played a harp, or sat at a royal feast. . .
Linness watched in horror as the bishop motioned to the priest who held the deadly torch. The priest dropped the torch to the sticks. Red flames washed up the pile of sticks. "Mistress Grilldue! Mistress, please to God! Look at me!"
The old woman's weary eyes turned to Linness and found something familiar in those silvery depths. "Say aye!" Linness cried to her. “Aye!"
Mistress Grilldue suddenly gasped in fright as the flames consumed the mountain of wood beneath her feet, and leapt up toward the pole. Her weathered gray head pressed back against the pole in alarm. Her eyes went wild with panic.
"Merciful Mother Mary, save her!" Linness screamed again, "Say aye!"
Shocked, as if waking from a long sleep, the old woman nodded, and in a weak whisper at last said, "Aye..."
Relief swept through the crowd; nearly everyone dropped to the knees with praise to God. The bishop motioned to the priest holding the noose at the end of a long pole, who slipped the rope around the old woman's head. A guard stepped forward and laid hands on the pole. The two men jerked the noose upwards and the old body convulsed at the instant painless death.
Linness collapsed with relief,
From over the wall, a flaming arrow landed on the stables and set the thatched roof on fire. People screamed in terror before three men rushed into the burning building to free the trapped animals. Two dogs and a horse raced out. Another hound raced out with yelps and whimpers as two more horses followed. A line of men and women formed to pass buckets from the well. The nearby fence of the pigpen also caught flames and a kitchen servant rushed round to open the gate for the crying pigs, which rushed screaming into the courtyard.
A great crash came from outside. For the first time fear showed on the bishop's face. He stared ahead at the burning body of the old woman, as if he realized that the burnt bodies would not be enough to save the abbey.
The gates would have to be opened soon. The outlawed army would sweep inside and slaughter everyone and everything. Horses might be spared if the men could stop their blood madness. Most often they couldn't. The bishop's head would be the prize.
The bishop was going to serve his own blood-lust first. He looked at his second victim, turning his blind eye away from the face of his death in order to see another's. The old Jew, known as Saul, was the finest boot maker in the whole valley. Linness knew the old man well, too. His short, curly hair, still black and unmarked by gray, gave him a much younger appearance. His beard touched his naked chest. Only a loincloth covered his thin frame. Red welts from the lash of a whip marked his chest. He did not mind renouncing his faith, for he had done so many times before to save his life, but the court had had to torture him repeatedly to get his confession of collusion with Satan.
She and Saul had been friends since she was twelve, shortly after she had settled here at the Sauvage valley. She had sought his skill for her first pair of lady's slippers. A red pair, the fashionable kind with the toes curled up in a loop. How she had loved those slippers. He had made them, laughing at her foolishness when she bemoaned the fact that they made her large feet look even larger. They had often broken bread together after that. He was a simple, good, and kind man who had suffered enough in his life, God knew. Enough. His wife, his sister, and a brother-in-law had died on the stake after being indicted by the Spanish Inquisition. And he had fled to the safer shores of France. Only to finally face the same death here now.
Anger suddenly overwhelmed her fear.
Merciful Mother, stop this madman!
"As God is my witness," she began, but stopped as the stable roof collapsed. Flames shot up thirty feet from the burning stables.
"Open the gates!"
The shout came from a man in the water line. Fire licked the sides of the building as the walls began to collapse. The man dropped the bucket and fell to his knees, shouting, "We are doomed!"
Screams sounded from all round. More people dropped to their knees. Guards turned to the gate and back to the bishop, awaiting his orders. The fire leaped to the stone wall of the abbey keep, scorching it. Red sparks flew about in the breeze, landing at last on the roof of the gatehouse.
" 'Tis the Armageddon come at last!'
"The Antichrist is among us!'
The bishop ignored the pandemonium, the pleas, everything but his purpose.
Linness cried at the sad resignation on Saul's face as the bishop commanded him to renounce his God and religion in the name of all that was holy. Saul did, nodding with a loud "Aye!"
Linness squeezed her eyes shut as the noose slipped over his head and his neck was snapped.
"Mother Mary . . . who art in heaven . . ." She gasped each word as hot tears fell down her cheeks, brought from the sting of smoke. She could not breathe. For one wild moment she thought she was on fire already. She fought furiously with her binds. “Save me! Oh, please save me! I am too young to die, too filled with life yet. I want to live to know a man and bear his child! Please let me live to have a child! I promise to use my sight for profit no more; as long as I shall live, I shall use it only to serve God. This I swear!"
A strange tingling shot through her limbs. She opened her eyes to see the noose in front of her face. She shook her head frantically, sending the long plait of dark hair swinging wildly over her breasts. She cast her gaze to Saul, hanging lifelessly from the pole as flames spread up and over him. The air filled with the sick scent of burnt flesh. She cried out as Saul disappeared in the smoke.
"Do you renounce your pact with Satan and accept Jesus Christ as Savior—"
She knew the words. "Aye! Aye! With all my heart!"
The priest moved the noose to her head and she screamed, "No! No!" She shook her head in terror, the movement tearing the strap that held her tunic in place. "Please! I do not want to die! For mercy's sake! I'll take each moment more of life given by the torture of the flames! Let me burn alive!"
The bishop gasped, drew back slightly as it slapped. The other priests genuflected to ward off this certain sign that the devil spoke through the girl. Holding tight to the torch, the wide-eyed priest stared hard at the Bishop, awaiting his signal to ignite the wood beneath her. The bishop stared at the girl. Her tunic had slipped to her small waist, revealing the untouched white skin of her heaving bosom, her arresting, beautiful face twisted with the agony of these last moments.
The Bishop's eyes narrowed with outrage. He shot a glance at the priest and nodded. The priest lowered the torch. Firelight changed her silver eyes to red as she stared at the flames that would bring her death.
"Mother Mary, Mother Mary, Mother Mary!"
A tingling sensation shot through her limbs again. The flames leaped to life. Smoke streamed up the column and filled her chest. Tears poured from her closed eyes in protest.
There came another great crash and the gates opened at last. Mounted knights and foot soldiers rushed into the keep. The Gaillard army the bishop had sent for dashed viciously with the last throng of the archpriest’s army. With screams and shouts, the bishop and his priests rushed away from the flames to the castle keep. Thundering horses’ hooves clamored into the courtyard, more and more. The clang of swords sounded weak against the hungry ravishment of the fire. She couldn't see through the smoke. Gray and black clouds formed a swift-moving stream that shot right up to her face. She coughed and coughed, until she collapsed, her chest convulsing in desperation for the mercy of air.
A spark caught her hair and she screamed as it touched her tunic. No sound issued from her choked and scorched lungs.
Lord Paxton Gaillard Chamberlain sent his sword across the foot soldier's thighs, disarming him but leaving him mercifully alive when he turned back to see the girl through the smoke. Like a nightmare, he saw a young, half-naked girl bound to a pole and set on fire. His heart trembled violently as he forced his warhorse into the burning logs beneath her bare feet.
Horses’ hooves crashed over burning wood. A sword sliced through the air and she was suddenly falling, falling into burning embers. A strong arm circled her waist and for one wild moment she imagined she flew up to heaven again. She was thrown stomach side down over a warhorse and she held onto the horn with all her strength, coughing, choking, her eyes burning with smoke.
The rescuer swung his sword in a wide arc, connecting to the metal of another sword, to send it flying through the air. From the corner of her eye she watched him thrust the sword through the edge of another knight's metal chest plate and withdraw it bloodied, leaving the knight screaming as he dropped to the ground.
His black-gloved hand came to the slender arch of her back. A tingling shot up her spine. An arrow hit the rider's chest, bouncing off his metal plates, slipping over her legs and to the ground.
She remembered little after that. Ashes and smoke swirled about her. The world turned vicious with the sound of screams, the furious clang of swords, the terrified neighs and thunder of hooves as the rider slew four men in his way. Curses and screams sounded in a symphony of terror. Within minutes the stables, pigpen, and kitchen were in smoldering ruins. Blood splattered across his horse and hit her legs. She squeezed her eyes tight.
From seemingly far away she heard the man who held her shout, "These fires smell of the foul deeds and our holy church. Hang the culprits from the battlements!"
"Aye, my lord!"
"Ready the remaining ranks. Send out half in search of my brother's wife. The other half goes to chase the retreating army!
Let no one escape!'
He turned his horse through the gates and suddenly there was fresh air in her lungs, the sweetest mercy shot straight from heaven. She coughed and sputtered and coughed some more. The thick leather saddle massaged her midsection hard while the gallop of the warhorse slammed her against the saddle so that she couldn't think to understand what was happening. She couldn't think past the purest joy of drawing sweet air into her body.
Blue summer sky rose overhead. Soft white clouds scattered against the blue, oblivious to the march of human folly below. The horse headed to the wooded foothills behind the burning village. Trees began to appear, spruce and beech with long silver trunks and spiky tops. More and more brambles grew in bright green clumps, and in places these bushes reached over six feet. Green beds of undergrowth crowded beneath the shade of the very thickest part of the forest. The sound of running water filled the warm air.
The knight stopped his horse. He swung down and turned to help Linness. Too late. She was sliding off the horse already. Her feet touched the ground. Her silver eyes searched the familiar surroundings, as if to determine for a fact she was still on earth. When this miracle was perceived and felt, it washed her in an emotional ebullience so swift, so powerful, as to be a kind of madness.
She dropped to her knees laughing and crying. She kissed the green earth ten times before she lifted her lovely eyes to the heavens as she thanked Mary over and over.
Then she started dancing.
She leaped up with the words, "I'm alive! I'm alive!" She turned in fast circles, laughing and crying. "I'm alive!"
Paxton's dark blue eyes watched the girl dance like a Gypsy in firelight. His heart still thundered violently, pumping the battle rage hard and fast through his tall frame. His broad chest heaved with the girl's own thirst for fresh air. He had not slept, eaten, or drunk for two days as he led his Gaillard knights in chase of the outlaws terrorizing the countryside. Now, in the aftermath of battle and for the first time in his warring life, he felt it. The battle lust.
The girl's very same madness filled him; the madness brought by having faced the certainty of death a dozen times, only to find now, quite unexpectedly, he was suddenly very much alive. And the need to celebrate this miracle came in an explosion of desire.
The explosion caught his breath and nearly knocked him over. Hot blood engorged his groin and tightened each second he watched this strange and magical wood creature fly across the forest floor. With her arms spread wide, her head tilted, her mysterious cloudy eyes filled with the joy of the living.
The girl’s loosened hair, singed at the ends, fell in a stream of dark ringlets down her back. Ash smudged the comely, flushed face, her eyes lit with madness and joy. She wore only the odd tunic of a condemned woman and the cloth hung about her small waist, down to her bare knees. Her legs were long, slim, and pale. Her bare breasts, dear Lord, were full and ripe, more tempting than heaven, brushed by the streams of her dark hair.
He removed first his blood-soaked gloves, before unlacing his heavy leather jerkin and the heavier haubert underneath. For the first time in his life he wished to God for a page or squire. He could not get his clothes off fast enough. She looked wild and mad and more beautiful than any maid he had ever seen. His hands trembled with his need to touch her, to cup the softness of her breast, to lay her down to the soft moss of the bank and part her thighs.
Linness felt Mary's blessing cascading over her like a stream of warm tingling caresses. She closed her eyes and held perfectly still, wiping at her wet cheeks, overwhelmed with gratitude. She was alive....
The strange stillness and whispers of the forest came to her in a sudden heightening of senses. She heard the running stream, the slow plod of the war-horse moving to it, the rustle of the leaves overhead. A merlin called out in flight above. She listened to the little noises of footsteps, soft fringed wing beats, her own pounding heart and deep breaths. Then she perceived his labored breaths.
She opened her eyes as her arms came over herself to protect her modesty. The knight stood a dozen paces away. The orange sun was setting behind him, casting him in a majestic glow. He stood unusually tall for a man, taller than any man she had seen before. Like all warriors, tightly corded muscles encased his towering frame and his bronze skin displayed more battle scars than stars set in the distant Milky Way. Red cuts and bruises were laid over these. His hair was light brown, streaked by the sun, and the only soft thing about him. His was not a handsome face, but she was struck by the compelling lure of its unnatural strength: his square-cut, too large chin, his hawkish nose and wide lips, thick brows that darted like wings over his black, widely spaced eyes. Absolutely black eyes. His bare chest had a mat of curly dark hair. His heavy clothes lay in a pile behind him: the leather metal-plated jerkin and chain mail, boots, helmet, and gloves. None of it mattered. Nothing mattered but the idea that presented itself to her.
In a whisper of wonder, she said, "Mary sent you."
The words were tossed up in the still air. She was unsure if he heard her. She was unsure if he was real....
The idea disappeared as her gaze riveted to the mound of his raised manhood beneath his breeches. He was enormous; he would kill her. She started to shake her head in protest that rose from her virgin's fear.
"Aye," was all he said. All he had to say.
She froze, watching with widening eyes as he stepped towards her. Mary sent him, Mary sent him, she told herself over and over to keep herself still and give herself courage as he came to stand in front of her. He towered above her, a good foot taller, maybe more—and she was considered tall for a woman. She stared into his eyes, dark blue eyes, but appearing as black orbs reflecting her own pale and frightened face. Her senses filled with his scent made of fire and blood.
Her sight did not often come so forcefully.
It was like an opening into a kaleidoscope made of images drawn from his memories. First she saw him practicing the warring arts as a boy, then mounting his warhorse as a man. She saw the mangled bodies of his slain—and they were many. He was discussing wine vats with an old man he loved, a man with blue eyes that had lost their shine, but none of their wisdom. She saw him staring in wonder at fields of vines. He was studying books and paper by candlelight. Now, kneeling at the altar as he married a lady clad in yellow velvet. She saw the woman's death and felt his grief. There came to her mind a beautiful castle surrounded by farmland and vineyards, and she felt his love for this place. He was nursing a sick hound that he loved, then helping children climb a ladder to the hayloft where they swung from a rope he had made. He joked and teased his peasant cottars and made them laugh. He was singing as he bathed.
The string of images lasted a minute, no more, and yet she now saw the shadow of a man who loomed large over his life. A darkness that always hung around him. This shadow became a cold, bitter wind he had to fight constantly against. This shadow was his brother.
He felt the intimate probe of her eyes. Silvery, catlike, startling eyes. Beauty was considered blond, blue-eyed, dainty like a wildflower. She was the opposite. A steamy-eyed witch-child, sculpted with flesh and bone, made of earth and wind and fire.
He felt a stab of raw desire as he stood there staring down. "Will you fight me, witch-child?"
The question was asked with incongruent gentleness. For a moment she lost herself to the compelling lilt of his voice, French, aristocratic, deep, as his callused hands came to her slender shoulders. The touch of the large hands went through her like a shock. She drew a sharp breath, her eyes darting over his face with confusion. She closed her eyes a moment, and struggled to find her courage.
She shook her head. Yet she asked, "Would it matter?"
A serious question. She saw him search his conscience, and what he said next made her know he was heaven-sent. "Aye, it would matter." His hands caressed the sculpted muscle of her slim back, and he leaned over to breathe deeply. The scent of lilacs and smoke was in the dark hair. "I would not want to hurt you. I don't think I could, and yet, my sweet temptress, and yet..."
He never finished. He swung her up in the air as if she were made of straw, and carried her to a mossy bank near the stream. Bracing her back with his arm, he lowered her against the green backdrop and came partially over her.
The press of their bodies brought on a jolt that left them both speechless. He closed his eyes, struggling up through the sweet assault on his senses. Raw, hot sensations washed over them, so many millennia removed from the Abbey of Sauvage, the ravages of the flames, or the bloodied battle fought and won there. So many millennia removed from anything on earth.
She stared up in astonishment, waiting for him to explain this magic. Excitement rushed through her veins like a potent fuel, pumped by her pounding heart and quick breaths. He brought her hands above her head and held them there with one of his own. She struggled to get enough air, and each intake of breath riveted her consciousness to the naked muscle and heat against her, the press of her breasts against his bare chest, his hard shaft against her side, his thigh pressed between hers.
His breath came hard and fast, too. His hair fell in a riot of curls around his handsome face. For a moment she thought he struggled with the same astonishment, but no, his pause was a desperate measure to catch the wild race of his desire. His struggle only grew as he drank the sight of her dark hair spread over the moss, studied the bewitching eyes and the beckoning of her parted lips, and felt the thrust of her breasts against his chest, a sudden flood of heat as she shifted beneath his weight.
She felt a tingling rush along the nerves of her arms and a tightening in the tips of her breasts, a hot swelling deep inside. She went very still as he watched her. Her shock was so virginal, he asked huskily as his lips grazed hers, "You handle like a virgin, my witch-child. Tell me you're not."
The question made her panic. She closed her eyes and tried to shake her head.
"Are you?" he asked again as he let his lips graze her mouth, gently biting her lower lip. Their breath mingled, and he closed his eyes, lost in the incredible sweetness of her scent. "Or were you sent by the heavens as an undeserved reward for my questionable service?"
She gasped with the shivers this caused. "Aye," she said in a whisper, "I was sent to you just as you were to me. You saved my life and I owe it to you now." She intended no melodrama; she meant every word. "I surrender my will; this humble gift is yours."
He ignored the questions posed by the girl's perfect courtly French. He did not want to know who she was or how she came to be condemned by the church. He didn't want to know anything, not the alchemy that changed brass to gold, nor the rhyme or reason of the rotations of the heavenly bodies. He wanted only to sink his flesh in the sweet mercy of hers....
Desire had changed her features; her pale skin colored with heated anticipation, and he knew her pulse raced as fast as his. He forgot the question, forgot everything but the demanding immediacy of their joining. He brought his mouth down hard.
All panic exploded in a fiery burst as the kiss molded his lips to hers with a barely restrained force. Yet the lingering trace of his violence melted the instant he felt the exquisite softness of her mouth. One taste and it changed. He groaned deep in his throat as he brought her head back farther to drink deeper.
The hunger of his passion swept into her body and through her veins, more real, more urgent, than the blood flowing there. She felt the intrusion of his tongue and suffered the briefest moment of confusion and fear, until his tongue slid with tantalizing slowness over hers. She couldn't think or breathe or know anything past the enticing tease of his kiss, a feeling of melting into a shimmering pool of heat and need.
Warm, callused hand swept over her shoulder and pulled off the remaining strap of her tunic as he breathed deeply of her scent. "My God, you are soft. . . ." Cool air grazed her skin before his hand slid with unconcealed impatience over her shoulder and side to cup the high, full breast. She gasped as his large, warm palm soothed and stroked, massaging erotically, while catching her tiny gasps in his lips as he kissed her again. The slow thud of her heart dropped to her loins and made her arch her back as she tore her mouth from his with an anguished cry.
He caught the sound in his mouth, "You taste like the heavens, sweeter than life itself. I am lost. Lost. . ."
She opened her eyes with a question, only to find his attention driven by a force far beyond words or vision. His touch felt like warm licks of fire, feeding trembling shivers through her, soothing them, yet only to spark them anew. 'Twas a madness she could never have imagined before and she closed her eyes, dazed by the serums heating up in her body that made her want to writhe and squirm and cling to him. His warm lips began teasing her, beneath her ear and along her neck. Chills rushed from the spot, gathering below in a hot knot of sensation.
His firm lips came to her bare breasts. The shock of it went through her like a lightning bolt and she tensed with the unexpectedness of this action. He laved the swell until he reached the tip, circling it with a building swirl of wetness. He drew softly, then more swiftly, before moving on to the next waiting orb. Shivers exploded in rushes between her legs and she gasped for air as though her lungs were starving. She instinctively arched her back and her breasts rose to fit tighter against his lips.
A millennium had passed before he could think of anything but the ferocious need to bury his sex in this bewitching wild creature. His flesh trembled with the feel of her small body yielding, then tensing, then yielding again as he answered her cries and brought his mouth back to hers with a kiss that brushed his soul.
He lifted her thin skirt. He twisted, then turned her undergarments until he finally ripped them from her. His hand fitted over her flat stomach, then lower....
The hot, tight ball in her loins seemed to leap at his touch, and without realizing it, her thighs parted as his warm fingers slipped over her sex. Bursts of pleasure answered the stroke of his hand. She felt her sex swell until she became wild and supple beneath him. She could tell that he could not wait. His hands slid under her buttocks, lifting her. Tingling anticipation rose in quivers, falling, then rising again as his smooth sex slid over hers again. She didn't know she was moaning, until the sound abruptly stopped as she felt a stab of pain.
He stopped instantly and closed his eyes as an unknown pleasure washed over him in hot waves. She was so small and hot and tight. "No, don't move," he said in answer to her fear, opening his eyes to peer into her closed ones. "Look at me, love." She did. "Look at the face of the man you will remember forever. Aye, forever, love. We are joined forever." His warm hand smoothed the hair from her forehead, his touch gentle, atoning. "I have not yet spoken your name, nor you, mine, and yet you will belong to me forever.
Those words echoed in her mind. Forever. She understood the magnitude of them only partially, though she knew it was as certain and unalterable as the sun rising tomorrow. For Mary had sent him. And for a long moment as he held still and unmoving inside her, their gazes locked with a mystical understanding that bound each to the other forever.
Strange dreams visited her as she slept nestled against his huge, warm body on the forest floor. His male hips fitted tightly against her buttocks, his arm wrapped protectively around her form. She dreamt of those heated tremors, his lips on her neck, gently sucking teasing. His hand slipped along the dramatic curve of her waist, over her hips and back again before cupping her breasts. She sighed, languidly arching her back to push her breasts into his warm palm. Her nipples grew hard and tight as he gently massaged them, over and over before his hand slipped over her flat stomach to nestle between her legs.
She came full awake. Her nerves went wild. Small pants and gasps escaped her lips as the hot, tight ball grew between her legs. Hotter as she felt the smooth stroke of his sex, the tingling warmth of his breath on her neck as he slipped inside of her. The erotic movement of their entwined bodies grew faster and faster until hot spasms of pleasure washed through her and she felt his huge body stiffen dramatically, and she was sinking, sinking into the darkness of sleep.
At first she only dipped below the surface of sleep, skimming along there like a fish in shallow water. She dreamt of the stars above, edged by the? uppermost spikes of trees and suspended within the reach of her hand. A breeze rustled through the nightscape, carrying a winged version of Mary smiling down at her sleeping form. Mary was trying to convey mat this man was not sent to her, but that she had been sent to him. She could not reason why this mattered, but then nothing mattered, not heaven nor earth as she swam down deeper and deeper, nuzzling her nose to the sweet-scented earth and into the unending waters.
Lips brushed hers. Heated whispers rose in the night. "The night has bound us forever. Just as you shall never forget me, I fear that I, too, shall never forget you. ..." More whispered words, a warm caress. She nuzzled closer to the earth as the warmth left her, "Good-bye, my sweet virgin witch. ..."
A woman dressed in black appeared before her then. Linness stared in surprise. The woman sat stiffly on a wooden chair surrounded by darkness. Her small, olive-colored hands sat on her lap, and that was all Linness could see of her. She wore a black dress. Black Italian lace covered her dark hair A veil covered her face.
Time seemed to stop as Linness stared at the mysterious creature dressed in black. She knew without understanding that this mysterious woman was the most important person in her life. She did not know how or why. She struggled to make sense of the strange vision, but it was fading. Gray edged the perimeters of her vision until it strained the center. Then she was gone....
The sun rose and she turned in protest, but the warm pulse of its heat finally roused her from the peaceful slumber. She opened her eyes, staring up into a piece of the blue sky above the treetops. Hunger gnawed at her and yet she felt so warm and blissful, as if she had slept a fortnight.
Dreamily she sat up and looked around her unfamiliar surroundings. The previous day's events came to her in a rush. Her gray eyes flew about the quiet forest floor. He was gone as if he never existed.
As they had lain in each other's arms after the first time he washed her soul with that dark and deep and sweet pleasure, she had asked, "Tell me your name?"
“Paxton. . ."
Paxton. Paxton. Paxton. She sang his name like a spell or incantation—the man who had taught her love on one magical night, who had washed her body in pleasure and carried her soaring through the heavens. Paxton . ..
Gone as if he never was, like a cherished memory or a vivid dream, he would live only in her heart and mind now. She tried to tell herself it was enough, one night was enough, but she understood the one night would cost a lifetime of longing. A lifetime. ..
She rose shakily to her feet and she saw her tunic laid across a stone. She moved to it, her silver eyes darting around the forest as if he might reemerge. She bent down and retrieved it, lifting it over her head and straightening it to cover her nakedness. She spent several anxious minutes righting the ripped strap before she saw it.
It was carved on the tree trunk behind the place where she had slept. She slowly approached the spot. A trembling hand reached to follow the lines he had carved.
A single star placed over a heart
Star-crossed lovers, never to see each other again and yet never to be forgotten. As long as she lived, his would be the face she saw each night as she lav down to sleep, and the face swimming through consciousness in the mystical hours of morning that were neither sleep nor wakefulness.
A small notch had been carved in the tree. A gold necklace hung from it. She slowly picked it up. On the chain hung a ring. A bright emerald stone surrounded by diamonds on a thick gold band. She stared at the gift, more precious than the king's treasure box. It was all she had left of him, all she would ever have of him. The father of her child.
She slipped the necklace around her neck. Then she stood there, tracing the heart beneath the star, over and over, as his words echoed through her soul. "... you will belong to me forever…”
Finally she forced herself away. A new day had started and she had to decide what to do. She could never go back to her village or her home. The church would condemn her again immediately But where could she go? What could she do? Where would she get shelter for herself and, praise Mary, her child, should she be so blessed?
She needed to see an omen of where she should go and what she should do. Standing very still, she searched the forest for the divine signal. Minutes gathered. Nothing happened.
She sat down. These things, she knew, sometimes took time. There was nothing to be heard but a gentle wind, the soft drone of heather bees, the trill of two skylarks against the trickle of the stream.
A movement in the forest caught her gaze. Sunlight streamed through two tall trees in the forest, their branches reaching up and entwined. A beautiful doe and her fawn walked below the entwined branches.
A good omen if ever there was one!
The enchanting sight was surely meant to assure Mary would be watching over her and guiding what was to happen to her. After all, Mary had saved her from death. Mary had answered her secret wish and sent her Paxton.
She would just start walking. Which way, though?
She looked for another sign. A sparrow lifted from a tree and headed west. She smiled as she turned toward the west, her gaze still fixed on the little bird. He flew up and back around toward the south.
She stopped. The south was a good direction too. . . .