The land was drenched with blood, after years of desperate fighting, and there would be more.
The knight sat atop his horse at the side of his king, watching as the troops rode through the valley below. Behind them rode Father Gregore, the warrior priest who had so often accompanied the new king on his quest to obtain and hold his domain, murmuring in Latin.
The king cursed softly. "Damn them. So many," he added, turning to his knight. "After all these years, the feeble son feels he must prove himself to be the equal of his father. Sweet Jesu, will we forever be fighting this scourge? If the invaders reach the village, we will see a savagery beyond anything we have witnessed yet, not to show strength, as it might have been with the father, but because he longs to give the lie to his very weakness." He spoke with disgust and a hard-won right to bitterness.
The breeze shifted, bringing with it a chill. The knight looked up, noting the sky. Darkness would come early, and according to the priest it would come earlier still today, for what Father Gregore called the Demon Moon would be upon them that night. Gregore was a great astronomer, as well as a healer. Many men had survived the field of battle because of his prowess.
Gregore was an interesting man, to say the least. He had studied for the priesthood in Rome. His father had been a highlander, an ambassador to the papal court. His mother, according to local legend, had been a witch.
Father Gregore had acted strangely throughout the day, cursing and muttering much more than usual. Now, as they assessed their enemy's strength and planned their defense, he seemed stranger still. The knight respected the priest, though he was wary of his many incantations, intoned in a language bearing no resemblance to anything the knight had ever heard. A chill ran up his spine-an unusual sensation. He had faced ruthless enemies on the field again and again. He had watched his kinsmen and friends fall. Long ago, he had set his mind to the task with the knowledge he could never look anywhere but straight ahead, that there could be nothing but the fight for freedom to guide them.
"He rides with the Devil's own henchman," Father Gregore muttered savagely.
The knight forced the sounds of the priest's voice from his mind and focused on the scene below. He pointed to the glen and the river, and the great tor beyond. "There," he said softly. "There is where we must stop them."
"They'll attack by day," the king mused.
"I don't think we dare make that supposition," the knight said.
The king sat very still. "My household rests in that glen."
The knight was very aware of that, as well as the fact that the king had a number of illegitimate children. He had married for love; his bride had braved her own family's disapproval for her husband. But there had been long times when they had been parted.
One of the king's by blood, a daughter, had quite recently come of age. She attended the queen, who bore her no malice. Like her father, she was fierce, loyal and dauntless. Like her mother, late of the Isle of Skye, she was beautiful. She was adept with a small bow, and had used her weapon successfully against the enemy. Her wit was as quick as her shot. Bold with her laugher, her ability to tease and seduce, she epitomized everything the knight fought for: the fierce, wild spirit of the land. A challenge, proud and independent, she had captured his mind along with his heart. Sometimes, sleeping on the rocky ground, he closed off the sounds of the night and the smell of blood. He felt himself seduced anew in his mind, a hint of the scent of her skin and the feel of her flesh teasing him in his dreams.
He turned to the king. "They will not wait." He pointed skyward to the rising moon. "It's Father Gregore's Demon Moon. They will see by its light, crimson and shadowed as that may be."
The king gasped suddenly and caught the warrior's arm. The knight looked down to the glen below, and his breath caught, as had his liege's. There was suddenly a great burst of laughter among the men there as what had apparently been a small scouting party made a triumphant return. Horses burst through the pass, hooves pounding, the riders shouting loudly enough to be heard by the force looking down on them.
"A prize. A prize for our great king!" a man roared.
And then the knight saw. The king's daughter Igrainia, his own true love, bruised and muddied, straight and defiant still, was seated before one of the raiders, who shoved her from the horse at the feet of the very man who was now their most hated enemy. Yet thrown hard, the wind knocked from her, she rose quickly, her chin high as she looked into the eyes of their foe.
Their enemy stared at the girl, then at his men. "The others?" he inquired.
"Dead," the rider said, and spat. "At her hands."
"And the queen?"
"Escaped-while this one mowed down our men."
"And the so-called king of these outlaws?"
"Nowhere to be found."
The enemy king, sly though not brave, cruel if not strong, assessed her, then looked around slowly. He raised his voice high, shouting so his words were an echo in the strange and eerie light that already seemed to be rising around them. "She shall die a traitor's death! By the full rise of the moon, she shall die."
The knight's horse pawed at the earth of the cliff. The king again set a hand upon his arm. "Hold."
"I will go alone," the knight said. It felt as if his blood were boiling.
"Demon Moon," the priest muttered behind him. "She is lost already."
The knight ignored him. "I will not let her die without a fight," he told the king. "She is your flesh and blood. Too many times she has risked herself to save others. I cannot let her die without a fight."
"You cannot die needlessly. They know that we are near, that we are listening," the king said. "We must plan."
The knight looked at the king. "There is a way." He pointed out the river, which was but a rill upstream, the jagged cliffs opposite their position. The cairns to the northwest, where they could escape through labyrinths, the enemy could not know.
The king listened gravely. Other nobles and knights came closer. The plan was decided.
"Pay heed," Father Gregore demanded suddenly.
The king looked up, a deep frown creasing his forehead. He gave the orders to his men to circle to their positions, then rode to the edge of the cliff again.
The knight followed him. His stomach quickened.
Below, they were playing a taunting game with the king's daughter, tossing her from man to man. She didn't cry out. Her life had taught her stoicism.
A man grabbed her, pulled her close, then let out a scream as she bit his lip and kneed his groin. "My God, I'll kill her!" he shrieked, drawing his sword.
The enemy king laughed. "So quickly? You are no match for her. But we ride this night with one who is."
"The Devil's own appears," Gregore muttered. "But you must hold," he warned the knight.
The enemy king lifted a hand as, from the throng of cavalry and foot soldiers, strode a man. He was taller than others, a black cloak around his shoulders and a painted black helm upon his head. He walked with confidence, approaching the girl.
The knight's blood quickened; he gritted his teeth, fighting desperately for control.
This man had long been a servant of the enemy. The knight had met him in battle before, knew that at least once, he had inflicted grave damage upon him.
He remembered when they had last met. They had fought savagely, so savagely that he had believed he had killed his opponent, for he had managed a thrust to the throat. He had seen the blood gush and spill, the man fall, his life choking from him, his final words a curse and a vow that revenge would be his.
But rumor said that his foe had refused to die. That he had called upon Satan himself for succor.
Some whispered that Satan had sent one of his concubines to the earl. That she had given him a kiss, and therein sealed his pact with the Devil. He had not died, and the word that went across the country-terrifying his friends, it was said, as well as his foes-was that he had become invincible.
He was referred to now, in tones of awe and fear, as the Master.
And now that loathsome being had the king's daughter in his power.
She would fight. The knight knew this in his heart. A feeling like death itself stole his breath. She would fight, and she would die. He had no prayer of reaching her, of perishing in her defense.
But she did not fight; she made no move. She merely stared at the damned warrior as he approached.
The man lifted his helm, his face shaded by the growing red moon. He seized the girl, drew her close beneath his cloak.
Suddenly she came to life. She screamed and raged, fought hard and somehow drew away, clasping her neck. With stunning speed, she stole the sword from the noble at the king's left side. She swung it high and strong, despite its staggering weight. The cloaked man moved back; the warrior at his side was not so quick, and he died in agony.
Before she could strike again, a dozen men were upon her. She was instantly captured and bound, dragged to a tree, where faggots were quickly set. All the while, she swore in defiance. She cursed those who would murder her. "You will die," she promised the enemy king. "You, too, will die in an agony of fire. Your insides will burn, as your soul races toward the fires of an eternal hell!" she shouted.
The black-cloaked figure turned, staring at the surrounding countryside. "See, Ioin? My power is greater now than any you will ever know. She is mine. Come, save her now, if you dare."
The fire was lit.
Father Gregore crossed himself, muttered a prayer and drew his sword.
The knight knew he could wait no longer. He would defy the king.
But atop the tor, the king gave the signal to his haggard army.
And from the heights, they rode down upon the enemy. Battle cries split the air, and they rode like the berserkers, those maddened Viking raiders whose blood ran in the veins of so many there. The enemy outnumbered them, but they were part of the land beneath their feet, and many of those who rode with the enemy were paid for their services and had no heart for the battle.
The knight could smell the fire.
And in his mind, he heard her cry his name. It wasn't a cry for help, but one of loss, of sadness beyond life, beyond the grave. In reply, he called out her name, and his fury created a sound like thunder and seemed to shake the earth. He strode through death, defying it, ignoring it. He reached the tree and burst through the flames, ignoring the scorching of his own flesh. He slashed through the ties that bound her, and she fell, still, silent...lifeless...into his arms.
A roar of pure rage escaped him. He looked for the cloaked man, but did not see him.
The enemy rushed him, and he was forced to lay her down. He sensed the death at his back, and he turned, raised his sword, parried and slashed without stopping.
He felt the darkness, deep, overwhelming. Crimson. He spun once more, ready to swing with wearied arms, fighting the burning in his muscles.
But there was no one. Nothing. And she...
She was gone.
The enemy swept closer again, and, stunned, he was nearly taken. Only instinct saved him. He turned in time to smite his opponent, and the battle grew ever more frenzied. He fought on, heedless, his mind numbed.
Swords clashed again and again. Battle-axes split skulls. Soon the footing was treacherous, blood mingling with the dirt. Then came the blast of a horn, and the battle paused. The man before the knight smiled-just before he died. Then, keening on the breeze, came the eerie sound of unholy laughter.
It had been a trap. A trap from the beginning. They had seen only a fraction of the troops riding with the enemy. More were arriving, storming through the pass.
The knight turned in time to slash the throat of the infantryman behind him, who had meant to stab him through the back. He saw the king, and rational thought took over once again. He strode over blood, bodies, limbs, and reached the place where the king fought. Savagely, he battled by his ruler's side, willing to fight unto death, until he was overwhelmed.
Because death would be welcome. She was dead, his soul cried. Dead and gone. All that was left was to find her remains.
"Go!" the knight roared above the clash of steel. A cohort was there with a horse. The king's followers thrust him behind themselves, forcing him to the horse. A pipe played, and the defenders began to slip away, heading for the caves and tunnels they knew so well. The battle continued to rage. They could not all escape; someone had to remain so the others might survive to fight another day.
The knight looked up briefly. The moon was full in the sky, as red as the bloody field around him. The mist that had fallen was the same crimson shade. It was as if he stood in a fog of blood. And in his heart and mind, he was dead already.
His time had come. He did not damn God or fate.She was lost, and he could only pray that there was indeed a heaven, that he would find her there. He had killed, true, but his cause had been a righteous one.
He closed his eyes for a split second, then opened them, roared out a warning and strode into the melee.
They fell before him, man after man. He knew his rage at that moment was not for the future, not for a dream.
It was for her.
He didn't know if blood or sweat dripped into his eyes, for he moved in a red haze. He was dimly aware of someone near him, the sound of an incantation.
And then a blow against his head sent him down, spiraling into darkness, an endless bloodred night.
He opened his eyes. There was darkness, there was shadow.
There was sensation.
He hadn't expected this. Had God spurned him?
Warmth surrounded him. He heard the crackling of a fire. He blinked and realized he was not dead after all.
A massive shadow loomed on the wall, then resolved itself into Father Gregore. The man came to his side, bringing water. The knight swallowed, his head cradled by the powerful hand of the strange priest.
"The battle...?" he asked.
"It is over. Long over," the priest said. "Sip slowly."
The knight looked around. They were in a cave. He couldn't tell if it was morning or evening, early or late. He knew only that the red mist was gone. Gone, too, was the scent of scorched flesh, the awful smell of blood and death.
Gone, too, was the woman he had loved.
"How long have I been here?" the knight asked.
"A very long time."
"My lady...I took her from the fire. And then she was gone. I've got to find her."
The priest looked at him, studying him for a long time. "Yes, you do," he said softly.
"I must hurry," the knight muttered.
The priest stopped him. "You must heal."
"But...I have to find her."
"A little more time won't matter," the priest said, and sat back. The glow of the fire touched his features. "You have to help me heal you. I am not entirely a miracle worker. There will be time."
"But she is in danger."
"Yes. She is your quest. Her immortal soul cries out."
"There is time, my son. Much has happened. There's much I must tell you. Much you must learn."
The fire snapped and crackled and the knight looked into the priest's eyes....
It was only then that he began to understand.