“There’s nothing like a wonderfully written romance that includes everything from excitement and intrigue to despair and triumph. Such a novel discourages readers from putting the book down, lest we miss new adventures waiting around the next corner. Laurel O’Donnell has managed to do just that and so much more in the Midnight Shadow.”
– The Romance Reader
Lady Bria Delaney
Raised on the adventurous stories of an imaginary champion, Bria Delaney longs to wield a sword and fight against tyranny. When the unjust rules of a neighboring lord affect her friends, she dons the mask and cloak of her childhood hero to right the wrongs and save them from oppression.
How could she know that the lord inflicting the plight on her friends would be able to ignite a burning in her the likes of which she has never felt before? How could she know that Lord Terran Knowles’ darkly intent gaze would make her struggle to suppress her fierce attraction to the very enemy she has secretly promised to destroy?
Lord Terran Knowles
Accustomed to victory at tournament, Terran Knowles lives a life of luxury and ease. However, when he returns home and finds his coin has dwindled, he must turn to an old betrothal and its dowry to keep his coffers full. His intended betrothed is a headstrong, beautiful woman who immediately intrigues him. But then to add to his financial woes, a robber strikes in the night on his lands, a mysterious thief known as the Midnight Shadow. Torn between the woman he longs to trust and the outlaw he has vowed to hang, Terran vows to find the truth.
Can the heat of passion overcome the chill of suspicion? Can a legendary hero find love in the arms of a hated villain? Midnight Shadow is a medieval romance adventure filled with excitement and intrigue, secret identities and dangerous enemies, suspense and action. It’s a great story you won’t want to end!
Read Midnight Shadow Free Sample Chapters Below
“… and he brandished his sword above his head, declaring, ‘Tyranny will not be tolerated! All people will be treated fairly!’ With that, the Midnight Shadow whirled away on his horse and disappeared over the horizon.”
Bria Delaney sat on her grandfather’s lap listening to the beloved tale of her favorite hero, but it couldn’t erase her heartache. She glanced down at her lap and folded her hands. “I wish Father was here,” Bria grumbled.
“Every man must fight against tyranny in his own way, child.” Harry held Bria close to him. “Your father didn’t want to leave you, but he had to fight beside the King. He is duty bound to the wishes of the crown.” His old, wrinkled hand wiped a tear from her smooth cheek. He pressed a kiss to her forehead and brushed back her curly brown locks.
“I want to go with him,” Bria said. “I want to fight against tyranny, too.”
The timbre of her grandfather’s laughter made Bria scowl fiercely. “They are armed men, Bria. What can a child do against an army? No. War is no place for you.”
Bria crossed her arms and jutted out her lower lip. “I hate the French.”
Harry chuckled, his entire body shaking. “Most of England does, my dear.” He pulled her against him, hugging her. Then Harry set her on the ground, patting her bottom lightly. “Go. Mary and Garret are waiting for you.”
“I don’t feel like playing today,” Bria said glumly.
“Ah, but who knows what grand adventure awaits you? If you brood all day in the castle, you might miss it,” Harry reminded her.
Bria glanced up at her grandfather’s warm, smiling face. Adventure. That word always seemed to stir her senses and rouse her imagination. The wet smear of tears on her cheeks was quickly forgotten.
Bria nodded and ran out of the room. She raced through the corridors of her father’s castle, practically flying down a set of spiraling stone steps. As she burst from the stairway, a woman carrying an armful of laundry stepped into her path. Bria twisted her body with the agility of an eight year old and barely missed knocking into her. “Sorry!” she called over her shoulder as she charged down a corridor to a large set of open double doors. She raced through the doors, leaping down over the last two steps to land in the dust of the inner ward.
The warm sun washed over her, forcing her to squint. She dashed through the inner ward, slowing long enough to leap over a puddle, then hurried through the outer ward, sprinting past the blacksmith’s workshop, oblivious to the loud clang of metal against metal.
A man standing near the outer gatehouse waved her over. It was Jason of Victors. She recognized him by his red beard and carrot-colored hair. His chainmail coif shone in the bright sunlight as if he had just polished it. His white tunic bore a flying falcon over a red cross, the crest of the Delaneys.
She hurried over to him.
“Good morn, child,” Jason greeted warmly with a slight bow.
Bria smiled at him.
“I’m to deliver you a message,” Jason added softly, almost conspiratorially. He glanced around the area, then motioned for Bria to come closer.
Bria anxiously stepped closer. “What message?” she wondered.
“Garret and Mary have pursued the French dogs onto Knowles’ lands in the east woods. They are in desperate need of your assistance.” Jason pulled back from her, nodding with a knowing look.
A grin burst upon Bria’s face, bringing a happy sparkle to her eyes.
“Hurry now,” Jason urged. “They may already be vastly outnumbered.”
Bria wasted no time in darting beneath the outer gatehouse, remembering to turn and wave good-bye to Jason just as her slippered feet slapped against the wooden planks of the lowered drawbridge. She ran toward the meadows that surrounded Castle Delaney, her smile making her entire face radiant.
The sounds of horses’ hooves, chickens clucking, and the distant sound of swords clanging grew farther and farther away as she left the castle and the village behind to enter the relative quiet of the grassy fields surrounding Castle Delaney. As she bounded through the grass that rose almost to her neck, her mind replayed the story of the Midnight Shadow — the way he fought against tyranny and protected the weak. His generosity and his courage were unequaled. She wanted to be just like him.
She thrust at an imaginary foe, cutting down a stalk of grass with her hand. “Take that, you insufferable French cur,” she growled. She spun and chopped at another stalk. “For England!” she cried.
Bria bounded through the stalks and into the forest separating her family’s lands from the Knowles’ lands. She raced headlong into the brush, knowing the way well, having traveled it often to Mary’s farm. Mary and Garret would be fighting the French somewhere in these woods, probably near the pond by Mary’s house.
“Garret!” Bria called, halting to listen as she reached the edge of a small clearing. “Mary!” But there was no response, only the caw of a distant bird. Bria picked up her brown velvet skirt and raced deeper into the woods toward Mary’s house.
After a minute she halted again, breathing hard. “Garret!” she called. “Mary! Where are you?”
She bit her lip lightly. Maybe she should go back. She looked over her shoulder in the direction of Castle Delaney.
The Midnight Shadow would never leave his friends alone in the woods at the mercy of the French. The thought pierced her mind and bolstered her courage.
As she moved slowly through the woods, the dried twigs and leaves crunched beneath her feet. She paused again to call out for her friends. “Mary! Garret!”
An eerie silence answered her. She looked around the quiet forest, her instincts telling her to flee. But how could she leave her friends?
Then she heard the crunch of approaching footsteps. “Mary?” she called hesitantly.
A figure emerged from behind one of the trees in front of her, but it wasn’t Mary. As the shape neared, Bria recognized the boy and gasped silently. Randolph Kenric. He was bigger than she was and four years older. His brown hair hung loose around his shoulders. He looked like a wild animal.
The silence around her grew even more thick and ominous. Kenric once skinned a kitten just to see how loud it could howl.
Bria stepped back. Her foot landed on a branch and snapped it in half. He turned his head and his brown hair fell into his eyes. He swiped the strands away to glare at her.
Bria took another step back.
Kenric smiled. “Ahhh,” he said. “The heir to Castle Delaney. You’re a little off your lands, aren’t you?”
“I’m looking for my friends,” she admitted.
“Which one? The peasant girl I shoved in the mud or the sniveling little boy?”
Anger pierced her, and her small fingers clenched into a fist. What gave him the right to treat her friends like that? Her eyes raked him with rage. “You’re a mean cur, Randolph Kenric,” she told him and turned to march toward Castle Delaney.
“Hey,” Kenric called. “Didn’t your father just leave to fight some war?”
Bria didn’t answer him. She swatted aside a branch, continuing to move through the forest back toward her lands, her home.
Suddenly, she was yanked to a halt by biting fingers digging into her arm. Kenric wrenched her around to face him. “Don’t walk away from me when I’m talking to you,” he commanded. “What kind of manners were you brought up with?”
“Let go of me,” Bria ordered.
“Is that a command, your ladyship?”
She tried to pull her arm free, but he held her wrist tightly.
“I just asked you a question,” he said innocently. “But you’re too good for the likes of me, eh?” He chuckled low in his throat. “I’m not nobility like yourself, after all, just a poor cousin of the Knowles. Shall I grovel before you, my lady?”
Bria twisted her arm. “Let me go,” she said again, trying to sound commanding. But her voice caught in her throat as tears of fear stung her eyes.
“You need a lesson in humility.” He began dragging her through the forest.
Bria dug in her heels, but her slippered feet were no help on the leaf-carpeted forest floor, nor against Kenric’s strength. She tried to pull his fingers from her wrist, but he held her tight. He pulled her deeper into the woods, into the darkness. “Stop it!” Bria called.
“You know, running through the forest alone isn’t such a good idea,” Kenric said. “You might fall into a bramble patch.”
Bramble patch! Horror consumed Bria. She twisted and turned, trying to free herself, pushing at his hand with her free one. But his laughter rang out, as strong and vicious as his hold.
Kenric reached the edge of the bramble patch and stopped. Bria stared at the dangerous growth, the thorns looking like millions of miniature daggers. Some were long and straight like blades, others curved like hooks. All of them were sharp. She struggled against his hold, pulling at his grip, crying, “Why are you doing this?”
Kenric turned his dark smile from the spiked plants to her face. “Because I want to.”
“Let her go!” a male voice commanded.
Bria looked up to see a man cloaked in black, a black mask on his face, a black cape on his shoulders. The Midnight Shadow! He stood at the edge of the woods, his hands on his hips, his back tall and straight.
Kenric turned to look… and then broke out in a grin. “You must be joking!”
“I said let her go!” the Midnight Shadow repeated.
Kenric tightened his grip on Bria’s hand. “Come and get her.”
The Midnight Shadow moved forward, pulling a wooden sword from his belt.
Kenric tossed Bria aside. She landed hard on her hands and knees, the cluttered mass of branches and rocks of the forest floor scraping her flesh. Bria lifted her gaze in time to see Kenric pull a dagger from his belt as he approached the Midnight Shadow — a real dagger, made of hardened steel. Kenric advanced upon the Midnight Shadow, waving the metal before him.
Bria climbed to her feet, dread constricting her chest as the Midnight Shadow took a brave step toward Kenric. They faced each other for a long moment. Then the Midnight Shadow swung at Kenric. Kenric ducked the blow, but the Midnight Shadow swung back, glancing a blow off Kenric’s head, the wooden sword clunking against his skull.
Bria gaped as Kenric fell back to his bottom with a grunt. Joy exploded through her and she took a step toward her hero, but halted as Kenric shook his head, clearing it, and climbed to his feet. The Midnight Shadow arced his blade at Kenric’s head, but Kenric caught the blow in his open palm. He yanked the wooden sword from the Midnight Shadow’s grip and bashed him in the head with it.
Bria watched in horror as her noble hero fell to his knees before the evil Kenric.
Kenric reached down and ripped the mask from the Midnight Shadow’s face, revealing a face Bria knew very well. She gasped. It was Garret!
Kenric laughed again, and again hit Garret’s head with the wooden sword.
Garret toppled to his side and Bria lurched forward, seizing Kenric’s arm as he raised the weapon to strike another blow. “Stop!” she cried. “Don’t hurt him anymore!”
Kenric snorted and threw the sword down on top of Garret. He turned to Bria.
She took a step back, but Kenric locked his hand around her wrist. “Looks like your rescuer didn’t save you after all.”
“No!” she cried. But before the impulse to free herself overcame her fear, Kenric jerked her forward.
Bria felt herself falling, the thorns growing larger and larger as she plummeted toward the bramble patch. She reached out attempting to brace herself from the fall. She turned her head from the thorns and squeezed her eyes shut. One of her hands landed on a small thorn and she cried out, pulling away from it. Other thorns stabbed at her arms, her legs, her back. The branches caught and snagged her clothing and her hair, pulling and ripping.
Panicked, Bria fought to be free. But the more she struggled, the more entangled her clothes and hair became, the deeper the thorns dug into her. Frightened, hurt, Bria stilled her fight. Her entire body was aflame with pain.
Through tear-filled eyes, she looked up and saw Kenric standing at the edge of the briar patch, staring down at her, laughing and laughing, his mouth big and wide, his thin lips stretched tight. Slowly, he turned away and moved off into the forest, his laughter still echoing in her ears.
Bria lay absolutely still, trying to calm her fear, trying to stop crying. She wanted her father so desperately. She wanted him to be home with her to protect her.
Then her thoughts turned to Garret. Where was he? Was he hurt? She had to get to him, had to reach him. Kenric had hit him hard. “Garret?” she called, but received no reply.
Her tears lessened as she concentrated on her friend, on helping him, on making sure he was all right.
Bria shifted slightly. Her hair pulled tight, caught and entwined in the thorny branches of the bushes. She grabbed the long lock around the top and pulled hard until she was free. The thorns in her arms burned hotly and she found herself crying again.
“Garret!” she called, worried for him. Worried she would never be free. Still she heard no sound from her friend.
Tears continued to roll down her cheeks as she fought her way free, pulling and tugging at the nasty claws entangled in her velvet skirt. Tiny rivulets of blood trickled down her right arm.
Instantly, she froze, looking toward the spot where Garret had fallen.
“Brie? Are you all right?”
She could barely make out his face through the blur of tears filling her eyes. “Oh, Garret!” Bria cried, so relieved she felt herself trembling. “I’m stuck. I can’t get out.”
“I’m coming,” he said. “I’ll help you.”
Bria sobbed in release. Garret was all right! He’d help her get out of this. He’d help her free herself.
As Garret neared, Bria saw blood running from his blond hair, the crimson smear staining the side of his face. “Garret, you’re hurt!”
Garret lifted his hand to his forehead. He brought his fingers away to look at the blood on the tips. Then he shook his head. “It’s nothing.” He grabbed a piece of her skirt and pulled it free of the thorns, then stood beside her and gently grabbed a lock of her hair, working it free of the bush.
As he leaned over her to ease her arm from the biting thorns, Bria noticed his black cape and mask were gone.
“I made a proper mess of things,” he admitted quietly.
Bria looked away from him, tugging and pulling at her other forearm to free the brown velvet fabric of her sleeve from one of the brambles. Together, the children worked in silence until Bria was free of the bramble patch.
“Those thorns really got you.” Garret gently wiped a spot of blood from her elbow. “Are you all right?”
“It stings a little, but I’m all right.”
Garret looked at her for a moment, then hung his head, glancing away from her to the ground. “I never should have pretended to be something I’m not.” He kicked at the cape and mask lying in the dirt.
“You were very gallant,” Bria said, touching his shoulder warmly.
“Not gallant enough to protect you,” Garret whispered. “Not as gallant as the Midnight Shadow would have been.”
If it hadn’t been so quiet in the forest, so still, Bria never would have heard his admission. She pretended she hadn’t.
“Where’s Mary?” Bria asked. “Is she hurt?”
“After Kenric pushed her in the mud, we ran away from him. She’s all right. She’s at her house waiting for us. I came back here looking for you.” Again, Garret kicked at the fallen cape. “Little good that did.”
Bria bent down and retrieved his fallen sword, holding it out to him. Garret stared at it for a long moment. Bria pushed it toward him again, an anxious feeling stirring the pit of her stomach. “Here.”
Finally, Garret took it and placed it back in his belt.
She held out her hand to him and he clutched at her fingers. “I think I’d rather just go home now,” Bria said softly.
He nodded, and they returned to Castle Delaney.
Bria never heard Garret speak of the Midnight Shadow again.
Bria squeezed her eyes shut. The shearing noise of her own hair being cut sounded loud in her ears as her grandfather ran the dagger through her long locks. Her shoulders shook with a suppressed sob.
“That’s it, Bria,” Harry told her.
Bria opened her eyes and glanced down at the floor. Her long brown locks lay curled around her bare feet.
Parts of her hair had been so tangled around the brambles, so full of thorns, her grandfather had to cut off her hair. Now her once long locks reached only an inch above her shoulders.
Bria lifted a hand and ran it through her butchered hair. Sobbing quietly, she bent and scooped up the long strands in her trembling hands as if they were a valued treasure. She stared at the knotted mass of hair.
“It was unavoidable,” her grandfather told her quietly, sincerely.
“Will Garret be all right?” Bria asked, wiping her sleeve across her nose.
Harry nodded. “He’ll be fine,” he said. “Just a bump on that hard head of his. You’re sure you just stumbled into that bramble patch? And that Garret fell and hit his head?”
Bria looked away, unable to meet her grandfather’s gaze. She’d argued with Garret to tell the truth so Kenric would get in trouble and be properly punished, but Garret insisted they keep it a secret. “Yes,” she answered.
“Very well.” Harry began to rise from his chair.
“Grandfather?” Bria said.
Harry looked down at her.
“Will you tell me the story of the Midnight Shadow?” she asked softly.
A grin stretched across Harry’s face. “Of course.” He motioned for her to move to the bed. They sat down together upon the soft mattress, and Harry picked Bria up and positioned her on his lap.
Bria settled into her grandfather’s arms, looking down at the mound of brown hair she held in her hands. Someday Kenric would be punished. Someday he’d get what he deserved. Bria hoped she would see it.
Harry began, “He was known far and wide for fighting against tyranny and for upholding fairness. He was called the Midnight Shadow…”
Ten years later
Candles cast wiggling demons onto the stone walls of the dark room. A large bed held a sole occupant in its lonely vastness. The shadows slithered across her pallid cheeks and moved over her neck like serpents looking for a tender spot of flesh upon which to inflict their deadly attack.
Lord Terran Knowles bent over her small hand, pressing his forehead to the slim fingers he held crushed in his. Her once warm skin felt clammy and cold. He didn’t move for a very long time, and it appeared as if both he and the woman were dead.
But Terran wasn’t about to let her die, not when he’d fought so hard to get her, winning her over another suitor. Not when he’d negotiated a dowry so grand it would provide enough funds to pay his knights and secure peace for his people and his castle for years to come. Not when he loved her. No, he couldn’t permit Odella to die.
But how could he stop it?
Why, Odella? he asked silently. She’d been happy here at Castle Knowles — at least he’d believed her to be — and they were to be wed in a week. Why would she do this? Why would she poison herself?
He could think of no answer. Nothing! She’d always seemed so cheerful, with a soft shy smile. God knew he’d do anything to make her better, give her anything she desired.
A knock sounded at the door. Terran didn’t respond. He wanted to be left alone with Odella. The door opened behind him.
“Terran?” a voice called, hesitantly.
His cousin moved closer. “I’ve brought a physician.”
Terran’s jaw clenched; his hands tightened to fists. “A physician will do her no good,” Terran growled. “She poisoned herself. I want someone who knows about poisons.”
“I can’t find the herbalist,” Kenric said. “And a physician –”
Terran whirled, his movements as lithe as a panther. He was off his knees in an instant, grabbing his cousin by the tunic and slamming him back against the wall. “Get me the herbalist,” he snarled.
Kenric’s black eyes were wide as he stared at his cousin for a long moment before nodding his head. “As you wish, m’lord,” he whispered.
Terran released him, and Kenric walked swiftly from the room.
It took a long moment for Terran’s anger to subside. Physician. What good is a physician? I need someone who can help Odella. Someone who can cure her of the poison.
Odella was like a glorious angel laid out in his bed, her hands folded on her stomach, her slender face somber and pale, her eyes closed. Her beautiful honeyed hair was tucked beneath her head.
She was a ghostly reminder of what she’d once been.
He remembered the first day he’d laid eyes on her, more than a year ago. He’d been riding into McColl Village to attend a tournament, arriving just as the merriment began. Odella had been dancing around a maypole with some of her ladies. He remembered her bright blond hair all but glowing in the sunshine, her laughter like music to his ears. He’d immediately fallen in love with her.
He won the tournament in her honor, defeating all who stood against him. After that, through months of negotiation, Terran convinced her father to betroth her to him.
In granting Terran Odella’s hand in marriage, her father had given him the woman his heart desired and a bountiful dowry that would save his castle.
Now she lay dying in his bed. As he looked at her, lifeless and ashen, he wanted to cling to the memories until she regained her radiance. But somehow the images wavered and dissolved before his mind’s eye into a mocking replica of what she used to be.
He rubbed his hands over his eyes, trying to wipe away the truth they presented to him, desperate to hold fast to the memories.
I have to remain calm. She’ll be as good as new soon. It won’t be long before she’s smiling again. It won’t be long before I hear her laughter.
“Odella,” he whispered. “Why?” He bent again at her side, gently taking her hand in his. “Why?”
Odella’s head shifted slightly and Terran raised his eyes to her face.
In the flickering light of the candle, he could have sworn her lips moved. He stared at her for a moment, holding his breath, waiting for them to move again. It must have been his wishful imagination. Now they were still. Terran wiped his weary eyes, trying to clear them. But when he opened his eyes to look at her again, her lips were indeed moving.
He quickly boosted himself up on the bed. Her breath was so shallow he could barely hear her. He lowered his ear closer to her lips.
“Garret,” she whispered.
Terran sat bolt upright, his jaw hard as granite. He must have misheard her. But there was no mishearing her next cry.
Her lips moved again, her face contorting with pain. “Garret,” she managed to gasp.
Dysen! Terran reared back. He knew only one Garret. Garret Dysen. This cannot be. Why does she call for another man?
Then a thought struck him so hard he almost reeled. Could she love Dysen? Could she have killed herself because she couldn’t be with Dysen?
Anguish and disbelief tore through Terran. He stood and stepped away from the bed. How could this be?
He whirled away from her, clenching his fists. God’s blood! Have I been so blind?
Agony tore through him. It cannot be, he told himself. But deep in his heart, he knew he finally had his answer. Odella had poisoned herself to escape marriage to him.
The midday sunlight washed down upon the tilting field. A dozen knights were busy practicing their skills in the arena set up in a field on the western side of Castle Delaney. Some of the men were on foot, clanging swords in mock battles. Others rode their muscular warhorses, practicing battle maneuvers. Several men worked diligently on their jousting skills.
Bria pulled her knees up to her chest, staring down at the men in the field. She sat beneath a large tree, watching her grandfather give orders to one of the younger men as he handed him a jousting pole. Her grandfather indicated the quintain in the center of the field with a wave of his hand. The man nodded and spurred his horse forward, riding toward the far side of the field.
Someone plopped down on the grass beside Bria. She swiveled her head to see Mary adjusting her patched skirt around her legs. Her friend shoved a strand of unruly dark brown hair behind her ear and attempted to pat the rest of the flyaway strands flat. Her brown eyes twinkled with glee. “Has anyone arrived yet?” Mary asked breathlessly. She liked this suitor business much more than Bria did.
Bria returned her dismayed gaze to the field. The young knight with the jousting pole had reached the far side of the field and was turning his steed to face the quintain. “Two. No one interesting, though.”
Mary chuckled. “I think if the Midnight Shadow himself walked through your door, you’d call him ‘not interesting’ to avoid marriage.”
“If the Midnight Shadow walked through my door, I’d jump at the opportunity to marry him!” Bria exclaimed. “But he isn’t going to walk into Castle Delaney.”
The young knight in the jousting field spurred his horse and it charged forward, kicking up small puffs of dirt in his wake. The knight leaned forward in the saddle, leveling his pole at the quintain.
“That’s your problem, Bria,” Mary explained, watching him. “No flesh-and-blood man will ever be as attractive as the imaginary one you’ve created in your head.”
The young knight hit the quintain, which spun rapidly. The soft bag hit him in his shoulder with enough force to throw him from his steed. He tumbled over the side of the animal, landing in a pool of dust.
Mary put her hands over her eyes and groaned.
Bria grimaced and murmured, “Well, we know he’s not the Midnight Shadow.”
Mary burst into laughter.
“Can you still meet me tonight?” Bria asked, elbowing her friend.
“Of course,” Mary replied.
Suddenly, the distant sound of trumpets filled the air.
Mary’s eyes widened and she strained to see toward Castle Delaney, where the sound was coming from.
Bria rolled her eyes and crossed her arms, sitting back against the tree. “Another suitor,” she said with disdain.
Mary giggled and grabbed Bria’s arm, trying to pull her to her feet. “Let’s go see.”
“Why?” Bria demanded, refusing to be lifted.
“With all that fanfare, he might be handsome!”
Bria huffed disinterest. Mary yanked her to her feet and pulled her down the slight rise toward the road leading from the village to Castle Delaney.
Before them, Castle Delaney rose mightily skyward, its rounded towers standing as sentinels at each corner of the grand structure, connected by massive walls that protected the inner wards of the castle. The drawbridge was lowered, the portcullis raised to welcome the guests marching across the bridge.
Bria looked closely at the arriving guests, trying to discern their heraldry. The red flag one of the riders held fluttered in a gentle breeze, giving a teasing glimpse of the crest of a lion.
Bria’s heart leaped slightly. She knew the crest. It was Lord Dysen and Garret!
Mary shook Bria’s arm in excitement as she, too, recognized the heraldry.
Garret! She hadn’t seen him in five years! Bria took a step forward, scanning the throngs. Dancing women waved translucent scarves as they moved to a minstrel’s flute; men on stilts called out to the castle guards; a caged bear growled as a guard stuck the tip of his sword into its cage.
Bria scowled. Why had Garret brought such a show with him? He usually just arrived with his father. These performers must have cost enough to feed a village for a winter. Oh no, she thought. Not Garret, too! She groaned slightly and rolled her eyes skyward. Please Lord, tell me Garret hasn‘t come for my hand in marriage! But as she returned her gaze to the jugglers and minstrels disappearing into the castle beneath the gatehouse, she knew Garret had.
Mary grabbed her arm and pulled her toward the castle. Bria had been away at her aunt’s castle the last time Garret and his father had visited two years ago, but Mary said he’d grown into a very handsome man. It was quite obvious Mary had been smitten by him, and still was. Her friend giggled whenever they spoke of him, and dramatically placed her hands over her heart whenever his name was mentioned.
But regardless of his newfound manhood and his handsome looks, he was still the Garret Bria had grown up with. He’d always be a brother to her. She couldn’t imagine him being anything more.
Mary all but dragged her over the drawbridge and beneath the gatehouse. Inside the outer courtyard, the retinue had come to a stop. Jugglers with brightly painted faces entertained the peasants milling around. Children raced in and out between the legs of men on stilts, screaming in joy. Shouts of awe arose from the onlookers as one of the stilted men teetered and then caught his balance. Somewhere a dog barked. Several onlookers cried out in delight as a man slowly lowered a sword down his throat.
Even as Bria gaped at the numerous entertainers, Mary continued to pull her through the outer courtyard and into the inner courtyard, all but leaping up and down in excitement. The large space overflowed with the front of the procession, a garrison of armored knights, their plate armor glinting in the sun.
Had any knights been left behind to guard Castle Dysen?
Behind the soldiers, a group of actors recited poetry, and behind them a group of dancing gypsies performed wonders with their gyrating bodies.
Mary jerked her forward again, and they wove their way through the peasants milling about, past a rotund blacksmith grabbing his stomach in laughter at one of the actors.
Bria searched the crowd, but there was too much movement for her to focus on any one thing. It was a scene more befitting a holiday than the arrival of family friends. More jugglers rushed about tossing bags of beans, and musicians played merry tunes. Everywhere, people were laughing and cheering.
Bria moved past the jugglers and stopped dead in her tracks as a masked man clad in a black cape and wielding a shimmering blade stepped in front of her. Bria gasped, her heart pounding with the ferocity of a madly galloping horse. Could it be? The Midnight Shadow standing mere feet from her?
Suddenly, a woman tossed an apple into the air, and the masked man brandished his sword, instantly slicing the apple cleanly in two. Onlookers clapped at the man’s show of skill.
Bria’s body slumped slightly, her heart slowing. He’s just part of the show, she thought. Just part of the show.
“There he is!” Mary exclaimed. She waved her hand high above her head and shouted his name. “Garret!”
Bria scanned the crowd, taking her gaze from the Midnight Shadow look-alike. “Where?” she demanded.
“Near the stairs of the keep,” Mary answered, continuing to wave her hand.
Bria scanned the steps near the keep, but there were too many people. “I can’t see him!”
Mary pulled Bria close. “There!” She pointed.
Bria followed her finger. She spotted Lord Dysen sitting atop a horse. He was speaking with someone on the stairs, but a man on stilts blocked her view of the person he was speaking with.
“Garret!” Mary screamed.
Bria pulled away from Mary and rubbed her ear, glancing at her in displeasure. When she turned back to search for Garret, she caught sight of a blond man dismounting a white horse, but she couldn’t see his face as he disappeared into the crowd.
Mary squeezed Bria’s wrist tightly. “He’s coming!” she whispered loudly and jumped up and down in delight.
Bria grinned at Mary’s thrill. She had to admit she was just as eager to see Garret as Mary was. She stood on her tiptoes, trying to see her friend amongst the crowd in the courtyard, but it was so full that every time she caught a glimpse of Garret, someone moved before her, obscuring her view.
Bria saw a hand waving at them above the crowd. Before she could get a glimpse of him, the hand was gone, swallowed by the undulating crowd. Finally, the curtain of peasants before them parted and Garret emerged from the throng.
Bria’s mouth dropped open. Golden blond hair swept down over strong shoulders. Garret was no longer the awkward, lanky child Bria remembered. His face had lost its thinness and had filled out; his jaw had squared. He was a knight now, a warrior. She felt an abyss of change open between them.
Then she looked into his eyes. There, in the twinkling blue depths, she found the Garret she knew and loved, the same boy she’d made a vow of friendship with all those years ago.
A smile of relief and of happiness stretched across her lips.
Garret stopped before her, his gaze sweeping her. For a moment, Bria thought he was going to take her hand and kiss it, marking a complete transformation into adulthood for both of them. Instead, Garret swept her into a tight embrace and whirled her around. Their laughter mingled.
When they parted, Garret swept Mary into a warm embrace. He kept his arm around Mary’s shoulder as he looked at Bria in awe. “You’ve grown,” he finally admitted.
Bria smiled. His sentiments mirrored her own. “I should hope so,” Bria answered. “Last time I saw you, I was but a child.”
“Yes.” Garret sighed. “As was I.”
Garret kissed Mary’s head and Bria watched the red bloom over Mary’s cheeks.
“And what of you, little woman?” he asked Mary. “What have you been up to?”
“Nothing,” Mary whispered shyly, looking up at him through lowered lashes.
Bria realized with a jolt Mary was flirting with Garret.
Garret’s smile stretched wider, revealing perfect white teeth.
And Garret knew it!
Their friendship would never be the same. The innocence of childhood had fled, and adult desires raged. He was a man now, and she and Mary were women.
“And what of you, Garret? I heard you went to war beside your father.”
Garret’s gaze swung to Bria, piercing her with the full intensity of his glorious blue-eyed stare, and he nodded, his eyes lighting up. “Have I got tales for you!” he began, but faltered. “Maybe we should speak of other things.”
Bria glanced at Mary and frowned. “Why would we speak of other things?”
“Well, you’re a lady now and –”
Bria smiled. “And maybe such talk offends me?”
“Well.” Garret shifted from foot to foot uneasily. “Well, yes.”
“When they didn’t offend me before?” Bria asked, poking fun at him. Garret had often told her of the dreams he had of slashing down the French, of ridding the land of tyranny. “I’m still the same girl, Garret, as I’m sure you’re the same boy.”
Garret shrugged slightly.
Bria reached out to squeeze one of his biceps. His flesh was firm with powerful muscles distinguishing him as a strong warrior. “These are real, aren’t they?”
“I should say so!” Garret squeaked in objection.
A grin stretched Bria’s lips and Mary covered her mouth against her giggles.
Garret glanced from Bria to Mary and back again. He shook his head, smiling. “Yes, you are the same girl.” He grasped her hands tightly. “And it’s good to see you. I missed you the last time I was here.”
Bria smiled at him. “Me, too.”
“Come on,” Mary called. “Let’s go watch the knights practice.”
Garret nodded. “I’ll meet you there. I must say hello to Lord Delaney.”
Mary raced off through the crowd toward the practice field. Bria turned to join her, but Garret grabbed her arm.
“Do you still sword fight with your grandfather?”
Bria nodded, but quickly hushed him, looking from side to side to see if anyone had heard. Her father would never approve, so she and her grandfather kept it a well-guarded secret. Garret wouldn’t have known except he’d followed her out of the castle one night long ago when the Dysens had been visiting. He’d discovered them fighting. She’d sworn him to secrecy.
“Have you beaten him yet?” Garret wondered.
Bria shook her head, a grimace of disappointment crossing her features.
“I’ve got a move guaranteed to disarm him. Are you interested?” Garret asked, a smile curving his lips.
“Am I!” Bria almost exploded with excitement.
“Meet me tomorrow morning in the field where you practice,” he whispered.
Two swords crossed under a slitted moon, their metal blades clanging as they collided. The moon shimmered in the cold steel, its reflection clear and bright.
“Come on, girl, you can do much better than that.” Harry watched Bria smile. She was beautiful. Who would have thought such a gangly girl would grow into such an elegant lady? Her long brown hair hung loosely in large curls about her shoulders; her lips were full and rose red, the blue of her eyes rivaled that of the sky — eyes that right now stared at him with the heated blue of a fire’s core. She would indeed make a fine wife. It was just that defiant, determined streak she had to be wary of. Men wanted at least some semblance of subservience from their women.
The blades pushed hard against each other, then abruptly separated, the slender steel screeching as the weapons slid free of each other. Bria swung, but Harry backed away and her blade whistled through the empty air. She swung again, but this time Harry caught her swing and grabbed her wrist, bringing her in close so they were practically nose to nose.
“You’re angry because your father finally made the decision to find you a husband.” He pushed away from her and swung. “You’re fighting with your emotions today, not with reason.”
She ducked and spun away from him. “I am not,” she insisted, then countered with an arc to his head. He blocked her blow, knowing she was lying because of the intensity with which she fought.
It took all his concentration to match her move and block it. “It’s time, Bria. You should have been married long ago,” he said.
She was quick, much quicker than he was. And she was smart, despite her emotions warring to take control. He could see her mind working as she lunged. But experience won out, and he was still able to thwart her strike. He caught her sword with his and twisted his wrist. He had disarmed her more than once with that move. It worked again tonight. Her sword went sailing through the air.
Disappointment surged within him. Even though she was getting better and better each night they sparred, he was still disappointed in her lack of self-control. Yet, it was only a matter of time before she disarmed him. Then he’d have nothing further to teach her. That would be the biggest disappointment of all.
Bria cursed quietly and stomped after her sword. Before she could reach it, Harry put the tip of his sword to her neck. “Yield,” he ordered.
Again, she mumbled a curse. “I yield,” she added grudgingly, and moved to proceed past him.
He kept the sword to her neck. “Why were you disarmed?”
Her jaw worked as she clenched her teeth. “I was overanxious. I thought I had you that time. Just like all those other times.” She shoved the sword from her neck and marched past him to her weapon, yanking it from the ground. She swung it through the air, hacking the breeze assaulting her. “I’ll never get it.”
“You’ll get it,” he said, kindly. “You just have to learn patience. You want to win, but you’re not willing to wait for an opening.”
“You make your own openings,” she countered.
“When you’re good enough,” he agreed, approaching her, “and when you realize you’ll never be stronger than a man. You have to wait for an opening. You can’t fight aggressively. You have to fight defensively. Always.”
Bria rolled her large blue eyes. “I know, I know.”
“But you don’t know, or you wouldn’t be disarmed.”
She handed her sword to him. He took the handle of the weapon. “Don’t stay out too long. Your father is suspicious enough.”
“I know,” she murmured. She walked toward the thick forest just beyond the clearing where two horses were tethered to a tree.
Harry shook his head in admiration. She was already better than most men he knew, but he dared not tell her that.
Suddenly, she paused and turned to look at him. Her long, dark brown hair cascaded over her shoulder as she stared at him. “Thank you, Grandfather.”
Harry smiled and nodded. “It’s my pleasure.” She was his joy, his treasure. She was the only spark in his otherwise tedious life at the castle. He would grant her the moon, but teaching her to sword fight was a hell of a lot easier.
One of these times, he knew he’d have to stop her from riding out to her secret meetings with her friend Mary. The world was becoming much too dangerous a place for her to be out late at night on her own.
You can buy Midnight Shadow at any of the online bookstores listed below: