Heart of the Dragon, 3/97
An excerpt from Heart of the Dragon:
Northern Wales, Spring 1215
Lily breathed deeply and stared up at the obstacle looming before her. Of rough stone, darkly menacing in the fitful moonlight, the curtain wall surrounding Dolwyddelan Keep rose above her like a vision from Hell.
She loosened the strings of her cloak and slipped it off. Rolling it in a bundle, she hid it in the shadows at the base of the wall, next to the sack containing her meager belongings. The wind whipped about her, pressing her short tunic and loose braes snug against her quivering flesh.
The cold didn't make her shake, though she felt naked in the unfamiliar clothing. Nay, she'd borne worse. During the course of this ill-conceived trek, she'd encountered weather as unforgiving as the abbess herself.
She couldn't even call it fear. It was desperation that made her shiver--but it had also lent her the strength she needed in the weeks since her mother's death. Without that spur to goad her on, she'd never have escaped the confines of the cloister, let alone found Llywelyn.
For all the good it had done her.
Lily held her icy fingers to her lips in a vain attempt to blow some life into them. Exhaling deeply, she forced all her qualms to the back of her mind. It was no use thinking about it yet again. Some things had to be done, 'twas all. She focused upon the rough-cut stones and, hands and feet groping for purchase, began her ascent.
Ian leaned back against the wall, arms folded across his chest. If only he could shut out the noise as easily as the cool stone banished the heat of the overcrowded room! Tumultuous revelry filled Llywelyn's hall, spilling out into the anterooms and up the stairs to the gallery above. Wine, mead and ale flowed freely. He'd even caught a whiff of fiery Irish usquebaugh when the revelers reeled near in their drunken attempts at dancing.
But Ian stood apart, as alone among the raucous crowd as within the cool green depths of the forest. Ever silent, ever vigilant, he derived nothing more than a mild amusement from the scene unfolding before him. Once he might have joined the revelry, quaffed as deeply as the rest, but such foolishness no longer held appeal.
A woman stumbled toward him, skirts bunched in her hands and raised to the knees to expose her legs. "Care to dance, milord?" she asked coyly, leaning close until her abundant breasts pressed against his folded arms. She freed one hand to trail her fingers down the front of his tunic. "Come, I'll teach you," she said, her eyes promising more than a dance.
Something deep within him recoiled. Perhaps it was due to the smell rising from her tightly laced bliaut--old sweat and new ale--or mayhap it was simply her bold manner. Whatever the reason, he moved slightly away.
A burly soldier came up behind her and slipped his arm about her waist. "Here, Meg--are you mad? What d'ye want with him?"
The woman cast one last look at Ian, lips curled into a pout, before she allowed the man to lead her off. Breathing a sigh of relief, Ian shifted to a more comfortable position.
As he settled back to observe the evening's entertainment, he noticed one of his men elbowing his way across the hall.
"Beg pardon, milord." Dai leaned close to speak near Ian's ear. "The guard on the south walk sent word someone's climbing the curtain wall." His lean face creased into a wry smile. "Appears they've lost their stomach for it partway up."
"By Christ, not another one." Ian pushed away from the wall and headed for the door, traversing the long room easily as a path opened before him. Not two weeks past, some half-wit from the hills had tried the climb at first light to prove his valor to Llywelyn. His scream of terror and the sight of his body lying broken at the rocky base of the wall should have been warning enough to any other fool tempted to follow his example.
Who could be so stupid as to attempt such a feat in the dark of night?
Ian ducked beneath the door frame and ran lightly up the stairs to the walk, tugging his cloak close about him against the icy wind blowing down from the mountains. The guard joined him as he peered over the crenel.
"Didn't hear him 'til he'd gotten near where he is now, milord." The guard's eyes shifted nervously beneath the brim of his helm as he made the admission, but he stood straight and his voice was strong. "At least 'tis just the one."
"Aye." This time, at any rate, Ian thought with disgust. He'd need to speak again to the captain of the guard, lest they wake some morn to find the keep taken.
"Bring me rope," he commanded, turning his attention to the dark shape huddled against the wall. "I'll deal with you later."
Ian scarcely noticed the guard's hasty retreat as he tossed aside his cloak and unbuckled his sword belt. His attention remained fixed on the motionless fool below him as he propped the weapon against the wall, then climbed onto the uneven embrasure. He lay on his stomach, booted feet hooked round the merlon, and hung as far over the edge as he could reach. "Are you hurt?" he shouted. "Or just afraid?"
The shadow shifted, the movement resolving the dark blob into the form of a man. "I fear nothing," he said. He slowly turned his head toward Ian in a surprisingly arrogant manner, revealing a face too youthful for a man full grown. "I'm simply resting."
"I should leave you here to 'rest' all night," Ian said. "Idiot halfling," he muttered to himself. Inching farther over the edge, he tried to judge whether his sword belt would reach, for he doubted the boy's strength would last much longer. Faint moonlight gleamed white off knuckles that held the wall in a death grip. Mayhap they'd have to lower someone to pry those rigid fingers free.
But another glimpse of that pale face convinced him the guard would return too late. Moving quickly, Ian pulled himself back, out of the embrasure, and slipped the scabbard from his belt. He untied the other belt he wore about his waist and joined the strips of leather with a firm knot.
Even with the two belts together, they didn't look quite long enough. He'd need to stretch as far as he could. "I'm going to lower a rope," he said, then whipped his tunic over his head and tossed it aside.
Ian wrapped the belt twice around his hand and, gripping the leather so tight that the metal studs bit into his palm, he levered himself over the lip of the wall and lowered himself and the makeshift rope.
The end stopped a bare foot short. "Look up." He kept his voice even, afraid the lad would loosen his hold. "See the rope?"
Face pressed tight against the rough stone, the boy tilted his head and opened his eyes. "Aye," he answered, then squeezed his eyes shut.
"You'll have to climb a bit more. Do you think you have the nerve for it, boy?" Ian asked, infusing the question with just enough mockery to raise the lad's ire. "Or do I need to come down after you?"
The boy immediately eased one hand from its death grip upon the stone. A quiet moan blended with the soughing wind as that hand inched closer to the dangling leather. The lad had courage, he'd give him that--despite this foolhardy climb.
The provocation had the desired effect. In no time at all, the lad had scrambled close enough to grab the belt. "Have a care," Ian warned as the leather stretched taut beneath the youth's surprisingly meager weight. He wound the end tighter about his hand. Now, if the knot would hold . . . .
Muscles bunching from the strain, Ian pulled the boy toward him. Strong hands grabbed at his feet and held him, allowing him to haul the lad into his arms.
They flopped over the wall together and landed in a heap at the guard's feet.
Sweet Jesu save him, this was no lad! It had been some time since he'd held a woman, but he couldn't mistake the soft curves beneath the coarse male garments. Cursing, he shoved her aside and stood, tugging her upright to stand beside him.
The guard stepped forward to take her. Ian shook his head and jerked the woman's arms behind her. "You see to your duties," he told the other man. "I'll take care of this."
No need to have the guard carry this tale, at least not until he'd discovered why she'd attempted the wall. One hand a vise about her upper arm, Ian snatched up his sword and tunic and dragged the woman toward the stairs. They hadn't taken two steps before she dug in her heels and pulled to a halt.
"Come on," Ian growled. She remained rooted to the spot. His sword clattered against the walkway as he spun to face her. "Are you deaf, as well as stupid?"
"I wish to see Llywelyn."
The faint moonlight gilded her face, highlighting her mulish expression. But her stubbornness didn't matter. Two could play at this game--and he had no doubt that his strength of will could overpower any resistance. "Indeed?"
Her lips tightened into a grim line and her chin rose another notch. "Aye. Take me to him, if you please." Her expression didn't change, making a mockery of her attempt at courtesy.
"Come." He tightened his grip on her elbow.
She pulled against his hold, mouth opening to speak.
Sweet Mary save him! Did she dare to defy him again? Tossing his belongings aside, Ian hoisted her over his shoulder, then scooped up his sword. She'd come with him whether she wanted to or not. Accompanied by a stream of insults from his captive, he ran lightly down the stairs, his lips curved into a smile.
Lily's breath ran short before her scant supply of curses. His firm grip spoke as clearly as words that any attempt to free herself would be doomed from the start. She knew firsthand of his strength. How else could he have hauled someone as tall as she up and over the wall with such ease? She'd always felt huge and clumsy, towering as she did over the sisters--as well as the few men she'd met. But the top of her head came no higher than his shoulder. She'd do well to respect his size, and the power and confidence he wore like a mantle.
Besides, she was inside Llywelyn's keep, just where she wanted to be. In the company of a man of some authority, if the guard's reaction was any indication. Still, being carried thus certainly lacked dignity--as well as being painful. She tried to get more comfortable, but couldn't squirm into a position where his brawny shoulder didn't force the air from her lungs with every jolting step.
The heat on her face had more to do with the cursing she'd done than hanging upside down. With blasphemy added to all the sins she'd committed of late, she'd be better off going back to the abbey and taking the veil in atonement. And likely doing penance the rest of her life.
Where was he taking her? The sounds of revelry soon grew faint as he carried her toward a shadow-filled corner of the bailey.
She doubted she'd see Llywelyn this night.
Her ill-planned scheme didn't seem any more likely to bring her to the mighty prince's notice than anything else she'd tried. Although there didn't appear to be the strict social order in Llywelyn's court that she'd expected, she knew no one who could help her. Tonight's foolishness had been a desperate act, she'd known it from the start.
But then, she was a desperate woman.
However, clinging to the curtain wall had been less frightening than her present situation. A lifetime spent within the confines of the cloister hadn't prepared her for the darkness she'd seen in her captor's eyes.
As surefooted as a cat's, his step never faltered. The shadows grew deeper, closing about them until the moonlight was little more than a memory. They entered a building--she could feel the walls surrounding them, but she didn't realize it was a tower until they began to ascend the spiraling stairs.
They stopped, his sword clattering against stone. A faint, metallic jangle told her he held a ring of keys.
The door opened silently. Her captor kicked it wider, then crossed the chamber and dumped her from his shoulder.
She couldn't help grabbing for him, her only reality in the fearful sea of darkness. Her fingers grasped emptiness as she landed flat on her back on a soft pallet.
Did he think to bed her? Why else would he have carried her off to his lair? Sister Alyce maintained that men thought only of their pleasure whenever they were around a woman; 'twas the reason so many young girls sought the safety of the cloister. As unlikely as that seemed, she'd best take no chances. She scrambled to her knees, hands reaching for the edge of the mattress. Mayhap she could get away before he kindled a light, or at least--
The scent of burning tallow brought her head up, and the sight before her held her transfixed. The candles he held cast his features into harsh relief, lending a satanic aura to his face and giving credence to her fears. "Going somewhere?" he asked, raising an eyebrow in inquiry.
His voice was smooth, melodious. A shiver rose at her nape in response to the seductive timbre. Heart pounding wildly, Lily crawled off the bed and stood. He reminded her of a wild animal, beautiful, appealing, and untamed. But she knew better than to show fear before him. Taking a deep breath, she stiffened her spine and met his gaze.
His eyes held her captive as he set aside the branch of candles and moved to stand before her. "If this is meant as a disguise," he said, slipping the cap off her hair, "it doesn't work. Not in the light." He took her chin in his hand, his fingers hard and warm against her skin, and tilted her head. "Only a fool would mistake you for anything but a woman."
Reviewers' praise for 1995 Golden Heart® Finalist Heart of the Dragon:
" . . . Ms. Schulze sweeps us into an intriguing story . . . "
"Sharon Schulze's strength . . . lies in her ability to create and maintain the inner strength and integrity of her characters as they face soul-destroying obstacles."
" . . . a moving and vastly entertaining tale . . ."
" . . . a book of intense adventure and great passion . . .will keep you warm on a cold winter's night"
"Medieval fans should find it a most enjoyable evening's read."