EXCERPT: Lady of Shadows by Anne IrelandTuesday, September 11, 2012 13:00
We have the first chapter of Lady of Shadows by Anne Ireland for you today. Rhianna is heroine who is a survivor. She suffers so much in her life, and that suffering begins early. Losing her mother, who she loved and admired more than anyone, is the genesis of how her life will be shaped.
Waiting for her powers, which she inherits from her mother, to take hold, Rhianna only wants to return to the home she remembers, the home of heart – Penrith. The way in which she gets there isn’t the path she would have chosen, but, again, Rhianna is taking what is given to her and making the most it. And this time what she’s been given is more than she ever expected, but it keeps slipping through her fingers.
Rhianna is the Lady of Shadows. She is forced into marriage with a man she believes she hates and yet something inside her is drawn to him. He is her enemy but he fascinates her and her heart is captured despite her determination to punish him for what his father did on the night of the Crimson Moon.
Robert is drawn to the beautiful girl with shadows in her eyes, but his father killed her mother and there has been too much bitterness between their families. He believed his father’s curse lies on him and fears the terrible dreams that haunt him. Is his wife truly a sorceress and can she cure him – will she?
The Castle of Penrith 1393
‘No, Mama, no.’ My terrified cries echoed from the stone walls of my mother’s chamber as Wenna tried to prise me free of her skirts. ‘Please do not make me go…’
From outside came the sounds of shouting, the roll of heavy wheels as they brought the great engines of war close to the castle walls, and the clash of wood thudding against the gates. Every now and then there was a fearsome roar as the attackers made a fresh assault on our walls, sending their fireballs into our courtyards, and then screams as our defenders poured burning oil down on their heads.
‘Go with Morwenna, child.’ Her voice calmed me as always. She stroked my hair, which was so like hers, flame-red and wild, with a will of its own. ‘You know that I do not wish to part from you, Rhianna, but I must stay for without me the men would not stand. I am the lady of Penrith and here I shall live or die.’
‘No, Mama. Let me stay with you. Please, do not send me away.’
She knelt down then, this mother I adored, this woman who was my rock and my world, and looked into my face.
‘You will go because I ask it of you, Rhianna, and because you must bear witness. You must remember what happened here and one day – one day you will take revenge for us all.’
Suddenly I could not hear the sounds of war; there was only silence and a soft warm breeze that swirled about us, holding us two alone in all the world.
‘Keep these for me, dearest,’ she said and drew over her head the necklace she always wore. Made of gold and heavy, it had a round medallion with strange markings. She placed it about my neck and it felt warm where it had lain against her breast. Into my hand she pressed a small journal. ‘These things are important, Rhianna, and one day you will know why.’
‘Please let me stay with you.’
My pleading was in vain. Her eyes held that proud stubborn expression that meant she would yield to no one. My mother was the lady of Penrith. Her word was law and her people obeyed her. To me she was the most powerful person in the world and I adored her.
‘You will go as I bid you. Tonight is the night of the crimson moon. If you see it you will know that we shall not meet again in this life. It is not given to everyone to see such a terrible sight but I have seen it and so will you. One day you will take my place here and you will know all the things I should have taught you had I been granted time. You will know that sometimes we must all do things we would not wish because it is our duty.’
I tried to cling to her once more but she pushed me back and stood up.
‘Whenever you see a crimson moon it means that something evil has taken place. Remember that, my daughter. Remember that you are the child of Rowena Morgan and that the power will be yours when the time is right.’
What did she mean? Others spoke of my mother having the sight or the power of healing, but what did that mean? I was but eleven years of age and to me Lady Rowena Penrith was the most powerful person in the world. Her beauty was fabled and her voice had the lilt of the valleys.
‘Yes, Mama. One day I shall take revenge for what has happened here. One day I shall kill the Earl D’Auvergne.’
Her laughter was soft and delicious like thick warm honey. ‘If you were a man I should tell you to kill him, to take a life for a life – but you will be a woman and a beautiful one. Always remember that a woman has other weapons, and sometimes a smile can be sharper than the thrust of a sword.’
‘I shall remember everything you have told me. I love you…’
Wenna’s tore me from my mother’s side and held me firmly clasped against her.
‘We must go or it will be too late. They have started to break through.’
‘Take her and protect her with your life, I beg you. My father is dead but my brother is a decent man and he will take her in for my sake.
‘I shall protect her but I wish you would come with us, my lady.’
‘I must stay for as long as I am needed, to give courage to my people. I am theirs and they are mine but I would have my daughter safe. Sir James Morgan will take my child and perhaps one day her father will return to claim her.’
‘He should never have deserted you to fight foreign wars.’ Morwenna scowled. ‘I do not know why you stayed with him these many years.’
‘Because I loved him, as I love my land and my people – and my child.’
Wenna took me then, dragging me from the tower room down the twisting stair that led to the great hall. The huge room with its vaulted wood roof was usually a hive of activity, filled with servants busy about their work or my mother’s ladies, visiting knights and pilgrims who stopped here on their way to some shrine or a great church. Today it was empty, stripped of the weapons that hung upon the walls
Everyone was outside, up on the walls or at the foot of ladders, helping to send cauldrons of boiling pitch up to the battlements so that it could be hurled down on the enemy.
The enemy was the English. Led by the Earl D’Auvergne they had demanded that my mother hand over the castle to them but she had refused and now they were intent on breaking down our defences. My mother had taught me that the Welsh had fought for years to drive the English from our lands. She had told me of stirring battles and victories, of a time when the great English King Henry 111 had been sent scurrying back to London with his tail between his legs.
‘Why do kings have tails, Mama?’ I asked in my innocence.
Mama laughed and said that one day I would understand what she meant. She had taught me about the struggle that had gone on for many years between our two nations. The people of Wales had ever been of a rebellious spirit. Even the Romans had found it difficult to subdue our people and in the end there had been a kind of truce between us, a respect for an unquenchable spirit.
Always, she had made me wish to learn and my earliest memories were of standing at her knee as she told stories. I learned of great battles won in Wales and much more.
‘You must learn everything, Rhianna,’ she told me. ‘One day you will need your knowledge to help others.’
‘As you do, Mama?’
‘Yes, child.’ She stroked my hair. ‘Now listen for this is important. Some years after those far off victories against the great King Henry 111, a time of darkness fell over England.’
‘Darkness, Mama? Did the sun not shine?
‘It was a great shadow stretching over the whole of Europe and beyond to far and unimaginable places. The plague or the Black Death, as it was often known, killed thousands of people. It first visited England in 1348 after wreaking havoc in the Low Countries, Italy and France, visiting first in Bristol and then spread throughout the land. Whole families died of the foul disease, sometimes everyone in the village. It changed the way people lived, bringing the beginning of the end of the old feudal system that had existed since the Normans first conquered England.’
My eyes widened in wonder.
‘What happened then, Mama?
‘The plague has visited less frequently of late they say, though people still fear it. In 1349 it came here to Wales, but in the valleys, we have never suffered from it as much as the English in their towns and cities.’
‘Why is that, Mama?’
‘The English are ungodly. The plague is sent by God to punish sinners, as is leprosy – though ‘tis not often we see a leper these days. Once there were lazar houses everywhere but in England they have turned them into infirmaries for the sick.’
‘If the English are so wicked, why does Father fight for the English king?’
‘Your father is not a rich man, Rhianna. He must answer to his overlord. The Earl of Pendraga makes the alliance for his own ends. He is my husband’s father and a great man, a loyal servant of the King. These things are not always as simple as they would seem, my love. For the moment the Welsh lords must bend the knee but one day a prince will come and then we shall see great events. For a time at least a Welsh prince shall rule in Wales.’
‘How do you know, Mama?’
‘I know because it has been sung of in the hills and valleys. Merlin foretold it long ago.’
What was she thinking? What had brought that secret, intimate smile to her lips?
‘Who is Merlin, Mama?
‘The Merlin of legend was the greatest sorcerer of all time. He lived when King Arthur and his knights sat in Camelot and the world was a magical place.’
Again the smile was there.
Mama was the fount of all knowledge, my teacher and my protector. Without her my world would crumble into dust.
As Wenna hurried me to the chapel, I wished that Merlin would come and save us. If I had the power Mama had spoken of I should be able to conjure him up and drive the English from our walls, but nothing happened, though I called to him with my heart.
Why did he not help me? I wanted to stay in the castle with my mother. She had said that if there was a crimson moon I would never see her again in this life. I prayed with all the passion that was within me that there would be no moon that night.
Shouting and screaming was all around us, the stink of burning wood in the air, making me gag as Wenna thrust me before her into the chapel. Gargoyles and grotesques looked down on us as we approached the altar. I dare not look for I knew there was a terrible painting of the Dance of Death, which was meant to warn sinners of their likely fate. The priests preached of the torments of Hell and I feared the devil would take my soul and cast me into his fiery pit. Mama’s stories of the struggle between good and evil and of magic had become muddled in my mind with Heaven and Hell. With her I had always been safe and protected but alone I should be at the mercy of demons.
‘The passage is here somewhere,’ Wenna told me, running her hands over the altar as she searched for and found what she needed beneath the tall silver cross. The heavy stone altar swung out to reveal a dark cavern behind it. As I caught the damp musty odour, I hung back. Surely, it was the mouth of Hell?
‘It is dark and there will be spiders. I want to stay with Mama.’
Wenna had lit one of the candles from the small flame that was always kept burning on the altar. She held it in her left hand as she reached for me with her right. Her face looked pale in the yellow light and for the first time I realised that she too was afraid.
‘We must go now, child. Your mother wants you to live. Remember that one day you must take revenge for what happens here this night.’
Her hand caught and held mine. I screamed as she dragged me inside that dark stinking cavern. Her grip tightened and though I tugged at her she would not let go. I screamed again twice as she pressed a lever and the heavy altar swung back into place, shutting us in.
Terror swept over me. We must be in the caverns of Hell. I screamed hysterically.
‘Stop that!’ Wenna slapped me hard. ‘I doubt you will be heard but there’s no time for tantrums. We must go. If the enemy break through terrible things may happen. We should not be here.’
Tears trickled down my cheeks. It was very cold and dark here. Why could I not have stayed safe in my mother’s arms?
Wenna’s grip on my hand loosened. She held the candle aloft so that it lit the dark corners and we could see a narrow passage.
‘That is the way we must go,’ she said. ‘Be brave, Rhianna. You are the daughter of a lord and the granddaughter of an earl. Lady Rowena Penrith is your mother. She may have married your father unwisely but she remains one of our people – the Morgan family – though your father be English.’
‘What am I, Wenna? My mother is from the valleys like you – but my father is a Marcher lord on the English side. Where does my allegiance lie?’
‘You can ask that? Has your mother taught you nothing? She is Welsh and so you are too. You must not forget what the English have done this day.’ She moved towards the tunnel, then looked back at me. ‘I shall lead and you must follow.’
I was reluctant to leave the castle and all that I knew but Wenna was leaving me, taking the light. I hurried after her, catching her cloak.
The walls were damp to the touch and the cold seemed to seep into your bones. After a while the candle flickered and went out and we had to feel our way forward blindly. In places Wenna was forced to bend almost double because the roof was so low, and twice I heard her curse because she had struck her head against the rock. We were beneath the surface of the ground, locked in an endless darkness that went on and on forever.
How long it took us to reach the other end remains a mystery. To me it seemed an eternity. Several times I felt something sticky brush my face and cried out in fear. Wenna did not falter or turn to look at me.
When eventually we saw a pinprick of light ahead of us, Wenna gave a cry of relief and hurried forward. I ran to keep up with her, stumbling in my haste and anxiety not to be left alone in this terrible darkness. We had reached a place where the rock narrowed to a crack that was hardly wide enough for a grown man to pass. It looked as if some of the rock had fallen, partially obscuring the exit. Wenna managed to get out after a lot of squeezing and complaining, and then I slipped through easily.
Dusk was beginning to fall. We had come out in what was clearly the ruin of an old monastery or perhaps one the lazar houses that had fallen into disuse with the decline of that dread disease. Its ruined walls were covered in lichens and moss and it frightened me for there was an air of foreboding. We were some distance from the castle but it stood on a mound looking out towards the Welsh Marches, dark and brooding against the sky. We could see it because the night sky had turned red. Flames were shooting into the air and the stench of burning carried even here.
‘Mama,’ I cried. ‘We must go back. The castle is on fire. We must save her.’
‘It is too late,’ Wenna warned. ‘Do not be foolish, child. We could not go back through the tunnel for the candle has burned down and I could not open the door to the chapel.’
‘Mama! I should never have left her alone. I want my mother. I want my mother…’
‘She wanted you to leave,’ Wenna said and grabbed my arm as I would have made a dash for the tunnel. ‘There is nothing you can do, Rhianna.’
As I stood staring back at the castle I suddenly saw two figures on the battlements. The wooden roof of the great hall was blazing, as were other parts of the castle. The figures were outlined against the crimson sky, a woman and a man, and they were fighting. The man seemed to be trying to hold the woman but she would not be held. She broke free of him and then somehow she either fell or flung herself over the edge. The man reached out as if to grab her but he was too late to catch her.
I was too far away to hear the scream but it echoed in my head. I knew it was my mother screaming. The sound was shrill and terrible, and, as I looked up, I saw that the moon had turned to red.
I screamed her name over and over again.
Mama…Mama, why…why did you do that? Why did you leave me?’
‘She is at peace now,’ Wenna said and reached for me. I shook my head and tried to break from her, kicking her and punching her as the grief poured out. ‘There, there, my lovely, ‘tis over now…’
I lifted my head and looked into her eyes.
‘It is not over,’ I said. ‘Now it begins…’
Then I collapsed into her arms.