Dark Warrior by Donna Fletcher

 

Chapter 1

Thus shadow owes its birth to light.

John Gay,“The Persian, Sun, and Cloud”

Mary ran for her life in woods that once offered sanctuary.

Low-hanging branches scratched at her arms in an attempt to impede the escape, and familiar tall trees became as angry sentinels blocking her at every twist and turn. Gray storm clouds rushed overhead, keeping pace with her; a fine mist of rain fell, dampening the linen shift and tunic she wore. Her soft leather boots crushed the fresh spring growth as she tried to increase the distance from her pursuers.

Their angry warning shouts were meant to frighten her, but she did not think she could be any more frightened; she had been running for the last ten years.

The ground trembled from the pounding of running feet as they gained on her. She hastened, but the rapid pace brought on a growing fatigue that soon would impede her flight.

She silently encouraged herself. Keep going. Keep going.

She ran and she ran and she ran. Her heart pounded, breathing turned rapid, and the voices behind grew louder.

Do not turn around. Keep running.

The pursuers taunted her with their laughter, playing with her, letting her know they were so very close to capturing her. She refused to let them intimidate her and refused to surrender. She would run until she breathed her last breath.

Her determination gave her renewed speed; she heard a string of violent oaths spewed from behind as she moved beyond their reach.

The wet ground made her footing difficult. She slipped and righted herself, but not quickly enough.

Hands suddenly shoved at her back and she tumbled face-forward to the ground, her breath knocked completely out of her. Given no time to regain her senses, the man roughly turned her onto her back, straddling her and grabbing her neck in his large, thick hand.

“Run from me will you?” He snarled between panted breaths, sounding like an enraged animal about to tear his prey to pieces. “You’re not going anywhere. Decimus wants you.”

Mary grabbed at his hand, fear racing through her. He was choking her; she could not breath. She pulled and clawed at his wrist, his arm, but he squeezed even harder. Her vision blurred, shouts sounded around them.

She struggled and fought, and knew she was dying.

No breath. No breath. No—

Mary woke with a start, her hand going immediately to her neck. She cringed from the pain. Total darkness surrounded her, and she curled up into herself in the tiny prison cell.

It had been a full day since her capture, at least she thought it had been. Being deprived of light made for the absence of time. It was as if darkness was a void where time did not exist or matter.

She gently moved her fingers over her neck, determining that it was bruised nearly from ear to ear. She had attempted to give answers demanded of her captors’ questions after the strangling ceased, but her throat was so pained that speech was barely possible.

This angered them even more, and the one who had choked her shoved her in disgust to the wet ground. She was already wet and muddied; this only added to her miserable condition. And now she sat in a cell, the mud having dried and caked on her garments, in her long blond hair, streaking her face. She knew she must look a sight.

She laughed softly. What did her appearance matter? She sat alone in the dark cell, her life in danger. Her thoughts should be on more important matters, but then what chance was there for her to escape? And being released? She shook her head at the absurdity of the wishful thought.

A faint noise in the corner of the cell caught her attention. She listened as the scurrying of tiny feet rustled the straw serving as the cell’s floor-covering. No doubt mice or rats looking for a morsel of food. She tapped her feet together to frighten the rodents off. She heard an anxious scurry of feet and then sudden silence. They had made their escape, while she remained a prisoner waiting for . . . ? Mary shook her head and huddled in the corner of the cell, a chill causing her to shiver. She hugged herself tightly.

Decimus had finally caught her after all these years.

She shivered again, gooseflesh prickling her soft skin at the mere thought of the man and his infamous reputation for hunting, capturing, and punishing heretics. It was said that he gained extreme pleasure from inflicting pain on his prisoners, and the only escape from him was death.

She shook her head slowly at the memories that had brought her to this tiny cell. She had lived a quiet, uneventful life since her parents’ friend Magnus, or as most knew him the “Legend,” had brought her to sanctuary in the woods in the northeast of Ireland far from her native Scotland.

Her parents were good people, though their beliefs were a mixture of pagan and Christian. The village of Muir where she had been raised was not a common village. It was a place of pagans and old beliefs, and had once belonged to an old hermit who had grown tired of his solitude and encouraged travelers to remain on his land. The people worked hard alongside each other growing their crops, tending to the needy, sharing laughter and singing songs. They remained to themselves, unnoticed by authorities until her father’s reputation as a teacher had grown.

Tears slipped down her cheek in remembrance of her parents and all they had done to help people. They believed people had the right to worship as they chose, to think, to question. Questions were not encouraged by the authorities or the Church; obedience and submission were the rules and they were to be obeyed without question.

Her father taught men and women to rely on their instincts and their own thoughts; that thoughts brought forth ideas and knowledge, and knowledge brought forth questions. Good, honest questions that made a man think, but a thinking peasant was a dangerous one.

She had listened endlessly to her father’s teachings. He had a soft voice and an understanding nature. She could not remember him growing upset over anything. He would see reason in all there was to see; an astute observer, he could accurately predict people’s reactions to any given situation, making him a man much sought after, especially by those who saw him as dangerous.

She missed talking with him and hearing his soothing voice. Many insisted her own tender ways were inherited from her father, her beauty and kindness from her mother. She also felt she inherited their courage, and was glad of it. Without this courage she did not know how she would have survived.

And she would have lost her life to Decimus, as her parents had done, had Magnus not rescued her from the same fate. Magnus had been a student of her father’s and was nearly done with his studies when the trouble began. It was learned that Decimus was investigating her father. There was little doubt that her father would soon be taken to Decimus’s fortress of hell to answer questions of heresy. Few left the fortress alive, and then only by escaping. A torturous death was often the only means of departure.

Following her parents’ deaths the Church claimed she was the daughter of heretics and had been soiled by their heretical beliefs. She required cleansing, even if it meant death. Magnus had seen to her escape and had taken her away from her homeland, brought her to Ireland to live in peace for the past twelve years.

But had she run from an inevitable fate?

A single tear was the only one she would allow herself to shed. Crying served no purpose and would only cloud her thoughts. She needed a clear head to aid in solving her problem.

Suddenly her head snapped up. Her eyes widened. Mary thought she heard a noise, a shuffle of sorts, like the whisper of a garment hem when it brushes along the ground, though the dark was too dense to see through. Did someone approach?

She strained to hear but silence greeted her efforts.

Had she imagined the noise in the hope that someone had come to rescue her? She sighed and her shoulders sagged with the weight of her troubled thoughts. She had been taught to keep hope alive forever in her heart, but what hope was there of escape?

It would take days for Magnus to learn of her abduction and by then . . .

She shuddered at the thought of the torture she would suffer. But if she could survive, would Magnus arrive in time to free her? Her father had told her that Magnus was not only his best student but also a true friend who could be trusted. Through the years, he had always been there, watching over her, making certain she remained free of danger and Decimus’s discovery. Magnus was a good, caring man, though many thought him a warrior to be feared.

She turned her head sharply, certain this time she had heard a sound.

Footsteps?

She remained quiet in her thoughts, listening and hoping.

Seconds crawled by yet she remained vigilant. She could only detect a faint crackle from the torches lining the narrow hall to the dungeon’s entrance.

Then a distinct sound interrupted the heavy silence.

The cell door is opening.

Slowly the wooden door moved, and with each precious movement Mary prayed for deliverance from her confinement.

A faint light drifted in. The door continued to widen and bid her freedom. But she cautiously waited; her captors could be tormenting her and laying a trap. She kept her silence and watched, her heart thudding wildly in her chest as the door came to a half-open halt.

She heard the hint of a shuffle and moved deeper into the protective arms of the darkness.

Mary watched, her eyes straining as a dark figure filled the partially open doorway. The faint light framed his silhouette. There was a slight hunch to his form, yet preciseness in his movement. He was shrouded completely in black, a hood draped over his head concealed his face, black gloves covered his hands that lay pressed together against his stomach, and his black robe covered all but the tip of one black boot.

“Your father sent me,” he said in a harsh grating voice and held out his gloved hand.

Mary was too stunned to move. The message was from Magnus, the very words they had agreed upon if someone other than himself should come for her. The words guaranteed her safety.

“We have little time.”

She attempted to stand but stumbled, her body having yet to heal from the punches and kicks her captors had enjoyed inflicting on her.

The dark figure reached out to her and she recoiled, his shrouded appearance intimidating. She quickly regretted her reaction and eased forward to offer an apology.

“I—I—” Her hand grabbed at her throat, the intense pain rushing tears to pool in her eyes. She shook her head to let him know speech was not possible.

“They have injured you?”

She nodded.

“You cannot speak?”

She shook her head, and was prepared to escape.

This time he would not give her a chance to recoil for he swept her up into his arms. She tensed at being held with such familiarity in a stranger’s arms.

“You will be safe shortly.”

His harsh voice sent a shiver through her. She could only hope he spoke the truth for she had no choice but to trust him.