Taylor Sullivan wondered if her mother had gone mad. No one in her right mind would be wearing a bright vibrant smile like the one that lit her mother’s lips, not in a situation like this one. How could she smile in the face of such unspeakable horror? Taylor wondered frantically. Her own body shook with fear. She had to clasp her small hands tightly in front of her so her mother wouldn’t see her fingers trembling with terror and misery.
The black gown her mother wore contrasted sharply with her pale alabaster skin, making her flesh look almost ghostly white. Her brown hair was tied back tightly into a thick braid that hung down the length of her back, dangling to and fro as she walked toward Taylor.
Dangling like a rope.
Taylor dropped her chin to her chest, unable to look at her mother’s radiant face.
“Oh, darling,” her mother murmured and reached for Taylor’s hands. “Why such a sad face?”
Suddenly unable to control herself, Taylor hurled herself toward her mother, flinging her arms around her mother’s shoulders and hugging her as tightly as she could.
With a startled laugh, her mother returned the embrace.
Taylor squeezed her eyes shut against the tears that burned there.
Her mother stroked her hair calmly, reassuringly. “Don’t worry,” she whispered. “He’ll come for me. I know he will.”
Taylor pulled back to look into her mother’s blue eyes. They were glazed and had a faraway, dreamy look to them. The blissful smile Taylor had seen on her mother’s lips when she first stepped into the room returned.
“He won’t let me burn,” she went on, even as the reflections of the room’s candles dancing in her eyes tortured Taylor with a vision of the terrible things to come. Her mother turned to the window. She placed her palms on the cold stone ledge of the windowsill and stared out into the early morning sky. “We love each other far too much,” she whispered.
“Father?” Taylor wondered, a weak hope in her question.
Her mother laughed softly. “No,” she said.
Taylor heard the door opening behind her and turned to see two guards standing in the doorway. To a child of twelve, the two burly men looked like armor-plated giants. The light threw deep shadows across their faces, transforming them into gruesome masks that made Taylor think of the ogres in the tales her mother had once told her.
“It’s time, m’lady,” one of the ogres called, his voice gruff and menacing to Taylor’s ears.
Taylor’s desperate gaze returned to her mother. Her time was running out. She had to stop this. “No!” Taylor cried out, finally finding the strength in her voice. “They can’t do this!” She grabbed her mother’s arm, pulling her deeper into the room.
Her mother touched her cheek softly. “He’ll come,” she reassured her and gently pried Taylor’s small fingers from her arm. Then she stepped past her daughter, moving out the door.
Taylor watched her mother’s straight, tall form and wished that she could feel the confidence her mother voiced. Then the two brutes stepped in behind her mother, forming a massive wall of muscled flesh and cold steel. A sinking feeling grabbed hold of Taylor and pulled her deeper into despair. She followed the procession into the hallway. There was only one chance. There was only one man who could stop this.
Taylor turned away and ran down an empty hallway, fully aware of the blossoming sky as the sun chased the darkness from the land, fully aware that the sun’s rays heralded her mother’s doom. She couldn’t make her small slippered feet move fast enough over the stones of the corridor. Her silk dress wrapped around her legs, inhibiting her hurried steps.
Finally, she halted before a closed door. Her fear rose like a tidal wave to bathe her resolve. But like a brave knight, she fought down her dread and lifted a hand to push the door open.
The room was dark except for a lone candle on a desk. Taylor took a hesitant step forward. She made out the shadowed form of a man sitting behind the large desk. The man slowly lifted his dark eyes to her as she entered. The wavering flame of the candle threw slashes of reddish-orange light over his face, casting demonic shadows across his brow. Taylor knew she could not give up, despite every one of her senses telling her to run, beseeching her not to incur his wrath. “Please,” she whispered. “Show mercy.”
The man leaned back and his eyes disappeared completely into the darkness. After a long moment, he rubbed his palms over his eyes. “I loved her, you know,” he murmured. “I gave her everything. Everything she ever wanted.” He shook his head, his gray hair swaying around his shoulders with the movement.
Taylor thought she saw a sparkling in his eyes as he lifted his head to gaze at the ceiling and she wondered if they could be tears.
“This I cannot forgive,” he groaned. “There will be no mercy.”
“Please, Father,” she whispered, barely able to contain the terror she felt.
Her father suddenly looked older than she had ever seen him before; the wrinkles on his brow, the lines around his mouth, all seemed to darken and deepen. “There is no such thing as true love,” he murmured. “Remember that, daughter.”
“But Mother –” Taylor managed in a whimper.
He rose and moved to the window, where the sun was just beginning to peer over the horizon. The morning’s light splashed him in a blood red wave. A sudden breeze from the window lifted his cape about his shoulders and the cloth fluttered behind him, making it look as if he had suddenly sprouted wings. “Will burn in a few minutes’ time,” he said flatly.
Taylor reared back. He was so cold. So uncaring. How could he say he loved her mother one moment and then sentence her to death the next? She straightened her back and glared at him, trying desperately to keep the pain from showing on her face.
She had failed. She had not been able to change her father’s mind. In the distance, she heard the drums and their foreboding rhythm begin. She had to hurry. It was starting.
She started for the door, but his voice thundered across the room. “You will remain with me,” he commanded.
“No,” Taylor gasped. She had to say goodbye to her mother.
“You will stand at my side and learn what infidelity leads to.”
Taylor felt her insides twist. Her blood pounded in her ears, drowning out the drum roll. “Please, Father,” she begged.
“You will stay,” he told her in a voice that could not be disobeyed.
For a long moment, a strange hush blanketed the castle. And Taylor’s heart. She thought of disobeying her father and racing out of the room to be with her mother, but never in her twelve years of life had she defied him. Years of strict discipline prevented her from doing it now.
She silently begged God to spare her mother. She prayed that her mother was right, that “he” would come for her. She desperately wanted to believe what her mother believed. She desperately wanted a knight in shining armor to race to her mother’s rescue and snatch her from the flames to which her father had condemned her. Her mother’s words rang through her mind, ‘He won’t let me burn.’ Hope ignited in Taylor’s breast. Her mother had so much confidence. Could she be right? Would he save her? Taylor raced to the window, to her father’s side. But her frantic gaze wasn’t on the courtyard, where the horror of her mother’s execution was being played out. Her eyes searched the lowered drawbridge and the road beyond for the knight. The knight of honor who would rescue her mother.
But the road and drawbridge were empty. Silent.
‘We love each other far too much,’ her mother had said.
Taylor glanced expectantly at the empty road, waiting for her mother’s rescuer.
Her father’s confession echoed in her mind, ‘I loved her.’
‘There is no such thing as true love.’ Suddenly, Taylor understood her father’s words. And with the comprehension came a chilling realization.
There would be no rescue. Her mother would burn. A panic filled Taylor so completely she trembled helplessly. As black smoke and dark orange flames spiraled up to meet the dawning light’s rays, a scream rent the silence.
Suddenly a triumphant burst of flames sprang high into the dawn sky, its hungry tongues licking the fading night. To a terrified child, it was the face of death. Taylor fell to her knees, burying her face in her hands, her own agonized cry replacing her mother’s suddenly silent one.
Jared Mantle cursed. What was England coming to if it allowed a fine woman such as Lady Diana to be put to the flame?
Diana was one of the most compassionate women Jared had ever known. Years ago, she found him beaten and near death at the side of the road. She took him to Sullivan Castle and nursed him back to health. Then she asked lord Sullivan to retain his services. It had taken ten long years of hard work after that, but Jared finally reached the rank of captain. He had trained most of the men that now kept the castle secure. Few of them, if any, could best him in combat. Now, after fifteen years of loyalty and devotion, Jared found himself back where he had begun. Alone. He rubbed his short beard. Oh, he was certain Sullivan would keep him on, but he could not stay where they would burn a kind, generous woman. Jared shook his head sadly. Besides, it was time he sought his fortune before he could not lift a sword.
He strapped on his belt and his scabbard, and he glanced one last time about the room. He pocketed the measly coins he had saved in his service to the Sullivans and headed for the door, stepping outside into the night.
The moon was a mere slit in the dark sky, a narrowed eye watching his departure. He moved deeper into the courtyard.
Suddenly, Jared tensed. Instinctively, he knew someone was there. He pulled back into the darkness and watched with curious eyes as a silhouetted figure snuck into the empty courtyard. Huddled and tentatively watchful, the figure moved swiftly from shadow to shadow to the outer gates.
Jared’s eyes narrowed and he moved silently across the yard, his large strides taking him to the figure, whose back was to him. “Late for an evening stroll,” Jared said quietly.
The figure whirled to stare at him. Green eyes flashed defiantly up at him. The girl swung her clenched hand behind her back, concealing something in her fist.
Surprise jarred him as he stared down at the girl. Even with her face concealed beneath a velvet hood, he knew her instantly. Diana’s daughter. What would a young girl be doing out this late? he wondered to himself. And without a chaperone.
“Don’t try to stop me!” she snapped.
For the first time, Jared noticed the sack slung over her shoulder. She started to turn away from him, but he caught her wrist, pulling her hand out of the shadows. The ring on her finger shone in the night’s blue light. Two crossed swords with a large S in the middle were etched into its surface. He raised his eyes to hers. Had the girl stolen the ring?
Taylor raised her chin and her eyes narrowed. “It was my mother’s,” she said imperiously.
He glowered at her for a long moment. “Running away?” he asked.
“Leaving,” she insisted.
“With no one to watch over you? No guards?”
“I don’t need a guard!”
He pondered her words. He could see traces of her mother in every one of her stubborn movements, the worry beneath the defiance in her eyes, the resolution that set her shoulders. She was so young. So young and so inexperienced. He glanced at the gates. The world outside would eat her alive.
“Where are you headed?” he asked her.
Taylor paused for a long moment. She glanced at the wooden gate, then up at the walkways surrounding the castle as if they held the answer. “To London,” she finally replied.
He grunted softly. She had no idea what she was getting herself into, what kind of people waited to take advantage of a twelve-year-old-girl. Most likely she would end up a prostitute. Or dead on the side of the road without her rich velvet cloak. He briefly wondered if she had even thought to pack any food. He glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. Well, I owe my lady that much, he thought to himself. “That’s where I’m heading,” he said. “Can you use the company?”
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