Midnight Shadow – Prologue
“… 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 ok?”
“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…”
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