I am giving away two copies of Lady of Shadows. To be in with a chance of winning please email me through the website
the winners will be picked out by chance.
Enjoy the excerpt.
Drenched to the skin with the rain that had soaked through her threadbare gown, near to starving and sick to the heart, the woman looked down at the face of her dead babe and a howl of primeval grief and anger issued from her lips.
‘I curse you, Lady of Penrith. I curse you and your child with my last breath, with all the pain I have suffered and the death of my babe. I curse you and I call upon the old gods to witness my curse. Blood calls for blood. Not until the debt is paid will my curse be lifted.’
The woman stepped closer to the edge of the ravine. Below her the rock fell sheer to the gorge below, treacherous and terrifying. She looked down into the abyss and then turned her head to glance back at the living child, who was huddled on the ground, sick and slowly starving to death. She smiled and held out her hand.
‘Come to me. It is the end, my daughter. One step and the suffering will be no more.’
The girl shrank back, hugging her knees and shaking with fright.
‘You choose life,’ her mother said sadly. ‘I shall not compel you to come with me. In death you might have found peace, but if you will live then you must suffer - and you must avenge us. Remember my words, daughter, for if you do not I shall haunt you. Avenge your mother and sister. Blood must be paid with blood.’
Clutching her dead babe to her withered breast, the woman leaped into the ravine. Her scream was terrible. So terrible that the child huddled on the ground held her hands to her ears to stop the sound, but it echoed round and round in her head until her eyes closed and the darkness claimed her.
It was then that the man came. Scooping her up into his arms, he strode away from the ravine.
Wales, a land of myths and stories.
Huddling in the shelter of monastery walls, the people shivered and crept closer to their fires. The monks had closed the gates against them, leaving them to face the bitter night. The winter had been long and hard after a summer during which pestilence and starvation had haunted the land. Too many were forced to beg at the gates and the monks could not take them all in. Instead, they sent down food and water in baskets and gave permission for fuel to be taken from their woods for fires, but the gates remained securely locked despite the pitiful cries of those outside.
It was a child who first noticed the newcomer. She stood a little apart from them, seeming to stare longingly at their fires. Dressed in grey homespun that had worn thin and hung about her emaciated form, she hovered, as if afraid to approach.
‘Come and sit with us, granny,’ the child said and tugged at her father’s sleeve. ‘We have food and you can share our fire. Tell her to sit with us, father.’
The woman approached, slowly, her face in shadow as the smoke of the fire mingled with the frosty air to form a thick fog and hasten the darkness.
‘If you wish, I can tell you a story for my supper.’
‘Sit with us, lady,’ the child’s father stood and cleared a place for her on the bedding they had made from coarse cloth and straw. ‘We have little enough, but there is bread, cheese and water.’
‘Have my blanket,’ the little girl said and smiled at the woman as she took her place beside the fire.
‘We will share it, if your father permits?’ At a nod from the man, she put out a hand and brought the child in close to her body so that the blanket protected them both against the chill.
When the woman had finished her meal, she looked up and saw that others had left their own fires to gather round, drawn by the promise of a story. Storytellers were welcomed for their skill and for a time at least those who listened might forget their own misery.
‘Gather close, my friends,’ the storyteller said and her voice had a rich deep resonance that was surprising in one so old and frail. ‘My story is such that you will never forget for I am one of the Sisters of the Ring.’
One of her listeners gasped for she had heard of the Sisters but many had not and they sat expectant, intent, already forgetting the winter night.
‘There was once a time when people turned against the Sisters and hunted them as evil creatures. Women were tortured and put to death for using their arts to help the sick. Those who did not understand feared them.’
The child leaned nearer, tugging at her sleeve. ‘Who are the sisters? Please tell me. I had sisters but they died of a fever this winter.’
The storyteller looked into her face and smiled. ‘I think perhaps one day you will know them very well, but for now I shall tell you that they are many and their purpose is to help the sick and the poor, but sometimes people believe they are witches and because of that they are persecuted.’
‘You are not a witch,’ the child said and nestled her head against the old woman’s arm. ‘I believe you are kind and good.’
‘Perhaps.’ Sadness touched the woman’s face. ‘I have lived too many years and seen many things. There was a time when I was not as I am now, but the night is cold and long. Gather near and listen well, my friends. Tonight I shall tell you the story of Rhianna, lady of shadows. This is her story as it was told to me…’
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.