Denied his rightful legacy, Maximilian de Vries devised a plan to avenge himself upon his father and see his own future secured. Allied with his two half-brothers, he descends upon ancient and mysterious Kilderrick, determined to seize the keep once promised to him, regardless of the price. A woman rumored to be a witch is the sole one bold enough to defy him but Maximilian has a solution—he will take her to wife, whether she be willing or nay, and seal his claim.
But this powerful warrior has yet to match wits with Alys Armstrong, a maiden with a thirst for vengeance and a fury that might exceed his own. Alys has no intention of capitulating to the proud and powerful rogue who stole everything from her—no matter how seductive his touch might be—and she does not share his compulsion to fight fair.
Bitter enemies from the outset, Maximilian and Alys’ match is a battle of wills. When passion flares, will either of them be able to resist temptation? And when Kilderrick itself is in peril, will they join forces to save the holding they each prize—and the unexpected love they value above all else?
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An excerpt from The Wolf & the Witch:
The first prey of the season and ’twas a large party. Their luck could not have been better. Alys could only imagine that this company carried considerable wealth, and she knew that Ceara would fetch a good price for the steeds. The raiding party had made good time on their return, but perhaps they feared pursuit. And so they should, if their success had been so great. Alys was glad the preparations had been made.
Destriers! The riches of this raiding party would soon be claimed by Alys and her comrades. The moon was the barest sliver overhead, offering just enough illumination to spark fear of what could be seen. The men’s thoughts would contrive much worse, she knew.
Kilderrick, after all, had a reputation.
When Alys lit the dry branches of the symbol she had hung from the forest canopy earlier in the day, ’twas Nyssa’s sign to act. All began as planned. Alys crouched in the trees, her heart racing with anticipation as wind chimes stirred. The party rode into the water where the river flooded the road, splashing noisily as their progress was slowed. Sure enough, pebbles rained down in quantity upon them, sowing the first confusion. Ceara shot her burning arrows in rapid succession. Most of them fell into the water, sizzling, but they, too created consternation in the company. The men cried out, the horses bolted, a cart raced up the western slope and toppled to one side, spilling its contents. A bird screamed and flew into the sky.
But the lead horse was spurred on, riding directly toward her. The rider’s cloak flared behind him and Alys saw the glint of his armor.
In a heartbeat, she realized the truth. This was no raiding party returning from the south. This was a different company. These men rode destriers because they were knights—or mercenaries—and more heavily armed than could have been expected. They would be experienced in the arts of war, as well.
She had erred, indeed.
She gave the whistle to tell her comrades to retreat, then belatedly realized the sound had revealed her own location. That rider in black bore down upon her with purpose, undetered by water or burning sign. Alys leapt from tree to tree, her heart racing in terror now. If he caught her, she knew she would regret her error.
She finally landed in the stream to run the last distance, but the splash guided his course. She tried to hold up her cloak, but in her haste, part of it fell into the water. Its weight slowed her progress, possibly too much. She lunged upriver, seized the rock barrier with wet hands and glanced back.
The destrier approached steadily, his eyes reflecting the flames of the sign as if the creature was possessed. The rider was large and dark, and ’twas Alys’ imagination that fed her own fears of his intentions.
She hauled herself over the rock barrier, losing her footing in the deeper water, but still managed to pull out the rock that held back the tide. The dammed water rushed through the sluice and the horse staggered backward, losing his footing and stumbling.
If she thought that would save her from the rider, though, Alys had again miscalculated.
He swore with a fury that sent ice through her veins, then leaped from the saddle, charging toward her with fearsome power as the horse regained its footing. Alys tried to run, battling against the rush of water. She glanced back in horror to see him easily jump the barricade. He strode through the water, so much taller than she that he had an advantage. Alys tried to flee but stumbled instead, and fell beneath the water. She held her breath, thinking to evade him in the dark water and float past him.
Her heart stopped when the back of her kirtle was seized in a merciless grip. The knight hauled her from the water with one hand and fairly shook her, like she was an errant dog. Alys glared up at him, intending to spit in his eye, then stared in shock.
’Twas him. The Silver Wolf returned.
Nyssa had been right and Alys’ blood ran cold.
She would have recognized him anywhere, the man who had destroyed her life, the mercenary whose face haunted her nightmares. Alys was certain her mind deceived her, but he smiled slowly, his satisfaction clear, and she knew memory served her well. He was as handsome as she recalled, as alluring as he was wicked, as confident and merciless as his reputation.
She spat in his face and he blinked in surprise. She gave him no moment to recover, but kicked him hard in the groin. She heard him inhale sharply and tore open the clasp of her cloak, even as she twisted in his grasp. He swore again and she knew he struggled to keep a grip on her. She bit him hard, choosing the gap between the hem of his leather glove and the end of his dark sleeve. He grunted and Alys tore herself free in his fleeting moment of surprise. She left the cloak in his grasp as she jumped to the rock barrier and ran across it to the dark sanctuary of the forest.
He swore with a thoroughness that only made Alys run faster. She heard him splash as he tried to climb to the summit of the rock dam, then curse again.
The weight of his armor would slow him mightily, along with that of his wet cloak.
Alys raced onward, heart thundering, knowing she had but moments to make her escape, even as her thoughts spun.
Why had the Silver Wolf returned?
Alys did not know, but she could guess that his arrival did not bode well for her future.
How could she drive him away?
* * *
’Twas a filthy cloak and sodden with dirty river water, but Maximilian knew the weight of the cloth meant it had cost good coin. Had she stolen it? Or was his assailant of noble birth?
If so, why would she be hidden in the forest, robbing passing parties in the night?
Sadly, Maximilian could think of several reasons. That his foe was a woman, he had no doubt. He had felt her slight curves as she had struggled against him, her lean strength and the neat indent of her waist. Her hair was wild and her hands were rough, yet she was uncommonly strong for her size. She was so dirty that the smell of her had almost made him recoil. He had had a glimpse, no more than that, of her face, but it had been sufficient to reveal her disdain. He had seen one green eye, so clear, so filled with cunning, that he knew she was both clever and sane.
He had seen her terror, as well, though he could not explain it fully. Fear or trepidation, Maximilian would have understood, but terror mystified him.
He flung the wet cloak onto the rock barrier, then cast his own after it. Only without the weight of the wet wool could he pull himself out of the river and onto what was clearly a dam. It had been built deliberately, of that he had no doubt. He wagered there was another further south, which had forced the road to flood. This one had held back more of the river, so that she could surprise him by removing a key rock and sending forth another tide of water.
In a way, Maximilian admired the feint. It had required planning to disrupt his party’s progress with such effectiveness. They could not have been the target, though, for no one in these parts knew of his plans to come to Kilderrick.
Who had she expected?
Who was she?
He had no doubt that there were others in league with her, for someone had cast the pebbles from further downriver and someone else had fired the arrows of flame. His attacker had at least two comrades, perhaps more.
The tinkling sound continued overhead and he guessed that there were chimes of some kind hung in the trees.
And that symbol. Maximilian sliced it down and it sizzled as the flames were extinguished in the river. It was made of sticks and branches, woven and tied into a shape to feed fear. There was naught unnatural about it. He hauled it to one side, in case it offered a clue to her identity that he could see in morning light.
Indeed, it might already be granting him one. Had she chosen that symbol because she had seen it within the keep? Was it yet there? Did she and her comrades take refuge in the ruin?
Maximilian peered into the forest to the east, discerning only darkness and shadowed trees. He would not find her this night, for doubtless she knew the forest well.
On the morrow, the matter would be entirely different.
He took her cloak and the charred symbol and headed toward Tempest, who stamped in the shallows awaiting him. He led the horse through the forest to the point where the road emerged from the shadows again.
Kilderrick glowered down at him, still imposing in ruin, and he caught his breath at the sight. The lower walls had been made of stone and they remained, charred and blacked, like teeth emerging from the earth. Unlike teeth, they were regular, the shape of the two square towers readily visible to those who looked. The courtyard was a dark hole between them and he had no taste to look upon that symbol again this night, if indeed it remained on those walls.
Rafael was already gathering the company together again, and led them toward Maximilian. They were bedraggled and wet, obviously disheartened, and several of the horses limped.
“There,” Maximilian said, pointing to the spot. “We set camp in the vale beneath Kilderrick’s very shadow. I hope Denis yet has some soup.”
“You are not alone in that,” Rafael said grimly, issuing instructions to the squires. Some would pitch tents, others would gather firewood. They had a system for setting camp as quickly as possible, the mercenary’s tents around the perimeter, the villagers and horses in the midst.
Maximilian considered the brewing skies. It would rain before dawn, he would wager.
But he would hunt down his opponent, no matter the weather, and do as much at first light. He pulled back his cuff and considered the bruise appearing on his forearm.
Maximilian and this virago were far from done.
Excerpt from The Wolf & the Witch by Claire Delacroix
© Copyright 2021 Deborah A. Cooke