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A Knight Amid Thorns by Laurel O'Donnell (1)

A Knight Amid Thorns

Laurel O'Donnell

Prologue

England

1402

Graden raced through the long halls of his home, Castle Dumount. His father was back from fighting the French! He was home! He hadn’t seen him for years. He skidded to a halt, looking into the Great Hall. Ceilings stretched far overhead, and the hearth crackled with a small fire. The long wooden tables were empty. No one was there.

He raced up the stone stairs, taking them two at a time. Father must be in his solar, a room that had been strangely empty and quiet for almost three full years. He had been a boy when his father left. Since then, his mother had passed, leaving him alone and in command of the castle. But now all of that was going to change. His father was home! And he would be so proud of the man he had become. At twelve years, Graden had trained hard and learned everything, excelling at the skills he had been taught, so that when his father returned home he would be proud of him.

He heard quiet talking coming from his father’s solar. As he approached the room, he saw two guards stationed outside of the room on either side of the door. They looked at him with sympathy as he hurried past, but Graden didn’t notice. He was too excited at his father’s return.

Upon entering the room, the energy and happiness drained from him.

His father sat near the hearth, his shoulders slumped, a blanket covering them. His hair was grey now. More grey than black. When he had left, there were a few strands of grey peppering his vibrant black locks, but nothing like this.

Graden scowled. His gaze moved over the three men standing around his father. One, a tall, strong, balding man he knew as Captain Cairon, captain of the guard here at Castle Dumount. The other, a shorter, armored man, he didn’t recognize. The presence of the third man sent complete dread through him. He knew the thin man clad in a black robe. And he hated him. He was Halacre, the physician. He had attended Graden’s mother for months before she died. Graden’s scowl deepened. He had done nothing for her; she had died under his so-called expert care.

Graden’s fists clenched. Why was Halacre here? He wanted to command him away from his father. Send him far away. But as Graden’s gaze turned to his father, all his anger drained. His father’s hand tightly held the arm of the chair. It wasn’t a hand Graden remembered. It was weathered, wrinkled and fragile, the fingers looking like mere strips of bone. Graden moved forward.

Halacre looked up, pinning Graden with his dark eyes, but he stepped aside to allow the boy access to his father.

“Father?” Graden called.

The grey-haired head came up and swiveled to look at Graden. His blue eyes were ringed with dark shadows. His skin was grey and sickly. Graden could almost see the bones beneath his face. He reached out for his son. “Graden.”

Horrified, Graden could only stare. The face that looked back at him was a ghost of his strong father. The image of his dying mother came to the forefront of his mind. His father was dying! Graden looked up at Halacre.

Halacre shoved him toward the corpse-like countenance of his father.

Thin, boney fingers wrapped around Graden, squeezing his wrist. His father only let go of him when a fit of coughing overcame him. Then another high cough issued from his father’s throat and his entire body shook with the spasm.

Graden stepped back. The same cough! It was the same cough his mother had! He could still remember the horrible, thick sound that had wheezed out of his mother as she lay dying in her bed. He looked at Halacre. There was resignation and sadness in his cold eyes. Graden shoved him. “DO something!”

Startled, Halacre stepped back. He spread his hands helplessly, looking at Graden’s father with an expression devoid of all hope.

“Graden,” Captain Cairon said firmly and reached for him.

Furious, desperate, Graden ducked out of the captain’s reach and raced toward the door. No, no, no. Not his father. Not his father. He ran as fast as he could through the corridors of the castle. His father was strong…had been strong. No! The stone walls and the occasional servant blurred by him as he dashed away. Graden burst from the castle into the inner ward, falling to his hands and knees in the dust.

Above him, a spear of lightning cut through the darkening sky. His dark hair fell forward, shielding his face. Not his father. His lower lip trembled. Just like his mother! His chest constricted painfully. A drop of wetness hit his hand and he wasn’t certain whether it was rain or not.

No. He would not lose his father! He would give anything to make him better. He shot to his feet and bolted toward the stables. He threw the doors open with a mighty push. The young stable boy jumped to his feet, obviously waking, startled by the loud noise.

Graden moved past him to his black stallion. He opened the stalls and pulled the large horse outside.

“I’ll have him saddled in no time, m’lord,” the stable boy said, wiping sleep from his eyes.

Graden didn’t have the time. His father needed a cure now. He grabbed hold of his horse’s mane and pulled himself up onto his back. He kicked his side. With a slight whinny, the steed raced from the stables. Graden steered him out of the castle, charging beneath the inner ward and beneath the raised portcullis of the outer ward.

Thunder rumbled around him as he steered his horse down the road, moving through the town and further beyond the town’s border. He was not going to let his father die. Not like his mother. He cursed himself every day for letting his mother go, for not trying everything he could think of to save her.

Even seeking out Her.

He had heard rumors, of course. But he had always dismissed them. He was rational, after all. He didn’t believe in superstition like the townspeople. But now, now he would try anything. He would not let his father die. Not like his mother! His vision blurred, and he swiped a hand across his eyes. His heart twisted, and he had to push his feelings aside to concentrate on his task.

Lightning forked in the sky over his head, illuminating the road ahead of him. His fingers clutched the mane of his stallion as he dashed through the countryside.

Although he had never been there, he knew where she lived. The old shack on the outskirts of town. Not much farther. He leaned forward over his steed’s neck, urging him faster. The townspeople avoided her, called her a witch, said she dealt with black magic.

Graden didn’t care. He would not lose his father. He would not lose his only remaining relative! His fingers clenched in his horse’s mane. His body moved with the animal. The pounding of horse hooves rivaled the explosive thunder over his head. He turned the steed off the path toward the stream on the border of his lands. She lived there. The witch. He didn’t even know her name. It didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was that she could save his father’s life.

In a burst of light from above, he saw her small shack. It looked tiny and rundown. There was a small doorway in the front, but no windows. He reined his steed in, a flash of lightning streaking the sky. Graden stared at the shack, a trembling sense of foreboding creeping across the nape of his neck.

Suddenly, a boom of thunder erupted, and his steed reared up onto two legs. Graden’s fingers slipped from the stallion’s mane and he tumbled backward from the animal. The horse fled into the darkness, whinnying with a terrified cry as it raced away.

Graden lay on the ground for a long moment, staring up at the grey clouds churning in the night sky. When the first drop of rain splashed his cheek, he sat up. He rubbed his throbbing head to find a large lump at the crown. He slowly stood.

The wind swirled about him, pushing him toward the shack. A torrential rain started, pelting the ground in sheets of water. Groggy, Graden stumbled toward the shack.

He hesitated at the doorway. He saw a flickering light at the edges of the cover that protected the doorway. There was no wooden door barring entrance; a sheet of worn cotton served as the shack’s door. He glanced back toward the road. Was he doing the right thing? Was this the best way to save his father?

“Where are your manners?” a voice called from inside.

Graden straightened. He tried to peer inside, but the cover over the doorway made only glimpses possible. He could see shelves lined with jars. A table.

“Come in!”

A gust pushed Graden forward and he eased the cover aside, taking a deep breath before stepping into the shack. It was not what he expected. It was clean and comfortable. A hearth with a warm fire was tucked into the corner of the room. Two chairs with padded coverings were situated before it. Shelves filled with jars and containers lined the room. A simple, wood table was in the center of the room, a woman standing beside it. She was grinding something in a stone dish. Her long blonde hair fell over her shoulders, and her tan, flowing dress barely covered her thin body’s curves. For a boy of twelve, she was breathtaking.

Graden’s mouth dropped open.

“Do you always lurk around in front of homes?”

Graden shook his head. “No. I’m sorry.”

“What do you want?”

Graden had expected a witch. A gnarled, old woman. Not this beautiful… “My father,” he whispered, the words coming out in a nervous croak.

“He’s sick,” she said, finishing his words.

Graden mentally shook himself. He stepped up to the table. He was here for his father. To make his father well. “Yes. Are you…?” His voice trailed off. Was she the witch? “…the one who lives here?”

She stopped grinding the dark substance in the bowl and raised her eyes to him.

Graden’s mouth opened in surprise. Her eyes were completely white. “Are you blind?”

“I can see well enough. You are Lord Dumount’s son, are you not?”

“Aye,” Graden said, his gaze unable to move away from her eyes. “My father is ill. He has the same sickness my mother died of. I want you to give me something to cure him.”

Thunder shook the shack. Jars rattled on the shelves.

The beautiful woman gazed at him for a long time until he grew uneasy. She wasn’t going to give him the cure. Maybe she didn’t have it. Doubt festered inside of Graden. He pushed the uncertainty from his mind. She was his only hope. Graden splayed his hands on the table and desperately leaned toward her. “I heard a powerful witch lived here. I heard there was nothing she couldn’t do.”

She stared at him with her white eyes, a strand of golden hair falling forward. The silken hairs drifted over her pert nose.

“You can do it, can’t you?”

She lifted her hands and rubbed one over the other as if she were cold. “Only a powerful witch could do what you ask. To bring back a man on the verge of death.”

Graden scowled. She hadn’t answered his question. “Can you do it?”

“Of course.” She picked up some herbs from beside the bowl and sprinkled them over the dark material in the stone dish. She began to mash up the new contents, combining them with the ingredients that were already in the bowl. “I will need ingredients that I do not have. Antlers from a royal buck.”

Graden straightened. “It’s illegal to poach on the king’s lands.”

She looked up at him. “A small price for your father’s health.”

Graden nodded in agreement. “Is there anything else you require?”

She smiled and Graden felt a quickening in his heart; he didn’t know if it was dread or excitement. “I have the other ingredients here.” She tilted her head. “There is one more thing. We haven’t discussed payment.”

Payment. Graden should have thought of payment. “I have a horse…”

“You mean the horse that ran off in the storm?”

Graden scowled. Her hearing must be better than her sight. “I can give you coin.”

“I have no need of coin.”

He had armor and a sword. But what would she need those for? “What do you want?”

“There is only one thing I desire as payment for such a remedy.”

Graden stiffened. He knew it was going to be his soul. He knew she would demand that as payment. He stiffened, ready to agree. He would give anything to have his father well again. “What do you want?”

“The blue rose.”