Castle Questing in Northumbria
Home of the Baron Kilham, known as the Wolfe
Duncan hoped this was true with the dreaded box that sat in the middle of the room on a wooden table. Chains and a heavy lock secured the box.
He was glad to be home. The journey had been difficult. He’d kept nodding off, and each time he woke, he was wearier than he’d been before. The image of the lovely lass in his dream kept him going. He should have been thinking of Marigold, not her. Even now, to his shame, he sat in a chair, too tired to stand next to his brother and the Wolfe, and all he could think about was the blond lass.
“Ye donna look good, brother.” Alastair knotted his eyebrows, and his voice was deep with concern.
Alastair had always prided himself as being the stronger twin. His green eyes sparkled with energy and interest while Duncan struggled to keep his open. Alastair wore his hair in a neat queue while Duncan wore his down. They had the same muscular build, spending time challenging each other in the practice fields. To others who knew them, the only difference was their dimples. When Alastair smiled, his dimple was on the right side, while Duncan’s was on the left.
“’Twas a difficult task.” He cast William a glowering look. “To say the least.”
“I am sorry, Duncan.” Lady Jordon gave him her sweetest smile and touched his hand.
The years had been kind to her. Her honey-blond hair shimmered with strands of gray, but her face was still smooth and her figure trim, despite having born the Wolfe three sons. She still had the ability to turn a man’s head when she entered a room. It wasn’t just her beauty; her kindness could make the stoutest knight smile.
She pulled out a letter. “This was found in my da’s bequeath—the Laird Thomas Scott. Unfortunately, the box was lost.” She caught her husband’s watchful stare. “I was the one who asked ye to complete this task.”
Duncan’s eyes widened at her confession. “My lady?”
“Da said ’twas imperative I retrieve this box. Only upon his deathbed did he discover that the Laird Henry Brodie had stolen the box and had it under lock and key at Castle Swan.”
Alastair stared at it curiously. “Why was the box chained up?”
William walked around the box Duncan had retrieved with his hand upon the pommel of his sword, as if any minute he feared it would attack him. “Because evil resides inside.”
“I felt something move inside the box.” Duncan clasped the arms on the chair so tight his knuckles turned white. Normally, he would have splintered the wood, but he was still not at full strength. “It needs to be destroyed. The magic is stronger than dragon magic.”
“Nothing is stronger than dragon magic.”
Alastair’s fierce tone sparked a hint of worry in Duncan. His brother was proud and strong, but he couldn’t accept that dragons were not the strongest beings in the universe. Duncan worried this could lead to Alastair’s doom.
“I’m afraid ye are wrong, Alastair,” Lady Jordon said as she looked at the letter.
Alastair raised his eyebrow. “Then tell me, Lady Jordan, what is?”
“I donna know. My da instructed me to open the book.”
Dread swirled around Duncan’s lungs, squeezing tighter and tighter. “’Tis a mistake,” Duncan said, as he gasped. “William, donna let her. I fear ye’ll live to regret it.”
“My da would not send me into danger, Duncan.” A hint of anger and hurt edged into Lady Jordan’s voice.
Duncan bowed his head. “Please accept my apologies. I didna mean to offend you, fair lady.”
Alastair strolled over to the box and picked up the lock. “Did ye happen to steal the key, dear brother?”
Duncan leaned his head back on the chair. How he could have been so foolish? “No, I didna. I was a little busy fightin’ the two guards and then escapin’ with my skin still attached to my body.” He frowned. “Besides, I donna remember seeing any bloody key. Brodie must have it.”
Lady Jordan looked at the box with dread in her eyes. “No, he doesna. According to Da, I am the key.” She put her shaking hand on the box.
The box shook and banged on the table, matching the thud-thud-thud in Duncan’s heart. As if by magic, the lock opened itself, and the chains slid off. The fiery flower sizzled but didn’t burn through the splintered wood. The lid slowly lifted, and a loud hiss echoed off the walls like a demonic church bell ringing with hate.
Duncan stood and withdrew his sword. His brother and the Wolfe held their swords.
A crimson light shone on the Lady Jordan’s face, and her mouth opened in horror. She cried out as if something had pierced her heart. She dropped the letter onto the floor and held her trembling hand. Sweat and tears spilled down her face. She looked to the Wolfe. “English, make it stop.”
A stain formed in the middle of her palm, taking the form of a solid black flower. Its thorns glistened. The Wolfe rushed over to her and shoved her behind him. The light and hiss vanished. The air had grown heavy, and the bit of the sun shining through the window faded like the flame of a flickering candle.
He wrapped his arms around her waist and examined her palm with frustration. “I can’t.”
The helplessness in his voice tore at Duncan’s heart.
Alastair rushed past the Wolfe to the table. “What’s inside?”
Confusion and leeriness clouded over the Wolfe’s face. “A sealed letter.” He reached for it.
“No!” Lady Jordan rushed past him and snatched the letter before he could touch it.
He clasped her wrist and brought her hard to his chest. “Jordan, what did you do?” His angry move couldn’t hide the fear in his voice.
Jordan’s escapades of disobeying the Wolfe were legendary. If his knights had engaged in such disobedience, his wrath would be swift and deadly. When it came to his wife though, his fierceness lost its bite.
She kissed him on the cheek. “My love, only I can remove what lies in the box. Ye know this, English.”
Duncan admired their love that not many shared and many had envied—including him. Unlike humans, finding a dragon’s mate wasn’t an easy task. After Marigold passed, he’d not been with a lass. None of them had stirred the fire in his belly. His brother complained of the same fate except he slept with many a fair lady, breaking their hearts. He stared at the red seal on the parcel that Duncan suspected was blood. “What does the letter say?”
“English, ye need to release me.”
Reluctance flared in the Wolfe’s eyes. But like always, he caved to her request.
Her hands shaking, Lady Jordan opened the letter under the careful eye of her husband.
“Well, what does it say?” Alastair’s voice was thick with annoyance.
The Wolfe turned around and glared at Alastair. “’Tis blank.”
Fury burned inside Duncan at the needless bloodshed in the forest. The knights’ lives were worth more than a blank piece of parchment. “Bloody hell.”
Alastair picked up the letter.
“Alastair, no!” Lady Jordan cried. “Ye shouldna have touched the letter!” Her voice turned into a low wail as if she were a mourner at a funeral.
He shrugged his shoulders and slammed the letter on the table. “There’s no harm in touching the letter.”
Duncan wanted to slam his fist into his brother’s smirking face.
The table skidded by itself. The box and letter remained on top.
Duncan forced his tired legs to stand. “D’ye see that?”
“Aye.” Lady Jordan took William’s hand. “Alastair, ye’ve angered it.”
“We donna even know what it is, my lady.” Alastair gestured toward the table. “See—it hasna moved.”
Alastair wasn’t fooling Duncan. His voice was cavalier, but fear flared in his eyes as he watched the table.
“That’s because it’s just gettin’ started, brother. Donna under estimate it.”
“We’re dragons. It should be afraid of us.”
The table rumbled back and forth and jumped around the room. Chills slid down the back of Duncan’s neck. Weariness weighed heavy on him, as if each time the table jerked it drew energy from him. He labored to breathe as if each was his last. His limbs grew leaden and trembled like a newborn colt’s.
Wolfe grabbed Lady Jordan’s hand and hurried to the door. “We have to get out of here.”
His message was loud and clear—Lady Jordan needed to get out of here. He expected his dragons to defeat the evil.
He grabbed the door handle and yanked. The mighty oak refused to move. He pounded hard on the wood. “Guards, open this door.”
There was rattling and cursing from the other side. “Lord, we can’t. It will not budge.”
Duncan met the Wolfe’s hard stare. “The malice doesna want us to leave, William.”
“English.” Lady Jordan’s voice trembled and faded. She clutched his arm tightly.
“Stay calm, woman.”
Alastair frowned. “What’s wrong, Duncan? Ye look paler than a corpse.”
Duncan put his shaking hand on the stone wall. “’Tis happenin’ again. The malice is drainin’ my power.”
“’Tis not drainin’ mine.”
Her eyes wide with fear, she looked at Alastair. “He didna touch it. Ye did.”
“Then transform into a dragon, you fool,” William said. “And get us out of here.”
Alastair’s eyes turned gold. His skin changed dark blue, but no scales appeared and he didn’t change in size. His brow deepened, and his nostrils flared, smoke swirling around his head. “I canna. Somethin’ is fighting me.” His eyes darkened. “Stop, or I’ll burn you alive!” Hate and anger trembled in his voice and sent dread sinking into Duncan’s bones.
Scratching came from the table, as if something were dragging a nail across a stone wall.
William put his hands on his wife’s shoulders. “Stay here.”
For once, she obeyed as her husband warily approached the table. He tilted his head toward Duncan and Alastair, who spread out around the table, prepared for an attack.
Lady Jordan fiddled with the lock on the door. “Donna touch it, William.”
Alastair and Duncan glanced at each other. Duncan clutched his sword tight. It was unusually heavy. This weariness was worse than when he’d been pierced with a demonic arrow and lost blood. Alastair didn’t look any different. Why was it affecting Duncan but not his brother? Was it because he had touched the box, and in fact, had kept it close to his side, while Alastair had only touched the parchment?
As if a crooked finger had been dipped in blood, the following decree was written on the letter: Satan’s Scriptures are finally free. The Keeper has failed.
The Wolfe read the words aloud. His steely voice echoed off the walls.
Lady Jordan stopped fiddling with the lock. “What does this mean, English? How have I failed?”
William scanned the room. “I don’t know, love. I will...”
As in previous battles, he wanted to assess his enemy, search for weakness. He’d fail in this attempt. This enemy was unseen, but like before, Duncan could feel it watching, waiting, laughing.
Suddenly, a strong wind roared inside the chamber. There were no open windows or doors. The table skidded around the room faster and faster. Like before, the box and letter remained on top. Evil laughter whipped around them. Sconces on the walls flew off and shattered on the floor. A chair slammed into Duncan’s knee, sending unbearable pain up his leg. His hair blew around his face, blinding his vision.
Someone screamed. He couldn’t tell who. He assumed it was Lady Jordan.
But he was wrong. It was Alastair.
A black cloud swirled around him. He jerked back and forth in the cloud. He jammed his heels into the floor.
Through the chaos, a black hole opened in a wall. Duncan took a step toward his brother, but he was thrown into the air. His sword was whipped out of his hand. He was slammed against the wall hard. He couldn’t breathe. The Wolfe and Lady Jordan were pinned beside him.
Alastair fought inside the cloud. His sword flung out and embedded in the wall.
“Alastair!” Duncan drew on his dragon power. Useless, they were gone. He struggled against the wind and moved an inch from the wall.
The wind whined and shoved him back. Pain sliced through him. He didn’t care.
Using all of his dragon strength, he crept away from the wall. The distance was pitifully shorter than the last time. Walking was like tramping through snow. Dirt scraped his face and hands. He had to save his brother.
Alastair was thrown onto the floor. He dug his fingers into the stone crevices, but he was dragged toward the black emptiness.
From within the darkness, Duncan smelled a stench of rotting flesh, like discarded corpses that had been abandoned in battle with flies swarming around them. A foul film of bitterness slid over his lips, and he gagged. Chills rushed over him, and he shivered as if he’d fallen through ice. Ignoring the malice, he fell onto his knees and his gut. He crawled across the floor, stretching out his fingers. “Alastair, grab my hands!”
Alastair’s fingertips barely touched Duncan’s. Duncan gritted his teeth and moved forward until he clasped Alastair’s hand tightly.
“Donna let go!” Alastair’s arrogance was gone, and his eyes were filled with terror.
“Never!” Duncan shook his head and clutched Alastair tighter.
The black cloud descended on their hands. Something sharp dug into Duncan’s palms, like long fingernails tearing away flesh and scraping bone.
Ignore the pain.
“Duncan, help me!” Alastair’s feet magically lifted into the air, and he shook violently.
His hands slipped slowly out of Duncan’s fingers. With one final yank, Alastair was tossed into the abyss, screaming. The black hole vanished. The wind died.
Duncan jumped to his feet and staggered across the floor. He pounded on the wall, bloodying his fists. “Alastair! Alastair!”
The door burst open. Guards rushed inside. Duncan could care less. All he wanted was his brother.
It took two of the Wolfe’s guards to pull him away. He sank to the floor and buried his face into his bloody hands. Misery swooshed through his body. He’d broken a promise to his brother. “My brother is dead.”
Lady Jordan sat next to him. She took his hand in hers. “Duncan, listen to me. I donna know how I know, but I can sense Alastair is alive.”
Duncan met the Wolfe’s knowing glare. “Brodie.”
“Bring him here.”
“This time, I’ll not go as a man, but a dragon.” Duncan prayed he wouldn’t have to kill the stubborn bastard, but he wanted answers, even if had to strip the flesh from the man’s evil bones.
The dreaded table shook again, louder, and another black pit opened on the wall.
Duncan jumped up. “Alastair, Alastair!”
But instead of his brother falling out of the pit, a slender blond woman wearing the strangest blue trousers and a puffy white shirt tumbled out. She scrambled to her feet and looked at all of them with sheer terror on her sweet face. “Stay away from me!”
Sweet Jesus. ’Twas the woman from his dream. “Who are you, lass? And where is my brother?” Duncan tried to keep the anger out of his voice.
“If you take a step toward me, Alastair, I swear I’ll call the police.” She fisted her hand and punched him square in the nose, drawing blood.
No woman had ever hit him, and this little fiery lass would learn a lesson in bloodying a dragon knight.