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Near The Wessex/ Cymru Border
Rhianwyn had been barely conscious since the horses galloped off. She was thankful when they finally stopped, for her unsettled stomach lurched. Dizzy and disoriented, with trembling hands, she unfastened the belt holding her, slid off the tall stallion, dropped to her knees, and spewed.
The crescent moon shone above, but heavy ground mist hung in the air. She focused on the rich brocade of the garment she’d barely avoided soiling. Lilliana’s gown. Memory of the infernal soul-switching pact returned, clearing her head slightly but adding to her pain. She was Rhianwyn in spirit but the body she inhabited was that of the princess. She heard rushing water nearby. Probably a river. The River Severn separated Wessex and Cymru, or Welshland, as most Saxons referred to it. Could they have already journeyed that far?
She glanced at Dubh, Broccan’s immense black steed, experiencing pangs of guilt. He’d be worried about his beloved horse. She’d appropriated the stallion from the castle’s stable yesterday but didn’t intend to keep him—certainly not to take him on a long journey. She didn’t want to distress her true love. Or did she? Anger and pain warred within her even though she couldn’t recall why.
Stumbling, she went to Dubh, placed her cheek against his taut neck, and unfastened the reins holding him and a white mare together.
“Go back to Broccan, beautiful boy.”
The horse bobbed his head at Rhianwyn, then affectionately nudged the mare with his soft nose and snorted.
“I know you’re torn. But soon she’ll not want you near her, for I suspect you’ve sired her foal.”
The stallion stared at Rhianwyn like it was her he shouldn’t leave.
She swatted his rump. “Go home, Dubh!” she commanded. He whinnied, turned to her once more, then took off running. He was loyal to Broccan. She prayed he’d make it home safely.
She held her aching head; thinking took such effort. Should she return to Hengebury? As Princess Lilliana, she’d have to face King Thaddeus, her friend’s oppressive father. Rhianwyn shuddered. She’d go to Cymru, her late mother’s homeland, instead.
With her walking stick steadying her, and only mild protests from the temperamental mare, she grasped the reins and pulled herself upon the large white beauty. Gwynna. She remembered with relief that the horse belonged to Prince Tyven, Lilliana’s Welsh husband. Wasn’t she displeased with him, too?
Gwynna leaped about, threatening to rear. Squeezing her knees against the horse, Rhianwyn spoke soothingly. The mare finally settled. Fearful she’d lose consciousness again, she tied the reins to her belt and tucked the walking stick inside the tether. Gwynna obviously knew where she was going and set off again.
At the river’s edge the fog was even thicker. Surely there’d be someone to ferry them across. When the horse abruptly plunged into the swift-running river, Rhianwyn gasped as icy water soaked her to her hips.
The frigid water and worry for her life should’ve fully roused her, yet she remained distressingly groggy. What had caused this impairment? She vaguely recalled Agnes, Princess Lilliana’s former maidservant, passing Rhianwyn a potion claiming it calmed the uneasy stomach Lilliana suffered during journeys. Maybe she’d reacted unfavorably. Had it been poisoned? She shouldn’t have ingested the concoction knowing Agnes harbored animosity toward the princess.
Even if it was a poison—and one she could identify—if she had a remedy to counteract it, she could barely control her shivering body now. Maybe she should return to Broccan. If she was dying, she’d long to see him again. But she wasn’t in her true form and had already caused him so much pain and confusion.
“Should’ve waited for a ferry,” a sleepy, high-pitched voice said.
Something tugged her cloak. Rhianwyn glanced down. A tiny creature with large protruding eyes, wide-spaced front teeth, a small body, and translucent wings peeked out from her pocket.
“Good gracious; you look even worse!” he exclaimed.
“Agnes’s remedy might’ve been poisoned,” she managed, thick-tongued and befuddled.
“I suppose that won’t much matter if we drown in this blasted river. Still, I would’ve thought you’d be more cautious,” he tut-tutted.
Rhianwyn widened her eyes, then squinted. Everything looked blurry. Gwynna snorted, breathing heavily as she swam. She must be remarkably strong to stay afloat in the fast-moving water.
“What are you doing?” Rhianwyn asked the tiny person climbing up her cloak.
“Your pocket is filling with water. My, it’s warm under your lovely smelling hair.”
Couldn’t he fly away?
Two glowing orbs appeared in the darkness. Perhaps they were angels here to accompany her to the beyond. She blinked. Only lanterns hanging seemingly in midair; then a large raft came into view.
“Why didn’t you use my ferry?” a man called. “Not many horses could ford the River Severn with its dangersome undercurrents. If not crossing here at the narrowest spot or if the tidal water was swelling now, you’d be carried out to sea.”
Obviously, things could be worse.
“Steer the horse closer,” he shouted again. “I’ll tether the beast, so it won’t tire.”
How the hell was she supposed to do that?
The wee person nudged Rhianwyn. Memories came in disjointed snippets. Teg… She finally remembered his name, and that he was an ellyll, a magical Welsh creature.
“What ails you, woman?” the ferryman asked. “If you’ve a sickness maybe you shouldn’t come closer.”
“I might’ve been poisoned,” she managed.
“God’s nails!” the man replied.
The current pulled them toward the ferry, but Gwynna frantically fought. In her agitation, she went under, taking woman and ellyll with her. Rhianwyn held her breath till she felt her lungs might burst. They truly might drown here! Her heart sunk. She’d never see Broccan again.
They were suddenly pulled up when the ferryman caught the mare’s bridle with an oar. Rhianwyn and Teg sputtered, gasping for air.
Alert with terror and cold, she searched for the positivity her mother had instilled in her. At least, with her garments drenched through, she wasn’t recognizable as Princess Lilliana.
“I’ll leave you there on your horse lest you’re contagious, but I’ve tied a rope to your mount’s bridle. I won’t charge you coin. Here, take this.” The man threw a blanket over her shoulders. From beneath her dripping wet hair, Teg secured it with her brooch.
“If you’re needing a healer, there’s few in these parts.” The ferryman’s voice echoed. “You’re not frothing at the mouth or spewing blood. If it’s poison it must be slow-acting.”
Rhianwyn trembled uncontrollably; her head lolled as fatigue washed over her once more.
“Don’t fall asleep again, Princess,” Teg whispered. “Or you mightn’t awaken.”
She wasn’t the princess…was she? Her mind was as foggy as the air around them. She was Rhianwyn the healer. No…that wasn’t correct either. She’d once been a healer. She’d also been married to her beloved, Broccan—until…until…until the infernal magical pact that despoiled everything.
And hadn’t Teg told her she was likely cursed? With her body failing, feeling heartsick and soul-weary, she wondered if it would be a kindness to just slip away.
No! If there was a sliver of hope she’d return to her life with Broccan, she had to fight.
Fight a poison…maybe a curse?
Surely impossible. It was unlikely Broccan would want a future together if he learned she’d agreed to the pact that had caused such despair. It was better she didn’t remember. Guilt wouldn’t plague her then.
The ferry docked and the horse was untied. Gwynna bounded up the rocky shore and shook herself while Rhianwyn clung tightly to her mane. Quaking from her sopping garments and whatever noxious potion coursed through her, Rhianwyn was grateful for the threadbare blanket. Even if it smelled of unwashed man and strong woodsmoke.
No longer winded, the mare galloped off again. Rhianwyn laid her head against Gwynna’s neck and wove her fingers into her mane as she was roughly jostled about.
“Try to stay alive, Princess. How might I assist?”
She opened one eye. Teg was still tucked in the crook of her neck.
“You could p-p-pray,” she stuttered, teeth chattering.
“Pray?” He didn’t sound hopeful.
Finally, she simply gave way to slumber.
“Eek!” Teg’s shrill shriek woke her. “We’re headed for the precarious mountain passes and it’s bloody well started snowing. The steep path will be treacherously icy. We’re sure to fall to our deaths.” He placed his hands over his prominent eyes. “You could untie the belt so only the horse would fall, but then we’d just freeze to death.”
Teg evidently wasn’t given to finding positivity. Snowing? Wasn’t it summer? Rhianwyn couldn’t even muster fear. It would be tragic if Gwynna died just trying to get home. Teg could fly; surely, he’d save himself.
She now heard unusual flapping and forced her eyes open. A lone man stood before them on the narrow, winding ascent. Dawn was breaking. Although stunningly beautiful, the sparkling mountainous terrain looked rugged and dangerous. As did the man. Tall and muscular with blond hair and gold eyes. Should she recognize him?
“Did you actually steal my brother’s horse?” The man grinned. “I’m surprised Gwynna’d permit you near her, much less let you mount and ride her from Wessex to Cymru. Not that I’d be opposed to that!” he snickered.
Even in her failing state, she saw him smirk. She didn’t have the strength to rebuke his impropriety. He spoke in her Saxon tongue but with a Cymruian accent.
“You don’t look in fine feather, sister-in-law.”
Sister-in-law? She couldn’t discern that connection, but she wasn’t certain she knew who she was any longer, much less who he was.
“She’s poisoned, likely cursed, and affected by uncommon magic.”
“Who said that?” The man looked around him.
Teg moved from beneath the blanket.
“By Dduw!” The man stepped back. “A bloody ellyll. Did you poison or curse her?”
Teg clucked his tongue. “If I did, do you suppose I’d admit it?”
“You might gladly take credit. Ellylls are damn mischievous!”
“I’ll take no credit for this,” Teg snorted. “I’m bonded to the princess by Morwenna’s magic, so I’d not want her dead.”
“That’d be strong motive if you’d be free of her.”
“I’ve grown rather fond of the princess,” Teg said.
“Tyven sent me to search for his horse. He’ll be surprised I’ve found his missing wife, too.”
Voices still echoed unnaturally before everything went black.
Feeling herself being lifted and carried, Rhianwyn moaned.
“Are you alive, Princess?” Teg whispered, tickling her ear. She swatted with a mostly useless arm.
She heard voices. Cymruian. Her mother’s language. As a child, she’d taught her some. How could she remember that but not know how she’d gotten here?
“She moved!” a woman said. “I thought maybe she was dead.”
“She’s still breathing,” the man carrying her replied. “Likely not for long if we don’t employ a healer.”
She liked the warmth of his bulky body—his powerful arms around her.
“Maybe we should let her die.” The woman sounded serious. “She is Saxon.”
“That’s cold, Buddeg! Our brother wouldn’t want his wife dead—certainly not without leaving him an heir.” That was a different man’s voice.
Rhianwyn briefly opened her eyes, but her eyelids were…so…damn…heavy.
“Best take her to the infirmary chambers then, Gronow,” Buddeg suggested. “Whether poisoned or cursed, there’s only two who might save her.”
“Bronwyn wouldn’t think a Saxon woman worthy of his time unless Father requested it. I doubt any of us want to involve either of them,” the other man said.
“That leaves Morwenna,” Buddeg replied.
Probably trying to revive her, Gronow shook Rhianwyn as he walked. “It’s unlikely the princess will survive to be taken to Morwenna and the sorceress certainly won’t come here.”
“We haven’t time to wait till Tyven returns to decide,” the other man said.
A door opened and closed. She smelled smoke, food, and ale. Felt welcome warmth but then a change of temperature. A cool stairwell. She was taken up several winding stairs. Yet Gronow wasn’t breathing heavier and didn’t appear to tire. Another door opened; a musty smell met her nose. The chamber was damp and cold.
“I’ll remove her wet garments,” the woman said.
“You’ll not manage without help,” the man carrying her replied.
“That would be a hardship, Gronow, for you to disrobe a woman. Did you give her a potion so you could do just that?”
A rumble across Gronow’s chest preceded a snort.
“I’m offended! There’s no denying she’s beautiful, and it isn’t that I haven’t lusted for her since they married, but she is my brother’s wife. Tyven and I enjoy battling for sport, but I wouldn’t cross him. Besides, I prefer my women fully alert, participating in the bedding.”
Rhianwyn smelled burning wood. Someone must’ve started a fire. As her garments were removed, she heard a whistle, and felt her bare skin upon cool bed linens. Something was tugged over her head and covers placed upon her. If she died now, at least she’d be warm and dry.
“Who’ll fetch Morwenna?” Buddeg asked.
“You go, Madok. I’ll wait here,” Gronow suggested.
“Perhaps together we’d be able to convince her,” Madok said, gruffly. “At least it’s not Tyven asking for favors.”
Madok sounded intense. Gronow, the man who’d carried her, was given to humor.
“I won’t remain here and perhaps be blamed should she perish before you return,” Buddeg snapped.
“I doubt you’d be suspected, dear stepmother.” Madok sounded sardonic.
“Does Tyven know she’s here?” Buddeg asked.
“He was searching for her in Wessex but instructed me to follow his horse,” Gronow replied. “I used magic to catch the swift mare. I’ve sent word by enchanted carrier pigeon that I found Lilliana and Gwynna…”
His voice trailed off. Rhianwyn heard footsteps and a door close, then silence but for the fire crackling and spitting as a log settled. Something flitted near her face. A midge maybe, but then Teg lifted her eyelid and stared straight into her eye.
“Stop that!” she ordered.
“Stay awake, damn you. Are you still there, Princess?” He nudged her cheek with fluttering wings.
“I’m not a princess,” she replied. “I’m Rhianwyn Mulryan in Lilliana’s body.”
Her head hurt fiercely, remembering, and she winced.
“You do still have some wits about you. However, mentioning that could be fatal. You’re not to speak of the soul-switch pact, correct?”
She groaned. That confounded pact she didn’t want to recall.
“True. Especially when my mind’s addled and I’m so weak I can barely move.” With effort she raised her hand, but it dropped back down with a thud.
“If Morwenna agrees to assist, hopefully she’ll save you. She’s the powerful sorceress who bonded me to you.”
“Morwenna? She also created a remedy to alleviate pain and gave it to Agnes for Lilliana, back when Selena inhabited this body.”
The pact was confusing when fully lucid—now, it was impossible.
“Perhaps the combination of potion and remedy was unsafe,” Teg suggested.
Rhianwyn recalled Agnes’s deep despair when last she’d seen her. She was resentful of Lilliana, therefore Rhianwyn suspected it was intentional. Why had she ingested the potion then? She remembered being angry herself and filled with drink, but still.
“Teg, you said I might be cursed,” Rhianwyn managed. “Is the dark cloud around me still visible?”
“Regrettably, it is.” Teg patted her forehead tenderly despite his stubby fingers.
Perhaps Agnes had poisoned and cursed her. Lilliana once said Agnes descended from a family of sorceresses.
Rhianwyn heard peculiar flapping. A large bat or a bird? It sounded much larger even than the birds of prey royals might keep. It perplexed Rhianwyn’s already befuddled mind. Hurried footsteps approached.
“That might be King Eurion,” Teg warned and dove beneath the bedcovers. With one eye partially open, Rhianwyn was startled when Prince Tyven entered. By firelight she noted his rigid stance and strained features.
“Dammit, woman, you stole my horse and left without farewell!” He sounded furious.
Hadn’t she liked him before? He’d chivalrously defended her against King Thaddeus. Seeing Tyven twigged another memory. He and Broccan had done something that enraged her. But if it was that distressing, why couldn’t she recall what it was?
Upon noticing her dire state, Tyven’s expression turned to concern. He rushed to her side, taking her hand.
“What’s happened to you, Lilliana?” He sounded distraught.
“A curse and a potion, she suspects,” someone said though Rhianwyn hadn’t been aware anyone other than Teg was here.
“A curse? A potion?” Tyven asked, confused.
“You weren’t aware of it?” the other person said.
“Woru, I only knew my horse and my wife went missing from her father’s Wessexian kingdom where I participated in a tournament. Gwynna was spotted galloping off with another horse and a peasant woman. Lilliana must’ve dressed in peasant garb. She was displeased when last I saw her. Yet I wouldn’t have believed she’d foolishly leave unaccompanied. When Gronow sent word they’d been found, I came straightaway.”
“It was foolhardy to use one of your limited transformations to fly here, Tyven.”
Fly? Rhianwyn was more confused.
“You shouldn’t be offering advice, Woru. Your reckless disobedience cost you your life.”
Tyven was speaking to someone who’d died? Rhianwyn had occasionally seen and spoken with her dear Anslem’s spirit.
“I needed to know Lilliana and Gwynna were well,” Tyven said. “My horse evidently fared far better than my lady.”
“Our brothers—the two most liable to beguile women, have gone in search of Morwenna,” Woru said.
Tyven’s hand tightened on hers. Even in her failing state, Rhianwyn felt him tense.
“That’s pointless,” Tyven scoffed. “She’s mostly immune to men’s charms and loathes the Dafyddsons. She’d never do me a beneficent deed.”
“Then it’s likely you’ll be widowed…again!”
Had Rhianwyn been aware Tyven was married before?
“Lilliana.” Tyven leaned closer speaking in her Saxon tongue with an agreeable accent. She had an affinity for men with accents. “Who did this to you?”
Before she could attempt reply, voices approached, and the door was flung open.
End of Excerpt