Born with a red blemish streaking her cheek, Katherine has been hidden her entire life. Even after her family perished in the plague, she did not emerge from behind the walls that protect her. With the help of a faithful servant, she is content to live as she’s been taught. However, her contentment ends when a band of men arrive to the castle in a cloud of dust. She’s horrified. And worried. And more than a little fascinated by the man who leads them, Calen the Black. While she spies on Calen from afar, her need to draw closer rages out of control until she sneaks to his room to experience his touch…for as long as they remain in the dark.
Panic rushed through Katherine Wolf, the only remaining member of Bryant the Wolf’s family, as she stared with astonishment through her window, high in one of Warg castle’s six towers. Along the road leading to her home, dust billowed into the sky—dust that obviously came from a band of oncoming riders. Within moments, eight black steeds carrying eight burly men rode into sight. Four wore mail. Knights and their squires…
Katherine’s knees went weak.
No. They could not be coming here.
But they were.
She watched in horror as the horsemen galloped toward the front gate. They stopped as if considering entrance, and with all her being, Katherine willed them to depart. Of course, it did not work. She was not a witch as some would suppose.
The rider who had been in the lead held up his hand, signaling to the others to stop. Deftly, he leapt from his horse and pulled off his helm. He shook his head, loosening the damp hair which had been trapped under the metal. Katherine sucked in a breath as his midnight hair splayed in the wind then settled upon his wide shoulders. His black cloak swirled about him, displaying equally black garments beneath. His beautiful face lifted upward as he surveyed her home.
She quickly stepped backward for fear he would see her watching him, though she was quite sure he would not be able to spy her. She pressed a hand to her middle. Men. Here at her home, the one place she had always felt safe.
Lifting her fingers to her face, she covered her cheek and the rose-colored streak she had had since birth. Marked by the devil, they said. She had been cursed to never set foot from this place or else be burned as a witch.
But what was she to do now?
The men would never find this hidden chamber constructed by her grandfather to hide his treasures. It was likely they would never find the hidden passages that gave her the run of the castle. She was rarely seen, but how long would that last before she accidentally stumbled upon one of the new inhabitants?
* * * *
Calen the Black stared up at the fortress he had been given as payment for his valiant services to Edward while in France. Payment? This fief was to be a punishment for his popularity in court. The king knew Calen would never undermine him, but he had still banished Calen here to Warg, the castle of death. Some claimed it was haunted, and as he saw movement in one of the towers, he wondered at that claim. No matter. No spirit would stop him from possessing his new home and urging the lands to once again flourish.
The degradation he had seen on the ride to the castle had horrified him, but as in the rest of the land, the people had fled—or died—leaving the fields unattended when disease had struck. How much more so it had been here with no lord to oversee them. The entire family of Bryant the Wolf, including Bryant himself, had succumbed to the Great Pestilence.
Calen set his jaw, surveying the gray stone structure set against the mountains. It was a modern sprawling construction with six towers reaching into the clouds. A jewel to possess and a nightmare to subdue. The death of so many within its walls, victims to an untamable disease, sent apprehension clawing across his back.
“She is a beauty,” Alaric, his highest ranking man and friend, commented as he moved to stand beside Calen. Calen realized belatedly that his companions had also dismounted as he had stood there.
“Aye. She is.”
“What do you think of the king’s decree now?” Alaric asked.
“Clement. But he is well known for such.” He swallowed, not believing his words. Edward expected Calen to fail and perish here.
He would not.
Waving his hand, he beckoned the three knights with him to move forward. He had already sent men into the village to gather workers for the task ahead, but he and the ones with him could get started.
“Alaric, come with me,” he ordered. “James and David, start a fire as we have discussed. When others arrive, direct them to gather water.”
Without waiting to see if his orders were followed, he crossed the fortress’ wide courtyard. James and David would follow his command without question, and he felt his faithful companion close at his side. At the entrance to his future, he threw open the large wooden and iron doors, breathing shallowly of the air. It was not as stagnant as he would have supposed. Either someone had made freely with his holding or there was significant air flow moving through the thick walls. He was more inclined to suppose the former rather than the later. The thick-walled structure seemed sturdy, though he knew there would be some draft—all castles had them, even Edward’s mighty home.
“Go with caution,” he urged quietly. “This place of death might not be as deserted as we have supposed.” Vagrants? Robbers? He would see either quickly evicted.
Light streamed through the doors to illuminate the great hall. He strode inside, taking in the heavy furnishings, stale reeds and mouldering wall-hangings. Behind him, Alaric opened the two heavy, wooden shutters covering large colored-glass windows on either side of the hall. Bryant had been wealthy to afford such embellishments, but wealth had not saved him from death.
“All of it goes,” he told Alaric imperiously. “The tables, benches…” He pointed to the chairs where Bryant had his wife had no doubt sat for meals. “Those seats, the hangings, the reeds. I want the hall bare.”
“The heritage…”Alaric murmured in protest.
“Not my heritage. A new era starts now.