Sneak Preview

AMBERLY Sneak Preview

Copyright 2012 Mary Elizabeth Hall

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Chapter One

Night Screams

*

“The Lord is my Rock, and my Stronghold, and my Deliverer.”

– 2 Samuel 22:2

  

Heron’s Cove, on the island nation of Bretalia

MARSTEN SAT UP, drenched with sweat. Something was wrong. Was it just his dream? He slammed the dirt with his fists. Would he never stop thinking—and dreaming—about his brother’s bride? Mirien was not his!

She was so lovely, so exquisitely . . . No!

Heart pounding, Marsten peered through the darkness. Was that the distant whinny of a horse? And—a muffled scream? He flung back his cloak.

Drawing his dagger, he sprang from the thicket where he’d hidden to sleep. The full moon lit the forest around him, and pine trees formed bizarre shadows over moss and dirt. A gust of wind stirred his hair while he crouched, poised to fight.

He peered around and listened. At first there was only the rustle of leaves. Then . . . yes. Another smothered scream. A woman’s voice.

He grabbed his sword, bow, and quiver, and dashed off like a wolfhound after its prey.

Buzzing insects drowned out his breathing while he raced through underbrush. Firelight ahead—it was the Norlanders’ encampment near the shore. The band of raiders from Dayenmark.

He’d come across the enemy earlier in the evening and spied on them for a time before taking cover for the night.

They’d killed a patrol guard—Marsten had found his body on the shore—and now, like usual, they’d snatched a woman for sport from one of the towns. He clenched his fists in outrage. More victims. Would their raiding never end?

He dodged branches and leapt over gnarled roots.

The woman’s muffled shrieks sharpened to panicked screams.

Marsten quickened his pace toward the firelight. Lord God, let me help her before it’s too late.

He caught himself before sliding down a steep grade and dropped to his stomach to survey the activity below.

On the side nearest him, two sentries stood guard outside a ring of tents surrounding a fire. About thirty yards apart, the men faced outward, toward the forest. Both hulking warriors ignored the screams.

Marsten crept down the hill between stands of holly bushes. As he drew closer, gasping sounds of a struggle joined the shrieking. He moved forward.

A sentry turned his head.

Marsten froze. If only he’d brought a pistol!

The noises came from the tent of their stelri—the chieftain’s deputy of this band. His tent was always the largest.

A breeze rustled leaves over the hillside. Both guards turned away.

Marsten sprang forward. He reached the back of the tent, out of their sight. Then he yanked up a wooden stake, eased up the heavy waxed linen, and slipped inside.

A young woman squirmed on the ground, her arms tied behind her back. She kicked furiously at the massive, heavily bearded stelri.

The stelri cursed and tried to snatch her thrashing feet.

Aided by the yellow light of an oil lamp, Marsten crept toward the man’s back.

The stelri snarled and grabbed one slender ankle, then the other.

The woman screamed and twisted a bare foot from the brute’s grasp. She planted it squarely on his face and gave him a hearty shove.

A string of Dayenish obscenities filled the tent while the Norlander stumbled backward.

Marsten swung his left elbow around the man’s neck from behind, squeezed to silence him, and thrust his curved dagger deep into his back.

The gasping Norlander sank to his knees.

Marsten yanked the weapon out and watched the stelri crumple to the ground. “You will threaten my people no more,” he growled through clenched teeth.

He signaled to the woman to keep quiet. Then, resisting the urge to knife his victim again, he bent down and wiped his blade on the Norlander’s coarse shirt. Needing to locate the rest of his enemies, he sprang to the front of the tent and peered through a small opening in the flap.

Four warriors huddled near the blazing fire, hurling insults at two others who worked to tie a horse to a tree. They must have stolen it to carry off their captive. The steed snorted and stomped at the cursing men.

Why were these warriors encamped here and not scouting? Were they awaiting the arrival of a larger band? They had no other horses, and there was no sizeable town nearby for them to raid.

Marsten turned toward the woman and whispered, “Are you all right, miss?”

“Aye. Who are you?” She struggled against her bonds.

An Éirenish brogue. From the south-county, then. Marsten stepped behind her and used his dagger to slice through the twine binding her wrists. “My name is Marsten. I’m a royal guardsman, and I swear I will not harm you.” The twisted fibers fell from her arms.

He helped her to her feet, and his gaze swept from her head to her toes.

Her beauty, lit by the dim light of the oil lamp, stilled his breath. Dark, silky hair fell over slender shoulders. Eyes of deepest emerald beneath the sweep of black lashes reflected the dancing flame. She looked up at him with—appreciation? Or something more?

Eyes off the lady. Marsten knelt and yanked the leather dagger belt from the lifeless stelri. He handed it to the woman. “Put this on.”

She nodded and slung it around her waist. He gave her his cloak. She flung it about her shoulders while he led her to the back of the tent.

He lifted the fabric and peered out at the shuffling sentry to his right, then waited for a rustling breeze. When the leaves whispered in the wind, Marsten grasped her hand and they darted between the tall holly bushes. They made their way partway up the slope and took cover behind brush. Listening for movement, he put up his hand to keep her quiet.

She turned toward him, and the bright moon lit her features. High, smooth cheekbones framed brilliant eyes, a slim nose, and soft, rounded lips. The way she held her neck conveyed a sense of regal confidence which Marsten suspected was born of characteristic Éirenish stubbornness. The curves of her figure, even wrapped in his bulky cloak, captivated him.

He couldn’t imagine where these raiders had found such a stunning specimen of Caeltic loveliness around these parts. He was thankful God had allowed him to intervene, before—

“What is your name?” he whispered.

“Eleanor Will—” She stopped.

“I’m going back to fight, Miss Will. Remain here, and hide yourself well. If I don’t return, my camp is about two hundred yards north.” He pointed up the hill. “My pack contains items you’ll need to hike out of here. Carry it to the Palace at Crestmere, three days up the coast.” He studied her with care. “Do you understand what I’m telling you?”

“Yes.” It was almost a whimper. She cleared her throat. “Yes, sir,” she said more calmly.

He regarded her with care. She was young, but not a child.

“Are you a praying woman, Miss Will?”

“I am.”

His eyes pleaded with hers. “Then pray for me.”

Eyes wide, she reached toward him. “Sir, must you . . . can’t we just—?”

“No, milady. If I don’t stop them here, we won’t get far. Norlanders are excellent hunters, and they’ll be after us.” He pulled his longbow from behind his head.

“You’re goin’ to—to shoot at unarmed men?”

“I certainly am. These warriors have invaded our shore. They’ve killed a lookout and abducted a citizen, and I will cut them off here if I can.” He turned toward the tent then glanced back at her. “Miss Will?”

“Yes?”

He looked at the rough, rocky ground beneath her bare toes. “Be careful of your feet.”

* * *

Eleanor took a shaky breath and hugged the soft cloak around her shoulders. If that barmy fool was going back to fight, she’d better get as far away as she could ere he got himself slaughtered. She turned and crawled up the hill. A guardsman, he’d said, though he wore no insignia or anything military. But he certainly knew how to kill.

Keeping to areas filled with undergrowth, she made her way up the hillside. She yanked brambles from her hair and cloak and stepped over tangled roots. Lord, keep him safe. I don’t know who he is, but he rescued me from those horrid men.

He was a fool indeed, but a mighty fine-looking one. Tall, with dark hair and a lean, muscular build. And eyes that seemed to pierce her soul.

She whirled around at the twang of his bow letting fly from inside the tent. She scrambled to hide under a bush then turned to watch between the tents while arrows rained down on the Norlanders around the fire. First one went down, then another and another. Not a man among them leapt up in alarm until after the third one fell.

The handsome stranger was a fast and accurate archer.

With cries of panic, four remaining warriors sprang to their feet. Brandishing swords and daggers, they turned wildly about, shouting in Dayenish. Two met with the sharp end of an arrow before the other two bellowed in outrage and charged the tent. Four sentries joined them. One man, then another, fell in their tracks.

Eleanor put her hands to her face. Dear Lord, get him out of there!

Something rustled at the bottom of the hill. A Norlander crept behind the tent. One of the sentries, with a thick bush of hair and tremendous shoulders. Her pulse raced inside her ears. If she didn’t do something, he would surely assail the guardsman fighting inside the tent.

Heart thumping, she made her way back down the hillside. Her right foot slid on the sandy dirt. She gasped—then clapped a hand to her mouth.

The Norlander stopped crawling and glanced around.

She held her breath and choked back a sob. The clashing sound of metal on metal filled the air. Marsten’s furious cries sounded from inside the tent.

Fool he might be, but she’d go to the devil in a handbasket before she’d let her rescuer die and do nothing at all to help.

She would stop this sneaking barbarian or die trying.

Eleanor swallowed hard and reached for her dagger. The crouched Norlander lifted the fabric of the tent. Her heart rate sped up. It was now or—

She raised the dagger above her head, leapt out from the bushes, and hurled herself upon his back. She shut her eyes and plunged the weapon down, striking flesh, then bone. She yanked it out.

The man lurched and gasped.

She grasped his tunic, tensed her muscles, and drove the dagger once again into his neck.

He dropped to the ground, the blade lodged at the base of his skull.

Eleanor slid off his back and retreated into the underbrush. Her body trembled while she fought to quiet her breath. Was he . . . ?

The man lay motionless on the ground.

He was!

Horrified at what her hands had done, she wiped them madly on her cotton shift. Then she crawled further into the bushes and tugged the cloak around her. She remained silent, her heart hammering while she tried to collect her wits.

Away. She had to get away.

With ragged breaths, she scrambled back up the hillside. The guardsman couldn’t possibly be victorious against so many. She had to save herself. Swiping at tears of fury, she continued to climb. North, he’d said. Could she find her way in the dark?

The sounds of battle still echoed around the hills. She looked back just as Marsten emerged from the front of the tent with three Norlanders right behind him.

He was alive!

Oh, dear Lord. She clasped trembling hands before her face. Please, please protect him.

She crawled under a bush and peered back to watch while he fought savagely against the two who were now still standing.

The third lay unmoving on the ground.

Marsten side-kicked the stouter man in the ribs then dove sideways and rolled, narrowly avoiding a swinging sword from the other. He sprang back to his feet, deflected a second sword thrust with a clash from his own, and delivered yet another boot to the first man’s chest.

Eleanor’s breath halted as she watched her rescuer fight. Lord, give him victory!

The swordsman leapt onto Marsten’s back.

The guardsman elbowed him in the stomach.

The man doubled over.

Marsten slammed him to the ground and snatched his weapon away.

A roar of foreign curses filled the air.

Marsten thrust the blade through the swordsman’s chest.

The stout man—now the only one left—regained his footing and dashed toward the horse.

Marsten dropped both swords, pulled his longbow over his head, and set off in pursuit. He released a rapid torrent of arrows on the run, but all missed their fast-moving target.

The Norlander swung himself onto the horse’s back and sliced the twine that restrained the steed.

The horse bolted into the darkness.

Still shooting, Marsten followed them into the shadows. Then, grumbling, he returned to the camp. The horseman must have evaded his arrows.

Marsten retrieved his sword from the ground. He moved from man to man, examining each one and collecting his arrows. He grabbed a flaming brand from the fire and looked all around the camp as if hunting for something. Then he briefly disappeared from Eleanor’s sight before emerging around the back side of the tent.

When he reached the body of the man she’d attacked, he stumbled over the man’s legs. He pulled himself up and, with a snarling grunt, plunged his long blade into the man’s back.

Eleanor shuddered. This guardsman wasn’t taking any chances.

“Eleven.” He knelt down and yanked her dagger from the man’s neck. He cleaned it on the man’s tunic, studied the weapon, and slid it into his belt. Breathing heavily, he wiped and sheathed his sword. Then he held up his torch and glanced around. “Miss Will?”

Should she go to him?

Barefoot and alone in the wilderness, did she have any choice?

“I’m here.” Her voice was faint while she worked her way back down the hill.

Marsten scrambled up the slope to meet her. Dropping the flaming brand in the dirt, he caught her by the arms just as she stumbled into his.

“I’m a little . . . wobbly.” Her voice was shaky. Egad, so was the rest of her. She tried to hide her trembling hands by clasping them together.

“You’d better sit down.” The guardsman eased her to the dusty ground.

“Are they all . . . ?”

“Yes. Excepting one. He headed toward Branbury Pass.”

“Are you certain?”

“I am. I watched them earlier this evening, trying to determine why they’re just sitting here.  There was no ship in the cove as far as I could see.” He wiped his forehead. “There were ten men when I spied on them. I assume the eleventh arrived with you.”

Eleanor nodded. Then her throat clenched and her eyes filled with tears. The terror of the night spent itself while her weeping turned into sobs. “Why did this happen to me? How will I ever get home?”

The guardsman pulled her against his chest. He stroked her hair and trembling face. “There now,” he said. “They cannot harm you anymore.”

She wiped her eyes and tried to calm her breathing. His damp shirt against her cheek hinted of a spiced fragrance, mingled with his own sharp scent. She closed her eyes for a moment and relaxed.

“Are you all right, milady?” His rich voice rumbled deep within his chest.

“Aye, sir.”

After she calmed herself, he sat her up and climbed to his feet. “Stay here.” It was a command. His face looked tired, but determined.

“Where are you going?”

“To retrieve a few things.”

He strode down the hillside, rustled through a few tents, and returned a short while later, arms laden and carrying a second bow.

“Put these on. They’re the smallest I could find.” He dropped a pair of boots at her feet. She frowned, but pulled them on and tied their thick leather lacings.

Marsten handed Eleanor the Norlander dagger. “You’ve earned not only the privilege but the right to carry this.”

She hesitated, then took it with trembling hands and sheathed it.

He knelt and looked at her with a tender gaze, and his quiet words echoed off the hillside. “We’ll get you home, Miss Will.”

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