Isabella’s legacy is a strange cabochon ring some will kill to possess.
Pursued by some unnamable evil after the death of her parents, Isabella flees her home and all that she’s known. But discovers she can’t run far enough or fast enough to escape her destiny when the night rider runs her to ground in the dark woods.
Word Count: 24,007
Genre: Fantasy Romance
Available formats: PDF, RTF, Epub, HTML, Mobipocket (.prc)
© Cover art by Jenny Dixon, August 2013
New Concepts Publishing
Lake Park, GA 31636
This is a work of fiction. All characters, events, and places are of the author's imagination and not to be confused with fact. Any resemblance to living persons or events is merely coincidence.
The fires started suddenly and spread fast. One moment it was a quiet, fall night, the moon full in a cloudless sky, a night like any other, and the next, there was smoke followed by yelling and screaming as the small village was enveloped in an orange glow. Isabella slept on edge if it could be called sleeping—one eye open—listening. She felt the pain in her index finger first, emanating from the onyx ring around it, warning her of danger. Then she smelled the smoke and by the time the first sounds of alarm rang out, she was up, her satchel on and her cloak around her shoulders. Already light from the fires spilled in through the small window of the shed she had taken refuge in. Isabella slowly opened the door and peered out but saw only the villagers running back and forth, pails of water sloshing around, mothers carrying children away. She closed the door, hands resting on its worn wood, and took a deep breath. Maybe it was an accident, a candle tipped over by a drunk? Maybe it wasn’t her fault. She looked at her right hand, at the onyx ring, it’s darkness untouched by the light, and she knew, she knew she had brought this on these poor people.
The sounds of shouting—authoritative, commanding, purposeful—unlike the voices of the panicked villagers caught her attention. Once again she opened the door and looked out. In the distance a horseman held a young man up by his shirt, shaking him and shouting at him. It was too far, there was too much commotion to hear all of his words but she did hear him demand to know where ‘she’ was and that was enough.
They were hunting her. She knew it with absolute certainty and absolute terror. They’d followed her here!
But how? What sorcery had they used to find her when she’d been so careful?
It certainly wasn’t pure coincidence! No accident of misfortune! She’d crept into the village after dark and hidden herself. No one had seen her! No one! There would have been no one to tell of her!
And she didn’t think for a moment that it was purely her imagination that she was the target of the hunters!
It was the ring, the wretched ring that they were after! It had always been the ring—the reason her parents were murdered, the reason she’d been hunted, the reason her life was forfeit if they caught her. She knew it with the same absolute certainty that she knew her own name.
Isabella pulled her hood up, adjusted her satchel and ran her fingers over the ring, then threw open the door and fled. There were horsemen everywhere. If not for the confusion, people running every which way, Isabella might not have gone unnoticed. Their misfortune this night became her providence, though, the diversion she needed to escape the attention of the hunters.
Hiding behind buildings and storage crates, sticking to what little shadows hadn’t been chased away by the light of the flames, she made it to the edge of the village. There she crouched behind the low, stone wall that surrounded the area and looked around. The main road offered no chance of escape. It was guarded by horsemen. Several of the villagers cowered on their knees in the dirt along the side of it and Isabel ducked down again before they could spot her and give her away.
With that avenue of escape closed, Isabella looked behind her, toward the other side of the village. Most of it was still engulfed in flames. She wouldn’t be able to sneak through there and besides, all that stretched beyond was open farmland. They’d see her in an instant. To her left, though, she noticed, was a densely wooded area. If she could reach the woods without attracting their attention….
She frowned. What then? Where would she go? Where in all this world would she be safe?
There was no place! Perhaps there never had been, but it had seemed, once upon a time, that there was a place where she was safe from the evil of the world—before her parents had been killed.
That seemed so long ago now, like another life. It was another life!
She shook the thoughts. They would do her no good now! She had to escape and then she could consider what she might do, where she might go.
Harsh voices nearby interrupted her thoughts, jarred her from her indecisiveness. Orders were being shouted to search the area, that she must be found. They were so close, around the next building perhaps!
There was no time to waste thinking about it. Her heart pounding, she ran toward the woods, her feet thudding dully against the ground. Who were they? Why were they hunting her? They would kill all those villagers just to find her? Her mind raced around in frantic little circles, searching for answers she was too frightened to find with reason. Her lungs began to burn.
Despair swept through her when it seemed to take forever to reach the relative safety the woods offered. For a moment the thought crept in, the notion of just giving up, of not running anymore. She was so weary of the fear! So tired of running!
And yet, even as those thoughts flickered through her mind, her feet pounded faster in her instinctive need to protect herself, to escape the harm the men threatened. The darkness of the trees loomed over her as she drew nearer, welcoming her as a possible haven.
She’d almost reached her goal when she heard shouting behind her. Despite the growing ache in her legs, that was enough to urge her to push forward, to run faster. She would never give up.
She broke through the weeds and shrubs lining the edge of the woods and into the darkness. She scrambled behind the nearest tree, pushing herself against the rough bark and taking deep breaths. After a few moments Isabella dared to look back toward the village. The fire was slowly being tamed but enough damage had been done. As she watched, several horsemen started searching the grassy area surrounding the village. One of them pointed toward the tracks she’d left behind.
Isabella cursed under breath and moved forward. Low branches scratched at her face and hands. The moonlight couldn’t seem to penetrate the canopy overhead, causing her to stumble over roots and rocks. Just as she landed on her feet after climbing over a fallen tree, she heard branches snap. Isabella crouched down behind the rotten wood and listened. At first she heard nothing, then another snap, a third. Then the unmistakable sound of a horse snorting. Holding her breath, she arched her neck to take a peek from her hiding place. Half a dozen horsemen were making their way into the woods.
She ducked her head back down, trying to calm her thoughts. The woods were dark and overgrown, maybe if she slipped further in, they wouldn’t be able to track her. Very carefully she inched her way back and turned to sneak into the darkness when something pulled her back. Panic bursting in her chest, she yelled and whirled around, swinging her satchel at her attacker. No one was there. Her skirt had gotten snagged on a broken branch of the fallen tree.
But her cries hadn’t gone unnoticed.
“She’s over there!” someone shouted.
Her pursuers erupted in shouted orders and directions, horses protested as they were urged forward through the thick woods. Ripping her skirt free, Isabella bolted between the trees. She ran and ran, with no idea of where she was going, of what was on the other side of the woods. The hood of her cloak caught on a branch and jerked her back, the sounds of the horses trampling through the woods as they grew closer filled her ears. It made it hard to think, to plan her next move. She yanked her hood free and pushed forward, she could hear them closing in. She let the branches poke and prod her, rip at her sleeves and cheeks, tug her hair and pull on her skirt. She tripped, fell hard on her knees, and pushed herself up again. The pain of a bruise would be nothing to what she feared would happen if they caught her. Isabella ducked under a low branch, took a sharp turn to her right, hoping to confuse them, and pushed through a thick copse.
When she emerged on the other side she found herself in a small clearing, surrounded by several horsemen. Panting, she turned to go back the way she came and took one step when an arrow struck the ground beside her foot. This was it, it was over. Remembering her glamour, that she was disguised to look like an older woman, plain and unassuming, she turned to face them once more.
“Why are you chasing me?” she asked, hoping her voice didn’t betray her fears. “I’m no one. Surely you’ve got the wrong woman.”
None of the riders answered her. Then, seemingly from the darkness, a rider she hadn’t noticed before came forward. Everything about him was like something made of pure shadows. His cloak and hood, completely obscuring his face, the dark leather of his gloves which gripped the reigns, even his steed was as black as tar.
“I’ve spent a long time looking for you,” he said. His voice was low and calm, like there was nothing odd about their meeting, like his men hadn’t just chased her down. This, more than anything, frightened her the most.
She swallowed, “Who are you?”
He gestured to the men surrounded them, “Many know me as the Night Rider. But my name is Dagin.”
“What do you want with me? I’m no one!”
“You know why I seek you. Why I’ve followed you.”
But she didn’t. She couldn’t even see his face, she didn’t recognize his voice… How long had he been hunting her? Unbidden, the memory of her parents’ bodies flashed through her mind. Their lifeless eyes gazing out and at nothing. “You killed them!”
Dagin looked up and past her, in the direction of the village and laughed. The sound carried in the clearing, haughty and cruel.
From the depths of the woods a creature howled into the night. It was a sound Isabella had never heard before, it was unnatural. The horses shook their heads and grew restless, even Dagin’s. While the men were distracted settling their beasts, Isabella turned to run.
She only made it a few feet before hands grabbed her from behind. Isabella fought back, wriggling in his grasp and kicking back. She was spun around and as she moved she tripped, falling backward to the ground, in a breath he was over her. Dagin, the Night Rider. It wasn’t possible. He’d been on his horse, trying to settle it. She should have made it farther. How did he move so fast?
He knelt over her, one knee on her stomach, gentle almost, enough to keep her in place without hurting her. He reached for the ring on her finger and as he made contact Isabella felt the ring grow hot, burning her. She winced at the pain but didn’t take her eyes off him. He showed no sign of having felt the pain and merely pulled his hand away. Just who was he?
He leaned closer and between his hood and the darkness of the woods, she still could not make out his face. But she knew he was close enough to see through her own glamour. He no longer saw the plain, older woman, but instead saw the truth. A young woman with wavy chestnut hair sprawled beneath her head on the ground, blue eyes staring defiantly back into the depths of his hood.
“Hmm,” he said, “you’re not what you appeared to be. What other tricks and sorcery are you capable of?”
“Enough to curse you!” Isabella spat, pushing against him.
Dagin only laughed once more, as he batted her hands away. He was bigger than her and certainly stronger, he barely made any effort in subduing her. He gripped Isabella by the arm and yanked her to her feet, “Ah, but you see,” he turned her toward the horses, “I’m already cursed.”
They took her satchel and bound her hands were bound before setting her atop a horse with one of the other men. Although she fought back tears at having been captured, she was quietly thankful she did not have to ride with the Night Rider himself. She couldn’t stand to be so close to him again, she didn’t need the burning of the ring to tell her he was evil.