DEEP WATERS was a finalist for Romantic Times Reviewers' Choice Award for Best Erotica! It is also a Romantic Times Top Pick with 4 1/2 star rating!
Since her village was razed and her family butchered by the invading Astrians, Adriana has dedicated herself to tending the ancient springs of Rachethe goddess of revengeand luring the invaders to destruction. Until the day, Mark of Windhaw, an honorable, and chivalrous Astrian wanders into her snare, and leaves Adriana questioning her oath and her dedication. The discovery of treachery and treason, has Adriana using her skills to rescue her enemy.
Distant hoof beats vibrated the earth under Adriana's feet. Hesitating only a few heartbeats, she clambered up the escarpment above the shrine, and looked towards the distance, shielding her eyes from the low afternoon sun. To the south, a lone horseman cantered. Adriana watched, until certain he wore the garb of an Astrian. Strange, he was not dressed as a soldier. No matter, and Astrian was an Astrian. any would serve her purpose. But the others had all be soldiers, this one looked very different. And he was alone. Recently the soldiers had started traveling in bands too large to ensnare. Two and three invaders, she welcomed. They were easy to separate in the mist, so they would wander, lost in the woods, while she ensnared her chosen victim. A single Astrian was easy prey, and a fine offering to Rache.
Adriana had consecrated herself to Rache, the goddess of revenge, twelve years earlier. As a child of ten, she'd witnessed, with young and innocent eyes, the coming of the Astrians. She'd been gathering kindling in the forest, heard the thunder of warhorses and ran for home, but tripping broke her ankle. She'd dragged herself forward, calling for help, but froze into silence at the first shouts and screams. Huddled behind a growth of wild sweetberry bushes, she watched the distant smoke rise from what had been her village. The cries continued long after night fall, by dawn there was silence, but by then, Adriana knew there was no one left to come to her aid. She'd sobbed herself asleep in the gray of the morning.
Hunger woke her mid-afternoon. Dragging her painful leg behind her, she stripped the bushes of all the berries she could reach. It was high summer, the bushes and brambles heavy with ripe or ripening fruit, but even if could she live on berries, and crawl to the brook for water, how could she survive? Unable to walk, she'd be a ready victim for the first hungry bear or wolf. Maybe now was the time to drag herself home, and hope for help, but she knew in heart, that silence meant there was no one left alive. In utter despair and pain , she lay on the soft leaf mold and cried until her face was streaked with mud, and bitter sobs racked her body. She was only partly conscious when someone touched her shoulder, but was instantly alert, her hands ready to claw and scratch.
"Don't be afraid," a soft voice said. "We will not harm you."Adriana blinked and stared. Two tall women bent over her. They were dressed in light brown robes, and hooded cloaks of mottled green and brown.
"Who are you?" She knew as soon as she spoke. They were wood witches, the creatures no one saw, but to whom her village left offerings of food, and young animals at the sacred shrines. Were they going to take her?She sat up and tried to scoot backwards, dragging her throbbing leg.
"Wait, child!" There was kindliness in the voice, but also command. Adriana was too tired to resist. Even with two good legs, these wood witches could out run her, crippled she was helpless. But not hopeless.
"What you you do with me, women of the woods?" she asked, raising her fingers in the sign of protection.
The woman nearest smiled, tossing back her hood to reveal dark brown hair that framed her pale face. "We would like to help you, if we may," she said. "What is your name, child?"
"Adriana," she replied, flinching as the witch's cool fingers stroked her swollen ankle.
"They did this to you?"
"I tripped when I was running."
"Away from them ?"
"I was collecting kindling for my mother, when I heard the soldiers come, I ran home, but I fell."
"That fall saved your life, Adriana. I am Eadwyn, and this is my sister, Eadyyl. She is a healer and will set your ankle."
They carried Adriana deeper into the woods, and gave her fresh-brewed
bark tea to drink. As the potion took effect, Eadyyl set her ankle,
wrapping it with poultices and splinting it with fresh-cut branches
and strapping from her pack. "Rest, Adriana," she said.
"We will take you to our sanctuary. In two cycles of the moon,
your leg will be strong enough to walk on."
Two moon cycles was too long! "I want to go home!" Not deep into the woods with witches.
"It is not possible, "Eadwyn said gently. "You can not go home."
"But I want to!" she shrieked in her anguish. "I want my mother! I want to see my brothers and sisters and my loft over the mill. I want to play with the puppies! "She broke into wild sobs, beating her head on the ground and wailing aloud her fear and misery. Eadwyn held her close, rocking and soothing with gentle lullabies, until Adriana cried out. She stayed on Eadwyn's lap leaning against her breast, as she had as a small child on her mother's knee. "I want to go home," she sobbed, without the slighted hope that she would ever leave the woods.
"If you wish, we will take you home, " Eadwyn said, "but, Adriana, is no one there."
They carried her back through the woodland paths. From the rim
of the trees, she saw smoke rising like gray plumes from the still-smoldering
thatches. As they crossed the fields, no dogs barked, not a single
cow lowed from the milch meadow, the gates to the pig sties hung
open, the porkers being fattened for wintertide lay in pools of
their own blood. Adriana shuddered, but worse was to follow: in
the village square, where they'd danced a few weeks back for May
morning, grisly dancers hung from the maypole, their bodies slashed
and mutilated. In the center of the square, where the high table
had been set for her
cousin Jaynew's wedding, there was a stack of bodies, men, children, dogs, goats and women all heaped together. As they crossed to the mill, she did not want to look, but horror compelled her. By the stable door, one of the puppies lay on the flag stones, his head crushed. Inside she found her brother, Bryn, his throat cut and flies covering his face and neck.
"Why?" she asked. Who could do this to others?
"They are Astrians," Eadwyn replied.
Adriana found her mother and father in the kitchen, their mutilated bodies thrown against the wall. Her two sisters, and Bren, her baby brother, were speared to the walls of the panty.
"Is there no one left alive?" Adriana asked.
They searched the village. Everybody, who'd made up Adriana's life so far, was slaughtered. The stench of bodies ripening in the afternoon warmth filled air that once smelled of baking bread, or the boiling of jam, or the dipping of winter rushes in beeswax. The life she'd known was utterly destroyed. Her eyes smarted with tears as she looked up at Eadwyn and Eadyyl. "Why would anyone do this?"
"They are Astrians."
"I hate Astrians." She spoke with the vehemence of a child who has nothing, not even hope.
"Come with us, Adriana," said Eadyyl. "We will heal your ankle and teach you our ways. You will learn how to revenge yourself on the Astrians, one destroyer at a time."
They taught her well, and she'd been an eager pupil, learning to weave mists and shape spells. The Astrians forced the vanquished peasants to abandon the old groves and shrines, building stone-walled houses for their conquering gods and priests. With Eadwyn and Eadyyl, Adriana dedicated herself to maintaining the deserted groves. They worked unmolested since the invaders eschewed the forest they feared, and when Adriana grew to womanhood, she chose as her patron Rache, the goddess of revenge. Dedicating herself to the service of the goddess, she set up abode at Rache's sacred springs. Adriana lived alone, and contented, gathering sweet buds in spring, berries in summer, and nuts when the leaves turned brown. She kept a flock of wild goats and clutch of hens, that had wandered from an abandoned farm, and lived in seclusion, avoiding the Astrians, unless she wanted prey.
She found them pitifully easy to snare. With magic and wiles,
she lured them into her woods, and after wielding the power she
drew from Rache, she ensnared them, and left them lost and wandering,
forever shadows of the arrogant men who stumbled into her domain.
And now, another victim approached, oblivious to his role as a
sacrifice. The lone horseman rode across the distant meadows. She
had planned on setting fern spores around the cool spring today,
but that could wait. Rache preferred prey to planting. From her
perch on the escarpment, Adriana wove a mist, snaking it towards
the meadows, and the narrow track. She wanted him to wander off
the main bridleway, towards Rache's altar. As the mist swirled thicker
and stronger, Adriana pulled out her flute, and
played a silent song to the rider's mount. Lured by the calming music, the confused animal, veered his way towards the sacred springs.
Mark of Windhaw, thanked the five gods, he wasn't a
superstitious man. Else, he'd be convinced this mission was bedeviled. Two sennight ago, three of them had left Astria, at the Emperor's behest. One of four parties send to the new territories, to investigate reports of abuses, and mistreatment of the subject peoples.
Mark hoped the other three envoys had fared better. His recorder broke his leg, when his mount stumbled and fell in a hidden badger trap as they took a short cut across a fallow meadow. Karrel now lay in a village inn at Four Cross, his leg splinted. His mount had been less fortunate, so Mark had sent Pait, his squire, back to the nearest barracks with a request for remounts, while he journeyed on to Merridale, the first town on his circuit.
If the fine weather continued, Mark hoped to arrive in less than two day's ride, but the sudden onset of mist brought delay. Of necessity, he slowed, staying on the marked trail to avoid misdirection, but letting, Rian, his mount set the pace. It was a small delay, nothing more.
He carried the Emperor's sigil. Not even in these barbaric lands, would anyone dare hinder his progress. He hated these fogs! One lost sense of time and distance in the dank silence. He'd been alone on the road for most of the day, but had at least seen where his way. Now, his only hope was to stay on the trail until the blasted fog cleared.
Rian was content, more than content in fact, as she gamefully clopped on. Mark sensed she was willing to proceed faster, but he keep a tight hold on the reins. After Karrel's mishap, he traveled cautiously. After a time, Mark sensed the mist thinning, the ground, though still well-worn, looked rocky, beneath Rian's hooves, Around him, Mark noticed the outlines of dark trees, and the distant sound of water. A river perhaps? The Merri even? If so, he was nearer his destination than he expected. Unlikely, given his setbacks, more like a stream or brook.
As the mist thinned more, Mark sensed the incline of the path, and noticed more trees. Had he wandered into the forest in the mist? Rian's hooves sounded on rock, not trodden earth, but the path was firm and dry, and Mark gave his mount her head. She moved faster, until, as if bursting from the cloying damp, they emerged above the mist into warm spring sunshine.
They were on a rocky knoll, in a forest clearing. Ahead of them was the stream he'd heard for the past while. They must have followed the path uphill, and now stood just armspans from where the water sprang from the rocky escarpment. Mark dismounted and lead Rian to the water's edge. While she drank, he looked around, and listened. There was not a soul in sight, but his senses altered him to a watcher, and the mists still clinging to the trees could conceal a rebel army. He rested his hand on his sword hilt, but nothing broke the silence except the jangle of Rian's bridle, and the echo of rushing water.
Mark knelt on the rocks by the stream bank, filled his water leathers,
drank deep and refilled them. He cupped his hands, and scooping
up the clear water, washed his face and neck, drying them on the
lining of his cloak. Refreshed, he stood up and looked around. There
had to be another river, a waterfall even. This stream burbled over
the rocks and gravel, but from nearby, came a roar of a torrent.
He felt no desire to explore, this little sun-drenched corner was
haven enough. He'd wait for the fog to clear, and proceed on his way. Rian seemed content chomping the wide verge of new grass that bordered the stream.
Cloaking herself with invisibility, Adriana watched as her prey
approached. He was travel-stained, and his rough-coated horse in
no better condition. The animal hesitated. Perhaps sensing the magic
around, but her rider had no such qualms. He knelt on a patch of
grass, drinking water from his cupped hands, before dipping them again to wash his face. As he stood up, brushing his hood off his face, the sunlight caught golden lights in his long hair.
A yellow-haired invader! The worst kind! The dark-haired mercenaries
came, killed and left for their own islands. But the yellow-haired
invaders stayed, taking lands and farms from the vanquished, and
inhabiting the houses of those they murdered. Whole families of
invaders, now lived in Endholm, the village she'd fled those years ago. The fields her slain uncles planted with roots and grain, were farmed by the invaders slaves.
After drinking his fill of the sacred waters, washing his face and neck, and drying himself with his cloak, her prey led his horse over to the swathe of new grass, patting its neck and talking to it, showing more concern for a horse than Astrians showed villagers and children. No matter, the invader drank Rache's cool water, soon he would pay the debt she yearned.
Adriana eased down from her perch, stepping forward as the stranger raised his foot to the stirrup. "Sir, Traveler," she said. "Welcome to Rache's Springs. Will you not stay a little and rest? Your horse looks tired, and the road ahead is hard and perilous in the mist."
Turning, hand on sword, he looked at her, his dark blue eyes, wrinkling at the corners as he smiled. To her utter surprise, he inclined his head in courtesy. "Lady, forgive the intrusion. I was lost in the mist when I spied this stream, and paused to refresh myself. I thought this glade abandoned." The sun lit gold streaks on his yellow hair, and his eyes shone blue as periwinkles in spring.
"Not abandoned, Traveler." She smiled and took a deliberate step forward. "I live here."
"Alone, Lady? Is that wise? These are hard and dangerous times."
"Indeed, they are." She fought to keep the irony from her voice. "But I have lived here alone for years, and nothing ill has befallen me."
"And I, Lady, trust and pray it never does. There have been ill times enough."
It pained her to agree with an enemy, so she inclined her head, and on meeting those clear eyes again asked. "I have little to offer, but Rache's clear water, sweetberries, and roasted roots, but if you would accept my woodland hospitality,"
Still he hesitated, but his hands hung clear of his sword hilt. In his arrogance he considered a mere woman no threat.
Adriana smiled. "Come, and let us sit in the sunshine." And indicated the flat rocks that served her as table and bench. As he met her eyes, she willed hunger, and weariness on him, and watched the debate behind his eyes. He was uncertain, and she smiled to calm his unease. "I would be honored. I have but few visitors. "
"Lady, if I do not intrude, then I gladly accept your hospitality."He stepped forward, and Adrian knew he was hers as surely as any mayfly caught in a spider's web. "If you will accept mine. I have food aplenty and invite you to dine with me." He took a pouch from his saddle, and added his provisions to her roast roots and berries.
While Adriana brought drinking vessels and bowls from the depths
of her cave, he produced ham - from some dispossessed peasant's
hogs no doubt - cheese and a hunk of dry, but still sweet, dark
bread. She hadn't tasted oven-baked wheaten bread in years. Just
looking at at it, she smelled new-baked loaves coming
from Fax, the baker's oven. Enough. No time for maundering. Adriana smiled at the intruder, as he sliced ham and placed in on a trencher of bread. She offered him a treen dish of roasted roots.
"Lady, as your guest, I must identify myself and my house. I am Mark of Windhaw, son of the lines of Dingle and Saltram."How the invaders, spoke of bloodlines and manors, as if property and possessions were all important.
"I am Adriana."
"No patronymic, or distaff name, Lady Adriana?"
She shook her head. "I have no family, and... " She smiled, letting her mouth curve just enough to set the dimple in her left cheek. "In the woods, we lay no claim to titles."
She took, with both hands, the trencher he offered. The ham was pink and moist, fresh-cured this past winter no doubt. Her mouth watered at the thought of the taste of salt and rich meat. Never before had a victim offered her food, and she half-hesitated, but the smell of fresh ham was too much to resist. "I have nothing this rich to offer. Here in the woods we live on berries in the summer, nuts in the autumn and stored roots through the winter."
"Lady, in this glade, and with such company, all is a banquet."The corners of his blue eyes crinkled as he smiled, and reached for a roasted parsnip. A pretty enemy in looks and words.
As he bit into the dark, roasted root, Adriana tasted the ham. It was as she remembered: Salt, sweet, and needing teeth to chew. The taste evoked memories and times long gone: of winter festivals, spring plantings, harvest homes and sacred feastsa world, long bled away under the invaders' swords. Her victim was hungry, that was clear, but he ate with grace and skill, closing his mouth as he chewed, and cutting food into small portions before spearing them with the point of his knife. Even his beard stayed clean as he ate. A gracious and dainty invader, who smiled as he sliced her parsnips, and took the treen jug himself to the stream to refill it. It would be no hardship to seduce Mark of Windhaw.
Adriana watched, as he bent to dip the wooden jug in the sparkling waters. He'd discarded his cloak, and his dark shirt and riding breeches, only served to emphasize the breadth of his shoulders and the strength in his legs. Invaders never had bowed legs from famine and disease. Invaders seldom acted with such courtesy, or walked with such grace.
She made herself watch the afternoon sun glitter on the ripples
of Rache's stream, not on the handsome Astrian picking purple water
daisies. As he bent, the leather of his breeches strained against
the muscles of this thighs. As he stood, she tore a crust of sweet,
dark bread and chewed. Hunger assuaged, soon would be
time to tempt other appetites.
Her Astrian prey, offered her the posy of daisies with a bow. "Little enough thanks, Lady Adriana, for your graciousness, but I travel on the Emperor's charge, and I fear am unprepared for such hospitality as yours."
How truly right!. "Emperor sent you alone into his conquered territories?" Or was Mark of Windhaw the herald of another invasion?
He sat down, gracefully, tucking one booted foot under and stretching
out his other leg. "I didn't set out alone on my commission.
Misfortune befell us. I'm one of the Emperor's auditors. I had a
scribe and a page when I set out." He told her their misadventures.
"What will you do without them? It's unsafe in wild parts for lone travelers." Most unsafe! They fell into Rache's clutches.
His broad shoulders rose and fell as his wide mouth curled at the corners. "I carry the Emperor's sigil. Few would risk his anger. I left Karrel under that protection at an inn, to rest until he can ride, and I hope to meet Pait and new mounts when I reach Merridale."
The nearest market town, where, once, her uncles, sold lambs and pigs, and where her mother traded her eggs and honey fruit. In those distant times, market days had been like festivals. "And from Merridale you travel farther?"
"Perhaps. I stay there as long as necessary to fulfill the
Emperor's orders. If there is time before winter descends, I go on to Stoneholm and Holmhaven, but I will not leave Merridale until satisfied."
"Why did he send you?" Was she asking too much? I was of no consequence why he was here.
"He has heard stories of misuse and abuse, since he annexed
these lands." Mark shook his head. "I am sent to ascertain
the truth, and ensure peace and law."
Indeed! "It has been many years. Why wait this long? Is he not satisfied with his governors?" They'd compelled the Emperor's law with horrendous zeal.
"Lady, here in this sylvan paradise, I doubt the affairs of state intrude." Was he foolish or mere ignorant? "The last years have been hard on the Empire." Harder still on the vanquished! "Now all is stable in the realm, and the threats to the throne removed, he wishes to ensure peace and justice in throughout the empire."
"He believes there is injustice?"
"There are tales. I came to ascertain the truth."
And she she could tell him hard ones, but what matter? Did he really believe his Emperor cared about mere peasants? She'd seen otherwise. It was time to appease Rache. Adriana took a sip of water, and let the cool liquid play on her tongue, she focused her power to weave a spell of weariness.
Mark of Windhaw yawned, covering his wide mouth with the back of his callused hand. "Your pardon, Lady Adriana, I fear weariness overcomes me."
"Small surprise, sir if you have ridden since sun up, and through the mist. If you will, you may rest in my shelter."
"Lady you are ever gracious. To stay would be a pleasure, but my duty to my Emperor calls."
Wood magic called louder. At his next yawn, his eyes closed, his long honey-colored lashes brushed his cheeks before he forced his eyes open again. "I must..." He stood, feet unsteady, and his eyelids heavy with her magick.
Adriana sprung up beside him, grasping his upper arm with both hands. His muscles warmed under her fingers, as she led him into her cave. Guiding his stumbling steps towards the sleeping pallet in the corner, she eased him to the ground. He was deep asleep, as she covered him with sleeping furs.
Adriana stood up and glanced down at the sleeping warrioror, auditor as he called himself. His chin bore a scar, that surely had been acquired in battle, and his body was strong as a fighter's. He was pretty though, his hair gold against the dark furs, and his skin weather-tanned to the color of ripened waynuts. A fine sacrifice to Rache.
Copyright © 2003 Rosemary Laurey
2004 PRISM Finalist!