In the spring of 1143, England enjoys a moment of peace as a civil war rages between King Stephen and his cousin, the Empress Maude, who vie for the English throne. Their war has torn apart not only the country, but also families.
Joia drew her mare to a halt and looked across the moonlit moor at the great stones. They stood in a circle like old women sharing secrets around a fire.
She wanted to know their secrets.
In the sky, a full moon blazed, eclipsing the stars. Ahead of her lay the moor and the stones — mystery and magic. Behind her, the forest was dark, only the roadbed visible like a pale finger pointing toward the castle. She tethered her mare behind a tangled deadfall and finished her journey to the stones on foot. It would soon be midnight.
She crossed a small ditch and climbed a low embankment to where the stones stood in silent splendor. Only the wind and the whisper of her hem on the grass disturbed the night.
Before she entered the circle, she ran her hand over the lichen-covered surface of the tallest stone that stood her height and half again as much. Did druids still come here to practice their ancient rites? As she looked to the moon, she wondered if she might finally discover the answer.
She took a deep breath and stepped into the circle. Here within the embrace of the stones, silence lay thick enough to touch. She turned from the unnatural quiet of the circle and walked the perimeter of standing stones, ones she called the Sentinels for they seemed to watch over the moor.
Movement at the edge of her line of vision made her turn. A touch of annoyance flicked like a whip. Her maid, Edith, was climbing the embankment. Edith ran to Joia, her skirts held high at her knees, her blonde braids bouncing on her shoulders.
“My lady, are you mad?” Edith asked. “What are you doing here?”
“What are you doing here?” Joia continued her journey about the henge.
“Did you think I would let you come to such a place alone?”
Joia bit her tongue on the wish Edith had done just that and walked on. “Where is your horse?” she asked.
“She’s with your mount, my lady.” Edith dogged her steps about the circle. “Your father will have our heads.”
“Lower your voice, Edith.”
Edith wrung her hands. “Can we not return to the hall? It will soon be too dark to see our way home,” she continued in a whisper. “Your father’s in such a temper. He’s searching everywhere for you.”
“Come, Edith, you exaggerate. If my father notices I’m gone, he’ll not forfeit a night in his mistress’s bed to hunt me down.” Joia swept her hands out to encompass the stones and the open moor. “Have you not noticed the moon? Druids worship on a night such as this.”
Edith glanced about. She shivered. “This is what you want here? Druids?”
“Aye, Edith, just druids.” Joia turned her back on her maid.
“Come, my lady, we must go.”
“And I must have this moment.” Eight years ago she’d left Stonewold as a bride. Six months ago she’d returned a widow. It was the first time since her return that the moon and the weather had cooperated in such complete harmony.
“My lady — ”
“If you cannot be silent, get back to the keep or wait with the horses, for I have no need of one who won’t obey.” Joia ignored Edith’s muttered curses. It was as close to silence as one could expect from the girl.
Joia returned to her contemplation of the stones. Did those who still harbored superstitions of the old gods make sacrifices here? Her throat dried. Her pulse fluttered.
Was it anticipation or fear?
Across the circle, aligned with a gap in the stones that could only mark an entrance, lay a wide stone on its side. The ancient stone could not have fallen to its present position, and she imagined it placed just so as an altar. She also imagined a maiden stretched across its flat expanse, her breast bared to the moon, a blade descending . . .
Edith touched Joia’s shoulder. She swallowed a scream as she was jerked from her imaginings.
“My lady.” Edith pointed.
Joia looked across the moor that lay like a stretch of silver cloth cast over a bed. It appeared deserted, but then Joia saw what Edith had.
A man walked across the heath. Joia’s excitement returned in a rush. A druid? Or the spirit of one long past? She remembered the tales her mother oft told of King Arthur and his men who many said had used this circle. Did the great king’s spirit walk at midnight?
The man’s long shadow followed him as he strode toward the stone circle. Surely druids walked slowly, heads bent in reverent prayer. She imagined they did not carry heavy packs on their backs either. She sighed. Naught but a simple traveler.
“A giant,” Edith said by Joia’s ear.
As the stranger approached the entrance stones, Joia drew Edith behind one of the Sentinels.
The man did as Joia had, stood and contemplated the empty circle for several long moments. He couldn’t see them where they crouched in the inky shadows, but still, Joia found herself holding her breath. He crossed the surrounding ditch and bank and walked to the altar. He dropped his pack on the ground and removed his mantle, draping it over the stone.
Midnight was upon them. He will ruin everything, Joia thought. No druidical band would practice their rites with this man desecrating their place.
The man pulled off his tunic. And his shirt. Beside her, Edith hissed in a breath and dug her sharp elbow into Joia’s side. Joia could only stare as the man methodically stripped to his braies.
“King of the faeries, my lady,” Edith whispered.
He cannot be both a giant and the king of the faeries, Joia wanted to say. Instead, she signaled her maid to remain where she was. Joia flitted to the next stone. Her new vantage point allowed her an unimpeded view of the stranger. Even surrounded by the huge stones, Joia could see he was much taller than her husband — may he rest in peace — and might rival the castle smith for breadth of shoulder. The moonlight silvered the stranger’s body and cast shadows, delineating the muscles of his chest and arms.
A flush heated Joia’s face. Indeed a king, she thought when he turned his head to look at the moon. Her heart thudded. He might be one of the emperors depicted on a Roman coin, or perhaps this was Arthur come back to life.
What brought this man here and why now? He would ruin everything. She scanned the hills for approaching druids, but the rolling heathland lay stark and empty.
The man undid his pack, revealing a row of weapons. Moonlight gleamed on the steel of his blades. He took up a sword, then another.
He walked to the center of the stone circle and extended his arms out to the side. He bent his head. It was a reverent pose. Was he part of a religious ceremony? Was he here to make a sacrifice? Where was his victim?
Then he moved.
Yet, moved was too humble a word for what he did. He turned and twisted, swept his blades through the night air. Slowly. In unsettling silence. No wind hissed on his blades, no sound whispered from the dry grass beneath his feet.
Was he real?
She squeezed her eyes closed and then opened them again. He was still there.
The steel of the man’s blades flashed as he performed his midnight dance. His body was as honed as his weapons. As sweat slicked his skin, his braies clung to the long lines of his flanks.
Joia melted into the stone, entranced. Heat twisted through her insides with each turn of his blades. She had seen her father’s and her husband’s men practice in much this same way and yet, here, bathed in moonlight, without a partner to parry his moves, his swords an extension of his arms, she felt she witnessed magic.
The man fell still. Joia let out a long breath. He returned to the altar stone and exchanged one long sword for a short one, and began his sword dance again. He smote invisible foes from left and right. He moved with fluid grace, and Joia felt a strange sensation burn low in her belly.
The man froze.
Joia dropped to her knees in the shadows. The man stood as still as one of the stones for an interminable time, then shrugged, and returned to his array of weapons. Joia darted back to Edith. Silently, she pointed at Edith and then in the direction of their horses.
Edith shook her head and turned away with an expression Joia knew well. She tapped Edith’s arm and jabbed her finger with more vehemence toward the horses. Edith’s mouth opened in a wide O.
Suddenly, Joia was snatched off her feet. Edith screamed. Joia couldn’t scream, her breath trapped in her chest by the arm about her middle. The man dragged her across the circle toward the altar.
She struggled, scraping at his hand and forearm with her nails, but his grip was a band of iron. He shoved her against the altar stone and held her in place with the one hand. The other held his sword.
“Who are you?” he asked, his voice as hard as the body pressed against her.
LORD OF SWORDS
He is the lord of swords . . . She is the lady of his heart . . .
Coming in October