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       Forbidden, p.1

           Elizabeth Lowell
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Forbidden


  Dear Reader

  From the eleventh to the fourteenth century, the area north of the English king’s actual control was effectively ruled by anyone who had the men to do so. More lip service than true fealty was given to the English king.

  In these unruly border lands, anything could happen—from bright deeds of valor to blackest treachery. In my mind those wild lands became…magical. I was haunted by their possibilities. It was nearly a thousand years ago, a time when intelligent men and women accepted a reality that they couldn’t touch; they simply experienced it. A time when magic was quite real.

  Characters started appearing in the magical border lands of my imagination. A girl/woman who could know the truth of a person simply by touching him. It seems like a useful skill, until you think about it some more. Do you really want to know the lies and truth of everyone you touch? It would be more of a curse than a gift, for there is little truth in too many people.

  Yet Amber had the gift/curse of knowing truth at a touch. Then one windswept night she touched an unconscious stranger, and knew that he was both her enemy and the other half of her soul. He was forbidden to her.

  And she must have him.

  Elizabeth Lowell

  FORBIDDEN

  For

  Marjorie Braman

  whose sense of humor has enlivened

  many a tedious editorial task.

  Contents

  Dear Reader

  1

  He will come to you in shades of darkness.

  2

  The smell of timeless evergreens permeated Amber’s cottage. Candles flickered…

  3

  Duncan sat up in a rush, then groaned at the…

  4

  Duncan spun toward the soft, unexpected sound. The movement drew…

  5

  Young Egbert told me that you want to go to…

  6

  Clouds separated, allowing pale gold sunlight to stream over the…

  7

  “A man of your skill should not go unarmed,” Simon said.

  8

  “That—that wouldn’t be wise,” Amber said raggedly.

  9

  Erik waited for Duncan and Amber in a chair of…

  10

  “You sent them alone to the sacred Stone Ring?” Cassandra…

  11

  The men were armed with knives, wooden staffs, and a makeshift…

  12

  “Lord, a weasel-eyed pilgrim demands to see you,” Alfred said.

  13

  “You look downcast for a maid who just became her…

  14

  When Duncan led Amber into the room that had been…

  15

  Fully dressed for battle, Simon rode his huge war stallion…

  16

  The flicker of a dying candle flame beyond the bed’s…

  17

  Instantly Duncan fought to free his sword hand, but only…

  18

  Withdrawn, silent, Amber watched while the last of the rude…

  19

  Word of Cassandra’s appearance went through the keep almost as…

  20

  Twelve days later, Cassandra entered the luxurious room that served…

  21

  Amber lay awake in the luxurious bed that had been…

  22

  “The drawbridge is up,” Simon said to Dominic. “The gate…

  Epilogue

  About the Author

  Other Books by Elizabeth Lowell

  Cover

  Copyright

  About the Publisher

  1

  HE will come to you in shades of darkness.

  The words of the dire prophecy rang in Amber’s mind as she looked at the naked, powerful man whom Sir Erik had dumped senseless at her feet.

  Candle flames bent and whipped as though alive, called by the cold autumn wind pouring through the cottage’s open door. Light and darkness licked over the stranger’s body, underlining the strength of his back and shoulders. Sleet shone in the near-black of his hair. Icy rain gleamed on his skin.

  Amber felt the man’s chill as though it were her own. Silently she looked up at Erik. Her wide golden eyes asked questions for which she had no words.

  It was just as well, for Erik had no answers. All he had was the slack body of a stranger found in a sacred place.

  “Do you know him?” Erik asked curtly.

  “Nay.”

  “I think you are wrong. He wears your sign.”

  With that, Erik turned the man over. Candlelight and water streamed across the muscular torso, but it wasn’t the stranger’s naked male strength that drew a gasp from Amber.

  A piece of amber shone against the intense darkness of the hair on his chest.

  Careful not to touch the stranger, Amber knew at his side and held the candle so that she could study the talisman. Elegant runes had been incised on the gem. The runes commended the wearer to the protection of Druids.

  “Turn the pendant over,” she said in a low voice.

  Deftly, Erik flipped the amber talisman. On the other side, Latin words in the shape of a cross proclaimed the glory of God and asked His protection for the wearer. It was a common Christian prayer carried by knights who had gone off to battle the Saracen for possession of the Holy Land.

  Amber let out a long sigh, relieved that the stranger was not some black sorcerer dropped into the Disputed Lands for the sake of mischief. For the first time she looked at the stranger as a man rather than as an object brought to her so that she might discover truth or treachery.

  Wherever Amber looked, the overwhelming reality of the stranger’s strength looked back at her. The only hints of delicacy in the man were his dense, faintly curling eyelashes and the clean, curving line of his lips.

  The stranger was handsome in the way a warrior is handsome, the beauty of a storm rather than the beauty of a flower. Recent bruises, cuts, and scrapes mingled with the scars of other, older battles. The marks served to enhance rather than to diminish his aura of male power.

  Though he had no possessions beyond the talisman, not even clothes, Amber had no doubt that the stranger was someone to be reckoned with.

  “Where did you find him?” she asked.

  “The Stone Ring.”

  Amber’s head snapped up.

  “What?” she demanded, hardly able to believe.

  “You heard me.”

  Amber waited expectantly.

  Erik simply watched her with unflinching wolf’s eyes.

  “Don’t make me pluck words from you like feathers from a chicken,” Amber said in exasperation. “Speak!”

  The hard lines of Erik’s face flowed into an amused smile. He stepped over the senseless stranger and shut the cottage door, putting an end to the frisking of the cold autumn wind through the room.

  “Do you have some mulled wine for an old friend?” Erik asked mildly. “And a blanket for whomever this might be. ’Tis too cold to be lolling there uncovered, friend or foe.”

  “Aye, lord. Your slightest wish is my greatest command.”

  The dryness of Amber’s voice was as unmistakable as the affection that lay beneath. Sir Erik was the son and heir of a great Scots thane, but Amber had always felt a curious ease with him despite her own lack of high birth and the fact that she had no more kin than the wild autumn wind.

  Erik shrugged out of his costly mantle. He covered the stranger with a swirl of thick, warm wool that was the indigo of twilight. There was very little of the mantle left over.

  “He is a big one,” Erik said absently.

  “Even bigger than you,” Amber said from the other side of the cottage. “The knight who felled this man must have been a mighty warrior.”

  Erik watched through
narrowed eyes as Amber hurried toward him, her arms overflowing with the thick fur cover that normally warmed her bed.

  “If the evidence of the tracks is to be believed, he was felled by a bolt from the sky,” Erik said distinctly.

  The swirling length of Amber’s nightclothes wrapped about her ankles, tripping her. She stumbled and would have fallen on the stranger if Erik hadn’t caught her. He set Amber aright and released her in the same swift motion.

  “Forgive me,” he said quickly.

  Though Erik had touched her for only the briefest moment, she couldn’t conceal the unease it had caused.

  “There is nothing to forgive,” Amber said. “Better your flesh than the stranger’s.”

  Despite her reassuring words, Erik watched Amber closely, wanting to be certain that whatever difficulty his touch had caused her was truly fleeting.

  “I can’t say why your touch doesn’t pain me,” Amber added wryly. “God knows that your heart is no more pure than it must be.”

  The smile that edged Erik’s mouth was as brief as Amber’s discomfort had been.

  “For you, Amber the Untouched,” he said, “my heart is as pure as unfallen snow.”

  She laughed softly. “Perhaps it is the legacy of our childhood sharing Cassandra’s lessons.”

  “Yes. Perhaps.”

  Erik smiled almost sadly. Then he bent and wrapped the unmoving stranger in the fur cover.

  Amber hastily pulled a mantle around her own shoulders and stirred up the fire in the center of the room. Soon the friendly leap of flames warmed the room and ran like sunlight through Amber’s long golden braids. She suspended a pot from the trivet over the fire.

  “What of the man’s companions?” she asked.

  “They scattered to the winds, and so did their horses.” Erik smiled rather savagely. “The ancient Stone Ring must not have cared for Normans.”

  “When did this happen?”

  “I don’t know. Though the tracks were deeply cut, they were all but washed away by the rain. The lightning-struck oak was little more than a blackened stump and sullen embers.”

  “Bring him closer to the fire,” Amber said. “He must be sore chilled.”

  Erik moved the stranger with an ease that belied the man’s size. The dance of flames brought out the gold in Erik’s hair and beard.

  The stranger’s hair remained a rich shade of darkness. He was clean-shaven but for a mustache that was also dark.

  “Does he breathe?” she asked.

  “Aye.”

  “His heart—”

  “Beats as strongly as a war stallion’s,” Erik interrupted.

  Amber sighed with a relief that was too intense to be feeling for a stranger.

  Yet she felt it just the same.

  “Is one of your squires fetching Cassandra?” Amber asked.

  “No.”

  “Why not?” she asked, startled. “Cassandra has greater skill at healing than I.”

  “And far less skill at scrying.”

  Amber took a deep, hidden breath. She had been afraid of this since the instant Erik had dumped the naked stranger at her feet. Slowly she reached inside her mantle and nightgown.

  Though she had many necklaces and bracelets, pins and hair decorations of precious amber, there was only one piece of jewelry she wore at all times, even in bed. The necklace’s chain was of gold wire finely twisted. A pendant of transparent amber half the size of her palm hung from a golden loop inscribed with tiny runes.

  Ancient, priceless, mysterious, the pendant had been given to Amber at her birth. Within the precious gem, captured sunlight pooled and flashed, brooded and laughed and burned, defined by the fragments of darkness that were also caught inside the golden pool.

  Murmuring ancient words, Amber held the pendant between her cupped palms. The heat of her body went into the fey stone as her breath bathed it. When the substance was infused with her living warmth, a haze formed.

  Quickly Amber bent to the fire, holding the pendant just beyond the reach of flames. As the haze began to clear, the stone shimmered with light and shadow shapes constantly changing.

  “What do you see?” Erik asked.

  “Nothing.”

  He made an impatient sound and looked at the stranger, who still lay slack, seemingly unhurt save for his unnatural sleep.

  “Surely you see something,” Erik muttered. “Even I can see into amber when I—”

  “Light,” Amber interrupted. “A circle. Ancient. The graceful line of a rowan tree. Shades of darkness. At the foot of the rowan. Something…”

  Her voice faded. She looked up and found Erik watching her with eyes that were like amber seen at night, darkly golden, unreadable.

  “The Stone Ring and the sacred rowan,” he said flatly.

  Amber shrugged.

  Body poised as though for battle, Erik waited.

  “There are many sacred circles,” she said finally, “many rowans growing, many shades of darkness.”

  “You saw him as I found him.”

  “Nay! The rowan is inside the Stone Ring.”

  “So was he.”

  Erik’s calm statement sent chills racing through Amber. Speechless, she glanced from him to the stranger who lay wrapped in rich cloth and fur.

  And a thousand shades of darkness.

  “Inside?” she whispered, crossing herself quickly. “Dear God, who is he?”

  “One of the Learned, certainly. No other man could pass between the stones.”

  Amber looked at the stranger as though seeking his identity written in runes on his face. She saw only what she already knew—his face was strongly made, very male.

  It appealed to her as nothing ever had but amber itself.

  She wanted to breathe his breath, to learn his unique scent, to absorb his warmth. She wanted to know his textures, to savor his maleness.

  She wanted to touch him.

  The realization shocked Amber. She, the Untouched, wanted to risk agony by touching a stranger.

  “Was the rowan blooming?” Erik asked.

  Amber started and looked at him warily.

  “It hasn’t bloomed in a thousand years,” she said. “Why would it offer this stranger a lifetime of blessings?”

  Erik said only, “What else did you see in the pendant?”

  “Nothing.”

  “Talk about plucking feathers,” he muttered. “All right, then. What did you sense?”

  “I felt…”

  Erik waited.

  And waited.

  “God’s teeth! Speak to me,” he demanded.

  “I have no words. Simply a feeling, as though…”

  “As though?” he prodded.

  “…I am balanced on a cliff’s edge and have only to spread my wings to fly.”

  Erik smiled with a combination of memory and anticipation.

  “A fine feeling, is it not?” he asked softly.

  “Only for those who have wings,” Amber retorted. “I have none. I have only a long fall and a harsh landing.”

  Erik’s laughter filled the small cottage.

  “Ah, little one,” he said finally, “if it wouldn’t hurt you, I would hug and pat you like a child.”

  Amber smiled. “You are a dear friend. Come. Take this man to my bed until Cassandra can care for him.”

  An odd look was Erik’s only answer.

  “I would hate to lose to simple cold a man who can walk between the sacred stones,” she explained.

  “Perhaps. But on the whole, I think it would be easier for me to order his death if he weren’t a guest in your cottage. And your bed.”

  Shocked, Amber stared at Erik.

  The smile he gave her was as cold as the wind prowling beyond the cottage.

  “Why would you condemn a stranger found in the sacred grove?” she asked.

  “I suspect that he is one of Duncan of Maxwell’s knights come to spy out the land.”

  “Then the rumor is true? A Norman granted his Saxon enemy th
e right to rule Stone Ring Keep?”

  “Aye,” Erik said bitterly. “But Duncan is no longer Dominic’s enemy. The Scots Hammer swore fealty to Dominic at the point of a sword.”

  Amber looked away from Erik. She didn’t have to touch him to gauge the extent of his leashed rage. Duncan of Maxwell, the Scots Hammer, was both bastard and landless. Nothing could change his bastardy, but Duncan had been given control of Stone Ring Keep and its surrounding land by Dominic le Sabre.

  Yet Stone Ring Keep was part of Erik’s estates.

  Erik had fought outlaws, bastards, and ambitious cousins for the right to rule Lord Robert’s various estates in the Disputed Lands. There was little doubt that he would have to fight again. It was the nature of the Disputed Lands to belong only to the strong.

  “What clothes did you find with the stranger?” Amber asked.

  “I found him as you saw him. Naked.”

  “Then he isn’t a knight.”

  “Not all knights returned from the Saracen with caskets of gold and gems.”

  “Even the poorest knight has armor, arms, a horse, clothing,” she protested. “Something.”

 
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