Excerpt from The Black Thorne's Rose
Five horsemen rode relentlessly over the moonlit surface of the earthen road, cloaks billowing like black wings, sword hilts and mail armor glimmering. As they reached the mouth of the forest, the pounding meter of their approach penetrated the silence.
A young man in a leather hauberk, long dark hair pluming behind him, rode at the center of the group. Carried by the brutal pace, he leaned forward, pulling against the ropes that anchored him to the saddle and bound his hands behind him.
The riders plunged into the gloom of the forest, hardly slowing at each curve in the road. A canopy of foliage obscured the moonlight, hiding the swift progress of the others who ran through the trees ahead of the horsemen, unseen and unheard. A man and two children slipped between the oaks that edged the path, pausing to watch as the riders galloped closer. One of them reached out a hand and gestured to the white dog that ran with them.
Reacting to a whispered command, the dog leaped forward and ran down a wooded slope, an eldritch blur in the milky light. Landing on the path in front of the approaching horses, it growled viciously.
The leader's horse shied violently and knocked sidelong into the others. Panicked, the guards strove to restrain their nervous mounts. The prisoner twisted to look as he struggled to keep his precarious seat. Large as a wolf, the white dog prowled the width of the earthen path ahead of them.
"Destroy that animal," the leader snapped. Three swords scraped from their scabbards. The fourth guard aimed a loaded crossbow at the pacing dog. A shrill whistle sounded from beyond the path, and the dog bounded into a hedge just as the quarrel slammed into the earth.
Unseen behind the jostling cluster of horses, a man hunkered down and moved swiftly towards the prisoner. The keen edge of a dagger glinted in his hand, and with a few quick, precise slashes, he severed the captive's constraining thongs. Feeling the release, the prisoner turned, but saw only the quiver of a nearby thicket.
As the leader motioned the group forward, the horses moved along the path without their earlier momentum. With his freed hands clasped behind him, the prisoner kicked at his horse's side. The mount sidestepped, falling behind the others.
The road narrowed to pass between the jutting roots of two huge oak trees whose branches intertwined overhead. As the men rode beneath the natural arch, the prisoner reached up to grip a low tree limb. Placing his feet on the saddle, he launched upward and disappeared into the dark foliage. Unaware, his guards rode ahead, until one glanced back, yelled, and wheeled, followed by the others. Above their heads, the fugitive slipped still higher into his aerie.
"That were a hound from the hill, a demon fairy beast that appeared back there," one man said as the group slowed beneath the overhanging branches.
"Or an enchanted wolf," another agreed. "I vow, this Black Thorne is in league with forest spirits."
"Spirits or none, Lord Whitehawke will have our heads if we lose the Thorne again," another guard grumbled.
"Aye, he’s Whitehawke's prize," the captain said. "So we must find him. Gerard, Richard—search that way." He gestured into the forest. "Use the crossbows, and shoot high. He's likely in the trees."
Richard snorted. "It is madness to pursue the Black Thorne into this wood at night. We are far south of our own territory."
"Other demons might wait in such a place," Gerard added.
"Whining piss-ants," the captain snapped. "Find him!"
Moonlit beams penetrated the deep forest tangle, creating eerie shapes. Peering into the shadows from the safety of the path, the guards moved stealthily in different directions, swords and crossbows ready. Each man made a quick sign of the cross on helmet or hauberk. Soon they rejoined near the forest entrance, circling their horses and arguing.
High in the oak tree, the one called Black Thorne began to descend, dropping silently to the forest floor. Where the tree edged a glade, he went motionless. Across the moonlit circle, the white hound watched him intently, a low growl humming in its throat.
For an instant he thought the guards were right after all: this was no common animal, but rather a hound from the hill, one of the white dogs said to accompany fairies. He considered this because a fairy—tiny, perfect, formed of gold and silver cobwebs—stood next to the hound.
She moved forward across the circle. In a pale cloud around her shoulders, delicate strands of hair glistened and silvered in streams of moonlight. She walked with a slight bounce.
He blinked, breathed again. No magical creature, but a child, a girl. Small for her age, perhaps twelve, she was dressed in a long tunic and wrapped boots. Padding beside her, the dog was higher than her waist.
Thorne stood slowly, a lean shadow blended with the curve of the tree. The girl paused to look at him with frank curiosity, her eyes large and luminous. The hound growled again, and she rested a hand on its head. "Hold, Cadgil. It is a friend."
The dog quieted, looked away, then tensed and bared its teeth once again. From beyond the glade, Thorne heard a faint sound. Reaching out, he grasped the girl's shoulder.
"Into the tree!" he whispered, lifting her to a low branch. Quick as an elf, she scampered higher. He leaped up after her to crouch on a thick branch.
The dog paced beneath the tree, and the child leaned down. "Cadgil! Go—find Wat!" she whispered. The dog ran in a direction opposite to the noises now growing around them.
The whistle and thunk of arrows filled the clearing. A branch above Thorne trembled as an arrow burst through the leaves. As the girl cried out softly, he caught hold of her small hand and pulled her down beside him to share the wide branch.
A barrage of arrows whizzed and exploded through the trees. Thorne covered the girl's head with one arm to shield the child from harm; he also needed to hide that pale, bright head from view. Though her shoulders quivered, she made no sound. A bolt whined through the thick foliage directly over their heads, chunking into wood, spitting leaves. They ducked, curled together like a roosting hen with a chick beneath the wing.
Silence filled the glade. When no new shots came, Thorne raised his head to scan each shadow in the glade.
Below the tree, through the leaves, he could see two mounted guards on the forest path. As he held the child close, a prayer he had not recited since childhood came to him. He watched while the guards spoke, then turned their mounts and rode out of the forest.
He leaned his head back in relief, only to straighten when new voices drifted up from the glade.
"Wait!" The girl scrambled out of the tree so fast that Thorne, clambering down after her, felt like an old man. As he reached the ground, he saw the white dog, tail wagging. Two people crossed the glade toward them: a tall blonde youth, perhaps fifteen, so like the child that they must be siblings, and a burly man in a mail hauberk.
"Mother of God, ye're safe!" the man said in hushed tones, touching the girl's shoulder. Her brother laid a hand on her head in silent concern.
Turning, the man nodded. "We are in your debt, sir."
"I am in yours," Thorne said. "I would be a prisoner still, but for the hound and the man who cut my bonds. Are you he?"
"Aye. Walter of Lyddell, sir. If you be the one they call the Black Thorne, I have a message for you."
The outlaw nodded, his dark hair, glossy in moonlight and worn long in the Saxon style, swinging softly. "I am he."
"Listen then. Baron de Ashbourne urges you to return north and continue your efforts," he said. "Say naught of this night, but know that others are with you against Lord Whitehawke's cruelty." The older man paused. "The guards were taking you to the king's dungeon at Windsor, lad. It is a foul pit where madmen are made."
"My thanks, Walter. Tell the baron that I appreciate his help and his trust in me." He glanced at the girl and her brother. "These two—your children?"
"The baron’s. They tagged after me, though I did not know until too late. I trow the pup would listen only to them."
"My thanks, all of you," he murmured. "I shall never forget it. Before God, I pledge my life to each of you."
Walter clapped Thorne's shoulder. "We must go. Beyond the glade waits a horse, saddled and tied to a hazel tree. You will find a bow and quiver as well."
"God keep you, sir," the girl said. Thorne glanced down at her delicate face. Moonlight turned her eyes to silver as she gazed at him with equal curiosity and concern.
The air was split by the click of a crossbow quarrel sliding into place. Walter took the girl's arm and pulled her away, diving into bracken along with the boy and the dog. Thorne headed for the waiting horse. The arrow shot, when it came, burst into an empty glade.
Thorne ran, his long muscular frame moving with fluid strength. Shouts penetrated the thicket behind him as the guards crashed through the undergrowth. The air filled with the whine of sailing arrows, cracking into wood and earth. He raced on, ducking branches and leaping over bracken to reach the horse.
Yanking the reins free, he launched into the saddle and guided the horse toward a track that sloped down to the wider path. A bow and full quiver hung from the saddle, but he did not take time to use them.
Arrows whipped past in a stinging, vicious hail. One nicked his jaw and another struck into his leather hauberk below the shoulder blade. Reaching back, he pulled at the shaft as he rode, and despite agony, broke off the arrow with a brutal crack.
Hoofbeats thundered behind him, but the destrier was fast and steady, and Thorne was an excellent rider and free of the extra weight of armor. Soon he was well ahead of the guards on the ancient road. By dawn, he had lost his pursuers in the mist, and took a drover's track over the mountains.
Although the arrow had pierced deep into his back, he pressed on for two days, increasingly weak, until he reached the northern moors. There, by a cluster of standing stones, he fell from his horse and collapsed at the base of an ancient monolith as if it were his headstone.