Magic can happen at Yuletide if only you can believe…
Sir Rhys de Valyer, on his way to Scotland to join his liege, Julian Challon, becomes lost in a blinding snowstorm. But this is only the start of his troubles. In a brutal ambush, he and his men are attacked and left for dead. Rhys only escapes the horrible fate due to his trusted steed, who manages to drag him away from the battle. Fearing death’s approach, he never expects a beautiful snow angel to come to his rescue.
After being cast out by her family for being the bastard child of a Selkie, Annys Bràigheach has made her life in the sanctuary of Rowenwood Forest, far away from the world. In spite of her acceptance of the solitary life, her heart still yearns for more. To her surprise, after making a Yuletide wish, she discovers a handsome knight, clinging desperately to his horse, half-frozen with two arrows piercing his body. Her healing skills may save him, but can she reach his heart?
A humming floated through Rhys’ mind; the soothing melody wrapped around him and cocooned him with a warm sense of security. Lulled by the feeling, he wanted to cling to that serene state, but he was drawn to discover the source of the tune. He slowly opened his eyes to see a woman sitting by hearthside, a long-haired black cat curled up and sleeping beside her legs. Her pale brown hair was in a single braid that hung over her left shoulder and down to her waist.
An aura of innocence and beauty surrounded her, the vision so perfect that it hurt Rhys to breathe.
Intent upon her task, she crumbled dried herbs, flaking them into a mortar and then grinding them with the wooden pestle. The scene was so eerily similar to the dream he had before he passed out in the snow that a shiver crawled over his skin. In that fantasy he had not reached out to the woman, had failed to grasp the secret wish held in his heart. Fate had given him another chance. No fool, he would not make the same mistake. With no hesitation, he lifted his left hand to her.
The perfect tranquility was shattered as mind-numbing pain racked his body.
The excruciating throbbing summoned images of the attack to fill his head. Getting lost in the blinding snow and unable to locate shelter. Quarrels flying at them from every direction, coming out of the blanket of falling snow. Were his men alive? Had anyone besides him escaped? The only thing he knew at this point: Spirit had saved his life.
Sensing he was awake, the woman’s head jerked in his direction. She put aside the wooden bowl, and came to him. “I let you rest and warm while I prepared a poultice of woad. The arrows have to come out or your blood will taint. You were in luck’s embrace, saving you from losing a lot of blood.”
“I left them in. They plug the wound.” Talking was an effort. He stifled a groan as he tried to shift to ease the ache in his side.
“The snow and cold also helped. Your blood was thick from freezing. You bleed less. Only, you are warming and the arrows need to come out. The woad will staunch the blood once I pull the arrows out.”
“Bolts…they were from crossbows.”
She gave a small shrug with one shoulder. “I am no’ learned with weapons and such. There is a difference?”
“An arrow is shot by a man with a common bow or longbow. It takes skill. A bolt comes from a crossbow. ‘Tis used for closer attacks. No training is needed to wield it. Even a common serf can bring down a knight. A coward’s weapon.”
“You were attacked?”
Rhys gave a faint nod. “I do not know by how many. We were lost…must have taken the wrong…branch in the road. The blinding storm came from nowhere. I had ridden ahead…trying to find shelter. ‘Twas impossible to see more than a few arms’ lengths ahead. Suddenly, we heard some sort of scream or yell, and then quarrels were loosed from every direction.”
Worried, her head looked to the door. “Then there are others still out there?”
“I doubt it. My men fell. They valiantly tried to rally, but in the snow ‘twas total confusion. I took the bolts and could not stay in the saddle. As I lay there, barely conscious, I could hear the enemy going to each man…making certain the wounded were dead. No one left alive to carry tales. ‘Twas naught but murdered they did. I was missed because their leader grew afeared of being near the grove of some witch and wanted to be away.”
“What is your name?” she asked.
“Rhys. Rhys de Valyer.”
Her dark brows lifted over warm brown eyes. “You are Welsh?”
“My mother was. My father is Norman. I am knight to Julian Challon…serving at his honour Torqmond in England. I train destriers for my lord.”
“Ah, that explains that fine steed of yours. Mayhap ‘tis your Welsh blood. ‘Tis spake your countrymen have a fae way with the beasties.”
“Challon sent for me to come north…join him at his new holding Glenrogha.”
“Hagatha spoke of it though I have never been there. A holding of one of the daughters of Hadrian MacShane.”
“And what is your name? Or shall I just call you Angel?”
She huffed a small laugh. “Silly mooncalf nonsense. I am called Annys.”
“Annys,” he tested how the name sounded on his lips. “A beautiful name for a beautiful lady.”
“Do no waste your breath with such thoughts. I have a kind heart and will try to help you. ‘Tis no need to sing praise to secure my aid.”
Rhys was surprised. She was not playing coy, but truly seemed to think he offered tribute to win her care. “Has no one ever told you how pretty you are?”
Sadness filled her brown eyes, but she smiled trying to hide the reaction. “Such things do not fill the grain bins, pick apples, or stack the shed full of peat block.”
“’Tis not mindless to give offer of heartfelt words of value.”
She shrugged off his insistence by ignoring him. “Rhys de Valyer, I need to get you out of the mail and your clothing so I can get at the wounds.”
Rhys asked with unease, “Is there anyone to aid you?”
“Nay, I am alone.”
He was stunned. This woman lived all alone and so far from any traveled path? “How do you survive?”
“I lived here with my friend Hagatha since I was ten and two. She took me in. We planted our crops. Sometimes people came for needs––they would do work for her, or pay her with a goat or a cow to prepare all the herbs needed for large fortresses. In the summers, I cut peats to keep us warm in the winter.”
“A hard life for someone as lovely as you.”
Shocked by his words, she lowered her eyes to her lap. “’Tis no need for flattery, Rhys de Valyer.”
“Have you ever extracted an arrow from a man before?”
She shook her head no. “Not many men come into the grove. They feared Hagatha, believed she was a witch.”
Rhys started to laugh, but stopped because it caused the wounds to ache more. “And was she?”
“I suppose some might call her that. She was learned in herbs and worts, what it took to make a heart calm, or help with someone’s miseries. People oft fear what they do no’ ken.”
He teased, “Tell me, are you a witch as well?”
She blinked once hard, as if he had backhanded her. “I suppose there are those who will name me one. Others likely say worse.”
“Why is that?” Rhys wanted to know everything about her, why this gentle woman was hidden away in these dark woods. It made no sense. A man would fight for this woman, protect her, shelter her…love her.
It was clear she struggled to put distance between them. “Makes little difference what I be…you are saddled with me. I shall do my best to treat the wounds. Can you sit up? I will help you. I know ‘tis painful, but I must remove the arrows––bolts. ‘Tis best to take off the mail, jack and your shirt.”
With her support, Rhys managed to sit up and guide her to undoing the arming points in the heavy hauberk. The boiled leather jack came off next. Sweat beaded on his forehead and trickled down his spine, and not from being close to the fire. The pain from his wounds throbbed, growing more agonizing with each movement that he had to fight not to black out.
“I needs must slice the shirt off that shoulder.” When he nodded, she cut the drawstring, then carefully used the sharp knife to rend the material apart until she reached where the damn staff stuck out. “You are starting to bleed now that your body warms.”
Rhys watched her face. It distracted his mind from the discomfort. His eyes traced the curve of her cheek, the stubborn chin, and graceful neck. And lower. Her body was thin, evidence of her hard life and perhaps not enough food at times, but her curves were womanly, her breasts were full. Her living out here alone––if she was telling the truth––saw her vulnerable to anyone with evil intent. If men such as those who had slaughtered his riders on the road, without regard to who they were or what they were doing in the area, found her, he shuddered to think what harm they would do to a woman with no way to defend herself.
He lifted his hand to the wound in the shoulder and pressed about the end of the shaft to determine the shape of the point. The arrowhead felt blunt and not tipped bodkin or broadhead. The others offered more penetration. While not as piercing, the blunt tip delivered more shock to the target. Why the pain had traveled through his body with such a blinding agony when they hit. As providence would have it, the flat end would make extraction easier.
He took her hand, intending to let her feel what she was dealing with, but she jumped, startled that he had touched her. “’Tis all right, Annys. I merely want you to feel the end of the bolt.” Pulling her fingers to his shoulders, he moved her tips about the end of the shaft. “Feel its shape? It will leave a bigger hole, but it didn’t go as deep because ‘tis dull on the end. Unfortunately, when you pull the shaft out, the point will likely come off and remain embedded. You will have to enlarge the wound and dig it out. Can you do that? I am not sure I can stay awake through the pain to do it myself.”
The color drained from her face. “I will do what you need.”
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