The Irish Sea, off the coast of England
A huge wave gathered under coal-black skies and rolled with deadly menace toward the side of the ship. It hit much as the dozens that had come before, a fist of crushing force that exploded against the wooden hull, rocking the vessel and spewing a sheet of drenching water over the already sodden deck. The cog lurched heavily under the pummel of the storm, the protesting strain of its joints screeching over the steady clap and roar of thunder.
Randwulf of Greycliff sat apart from the rest of the ship's few passengers on deck, his back pressed against the sheltering wall of the sterncastle, knees drawn up, boot heels braced apart to help steady him for the hurling pitch and swoon of the storm. It had only worsened since their departure from Liverpool's harbor, and showed no sign of reprieve. Three travelers had joined them in the port town when they docked for supplies that morning, two men and a young woman. At first Rand thought they were together, but the man and his wife had since moved off to share the cover of a moth-eaten blanket with five other passengers, all of them shivering, their gazes anxious and wide, holding similar looks of concern for their safe passage.
The man who also boarded in Liverpool seemed no more inclined to mingle with the others than Rand himself. One arm lashed around the railing, he sat less than a dozen paces from Rand on the same side of the deck. Rain pelted his uncovered head and beard, wetting shaggy dark hair to spiky bristles in the sudden flashes of lightning that illuminated the somber community of the vessel.
"You look as miserable as I feel," the man called to him, chuckling wryly. With his free hand, he held something out to Rand. A hammered metal flask glinted in the brief arc of light that broke as another bolt ripped jaggedly overhead. "Irish whiskey. Have some, friend. It will warm you."
Although he had done nothing to warrant mistrust, Rand decided he did not like the man's look. Ignoring the offer, soaked to the marrow of his aching bones, he pulled the dripping hood of his mantle down a bit lower on his forehead and steeled himself to ride out the churning squall.
The weather had been unseasonably harsh since he had set out on this journey more than a fortnight past. His destination, Scotland, was still several days north--easily more, if the conditions of the sea did not clear up. And judging from the furious roil of the thick, sooty clouds overhead, he doubted there would be any mercy forthcoming.
In truth it seemed the farther north he sailed, the more ferocious the ocean's turbulence became. As though God Himself knew of the unholy purpose that drove him and sought to dissuade him with the unrelenting lash of the elements.
Let Him rage, Rand thought with grim savagery as another gale shouldered the side of the vessel and sent it groaning into a listing starboard plunge. The women on board screamed as the prow dipped sharply and took on more water.
Rand did not so much as flinch where he sat. He refused to cow to the vicious tumble of the waves. Biting rain needled his face as the storm spat and hissed all around him. Let the ocean swell and the winds tear him apart. Not even godly fury would be enough to turn him away from his goal.
It was his sole intent now, all of his hatred focused on one man . . . if that's what the villain he sought truly was. Rand doubted it. Born of flesh and blood, perhaps, but there could be no shred of humanity left in the one called Silas de Mortaine. Not when he commanded a small army of changeling beasts from another world, sentries conjured by some manner of sorcery to aid him in his quest for wealth and power. De Mortaine would stop at nothing, and woe betide any who stood in his way.
Even innocents, for on his order but two months past had come the brutal deaths of a woman and child. Rand's wife and son.
They had been everything to him--life, love, more blessings than were deserving of him, he was certain of that. But they were gone now. With the slayings of fragile, sweet Elspeth and little Tod, Randwulf of Greycliff no longer had anything to live for.
Save to avenge them.
And he would, justice delivered with the slow and agonizing death of the one who took them away from him in a hellish night of fire and screams, and the waking nightmare of their blood spilling before his very eyes.
Rand carried the tool of his vengeance with him on the ship. Its weight knocked against his hip with the roll of the deck, an artifact secured within a leather satchel and concealed beneath the wide fall of his cloak. There was nothing Silas de Mortaine wanted more than the treasure that Rand and his brother-in-arms, Kenrick of Clairmont, had claimed from an abbey church at the crest of Glastonbury Tor three weeks ago.
That treasure--coupled with the final piece Rand was headed for Scotland to find--would be all the lure he would need. De Mortaine was certain to rise to the bait, and when he did, Rand's retribution would be dispatched by ruthless, savaging steel.
He did not expect he would survive to savor his victory. Nor did he delude himself with the notion that he might join his family in the hereafter when his heart was blackened with hatred, his hands soon to be willingly stained with the cold-blooded murder of his enemy. But it mattered naught. Elspeth and Tod's deaths would not go unmet, even at the price of his very soul.
"For them," he muttered under his breath, the words misting in the rain before the rising howl of the storm swept them away.
The crash of another wave slammed the side of the cog, spraying briny water into his eyes. With the answering lurch of the deck, the young woman from Liverpool gave a sharp cry of distress. She flung her arm out to reach for a small purse that had come loose from her belongings. The tide washed across the deck, carrying the little pouch swiftly toward the edge. Too late to retrieve it, the errant purse rode the pull of the retreating wave right into the sea.
"My mother's brooch was in that bag!" the woman wailed to her husband as he gathered her close to comfort and protect her.
"Best keep a tighter hold on your treasures. Wouldn't you say, friend?"
Above the din of the storm, Rand heard the voice of the man seated down the deck from him. The query--and the oddly phrased advice--was directed at Rand, rather than the couple huddled across the deck. Rand lifted his head to peer at the stranger through the pelting rain. Dark eyes stared back at him from under the fall of a thick forelock, their narrowed, unflinching look too focused to be mistaken for anything less than cunning.
And now that he considered it, Rand noted with a degree of cool foreboding that the man had at some point moved closer to him. No longer a dozen paces, but less than half that distance. Just out of arm's reach.
"I am not your friend," Rand growled in warning, "and I've a blade at my hip that's itching to convince you of that fact. I don't like your look, sirrah. I'd advise you to back off."
The man gave an abrupt shout of laughter. "You advise me, do you?"
"That's right." Beneath his mantle, Rand wrapped his fingers around the hilt of a dagger sheathed on his belt. "I won't tell you again."
There was something peculiar about the stranger's face. Indeed, something peculiar in his very being. The sheeting rain seemed to distort his features, sharpening the man's bearded jaw, bulking his dark brow. The eyes that stared at Rand with such boldness seemed lifeless and devoid of color now, coldly black. In the scant light, they took on a feral glint.
Battle instinct clamored an alarm in Rand's gut. He pressed his spine against the sterncastle wall, feet planted firmly apart as he prepared to spring into combat mode in an instant, heedless of the raging weather.
The stranger grabbed the railing of the deck and hauled himself to his feet. The man chuckled now, his mouth filled with sharp, bared teeth. "You arrogant, stupid . . . human."
He spat the word, as much a curse as the one Rand hissed when he realized what faced him now.
A bolt of light cut across the blackened sky. Thunder cracked and rolled in ominous fury. Rand ignored the tempest, sluicing water out of his eyes as he rose to confront one of Silas de Mortaine's deadly minions.
"Give me the satchel," the man snarled, his lips curling against the bright slash of his teeth.
"I'll see you dead first--and gladly," Rand told him. He did not wait for the attack to come to him. Preferring to be on the offensive, he made the first move, drawing a dagger from his baldric as he took a step forward.
One of the other passengers across the deck shouted through the driving force of another shuddering, spitting gale. "Sit down, fools! The storm will sweep you over!"
The warning went unheeded, wholly insignificant, when one understood the truth of what was at stake here. The storm was brutal to be sure, but there was a deadlier force at work on the rain-slickened deck of the ship. Rand was not about to let that threat go unmet.
He surged forward, lunging for de Mortaine's man and locking him in a punishing choke-hold. The dagger found vulnerable flesh and sank in, tearing a roar of pain and anger from the man's throat. Blood flowed at once, tainting the briny darkness with the stench of rising death. De Mortaine's henchman struggled to reach his own weapon, but Rand's blade drove home again, this time plunging into the heaving barrel chest.
Where Rand anticipated surrender, he felt further resistance from the bearded man. The bleeding bulk of his body seemed to shift in his grasp, rippling with a queer power. Fingers that curled into Rand's back for support grew longer, digging into his flesh with the hard bite of beastly claws.
Everywhere the shapeshifter's body touched him, Rand's skin crawled as though charged with the force of lightning itself. He broke the jolting sensation and delivered another savage strike of his blade.
A lady screamed from somewhere over Rand's shoulder. "He is killing that poor man! Someone do someth--!"
The terrified cry cut short an instant later, when the eyes of the other passengers finally focused on what played out before them. Rand himself saw the feral glow of an animal's eyes staring up at him, the slavering jaw of a wolf drawn open, wet with blood and rain.
The beast he now held roared with otherworldly rage, then swung its massive head down to lock onto Rand's arm.
The jaws clamped hard, pure fire shooting through him as a churning wave careened into the side of the hull. Rand went down on one knee, fighting to hold his ground while he struggled with his assailant. The screams of the other folk on deck rose with the vibrating shock of thunder and lightning clashing high above their heads. Water rushed over the side of the vessel, tipping it into a starboard lurch.
Rand flung his hand out for the railing--and missed it.
His fist closed around empty air. He lost his precarious footing, the wolf falling with him, dragging him down onto the slick planks of the deck. More water sluiced over the side of the ship. Rand saw only the dark form of the shapeshifter beneath him, its bulky weight knocking hard into his legs before the wave caught it. Too late to free himself of the iron jaw still sunk into the flesh of his forearm, Rand's world tilted with the wild lurch of the ship.
More shouts of horror sounded from the passengers, more screams from the women and wailed prayers that would surely go unanswered.
Pushed by the heavy hand of the wave as it swept the deck, Rand could only gasp a quick breath and prepare himself for the sudden chill plunge as he followed the shapeshifter over the side of the vessel and into the black, roiling sea below. At once, the waves pulled him under. The shapeshifter released his arm, caught in its own struggle to survive as the stormswept sea engulfed them.
The waves rocked and churned, dragging Rand farther under. He fought the drowning squall, his efforts impeded by the strangling weight of his mantle and clothing. Sinking like a stone, he freed himself of the heavy cloak, letting it drift away on the tide. His boots were sacrificed next. He pulled them off, his lungs straining for air as the cold sea continued to swallow him.
God's love--he was drowning.
He needed air. Rand opened his eyes and saw only darkness, the salt water burning his vision and searing the bloodied wound on his arm. Muscles cramping in the cold wetness, he hauled his body through the black distance until his face broke the surface of the water. Rand gulped in great mouthfuls of the rainy night air, choking in his haste to breathe. Too soon, he was going under once more, raked by the sharp talons of the shifter as it pawed him from beneath the surface of the water. The beast flailed, using Rand's body as a ladder to hoist its heaving girth above the waves. Rand felt his tunic shred, the muscles of his chest and thighs searing as the wolfen claws slashed at him in blind panic.
Before him in the darkness, Rand saw the shifter's form mutate from wolf to man, to wolf again. And all the while, it kept attacking him, its hellish eyes gleaming with murderous intent. Rand kicked it away, giving himself only the briefest opportunity to draw his sword from its sheath on his baldric. His movements were slow, his usual battle-trained agility compromised by the force of the water that closed in on him from all sides. Oblivious to Rand's plan, the shifter splashed and clawed to swim toward him. Rand held the long blade concealed beneath the lightless surface of the water and lunged forward with all he had.
Hard black nails tore at his neck as the wolf and he collided and locked in a deadly embrace. Rand thrust his sword arm through the impeding tide and felt it connect with solid flesh and bone. The shifter screamed, its long jaws dropping open in a howl of inhuman rage. Rand ended the bone-jarring cry with a savage jerk of his wrist, driving the blade home. Blood warmed the cold sea water as the shifter's dead body went limp and slowly sank out of sight.
Treading water, bobbing under the swelling rise and fall of the waves, Rand pivoted to look for the ship. It was gone. He was alone in the storm, adrift and exhausted. His limbs felt leaden in the cold embrace of the sea, his many gashes stinging like fire as he spilled more blood into an already tainted tide.
His only hope was to swim.
But to where?
Naught but darkness surrounded him, miles of open ocean and a tempest that beat down on him in relentless fury. There was no sign of the shore in any direction, only vast emptiness. Rand's head went under, submerged by the pitch of another wave. What clothing remained on him dragged him down, as did his weapon and the priceless cup that bumped solidly against his leg in the satchel slung over his shoulder by its long leather strap.
If he had a prayer of swimming any distance now, he had to lose some of the weight, as much as he could. In haste, Rand stripped off his torn tunic. He let his sword slide out of his grasp, his only means of defense gone in an instant as the hungry sea took it down.
All that remained was the Chalice treasure.
The heavy gold cup with its pair of priceless stones had already proven a significant burden. But he would not release it, not even for the chance to save his own life.
Rand began to swim, commanding his aching arms to motion, kicking his way through one pitching wave to another. The treasure he carried at his hip--the tool of his awaiting vengeance--would go with him to the nearest shore . . . or it would accompany him to a watery end at the bottom of the churning sea.
. . . end excerpt . . .
Excerpted from Heart of the Dove by Tina St. John Copyright © 2005 by Tina St. John. Excerpted by permission of Ivy Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
"Fast-paced . . . as usual, RITA Award finalist St. John peoples her tale with vibrant and engaging characters."
"Power emanates from the pages of St. John's fabulous [HEART OF THE DOVE]. Readers will come away feeling healed and uplifted, and believing that good will always conquer evil as long as true love exists."
--Romantic Times BOOKclub
"Rand's transformation from vengeance-seeking warrior to protector of the woman he loves is heart-wrenching as he lets go of his past to embrace his future. Unexpected alliances and a few surprising twists make HEART OF THE DOVE a story you'll savor through to the final page!"
". . . A tormented hero eventually finds love in this sensual paranormal to which malevolent shapeshifters, long-kept secrets, and a thread of pure evil add a sinister twist."
. . . more to come . . .
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