North England, 1390: Falsely accused of witchcraft, ever-optimistic Viviane is sure the truth will set her free. But when her execution is imminent, only a wish on an unusual moonstone pendant bequeathed by her father offers any solace. Thinking it harmless, and sympathetic to her plight, the knight escorting her to her execution grants her request—and is shocked when Viviane vanishes…
Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, 1999: Suddenly, Viviane finds herself in a wondrous realm she believes is the legendary Avalon. Befriended by some rather eccentric locals, she quickly finds the warmhearted island community happily compatible with her sunny disposition. But the hand of justice soon reaches across time and space to bring her back. The hand, however, belongs to the same handsome knight responsible for her freedom. And soon this powerful man, devoted to upholding the law, finds himself caught between duty and a far more powerful emotion…
Finalist – Colorado Romance Writers’ Award of Excellence
for Best Paranormal, Fantasy or Time Travel Romance
“Consistently tickled my funny bone!”
The Romance Reader
An excerpt from The Moonstone:
North Britain – September 1390
Sir Niall of Malloy was not in a good mood.
‘Twas the kind of rainy winter morning that made his knee ache in memory of a battle wound he would prefer to forget. His belly growled in mighty protest of the fact that he had not had even the time the break his fast before he had been summoned. ‘Twas only made worse by the reason why he had been summoned so early this morn.
Because Niall sorely disliked executing prisoners.
He particularly disliked executing women prisoners.
But that was precisely what he had to do this morn. At least, he had to go to down to that miserable pit of a dungeon and accompany some poor misbegotten soul to her demise. There were finer ways for a man to start his day, Niall was certain.
Indeed, ’twas in moments like these that he found the employ of the archbishop particularly onerous. Of late, there were just too many days beginning like this one. Niall had a difficult time believing that the hearts of so many men and women in this corner of the land were rotted with evil.
Indeed, he was heartily skeptical that witchcraft had any truth to it at all. As much as he hated to even consider such a traitorous thought, Niall believed his patron was dead wrong. Sorcery was the stuff of tall tales alone.
Yet ’twas the plain truth that a scarred old warrior like himself had few other options for earning his keep. Niall was not more than eight and twenty, though his soul felt shriveled beyond all since his injury.
How he missed being in command of his own fate!
Those days, however, were gone for good. The cold in the nether regions of the castle brought the ache in his knee to a bellow, which was fitting enough for his circumstance. Niall limped along the old stone corridor grumpily, hating that he was no less fettered than the many prisoners moaning within their damp cells.
‘Twas no consolation that the old hag who was to die was likely more uncomfortable than he. Niall’s heart twisted in a most unsoldierly fashion at the task before him.
One bad fall and he had gotten soft.
Niall could not have said why he felt particularly troubled by the women condemned by the archbishop’s court to die, for he was quite certain that he had been completely spared his comrades’ weakness for the fair sex. Either that, or his trying sister had cured him of any such inclinations.
Women were, after all, a powerful amount of trouble.
Niall growled and crumpled the parchment beneath his tabard, a telling reminder of that truth if ever there was one. ‘Twas a letter he had received this very morn from Majella and his mood soured yet more at the recollection of its contents.
One would think after seven children, Majella would have the wits to know how she had come by them. Or to at least consider the unholy cost of supporting them before she parted her thighs once more.
But thinking had naught to do with the life of his sister. It never had. She was a creature of passion and impulse, though so warm and charming that even Niall could forgive her many sins. Twice widowed, Majella and her brood would be virtually penniless – were it not for her brother’s consistent support.
‘Twas a support he felt he owed Majella’s children, for there were no others forming a line to fulfill the duty. And ‘twas not the fault of the children that they had no father.
‘Twas also a support that depended upon Niall continuing to do the archbishop’s will. Even when he did not agree with it. He ground his teeth and did not trouble to hide his foul mood when he entered the guard’s antechamber.
“Number seven,” Odo declared without even glancing up from his ledger. The half-eaten round of bread resting beside Odo’s book prompted Niall’s innards to complain once more at their neglect.
Perhaps after this deed was done…
But Niall knew he would have no taste for a meal by the time he had looked into the eyes of a condemned woman.
Sooner begun, sooner finished, he reminded himself. Niall retrieved the appropriate church key and stalked down the hall.
“Oho, and mind yourself, Niall.” Odo called after him, with a cheer that was far from welcome. “Do not be letting our witch cast a spell upon you! The archbishop intends to watch this one twitch in the wind himself.”
Niall grimaced at the choice of some folk in entertainment as he made his way down the fitfully lit corridor.
Scrawny hands reached through grated openings in the cell doors, voices called in supplication. He swore he could hear the rats scuttling across the floor, and somewhere in the distance, something vile dripped with sickening regularity.
How Niall loathed this place.
How he loathed being dispatched to the dark for even a moment. He expected that most of these troubled souls did not even understand what they had done amiss, nor even how much time had passed since they stepped into these clammy shadows.
Niall suspected that few of them cared any longer.
He turned the key in the heavy lock upon the door of the seventh cell with purpose, anxious to return to the sunlight. He would not think upon the numbers here who would never feel that warmth again. He would not feel guilty that he did not share their fate.
At the sound of the key grating in the lock, the prisoner within the cell gasped. ‘Twas typical enough. Niall nudged open the door, the hinges creaked bitterly at the movement, and the woman seated within glanced up and smiled.
Niall gaped, his boots suddenly rooted to the spot. He had not expected a condemned witch to be quite so young.
Nor indeed, quite so cheerful.
“Good morning,” she said in a most friendly manner. A delightful dimple deepened in her left cheek. “I had begun to despair that anyone would come at all.”
She was anxious to be put to a gruesome death?
The witch’s clean but simple garb was markedly at odds with the filth of her surroundings. Her face glowed with good health, though her skin was fair, her auburn locks were gathered with a ribbon tied in a pert bow. She stood and smoothed her skirt, the move revealing that she was both tall and graciously made.
Niall stared. She seemed a perfectly normal, if uncommonly pretty, woman.
“I had understood that I would be summoned at the dawn, and as you might well imagine, I slept nary a wink last night, thinking all the while of this morning.” A merry twinkle danced in the warm hazel of her eyes.
Niall’s arrival was never greeted with such pleasure and he was momentarily uncertain of how to proceed.
“I simply could not wait and must say that I am most pleased that you have finally arrived. I cannot wait to begin. Shall we go?”
Niall blinked, but her smile did not waver.
“Oh! Where are my manners? Why, I am Viviane and so very pleased to make your acquaintance.”
This was no social moment! The last thing Niall wanted was to befriend a woman on her way to the executioner’s block.
But she stepped forward, her smile unwavering. “You do have a name?” she asked with no small measure of charm.
Clearly, this woman did not understand the fullness of her fate.
“My name matters naught,” Niall said gruffly, disliking that he should be the one to grant her the sorry news. “If you would turn about, I must bind your hands behind you.”
That should remind her of the trouble she faced this morn.
But she simply smiled and complied, as though there was naught strange about the request. She crossed her wrists behind her waist and Niall found himself unwilling to even touch the roughened rope to such creamy softness.
But he did.
If not too tightly.
“Of course, your name matters!” she chided as Niall scowled and knotted. “How on earth could I possibly have a conversation with you unless we are introduced?”
The omission did not seem to be interfering too mightily with that, Niall thought, but he refrained from saying as much.
“Truly! What would I call you? What would I say? There is absolutely no reason for this to be unpleasant..”
“Unpleasant?” Niall echoed, incredulity breaking his usual reserve. “You do understand that you are to die this morn?”
She glanced over her shoulder to him, her full lips quirking with mischief. “Of course, I understand that that is what people believe is going to happen, but I know that things will not come to such a dire end.”
Niall eyed her dubiously. “‘Tis true then, that you believe you are a witch? You mean to enchant your way free of these proceedings?”
Her laughter pealed like a bell in the tiny chamber, the merry sound nearly enough to make Niall smile along with her. “Of course not!” She shook her head as though he was the one possessed of whimsy. “What a foolish thought. There is no such thing as witchery. ‘Tis perfectly obvious that this is no more than a horrible misunderstanding and as soon as I have the chance to address the archbishop, all will be set in order.”
She smiled into Niall’s eyes and his heart took an unruly – and uncharacteristic – leap. Indeed, his mouth went dry.
When had he last glimpsed a woman so fair of face?
And when had such a woman smiled for him alone? Niall could not even remember.
“Do not fear for my life, sir,” the lady murmured and wrinkled her nose playfully. “I do not mean to die this day.”
Niall was so disoriented by his own response to her smile, that his mood turned even more surly. “You may not have a choice,” he growled, then urged her toward the door.
“Oh, you take this far too seriously,” she charged, stepping delicately around a puddle of some nameless substance on the stone floor of the corridor. “My mother always declared that I had uncommon fortune…”
“‘Twould seem to be less than that in this moment.”
“But that is only because details interfere and will be resolved in short order. That is why I could not wait for you to come, so we might begin.” Viviane leaned closer, her tone dropping confidentially. “Waiting has never been my strongest gift, I must confess.”
Niall harrumphed, uncertain why he felt so compelled to try to make her understand the full horror she faced. “You need not wait much longer for anything, from all signs.”
The lady mimicked his manner with a wink. “Such dire warnings! You, sir knight, are truly too glum for your own good. There is no point in fearing the worst until ’tis before you own eyes. That was what my mother always said.”
“‘Twill be before your own eyes soon enough.” Niall trudged along the fitfully lit corridor, feeling even older in contrast to his companion’s light footfall.
Indeed, she nigh skipped. “Ah, but you do not know that I was born under a blue moon.”
Niall snorted at such suspicious nonsense. “And that will save you from death?”
The lady tossed her braid over her shoulder, apparently untroubled by his skepticism. “‘Twill save me from any trouble that be might be sent my way. My mother said as much and my mother knew more than most.”
Something about her conviction caught Niall’s attention. “What do you mean?” he demanded suspiciously. “Did she believe herself a witch, as well?”
That laugh echoed again, the sound spreading a little sunshine in the dank corridor.
Niall completely forgot to limp.
“Of course not! You are a man looking for witches at every turn, sir!”
Niall’s ears burned at the charge, but he strode on stoically.
“She had the Sight,” his companion confessed as though there was naught preposterous about that. “She could see into the beyond like no one I have ever seen before.” The lady’s tone turned surprisingly wistful. “‘Tis a rare gift and one that ensured we ate more often than we might have otherwise.”
Niall urged his charge forward, not liking how she suddenly turned silent. ‘Twas evidently uncharacteristic and he had a strange urge to restore her good cheer.
For however short a time she might have left.
“She is dead, then?” Niall asked, realizing after the words left his lips that ’twas not the most uplifting question he might have concocted.
“Aye.” She smiled sadly for him, the smile not reaching her eyes. “She is.”
But the lady said no more and her shoulders sagged slightly. Niall’s footsteps echoed too loudly in the silent corridor as they walked. ‘Twas only the fact that she was to die that troubled him, he knew it well.
“Mind your head here,” Niall instructed, touching her shoulder so that she did not bump her forehead on a low doorway. To his delight and surprise, she smiled at him once more.
“You are so very kind,” she said in a low voice that made something melt within Niall’s gut. “‘Tis uncommon in a man so handsomely wrought as you.”
“Hardly that,” he retorted briskly, hating anew his role in all of this, refusing to take pleasure in her compliment. “Down this way.”
Viviane stepped lightly along the way indicated, her footsteps whispering against the stone. “My mother sent me here, you know.” His ward tilted her chin proudly as though she feared Niall would challenge her word. “That is how I know that no ill can come to me here.”
“That is scanty guarantee.”
“And what kind of a mother would send her child to their demise?” the lady demanded brightly. She slanted a sharp glance in Niall’s direction. “Would your mother have sent you into any place that might have proven a threat to your welfare?”
“Nay,” Niall was forced to concede, recalling all too well his mother’s distress when he learned to handle a broadsword.
“You see?” she said triumphantly. “‘Tis more than clear that no mother could do as much, mine being no exception. Nay, she sent me here for my own safety and protection, and I have only good faith that ’twill be so.”
Niall thought it tactless to observe that even a mother could be wrong. “Your mother sent you to the archbishop?”
Niall could not help but raise a skeptical brow. “Then it seems her gift of Sight was somewhat limited.”
His companion’s eyes flashed in a most intriguing way as she spun to face him. “Surely you do not doubt her gift?”
Niall was certain that his one level glance supplied all the answer necessary. He thought ‘twould be churlish to further draw the line between Viviane’s assertions and her current situation.
The lady tossed her hair. “You must never have witnessed such wonders,” she declared. “It cannot be your fault that you do not believe in the most obvious things, for you seem a most sensible man to me.”
Before Niall could consider what to say to that, Viviane cleared her throat. “You see, my mother told me, on her deathbed, that I should come here if ever I was to want for anything. And I must tell you, that matters have not gone well since her demise.”
“Have you no siblings?” Niall was surprised to find himself curious, no less that he asked a question without intending to any such thing.
‘Twas foolhardy to become interested in those sentenced to die.
Though he most certainly was not interested in Viviane.
“Not a one. ‘Twas just my mother and I, all these years.” A frown momentarily marred the lady’s brow. “She told me the tales, and truly, I would have had no trade without her.”
“You have a trade?”
“Aye!” The lady lifted her chin. “I copy manuscripts and sell them in the markets.”
“’Tis a labor of monks.”
Her expression turned arch. “But they do not inscribe the more interesting tales, the ones which people truly desire to read again and again.” Despite himself, Niall looked to her in curiosity. “I copy romances, those tales of quests and knights and ladies fair, of bold deeds and fearsome dragons.”
“And you earn your keep with that?”
Her delight faded and Niall felt a cur. “I did, for a while. But times are less than good and even those who admire my work have little to spare. I have traveled much since my mother’s death, visiting all the familiar towns again, but to no avail.” She shrugged. “In truth, the details matter little. Finally, I had no choice but to take my mother’s advice, and so here I am!”
She granted Niall an unexpected smile so sunny it warmed him to his toes. “As soon as the archbishop hears tell of this, I am certain that all will be set to rights.” She nodded with a confidence Niall found hard to match.
He frowned as he tried to follow her explanation. “Why should the archbishop provide for you?”
But the lady only smiled more broadly at the question. Her expression was wondrously feminine and launched a queer sensation around Niall’s heart. Indeed, it seemed to beat overfast. And he could not haul his gaze away from hers, at least until he saw the gemstone swinging from the chain around her neck.
‘Twas a moonstone, its milkiness containing an ethereal sliver of blue blue light. A more superstitious man would have named it a witching stone. Niall had heard tell of such things, though he had never given credence to those tales.
This stone, though, was odd. It seemed to glow from within and just the sight of it made Niall deeply uneasy.
There was something unnatural about its very blueness, as though a sliver of the moon had been trapped inside it.
Niall tore his gaze away, finding the task more difficult than it should have been.
A kernel of dread took up residence in his gut, though he could not account for its presence. Niall was afraid of no odd stone! He knew as well as he knew his own name that there was no such thing as magic. Indeed, Niall found himself unduly disappointed by the sign that this woman was as mad as he had originally feared.
A quick glance to the stone she proudly wore sent a most uncharacteristic shiver down Niall’s spine, however, and he scowled at the illogic of his response.
Magic was a whimsy for fools. The woman addled his wits. Too late, Niall recalled that Odo had warned him against this one’s copious charms.
“And that would be your witching stone,” he asked with all the skepticism he could summon.
His companion rolled her eyes. “What nonsense! I told you already that I am not a witch! I am but a woman, admittedly in a bit of a muddle, but ’tis a muddle that will come clear quickly enough. I have absolutely no doubt.”
And strangely enough, a goodly part of Niall wanted to believe her.
His gaze fell on the pendant once more, that uneasiness raising gooseflesh over his skin. Viviane followed his gaze and smiled as she toyed with the jewel.
“‘Twas a gift from my father, on my birth,” she confessed, then flashed that disconcerting smile towards the knight once more. “My mother said he captured the blue of the moon within the stone just for me. Is that not a most wondrous tale? It could almost make up the difference for never having knowing him.” She shrugged again. “But ’tis a token of good fortune, if naught else, and never have I been parted from it.”
She was a whimsical one, that much was for certain. And dangerously beguiling. Niall harrumphed, thinking it poor timing to question her illusions.
“My mother told me once that if ever I had a wish to be made, I could wish upon this stone from my sire’s hand and all would come right for me.” The dimple danced engagingly when Niall dared to glance her way. “Is that not a wondrous gift?”
Niall could not keep his lips from twisting wryly. “One might think your current circumstance would well suit such an appeal.”
But Viviane laughed merrily again, the sound making Niall think of a brook splashing through an emerald glade. He was becoming overly fanciful, there could be little doubt of that.
“There is no need to waste its power. Indeed, I have only to tell my tale to the archbishop,” she insisted. “There is naught to worry about, for once I have had my hearing…”
In that moment, they reached the threshold of the prisoner’s gate to the courtyard. Niall caught a glimpse of the archbishop, his hands braced on the arms of the high seat, his expression grimly exultant, the black and red of his garb a striking sight. Thousands gathered in the courtyard, pennants snapped against the azure sky, the smell of smoke was in the air.
The sunlight glistened off the executioner’s gruesome arsenal, arrayed for public view, and Niall found a lump rising in his throat.
Then the crowd caught a glimpse of the prisoner and roared for blood.
Viviane jumped back against Niall in alarm. She breathed quickly, her gaze dancing over the sliver of view accorded to them from here.
And when she turned to Niall, her smile was banished. A fearful light claimed her eyes and the tint of roses that had colored her cheeks faded to naught. There was no longer any merriment to be found in her hazel eyes.
“He does not mean to hear me,” she whispered, as though she could not believe it.
Niall could not lie to her in this moment. He shook his head heavily, wishing he could tell her otherwise. “Nay.”
“They said he would give me a final audience,” she said wildly. “They said I would have a chance to plea my case. They said…” Viviane’s eyes filled with helpless tears and she stared up at Niall, searching his visage for the truth.
He did not have the heart to keep it from her. He held her gaze and let her see the truth in his own.
“They lied to me,” she whispered hoarsely.
Niall looked to his toes, wishing he could tear the archbishop’s insignia from his back and run. ‘Twas always thus, but usually the prisoners were either deserving of their fate or driven mad by their time in the dungeons. Niall cleared his throat, knowing that this time the archbishop had erred.
Not only was this woman no witch, but Viviane was too delightfully alive to die this day. Indeed, the sparkle of her company had briefly made Niall forget how his knee ached, how far his life had fallen from his own dreams.
Yet there was naught he could do about the matter. Niall hated the powerlessness of his situation, such marked contrast to what his life had been before. His task it was to fulfill his duty, no more than that.
Yet, against every rule he knew, against every pledge of loyalty he had sworn, Niall hesitated to lead the woman out into the screaming throng of people. ‘Twould be an ugly confrontation, it always was, rotten fruit and vulgar language taking the air. ‘Twas a humiliating way to die and one this woman far from deserved.
He liked her, regardless of the addled state of her convictions.
Viviane bit her lip and blinked back her tears, glancing once through the doorway before impaling Niall with a luminous glance. “Could I wish upon my father’s stone? Would it trouble you overmuch?” Her words faltered and she seemed suddenly very young. She did not stand so tall now that her optimism had deserted her. “I…I might never have the chance again.”
She most certainly would not. And Niall could not see what damage it would do to indulge her. ‘Twould only take a heartbeat and the archbishop need never know.
But he could not risk untying her hands, lest someone unexpectedly appear. Without a word, Niall reached for her chain, noting how heavy his hands looked against the finely worked silver, against the flawless cream of her throat.
There was no time to seek a clasp, he simply took the chain within his hands and lifted it over her head. Her glossy hair caressed his hands like the finest silk, the faint scent of her reminding him of sunshine in dancing meadows of wildflowers. Niall slipped the gem into the waiting cradle of her slender fingers and his mouth went dry as their hands brushed in the transaction.
She took a deep breath and tipped her head back, squared her shoulders and squeezed her eyes closed. Her pose was a curious blend of vulnerability and strength that tore at Niall’s hardened heart and for an impetuous moment, he wished he might have had the opportunity to know more of this Viviane.
“I wish,” she said softly but with passion. “I wish that I were as far away from here as ever a person could be.”
And no one could have been more surprised than Sir Niall of Malloy when the lady shimmered right before his eyes, shimmered with the same strange blue light as was trapped in the gemstone. A flash blinded him and he heard a tinkle as he instinctively closed his eyes.
When Niall looked a mere heartbeat later, there was naught before him but a single moonstone, tangled in its silver chain, lying on the floor before him.
And the crowd beyond, baying for the spectacle of execution.
The knight spun but there was no one behind him, not a sound in the corridor. Niall bent to retrieve the glowing pendant, a shiver dancing over his flesh when he touched the fragile chain. The odd sensation made him draw his fingers briefly away, for ’twas unnatural beyond all else.
Against all odds.
‘Twas then Niall knew that he had been wrong. He cautiously picked up the pendant and considered anew its eerie light. There were such creatures as witches for he had just seen the truth of it. Niall had been not only in the company of one, but had been lulled into granting her the chance for freedom.
‘Twas clear that he had made a grievous error in doubting his patron’s knowledge.
Niall lifted his head and surveyed the roaring crowd, inadvertently catching a glimpse of the archbishop’s impatient expression. The sight made his blood run cold, his hand closing instinctively over the wicked gem.
‘Twas equally clear that this particular mistake would cost him dearly.
©1999, 2011 Claire Delacroix, Inc.