Beyond The Hidden Gate, страница 1
The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, places, or events is coincidental and not intended by the author.
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Beyond The Hidden Gate
Copyright © 2012 Debbie Peterson
All rights reserved.
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Aynia galloped through the lush, green forest on the back of the spirited black and white Gypsy mare, riding free and with wild abandon. Together they’d performed this same ballet every morning for the past month here on the Emerald Isle. And she gloried in it. She loved the feel of the wind on her face and the power and grace of the horse that carried her. While they danced, all worries, questions, and concerns fled her mind. For in that moment, nothing else mattered but the ride.
The woodland thinned as she traversed her customary path, and in response, her heartbeat accelerated. She slowed the pace of the mare and turned her gaze to the top of the hill in rising anticipation. Just as she expected, the magnificent white stallion, carrying his powerful, mysterious rider stood motionless atop the grassy mound. The rider, wearing a black, hooded cloak, gazed back—just as he had every single day this past week. Something about him made the butterflies inside her belly take flight and created a longing she didn’t understand. Yet, she couldn’t pinpoint or even find a reasonable explanation for the phenomenon. But then again, she couldn’t find a reasonable explanation for a lot of things—such as why she couldn’t evoke a single memory, save the recollection of her name. She didn’t have a clue as to what possessed her to fall asleep underneath a willow tree that stood out in the middle of nowhere, or even how she got to the said tree.
Aynia combed her fingers through her golden, wind-blown tresses and for sometime, she and the enigmatic man continued their silent appraisal of each other. Finally, with a bit of reluctance, she tugged her reins to the right and turned around. For soon, farmer O’Connor would be looking to feed his horse. She urged her mare into an easy canter as they followed the path that would return her to her makeshift shelter in the loft of his barn. Dark shadows, cast by thick clouds, trees and heavy vegetation, gave the trail an eerie feel. Increasing winds battered the boughs that moaned in protest and made for a skittish mount.
Just then, a deep menacing growl seized her attention. She turned toward the sound of the unholy shriek the same moment a massive black panther lunged toward her with teeth bared. As the startled horse reared back, the cat caught her in its claws and yanked her off the terrified mare. Aynia landed with a thud upon the rocky ground and turned her head to the side. She cried out in agony as the panther sliced through the sleeves of her denim jacket and into her skin. The sound of thundering hooves, pounding against the earth entered her ears just as a welcome blackness allowed her to escape.
Aeden withdrew his dagger from its sheath as he and his stallion raced along the twists and turns of the crooked lane. He took careful aim and with a flick of his wrist, sent the wicked-looking blade spiraling toward his target. A scant second later, the knife found its mark. The panther screeched as the dagger plunged into his neck. He leaped from his horse and rushed toward his foe. But just as he extracted the blade, and raised it to ensure his victory, the panther faded, and then disappeared—taking his victim along with him. He closed his eyes and clenched his teeth as he wiped the blood from his dagger and then thrust it into its sheath.
Malachi and Darach thundered from the shadows scant moments later. They shot a glance toward him first and then scoured the path in search of their quarry.
Aeden shook his head in disgust and as he grabbed the reins of his horse, he said. “He’s gone. Nathair had the strength to disappear and he took Aynia with him.”
Malachi cast his gaze toward the ground, found the telltale signs of blood, and stooped down for a better look. “As always, your aim was sure, Aeden. He’s bleeding heavily. That means he’ll leave us a good trail to follow. Don’t worry, my friend. We’ll find her.”
“We never should’ve chanced her life in the first place, Malachi,” he ground out. “The moment we located her we should have just sent her home.”
“You know as well as I, she’d have refused to leave your side,” said Darach. “We’ve already discussed this fact at length. Better for us to stand guard, keep her in our sights, and just wait for Nathair to reveal himself first.”
“Well, we did that. And now, we’ve lost sight of her, haven’t we,” he spat.
“Not for long,” Malachi said as he turned toward his horse. “Mount up. I don’t want this trail to grow cold. And, since he has taken Aynia hostage, it’ll be to our advantage to find Nathair in a weakened condition.”
Aeden hastened to comply. No one surpassed Malachi in his tracking skills and he didn’t want to hamper his search now. Many times throughout the day, Malachi abandoned his saddle to study the trail. This time, as he picked up a handful of dirt and released it to the wind, he turned toward them and grinned.
“We’re gaining on him fast. He’s pushing himself so hard; the wound hasn’t had opportunity to close or even congeal. This is slowing him down quite a bit. By nightfall, we’ll have him in sight.”
Less than one hour later, Malachi raised a hand to halt their progress, put a finger to his lips, and dismounted. He and Darach followed suit. Malachi then led them through the thickest part of the forest on foot. Heavy, intertwining brambles slowed them down, but did not defeat them. At last, they approached a large tree, with a gnarly, massive trunk. To the left of the tree they spotted evidence of a circular fissure leading underground. They hunkered down behind a pile of rocks, surrounded by bushes, and surveyed it for a time. Nothing stirred.
“I still see only one set of tracks, and the weight that created them has not changed,” said Malachi. “That probably means Aynia is still unconscious.”
“All the better for us,” Aeden said. “She won’t be able to interfere.”
“Amen to that. I’ll conjure a mist of protection as we enter,” said Darach. “Nathair will probably aim his curses high and center, if he has the ability to aim at all. So keep your body low and your backs to the wall. At least, until we have entered his lair.”
“Have your dagger ready, Aeden,” Malachi said. “If you can give us one more well-placed shot, Darach and I can ensnare him according to the previous plan. That gives you leave to grab Aynia and get her out of there.”
Aeden gave him a nod as he unsheathed his weapon. “In all the confusion, don’t forget to look for the cauldron. And don’t come back without my knife.”
They circled around, keeping to the shadows. Then, just as they approached the gaping, fissure, Darach waved his outstretched hand and invoked a thick, cloudy haze to precede them. On silent footsteps, they followed the narrow passageway deep into the earth. A faint light grew ever brighter as they traversed the final turn.
Aeden spied Nathair then. So busy tending the wound on his neck, the warlock didn’t suspect their presence. He looked past the man’s shoulder and spotted the crumpled form of Aynia. Nathair didn’t so mu
In that same instant, the warlock flung an arsenal of deadly spells toward them. They used every skill in their possession to avoid them. Blinding lights in every color imaginable lit up the chamber. During the clamor, Darach dropped to the floor and took hold of a thick, elongated root that protruded from the wall. A quick incantation filled the root with the power to ensnare. He flung the slithering vine atop Nathair, seconds before the warlock completed transforming into his panther persona. The fibrous cord first wrapped around his neck and constricted its victim. Nathair, now half man, half cat, struggled to free himself. The root continued in a downward spiral, encircling the rest of his body. With each turn, the vine tightened its grip.
“Get Aynia out of here, Aeden,” shouted Malachi just as the earth trembled in response to his verbal command. A jagged crack formed and then inched apart, creating an abyss. “Now—”