A knock at the door awoke Britney from a comfortable slumber. She got up from her place on the bear-skinned rug and walked clumsily to the door. She did not even bother to ask who it was but opened the door immediately.
“Hello?” She was caught by surprise when a dagger was pointed at her throat and a black-robed figure stepped out of the shadows.
“Don’t ye know not to open doors for strangers, me lass?”
“Wha- whatever do ye want?” she stuttered.
“Ye have something I want!” the figure replied, stepping further into the room.
“I do not know who you are or what ye could possibly want. Please, leave!”
“I will leave only when the gems are in me hands!”
“But-but they be mine! I stole them and they now belong to me!”
“Wrong, me lass! Ye do not even how to harvest their power--!”
“But I can learn!”
“Ye wish to learn more of the arts, eh?” the stranger asked, quite surprised.
“Aye, that I do, but--.”
“And ye hold the gemstones in yer possession?”
“Aye, that I do. But what does that have to do with you?!”
“I can teach ye the arts as well as the power behind the stones! I know their secret!”
“How do I know ye be not sayin’ this to gain control of the gemstones?” Britney questioned.
“I know who ye be Britney!” was the figure’s reply.
She gasped but did not answer. Instead, she sat down on one of the chairs and looked at the ground. Immediately, the robed figure replaced his dagger and pulled the hood back and away from his dagger.
“Allow me to introduce meself. Me name be Eric. I am Scarlet’s brother.” With the sound of her once forgotten mistress’ name, Britney gave a start. “I see ye remember her?” he continued.
“Aye, that I do. I was secretly studying the Sorceress’ black magic and the ancient scrolls whilst I was a lady-in-waiting at her court. As soon as I heard the Sorceress had been killed and the gemstones were free from her grasp, I knew I had gain possession of them so that I may learn their true power.”
“Where be the ancient scrolls now?” Eric asks, inquisitively.
“I have put a spell on them so that the pages, at first glance, would appear completely blank. By forming the right spell, the words come back into view.”
“Incredible! I would ne’er have thought up such ingenious ideas!”
“So what be ye want with me?” Britney asked fear still in her voice.
“I want to share the secret of the gemstones with you. The Sorceress herself taught me before me sister killed her. Together, all of Scotland could be under our command!” he lied.
“I do not know,” she said suspiciously.
“Come now, me lass,” Eric coaxed. “I highly doubt ye have a choice! Ye may have known enough of the black arts ye’ve studied to escape me in the forest, but those gemstones ye possess hold enough power to erase you from this earth!”
“Since ye put it so kindly,” she mocked but quickly changed her expression when she saw that he was neither amused nor satisfied with her sarcasm. “A’right, I’ll do as ye ask,” she said reluctantly.
“Good, I thought ye’d see it my way!”
* * * *
Scarlet awoke abruptly from her nightmare only to find her bedchamber dark and cold. She knew not what time of evening it was but she knew ‘twas not late because her maidservant had not yet brought up the evening meal. She was sweating, her dream having placed fear into her mind, and a chill ran up her spine when the door to her bedchamber was slowly opened.
“Scarlet?” a husky voice asked, the figure remaining in the doorway.
“Aye?” her voice barely above a whisper.
“Supper has been served and me Laird wishes for ye to join the court for the meal.”
Scarlet knew then that the voice belonged to her kinsman, a man who vowed to keep her safe when her Laird was unable to. She had respect for this man, not only because of his vow but also because he was her Laird’s commander-in-chief of his army and one of his best knights.
“Byron, tell me Laird I wish to sup here, in me bedchamber,” she replied.
“Me Lady, I was told to stay here and make sure ye’ve gotten yerself up and dressed for the meal.”
“A’right, I’ll be up but Byron, please turn away so that I may be dressed.”
“Aye, me Lady,” Byron turned away obediently.
As quickly as she knew how, Scarlet leapt out of bed and dressed herself. Since her main-servant was not there to tend to her, ‘twas extremely difficult for her to tie her bodice from the back. She wished Byron would see her struggling and fetch Sera, but he did not. Instead, to her astonishment, he came over to help her.
Without a word, Byron closed his hands over hers, which were wrapped tightly around the laces of her bodice. She felt extremely uncomfortable with Byron there and wished Sera would come in and intervene. But she did not and Scarlet was forced into an awkward predicament. She let her hands drop to her sides as Byron held and tied the laces.
“There, me Lady,” he smiled when the task was completed.
She turned around to show her gratitude and was caught in a trance. Byron’s eyes were not at all like her Laird’s, but were more gentle and soft and kind. She could not speak for his gaze had taken every last breath away.
“I- I thank ye, me lord,” she stammered, looking down at the floor.
Without warning or excuse, Byron pulled up her chin with his fingers. He wanted her to kiss him, but he dared not make any lest he frighten her. She could do naught but stare and was eventually forced to look away.
“I- I should go now. Me Laird will be wonderin’ where I be,” she replied uncomfortably.
“Aye, that ye should,” Byron said, unshaken by the silent liaison between them.
Scarlet whisked past him so she could find her shoes and don her slippers. Byron grabbed her arm, causing her to lose her balance and fall into him. She felt more awkward than before and refused to let herself look into his eyes again. This time Byron did not pull her head up, but instead whispered into her ear.
“That ye should,” he repeated softly, lightly kissing her ear.
A shutter went through her entire body, forcing her to move away and pace towards the door. She did not want to look back but something made her turn her head. What met her eyes was the gaze of a man whose crystal blue orbs twinkled with lust. She turned away, the look in his eyes unbearable, and walked down to the great hall.
Her Laird met her on the bottom step of the grand, winding staircase, and quickly took her arm in his. He seemed to be more proud of having her by his side than he had before. The gleam in his eyes proved she had naught to fear, so she became more relaxed when he helped her to her seat.
“Sires and ladies,” he said finally, raising his goblet and standing. “I have pleasant and comforting news! Me Lady has ordered a quest to be undertaken in her name! Five of me best knights will set out on this quest immediately following the sunrise of the morrow. The one who completes the quest will become me Lady’s champion!”
Scarlet’s face went pale at the thought of someone else continuing her quest. She did not understand why Algernon was doing this or for what purpose, but she waited intently for the applause to die down and him to continue his speech. Algernon raised his goblet once more, as did everyone else in the hall, and he continued.
“Will the five knights please step forward!” At that moment, five of the knights of his court stepped forward, one of them happening to be Byron. All five bowed on one knee in front of the table where Scarlet and Algernon sat.
“All five of you are me best knights! Go forth and find the Secret me Lady seeks! I wish all of you the best of luck and godspeed!”
Another applause send Scarlet’s mind into a whirlwind. How could Algernon want her to give up her own quest for the secrets of the gems! ‘Twas her quest, and now he was giving these five men, who had no idea what they were searching for, permission to seek their secrets. Yet to her amazement, she realized she also had no idea.
“What are ye doing?!” she whispered, grabbing a hold of his arm as soon as he was seated again.
“I am turning yer quest into theirs,” he said with a smile.
“But why?!” Scarlet was almost in tears as she spoke to him.
“Because I want you by me side as me Lady, not fancyin’ yerself after this nonsense of a quest!” he answered her.
“But ‘tis not fancy! ‘Tis me wish to pursue this quest and I do not wish for anyone else to be involved!”
“Lady, please, do ye not want a champion?” her husband said with another smile.
“I do not need a champion! I need me answers!” Scarlet jumped up and walked out of the great hall.
Much to her dismay, Byron followed her out. Scarlet quickened her step, thinking Algernon was the one in pursuit. She ran, or rather walked steadily, out to the garden, where she no longer felt confined. The winter crispness in the air had set in but she still knelt down in the grass-and wept. She wept until she thought she could weep no more and picked her head up with a start when she heard footsteps in the grass behind her.
“Me Lady?” asked a familiar gentle voice.
“Go away!” she replied.
“Me Lady, please, let me help,” the voice pleaded.
“I do not need yer help!”
“Well, if I am to become yer champion, there must be something I may do?”
Scarlet turned around just as Byron sat in the grass beside her. She refused to look at him and began to busy herself with other things like running strands of grass through her fingers. Silently and carefully, Byron placed his hand over hers, causing her to look up at his face.
“There must be something I can do,” he repeated softly, lightly caressing his thumb across her hand.
“Ye just do not understand!” she replied, hurt, unable to tear her eyes from him.
“Help me to understand, me Lady. I wish to help you, not hurt you,” Byron pleaded, reaching up to caress her cheek with his free hand.
“I do not wish for you and the other knights to subject yerselves to a quest that does not pertain to you!”
“I do not understand.”
“This quest, my quest, is not made for these knights. ‘Tis very dangerous and peril,” she tried to explain.
“Me Lady, we knights are trained for any dangerous task set before us. ‘Tis our duty to obey the task at hand.”
“I cannot and will not allow ye to risk yer lives on behalf of a quest ‘twas meant for me!”
“Please, me Lady, tell me the truth. Yer secret will be safe with me,” Byron countered, pulling her chin up to meet his watchful eyes.
“Aright Byron, but I am only telling you because I trust ye will keep me secret hidden,” she replied. “Me amulet, with its shimmery gold and green, is only but a part of many more jewels. When the Sorceress was here, in Locera, she carried with her a pouch filled with many gemstones. Each stone contained great power and ‘twas through these that she gained her strength.”
“So, where be these stones now?” Byron asked as inquisitive as a child.
“The stones I believe have been stolen right out from beneath me face!”
“What do ye mean? Where could they have gone?”
“Do ye remember a young maid of mine by the name of Britney?” she asked.
“Aye, that I do! And what a pretty li’l Princess she was too!” Byron said admirably. Scarlet said nothing and ignored his comment by continuing.
“I believe she be the one who stole me jewels,” she stated flatly.
“Britney?! But she was such a good, quiet lass!” Byron protested.
“Ye only say these things because ye courted her time and again!” she mocked.
“Nay, Lady, the one I could not love then, I still cannot seem to love now,” Byron said, pulling himself closer to her, so that no one would hear them. “Ye still have not told me what be yer purpose for the gems, me Lady.”
Scarlet took a deep breath before she continued. “The stones be used for a power greater than I have e’er seen before. Me purpose for these stones is not to use that power, but rather to destroy it!”
“’Tis all?” Byron asked confused. “That cannot be the only reason ye wish to seek their power?”
“How can ye accuse me of wishing for powers greater than me own human abilities! All I ask for is the answer to why the Sorceress possessed them and what purpose she had for me own amulet!”
“I am sorry, me Lady. I did not mean to pass insult upon you. Forgive me.”
“You are forgiven, Byron, but I must ask ye a question now,” she said, looking directly and deliberately into his eyes.
“Aye, me Lady?”
“Will ye not leave on the morrow with the rest of me Laird’s nights?”
“Will ye not let me help you on yer quest, me Lady?” Byron asked, innocently answering her question with one of his own.
“Nay, Byron! I cannot let ye help!” Scarlet exclaimed, not realizing she placed her hand on his lower arm to reassure her words.
“Am I to believe me wife has been courting one of me knights?” a voice sounded behind them.
“Algernon!” Scarlet exclaimed.
“The one and only, me lass,” he said and bowed sarcastically.
“Algernon, how long have ye been standing there?”
“Long enough to see Byron will no longer be a part of me Lady’s quest!”
“Algernon, that quest does not exist!” Scarlet said.
“On the morrow, four of me knights will begin to search for the secret to the Sorceress’ gems!” Algernon continued, ignoring her outburst.
“Nay! I will not have these men risk their lives for a quest they know nothing about!”
“Aye, the same quest ye should not be a part of, me lass!” Algernon retorted. Byron gasped at Algernon’s use of common brogue. He turned to Scarlet who seemed to be about to burst into tears. But she surprised both Byron and Algernon by expressing her thoughts openly.
“Nay, Algernon! That quest be mine and mine alone! No knight of yers needs to know the secret or the power behind the gemstones of the Sorceress! ‘Tis a secret that holds far too much power behind it!”
“You are a silly lass!”
“Aye! I may be a silly lass, but I will not let innocent men die trying to find the answers I know they cannot find!”
“Or you cannot find! Scarlet, yer quest will get ye nowhere! I wish with all me heart ye would decide to call off this crazed quest and be the wife I’ve wanted for the past two years!”
“I am sorry Algernon,” Scarlet said defiantly. “I am not giving up me quest.”
“Then I have one choice left, me lass,” Algernon said with a heavy heart.
“And what be that one choice?” she challenged.
“Me wife does not exist!” he stated. “Until yer quest has been completed, you are no longer me wife or Lady of this fortress!”
Scarlet could not believe her ears. Her husband, the man she had grown to love and respect, was sentencing her to a life of her quest, in complete solitude! She took one look at him and began to weep. Algernon refused to look at her and walked back towards the fortress, leaving Scarlet to be consoled by Byron, her “champion”.