Storm warrior g 1, p.1

Storm Warrior g-1, page 1

 part  #1 of  Grim Series

 

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  Storm Warrior

  ( Grim - 1 )

  Dani Harper

  Enslaved for millennia by the masters of the Welsh faery realm, the fierce Celtic warrior Rhys is doomed to wander the earth forever. But when a brave beauty unwittingly breaks the enchantment, he is drawn into a strange new world…and an all-consuming desire.

  Sensible Morgan doesn’t believe in magic—until a mysterious being saves her from a fate worse than death, and life as she knows it changes forever. Now the man of her dreams has become flesh and blood, igniting a spark in Morgan’s soul which science cannot explain. But even a love that transcends time may not be strong enough to withstand the power of an ancient curse.

  From the best-selling author of Changeling Moon, this stirring novel of passion and magic launches an addictive new series for fans of paranormal romance.

  Storm Warrior

  Grim 1

  by

  Dani Harper

  For my hero, my Rhys, Ronald Joe Silvester

  “Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.”

  C. S. Lewis

  PROLOGUE

  Black Mountains, Wales

  AD 92

  The howling of dogs in the distance told him his Roman keepers had found his trail again. Rhys spat out a curse, along with some blood, and forced himself to keep going.

  The site of Isca Silurum, the fort that housed the Second Augusta Legion, was a broad, flat plain in a bend of the River Usk. It was less than a day’s easy march southward to the ocean, but Rhys had headed north and west to the interior. North and west toward his tribal lands. North and west to the hills, to the rough and rocky terrain that might discourage the many search parties and their savage dogs.

  So far, the rugged ground had only slowed them down. After three days, it had become obvious—the Romans were determined not to let their favorite gladiator go.

  He was determined to remain free.

  The landscape was beginning to look familiar as he left the southern lands behind him, lands that belonged to another tribe overrun by the Romans. After three decades of war, the remaining sons of their once-proud leaders had been rounded up and sent to Rome, not as prisoners but as students. Education and assimilation were devastatingly effective at controlling a conquered people. Rhys knew that the young men would return to their homes every bit as Roman as their overlords. For all he knew, the same thing was happening in his own tribe and clan, perhaps in his own village.

  If there was anything, anyone, left of it.

  Like all the Celtic tribes in this part of the country, his clan had struggled for decades to repel the Roman invaders. The tribes had defended their borders ferociously, held the armored aggressors back for a full generation, but the Romans were relentless. The armored troops had withdrawn for a few years in order to quell a huge Celtic uprising east in Brethon. But when the Romans had finished slaughtering the warrior queen, Boudicca, and her thousands, they had returned to Rhys’s land with a vengeance. He hadn’t been old enough to hold a bow when the Romans targeted the spiritual heart of his people by falling upon the great sacred island of Ynys Môn and slaying all the druids there. He had barely reached his full height when his father and older brothers were killed in a fierce battle to defend their village hill fort.

  Sadly, their deaths had not purchased their people’s freedom. All the Celtic tribes fought with courage and skill, but they were no match for the organized and disciplined troops of the empire. It wasn’t long before the Romans declared victory and levied taxes.

  Not all the Celts were conquered, however.

  In the past, they’d learned the art of war not only from hunting but from conducting secret raids on other tribes. It was a game of sorts that benefited all. One tribe would steal six fine cattle. The other tribe would retaliate by taking four strong horses. Each tribe gained new blood for their herds at the same time that they practiced the art of stealth. It helped keep them all in fighting trim. In telling the stories of his raids, Rhys’s father had impressed upon him the importance of surprise: always do the unexpected.

  An older and battle-hardened Rhys used those tactics as he began to lead raids on Roman patrols, using stealth and strategy to pick them off in the dense forests and misted hills. When he was growing up, archery had been used in hunting rather than battle, but it was well suited to the style of fighting he and his followers practiced now. Silent and effective, bows could deal death at a distance and strike terror into the hearts of the survivors. And while the Romans were looking in the direction the arrows had come from, a second party could easily emerge from the opposite shadows and cut them down to the last man with sword and dagger. It wasn’t long before spooked soldiers had given Rhys a nickname, whispered over campfires with many backward glances into the darkness: the Bringer of Death.

  The patrols had dwindled for a time, even stopped for a while. Then one day a scruffy-looking unit had wandered into Rhys’s territory. Unshaven, they looked lazy and lax. Older men these, some with unsoldierlike bellies. Laughing and talking foolishly like troops on leave, not a unit on patrol. They even fell out of the disciplined march from time to time, drinking from wineskins that were not army issue. It wasn’t all that surprising—Rome seldom sent its best and brightest to the far-flung frontier once a land had been subjugated. Yet, the patrol hadn’t fallen into any of the tribe’s traps, appearing instead to blunder around them as if by pure chance.

  Rhys had thought about that many times since. It should have warned him that all was not as it seemed. It should have warned him…

  The patrol had meandered off the path and was lolling on a riverbank when Rhys and his followers launched their ambush. No sooner had they broken cover than they found themselves facing Roman swords, looking into the sharp eyes of not only seasoned but elite soldiers. The undisciplined foolishness had been a clever facade.

  But Rhys and his men were seasoned too. The battle was fierce; the riverbank was soon slippery with blood as Romans and Celts alike met blades. No one prevailed. They were evenly matched it seemed, until suddenly the sound of many horses, galloping hard, could be heard over the fight.

  The Romans had timed their trap well. The elite unit had held the Celts’ attention long enough for a mounted patrol to catch up to them. Rhys yelled out for his followers to retreat just before a weighted net was thrown over him. A blow to the head silenced him, and he spiraled into darkness.

  He’d awakened a prisoner, chained by the neck to four of his men, the only survivors of the battle. On the long march south to Isca Silurum, two had died from their wounds. Once at the Roman fort, two more had been used as targets during a training exercise. Rhys had expected to be next, but the Romans had other plans for the Bringer of Death.

  The newly built amphitheater just outside the fort walls needed fodder for its bloody spectacles. Intending to make an example of him, his captors had thrown him into the sandy arena with a wild boar. Pain-maddened from a number of oozing flesh wounds, the massive creature bellowed its fury and shook its scythe-like tusks at Rhys. Someone in the stands tossed him a broken sword, barely the length of a dagger, which caused much laughter. The laughter faded when Rhys nimbly dodged and feinted, staying one step ahead of the charging animal. The crowd had expected the Celt to die and quickly. Yet, it wasn’t long before the boar squealed horribly and thrashed on the ground with its throat cut.

  Still gripping the handle of the sword, Rhys had stood quietly and watched the boar’s blood soaking into the sand, certain that his own blood would soon follow. Instead, he had been relegated to a cell and brought out again the next day. And the next. The Bringer of Death proved true to his name. For two years, against all comers, against man and beast alike, Rhys had been fo
rced to fight for his life. The 5,500 soldiers stationed at Isca Silurum wagered their pay on him, alternately cheering him and cursing him according to their wins and losses.

  These men were the same ones who chased him now. He should have known the Romans wouldn’t easily give up their main source of entertainment here on the frontier. Plus, the legion leaders were no doubt glad to have a task to assign to their bored soldiers, all of whom were likely betting on which man would find the gladiator first. Ironically, Rhys’s escape was simply providing one more amusement for his captors.

  Not that his escape had been easy. He’d broken the jailer’s neck and garroted two guards, but the second had managed to stab Rhys before dying. The wound was just under his ribs, and pain had sawed at him with every step since. He’d suffered worse, but the loss of blood was starting to tell. He was tiring fast, and sometimes he was dizzy. He pressed the heel of his hand to the bundle of dry moss that he’d bound to the wound and willed himself to go on.

  The dogs howled again, closer this time. These were no game hounds but big war dogs, accustomed to hunting men. Accustomed to killing men. Rhys had used every clever trick he could think of to stay a scant step ahead, to buy time so he could reach the hill country.

  Always do the unexpected. His father’s words came back to him as he sought to throw the dogs and their handlers off the trail once and for all.

  Rhys doubled back and headed for a steep hillside, angling his way downwind of the Roman hunters until he reached a shallow noisy creek. He could cover the rest of the distance by traveling up the center of the wide stream. The noise of the tumbling water would cover any splashing. He touched his fingertips to his collarbone, to the blue hound tattoo that marked him, and breathed a prayer to the gods.

  The water was cold enough to make him gasp, but it cleared his head, as did the jarring pain in his side. He jogged doggedly through the creek, sucking air through gritted teeth, one hand clamped tight against the wound. The bleeding was worse now, but he dared not slow down.

  Shivering, Rhys left the stream at the base of the hill and considered. If he could climb its sheer slope, the dogs would be unable to follow. If he couldn’t, he’d fall to his death. Still free, he thought; he’d still be free. As long as he could see the sacred blue of the sky as he died…By all the gods, anything would be better than returning to the dark, windowless cell of the arena.

  His breath hitched in his lungs as he began the ascent, pain knifing through his injury until his entire left side throbbed savagely. The hillside appeared taller and steeper by the minute, and it seemed to take forever before he was even above the trees. He felt exposed on the rock face, although he knew the hunters’ eyes would be searching the ground for his trail. Even if they did look up, the forest branches would likely shield him from their sight.

  Nothing would shield him if he fell. Rhys had to stop more and more frequently, clinging to handholds with eyes closed until dizziness passed. It was early summer, and he was sweating from exertion, but he felt as cold as if it were winter. There was a strange tinny taste in his mouth. He knew that if he looked down, the rocks would be smeared with his blood.

  Finally, he gained a high, narrow ledge that was supporting three late-blossoming rowan bushes and rested his elbows on it, gasping for air like a fish. The pain had become a live thing that raged in the cage of his body and shook his very bones. Rhys grasped the base of one of the bushes, seeking to steady himself, hoping that by resting a few moments he could somehow find enough strength to continue. Knowing that he had little left. He was spent, bled out like a deer with an arrow in it. His vision was narrowing. Behind the blooming rowans, he could see no rock face, only darkness.

  Gaping darkness…

  By all the gods, there was a cave! He fought to drag his body onto the ledge. Agony reared up like an angry bear, slashing and biting at him. Still he struggled on, teeth clamped against the scream that threatened to rip from his throat. Just as it seemed certain that he would black out and tumble to the ground below, he managed to heave his broad-shouldered frame securely onto the rocky shelf, with the thick trunks of the sturdy bushes between him and the open air. Lungs heaving and heart threatening to smash through his chest, Rhys reverently touched his collarbone just as his eyes rolled back in his head.

  The full moon was high in the heavens when he awoke at last. The pain awoke too, chewing at his side the way a hungry wolf tears at a carcass. It drove the grogginess from his mind, and he lay blinking on his back. It was good to see the sky, he thought. Good to see the dark, deep blue, an ocean upon which the stars could sail…He wondered if his father and brothers were up there, his sister. The members of his tribe who had stood against the Roman invaders. All dead, all slain…

  The Romans. Immediately, he listened for the sounds of dogs, of hunters, but there was nothing but the whir of insects, the calls of night birds, and the barely audible squeak of bats. His pursuers had likely camped for the night, but he could see neither fire-glow nor smoke from the forest below. Rhys rolled to his good side, although his wound screamed at him just the same. He stared out from between the glistening flower clusters of the rowan bushes with his teeth chattering uncontrollably. Tiny white petals had snowed down around him as he slept, but they did nothing to stave the chill from his body. With a strange kind of detachment, he knew he would die if he remained on the ledge—was likely dying anyway.

  It would be easier to die.

  Yet, the gods had decreed that one must struggle to live, and so Rhys once more forced himself to move. His head swam and his stomach lurched until he thought he might vomit from the pain. He didn’t have the strength left to stand, but he needed shelter. If he could just get warm, it might be safe to rest for a while…On all fours, he made his way inside the dark cave, reaching out a hand from time to time to feel his way along the wall. The stone was dry, and as he struggled farther into the darkness, the floor of the cave became a soft mix of sand and dead leaves. Rhys inhaled carefully, trying to draw a scent from his surroundings, alert for any sign that the cave was the den of a predator. He smelled nothing but his own sweat and blood. He moved on, inches at a time, desperate to get deeper into the cave before his ebbing strength gave out entirely.

  Without warning, the blackness of the cave’s interior gave way to gray. At first, he thought he’d gotten turned around and was somehow facing the entrance again, but a glance over his shoulder showed the rowan bushes against the starry bright sky behind him as they should be. Ahead of him, though, there was light where there should have been none. Light, faint but growing steadily, was coming from inside the cave.

  Mere heartbeats later, Rhys found himself nearly blinded by an uncanny brilliance, a white light that shamed the full moon. He squinted into the light and, for a brief, wild moment, considered flinging himself off the ledge or perhaps calling out to the Romans who were hunting him. But pain, exhaustion, and blood loss combined to betray him. One thought remained as he passed out, a phrase every child in his village had heard often, a warning that every elder delivered in harsh whispers…

  Beware the Tylwyth Teg.

  ONE

  Caerleon, Wales

  Twenty-First Century

  The dog was back.

  Dr. Morgan Edwards tried to focus her attention on the tour guide as he related the history of the ancient Roman amphitheater. The enormous arena, capable of seating nearly six thousand, had been built outside the walls of Isca Silurum, a legionary fort. Legend held that, in another time, this part of Wales had been a favored base for King Arthur himself.

  Morgan had been born and raised in America. Fascinated by her grandmother’s country, she was usually keen to learn all she could about it. Yet, her attention kept returning to the huge black mastiff that sat silently by a square-cut stone. He surveyed her with the great, sad eyes of his massive breed, a breed more ancient than the ruins around it.

  I’ll bet you eat a lot, fella.

  Morgan had treated only three mastiffs
in her busy veterinary practice. Her clients by and large appeared to prefer beagles and dachshunds, Labs and poodles. Her clinic in Spokane Valley, Washington, saw a few Great Danes and Saint Bernards as well, but the great black dog would dwarf even those big breeds. She knew that mastiffs had been used by the Romans for war—their fearful size making them lethal weapons. They had been used in the arena as well, perhaps right where she was standing. The thought made her shiver, or maybe it was the strangeness of having seen the mastiff on every day of her trip, at every stop. While the dog never came close, he never failed to make an appearance. At first, she’d thought there were an awful lot of the monstrous dogs in this small country. That is, until she’d spotted the distinctive metal collar around his muscled neck. It was wide and ornate, almost like a broad silver torque. Perhaps it was a replica of some ancient design. Maybe the animal was part of the tour, a living prop?

  She grabbed the flowery sleeve of her traveling buddy, a tall white-haired woman named Gwen, whom she’d met at the beginning of the tour. “He’s here again.”

  The older woman looked over her glasses with bright eyes, spotting the animal at once, even as she clutched her travel bag to her chest. “How fascinating! I wonder what kind of energy such a creature would have. Probably negative, don’t you think?”

  “Energy?”

  “I’m sure it’s a grim, you know, just like the ones in my books. A barghest. What the Welsh call a gwyllgi, though goodness knows I’m not pronouncing it right. A messenger from the faery realm.”

  “A messenger of what?”

  “Why, whoever sees a grim is usually dead in a month and almost always by violent means.”

  “Great. So, it’s the canine version of the Grim Reaper?”

 

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