THE ECHOING THUNDER OF hooves shattered the stillness of the morning air; seeming to come from all directions. The sound drew closer, growing louder and louder as the beast itself galloped nearer. A massive white stallion raced around the bend of the trail, the sight of the horse in itself enough to amaze anyone who might be watching.
     His tail and mane were brilliant, nearly as bright as the noonday sunlight.His tail streamed out behind him unfettered as he sped down the forest track. Every muscle stood out, rippling with each step that he took as he stretched out his long legs, plunging heedlessly around the bend of the road. His eyes flashed wildly, almost in madness. He was beautiful, yet deadly.
     This was an apt description of the rider of this steed as well. She was regal, yet wild; beautiful, but deadly as well. Her long blonde hair matched that of her steed; untamed, unbound, it blew about her face now, momentarily hiding it from view. She wore a plain peasant blouse of a deep green, and dark brown breeches, yet with one glance you knew that this was no ordinary maiden out for a midsummer ride.

     As the wind swept back her hair you could see her face, a vision of beauty. Her eyes, deep, lustrous pools of blue that a man could lose himself in, her lips so red, so full, enough to drive a man wild with desire. Her laugh rang out, pure joy in it as she sped down the forest path heedless of any danger. She feared no one, whether they be mortal or undead. This is the Lady Briana, companion to Lord Robin and a powerful witch in her own right.
     She had been born into a poor shareholder’s family, and it had not been  long before her powers were noticed. As she had grown and matured, so had her powers. When she was but a young woman, three young men of noble birth sought to take advantage of her shapely, well-formed body after the men had consumed a few too many flagons of ale at the local tavern. They were quickly persuaded that it would be unhealthy to pursue her favors any further by the fact that their breeches had suddenly burst into flames very close to a favorite part of their anatomy. They decided that it would be in their best interests to leave the area quickly—and screaming very loudly.
     From that time on she was shunned, the village fearful of the wrath of the noble-born. This was perfectly acceptable to her since it gave her more time to develop her skills. As she grew older, she found that most of the villagers were still quick to seek her help as soon as they were in need of her healing powers. Using her stock of herbs and roots, powders and potions, she was usually able to help the person by nursing them back to health. To this end she earned a measure of professional respect, but was still feared and loathed by many. Many of the women were jealous of her great beauty, and of the looks that their men cast her way as she walked through the village. And so they had been pleased when she met a man, married, and left the village.
     Tales were later told of her children, sired by this “man,” whom the villagers found out later was no man, but a demon that only appeared to be human to secure a mother for his children. For many years, Briana had suffered under his touch, his control, until she ferreted out the truth of what he was and what it was that he was about. Escaping his grasp with her two young children, she was able to run, but the demon followed close behind.
     In a desperate moment, knowing that her life and the lives of her children were forfeit, she rose up against him and cast him out of this world of Man, sending him back to the Hell from which he had been spawned. Free now, she had returned to her friends, the Sisters of the Dark Fell. By chance she finally met Lord Robin, but that in itself is a tale that needs be told at another time.
     And with this, we must return to the story at hand.

     This horse beneath her would lay down his own life to protect the lady that was riding him. Many found out too late that the stallion’s gentleness was only for the Lady Briana and, as the mood struck him, her companion, Lord Robin. Robin had made Briana a present of the stallion on the anniversary of their vows. Laughing, he had told her, “Here is the only creature of this world that I have ever encountered that may be a match for your fire and spirit, milove, and I hope that you have much better luck with him than I have.”
     For the stallion would let Robin groom him, saddle and bridle him and would behave perfectly until Robin attempted to mount to the saddle. “This is the only animal that I have ever seen that has the ability to turn inside out, upside down and jump ten rods all at the same time,” he laughed. “But I like his fire as much as yours, milady!” He kissed his lady as she turned her face up to him. “And I have no fear that you might handle him as well as you do me!” he laughed again. “His name is Eamnonn, ‘protector’ in the Old Tongue, and I am sure that he will be as faithful to you as am I.” Robin watched anxiously as Briana walked up to the stallion.
     She pulled his head down to a level with hers, looking into his eyes as he snorted and flared his nostrils at her. She placed her hand on the horse’s forelock and spoke to him softly. “Now know here and now that we are both creatures of fire,” she told him. “I seek a companion, not a slave, someone to share all the wonders we might see as we journey. Make your decision now to go with me or to take another path.”
     Eamnonn looked at her as if he understood every word that she had said to him, and well he might have. As Briana turned to walk away, the horse stretched his neck over the rail of the fence and nipped her on her backside. He then sprang away, racing across the paddock, his whinny echoing as if in laughter, his head lifted high. Racing around inside the fence, he bucked and stomped and displayed every bad characteristic ever known for a horse to possess. He would pitch one way, then spin with his head down, kicking up his heels and sending the stable boys diving off the top rail to escape his flying hooves.
     Robin, beside himself with laughter, went quickly over to Briana. “Come, Briana, let me rub that bite for you, milove!” He then turned and ran, nearly tripping over his own feet as she charged after him. Voicing dire threats of what she would do to him when she caught him, she chased him across the courtyard and into the castle. The servants smiled to themselves at their Lord and Lady’s antics, not a new sight to any of them. The two were often the subject of the conversation in the kitchen of a morning, all of the servants agreeing that they could only hope to someday find a love such as the one their master and mistress shared.

     For kingdoms around their tale was told, of their quest for love. A traveling minstrel was often seen telling their tale in poem and song in exchange for food and drink at the inns throughout the kingdom. There were even rumors that this was none other than Robin himself, traveling in disguise through the kingdom and gathering information for the king himself. All rumors, truth be told, but rumors are what feed the talk around the fires in the inns, are they not?
     We return to Lady Briana as she stands at one of the windows in their chambers, high in the castle, looking out over the valley below. She stands there, vigorously rubbing at the swollen cheek of her very shapely derriere. “If that nag can run half as well as he can nip, there will be no worry about anyone catching me!” She grimaced as she touched the sore spot. “I fear that
we must forego any lovemaking tonight, milove,” she said, turning now to where Robin stood nearby. “I don’t believe that there be any way to lie me down, except perhaps on a bed of the softest feathers with perhaps a silk pillow or two!”
     She went over to Robin, wrapping her arms around his neck and giving him an intense, lingering kiss. “Now tell me true, would you drop dead in your tracks if you were to miss my love for one night?” she questioned him, stroking a finger down the side of his jaw as she smiled up at him.
     “Milady,” he said, “you know as well as I that ’tis not your love that I will be missing, for I carry it with me always, but your body that is not mine tonight.” He laughed softly as he bent and kissed her silken throat, then her full, lush lips. “It has been a year today since we met, and seems like only yesterday.” She closed her arms about him and drew him in tight to her, kissing him with an intensity that never ceased to amaze him. Her kiss now fueled the spark within him that grew as a fire in the dry
grass of summer, raging, barely under control in a matter of moments. Their kisses grew more and more intense until at last a curtain was drawn about the bed, and we must leave them to their passion for a while.
     Later in the evening they came down to dine, just the two of them, the children off on various pursuits of their own for the time being. Just as they finished their meal, the Captain of the Guard entered and walked over to Robin, bearing a note. As Robin read it, his brow furrowed, his eyes becoming troubled. He looked back to the Captain. “Escort them in.” He stood and turned to Lady Briana. “There are troubles that we must discuss that mean we must forego our pleasure for now.” He sighed, looking down at the note in his hand again. “I have word of strange things taking place in the Southern Provinces; deeds of evil, and they ask me to find the cause and eliminate it, or them, whichever it may be.”
     Briana quickly came to him and laid her hand on his arm. “I have felt strange stirrings and grumbling from between the four worlds of man and spirits myself, Robin.” She thought again of Robin’s gift to her and frowned, turning away. “But you know of these as well, for what other reason would you bring me a protector?” Turning towards him, she stepped forward and embraced her knight. “I fear for you, that this journey will take you from me and leave me with naught but an empty life, no joy, no happiness left in this world for me.”
     Robin reached down and caressed her chin with his fingers, lifting her face towards his. Gazing into her eyes, he asked her, “Know you of a dream that you have not told me, my love? Perhaps an evil that I must watch for? For I have had no such foreboding through my own gift, but we know that it is not as far-reaching as yours. Tell me if you have, that I might be ready for it.”
     Briana sighed; her countenance growing even more troubled. She raised her lips to his and kissed him, then turned and walked over to the window, looking out over the courtyard below. “No, nothing such as that. It is probably just my own fears for us, but have you forgotten so quickly and easily that there is a demon that is most angry with the both of us, angry that we are together and sharing a love that spurned him? He is not to be taken lightly, for he is not of this world. He and his kind might travel amongst us in the dark times, wreaking such trouble as that which has been occurring in the South.”
     She turned back towards him. “I know that you are protected whilst you travel between the worlds, but forget not that you may still be killed by mortal means. A sword or an arrow can still take you from me, and this might be his work. A ready supply of men to do his deeds for him is always to be found wherever strong drink is served, and would not take much coin for the likes of those to come after you.”
Robin’s face darkened at her obvious distress. He quickly strode across the room, took her into his arms and kissed her soundly. Looking deep into her eyes, he told her, “You know that I have my Elven armor, forged link by link with their magic, through which nothing can pass. My helm and shield are gifts of the Faeries themselves; my sword forged by the Dwarves under the Mountain, ensorcelled by my fellow mages and also by your kin, the Sisters of the Fell. It would be only by trickery or the Foul One himself walking amongst us that I could be injured. Now worry not your pretty face, for you know that no harm can come to me…besides, I think that I now see a wrinkle on thy brow, most likely from worry, but perhaps…could it be your age beginning to show?”

     He ducked away, laughing as a roasted turkey leg flew past his head to hit the floor, sliding out through the doorway and into the passageway beyond. Unseen by the two, one of the servants picked it up and tossed it out the window to the hounds, who fell on it and devoured it in a matter of seconds.
     The serf stood for a moment watching as her Lord and Lady chased round the room, then she smiled and backed out of the door, closing it behind her and sped off, bursting with this latest tidbit of gossip to tell.
     Robin turned and caught Briana as she careened wildly around the corner of the table, pulled her to him and began kissing her most thoroughly. Briana threw back her head and laughed as Robin bent down and began to whisper naughtily in her ear, telling her what plans he had in store for her later on.
     Suddenly they heard voices as the visitors approached the doorway to the Great Room. Robin and Briana scrambled back to their seats, barely managing to reassume their poise before the door was opened and the Captain escorted several men into the room. Lord Robin rose to greet them. Nodding his head to them, he addressed the group of men. “I am Robin, Lord of Alleyne.” He then gestured towards Briana. “This is Briana, my companion and Lady of this castle.”
     The man who appeared to be the leader of the group wore the robes of a clergyman, the cloth a deep, rich scarlet with brilliant golden edging on the hem of the robe and sleeves. He stepped forward and clasped forearms with Robin, as was the custom. “I am Maighstir Alasdair in the Old Tongue of my Church,” he said, “Father Alexander in your language.” His speech was marked by an accent that Robin recognized as coming from the Green Isle, another land that lie some ways across the sea. The
Father turned and took Lady Briana’s hand as she offered it, brushing his lips lightly across the back of it as he bowed slightly to her. He stood up and gestured towards one of the men who had entered with him.
     “This is Caa’r McDal’in, who owns a farm near our village.” The farmer stood there holding his cap in his hands and turning it round and round, clearly very nervous in the presence of the Lord and Lady. He stood there looking at them as if he was afraid that one or the other would suddenly order him beheaded, or worse, perhaps transform him into a weasel or similar rodent.

     The Lord and Lady’s powers were well known throughout the entire land, as well as to the King himself, who was a very good friend of Lord Robin’s, having grown up in the same small farm village as Robin. Robin had helped him prove his claim to the throne and the new King had rewarded his friend very well, giving him his title and these lands. So the man’s fears were not
entirely groundless, but he did not know that most of the tales that were told were born of too much ale and too little brains.
     The third man stood there with a military demeanor about him. He was dark-skinned; his hair cut short, his eyes dark as well. Several scars were evident on his face and he had the air about him of one that expected to be set upon at any moment. Father Alexander motioned him forward.
     “This is Maor Caerdan, the Captain of the Guard for the Southern Province.” The man stepped forward, his eyes locking with Robin’s as he tipped his head slightly in greeting, then meeting Briana’s in turn. No expression crossed his face as he looked at them.
     Father Alexander cleared his throat. “My message told you much of why we are here. The people are coming to me telling of attacks by various monsters, some nearly fatal. The crops in the area are being trampled, the livestock killed outright and left to spoil or partially eaten, ripped to pieces. Travel has basically come to a halt with everyone too frightened to put their
head out of the door after the sun has set.” He gestured to Caa’r McDal’in, motioning for him to step forward. The farmer stood there, his cap now naught but a ragged bit of cloth in his hand, he had been worrying it so.
     McDal’in stepped up before the table. “’Tis true, milord, I saw it with my own two eyes, I did,” he stammered. “’Twas… ’Twas a monstrous black demon what ate my poor Aerin, he did. And her in her prime, she was. Give me but two little ones before the dark one come and did for her, she did.”
     Robin leaned forward in his chair and looked at the farmer. “I am sorry for your loss, I truly am. Had you been married long?”
     The farmer looked a bit confused at this and stammered so much now that he could barely talk. “’Tis…’tis not our way to…to marry livestock… milord…but… I was more than a bit fond of her, I was, for she was a good sheep after all, ye know.”

     Briana, doing her best to stifle her laughter in her handkerchief and failing, hastily made her excuses and fairly flew out of the room, finally losing her composure down the passageway; her laughter barely heard by the men in the room. Robin apologized for his mistake and a hearty laugh was had all around. He finished listening to the farmer’s account of the ravages
that he and his neighbors had suffered and then examined several objects that the farmer had brought with him that had been found on his land.
     Robin was able to sense the residue of the Dark Magic that lay on these objects and recognized them as having contained spells that could be invoked by the carrier. Usually an item such as these would contain a spell transporting the user to a location elsewhere so as to make a quick escape. He kept several of the items and instructed the Father on how to dispose of the
     During this time, Maor Caerdan had stood off to the side, but at least he had chuckled a bit when Robin had mistaken the farmer’s sheep for his wife. Now he stepped forward. “I am the Captain of the Guard for the Southern Province. When we were advised of the attacks near the marshland, we immediately searched the area. We found signs of no less than a score of attacks, all centering in this region.”
     He unrolled a map that had been drawn on a large piece of parchment and pointed to the markings that showed all of the reported attacks. “As soon as we verified the reports we sent word to the King.” He stepped back from the table. “He sent us back this message.” Taking a roll of parchment from his belt he placed it on the table. “He told us to take our reports to Lord Robin of Alleyne, that he would be most interested in them.”
     Robin leaned forward and took up the roll of parchment, noting the King’s seal on it. Breaking the wax, he unrolled it and saw nothing at all on the page.
     He smiled at his old friend’s use of a hidden message and whispered a simple spell. The parchment glowed brightly for a moment, letters appearing on it as the glow faded. Robin bent down to read it, tilting it towards the light from the candle. He read it and laughed.

     The message simply read, “Take care of this for me.”
     He rolled it up, assured the three that he would go to the Southland personally to eradicate the problem, and then had his servants take them to rooms for the night. He then made his own way to bed, eager to talk over what had happened with Briana.
     As he entered their chambers he suddenly stopped, then began to laugh uproariously as he spied Briana lying on the bed, her naked body barely covered in a sheepskin robe that she had managed to come up with from somewhere. “Baaaaa!” She looked at him with a light of pure mischief gleaming in her eyes, stood up and let the robe fall.

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