Home > Shadow Fallen (Dream-Hunters #6)

Shadow Fallen (Dream-Hunters #6)
Author: Sherrilyn Kenyon

 


PROLOGUE

 

 

Since the hour of his birth, Death had stalked him.

But never had it taken so fair a form as the lady who came for him now.

Dressed in a white flowing gown, Lady Death drifted through the billowing smoke, between the slain and wounded. Her pale flaxen hair blew in the strong breeze with spiraling tendrils like a battle standard. With a slow, determined stride, she picked her way through the fallen, heading straight for him as if he were the target she sought.

Valteri, so-called the Godless by all who knew and feared his brutal war skills, blinked at the sight, his eyes burning from the smoke and sweat, and the familiar stench of blood and spilled entrails that surrounded him.

A shadow from the right caught his attention. He turned in his saddle with his sword raised, just in time to prevent the Saxon’s seax from slicing his thigh.

With two swift, clean strokes he finished his attacker and dared a quick look back at the eerie form that was so out of place in this battle.

A vision of purity among death.

Not for one heartbeat did he mistake her for an angel. He’d abandoned such foolish stupidity long ago. Along with the reckless faith that had led his brothers-in-arms to pledge their service and souls to a feckless God he knew didn’t exist.

So why was she here? What man would allow his daughter or wife near such grisly horrors?

All Saxon males who remained able-bodied drew around her as if they would protect her. Baffled by their flagrant stupidity, Valteri shook his head. Their number would scarce frighten a babe, let alone the Norman army that had cut through them with little difficulty.

Fools all.

The sounds of battle settled into a raspy silence, broken only by the occasional neigh of a horse, or moan of the dying as they begged for mercy or cried out for their mother or wife.

“Milady, why do you come?”

Valteri curled his lip at the coarseness of that most hated Saxon language that had been used to ridicule and mock him the whole of his childhood.

She lifted her chin with a courage to rival even the bravest of men among them and turned away from the Saxon who’d questioned her.

“Who leads this army?” She spoke in Norman French. Her tone, a silken caress to his ears.

She met his gaze and her look burned through him.

“Milord!”

Something grabbed Valteri’s arm.

The face of the angel dissipated as the tugging continued.

With a curse, he swatted at the pest, but contacted only with air. Angered over the interruption of his dream, he blinked open his eyes to see his irritating dark-haired squire standing next to his cot. “’Tis a messenger from your brother, the king!” Wace’s youthful face beamed in the cheerful manner that always annoyed Valteri first thing in the morning.

Or at any other time, if the truth were told.

Gah! It figured.

No beautiful woman to wake him. Only a pestering, gangly man-child.

How could anyone be so damned cheery in the morn? Especially when the sun shined so brightly at this unholy, early hour?

What was wrong with the lad?

You don’t beat him enough.

That would certainly have been Wace’s old master’s answer for it.

And it was why Valteri tolerated Wace with a patience that didn’t come naturally to him.

Anyone else, he’d gut for being an ass and daring to wake him before he was ready. Growling in protest, Valteri pushed back the blanket and rose. “I’ll be there whenever I arrive. Let the bastard wait.” He reached for his breeches and tunic and shrugged them on without any great care or hurry.

What the devil could William want with him? He’d quelled the Saxons, and now all he sought was freedom to return to the Continent, where he intended to search until he found another army or cause to fight for. William had his land and kingdom. It was time he kept his word and gave Valteri the coin he’d been promised.

He was done with this fetid country that held nothing save bad memories for him, as well as William’s lunatic cause. Why wouldn’t his brother let him go already? A promise was a promise, and he’d more than met his.

At least when it came to his word to William.

His word to himself …

He was an idiot.

I should have never returned to this cursed place. That had been the promise he’d made to himself as a boy. If by some miracle they don’t kill me … if I survive to adulthood, I shall never again step foot on English soil.

But life had a way of taking him places he never intended to go. And against all sanity, he’d allowed his brother to talk him into this quest for a crown that no one needed.

Indeed, such power came at an unbearable cost. In terms of life and the noose it placed around the victor’s neck. William might rule England, but there was never any peace for a man in royal robes.

“Help me, Val.” Valteri grimaced at the memory of Will’s words and his older brother’s pleading eyes when William had come to him at the tourney in Ressons-sur-Matz. “We’re family.”

He’d scoffed at his half brother’s sentimentality. “I’m a bastard by birth and temperament, Will. I’ve no need of any family, even you. Take your titles and shove them up your arse.”

Unlike his sibling, his parents and grandparents had cast him off at the moment of his birth and judged him cursed, as he’d survived while his older twin brother had been stillborn. Refusing to even look after him, they’d sent him to England so that none of them would ever have to suffer the embarrassment of seeing his despised countenance again.

As if his twin’s death had been his fault.

Not one word from any of them for the whole of his life.

Only William had ever laid any claim and then, only when he needed something …

It had infuriated him. Had William not been such a high-ranking noble and had they not been standing in France, surrounded by Will’s allies, he’d have run him through just for uttering those stupid words.

Brother …

But while he was suicidal, he had no desire to be tortured another second before his enemies finally ended his miserable life. He’d suffered more than enough abuse. There was no need to purposefully add more.

Rather than be offended by his hostility, Will had smirked at him. “You owe me.”

Valteri had scoffed. “What I owed, I paid back long ago with my sword arm.”

“Then do this for the only thing you seem to love. Money. Win my kingdom for me and I shall reward you with enough coin that you’ll never again want for anything. Your reputation is such that I know half the country will surrender the minute they see your banner among my army.”

That, too, had galled him.

But his brother was right. Men were terrified of him and money was all Valteri cared about. Unlike people, coin didn’t turn against the one who held it. It didn’t plot or lie.

Or abandon those who depended on it.

While it could be stolen, given, or taken, it didn’t voluntarily leave.

It was the only thing he put his faith in. The only thing on this earth that he could trust.

Aside from his sword arm.

And his horse.

In thirty-three years, those were the only things in his life that had never once betrayed him. Though to be honest, his horse had thrown him a time or two.

But he preferred to think it was due to his own incompetence and not any intentional malice on his horse’s part. Otherwise, he’d have to hold a few of his sword breaks in battle against his sword, and that just seemed a bit paranoid, even for him.

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