“Oh, my God. I’m driving the wrong way!” Rebecca Fairfax quit staring at the lovely wildflowers growing in profusion by the side of the country road and hit the brakes—hard—skidding the back wheel of her cherry-red Honda Gold Wing motorcycle to an abrupt halt.
“Damn it, why can’t everyone the world over commit to driving on the same darn side of the road?” she muttered from under her safety helmet, using her foot to help rotate the heavy bike around to face the correct way. Running late, check. Needing to use the bathroom, check. Losing my bloody mind, as evidenced by my accepting the Ringers’ dare to kiss a duke, check and mate.
After backtracking for a mile, she noted the brown tourist road sign she’d missed the first time. Castle Piers, next exit, with an image of a castle outlined in white. Sixty seconds later she made the turn, loving the sensation of the huge bike vibrating between her thighs while the world lived close, the air sweet with the aroma of honeysuckle, the wind caressing the bare skin of her cheeks. Riding a bike made being human different, somehow more raw and real. No other form of travel could compete. And, thanks to Lacey’s William James Thornton Ш, the powerful bike had been waiting at the five-star hotel when Rebecca had arrived in glorious London last night.
Then Castle Piers came into view and the oh my God stuck in her throat.
Perfection. Surrounded by a vast moat stippled with water lilies and swans a-floating? She half expected the Lady of the Lake to rise and present her with Excalibur. Mesmerized, she rolled back on the throttle, bringing the bike to a standstill, bracing it with her feet and turning off the motor. She kicked out the back stand, and, with one booted foot outstretched to add stability to the motorcycle, leaned back in the leather saddle, determined to take the time to drink in the awesome sight. The sweet, fresh fragrance of early summer assailed her senses and she tipped her head back, eyes closed.
Then a new idea hit, making her reach for her notebook from under the elastic cord on the seat behind her. She began scribbling down her first impressions, afraid she’d regret not getting this moment back for posterity if she let it go, whether she was running late or not.
Xaviera St. Clair, her alter ego and the superheroine of Rebecca’s International Intrigue series, was scheduled to visit a castle during her next adventure. Rebecca’s skin tingled with ideas for the fun plot she’d dreamed up. Xaviera was going to learn how to handle the wiles of one Pierce Knight, art thief and man of a thousand faces. The steamy story included a definite proclivity for over-the-top escapades in the bedroom. Rebecca’s body heated further as she imagined the twists and turns of their delicious romps before switching her attention to capturing the view in front of her. This was her last book to finish out her contract before she began writing in her new genre, historical literary, and she wanted it to be the best one yet.
Centered in the middle of the water, above the soft gray mist, stood a castle right out of myth and legend. Its sheer gray stone towers rose skyward, with only a narrow causeway across the lake giving access to the gatehouse with the great nail-studded oak doors. A pennant flying atop one battlement snapped and fluttered briefly against the pale sky before changing direction, and a barely visible rainbow, leftover from the early morning drizzle, floated in a semicircle, caressing the tops of the trees with their lace of leaves. Wow. Just wow.
The mythology rushed over her, tugging at her soul. She could write here in her spare time. Research more about Samuel W. Piers, the founder of the Hermetic Order of the Rising Sun, a Freemason and ousted ancestor of the Piers family, until the cows came home. The expression amused her, and she gave a soft chuckle, remembering summers spent on her adopted grandparents’ farm helping pluck eggs from under irate, territorial chickens. The dusty smell of the henhouse sprang instantly into memory and she sneezed aloud in sympathy for her childhood self.
Time to quit dawdling, Rebecca. She tucked the slim journal back under its elastic holder, then gave a booted kick with her right foot to release the stand keeping the bike upright, pressed the starter and hit the gas. Maybe she could catch up with the tour yet.
Down the causeway she drove at a somewhat more circumspect speed, careful not to spill the motorbike over the steep sides and into the lake. Ha, imagine arriving covered in trails of green foliage like a water sprite rising from the mists. Not the first impression she’d want to make for the Piers family, hosting her this summer while she researched their ancestral home’s secrets.
Okay. So they don’t know my full agenda, thinking me here just to help run their social affairs. And, I might add, paying for the privilege, thanks to my Brass Ringers’ wish package. She snorted. Who else would get away with that bit of cheek but a family living in a castle right out of Camelot?
A second later, she had the oddest sensation of leaving her old life behind when she hit the halfway mark of the land bridge, a sense of being at a crossroad so unusual that she slowed down again, shaking her head to dispel the disquiet.
The frantic words surged into her brain, thrusting away misgivings. She gunned the bike, driving under the portcullis and into the courtyard. Catching a blur of a figure out of the corner of her eye, she slammed the bike to a stop, sending the back wheel spinning into a semicircle before the machine ground to a jerky halt. She jumped off, asking forgiveness for the mishandling. She hated to take the time to kick the stand into place, but she couldn’t bear to see the bike take a tumble. She ran full pelt toward the spot where she’d spied the furtive action.
Where did they go?
She swiveled her head, trying to catch another glimpse of movement.
The perp vanished between two stone pillars in the courtyard. No one followed on her heels, though she strained to catch any sounds of pursuit. She ran full tilt. Thank goodness I memorized the layout of the castle before I left Canada.
Her heart beating too rapidly, her boots slapping noisily on the pavestones, she dared a glance backward. A small group of tourists hovered about what looked like the tour guide in a yellow safety vest, pointing in the direction she was running, as if to direct her. No help there. She turned and ducked under a narrow overhang, wondering if she were nuts. If something had been stolen, it wasn’t hers, after all. But, damn it, it’s the principle of the thing.
Cooler inside, the massive stone castle pressed in around her, causing a sense of dislocation. Footsteps echoed hollowly, making her run faster, down the length of the corridor.
“Damn it anyway! Who steals from a fortress surrounded by a moat?” The map she’d pored over didn’t show any way out in this direction, though it could be missing some key features kept secret.
Her lungs burned. Note to self—up the workouts. Far too easy to beg off and write another scene for the current manuscript and skip the less fun part.
She glimpsed the culprit taking another turn. There were damn fast, she’d give them credit for that. They’d been up and down so many passageways her head was spinning.
Dashing around another corner near the kitchen, she tripped, catching herself with one hand pressed against a sharp stone edge. Dank, cooler air assailed her nostrils. An abyss lay dead ahead with steps leading downward and out of sight. She teetered on the edge, jerking her body backwards at the last possible second. Great. Just about ended myself before my overseas adventure begins. Second thought, looks like it has begun. This is right out of an action movie set. She made light of what could have been a critical error, sweat trickling down her spine, her guardian angel hissing in her ear about the cost of being careless.
“Yeah, I know,” she muttered.
She clambered down the stairs, holding on to the cold stone sides. No handrails, of course. Down, down she went, moving into uncharted territory she had no mental map for, making the going a whole lot riskier. She swore she could hear a bell tolling, upping her apprehension.
The tunnel narrowed, pools of water appearing on the floor. She gave a quick look to check out why. Oh, boy. Tiny waterfalls were following the path of narrow crevices worn into the walls. The water level deepened, more than could be explained by the trickles. Where was it coming from? She splashed through water up to her ankles. It flowed over her boot tops, soaking her feet and chilling her to the bone. Oh, my God, I’m under the goddamn lake. The thought made her breath freeze solid, two lumps of ice for lungs. This was a whole different enchilada. What if something above was just about ready to give way? Her fear of drowning reared, nearly stopping her heart.
To up her courage, she began to sing an old Johnny Cash song. “How high’s the water, papa? Sixteen feet and rising. How high’s the water, mama?” Her voice echoed off the walls. If the deluge got as high as in the song suggested, she would mostly likely drown, trapped in the tunnels under the castle like a sewer rat. She shuddered and kept up the singing, louder now to drown out the fear and the voice of reason.
She stopped mid-tune at an odd thudding sound very close by. Rebecca pressed on, far more frightened than she’d ever been before during her quarter century on the planet. I don’t want to die, not before I’ve lived. Think about something else. Anything else. At least a few sconces lit the way, some kind of portable device someone had rigged up. Maybe the thief?
She stopped mid-stride. Her peripheral vision had caught a glimpse of symbols carved into the rock, something man-made. An eye within the compass and the square, forming a partial pentagram. Not large, but distinct, and old, centuries old, Freemason imagery, found in many locations the world over. But it was the addition of another symbol nudged up against it that sent a shiver of excitement racing through her bloodstream. King Solomon’s seal.
She swallowed hard, her heart pounding as she stared at the marking, taking it all in, never having thought that her research would lead to so powerful a find so early in her journey to England. It boggled her mind what it meant, what it stood for. The threads of time were staring her in the face, and not many could make the connections her feverish brain could.
The pentagram within a double ring with an Egyptian ankh housed inside was a secret symbol known only to a few souls who didn’t mind spending time in musty libraries. The pentagram was also an alchemical symbol, the intersecting triangles representing the elements of fire and water or the elements of male and female. The symbols had later been adopted by a group of like-minded occult seekers, one of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn’s splinter charters, the Order of the Rising Sun. And the reason she was at Castle Piers.
The Piers family tree included a black sheep, the leader of the splinter group, one Samuel W. Piers, who’d run the Osiris-Sun Temple for the Rising Sun Order more than a hundred years ago. The mysteries of his leadership, the missing artifacts and the secret knowledge he was said to possess called across the ages, fascinating a small band of researchers, of which she was one—though she left the magical demonology part of the practice to others.
She reached out a hand with awe. She was about to touch her Holy Grail. Her fingers traced the ancient carvings, steeped in such mysterious history and beauty, and she shook her head in disbelief. Gobsmacking. Rudyard Kipling could not have been prouder, the storyteller behind The Man Who Would Be King, the tale of a pair of Freemasons looking to be kings of Kafiristan. He’d borrowed the imagery of that order, and now here she stood, tracing the stardust of that mythology connected to King Solomon.