The Legend of a Rogue by Darcy Burke


Prologue





Lammas Fair, August 1744

Dunkeld, Scotland

“After that, Ranulf carried the dagger with him everywhere he went.” Elspeth Marshall looked around at the dozen or so children who were gathered in a semicircle on the lawn listening to her recount the tale of Ranulf and Hilaria.

“And it worked?” one of the older girls asked. “He didn’t fall in love with Hilaria?”

“That’s correct,” Elspeth said. “The dagger prevented it.”

“Because the witch Mazelina enchanted the dagger to protect him from the Heart of Llanllwch,” another girl, with bright red hair, said with a touch of impatience. Her attempt at the Welsh double-l sound wasn’t quite right, but it was very difficult to make. Elspeth had worked years to get it right.

The first girl, a blonde, frowned with disappointment. “But he should be with Hilaria.”

“She shouldn’t have tried to use the magic heart to win him,” the redhead said. “That wasn’t fair.”

“All is fair in matters of love and war,” the blonde argued. “Hilaria loves him, and Maud isn’t very nice.”

Elspeth smiled at the blonde. “Well, we know that, but Ranulf doesn’t. She’s very nice to him, isn’t she?”

The redhead scoffed. “He’s blinded by love.”

“Will you finish the story?” a boy of about ten asked.

“Of course.” Elspeth picked up the thread. “Ranulf was indeed blinded by his love for Maud. He failed to see how much Hilaria cared for him. However, his younger brother, Aldred, was not so foolish. Captivated by the kind and beautiful Hilaria, he fell in love with her instead.

“The cunning Maud used her friendship with Hilaria’s sister to encourage their union. She also continued to woo Ranulf. Smitten as he was, he married her, breaking Hilaria’s heart.”

The blonde gasped and shook her head. A few of the children spoke amongst themselves. Elspeth looked past them and saw that several adults, besides the children’s parents, had also gathered. One of them, an exceptionally tall, broad-shouldered gentleman leaned against a tree. His arms were crossed over his chest as he watched Elspeth intently.

“Do not fret,” Elspeth soothed the girl. “For Aldred was gentle and charming, and most of all, patient. He asked Hilaria to be his wife and while she refused him at first, she eventually relented.”

“Was she trying to make Ranulf jealous?” the blonde asked.

The redhead turned toward her friend. “What would it matter? Ranulf was already married.” She looked back to Elspeth. “Please say that Hilaria grew to love Aldred.” Her keen expression showed how involved she was in the story, which delighted Elspeth. Telling stories, especially to children, gave her such joy.

Elspeth glanced back at the tall stranger. He was still intently engaged. Something about the way he watched her sent a shiver down her spine. Not a bad, apprehensive shiver, but one that made her heart beat faster with anticipation.

Putting her attention back to the story, Elspeth said, “As a matter of fact, Hilaria did grow to love Aldred. He was a kind and loving husband, and soon Hilaria forgot all about Ranulf. By then, however, Ranulf had learned just how conniving and cold his wife could be. He regretted marrying Maud and not giving Hilaria a chance, especially when he saw how happy Hilaria and Aldred were.”

“So did the magic heart even work?” a boy asked. “It was supposed to make Ranulf fall in love with Hilaria, but he didn’t. I think it wasn’t real.”

“But it had already been used to make others fall in love by the time it came to Hilaria.” This came from the tall stranger, prompting all the children—and Elspeth—to look in his direction.

The man continued, his gaze on the boy who’d asked about the heart. “If Ranulf hadn’t found out she had the heart and gone to the witch Mazelina to ask for a way to stop its magic, he would have been beguiled, just as Hilaria intended.”

“I’m glad he wasn’t,” the redhead said, crossing her arms. “Hilaria shouldn’t have wanted to trick him. Either he loved her or he didn’t. And he didn’t.”

“But he was sorry he married Maud,” the blonde said. “Maybe he and Hilaria were meant to be.”

The redhead gaped at her. “What about Aldred?”

Elspeth chuckled. This story never failed to provoke discussion. Perhaps that was why it was one of her very favorites.