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Sword of Darkness
by Kinley MacGregor
Avon, 2006


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Chapter One

Seren stood before the aged guild masters with all her hopes showing brightly on her face as they examined the workmanship of her precious scarlet cloth. They reminded her of a group of crows, swathed in black, gathered over their latest victim. But not even that thought could dampen her hopes that they each held in their gnarled hands.

For the whole of the last year, she had worked diligently on the scarlet cloth they examined, using every spare coin, every spare moment to prepare it. Like a woman possessed, she had dragged out her mother's old wooden loom at night and worked with only the firelight to guide her.

With every brush of her comb, every thread, she had felt the power of her creation.

It was perfect. There were no discrepancies in the dye or stitches. Truly, it was a masterpiece.

And if they accepted it, then she would finally be a journeywoman and a guild member. At long last, she would be her own person! All her dreams of freedom and of being paid coin for her hard work would come true. There would be no more days of working from sunup to sundown for room and board from Master Rufus, of having to scrub clothes late at night for Mistress Maude to pay for her supplies.

She could sell her own cloth . . .

She could --

"Not good enough."

Seren blinked at the harsh pronouncement as she stared at the four men before her. "P-pardon?"

"Not good enough," the master craftsman said with a curl to his lips as he looked at her work. "I wouldn't use it for a horse blanket."

Seren couldn't breathe as her heart shrank. Nay! He was wrong. He had to be. "But I -- "

"Take it," he said, tossing the cloth at her. "Come back to us when you're worthy of the trade."

The red cloth stung her face from the force of his throw. Unable to move, she stood there with it falling from her head to her arms. Instinctively, she held it to her even though she didn't know why she bothered to protect it since it was now worthless to her.

Her soul cried out in disappointment as all her dreams withered and died in the cold room.

How could they say such a thing about her work? It was a lie. She knew it. Her cloth was perfect.

Perfect!

She wanted to scream that word, but all the bitter disappointment gathered in her throat to tighten it and choke her until she could no longer speak. This couldn't be happening. It couldn't be real.

Someone came forward and pulled her away from the masters, toward the door in the back. Tears fell uncontrollably from her face as the harsh words echoed repeatedly in her head.

How could her cloth not be worthy?

"I spent all my time on this," she whispered, her heart breaking. "All my precious coin." She'd worn rags so she could buy the materials she'd needed to produce the cloth. She'd gone all winter with holes in her shoes, only to be told that all her sacrifices had been in vain.

How could this be?

" 'Tis not your cloth," the man whispered as he pulled her from the hall. "There are too many weavers here. They will admit no more to the guild until one leaves or dies."

Was that supposed to comfort her? To feed her? Nay, it did nothing but make her angry.

Damn them all for this.

"Take my word for it, child, you are better off without being in the guild."

"How so?"

He placed her hand on her cloth and gave her a peculiar look of warning. "You have much larger matters to concern yourself with than being an apprentice. Believe me."

Before she could ask him what he meant, the man pushed her out into the street. She heard him bolt the door behind her.

Seren stood there on the stoop of the guildhall with all her dreams shattered. She was an apprentice still, and so long as she bore that title, she couldn't charge a fee for her work. Couldn't marry. Couldn't do anything more than what Master Rufus or Mistress Maude told her to do.

She had no life to call her own. And from the looks of it, she never would.

Bitter anger washed through her as she stared at her perfect, useless cloth.

"What good are you?" she sobbed. By law, she couldn't even use the cloth to make a gown for herself. Only those of noble birth could wear the bright color. It was fit for naught but burning.

All was lost.

"Excuse me?"

Seren wiped at the tears on her face as she turned to see a tall, well-dressed knight nearing her. His golden blond hair brushed his incredibly wide shoulders. He was dressed in mail armor covered by a deep green surcoat that bore a rampant silver stag . . . The weave of said garment was not nearly so fine as her scarlet cloth, and yet she held no doubt it had been made by someone those beasts had granted guild status to while denying it to her.

Stop it, Seren.

The cloth he wore wasn't important. The fact that a man of his class spoke to her was. She couldn't imagine what he might want with her.

Making sure that she didn't offend him by meeting his gaze, she spoke in an even, calm tone. "Is there something I can do for you, my lord?"

He glanced behind him toward another handsome knight who looked close enough in features to be a relation of some sort. Only that knight had his blond hair cut shorter and wore a well-trimmed beard.

"Are you Seren of York, the weaver's apprentice?"

She cocked her head suspiciously, wondering how noblemen had learned her name and why they would know it. "Why do you ask me such, my lord?"

Excerpted from Sword of Darkness by Kinley MacGregor. Copyright © 2006 by Kinley MacGregor. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.











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