Sample Sundays seem to be a well-received success, so I thought I would add a Readalong Monday. I’ve posted excerpts of all my books on my website, but sometimes a reader needs more than just a snippet here and there, so my thought is to give all my readers an entire book. Each Monday, I’ll post a new chapter. It’s like getting a free book, folks Woot Woot! And the fun part is, if you have any questions or want to discuss it…you can post and I’ll answer. Or someone else will answer. Or we’ll all answer *g*
I thought I would start off with Through A Dark Mist. It was my first medieval, my first foray into the greenwood of Lincolnshire, and by the end, had planted the seeds in my brain for making it my own interpretation of the Robin Hood legend, which took me happily through two more books. This was also the book that came about from a dream. A recurring dream I’d had for years. I was having lunch one day with my editor and told her about the dream, and she said, why not write it down, it sounds kind of exciting and intriguing…I mean, why would a relatively modern woman keep having the same dream about a woman locked in a cave on a cliff, chased by men in chain mail, shot at with a bow and arrow. I took her advise, wrote it down exactly the way I dreamt it , and voila…
Through A Dark Mist Copyright 2011 © Marsha Canham
She could swear she heard voices—not just one, but several—and she struggled painfully to her feet, her back scraping the length of the rough stone wall. The cell was small, cold, and damp. The air stank with a combination of mould and salt spray, echoed with the sound of waves crashing furiously against unseen ramparts of rock.
Servanne slid her hands up through the slime that coated the rotted wood of the narrow oak door and reached for a fingerhold on the ledge carved high above her head. A natural chink in the stone passed for the only window and was her sole means of determining if it was day or night. Even then she had to rely on her instincts to know if it was hazy sunlight or bright moonlight penetrating the tangled mat of moss and lichen that grew over the outer wall.
Scarcely average in height, she could do no more than curl her torn fingers over the lip of serrated stone and pull herself up on tiptoes to judge the source of light. Was it daylight, moonlight, or firelight? Was it voices she had heard, or was it the surf and the wind playing games with her sanity? Someone was playing games with her sanity, that much was a certainty, for between the incredible cold, the dampness, the incessant pounding of the waves, and the complete isolation, she feared the strongest of minds could not long resist the lure into madness.
Was this what De Gournay hoped for? Was he hoping madness, or the threat of it, would wear away her resistance and make her succumb to his demands like a sheep succumbs to slaughter?
Servanne’s eyes were dry and burning, and she realized she must have slept for a time despite her vows against it. She could not distinguish much in the murky half-light that permeated her cell, but she could hear enough furtive rustling in the mouldered straw to know she was not the solitary inhabitant of the stone cage. The terror of waking up to find rats gnawing on her flesh had decided her against seeking refuge in sleep, but after having wept a pool of tears, her eyelids had simply grown too swollen to resist any further.
With an anguished sob she slumped against the uneven stone wall, the tears stinging hot and sudden in her eyes. There were no voices. No one had come to rescue her, no one had even come to see if she was alive or dead since she had first been flung into the cell. There were guards out there somewhere; she had heard the occasional clink of armour as they paced back and forth to warm themselves. And one of them seemed to take special delight in pausing outside the door to describe in lurid detail what he and his companions intended to do with her to relieve their boredom.
Servanne suppressed a moan as she clasped her small hands around her upper arms and hugged herself through a violent bout of shivering. Sweet Mother Mary in Heaven, but she was cold! Cold clean through to the marrow of her bones. The pale yellow silk of her tunic was no protection against elements that were causing discomfort to coarse, sweat-stained men who stood about in bullhide armour and full overlays of Damascene chain mail. Petite, slender as a willow, regal as befitting a gentlewoman of noble birth, Servanne de Briscourt had appeared before the gawping, staring guardsmen like a sylph, her gown and surcoat frothing about her ankles with the airiness of sea foam, her long blonde hair left unbraided, free of its confining wimple, and cascading in a wealth of glossy curls to her waist. For the duration of her week-long stay at Bloodmoor Keep, she had felt their hot eyes devouring her, and until this morning, she had been able to return their hungry stares coolly and disdainfully, confident they would not dare to lay so much as a fingertip to the heel of her slipper.
The yellow silk was torn in a dozen places now, soiled with the filth and muck of her stone cell. Her face felt puffed, and she knew it was bruised and badly discoloured. Her slim white arms were marbled black and blue from the steely grip of uncaring hands; she had lost one dainty silk slipper and the jewelled girdle of gold links she had worn about her hips had long been broken up among her captors to compensate them for their troubles.
Her cell measured four paces in length, three in width. The only entrance was through a low-slung oaken door, the planks of which were studded and bound in iron that was badly corroded from the sea air. Servanne had been semiconscious when she had been dragged from the castle tower, only dimly aware of the cold bite of the air and of lewd hands pinching at her breasts and buttocks. There had been talk of putting her in the donjon beneath the keep, but De Gournay had obviously believed the stone cage might be more effective in winning her cooperation.
Vague images of being pushed, dragged, and carried through the dank and cramped passageways that tunneled through the underbelly of the sprawling castle brought further distorted recollections of exiting through a postern gate in the outer walls. She remembered screaming and drawing back, for the gate opened onto a jagged ledge etched into the sheer face of a cliff. There had been only empty sky above and beyond, the angry crash and thunder of raging seas below. She had thought it was to be her end then and there, a wisp of yellow flung into the rising sheets of spume, and indeed, had it not been for the sturdy grasp of her guard, she might have quickened her meeting with fate—would surely have done so if she had known the hell of uncertainty and fear that awaited her.
Led down a hair-raising spiral of rock to a point midway along the wall of the cliff, she had scratched runnels of blood from the guard’s face and arms as he had pushed her into a cell eroded naturally out of the stone, sealed unnaturally by oak and iron. She had been given neither food nor water since. Neither screams nor pleas nor bursts of pounding rage had had any effect on the thick iron bar that had been slammed across the outer surface of the door.
Lucien had tried to warn her. Dearest God, Lucien had warned her not to trifle with forces she did not understand, but she had not listened. She had … dear Christ … she had doubted Lucien instead. Doubted, questioned, even been half-convinced of his madness.
Servanne stiffened, her wide blue eyes flicking up to the window slit again. She hoarded her breath, her ears straining to hear over the booming thunder of the sea. Something was happening outside her small, dank prison cell. Someone was out there, talking to the guard … laughing!
Servanne scrambled back into the farthest corner of the cell, shocked numb by the unexpected sound.
Laughter? In a world that held only darkness, pain, and terror? Was it another of De Gournay’s ploys to strip her of her sanity, or was this simply the beginning of the end? Had he finally reached a decision as to what to do with her? Had something happened to make him believe he no longer needed to keep her alive to fulfill his greedy ambitions?
Something bumped against the door once, twice, and a muffled cry was bitten short before it was fully formed. Servanne covered her mouth with her hand and tasted the metallic bitterness of blood as she tried in vain to stifle the scream rising in her own throat. She heard the iron bolt scraped slowly back out of its slot, and she watched in horror as the door began to creak open.
Her hair, filthy and matted beyond any semblance of its former beauty, whipped across her face on a gust of icy, mist-drenched wind, blinding her as effectively as the sudden glare of the torch that was thrust through the narrow entry-way. The figure holding the torch had to bend almost double to clear the low doorway, and in those first searing seconds, revealed nothing more to Servanne than the bulk of his coarse gray monk’s cowling.
The intruder straightened to his full height, the top of his hooded head coming an inch shy of the moss-covered ceiling. His eyes were squinted against the smoking pitch, and as they swept around the confines of the cell, a curse marked their discovery of the pale splash of yellow silk cringing against the corner.
Her hand raised to shield her eyes against the glaring torchlight, Servanne choked back another scream as she caught sight of the steel dagger clutched in the monk’s hand, its blade slicked wet and red to the hilt. A further horror greeted her eyes as she identified the huddled black bulk at his feet: the guard who had apparently shared the monk’s laughter but a moment ago now lay sprawled across the threshold of the door. The head, with its conical steel helmet, was almost completely severed from the neck, and blood was gouting in thick, steaming pulsations to form a slick red pool on the stone.
She jerked her gaze upward at the same instant the monk pushed back the gray horsehair hood to reveal, not the tonsured baldness of an almoner, but a full, gleaming mane that fell thick and gloriously unkempt to the broadest pair of shoulders in all of Christendom.
“Lucien?” she gasped. “Is it … really you?”
“Name another man fool enough to chase after you on a night such as this,” he said, grinning with the heartbreakingly familiar slash of strong white teeth.
“I thought you were dead,” she whispered, not believing what her eyes were seeing. “When no one came … when I heard nothing … I thought you were dead.”
“Did you think you could be rid of me so easily?” came the softly chiding rejoinder.
Her eyes flooded with tears, Servanne flung herself across the width of the cell and felt the long, powerful arms sweep her into a crushing embrace. The blood-slicked poniard dropped forgotten onto the ground and his hands raked into the tousled mass of her hair, holding her against him, tilting her lips up to his for a kiss as passionate and consuming as a physical act of love.
“Lucien!” a voice hissed from the doorway. “Can you not celebrate later, when we have the time and leisure to do so?”
Servanne could not withhold the cry as the hungry caress ended abruptly on a ragged curse. The taste of him, the feel of him, the scent of the courage and freedom that lingered on his skin drowned her senses and she was not aware of the hurried exchange that passed between the two men, she only knew Lucien was alive. He was here with her. He had come for her despite the treachery, the betrayal, the deceit, and the lies!
The second cowled figure crowded the doorway and for the briefest flicker of torchlight, his lean hawk-like features glowed in the saffron light.
Alaric! Sweet merciful Virgin Mary, they were both alive: Lucien and Alaric!
“My lady.” Alaric’s easy smile belied the concern in the soft brown eyes as he swiftly assessed her battered, deteriorated condition. “Are you well enough? Can you walk?”
“I shall run as fast as the wind if need be,” she assured him without hesitation, her own beautiful smile shining through her tears.
Lucien took Servanne’s hand in his and, cautioning her to duck low, led her out of the dank stone chamber and into the brisk night air. Wind snatched instantly at the shreds of her skirt, sending the silk swirling around her ankles in a yellow corkscrew. As eager as she was to flee, Servanne stumbled across the width of the rocky ledge and froze. Where the path continued down the cliff, it was barely three feet wide; the slightest misstep would send them hurling into the black and boiling frenzy of the sea two hundred yards below. The moon was on the downward slide of its journey across the sky and offered no relief from the heavy shadows. What light it shed fell mainly on the mist-shrouded walls and ramparts of the castle at the top of the cliff.
Bloodmoor Keep, perched on the very edge of the precipice above them, loomed like a black and monstrous predator, the tall battlements and jutting barbicans silhouetted against the night sky, impregnable, cold, and silent as death.
Servanne shuddered involuntarily and Lucien, noting she was as blue from cold as she was from the abuse she had endured, stripped himself of his robes and handed her the woolen garment.
“Here, put this on,” he ordered. “We have a way to go yet and—”
“Lucien—” Alaric called softly. “Come quickly.”
Lucien followed Alaric’s outthrust finger and saw a line of bright orange dots spilling out of the postern gate at the base of the castle wall. A dozen guards carrying a dozen torches were making their way down the side of the cliff, lighting the way for a dozen more armed with swords and crossbows.
“Go!” Alaric shouted, ridding himself of the hindrance of the monk’s robes. “I’ll loose a few arrows their way to discourage them long enough for you to get Lady Servanne below.”
Lucien hesitated, the desire for blood and revenge warring • with the need to see his love to safety.
“In God’s name”—Alaric had to shout to penetrate through the fog of Lucien’s rage—“we have not come this far to lose to them now! Go! I will join you in a trice, have no fear. I have no more intention of perishing on this godforsaken eyrie than I have intentions of walking back toLincoln.”
Knowing there was no time to argue, Lucien took Servanne’s hand tightly in his and began leading her carefully down the steep and uneven pathway. Behind them, Alaric cursed wholeheartedly as he armed himself with the crossbows of the dead sentries. An expert marksman, he struck the first two targets he aimed for, sending both to a screaming death over the lip of the cliff. He could easily have dealt with the rest, each in their turn, but a quick count showed only seven bolts in the one quiver, and three in the second, ruling out the luxury of too long a delay or of an ill-timed miss. He rearmed both bows and sat back on his haunches, his eyes wandering upward to the eerie silhouette of the castle. Was it his imagination or was the blanket of darkness giving way under the threat of dawn?
The path from the postern gate to the stone cell had been a wide, paved road in comparison to the crumbling, fragmented sill of broken stone Servanne and Lucien descended along now. Forced to travel singly and to keep one arm and hip pressed painfully against the cold rock, Servanne’s boast of being able to run like the wind was mocked at every gap and eroded toehold that kept her heart lodged firmly in her throat. Her one slipperless foot seemed to find every sharp needle of rock on the path, and the monk’s robe weighed her down, snagging on brambles and granite teeth, twice shunting her back and needing to be torn out of the grasp of the greedy talons of stone.
A pale wash of blue-gray along the horizon hinted that dawn was not far away, but the false light made navigation even more treacherous—at times, impossible. Lucien seemed to be guided by instinct alone and, on those occasions when the blackness erased all trace of solid footing, prayer.
The fleeing pair was soaked in sea spray when they finally rounded the face of the cliff. There, to Servanne’s further astonishment, the path spread and leveled out, and in the blossoming flare of dawn, she could see the glittering swath of a small bay sheltered behind a break of boulders. Even though the air still vibrated with the tremendous roar and crash of the sea, the inlet was relatively calm—enough for a small boat to have maneuvered to within twenty feet of the shore.
The last stretch of the escape had to be made over a sharp, cutting bed of shale. Lucien, hearing Servanne’s painful cry as the first step drove a shard of glasslike stone into the pad of her bare foot, swept her into his arms and, without missing a step, plunged into the knee-deep water. The sound of a second pair of splashing footsteps behind them brought the wolfish grin back to Lucien’s lips as he turned and saw Alaric swerve away from the shoreline and follow them into the surf.
In the next breath the smile vanished. Alaric was waving, shouting, pointing to the score of conical steel helmets that lined the shore.
It was a trap!
Water began to plop and spout on all sides as a hail of crossbow bolts chased them deeper into the surf. Lucien commanded every ounce of strength he possessed into his legs, but the water, now waist-deep, hampered him and even though the breaker of rocks helped cut the force of the sea, there was still a wicked undercurrent that pulled and shifted the sand beneath every footstep.
Less than ten paces from the longboat they went down under a slapping wall of black water. Coughing and spluttering oaths, Lucien struggled upright again, managing to maintain his grip on Servanne, sodden clothes and all.
One of the two shadowy outlines crouched in the gunwales of the boat vaulted over the side and began swimming toward the labouring couple. The other figure, tall and slender as a reed, her short-cropped hair glinting red in the moonlight, nocked an ashwood arrow into a tautly strung longbow and calmly began to return the fire of the guardsmen who were now running in a parallel line along the shore. At intervals they paused to fit their stubby quarrels into their crossbows and knelt to release the triggers. The need to remain in one place long enough to rearm their clumsy and cumbersome weapons gave ample opportunity to the lithe shadow in the longboat to choose her targets carefully and with deadly accuracy. Many of the guards heard the singsong hiss of arrows arcing gracefully out of the darkness toward them and did not rise from the shale again. Others ran for the cover of nearby rocks along the shore and dove behind them to escape the quivering fff-thunk of the steel arrowhead punching through surcoat and armour. But they were still well within the ideal range for firing their own weapons and they did so continually, their rage fueling and improving their aim.
Servanne heard a cry and glanced over Lucien’s shoulder in time to see Alaric slew sidelong into the water, an iron-tipped bolt embedded in his upper chest. Lucien shouted and released her, shoving her toward the longboat before he started back to where he had seen Alaric go under. Servanne’s scream of warning went unheeded. One of De Gournay’s knights, running along the shore close to where Lucien thrashed through the water, took aim with his crossbow and fired, the bolt tearing a ribbon of raw flesh from Lucien’s right temple.
Stunned, he heeled sideways, the pain and blood blinding him even as his feet continued to chum toward Alaric. The knight armed his bow a second time, but before he could fire, he heard a thud and felt the hot sting of an arrow pierce cleanly through his leather breastplate. The arrowhead burst his heart and split through the vertebrae of his spine, killing him before he had time to roar his surprise.
The dead knight was no sooner swept into the foaming wash of the surf than another stepped boldly forward to take his place, seeming to rise like a Goliath out of nowhere. His sword was drawn and his face, catching a stray beam of moonlight, was a mask of pure, malevolent hatred.
Recognizing both the face and the intent in the slitted eyes, Servanne screamed again, this time to beat away the determined arm that had snaked around her waist and was dragging her toward the longboat.
“No!” she screamed. “No, let me go! Let me go to him! Lucien! Lucien … behind you!”
The arm remained fast around her waist even though she kicked and writhed and fought to be set free. Salt water was in her eyes, blurring her vision; her hair was a sodden mass wrapped around her throat, choking her. Her hands, flailing wildly about, tried to strike at the unseen force that was carrying her away from her love, her life, and smashed into something solid and wooden—the boat! A streak of white-hot pain lanced up her arm, causing her to temporarily cease her struggling and to look at the man holding her.
It was Eduard! Eduard, so badly wounded himself, yet straining valiantly to lift her into the violently rocking longboat. He grunted in agony as his wounded leg was driven by the current to smash against the leaded keel. Servanne felt his grip loosen, saw him claw desperately for a hold on the gunwale, lose it, and begin to slide under the rolling waves. Instinctively she reached out to help him … and screamed again.
It had not been the side of the boat her hand had struck. Rather, she was the one who had been struck, and not by a wooden plank, but by a twelve-inch-long crossbow bolt. The barbed iron head had split through the padding of flesh between her thumb and forefinger and embedded itself in the wooden side of the boat, pinning her there helplessly.
A wave washed over her head, filling her eyes, nose, and mouth with salt water. Without the strength or ability to resist, she was swept along with the boat as it was pushed relentlessly toward the waiting danger on the shore. The sandy bottom fell away from beneath her feet and she was dragged downward by the current, sucked into a void of muted sound and roiling darkness. Before the pain and numbness overtook her completely, a moment of absolute clarity flung her back through time, back to where it had all begun … the heaven … the hell …