I’ll be out of internet range over the weekend and possibly well into Monday so I thought I’d better post Chapter One of Through A Dark Mist, since it’s only the second installment and I’d hate to be late with it. I can envision all sorts of rolling eyes and mutteres of “yeah, sure, she was going to post a chapter a week and it’s only week two and she’s forgotten” *mutter mutter mutter*
So, instead of being pillioried for forgetting, I’m giving you Chapter One early, that way those mutters can turn to smiles and sighs of oh gee, what a great gal.
With no further ado then, Through A Dark Mist, © Marsha Canham, Chapter One
Her eyes were green and bright and perfectly round. Her body was squat and somewhat ungainly compared to her more streamlined relatives, but she had speed and cunning, a predator’s vision keen enough to detect the slightest movement in the carpet of trees hundreds of feet below. The air was crisp and clean, drenched in the pungent musk of spring. Her wings, stretching to a span of over four feet when put-thrust, carried her through the blue vault of the sky with an effortless grace that left the less blessed of God’s creatures gaping upward in envy.
Soaring, gliding, testing the flow of the currents, the hawk banked into a steep left turn, and pitched into a swift spiral that brushed her so close to the tops of the trees, the slow-moving column of humans below was startled by the faint hiss of wind on her wings. The hawk had seen them long before the sharpest of their sentry’s eyes could have detected the black speck in the sky. Curiosity, scorn, amusement bade her swoop low across their path; a sense of haughty superiority made her stiffen her wings and arch her hooded head as if to mock their very earthbound inadequacies.
“Blood of Christ,” someone grunted, catching the splatted evidence of greenish-white disdain smack on the back of a leather-gauntleted hand. He flicked off as much of the slime as he could and wiped what remained on the pale blue saddlecloth. One of ten knights and thirty men-at-arms, he rode escort for the cavalcade that was wending its miserably slow way through the forest.
The knights all wore full armour—dull gray hoods and hauberks of oiled chain mail, the iron links closely fitted to resemble snakeskin. Overtop lay a gypon—a sleeveless tunic of sky blue embroidered with the Wardieu crest and coat of arms, identifiable at a glance by the rearing dragon and wolf locked in mortal combat. Leather belts cinched the bulky layers at the waist and held scabbards for both the long-sword and the short, wickedly sharp poniard. Each man wore the conical Norman helm with the steel nasal descending almost to the top of the uniformly grim lips. Half rode with their flowing blue mantles slung back over one shoulder to reveal crossbows held across their laps, the weapons armed and cocked. The other half formed the protective inner guard for the bright splashes of colour who rode securely in their midst.
“So this is the fearsomeforestofLincolnwe have heard so much about,” one of the bolder maidservants giggled. “Imagine: grown men ready to shoot at every leaf or branch that rustles lest there be devils lurking behind. How many skewered trees do you count now, my lady? Ten? Twenty?”
The captain of the guard ignored the comment and its tinkling reply. He would have liked to turn around and address the insolent dabchicks, but the tightness of the formation on this narrow stretch of road, combined with the stiffness of his mail and armour prevented him from offering more than a grinding clench of jaws.
Half the royal forests inEnglandseethed with villains and outlaws, none of whom were laughing matters. With King Richard crusading in theHoly Land, and his brother Prince John taking full advantage of his absence, the country had fallen to lawlessness and disorder. Bands of renegade foresters were springing up everywhere. Thieves, cutpurses, traitors, and murderers alike were congealing together in pockets of scabrous vermin to challenge the rash of levies and taxes the prince had instigated. Parties of ten, twenty, even thirty knights were necessary to escort travelers safely from one point to another, and at times even so blatant a threat did not discourage a reckless attack. Only a month ago, in these very woods, a bishop and his party, traveling under the protection of Onfroi de la Haye, Lord High Sheriff of Lincoln, was waylaid, ten good men killed, another half dozen wounded, and the rest stripped of their weapons and armour and tied to their saddles like sacks of grain. The bishop, third cousin to the king himself, was relieved of the gold he was carrying to the abbey at Sleaford and, together with fourteen of his priests and acolytes, was sent on his way in a hardly less humiliating condition than his guard.
Nothing and no one was sacred to these thieves and wolf’s heads. Any and all were fair game, and—the guard risked a glance over his shoulder as another burst of laughter echoed off the treetops to announce their presence—the fairer the game, the more determined the predators. But it was not only the threat from outlaws that caused the skin to shrink around the ballocks of Bayard of Northumbria at every unnecessary shout or feminine exclamation. Harm to one stray hair belonging to Servanne de Briscourt, recent widow of Sir Hubert de Briscourt, and intended bride of the powerful Lord Lucien Wardieu would mean a slow and agonizing death to the men responsible for her safe arrival at Blood-moor Keep.
The object of the captain’s pointed observation, oblivious to his concerns for her welfare—and his own—sat very straight and slim upon the back of her snow white palfrey. Awed by the pure, quiet stillness of the greenwood surrounding them, her startling blue eyes moved constantly this way and that, drinking in the beauty and majesty of the tall oak trees, some of which measured a full twenty feet around the base. A tilt of her lovely chin followed the streaking rays of flickering sunlight to their source high above where branches were tangled together in a thick basket-weave, their leaves a still higher suggestion of misty green. The sun broke through in sporadic bursts, the beams splintering into a thousand foggy darts of light that shimmered to shades of palest green in the darker, musty shadows below.
How the captain of the guards would cringe if he knew what was passing through the mind of the future baroness. How shocked he would be if she dared give way to her urge to spur her mare into a caracole, to dance and prance along the earthen road to the end of the forest—if indeed there ever was an end to it. Moreover, she longed to remove the linen wimple that demurely covered her head, ached to shake her long golden hair free of its braids and confining pins, and feel the wind tug and pull at its thickness. As well, she wished she could fling aside the stiff, encumbering surcoat of samite she wore over her gown. Six depths of sky blue silk had gone into the weaving of the rich cloth, but to Servanne, who was uncomfortable from so many long hours in the saddle, it felt more like armour than the chain links worn by the guards. If she attempted to alter the positioning of her legs and rump, or shift more comfortably in the saddle, it was done without the cooperation of the heavy outer garment. If she turned too hastily, she was nearly choked by the stiff collar, which did not budge and threatened her with an awkward loss of balance.
Still, she endured the discomfort in silence. She was eager to reach her destination, eager for the first time in her eighteen years to see what the future had hidden around the next corner.
Orphaned as a child, Servanne had been placed under the wardship ofEngland’s great golden King Richard, known by the soldiers who loved him as Lionheart. When his obsession with the Holy Wars had forced him to look beyond the limits of the strained royal purse for financing, Servanne had been married off to the aging Sir Hubert de Briscourt for a substantial consideration. Barely fifteen at the time, wed to a man fifty years her senior, the succeeding three years had been a trial of boredom, loneliness, and frustration. It was not that Sir Hubert was mean or miserly—indeed, near the end, she had acquired a genuine affection for the gallant old knight—it was just that, well, she was young and full of life, and impatient to do more than spin and sew and weave and be attendant upon her lord in his twilight years. His death had been a terrible blow, and she had truly mourned his loss. And when the missive had arrived bearing the king’s seal, she had broken it with grave apprehension, guessing correctly that she had once again been sold in marriage to the highest bidder.
The name of the prospective groom had leapt from the page like a bolt of lightning. Lucien Wardieu! Young, handsome, virile … the kind of husband one dreamed about and envisioned behind tightly closed eyelids while a lesser truth fumbled and groped about in the dark.
Shivering deliciously, Servanne glanced down at the jewelled broach pinned to the front of her mantle. Blood-red rubies delineated the body of a dragon rampant, emeralds and diamonds marked the snarling body of the wolf. A betrothal gift from the groom, it branded her as his property and she wore it proudly for all the world to see.
“Biddy, tell me again what you have heard of my lord the baron,” she whispered under her breath. “I fear, as the miles shrink between us and the hours to our meeting grow fewer and fewer, my nerves grow ever less steady.”
The elderly woman who rode by her side had been nurse and maid to Servanne’s mother, fiercely protective guardian to the orphaned daughter through the subsequent years. A face as round as a cherub’s and as softly crinkled as an overripe peach turned to Servanne with a feigned look of surprise. “Surely your memory has gone the way of your morning ablutions, for did I not spend most of the hours after Prime reciting the long litany of your betrothed’s accomplishments—both in the tourney lists and in the widows’ beds? It grows tiresome, child, to have to repeat every gasp and gurgle you yourself uttered when you first saw the man, let alone recall the exaggerations and imaginations of every weak-limbed fancy who crossed his path.”
Servanne blushed scarlet, warming under the smothered round of laughter her maids could not quite contain.
“I have heard,” one of them tittered bawdily “that as a lover, Lord Lucien is inexhaustible, often going days and days without a pause for food or drink or … or anything!”
“I saw him once.” The youngest attendant in the group gave a sigh so plaintive it caused the captain of the guard to roll his eyes and exchange a smirk with the knight who rode alongside. “In all of Christendom,” she continued, “there cannot be a taller, handsomer knight. Even Helvise admitted that to see him standing beside our glorious liege lord, King Richard, a maiden would be hard-pressed to choose between the two as to which one was the more godlike in countenance and bearing.”
“I said that?” a dark-eyed companion asked with a frown.
“You most certainly did,” the accuser, Giselle, said earnestly. “Do you not remember? The very same night you said it, you said you also had to take two of Sir Hubert’s guardsmen and—”
“Never mind! I remember,” Helvise snapped, aware of the sudden attentiveness of the nearby guards.
Servanne’s flush was still high on her cheeks, even though she was no longer the focus of the good-natured jesting. If anything she had grown warmer knowing she had not been the only one left with a searing impression of power and animal maleness. True, she had only glimpsed her betrothed across a crowded hall, and true the lone glimpse had occurred many months ago, but what healthy, warm-blooded woman could not have recalled his every stunning attribute, down to the last thread of flaxen hair, on much less than a half-stolen glance? Eyes the bold azure of a turbulent sea; a face that was lean and finely chiselled; a body splendidly proportioned from the incredible breadth of his shoulders to the trim waist and long, tautly muscled legs. One of the king’s champions, Lord Lucien had never been bested in the lists, never emerged from any tournament less than overall victor. His skill with lance and sword was legendary; his exploits inEuropeand on the Crusades had earned him the respect of kings, and wealth beyond any mere knight-errant’s wildest dreams.
Comparing Lucien Wardieu to Sir Hubert de Briscourt was like comparing a gold, jewel-encrusted sceptre to a charred stick. Servanne was under no illusions as to why he had petitioned the king for her hand—indeed, she thanked God with every breath that a portion of the vast fiefdom she had inherited upon Sir Hubert’s death, was coveted arable adjoining the baron’s own landholdings in Lincoln. To him she was undoubtedly just a name and faceless entity; a pawn in the game of politics and economics. He would have petitioned for her hand even if she were fat, balding, and prone to passing wind from both ends simultaneously. And did she care? Not one whit! If it was her lot in life to serve as cat’s-paw to the king’s obsession, it was a much easier task to suffer in the arms of a golden champion than in the bed of a feeble old man.
Servanne stroked the neck of her beautiful mare, Undine, and smiled. Her mount had been among the many extravagant gifts sent to her by Lord Lucien by way of offering apologies that he could not ride to meet her himself. He was forgiven. Besides her own snow white palfrey, there were three pairs of matching roans to carry her maids. All were furbished with white trappings, the saddles bleached to bone-coloured leather, trimmed with silver bosses and tassels that glittered like fringes of diamonds. Blue silk ribbons were braided into the manes and tails; plumes dyed to the same sky-blue shade danced on silver headpieces. The Wardieu dragon and wolf were emblazoned on saddlecloths, shields, and pennants; the Wardieu colours of blue and silver rippled from one end of the cavalcade to the other.
In the rear, flanked by the servants and pages who traveled on foot, were three wagons groaning under their burden of chests containing silks, velvets, and samites woven in every shade of the rainbow; brocades so stiffly embroidered they were unbendable; pelts of ermine, fox, and sable for trimming cloaks and gowns. There were stockings of sheer, gauzelike silk from the East, girdles crusted with gold and silver, slippers to match any whim, pearls of the finest size and colour strung on threads of pure gold. Three dressmakers accompanied the cortege. They had worked day and night for two weeks to prepare the bridal clothes and even now, as the miles and hours to their destination diminished, their hands moved in a blur with needle and thread at each rest called by the captain of the guard.
Would the baron be surprised or disappointed when the procession entered the bailey of Bloodmoor Keep? Surprised, she hoped. Possibly even … pleased? She knew she was no frog-faced behemoth; her delicate blondeness would compliment his towering sun-bronzed presence perfectly. Nor was she just an ignorant piece of pretty finery to be displayed and admired, and useful for little else than the breeding up of heirs. She could read and write with a fair enough hand to be able to cipher what she had written some time later. Groomed to fulfill a certain role, she had also learned to keep accounts and run a competent household that had numbered near to a thousand immediate dependents. Her new husband could not help but be pleased. He simply could not.
“Please, Captain,” she ventured to ask, “Where are we now? Is my lord’s castle much farther?”
Bayard of Northumbria contemplated his answer a moment before turning to respond. “With luck, my lady, we should reach the abbey at Alford by nightfall. From there it is but a half day’s journey to Dragon’s Lair.”
Bayard bit his tongue over the slip. “Many pardons, my lady. I meant, of course, Bloodmoor Keep.”
Servanne leaned back against the support of her saddletree, a small frown puckering her smooth brow. It was not the first time such slips of the tongue had occurred, and by no means the most discordant one. On one instance she had overheard two of the knights ridiculing the methods by which the sheriff ofLincolncoaxed information out of unwilling guests of his castle. The same information, they claimed, could have been extracted by the baron’s subjugator in a tenth of the time, with none of the mess and bother of red hot irons and molten copper masks.
The use of torture in questioning prisoners was not unheard of, but it was a method usually reserved for political prisoners, and those suspected of hatching plots against the crown. It was said Prince John never traveled anywhere without his trustworthy subjugator in tow, mainly because he imagined assassins and traitors lurking behind every bush and barrel.
But what use would Lucien Wardieu have for the permanent services of a professional torturer? From all she had heard, Bloodmoor Keep was impregnable to threat from sea or land. Just to reach the outer walls—twenty feet thick and sixty feet high—one had to cross a marsh nearly a mile wide, or scale the sheer wall of a cliff that rose six hundred feet above the boiling seacoast. Moreover, it was said he did not rely only upon the services of his vassals, part of whose oath of fealty was to pledge forty days military service per annum, but preferred to hire mercenaries to guard his property and his privacy year round.
Servanne glanced slantwise at the men who comprised the bulk of her escort. They all looked as if they broke their nightly fasts by chewing nails, and as if they could and did slit throats for the sheer pleasure of it.
Which raised another question, and another icy spray of gooseflesh along her arms. Why were such fearsomely huge and bestial men flinching at every snapped twig and crinkling leaf they passed?
Servanne did not have to wait long for the answer. A faint hiss and whonk broke the silence of the forest; a gasp, followed by an agonized cry of pain sent a guard careening sideways out of his saddle, his gauntleted hand clutched around the shaft of an arrow protruding from his chest. A half dozen more grisly whonks struck in close succession, each resulting in a grunt of expended air and a bitten-off cry of pain.
Shouting an alert, Bayard of Northumbria cursed loudly and voraciously at the ineptness of the scouts he had dispatched ahead to insure against the possibility of just such an ambush occurring. In the next wild breath, he reasoned that, without a doubt, they must be as dead as the ox-brained incompetents who had allowed their concentration to wander to the curves and smiles of a flock of tittering women rather than remain fixed on the deadly dangers of the forest.
A second round of curses forced Bayard to acknowledge how efficiently the trap had been laid and sprung. Four of his best scouts had been silenced, seven guards already dead or dying, the rest of the cavalcade corralled and surrounded in a matter of seconds, with no real or visible targets yet in evidence.
“Lay down your weapons!”
The command was shouted from somewhere high up in the trees and Bayard’s gaze shot upward, rewarded by nothing but swaying branches and splintered sunlight.
“Bows and swords to the ground or you shall all win the privilege of joining your fallen comrades!”
The breath hissed through Bayard’s teeth with impotent fury. His keen eyes searched the greenwood but he could see nothing—no pale flash of skin or clothing, no movement in the trees or on the ground. A further lightning-quick glance identified the arrows protruding from the chests of the dead soldiers. Slim and deadly, almost three feet long and tipped in steel, they were capable of piercing bullhide or mail breastplates as if they were cutting through cheese. Moreover, the arrows were shot from the taut strings of the Welsh contraptions known as longbows. In the hands of an expert, an arrow shot from a longbow could outdistance the squatter, thicker quarrels fired from a crossbow by a hundred yards or more. Many a train of merchants had been waylaid and fired upon from such a distance that they could not even distinguish their attackers from the trees.
As was the case now, Bayard thought angrily. He and his men were like ducks on a pond and, unwilling to fall helplessly to a slaughter, he had no choice but to reluctantly give his men the signal to lower their weapons.
“Who dares to challenge our right of way?” the captain demanded, his voice a low, seething growl. “Who is this dead man? Let him step forward and show his face!”
A laugh, full and deep-throated, had the same effect on the tension-filled atmosphere as a sudden crack of thunder.
Servanne de Briscourt, her hand tightly clasped to Biddy’s and her shoulders firmly encircled by the fierce protectiveness of a matronly arm, was startled enough by the unexpected sound to twist her head around and search out the source of the laughter.
A man had stepped out from behind the screen of hawthorns and had moved to position himself brazenly in the middle of the road. His long legs, clad in skin-tight deer-hide leggings, were braced wide apart; his massive torso, made more impressive by a jerkin of gleaming black wolf pelts, expanded farther as he insolently planted one hand on his waist and the other on the curved support of the longbow he held casually by his side.
Standing well over six feet tall, his body was a superb tower of muscle that commanded the eye upward to the coldest, cruellest pair of eyes Servanne had ever seen. Pale blue-gray, they were, twin mirrors of ice and frost, steel and iron. Piercing eyes. Eyes that held more secrets than a soul should want to know, or, if knowing, would live to tell. They were strange eyes for so dark a man—hair, clothing, and weathered complexion all combined to make it so—and it was with the greatest difficulty that Servanne relented to the tugging pressure of Biddy’s hands and turned her face away, burying it against the muffling shield of ponderously soft bosoms.
“I bid you welcome to my forest, Bayard of Northumbria.” The villain laughed softly again. “Had I known in advance it was you daring to venture across my land, I should have arranged a much warmer welcome.”
The knight’s eyes narrowed to slits behind the steel nasal of his helm. How, by the Devil’s work, did this outlaw know his identity? And what did he mean by his forest, his land? Most tracts of forest, most measures of land that comprised the vast demesne of Lincolnwoods had been part of the Wardieu holdings since their ancestors had crossed fromNormandy with William the Bastard.
An invisible hand clawed sharply down the length of Bayard’s spine, all but tearing the breath from his body.
By God’s holy ordinance … it couldn’t be! No! No, it couldn’t be! The man was dead … dead on the hot desert sands ofPalestine! Bayard himself had seen the body, had given it an extra kick with a contemptuous boot before leaving the corpse to swell and burst in the searing sun. There was no earthly way a man could have survived such wounds as Bayard had witnessed. Flesh peeled from the bone, an arm half ripped from the socket, ribs crushed to bloody pulp … it simply was not possible. Even if the sun had not blistered him to rot, the vultures, ants, and packs of wild dogs would have finished the job.
And yet … those eyes! Where in Christendom could there be another pair so like them?
“So. You do remember me, Bayard of Northumbrian,” the outlaw said quietly, noting the intense scrutiny.
“I—I do not know you apart from any other scum who roams the forest with claims of renegade sovereignty. As for giving warm welcome—” The captain raised the crossbow he had not quite convinced his fingers to relinquish into the dirt, and, with the speed of many years’ practice governing his action and aim, Bayard squeezed the trigger and sent a quarrel streaking past his horse’s ear to the target who all but filled the roadway ahead.
The outlaw neither jumped nor flinched out of the way. With a controlled swiftness, he raised his own bow and snapped an arrow, the aim carrying it straight and true to the eye socket on the left side of Bayard’s helm. The impact of the strike jerked the knight’s head back, causing his arms to be thrown upward, and the quarrel to be launched harmlessly into the trees. Bayard could not know this, for by then he was dead, sliding off the back of his mount with the same sluggish lethargy as the viscous flow of blood and brains that leaked from beneath his helmet.
Almost simultaneously a second disturbance erupted along the line of guardsmen. One of the knights, wearing not the Wardieu gypon of pale blue but the De Briscourt colours of scarlet and yellow, shouted for his men to attack and drew his sword. The shout became a scream of agony as one of the outlaws loosed an arrow that punched through the knight’s thigh and pinned him to the leather guard of his saddle.
“Sir Roger!” Servanne cried, but her protest was smothered instantly and violently against Biddy’s heaving breast.
Undaunted, the wounded Sir Roger de Chesnai made a second attempt to raise his sword and this time, was stopped by the bear-like hand of yet another outlaw—a huge, barrel-chested Welshman who grinned with enough ferocity to suggest he would enjoy crushing a skull or two for sport. Sir Roger’s fingers flexed open, releasing the hilt of his sword. The Welshman nodded approval while behind him, the outlaw who had fired the arrow stepped out of the greenery, nocked another shaft in his bow, and swept the armed weapon slowly along the row of ashen-faced guards, his brow raised in askance.
As one, the escort of mercenaries and men-at-arms lifted their hands away from any object that might be misconstrued as a threat. Only their eyes dared to move, flinching side to side as branches bent and saplings sprang apart to bring a dozen more armed outlaws out from behind their places of concealment. A dozen! Expectations of seeing at least two or three times as many attackers brought renewed flushes of anger and outrage to the faces of the humiliated knights. Seeing this and knowing the prickly honour that governed these men, the wolf-clad leader moved to forestall any rash attempts to launch a counterattack. He turned his bow in the direction of the huddled group of women and coolly took aim at the nearest soft breasts.
“Now then, gentlemen. If you will be so kind as to step away from your weapons and mounts, my men will happily instruct you on what is required of you next.” The leader paused and smiled benignly. “Any refusal to obey will, of course, result in one less lovely lady to escort to Bloodmoor Keep.”
The men exchanged hostile glances, but in the end, their stringent code of chivalry left them no choice but to do as they were told. They unbuckled belts and baldrics to remove any further temptation presented by knives and swords. Disarmed, the knights were separated from the rest of the cavalcade and herded to a clearing alongside the roadway where their purses were systematically removed along with any inviting bit of silver or gold adornment. Surcoats, tunics, and shirts of chain mail were also ordered removed and tossed onto one of the carts which had been emptied of its less practical cargo of feminine underpinnings. The squires, pages, servants, and wagoners who traveled on foot at the rear of the train did not require more than a barked command to scramble en masse to the base of an enormous oak tree. There they were similarly stripped to their undergarments, bound together, and left clinging and quivering in the pungent forest chill.
This left only the women, who were still mounted, still crowded together in the middle of the road.
“Do not say a word, my lady,” Biddy whispered urgently. “Not one word to draw attention, and perhaps these filthy scoundrels will send us peaceably on our way without further mischief.”
Until the very instant of Biddy’s warning, Servanne had not given a thought as to what “further mischief” might entail. She had never been waylaid or robbed before, but knew full well of those who had been abused, raped, or even murdered in the name of outlaw justice.
“Keep your head down, child,” Biddy spluttered. “And your eyes lowered.”
An easy order to issue, Servanne thought. Impossible to obey, however, especially when Biddy’s own words triggered the need to search out the man who now held their fate in his hands. And what hands they were—strong and lean, with long tapered fingers that held the oversized bow with savage authority. He spoke in clear, unbastardized French, which must mean he was no common, illiterate thief. For that matter, not a man among his troop looked desperately twisted by corruption or squint-eyed with greed. Not at all like the half-starved, ragged bands of peasants who usually took to hiding in the woods to escape the administrators of the king’s laws. Indeed, had they been in armour instead of lincoln green, one would be hard-pressed to distinguish between thief and guard.
Drawn by the lure of forbidden fruit, Servanne disobeyed Biddy’s adamant grip and studied the bold, calmly purposeful outlaw who had so casually slain Bayard of Northumbria, and who now shamelessly threatened the life of the dark-eyed Helvise. His hair was long, curling thickly to his shoulders in rich chestnut waves. His face defied description, being too swarthy to fit the Norman ideal of golden handsomeness, too squared to imply noble birth. A Saxon? But for the eyes and the demeanor, she might have agreed, but he was no ordinary outlaw, no plow-worn peasant.
He was, however, dressed to fit the role of forester, garbed as they all were in greens and browns, the exception being the outer vest of wolf pelts. Beneath it, his loose-sleeved shirt of green linsey-woolsey opened in a carelessly deep V almost to his waist, revealing an indecent wealth of wiry sable curls matted thickly over hard, bulging muscles.
The weapon he held appeared to be nothing more than a six-foot length of slender wood forced into an arc and held taut by a bowstring of rosined gut. Far more graceful in design than the stubby, iron-bound crossbow, it was also far superior in range, swiftness, and accuracy. Bayard had been a full ten paces from her side when he had been cut down, yet there were tiny dots of crimson splashed across her mare’s forequarters attesting to the power that lay behind the grace.
Her attention was briefly diverted to the dead captain and the rest of his subdued guards. Servanne could not help but wonder at the audacity, and in turn, the lunacy of the men who dared risk the ire of Lucien Wardieu, Baron de Gournay. Ambushing travelers was no small crime by anyone’s standard, but raising a sword against the blazon of one ofEngland’s most powerful barons was … sheer madness! De Gournay would spare no effort, even to burning down every last square inch of forest inLincoln, to respond to the insult. And his revenge upon those who had committed the offense … !
As it happened, Servanne was in the midst of contemplating—in hideously graphic detail—the many possible forms her betrothed’s retribution would take, when the piercing gray-blue eyes began scanning the frightened faces of the women. An oddity in the group caused them to flick sharply back to the only gaze that was not instantly and contritely shielded behind tear-studded lashes.
If he was surprised to see instead the small, tight smile that compressed her lips, the outlaw leader did not show it. If she expected him to be rendered speechlessly contrite, or to become paralyzed with fear over the sudden realization of the enormity of his crime, Servanne was sadly disappointed.
“I had heard the Dragon had snared himself quite a beauty,” he murmured speculatively. “Ah well, messengers have been known to err before on the side of generosity.”
Infuriated by his insolence, not to mention the derision in his comment, Servanne pulled out of Biddy’s embrace and squared her slender shoulders.
“I beg your pardon, m’sieur,” she said, the chill of untold generations of nobility in her voice. “But do you know who I am?”
A swift, fierce smile stole across his face and left again without a trace as he moved forward several measured paces. “Has the excitement caused you to forget your name, Lady de Briscourt? If so, I humbly crave your pardon for our methods, but alas, stealth and haste are among our most effective weapons.”
Two hot stains blossomed on Servanne’s cheeks as she stared into the rain-gray eyes. “Since you obviously know who I am and where I am bound, you must also be aware of whose protection I travel under, and against whose honour you give insult.”
This time the grin lingered noticeably. “My heart does palpitate with the knowledge, my lady.”
“It will palpitate with a good deal more if you do not stand aside at once and let us pass on our way unmolested!”
“I am afraid I cannot do that. Why, to have gone to all this trouble to stop you, only to stand aside and let you go on your way again … surely even someone so pure and innocent as yourself can see there would be little profit for us in that. As for molesting you”—the smouldering eyes took a lazy inventory of her finer points, and there were not many readily visible through the bulk of the samite tunic—“I regret to say I have more important matters to contend with at the moment. But before you puff up with more righteous indignation, be informed that neither you nor any of your lovely ladies will come to any harm while you are under my protection. On that you have my most solemn word.”
“Your protection? Your word?” she scoffed. “And just who might you be, wolf’s head? You who dare to challenge the authority of Lucien Wardieu, Baron de Gournay!”
The outlaw moved closer, taking the mare’s bridle in his hand to guard against any attempt by her rider to bolt.
“The name the sheriff has chosen to give me in explaining the lax condition of his spine is … the Black Wolf of Lincoln.” He paused to watch the effect of his words ripple through the ranks of his rapt audience. “The name given me by God is … Lucien Wardieu, Baron de Gournay.”