I hope everyone is enjoying the little readalong. I must admit, Through A Dark Mist was one of my fav books to write. Sparrow was also one of my all time favorite characters, so it was a double whammy for me *s*.
Through A Dark Mist © Marsha Canham
Servanne no longer saw the beauty of the greenwood. The air no longer felt crisp and clean; rather it was cold and damp and chilled her to the bone even through the heavy layers of her clothing. She no longer paid heed to the tall, stately oaks, nor did she admire the dancing shafts of sunlight or the silvery burble of a meandering stream. She sat erect on Undine’s back, her face a mask of outrage and disbelief. Relieved of the reins by the outlaw leader who now led her horse through the forest, her hands were clasped together over the frontpiece of her saddle, the knuckles white and straining with repressed anger.
She had been stunned speechless by the outlaw’s preposterous claim. Lucien Wardieu indeed! But before she could recover her faculties and demand explanations, his curt commands had set the scrofulous band of followers into motion. Within moments, she and Biddy were culled from the others and led into the forest. Everything of value had been stripped from the wagons and transferred onto the backs of the pack horses, as had the bulk of the guards’ weapons and armour. The outlaw had given the wounded Sir Roger de Chesnai a small, canvas-wrapped packet and a message to be delivered to Bloodmoor Keep—obviously a demand for ransom and proof that the hostage was in safekeeping.
The effrontery of the man was not to be believed! Periodically Servanne’s gaze would stray from the path ahead to launch unseen poisoned darts into the broad back of the wolf’s head who dared to call himself Lucien Wardieu. She had already given him a host of truer appellations—madman, poseur, traitor, charlatan, impostor, bedlamite, crack-brain …
Each seething glance resulted in a new term to describe an audacity that was beyond belief. Who, in all of England, did not know the great golden countenance of the real Baron de Gournay? What man or woman in possession of all their senses could believe for one instant that this coarse, ill-bred, unkempt, murderous creature of the forest belonged at the same table with kings and queens? The mere notion of such a ruffian even being permitted into the servants’ gallery was preposterous. The stables, perhaps. The pigsty or the muck pit where the refuse from the castle latrines was collected … maybe. But as liege lord of the castle itself? As baron lord of Bloodmoor Keep?
The snort of disdain she was unable to repress caused the dark chestnut head to turn slightly. A wry smile suggested he had felt every barb and intercepted every thought that had passed through her head over the last two hours, and the sight of it fueled her anger a notch higher.
“The scenery displeases you, my lady? You see stretched before you nature at its very peak. She offers here a tranquility and solitude found nowhere else; a wild purity shared only by other virgins who have not yet experienced the taint of man’s interference.”
“She bears your taint, wolf’s head,” Servanne remarked dryly. “And that must surely spoil her for all others.”
“Ahh. Spoken with the true sentiment of wedded bliss. Might I assume your previous marriage left something to be desired?”
Servanne’s eyes flashed blue fire. “You may presume nothing whatsoever. My marriages—past or future—are no concern of yours. How dare you even speak to me of them, or of anything else for that matter. There is nothing your twisted tongue could say to me that could be of the least interest, and I insist you do not insult me with it again.”
The outlaw’s broad shoulders shrugged beneath the black wolf’s pelts. “A greater hardship on you, I fear, for I have yet to encounter a woman who could maintain as good a silence as a man. Especially not when her brain is overtaxed with righteous fervour.”
Servanne opened her mouth with a ready retort, saw the mockingly expectant brow arch in her direction, and pressed her lips tautly together again. She averted her gaze and stared straight ahead, but the resentment that bubbled within her could not be as easily diverted.
“I have seen Lord Lucien with mine own eyes,” she declared stridently. “How dare you presume to mock him.”
“Do I mock him, my lady? I thought you would be flattered I envied his choice of brides.”
“Flattered!” Her voice was brittle with anger. “You could flatter us both by dropping dead this instant and saving the baron the trouble of rooting you out later! As for envying his choice of brides, I would sooner win the praise of a crimp-kneed, foul-breathed Saracen infidel than possess one attribute the likes of you would find appealing! I would sooner an arrow pierce my heart and rend it in two than find myself the object of a wolf’s envy!”
The Black Wolf studied the flushed features of his hostage a moment longer before dropping the reins of her horse and unslinging his bow from his shoulder. With her tongue stuck fast to the roof of her mouth and the echo of Biddy’s shrill screech reverberating along her spine, Servanne watched in horror as the outlaw braced his long legs wide apart, swung the grip of the bow from hip to shoulder, and sighted along the shaft of an arrow. At the last possible instant he corrected the aim so that when he snapped his fingers to release the missile, it did not pierce the wildly beating thing that sought to escape her breast, but hummmm-ed in a long, sweeping arc over Servanne’s head and disappeared somewhere in the trees beyond.
The silence that followed was complete enough to hear the low droning of a swarm of bees in the distance. It was complete enough to hear the swish of Undine’s tail as she chased away an annoying gnat. Complete enough that when a clean, sharp fff-bunggg left the quivering shaft of a returned arrow buried in a nearby tree trunk, both women nearly lifted off their saddles in fright.
“If ye’d asked,” drawled the burly Welshman as he ambled by, “I would have given the signal myself, milord, and saved ye the bother.”
“No bother,” the outlaw replied smoothly, reslinging his bow, his eyes still locked fast to Servanne’s. He took up the fallen reins and gave way to a faint, wry smile as he led her horse forward again.
Servanne’s heart was still pounding against her breastbone, her senses still recovering from the shock of the outlaw’s twisted sense of humour. They were recovering from something else as well, an oddity she had not noticed earlier in the excitement of the ambush.
The wolf’s head shot with his left hand!
Confirming the startling discovery, she saw that he wore his sword slung on his right hip—giving ready access for the left hand—and wore his quiver of arrows tilted to the left shoulder.
A child of Satan! Bastard spawn of the Devil himself! Everyone knew a left-handed man was born with the curse of Lucifer on his soul—as if she had needed any further proof of his perfidiousness!
“Not much farther to camp now, my lady,” he was saying. “From the smell of it, I would guess we are having fresh venison in honour of your presence.”
Servanne smelled nothing except an admission of blatant guilt from a boastful poacher: another crime to add to his growing list. A man’s life was forfeit if he was caught killing one of the king’s deer. He was first blinded, then tortured over a slow fire until his skin blistered and fell off in great black flakes. He was then hung, drawn, and quartered by way of an example to others. A fitting demise for such a barbarian as this wolf, she mused.
“You may be assured, sirrah,” she declared evenly, “I would rather waste away to a shell of skin and bone than defile the king’s law by eating his royal due. You and your men may well choke on your treasonous repast if you so choose, but Mistress Bidwell and myself should die first.”
Biddy gave a ram’s snort of approval; the outlaw scoffed derisively. “Another sight mine eyes would ransom kingdoms to see: a dimpled cheek without the sheen of sweet grease upon it; a slender hand not first into the pot of roasted pheasant; a dainty belly not groaning with complaint after being stuffed to the chin with capon, pasties, and pies.”
An unsubtle and prolonged rumble of agreement stirred in Servanne’s stomach, reminding her she had not eaten since early morning, and that an unsatisfying meal of black bread and sour ale.
“And then there are the sweetmeats,” contributed a voice from the staggered band of outlaws. “Our own goodwife Mab prepares some of the tastiest creations that have ever crossed these lips. What say you, lads?” The question was aimed generally over his shoulder. “Has Mab any equal this side of the Channel?”
“Bless the stars that found her for us,” came a jovial reply. “Or mayhap just bless Gil Golden for bringing her out ofLincolnwith our last purchase of arrowheads!”
A round of solid backslapping sent Servanne’s gaze across to the man who had perfunctorily shot an arrow into Sir Roger de Chesnai’s thigh. He had a smooth, aquiline profile that suggested a far easier life lay behind than the one ahead. His shoulders were square and straight, if a little sparse of bulk; his legs were long and agile enough to swallow the wooded miles without visible effort. Copper-coloured locks capped his head like woolen fleece, cropped short beneath the jaunty green felt hat he wore slouched forward over his brow. His eyes were a blend of greens and golds and spicy brown flecks, and a webbing of fine lines at the corners intimated a man of easy nature and good humour. The long, ragged scar that distorted his left cheek implied it was not always so. The disfigurement in no way detracted from his handsomeness, but it did confirm the fact he was a branded thief, and would have as easily aimed for Sir Roger’s heart as his thigh.
Servanne was distracted from further observations by a sudden burst of sound and activity from the woods up ahead. From high, high up in the boughs of a tree came a swoosh of air and a curled knot of flying hair and shrieking laughter. Detaching itself from the swinging vine with a whoop, the tiny figure splayed arms and legs wide, his clothes pocketing the wind to break the impact of his body slamming into that of the Black Wolf of Lincoln. As it was, the outlaw was jolted back off his feet and required several paces to reclaim his balance. Servanne’s horse balked indignantly; Biddy muttered an oath which earned stares and grins from the nearby foresters.
“Sparrow!” spat the Wolf with a not altogether feigned grimace of displeasure. “By Christ’s pricking thorns, one of these days I will step out of the way and let you sail clear on past into perdition!”
The squirming bundle disentangled itself from the torso of the outlaw and sprang onto the ground beside him. The man … dwarf … child … was barely tall enough to see the top of the Wolf’s belt. Thin as a reed, as tanned as a roasted nut, he … or she … had huge, shining black eyes that seemed at once too large for the round, elfin face, and far too knowledgeable for such a mischievous grin.
Servanne blinked, and blinked again. She had heard fables of such creatures living in the forests; wood elves who were several centuries old, kept young and childlike through pagan rites and rituals. She had never truly believed in such tales of magic and witchcraft, of course. Magic was only for the eyes and ears of the superstitious, and as for witches and warlocks …
She found herself staring at the outlaw leader again, her mouth as dry as parched wheat.
“So so so.” Sparrow’s voice was as delicately pitched as a woman’s. “So this was to be the Dragon’s new plaything. There is not much to her, is there? But then I suppose such a child would be a welcome change from being clamped between the iron thighs of Nicolaa de la Haye. You sent our demands on ahead?”
“We accomplished what we set out to do,” the Wolf responded. “And you? You found the sheriff?”
“He was waiting at the fens, just as you predicted,” Sparrow nodded, grinning. “He and most of the guard fromLincolnCastle. Slutching fools! Another half league into the forest and they might have upset our plans.”
“They might have tried,” the outlaw replied lightly. “But I am inclined to think a few well spent arrows would have had De la Haye and his men bolting for cover regardless if it had been Richard’s intended bride, Berengaria, he had been sent to meet.”
“The sheriff should know by now to leave such matters to his wife. The Bawd Nicolaa would have stayed and fought us with pleasure.”
“The rest of our men? They made it back without incident?”
“Bah! Old Noddypeak did not even know we had him in bowshot. Mind, he kept scritching and scratching at the back of his neck”—Sparrow gave an imitation of the sheriff scratching nervously—“and shaking off the waterfalls of sweat he leaked”—lie shook himself all over, like a dog emerging from a pond—“so I suspect he was not entirely without grand expectations.”
“A pity we had to disappoint him.”
“Aye,” Sparrow sighed. “The lads had him sighted on their arrow tips every blink of the way.”
“They will have him again, when the timing better suits our needs. Right now, Onfroi de la Haye is of more use to us alive than dead.”
“Aye, my lord,” the little man said, “So you keep telling us.”
“So it shall be,” the Wolf insisted. “The Sheriff of Lincoln is a fool, a weak incompetent puppet; one whose every move we can predict and anticipate with laughable ease. Put someone else in his stead—his sweet wife, for example—and we would see her quenching her thirst for blood in ways we have not even thought of yet.”
“No shy blanchflower, our Bawd,” the gnome agreed.
“And if anyone other than myself makes a target of her brass-tipped breasts”—the tall, copper-haired outlaw stepped quietly forward—“they will have me to answer to.”
Sparrow looked up and, although Servanne could not swear to it, she thought the bold little elf edged a cautious inch closer to the protective bulk of the Black Wolf. “I am not forgetting, Gil of the Golden Eyes. Not wanting to feel the sting of your arrows either. She’s yours, all yours, and welcome to her. God’s teeth, but we are touchy about it, are we not? Not enough Norman blood shed to wet your arrows? Ho! Still most a quiver full, I see. And a string as slack as Lack Jack’s back.”
Gil Golden smiled slowly, ominously. “Easily enough remedied. A daub of sparrow blood should turn the trick.”
“You would have to catch me first, you great lumbering hulk!”
Quick as a wink, the tiny man darted forward, planted a flying kick on Gil’s shin and vanished behind a solid wall of alder bushes. His tinkling laughter, first in the alders, then beside them, then far above in an arching tangle of hawthorns indicated with what unsettling swiftness he could move, and also why he bore the name Sparrow. Moreover, before the cursing outlaw could finish hopping a circle on his uninjured leg, an arrow no longer than a man’s palm zipped through the air and carried away Gil’s prized green felt hat.
“That cuts it!” Gil swore. “The wretched puck is going to pay dearly for it this time.”
“Are ye already forgetting what happened the last time?” roared Robert the Welshman. “It were not only yer hat what got a hole in it, but yer breeks and butt as well!”
Gil’s eyes narrowed. “My thanks for reminding me. When I catch him, I will pin both his ears back for the leather he owes me.”
The other foresters guffawed openly and began fishing in belts and sleeves for copper coins.
“A denier says Gil Golden wins this round,” the Welshman wagered, doffing his cap and dropping the coin into the crown. A score or more coins clinked good-naturedly into the pot, some with an “aye” attached, some with a “nay.” Even the two captive ladies found smiles wanting to come to their lips as they watched the agile huntsman stalk into the woods in pursuit of his diminutive quarry. Servanne caught hers just in time when she realized the icy-gray eyes of the outlaw leader were observing her.
“It appears, Biddy,” she murmured brusquely, “these children have no grasp of the seriousness of their crimes.”
The Wolf moved closer, his eyes glinting in the afternoon sunlight. “You should be thankful, my lady, we are still able to see some humour in the world around us.”
“Humour, sirrah? In murder and kidnapping? Pray, you will forgive me if I do not share your amusement.”
“You say the word murder as if we were the only ones guilty of it.”
“I saw none of your men lying dead on the road, victims of a cold-blooded ambush.”
“Ambushes are rarely warm affairs, nor do they lend themselves to a fanfare of trumpets.”
“You mock me, sir,” she said coldly.
“I mock your ignorance, madam. I mock your inability to see past the tip of your nose … although it is held so high, I should not wonder at the difficulty.”
Servanne felt the redness creeping up to her brow. “I am not distressed. Your own nose, wolf’s head, has been sniffing up dung heaps so long it cannot distinguish fair from foul.”
Intrigued despite himself, the Wolf studied the square set to the young widow’s jaw and pondered how the pearly row of small, even teeth had remained intact all these years. His own hands tingled with the urge to curl about her throat and rattle a few loose.
“Methinks I have been away fromEnglandtoo long,” he mused, the slanted grin barely moving around the words. “Too long for such haughtiness and greed as I see in some to be the cause of such misery as I see in others … or are you blind as well to the starvation, the cruelty, the beatings, cripplings, and degradations to be found in every town and village throughout the kingdom?”
“If a man starves, it is because he is too lazy to work the fields. If he is punished, it is because he has committed some offense against the crown. As for the haughtiness and greed of which you speak, I suggest the worst offender is the cur of the forest who aspires to gain his wealth and recognition through thievery and murder … or do your own eyes suffer some difficulty in seeing the irony of your piousness?”
Her quickness of wit and tongue was beginning to make an impression on his men and the Wolf could sense that part of their amusement was a result of his inability to bring her under his thumb. She possessed far more spirit than was healthy or wise. Spirit bred contempt and contempt fostered rebellion—something he had neither the time nor the inclination to tolerate.
Conversely, fear bred caution, and both were qualities he would sorely prefer to see shading the vibrant blue of the widow’s eyes.
“Robert … take the men on ahead and see that everything has been made ready for our guests.”
“Aye. Shall I take this un for ye as well?” A thumb the size of a small anvil crooked in Servanne’s direction.
“No,” said the Wolf, his grin a misty suggestion about the lips. “I will bring her along myself.”
He took up Undine’s reins again and murmured a comforting “whoa” to the mare as the foresters and their burdened rouncies filed past. Servanne held Biddy’s worried gaze until the last glimpse of her luffing wimple had disappeared behind the wall of green, then she had no choice but to look down at the outlaw … which she did with the vaguest stirrings of unease.
The Wolf was bareheaded under the blazing glare of the sun and his hair shone with red and gold threads tangled among the chestnut waves. He looked somehow bigger and broader, more powerful and far more dangerous on his own than he had surrounded by his men. And, as Servanne found herself earning the full brunt of his stare, she could not help but feel the heat of a threat behind it, a promise which coiled down her spine in a fiery ribbon and pooled hotly in her loins.
“I believe I gave you a promise that no harm would befall either you or your waiting-woman,” he said in a calm, detached monotone. “But madam, as you are undoubtedly already aware, you present a worthy—nay, almost an impossible test for a man’s patience.”
Servanne moistened her lips and fought to keep her voice equally cool and steady. “On the contrary, sirrah. When I am treated with respect and courtesy, most men claim they enjoy my company immensely.”
“I am not most men. And you are not here to fulfill my desire for … company. You are my hostage, madam. A piece of valuable property to be bartered for and released when and if a suitable price is agreed upon by both parties. If at all possible, I should like to honour my pledge to return the property to its rightful owner in an … ah, undamaged condition. However, if some damage does occur—through negligence or sheer stupidity, as the case may be—I will hardly be driven to don the horsehair shirt and whip myself raw in repentance of a broken vow. In other words, Lady Servanne, you will behave yourself … or I will not.”
“I doubt your behaviour could sink to any lower depths, rogue,” she fumed unwisely. “And I doubt you could cause me any further discomfort than you have already.”
The outlaw sighed and turned his head away for a moment. Before Servanne could react, he reached up and clamped his broad hands around her waist, lifting her unceremoniously out of the saddle. Her legs, long ago gone numb from the hours on horseback, would have crumpled the instant her feet were set to the ground if not for his support. One of his arms snaked around her waist, forcing her to press against the iron-hard length of his body. His free hand cradled her chin and tilted her face upward at an uncomfortable angle that emphasized both his height—which was as immense and imposing as one of the towering pines that surrounded them—and her sudden vulnerability.
At once, a mindless drumming caused the blood to surge through her veins and her heart to trip over several rapid beats. Her lips trembled apart and her fists curled into tight little knots as if the fingers could not bear the even more debilitating sensation of contact with a body that offered no apology for its granite hardness. Straining with virility, he crowded against Servanne so that there was no part of her left unaware of the intimacy of heated male flesh.
“The challenge, I believe, was to cause you … discomfort?” he asked.
Servanne had to catch at her breath before answering. “Better than you … worse than you have tried and failed!”
“Is that so? And I suppose you are hardened and worldly-wise enough to know what a man’s best and worst might be?”
Servanne’s stare threatened to turn liquid. She knew, without a doubt, the man holding her with the possessiveness of a barbarian king was nothing so trifling as a man or a king.
“Let me go,” she gasped, squirming to break out of his embrace. Her fists scraped against his chest, displacing the carelessly open V of his shirt so that her knuckles skidded into the curling mass of crisp, dark hairs. The flesh beneath was all muscle and steamy hot skin. There was no give, no indication she could have won a response with anything less than the business end of a quarterstaff.
“Let … go!” she cried. “How dare you touch me!”
“How dare I?” he repeated, his breath warm and promissory against her cheek. “You should pray I dare no more, my lady, than just touch you. Although”—the hand at the small of her back shifted lower, caressing the curved roundness of her buttocks—“the notion is fast becoming less of a trial than first imagined.”
Servanne’s mouth dropped wide with shock. He was pulling her forward, holding her in such a way as to boldly forge the shape and contour of his thewed limbs upon hers. Heat met heat and pressed deep, scorching her through the layers of samite and silk as if the garments were made of air. A moist shudder convulsed deep within her, a reaction to his animal maleness that was beyond her control, and his arms tightened further, as if he had felt it and was offering more.
“No!” she cried, beginning to fight like a wildcat to free herself, her arms flailing, her nails seeking to let loose rivers of blood. With a snarled curse, he merely squeezed her into the wall of his chest, pinioning her there until she discovered she could not breathe. Her struggles weakened, then ceased altogether. The simple act of clawing her fingers into the wolf pelts drained her and she sagged limply in his arms, drooping into the encroaching blackness of a faint.
The Wolf eased his grip slowly, letting the air back into her lungs, and, as the blood flooded back into her limbs, he looked down at her, his face as impassive as marble. She was quiet enough now. Subdued. Drawing her breath in soft, broken gasps. He watched the colour flow back into her cheeks, the sparks of blue fire rekindle in eyes that would soon begin to fight back in silent, guarded hatred. He admired what he saw. The lush, provocative temptation of her lips drew his gaze and for a moment, he felt an arousal so intense, so completely unexpected and unwarranted, he almost drew her forward again to kiss her.
Instead, he pushed her out to arm’s length and sprang away as if she had suddenly burst into flame. The rebuke permitted Servanne to stumble haltingly well out of reach. Her fingers flew up to cover the pulsing heat of her lips and while she could swear he had not kissed her, her mouth felt scalded as if he had.
“Do you still have doubts that my behaviour could worsen?” he asked quietly.
Servanne’s blood continued to roar through her temples, making it difficult for her to think, let alone speak. Her skin had seemed to shrink everywhere on her body, most urgently so wherever it had been branded with the contact of his own. Her eyes stung with unshed tears of indignation—tears he watched form and swell along the thick, honey-coloured wings of her lashes.
“Well, my lady?”
She looked up, the back of her hand still pressed against her lips, the fingers curled and trembling.
“Will your stay with us be an easy one, or will I be forced to use harsh measures to win your cooperation?”
“How … long do you intend to keep me prisoner?” she asked in a shaky whisper.
“The shortest time possible, I promise you.” Aware of the tension that had caused his own body to tauten like a bowstring, the Wolf felt it break now, and the fire in his gaze burned down to smoky gray ash. “It will seem shorter still if we have no more need of these verbal jousting matches. Especially ones where the outcome is a foregone conclusion.”
Servanne’s lashes were still damp, but the brightness sparkled with frost. He was laughing at her; mocking her futile efforts to defy him. Smug, arrogant bastard! He had insulted her, had dared to lay his hands upon her, and now, to make the degradation complete, was addressing her with the flippancy one used to pacify a simpleton!
A hot welter of resentment rushed to fill the void so recently drained by panic and in a moment of sheer and utter desperation, she whirled around and started running toward the same wall of trees that had swallowed Sparrow and Gil Golden so efficiently. She heard an angry curse explode behind her, but ignored it. She heard Undine nicker and whinny loudly, and guessed the outlaw had tried to push her aside to pass, but the horse had taken umbrage and valiantly stood her ground. It was enough. The extra seconds it took the Black Wolf to skirt the rearing hooves, combined with every last scrap of energy Servanne could will into her pumping legs, carried her past the barricade of saplings and well into a dense weaving of juniper and alder.
Running with no thought other than escape, Servanne dashed under broken limbs and plunged through barriers of fern that closed into a solid wall behind her. Her skirts hampered her and the branches snatched at the flying wings of her wimple as she ducked and darted her way deeper into the forest, but she neither stopped nor slowed to remove any hindrances. She was aware of angry, pounding footbeats thrashing through the undergrowth behind her, but they took a wrong turn, then another, and for a time she could not hear them at all over the loud slamming of her own heartbeat.
She stopped to catch her breath and listen, and that was when she learned to move with less haste and more caution, for it became apparent that he too stopped every few paces and listened as well. But she was a good deal lighter, and fear gave her the swiftness of a startled doe. Also, the shadows were dark and cool, kinder to the prey than the hunter, offering pockets of safety that became blacker and more frequent as the sun slipped lower in the sky.
Constantly twisting and turning in the labyrinth of vines and trees, Servanne ran until her sides ached and her legs grew buttery with fatigue. She lost all sense of time and direction. Once she thought she smelled woodsmoke and, fearing she had inadvertently run straight into the outlaw camp, she backed away and fled in the opposite direction. She had no way of knowing how far she had traveled or how much farther she would have to go before a road or village might present itself. What slices of the sky she could see through the latticework of branches overhead were a dull, uniform pewter gray, indicating the sun was fading rapidly. She knew she had to find shelter and a safe place to hide before the darkness settled over the forest. There was already a thin veil of mist swimming about her ankles, soaking the hem of her gown and causing her toes to squeak with the wetness inside her shoes.
A low, hauntingly familiar sound brought her to a dead halt in the midst of a green sea of waist-high ferns.
She heard it again and released a misty puff of startled air.
A bell, by Mother Mary’s holy angels! A monastery bell tolling the hour of Vespers!
With the echo still ringing hollowly in her ears, Servanne waded through the ferns and stumbled to the bottom of a steep incline. At the base of the gorge, was a thin sliver of a stream that meandered between two enormous hillocks of rock and gorse. She picked her way carefully along the moss-blanketed bank, following the stream and eventually emerging from behind the hillocks to find herself standing less than two hundred yards from the long, low, lichen-covered walls of an abbey.
Gloom and pine-scented shadows cloaked the clearing in which the abbey stood, but the bell tower was plainly visible rising above and behind the heavy oaken doors that held the inhabitants cloistered from the rest of the world.
Servanne moved toward it as if in a trance, her feet gliding soundlessly through waves of long grass, her skirts trailing fingers of displaced mist. At the gates, she spread her arms in supplication and collapsed against the support of the dew-stained wood for the time it took her to compose herself. Fighting back tears of relief, she pulled the rusted iron chain that hung down the wall, and nearly sobbed aloud when she heard the corresponding tinkle of a small bell inside the courtyard. When she rang it a second time, her attention was drawn to her hand, to the dirt and grass stains that marked not only her skin, but marched up the sleeves and down the skirt of her tunic. Her face would be in no better condition, she surmised, but for once, her appearance did not concern her. Nothing concerned her other than the welcome sound of wooden-soled sandals hurrying toward the gate to investigate the disturbance.
A small square window in the oak portal creaked open a cautious inch. A single brown eyeball peered through the gap, flicking back and forth over the span of the meadow before thinking to angle downward. A second eyeball joined the first as the window opened wider, the two eyes surmounted by a worried frown.
“Father … help me please.”
“Good heavens—” An eyebrow arched upward in surprise, temporarily unseating the frown. “Are you alone?”
“Yes. Yes, I am alone, but there is a man chasing me—”
The window snapped shut and an instant later, the iron hinges of the gate heaved a mighty protest as one of the double doors was swung open. The cowled monk stepped out and immediately stretched out his hands in gentle concern.
“What is this about a man chasing you?”
“Please, good father,” she gasped. “I beg you, please hide me. There are outlaws in the woods. They are chasing me, hunting me; they mean to kidnap me and hold me to ransom. I managed to escape them once, but … !”
“My child, my child!” The monk caught her hands in his. They were smooth and warm and not a little callused from long, thankless hours of toiling at God’s labours. The face beneath the coarse gray hood was serene and unlined; a scholar’s face; a face filled with compassion. “Are you hurt, my child? Did they hurt you in any way?”
Servanne struggled for breath and words. “There was an ambush. They took me hostage … killed the guards … now they are chasing me. The Wolf. The Black Wolf of Lincoln, he calls himself. He means to kill me, Father, I know he does. Please … you must hide me. You must give me sanctuary until a message can be sent to Lord Lucien, Baron de Gournay.”
The name seemed to have no effect on the acolyte and she began urging him back through the abbey gates when she heard the ominous beat of horse’s hooves cutting through the gorge. She did not have to look back over her shoulder to know it would be him, yet she did, and the sight of him riding out from under the canopied froth of trees caused her belly to commence a sickeningly slow slide downward.
“It is him,” she managed to whisper, cowering behind the cowled shoulders. “It is him … the Black Wolf. Please … you must help me. You must not let him take me away.”
“Have no fear, child,” the monk declared calmly. “He will not be taking you away from this place.”
Not entirely convinced by the note of assurance in the monk’s voice, Servanne regarded the Black Wolf’s approach with only slightly less trepidation than that with which she had welcomed the first time a chirurgeon had attached a row of slimy leeches to her arm to drain the ill humours of a fever. There was anger, cruel and unyielding, etched into every line and crevice of the outlaw’s face, bristling from every tautly held muscle in his body. His jaw was clenched, the veins in his throat and temples stood out like throbbing blue snakes.
He reined the enormous black beast he rode to a halt in front of them, his figure blotted darkly against the faltering sunset. Servanne experienced another deep, moist shudder; this one pressing so heavily over her loins that her knees almost buckled from the strain.
She was terribly, physically conscious of the way the ice-gray eyes inspected every smudge and scratch she bore. And when she was summarily dismissed, like some minor annoyance, and his attention focused on the monk, she felt a further clutch of fear stab at her belly. Who was to say he was not above slaying a man of the holy order? Who was to say he would respect the sanctity of the church or obey the unwritten law of sanctuary? This wolf’s head was a law unto himself, acknowledging no authority but his own, no rules but those of his own making.
The Black Wolf swung one long leg over the saddle, the leather creaking softly in the misty stillness of the air. Servanne flinched reflexively as he walked slowly toward them; if not for the monk’s stalwart protection shielding her, she was certain she would have fainted from the sheer tension that approached with him.
“Friar,” he said quietly.
“My son,” was the equally unruffled response.
The Wolf’s gaze flicked over to the pale face that was peeping from around the monk’s shoulders, and he grinned like a sleepy lion.
“Ringing the bell seems to have been a worthwhile risk after all,” he mused. “It saved us the time and bother of scouring the woods for you. You can thank Friar for the idea; he worried your soul might become easy prey for the Devil if you were left on your own throughout the night.” A wider grin brought forth the flash of strong white teeth. “Not to mention what wild boar and wolf might make of you.”
“Ahh, now,” the monk sighed. “Can you not bend a little from your usual tactful and gallant self? The poor child is already half-convinced you mean to kill her and devour her whole.”
“The idea has growing appeal,” the Wolf replied dryly.
The monk turned then, one of his lean hands reaching up to brush back the hood that had concealed a full, untonsured shock of jet-black hair. “Forgive me, Lady Servanne, but the deception was necessary, if only to ensure you did not spend the night alone and unprotected in the woods.”
Servanne was too shocked to respond, too stunned to do more than brace herself against the waves of blackness that threatened to engulf her.
“Are the others inside?” the Wolf was asking, his voice sounding low and distant, as if it was coming from the far end of a tunnel.
“All but the extra sentries Gil and Sparrow dispatched to ensure the bell did not attract any unwanted visitors. Not that I think it will. This mist is thick enough to muffle the sound and direction well.”
The Wolf glanced back over his shoulder, noting with a grunt of agreement that the drifting white stuff had already obliterated the exit to the gorge. “You are probably right, but we shall keep a sharp eye out until morning anyway. There is no sense in inviting more trouble than we already have.”
This last comment was said with a direct and caustic glare toward Servanne, who did not think it worthy of a rebuke.
“What is this place?” she asked. “What have you done with the real monks?”
Seeing the glint of villainy in the Wolf’s eye, Friar was quick to intervene. “The abbey has been abandoned for almost a hundred years. As you will see in a few moments, the buildings are scarcely more than shells, sacked and put to the torch long ago.”
“Surely the local villagers would know of its existence and direct the king’s men to search here first,” Servanne pointed out, somewhat surprised at the oversight.
“Local villagers,” the Wolf said succinctly, “if you can find any who will admit to knowing of the existence of Thornfeld Abbey, will also tell you the ruins are haunted. Plagued by pagan Devil-worshippers. Cursed by demons who breathe fire and feed on human flesh. All of which suits our purposes well enough,” he added, “if not our intent.”
“If it … ah, gives you any comfort,” Friar interjected hastily, “I once attended a seminary and came within a chasuble’s width of being ordained. It appeases the men, who call me Friar, to have me offer daily prayers to ward off any evil spirits who may linger about the woods.”
“I am not so easily frightened by tales of witchcraft and deviltry,” she said, her words a little too shrill to be entirely convincing.
“Good,” the Wolf remarked. “Then you will not question the source of the blood pudding you find before you on the tables this night.”
With a slight, sardonic bow, he took up the stallion’s reins and walked past Servanne, his stride fluid and powerful, coldly dismissive. Friar, his brows folded together in a frown, won back her startled gaze with a gentle touch on the arm.
“Come. Your maid is inside, and the chambers we have prepared are really quite warm and comfortable, despite appearances.”
Appearances, Servanne thought bitterly. A monk who was not a monk; a man who was a wolf, who claimed to be another man who she was beginning to believe had only ever existed in her mind. The dream had become a nightmare. The nightmare a reality.
With weary, leaden steps, she walked through the abbey gates. Cobbles underfoot were broken and upheaved with tangles of weed and bracken growing wild from every nook and crevice. Pathways, once groomed and even from the daily shuffle of sandaled feet, were choked with brambles, overgrown to the point where only a keenly discerning eye might yet detect their true course.
As her despondent gaze roved farther afield, the shape of the ruined buildings grew out of the shadows and gloom. Roofs, once comprised of great wooden beams and slate tiles, were now grotesque arches of skeletal black ribs, strangled by ivy, jutting up over scorched walls. Two long wings of decayed stone formed the almonry and pilgrim’s hall. Flanking the far end of the courtyard were the remains of a priory church and refectory, both scarred and corrupted by wind and weather. The outer wall that had seemed so formidable and protective from the greenslade, was a breached and crumbling facade, long ago conquered by an army of trees reclaiming it for the forest.
The darkness had fallen so swiftly Servanne had not noticed it. But now, being led toward the looming stone hulk of the pilgrim’s hall, she could clearly see the pulsating, misty saffron glow rising from the campfires within.
Her footsteps faltered and she pulled back from the smell of roast meat, woodsmoke, and careless camaraderie. She would have preferred the company of wild wolves and boars to what awaited her here. She most desperately would have preferred to have never heard of Lucien Wardieu, Baron de Gournay; to have never suffered the prideful notion of becoming his future wife; and to never, ever have thought her former life as Lady de Briscourt dull and boring and needing a change for the better.