Through A Dark Mist © Marsha Canham
WARNING…contains some explicit sexual, adult content.
Less than twenty miles to the north, beyond the verge of thick, dense forest known as Lincolnwoods, stretched a low-lying moor of bracken and long, slippery grasses. Spring was the only time of year there was any colour on the moor to break the monotony of metallic gray skies, dull granite cliffs, and windswept beaches that were treacherous to man or beast. Tiny crimson anemones stubbornly thrust their heads through the mire in early April and, depending upon how long it took the deluge of icy rains and merciless winds to turn the land into a bog of rotted grass and muck, the moor glowed red from morning till night. Some might have likened the sight to a carpet of scarlet silk thrown down by an apologetic god to alleviate the forbidding hostility of the sea coast. Others, especially those who had lived through wars and crusades and seen firsthand the aftermath of slaughter on a battlefield, compared the landscape to a sea of blood.
The stone keep built at the farthermost tip of the moor had been inhabited by the second kind of man. Draggan Wardieu, from the district of Gournay in Normandy, had crossed the Channel with William the Conqueror in 1066, and for his loyal, enthusiastic efforts in defeating and subjugating the Saxons, he had been awarded, among other parcels of fertile land and estates in Lincoln, this remote, desolate strip of coastline. Flanked by violent seas, fronted by an impassable moor, Draggan’s eye for natural defenses bade him construct his castle there, at the very edge of the eagle’s eyrie.
Towering sixty feet high, built from huge stone blocks quarried from the cliffs it sat upon, the original Bloodmoor Keep was hardly more than a three-storey square block of rock and mortar. The ground floor was without windows or doors and served as a huge storage area for the grain and livestock taken in tithes from his serfs and tenants. The second floor consisted of the great hall, and was just that: one enormous, vaulted room that served as living quarters for the entire household. Family members were only distinguished from the servants and guards by way of the small, private sleeping chambers hewn into the twelve-foot-thick walls. The rest of the inhabitants of the keep worked and slept in the common hall, which was also the dining hall, the armoury, the judiciary court when necessary, and the core of the keep’s defenses. The uppermost floor was roofless, the walls high and crenellated with spaces on the battlements every few feet where archers could stand and launch a hail of arrows down on the unprotected heads of any attackers. There were no windows. Archery slits cut high on the walls of the great hall and reached by means of a narrow catwalk that surrounded the chamber, never allowed in enough light to alleviate either the gloom or the dampness. Cooking and heating fires were built on an iron grate in the centre of the hall, the smoke left to its own initiative to find the exit cut in the ceiling. Smoky, dark, perpetually damp and malodorous, the early keep was not the pleasantest of places to live, an even less accommodating place to visit unexpectedly.
Surrounding the keep was the bailey, an outer courtyard where the stables and pens were located. Protecting this was a high curtain wall, again of solid stone, forty feet high and twenty feet thick, with walkways all around to hold patrolling sentries. The outer wall was connected to the keep by a drawbridge, which could be raised against the keep wall at the first alarm to completely seal off the only entrance to the main tower. The outer wall was, in turn, surrounded by a moat and protected by a second drawbridge, guarded by a barbican tower built to hold a thick iron portcullis gate. The walls were also fitted with overhanging projections through which burning pitch or boiling oil could be poured, and were serrated with meurtrières—V-shaped vertical slots that gave the archers inside a wide range of movement to fire upon the enemy, but conversely presented a narrow, almost impossible target for returning fire.
This was the crude but effective fortification Draggan Wardieu built and successfully defended during his long lifetime. His sons, William and Crispin, along with their sons and grandsons, built on additional courtyards, halls, palisades, gatehouses, and towers until the original keep occupied only a small, isolated corner at the northernmost end of the stronghold. Within the sprawling outer bailey, there grew a self-contained village of tradesmen. The castle boasted its own smithy, tannery, armoury, alehouse, and mill, as well as vast stables, barracks, gardens and fruit orchards, all within the barrier of the stone walls. Farmers and outside tradesmen had attempted, over the years, to construct dwellings within hailing distance of the forbidding castle walls. But the terrain proved to be so unforgiving, the moor so wet and bleak, the sea such a thunderous scourge against any fishermen who tried to tame her, that the huts of mud and wattle that cringed in the shadow of the castle walls lasted only a season or two before being abandoned into ruin.
Only the immediate inhabitants of Bloodmoor suffered no lack of luxuries. The walls were thick enough and high enough to buffer the coldest and sharpest of winds. The castle was perched high enough on the cliff’s edge to mock the fury of the turbulent seas churning below. No one came to Bloodmoor uninvited. No one stayed unless they were wanted. And no one dared turn back once the huge iron-clad gates were swung closed behind them.
“If you want me to leave, just say so. It is not very often my company bores a man to lethargy and great, vast lapses of silence. Frankly, I could better waste my time elsewhere.”
The woman spoke with a low, sultry voice, emphasizing the more pertinent words with a moist, rolling purr of the tongue. Nicolaa de la Haye was a beauty and needed no confirming glances in polished steel mirrors to tell her so. The shocked look in men’s eyes was confirmation enough. The forthright rise in the front of their tunics was proof she was as desirable now, in her thirtieth year, as she had been in her thirteenth—the age at which she had left her first lover a gasping, sweating hulk of quivering exhaustion.
There had been many lovers since then, some good, some bad. Some so exceptional she had maintained her affairs with them throughout the years, needing them as urgently and as frequently as some women required possets of henbane and opium to help them endure their dreary lives.
Slightly taller than average, Nicolaa undulated rather than walked, and was proficient in using her breasts, hips, and hands in communicating with a man in ways unknown by the spoken word. Her hair was black as coal, parted in the middle, and streamed in an ebony cascade halfway to the floor. Her eyes were so dark a green as to be almost black, heavy-lidded to suggest she was constantly on the verge of arousal—which she usually was. Her lips were full and sensuous, naturally tinted a deep shade of vermeil that teased a receptive eye into speculating where, other than on another mouth, they could bestow the most pleasure.
At the moment, most of her considerable prowess and charm was indeed being wasted. Her husband, Onfroi de la Haye—a wretched, sullen pustule of a man—was somewhere in Lincolnwoods awaiting the arrival of the widow De Briscourt. Nicolaa had hastened ahead to Bloodmoor Keep, ostensibly to help oversee the preparations for the upcoming nuptials—oh, how her teeth ground together each time she heard that word—but in reality, she had wanted this time alone with the most magnificent of her lovers, the Dragon himself, Lucien Wardieu.
Had there ever been a man created to see so perfectly to a woman’s every need? The mere sight of him was enough to take anyone’s breath away: a tall blond giant of a man with Herculean shoulders and eyes more dangerous than the thrust of a lance. The sound of his voice triggered liquid shivers along her spine. The scent of him encapsulated the sun and the wind and the savage primitiveness of the moor he called home. The touch … the lightest touch from the veriest tip of a long, blunted finger set rivers of heat raging through her loins, rivers that swelled and burst into torrents from the instant his flesh plunged into hers, to the moment of blinding madness that welcomed the last hot spurt of fountaining seed.
Even now, standing as he was in the shadows of the window embrasure, his back turned to the room, Nicolaa had difficulty keeping the tremors out of her voice. Moving, let alone walking, was a trial of balance and control. The slightest friction of her tunic against breast or thigh drenched her in such heady waves of erotic anticipation, she was growing concerned the eager dampness would begin to puddle at her feet.
“Lucien?” she murmured petulantly. “Have you heard a word I have said?”
“I have heard you, Nicolaa, my love. How could I not?”
“Then it must be I am disturbing you, and you would prefer your own company tonight.”
The low purr of sarcasm broke his concentration and he turned slowly from the window. The cloud of distraction lingered a moment longer, dulling the incredible azure blue of his eyes, but in the next instant it was gone, brushed away by the thick sweep of lashes.
“Nicolaa,” he said with a soft laugh, “any man who admitted such a sight disturbed him”—he paused and lowered his gaze to where the flimsy silk of her tunic was molded around the generous swell of her breasts—“is not much of a man.”
The wife of the sheriff ofLincolnreturned his smile. “A certain Lionheart might argue the sentiment.”
Wardieu shrugged and drank from the goblet of mead he was holding. “Richard has his preferences, I have mine.”
“I am relieved to hear it. How the women ofLincolnwould flock in droves to hurl themselves off the nearest cliff, should the news reach them that the mighty warlord, the Dragon de Gournay, has taken to heaving himself at the buttocks of young boys.”
“Tastefully put,” he remarked dryly.
“Tis a distasteful image one conjures at the thought,” she countered evenly, then sighed. “Especially when one considers the waste of such a splendidly virile specimen as Richard, Coeur de Lion. In truth, I did not believe it for the longest of time.”
“And no doubt attempted to disprove the rumours yourself?”
“Well …” The tip of her tongue slid along her full lower lip to moisten it. “I did have an opportunity to seek a private audience with the king when Onfroi was vested as sheriff.”
“I would have given a thousand crowns to witness the exchange,” the baron said, his eyes glinting with humour.
“No doubt you would, you beast. I felt quite sorry for him, myself—and even sorrier now for the innocent little Berengaria, his intended bride.”
“You? Feel sympathy for another woman?”
The dark eyes narrowed. “It has been known to happen a time or two.”
“Usually only after you have crippled, maimed, or blinded one of them. Come now, Nicolaa, false sentiment does not become you. Turn soft and sincere and there truly would be a mass plummeting of mankind over the cliffs—out of fear.”
“Melancholy. It happens whenever I am feeling neglected.”
“Neglected? How so?”
Nicolaa sighed with mock frustration. “It has been over a month, my bold lusty lord. Four weeks. Thirty-two days and a good deal too many hours since these poor thighs have held a real man between them.”
The azure gaze strayed downward, following the deliberately laid trail of a meandering finger as it flowed from throat to breast to waist to thigh. She wore nothing beneath the pale yellow tunic. Her nipples were clear, dark circles straining against the fabric, and where her thighs met, the nest of down bushed against the cloth like a mossy hillock.
It was rumoured she bathed in blood to keep her skin so supple and startlingly white. For a certainty, she employed the skills of several herb-women who fed her insatiable vanity by supplying creams to prevent wrinkling, powders to keep her teeth white and her lips red, possets to leave her hair smelling always like wild musk on a spring breeze. She had once ordered a clumsy dressmaker boiled in oil for scratching her flesh with a needle. Another waiting-woman had found herself impaled on a stake for daring to whisper, within Nicolaa’s hearing, that her mistress made love as often to a mirror as to a man.
As for her to have gone so much as a sennight without something hard and hot between her thighs, it would have had to have been because of a grave, life-threatening illness striking her prone. Even then, she would have found better ways to raise a sweat than with hot poultices.
“How do the plans for the wedding celebration progress?” she asked sweetly. “I suppose I should ask, since it was my excuse for arriving early.”
“The preparations go well. William the Marshal has sent his acknowledgment, as haveSalisburyand Tavistoke. Prince John should arrive early in the week, as will Fournier fromNormandy, and La Seyne Sur Mer from Mirebeau.”
“The queen’s champion?” Nicolaa arched a brow. “You should indeed be honoured that Eleanor of Aquitaine would send her favoured knight as envoy. A pity the wrinkled old sheep’s bladder is too feeble to make the journey herself, but surely a feather for you that she persuaded La Seyne Sur Mer to journey in her stead. Will he participate in the tourney?”
“It remains to be seen,” De Gournay said, the merest trace of pleasure betrayed in his expression. “I suspect he might be eager to establish a reputation outside ofBrittany.”
“Saints assoil us,” Nicolaa murmured. “You would share your own laurel wreath with the Scourge of Mirebeau? How generous of you.”
“Wisdom before generosity, my love. The wisdom to see his skill firsthand and judge his mettle by mine own eyes rather than rely solely on the reports of others.”
“It is said he has yet to meet his equal in the lists,” Nicolaa remarked with a sly lack of subtlety.
“He has yet to venture more than a hundred miles from Mirebeau,” Wardieu shot back. “Much less come toEnglandto meet his match.”
Nicolaa shivered deliciously, riding the ripples of a series of small inner fluctuations. Wardieu angry, or Wardieu impugned usually set the stage for an incomparable bout of lovemaking and she felt her thighs slicken with anticipation.
“Then you intend to challenge him?”
“The notion has its merit.”
“But will your bride be sympathetic to the possibility of losing her groom before she has had a chance at true wedded bliss?”
Lucien stared a moment, then gave way to a slow grin. “Ahh, the crux of the matter. I thought I detected more green in your eyes tonight than was normal.”
“Plague take you, Lucien Wardieu. What, by all the saints, do I have to be jealous of? A timid little widow with knocking knees and a sallow complexion? You forget, I have seen her, my lord; I was present at her wedding to Hubert de Briscourt, and a sorrier sight could not be imagined. Three years of laying fallow beneath an invalid could not have wrought much improvement either, and if the gossip-mongers speak the truth when they say the old viper died of the pox, then she is undoubtedly riddled with the disease herself and will appeal to neither your sense of sight nor smell.”
At that, a laugh escaped him. “Sir Hubert died of a sixty-year-old heart.”
“Weakened, I am sure, by the sight of a poxy trull waiting in his bed each night.”
“Nicolaa …” He shook his head slowly, causing sparks of candlelight to glint off the magnificent mane of golden hair. “Is it any wonder poor Onfroi sweats himself into pools when he is near you? Your tongue is sharp enough to flay any man or woman into a cowering shadow of their former self. Now, come. She cannot be as bad as all that.”
“Have you seen her?” Nicolaa asked pointedly, knowing full well he had not.
“Once,” he admitted. “I think. The room was very crowded, and she was standing very far away.”
“There, you see? She was so ugly she was kept well out of the way to avoid giving offense.”
Lucien unfolded his thickly muscled arms and moved away from the window. He set his goblet on a nearby table and crossed over to where Nicolaa stood, stopping in front of her. Reaching out, he placed a hand on either trim hip, grasping the slippery silk of her tunic between his fingers and sliding it upward.
“So what would you have me do?” he murmured, casting the flimsy garment aside and watching the fall of black hair drift back down to cover the lusciously nude body. “Let some other lout petition for her hand and win her estates?”
“Is that truly all you want her for? She is very young.”
“I can have youth anytime I want it,” he said, reaching out again, this time to flick aside a ribbon of hair that had tumbled over her breast. “Along with the whining, and bleating, and tears of inexperience that go hand in hand. No, Nicolaa, I am not marrying her for her youth.”
Knowing the dark eyes were intent upon his face, Lucien deliberately avoided meeting them while a lazy thumb and forefinger began to trace a light pattern around one engorged nipple. The rush-lights cast a mellow golden glow over the luminous, satiny curves of her body; the fire crackling in the hearth behind them might have been the sound of the sparks leaping from one heated body to the other.
Nicolaa closed her eyes and leaned boldly into the caressing fingertips. “Will you bed her?”
“Would you have me ignore her and rouse questions concerning my … preferences?”
“I would have you kill her,” came the husky whisper, shivered from between clenched teeth. “Wed her, and kill her as soon as the properties are secured in your name.”
Lucien bowed his head, burying his lips in the arched curve of her throat. Her groan sent his arm curling around her waist, and the hand that had been teasing the blood-red aureole of her breast left the bountiful peaks to slide down into the soft, mossy juncture below. Nicolaa clutched at his upper arms for support and parted her quaking limbs wider, moaning feverishly as his fingers stretched deeply and deliciously into flesh that was all too ready to respond.
“You know how I abhor unnecessary violence,” he said sardonically, his words muffled against a mouthful of succulent white flesh.
“I would do it,” she gasped. “I would do it gladly. Gladly! Oh … !”
His fingers left a shiny wet path on her belly as they stroked upward to surround and engulf her breast again. His mouth crushed down over hers, smothering her cry of protest, the kiss as savage and mindless as the tearing fingers that scratched runnels into his skin in their haste to rid him of the short, shapeless tunic he wore. The cloth was shredded in her frenzy, but it mattered not. The hard rasp of red-gold stubble on his jaw burned her cheek and throat, but the flames were indistinguishable from the others that seared her body internally.
Running her hands beneath the torn edges of his tunic, she spread her fingers greedily over the firm planes and muscular ridges of his chest and ribs. She pushed the rent in the garment lower, baring the flat belly, the explosion of coarse blond hairs at his groin. A final tug and the fabric fell away, leaving her hands free to grasp and adore the blooded fullness that rose up between them.
“Mon Dieu,” she cried hoarsely. “Mon Dieu … !”
Her mouth ravaged the taut column of his neck, the firelit expanse of his chest, the bronze discs of his nipples, and she started to slip down onto her knees, eager to worship the bold, virile body. His big hands forestalled her. They grasped her buttocks, lifting her against him, and, as he splayed his own legs wider for balance, plunged her fiercely down over the thickened spear of his flesh.
Nicolaa’s head arched back. Her mouth gaped and froze around a jolt of pleasure so intense the sensation hovered somewhere between ecstasy and agony. He eased the pressure briefly, allowing her only as many moments of clarity as were necessary to wrap her arms and legs avariciously around him. Then he brought her weight slamming down again … and again … and the pleasure verged on pain before erupting in a thousand starbursts of unending rapture.
Her hair enveloped them in a silky black cocoon, the curls jumping to and fro to the rhythm of the damp, heated clash of their bodies. Their silhouettes were cast onto the wall behind them, two huge shadows undulating with wild abandon.
Lucien’s great strength survived the first convulsive foray into oblivion, but as he felt the second building within him, he laughingly chastised Nicolaa to interrupt her own recurring climaxes until they could gain the support of the bed beneath them. Her answer was a guttural curse, her response a wave of such protracted gratification that she was drenching both of them in its effects as Lucien lowered her onto the high platform bed.
“By Christ’s holy vows,” he rasped, furrowing deeply into the sleek and trembling haven once more. “How does a man like Onfroi even begin to satisfy you?”
“He never has,” she gasped, quaking through a shiver of aftershocks. “And never will. That is why I need you, my lusty lord. And this—” She arched her head back into the linens, straining into the joy of each thrust as he plunged his flesh repeatedly into hers. “This is why you need me as well. We should have married, you and I. All those years ago … we should have married.”
“We would have killed each other by now,” he grunted. “One way or another.”
“Ahh, but what a sweet death it would have been, locked together, bound together in ecstasy forever. Admit it, damn you. Admit you have never found another woman who can satisfy you as I do!”
Lucien admitted nothing, not in so many words. His body, however, spoke eloquently, surging deeper, harder, faster; held in her pulsing grip, driven by the passion raging through every vein, muscle, and tautened sinew.
Nicolaa’s nails drew ragged red gouges on his flesh as she raked them from his shoulders to his flanks. She levered her hips higher, and watched his handsome face contort in the firelight. Spasms wracked his body, rendering him as helpless and vulnerable as a babe in arms and she knew she could have stabbed a dagger into his heart at that moment and he would not have been aware of the threat. She could have slashed his throat or signaled to someone concealed in the shadows to attack him from behind, and he would not have suspected the danger until it was too late.
He should not take me for granted, she thought darkly. Nor should he doubt for a moment that I would hesitate to kill—as I have done before—in order to get what I desire most in life. A nubile young bride keening her pleasure beneath him, she most certainly did not desire. She knew full well a steady stream of girls, women, wenches, and whores frequented his sleeping couch, but never, not once had he ever contemplated marriage. Not even when the dower lands of a proposed match could have doubled or trebled his present wealth. So why this one?
Nicolaa had seen the widow De Briscourt. Tiny as a bird, delicate as a blush, as blonde and dewy with youth as the early morning sunlight.
What if Lucien saw her and … and …?
The moan that welcomed the panting, drained mass of spent ecstasy back into her arms was not entirely feigned. She held him and combed her fingers through his damp blond locks, savouring every last shiver and shudder that racked the mighty body.
Nicolaa was not going to lose him again. Not this time. She had been patient all these years, tolerant of the need for discretion and caution. But there was no one now who would dare point a finger at the Baron de Gournay and remind him his father had been branded a traitor, his brother slain as a murderer. The last of his line, he had succeeded in overcoming the taint of both tragedies. He was Richard’s trusted ally and Prince John’s confidant; the time for patience was rapidly drawing to an end. She would have her great golden warlord. She would live at Bloodmoor Keep as its mistress, and she would remove without qualm anything or anyone who stood in her way!