Through A Dark Mist Copyright 2011 © Marsha Canham
Servanne’s young body ached from top to toe. She had fought off bouts of faintness and nausea all through the long, seemingly endless night of torment. There had been no bells tolled to mark the passing hours. The fires inside the shell of the pilgrims’ hall had been banked, fading from insipid red to frilled white ash. All but two of the torches that sat in black iron cressets had been doused early in the evening. The remaining two had been allowed to burn down to stubs, and then left to smoke listlessly in their rusted cradles. Only the waning brightness of the stars overhead marked the slow passage of the hours, and they, for the better part of the night, had been cloaked behind drifting banks of opaque mist.
Dampness and cold were Servanne’s only companions. Biddy had fallen fast asleep within an hour of her declared tenacity. Apart from the odd restless nicker from the horses and the contented snores of the men who had made their beds on piles of old rushes, there was only the occasional hiss and crackle from the dying fires to break the leaden silence.
Slowly, however, the gloom and shadow that had enveloped the abandoned abbey distilled to a murky, half-lit dawn. The mist began to recede into the forest. Figures and objects, smothered by darkness, slowly took shape and substance again and, responding to some inner timepiece, the huddled figures began to stretch and yawn, and push knuckled fists into crusted, bleary eyes. A round of coughing and spitting bestirred the dogs, who took up where they had left off the night before rooting in the rushes in search of food scraps. The men greeted one another, some groaning over swollen heads and sour tongues, some exchanging ribald complaints over other stiffened, ill-exercised joints. Somewhere a goat bleated and an axe bit into wood. Beyond the stone walls, a flock of birds were startled out of their rookery and rose above the gaping, scorched beams in a screaming black cloud.
Sparrow came swooping down out of nowhere, landing with a whoop and cry that nearly sent Biddy tumbling sideways off her log stool.
“You said you did not want to sit,” he chirruped good-naturedly to Servanne. “Did you also mean you did not care to wash or clear away the night vapours?”
Servanne was too weary to take offense at his humour. “I would like very much to refresh myself.”
“Follow me, then. Follow me.”
Biddy’s stiffened joints creaked and cracked as she tried to heave herself to her feet, and with Servanne’s help, she finally managed. Moving was another matter entirely and she scooted her mistress on ahead while she followed at a slower, more cautious gait.
Sparrow led them out into the courtyard and around to the rear of the stone buildings. Here, the thick outer wall had once boasted a low postern gate through which the monks could enter or leave the grounds without disturbing the main gates. The entryway was all but overgrown by weeds and thick ropes of ivy, but a space had recently been hacked through the bramble and it was there Sparrow paused, grinning back at Servanne as he beckoned her through the gap.
For a brief, lack-of-sleep-induced moment, she thought the little man was helping her escape.
The spurt of newfound energy the thought triggered lasted only until she was on the other side of the wall and saw the path that led into the greenwood. Returning to the abbey along the path were the two women she had seen the previous night, both of them carrying full buckets of water.
“The cistern inside the abbey has gone dry,” Sparrow explained, ignoring Biddy’s muffled oaths as she fought off a web of vines that had fallen on her. “But there is a sweet stream just ahead. Follow me. Follow me.”
He danced cheerfully into the deeper woods, his stubby hands fluttering as he pushed aside the saplings and pale green fronds that overgrew the pathway. He kept chattering to himself, or singing—Servanne cared less which. Nor did she care that the air was fresh and cool, tinged with the pungent smell of evergreen, or that their footsteps made very little sound on the rich, loamy earth they walked on. So absorbed was she in her own misery, she did not see Sparrow halt. A sharp cry and quick hands saved them both from tumbling headlong over a ten-foot drop of rock that marked the abrupt end of the path.
To the left was a steep, rounded escarpment which rose to a high, bare promontory of jagged rock. Silhouetted against the metallic blue of the morning sky was the outline of a man, undoubtedly a sentry, who, from his elevated position, would be able to see a fair distance in all directions. Halfway down the rocky escarpment, a wide smooth sheet of water flowed out of a fissure in the wall, streaming over a series of moss-covered ledges, cut like steps into the curve of the cliff. It collected in a deep blue basin below, part of the pool darkened by the shadow of the overhanging promontory, the rest sparkling warm and inviting in the early sunlight.
Obeying Sparrow’s pointed finger, Servanne carefully picked her way down the narrow trail that edged the embankment. At the bottom, it leveled out and she was able to walk onto a flat table of rock that leaned out over the water’s shallow end.
“You can have a bit of privacy here, if you want it,” Sparrow said. “I will go back and see where Old Shrew-Tongue has gotten herself. ‘Twould be a pity to see her spill arse over heel into the pool.” He thought about the image a moment and added with a chuckle. “Aye, a dreadful pity.”
He was gone in a wink, vanished back into the undergrowth that swarmed the edge of the embankment. Servanne stared at the fronds until they had finished rustling, then gazed instinctively up at the sentry, who made no effort to pretend he was not staring directly back down at her.
Escape was the farthest thing from her mind as Servanne gingerly lowered herself onto her knees. She bowed her head and leaned forward to stretch the aching muscles in her neck. With a weary sigh, she unfastened the heavy samite surcoat and peeled it off her shoulders, then, on an afterthought, removed the jewelled broach that held the linen bands of her wimple pinned closed at her throat. Slowly, moving with the stiffness of a ninety-year-old woman, she unwound the starched collar bands and set the headpiece with its flowing caplet of cloth neatly on the blue crush of samite. She uncoiled the two thick braids of her hair and, using her fingers as combs, unplaited each glossy braid and shook the long, rippled mass free. When it was completely unfettered, she ran her splayed fingers across her scalp to massage it, nearly weeping with the pleasurable sensation of freedom.
As she was bending to dip her hands in the glassy surface of the pool, a loud splash farther along the shore caused her to jump and stare across the pond. A pale shape streaked below the water, erupting from the silver-black surface again several yards ahead of the spreading rings he had generated. Servanne recognized the chestnut mane of hair even as the Black Wolf shook it vigorously to scatter the clinging droplets of water. It was apparent he had not yet seen her, however, for as he began to walk into the shallower water, he was intent upon scrubbing his chest and arms with the handfuls of fine sand he had scooped from the bottom. A second dive brought him out of the shade and into the sunlight, and this time, when he stood, the water streamed in glistening sheets from his head to the tops of his powerful thighs.
A man’s naked body held no surprises for Servanne. Her husband had slept nude beside her for three years. Visiting knights and nobles had thought nothing of stripping naked and either being bathed by her or in front of her as was the custom in welcoming a guest to one’s castle. Some had been as virile and solidly thewed as this forest outlaw, although she could not, upon the instant, recall a chest quite so broad, or a belly so tautly ridged with bands of muscle. The hair on his chest glittered like a copper breastplate; a sleek line of it funnelled down to a smaller thatch that swirled around his navel. Lower still and it grew into a tight, dark forest at his groin. What lay like a restless beast within that forest would have been more than enough to cause Servanne’s heart to leap over several erratic beats if it were not already stumbling headlong over another disturbing sight.
Furrowing down his right side was a swath of misshapen scar tissue fully as wide as her hand, as long as her arm, distorting the surface of his flesh from his armpit to his buttock. Circling the same shoulder was a shiny patch of skin, resistant to the sun’s tanning effects, and marking clearly where a chirurgeon’s crude efforts had attempted to compensate for skin and muscle pared away from the upper arm. The shoulder itself was as gnarled as bark. His left thigh bore similar evidence of horrendous wounding—injuries one sustained from a battlefield, not a cornfield.
Under different circumstances Servanne would have been amused by the look of complete surprised that jolted the stern, stoic features when he realized he was not alone in the small glade. His hands froze halfway to reaching for a weapon that was not there. His eyes widened and flared with something akin to panic—though she could not imagine there could be anything on this earth able to rouse a fright in his soulless heart. As it was, she could hardly find cause to laugh at his reaction when her own sorry predicament was just as unsettling. Her head was bare—an unthinkable breach of propriety, even here in this pagan’s forest. She was alone. (Where the Devil had Biddy taken herself to?) She was certain there must be smudges of dirt and dried tears streaking her face, and her hands shook like those of a palsied invalid.
The Wolf blinked more water from his eyes, cursing whatever misguided part of his brain had convinced him he was seeing a golden-haired sea nymph rising out of a pool of sunlight. She was golden-haired, all right, but far from being an enchantress. Just a flesh-and-blood nuisance who had no business being there.
Even after the initial start of shock had passed, the Wolf continued to experience some difficulty in regaining control over his composure. He did not like being caught unawares, did not relish the sensation of baring his scarred body to a woman in broad daylight, nuisance or not. It was not that he was ashamed of his appearance, for he cared little for what anyone thought; it was more a defensive reaction to the pity, and sometimes the recoiling horror he saw reflected in eyes unused to such sights.
As discomforting as it was to feel the clear blue eyes upon him, it was similarly distracting to know they were having a distinct effect on the way his blood was flowing through his veins. Because of the strict modesty of the wimple she had worn, he’d had no idea until that moment, of the colour, length, or incredible sheen of the blonde hair hidden beneath. Now, where it spilled over her shoulders, it resembled liquid gold, emphasizing the porcelain whiteness of her skin, the large almond-shaped eyes, the fine lines of her nose, chin, and mouth. While each feature on its own could claim no great or rare beauty, when flattered by the luminous cloud of her hair it lured a man to speculate over what other misinterpretations he might have made regarding her form and figure.
Seeing no reason why he should deny his curiosity—since she was so openly humouring her own—he followed the slender arch of her swan’s throat down to where the clinging fabric of her gown afforded little modesty for the impertinent thrust of her breasts. Not so large as to cause a man difficulty in breathing, they were nonetheless of a proud shape and bearing, the nipples jutting like little round buttons against the cloth. He guessed he could span her waist neatly with his two hands, and her limbs, folded so gracefully beneath the shimmering pool of her hair, would be long and lithe, and would feel like warmed silk against his palms.
Servanne, silent throughout his inspection, endured the probing heat of his eyes until a flush of light-headedness threatened to topple her. It was difficult not to stare at the steaming dampness that rose from the surface of his skin; nearly impossible to ignore the power and strength sculpted so boldly into every inch of bulging muscle. Worse, she suffered a vivid recollection of having been held in those arms, crushed against that chest, threatened by those lips that were even now moving without sound …
“… a long way from camp, my lady?” he was saying. “You found your way here alone?”
“S-Sparrow brought me,” she replied, quickly lowering her gaze and focusing on where her hands were clasped together on her lap. “He … he thought it would be permitted for me to wash and refresh myself. I … am sorry if my presence has interrupted your bath, but Sparrow assured me I would have the pool to myself.”
“He did, did he?” The Wolf arched a brow. “And yet he knows my habits almost as well as he knows his own.”
Servanne hated the flush she could feel blooming darker in her cheeks, and she hated the diminutive forester for indulging in what had obviously been another of his pranks.
The Wolf looked down at the golden crown of her head and for no good reason that he could think of, reassured her with a dry laugh. “He needs to have his nose tied at least twice each day to keep it from poking where it does not belong. But, since I am finished here anyway, you may have your privacy.” He turned, retreated half a stride, and hesitated again. “You might want to heed a warning and stay well clear of the waterfall. It may look harmless enough, but the bottom is tangled with weeds as thick around as a man’s arm.”
She shook her head without looking up. “I do not know how to swim. I would not venture deeper than my ankles, but … I thank you for the warning.”
The Wolf’s mask of determined indifference slipped yet again and he raked his hands through his hair with an impatient gesture. “I make no excuses for my behaviour, but it has been a long time since my men or I have been in the company of gentlewomen, and, tempers being what they are …”
Servanne clasped her hands tighter. Was he attempting to apologize? Was he suffering pangs of guilt over the abominable way he had treated her last night—as well he should! If she thought it was worth the effort, she would have spat in his face and told him how much she cared to hear his lame excuses and apologies.
“It is not my wish to cause you any further discomfort, Lady Servanne. My quarrel is not with you.”
“It is with the man who is soon to be my husband,” she said tersely. “Therefore, sir, your quarrel is indeed with me.”
The faintest hint of a bemused smile passed across the Wolf’s mouth. Spirited … and loyal too; qualities that would do her good stead in the days ahead. Whether they would be enough to see her through, he had no idea, but for the moment, they earned her more respect than would have been won through weeping, wailing, and swooning off her feet at each turn of a phrase.
He accepted her rebuke with uncharacteristic silence. His slate-gray eyes lifted to the burnished blue vault of the sky above and moved slowly, speculatively around the ring of trees until they settled finally on the source of the waterfall high on the escarpment.
“This place is called the Silent Pool,” he murmured absently. “According to legend, it was filled by the tears of a maiden who had fallen hopelessly in love with one of the monks from the abbey. Unfortunately, the bishop lusted after her too, and one night, on his way from the monastery to the village, the young monk met with an “accident” and fell from the promontory. The maiden knelt by his body and wept until the basin was filled with her tears, ensuring that she and her lover could remain here undisturbed for all of eternity. To show their sympathy and approval for the sacrifice she made, the druids cast a spell over the pool … a spell of absolute silence,” he added cynically “that can only be broken by a love fulfilled.”
Servanne found herself swaying to the melodic drone of his voice. “You believe in curses and spells?”
“I believe what my eyes see and my ears hear. Look around you. Listen. The forest is teeming with birds and animals, but not one is ever seen or heard near the pool. The waterfall makes no sound where it runs into the basin; the leaves move on the branches, but say nothing to the wind.”
Servanne raised her head with an effort. Surely this was another form of torment, for she heard sounds, a great many of them rushing and hissing in her ears. She tried to obey his command to look up at the trees, but the sun was a hot, hazy blur and its glare off the surface of the water made her feel dizzy and disoriented. Cleaving that glare into a mass of sparkling pinpoints of light, was the tall, shadowy figure who moved suddenly toward her.
The Black Wolf reached the lip of the rock an instant before Servanne’s head would have struck it. The act of catching her jolted her eyes open briefly, but they fluttered closed again, the lashes falling like stilled butterfly wings against the ashen skin.
“Little fool,” he murmured. “It is a wonder you have held your head up this long.”
Cradling her against his chest, he lifted her carefully into his arms and waded with her to a point on the bank where he could more easily step out of the knee-deep water. He carried her back up the slope and returned along the path to the monastery, where, once inside the crumbling, vine-covered gate, a scowl warned away the curious stares that followed his naked buttocks through the pilgrims’ hall.
In the chamber set aside for Servanne and Biddy, he gently deposited her on a sleeping couch made of fresh rushes and fur pelts. Somewhere along the way, she had roused enough to drape her arms around his neck, and she held fast to it now, reluctant in sleep to exchange the luxuriant heat of his body for the cooler bed of pelts.
The Wolf gently pried her hands from around his neck, and, with only the silent walls of the cloistered chamber to bear witness to the crime, he ran his fingers down the shiny wavelets of her hair, tenderly brushing aside the curls that had clouded over her face. The chamber was windowless and the candle unlit. Even so, in the sparse light that flared through the open door, her hair glowed like the phosphorescent waves on a moonlit sea, her skin was pale and radiant, almost blue-white against the darker furs.
A frown pleated his brow as he looked down and saw that the hem of her gown was wet from having been dragged through the water. A hesitant glance at the door was shrugged aside and without further thought, he unfastened the belt of fine gold links she wore girded about her waist and eased it out from beneath her. Not the least doubtful of what her reaction would be if she could see what he was doing, his smile was wry as he slid the skirt of her gown up to her hips, collecting the lower edge of her thin linen undergarment—also wet—and manipulating both above her waist, breasts, shoulders, and finally tossing them free of the tousled mass of her hair.
It was when he lowered Servanne back onto the bed of furs that his smile faded and the gray of his eyes took on a new, smouldering intensity. He became suddenly aware of the feel of her naked flesh where it pressed against his, and acutely aware of his own nudity for the first time since leaving the Silent Pool. His hand was a paltry few inches from the round fullness of a breast, and of its own accord, the fingers traced a light path to the dark pink blossom of the velvety nipple. An intrigued palm measured and marvelled over the firmness of the flesh that seemed specially moulded and shaped for just that purpose.
A low, almost inaudible moan drew his gaze up to her face. Her lips were parted and invitingly moist. Her body trembled slightly at the intimate contact—so slightly he might have thought he imagined it if not for the berry-hard nub that formed beneath his cupped hand. His fingers moved again and a second soft, breathy sigh set the nerves down his spine tingling.
The tingle burned all the way into his belly and groin, and the heated curiosity of his gaze roved from her breasts to the fine golden thatch of silk at the juncture of her thighs. It was soft to the touch, the curls parting and luring him deeper into the enticingly shadowed cleft. This time, there was no mistaking the tremor that welcomed his explorations, no denying the response that deepened the stain of colour in her warming flesh.
The Wolf withdrew his hand and clenched the treacherously inquisitive fingers into a tight fist. He knew there was nothing to stop him from taking her; indeed, had that not been an integral part of the plan from the moment he had heard the Dragon had chosen himself a bride? She was no virgin, untried, untouched, but she belonged to the Dragon and that made her an important gamepiece in his pursuit of revenge. An eye for an eye, was it not written?
The Wolf sank back on his haunches, not wanting to remember, but unable to prevent the memories from crowding into his anger.
Young and vibrant, lithe as a whip and just as deadly efficient in stripping away the innocence and guile of youth. Nicolaa had been the one who had introduced his adolescent body to worldly pleasures other than fighting, jousting, and training for war. She had taken his raw, aggressive lust in hand and had spent weeks of steamy days and nights instructing him exhaustively on the art of making love.
During that time he had imagined himself wildly, passionately in love with her. He had gone so far as to have a petition of marriage drawn, knowing the match was as sound politically as it was personally. Her eager and immediate acceptance had sent him thundering to her father’s castle, where, in a burst of love-smitten irreverence, he had not waited for her to be summoned, but had sought her out in her private solar.
The sight of her, all white skin, raven-black hair, and flashing eyes, naked and grappling blindly to the churning hips of another lover had stopped him cold in the doorway. Seeing the man fling his golden head back to keen his ecstasy, and recognizing who was drawing the guttural screams of rapture from Nicolaa’s arched throat, nearly caused him to unsheath his sword then and there and slay the pair at the height of their betrayal.
Instead, the Wolf had waited, his heart building a wall of ice around it while he watched their rutting acrobatics grind to a sweating, shivering halt. Nicolaa had seen him first, and had screamed. Her lover had turned toward the door and … smiled his triumph.
Without a word, he had torn the marriage contract asunder and left the room, left the castle. A week later, he had sailed away fromEngland, his gypon emblazoned with the red cross of the Crusader.
An eye for an eye, the Wolf reminded himself as he flexed his hands open and slowly lowered them to the pale, sleeping form of Servanne de Briscourt. It was a cruel, callous world —cruder by far to a woman than a man, but there too it was Fate who ultimately decided which gender should spring from the seeds sown. It was his fate to have been born a man of destiny; hers to have been born the pawn whose life or death meant very little in the scheme of things. He could not afford to think of her as anything else, despite the innocence and vulnerability she tried so hard to conceal behind the snapping blue eyes. If he did, if he dared feel any compassion or regret, all of their lives, including hers, would be forfeit.