I hope you’re enjoying the readalong. Through A Dark Mist is, of course, Book One of my Robin Hood Trilogy. Book Two is In the Shadow of Midnight and Book Three is The Last Arrow. All three have been holding their own on the Amazon bestseller lists for the past two weeks, thanks to all of you wonderful readers. Through A Dark Mist is still free at Amazon, though I can’t guarantee how much longer that will last. Apparently the wheels turn slowly when you’re trying to get them to make it free, and even slower when you want to change it back . I feel a blog about that coming on, so stay tuned. LOL
Through A Dark Mist © Marsha Canham
The messenger thundered up to the castle gates on a horse lathered nose to rump in the sour white foam of haste. The man himself was so winded he could barely communicate his demands to the guard who angled a bleary eye through the portcullis gates to identify him. Once admitted, he was escorted through the outer bailey, across a wooden drawbridge to an inner courtyard, through more gates and more annoying questions, until finally he was admitted to the innermost court. The horse’s hooves clacked loudly on both wood and cobbled surfaces, echoing the urgency of the message he carried, scattering the throngs of servants and pages who were going about their morning duties. Dismounting at last, he forced his cramped legs to run up the enclosed stairway to the entrance of the main keep, where he reiterated, with no small amount of irritation, his breathless demand to see Lord Lucien Wardieu.
The seneschal, a dour and grim-faced stub of a man, warned with equal acidity that the lord was still abed and would not humour an interruption. The guard, against all sane advice and protocol, shoved the seneschal aside and bolted the length of the corridor to enter the narrow stone spiral of stairs that led up into the lord’s private tower.
At the top, he was delayed by the poniards and drawn swords of the two alerted squires who slept in the anteroom adjoining their master’s sleeping chamber. The ruckus they caused in challenging the intrusion was sufficient to bring the naked and enraged Baron de Gournay slamming out of the chamber, his own sword unsheathed and gleaming in readiness.
“What the devil goes on here?” he demanded. “Rolf! Eduard! Who in blazes is this man and what does he want?”
“Please, my lord,” the guard gasped, his one arm bent to the breaking point by the elder of the two squires, Rolf. The younger one, his face earnest with intent, jabbed the point of his knife deeper into the intruder’s straining throat, causing a fine thread of blood to leak from the cut.
“Please, my lord! Hear me out! I bring urgent news from the sheriff! News I was commanded to relay to your ears only, my lord. Your ears only!”
Some of the tension eased from Wardieu’s arms as he lowered the huge steel blade. After another taut moment, he nodded curtly to his squires, who relaxed their grips only enough to allow the man breath and speech.
“Well? Deliver your news.”
“It … it comes from the Lord High Sheriff, my liege. F-from Onfroi de la Haye.”
“We know full well who the sheriff is,” came a belligerent voice from the inner chamber. Nicolaa de la Haye appeared a moment later in glorious dishevelment, the sheet she had snatched up off the bed held haphazardly around her waist and looped over one shoulder.
The sight was so startling, the guard was struck dumb. He gaped first at the mottled pink splendour of a nearly bared breast, then at the telltale scratches and bitemarks that scored the baron’s virile body.
“Th-there was an ambush, my lord. In Lincolnwood. More than a score of brave men slain, the rest robbed and forced to leave the forest on foot.”
For several tense moments, Wardieu continued to stare expectantly at the guard, his brain slowed by a night of wine and sexual excess. It cleared, however, on an oath so violent and graphic, the squires looked over, startled.
“The Lady Servanne!” he exploded. “Where is she?”
His eyes bulging with fear, the guard stammered what he had been told to report of the ambush. “The cavalcade was set upon by outlaws, my lord. Their leader … called the Black Wolf by his victims … took the Lady Servanne hostage and advised the remainder of the guard to remove themselves from the woods ere they drown in their own blood along with their fallen comrades. H-he also insisted a message be delivered to”—the guard’s eyelids shivered closed and he swallowed hard—“to the Dragon of Bloodmoor Keep, advising him that a ransom of ten thousand marks is necessary for the safe return of the hostage.”
Wardieu’s icy blue eyes narrowed to slits. “Ten thousand marks! Who is this madman, this … Black Wolf? Why have I not heard of him before now? And where, by Christ’s holy rood, was our vainglorious high sheriff while this travesty was being committed?”
The golden knight advanced upon the cowering guard as he spoke, his hand once again clenched around the hilt of his sword. So terrifying a visage did he present, a naked and unyielding wall of solid muscle, that the guard could not have answered had he wanted to.
“The Black Wolf of Lincoln,” mused Nicolaa de la Haye. “Onfroi has mentioned him on occasion.”
Wardieu spun around to confront her. “What? Why have I not heard of him before today?”
“Good my lord, as you well know, my husband never boasts of his failures. This wolf’s head has been playing at skittles with Onfroi’s bold guardsmen for … oh, a goodly month or more, at least. I am sure he would have had to tell you eventually, since the rogue seems to be encamped within hailing distance of your own borders. In his defense, however —though God knows why I should bother—his mind has been strenuously taxed with other matters of late.”
Wardieu deliberately ignored the veiled reference to the sheriff’s current round of revenue collecting—taxes supposedly levied to help finance the king’s army, but in reality, going to finance Prince John’s feral ambitions.
“If your husband required help ridding the forest of a nest of thieves,” Lucien growled, “why the devil did he not come limping to me as usual?”
“Perhaps he was trying to stand on his own at long last?” Nicolaa suggested, her voice so heavy with sarcasm, the words dripped. “Perhaps he feels his manhood has been threatened enough by your superiority in other matters?”
Wardieu clamped his jaw into a steely ridge. “Rolf—fetch my clothes and armour. Eduard—call out my personal guard and tell them to be prepared to ride within the hour.”
As the squires moved hastily to comply, the frosted blue gaze flicked back to the guard, who was endeavouring to restore circulation to his twisted elbow. “Where is the sheriff now, and where are the men who were escorting the cavalcade? I want to question them personally.”
“My lord sheriff anticipated you might. He has set up temporary camp on the green above Alford Abbey to await your pleasure. Meanwhile, he has sent patrols back to the point of ambush and expects, what with the rain and damp we had earlier in the week, the tracks will not be too difficult to cipher.”
“Onfroi has difficulty tracking his way to an over-full latrine,” Nicolaa drawled, stifling a yawn. “I expect I should dress and accompany you, Lucien. The men are so much more eager to prove their worth to me in fulfilling their duties.”
“Please yourself. I’ll not be stopping or humouring any delays between here and the abbey.”
“Provide me with a worthy mount,” she said, her eyes raking boldly down the powerful length of his body, “And you will not hear me balking at the thought of a hard day’s ride.”
Lucien turned to the gaping guard. “Go below and have my seneschal find you some hot food and drink, then be ready to lead us back to the green.”
“Yes, my lord. My lord … there was one other thing.”
Wardieu had already started back into his chamber to dress. “Yes, what is it?”
Sweat popped out across the man’s brow in tiny, oily beads. “It comes from the Black Wolf, my liege. He said it should be delivered with a further message so that you would know his intentions were true.”
A shaking, gloved hand reached into a leather pouch strapped to his belt. A small canvas sack was withdrawn and held out to the frowning baron. The thong binding the mouth of the sack had become loosened through the long journey and, before Wardieu could unthread it fully, the sack gaped open and the contents fell onto the floor by his bare feet.
It was a finger; a woman’s severed finger, judging by the size and shape of it.
Wardieu drew a deep breath. “What was the message?”
The guard’s chin quivered and he looked from Nicolaa to the baron. “Only … only that if you did not pay the ransom, you would not see your bride again … leastwise not in pieces large enough for anyone to recognize.”
Nicolaa, sidling closer for a better view, was the first one to break the ensuing silence.
“Well,” she murmured, “if nothing else, this Black Wolf knows how to make his meaning perfectly clear.”