Marsha Canham's Blog

August 29, 2011

Readalong Monday. Chapter Seven

Filed under: Caesars Through the Fence — marshacanham @ 12:56 pm

 

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.  You might notice the format is a bit different this week. That’s because my poor puter had to be wiped clean and restored to it’s original virgin state, so all my formatting went out the door for Word, and I haven’t had a chance to tinker with it yet. My Paint Shop Pro 7 vanished too, and I’m most comfortable with that program, but think I can find it anywhere? Augh.  Anyway, while you read, I’ll keep searching for *stuff* that didn’t quite make it to the backup. augh.

Through A Dark Mist © Marsha Canham

Chapter Seven

CHAPTER SEVEN

 

Onfroi de la Haye was a spike-thin,
ferret-faced man cursed with a propensity for breaking into clammy, prolonged
sweats when subjected to any kind of stress. He suffered nervous ticks in his
high, gaunt cheekbones which set his brows and eyelids twitching in alternating
spasms. Perpetually dry lips—even though the rest of his body might be
drowning— continually brought his tongue flicking forth like a snake to chase
the dried flakes to a crusted scum at both corners. His eyes were set too close
together to allow for normal vision, with the result that when he was not twitching,
he was squinting myopically to see objects only a few paces away. His nose was
long and hooked, his chin pointed, his skin— beneath the few scrawny hairs he
was able to cultivate into a beard—was a pitted and pocked testament to a
sickly childhood.

Sweating torrents, twitching spasmodically,
and picking morosely at a favorite weal on his cheek, Onfroi paced before the
smoking ashes of the campfire, tracing and retracing a worn path in the
flattened grass. By his calculations it had been nearly eighteen hours since he
had bolstered his courage enough to dispatch his messenger to Bloodmoor Keep.
Given the time required to ride from Alford to the castle and back …

The sheriff came to the end of his measured
track: halted, swivelled abruptly on his heel, and paced back.

… it would be well nigh onto midnightbefore a missive could return along the same
route.

Onfroi paused long enough to squint out
across the common on which his men had pitched camp. The abbey was nestled in a
shallow valley, the monastery and its surrounding fruit orchards separated from
the wide meadow by a sparkling ribbon of water. An orderly compound of
buildings made of quarried stone and pitched slate roofs, the abbey was
tranquil and rose-tinted in the dusk light, the air singing occasionally with
the lowing of a lamb or a tinkling of a goat’s bell. The small bronze bell in
the priory had rung at dawn to call the holy brothers to mass, then had
vibrated the stillness again at three-hour intervals until the
last—Vespers—nearly an hour ago. It had allowed for plenty of time to go over
every detail of the ambush again, to anticipate every question and demand that
would come his way.

Onfroi swabbed his brow with the fold of his
velvet sleeve. He could not even begin to imagine what form Wardieu’s anger
would take. Having witnessed all extremes in his ten years as sheriff of
Lincoln, he was not certain which to dread the most: the cold, icy calm that
caused an offender’s bowels to turn to jelly; or the hot, rampaging fury that
resulted in flesh and tissue being splattered in all directions. The man was a
spawn of the Devil, no doubt about it. Unreadable. Unpredictable. Unfriendly.
And unflinchingly possessive of his property. How should he be expected to
react to the kidnapping of his bride?

Halt. Swivel. Pace.

There had to be a reasonable explanation of
how thirty armed guards could allow themselves to be taken by surprise,
stripped of everything of value, and herded out of the woods like guinea fowls,
dressed only in shirts and chausses … but what was it? By what possible reasonable logic could he, Onfroi de la
Haye, hope to explain how an outlaw had managed to dig himself a forest lair
that had defied discovery for nigh on two months now? How could he begin to
explain the existence of a spectre in black wolf pelts who struck and vanished,
struck and vanished and never left so much as a turd behind to show he had ever
been there? Men could not track him. Hounds could not track him. Armour —no
matter how thickly forged—could not deflect his bowmen’s arrows, nor could the
swiftest of horses outmaneuver the silent death that stalked them from the
greenwood.

Halt. Swivel. Pace.

Reasonable? The very word mocked him. Why, by
the Devil’s loins, could he—Onfroi de la Haye—have not contented himself with
the two small estates his father had bequeathed him? Why, by the fruit of those
same viperous loins, had he allowed Nicolaa to push and prod and manipulate him
into seeking the appointment as reeve ofLincoln?

Nicolaa! Bah! A beauty to look at, but long
ago corrupted by greed, ambition, and a lust for immortality. She was a clever
bitch. Cold and conniving. And so in love with herself it was no surprise she
had little room for anything else in that frigid heart of hearts. Onfroi knew
he was a laughingstock because of Nicolaa’s excesses. Truth be known, it was
just as well she sought her perverted pleasures in every other bed but his own;
truth be told, he was more than a little afraid of where those perversions
might lead someday. Blood and pain delighted her; torture was viewed as an
evening’s entertainment; a victim’s disembowelment was a prelude to a hearty
feast.

A bitch, a reclusive warmonger, and a
vengeful wolf’s head. Was it any wonder his blood had turned sour and his belly
ran liquid from morning till night?

Halt. Swivel …

Freeze!

Onfroi stood stock-still, his eyes briefly
startled wide enough to show the red-veined whites. A low and distant rumble
was drifting toward them from the east, carried on a breeze that smelled of
sweat and anger.

Christ Almighty! Could it be Wardieu already?
If so, he must have ridden out of Bloodmoor in the dust of the messenger, and
by the sound of it, brought his entire castle guard!

A panicked glance around the campsite caused
the veins in Onfroi’s neck to swell and pulsate. Half of his guards were
lounging about in blank-eyed boredom, the others were gathered about a tapped
keg of ale.

“Insolent oafs!” he screamed, kicking
viciously at two men who were stretched out, fast asleep. “Up! Get up, damn
you!”

He ran across the grass, boots and fists
launching out at anyone foolish enough to remain in his path. “Lazy, insolent
oafs! I’ll see how easily you sleep with hot irons poking out of your skulls!
Arrest those men!” he shouted, pointing at the two unfortunates. “Get them out
of my sight before I take a knife to them here and now!”

“God curse me for a fool,” he continued,
ranting to himself, searching for more flesh to abuse in the scattering troops.
“It is no wonder that damned wolf’s head has no fear of the forest. He could be
a dozen paces away … pissing into the
soup pot!
… and not one of these oafs would notice!”

Onfroi ran out of obscenities just as the
thunder of hooves rounded the sweeping mouth of the valley. Wardieu’s destrier
commanded the lead; a huge white beast, a trained ram-pager hewn from solid
muscle, with the blazing red eyes and flared nostrils of a demon bred in hell.
His master was hardly less fearsome. Riding tall in the saddle, his blue mantle
rippling out from broad, armour-clad shoulders, Lucien Wardieu wore an
expression of cold, grim fury. Directly behind were his squires, their mounts
less formidable but still throwing back clods of torn earth on every galloped
pace. In heir ominous wake, two score of armoured knights
appeared, each wearing surcoats embroidered with the Wardieu dragon, but
carrying kite-shaped shields emblazoned with their own distinctive crests and
arms.

“God in heaven,” Onfroi muttered, and fought
to suppress the urge to cross himself. It was worse than he thought: Among the warlike
faces of Wardieu’s vaunted army of mercenaries, was the one countenance in
particular that caused his sphincter muscle to lose control.

D’Aeth. A huge, brooding bulk of a man whose
face was so hideously scarred it went beyond the normal bounds of ugly. As bald
as an egg, as broad as a beast, he was Wardieu’s subjugator, and there,
dangling from his saddle like a tinker’s wares were the dreaded tools of his
profession —iron pincers for the crushing of bones and testicles, leather
straps and studded whips, a long thin prod with a wickedly barbed five-pointed
tip (the purpose of which did not bear thinking). Who was Wardieu planning to
have tortured?

De la Haye willed away a wave of nausea as
the baron’s warhorse pounded to a halt in a swirl of grass and flayed earth.
Wardieu sat a long moment, glaring around the makeshift camp, then swung a leg
over the saddle and vaulted to the ground.

“M-my lord Lucien,” Onfroi stammered, rushing
over at once. “I did not anticipate your arrival so soon.”

The piercing blue eyes came to rest on the
sheriff’s sweating face. “Obviously there were a great many things you did not
anticipate these past two days, De la Haye.”

Onfroi repressed a shudder. The baron’s voice
was calm enough, but then so was the wind in the eye of a hurricane.

“You have prisoners?”

“P-prisoners? No, my lord. Unfortunately no,
the outlaws moved too swiftly. By the time the survivors had reached us at the
fens, the men who had perpetrated the ambush were scattered in a hundred
different directions. That is their habit. To strike with the speed of vipers
and vanish in the undergrowth as if they had never been.”

Wardieu’s face was as blank as a stone. “You
know them well enough to have established their habits? Then this is not the
first time this particular band of vermin has appeared in these woods?”

A violent tic in Onfroi’s cheek closed his
left eye completely. “Th-there have been rumours, my lord, nothing more.
Rumours of a man who dresses in wolf’s pelts and plagues the merchant caravans
traveling to and from Lincoln Town. But they are only
rumours. You yourself are aware of how these local peasants exaggerate the
smallest incident into an adventure of epic proportions, especially when the
outlaws perpetrate their crimes in the name of Saxon justice.”

“The Bishop of Sleaford will be pleased to
hear you refer to his mishap last month as a ‘small incident,’” Lucien remarked
coldly. “As will the Lady Servanne.”

Onfroi’s tongue slid across his lips. “There
is no proof the two crimes can be attributed to the same villains, my lord.”

“Oh? Then you would have me believe there are
two packs of wolves hiding out in these woods? Two separate packs who have
managed to elude your patrols for … how long? A month? Two months?”

“We have searched, Lord Lucien,” Onfroi
whined. “The patrols have been doubled and their frequency increased. Hounds
have been put to the scent every day. Foresters have been brought from the
villages to aid the search. No one sees anything. No one hears anything. Spies
do not return, and, if their bodies are found, they have had their throats slit
and their tongues pulled through the gap. The Saxon rabble do nothing to help.
Why, only last week we burned an entire village to the ground and hung the
peasants one by one, but none would betray the outlaws. Not a single man,
woman, or child would speak to save his own life.”

Wardieu’s lips compressed around a grimace.
“Your methods are as crude as your abilities, De la Haye. Did it not occur to
you that slaughtering an entire village would only provoke this Black Wolf—if
he is one of them—to retaliate twofold? Did it never occur to you to warn me
that guests traveling to my demesne might have some reason to fear for their
safety?”

“The men ambushed this time were your own!”
Onfroi blurted unthinkingly. “Christ above! Who would have thought for an instant that Bayard of
Northumbria could not outwit a band of half-starved woodcutters and thieves! He was well aware of the threat, if you
were not. He at least ventured out of
the castle now and then to listen to tavern gossip!”

Wardieu halted in the act of removing his
leather gauntlets. The look he gave De la Haye brought forth an immediate,
gasped apology.

“God spare me, what I meant to say … I mean,
what I did not mean to imply, er, to
say … that is, what I meant was …”

Wardieu turned his back and signaled to one
of his mercenaries. “Cull a dozen of your best men and go to where the ambush
occurred. Search the area thoroughly. A man on his own can seem to disappear
easily enough, but not a score or more, and not if they took women and
packhorses. I want to know exactly
how many are in this wolf’s pack, and in which likely direction they headed.
And I want results, Aubrey de Vere, not excuses.”

“You shall have them, my lord,” declared De
Vere and wheeled his big horse around.

While the selections were being made, one of
the knights who had gathered with the other silent onlookers from the sheriff’s
camp, limped forward, his gait favouring a wounded, bandaged thigh. He was
neither tall nor especially pleasant-featured, but he was obviously a seasoned
veteran of many battles, and when he spoke, it was with a voice that sounded
like two slabs of rock grinding together.

“Sir Roger de Chesnai,” he said in answer to
the question in Wardieu’s eyes. “I am captain of Sir Hubert de Briscourt’s
guard, and was part of the escort sent to protect Lady Servanne.”

“I should not brag about a job ill done,”
Wardieu said, removing his steel helm and pushing his mail hood back off the
sweat-dampened locks of tawny gold hair.

De Chesnai blinked, whether to clear his eyes
of the fever-induced moisture that slicked his brow, or to absorb the insult to
his honour, it was not revealed by his expression.

“Command fell to me when Northumbriawas slain,” he
said, staring intently at the Dragon’s face. “I would ask for the opportunity
to return to the site of the ambuscade with your men, if you will permit it.”

Wardieu glanced down at the blood-soaked
bandaging. “Bayard was a good man. Before I would consider your request, I
would know what happened.”

De Chesnai flushed and balled his fists.
“They dropped on us out of nowhere, my lord. Northumbria had taken the
precaution of sending men on ahead to ensure the way was clear, but they must
have died between one blink and the next, with nary a cry or shout to mark
their passing. We found the bodies later, all four of them pierced clean
through the heart; a dozen more were lost the same way when the main party was
ambushed. They just came upon us out of nowhere. No sound. No sight of them,
not even after they had made good their first kills.”

Lucien waited until the wounded knight paused
to grit his teeth through another fevered chill before he queried part of the
story. “You said … their arrows pierced through armour?”

“Aye, lord. Some of the rogues use longbows,
with arrows tipped in steel, not iron.”

“Steel?” Wardieu repeated,
his brow folding with scepticism. “Woodcutters and thieves”—he spared a
particularly venomous glance toward Onfroi de la Haye—“using steel-tipped
arrows?”

De Chesnai met the blue eyes unwaveringly.
“Yes, my lord. And while none were wasted, none were retrieved either, as if
they were in plentiful supply.”

Wardieu recognized the importance of such
flamboyance and rubbed a thoughtful finger along the squared line of his jaw. That
the weapon of choice was the bow and arrow was not as much of a surprise as the
fact that these outlaws used precious—and vastly expensive—steel in place of
the softer, more readily available iron arrowheads. Iron had difficulty
penetrating the bullhide jerkins worn as armour by common men-at-arms; they
deflected harmlessly off chain mail worn by knights. Steel, on the other hand,
tempered and hardened a hundredfold over crude bog iron, could slice through
bull-hide like a knife paring cheese, and sever the links of chain mail with
hardly more effort.

“Go on. What happened then?”

“The leader revealed himself, exchanged a few
words with Northumbria, then slew him. Not
without provocation, to be sure, for it was Bayard who loosed the first arrow,
but I have it in my mind the outlaw would have slain him anyway. Something”—he
looked steadily into Wardieu’s face—“in the eyes spelled death.”

“You said they exchanged a few words … what
was said?”

“I was not close enough to hear, nor did they
speak as if they desired an audience. But again, something in the outlaw’s
manner made me believe he knew the captain, and that Northumbria was startled into a
similar recognition.”

De Chesnai turned away for a moment, as if
some part of his recollections had left a more disturbing impression.

“What is it? What are you remembering?”

Bayard of Northumbria had possessed the
courage and fighting experience of ten men; who was he, Roger de Chesnai, to
even suggest …

“He looked more than surprised, my lord. He
looked shaken. As if he was seeing something that should not be there. In any
case, he was certainly angered beyond reason, for he took up his crossbow and
attempted to shoot the outlaw where he stood.”

“And the outlaw?”

“He managed to aim and strike dead centre of
the eye before the captain had even released the trigger.”

“A fair bowman, then, you would say?” Wardieu
questioned dryly.

“The best I have ever seen, my lord.”

Wardieu studied the knight’s haggard face a
moment then stared out across the gold and pink avalanche of clouds rolling
toward the setting sun. “Describe him to me. As clearly as you remember.”

“I did not have a clear view, my lord, and
the shadows were thick, but I could see he was very tall. Equal unto yourself,
I should say.”

“Hair? Beard?”

“Brown hair, my lord. Very dark. And uncut as
the Saxons prefer it, although I would give pause to say the rogue was of that
breed.”

“Why say you that?” Wardieu broke in quickly.

De Chesnai answered with a shrug and a frown.
“A feeling, my lord. A sense that all was not as it was meant to appear to be.
Also, he wore a sword, and had the stance of a man who knew well how to use
it.”

Wardieu nodded, absorbing yet another bit of
information. Common woodcutters and thieves would scarce be able to afford the
steel to own a sword, much less possess the knowledge of how to use one to any
effect.

“His face was coarsely shaven and well
weathered. His eyes were of no special colour. Gray, perhaps … or dull blue.”

“Devil’s eyes, they was,” muttered one of the
servants who had survived the ambush. “Not natural, they wasn’t. Gave a man a
chill just ter look into them—as if Satan hisself were inside the body gawpin’
out.”

“How would ye be knowin’ that, Thomas Crab?”
demanded a second voice, owned by a man who had the sense to keep his head
lowered and his eyes downcast to avoid notice. “Ye had yer head tucked ’atween
yer legs the minute ye saw that great bluidy bow o’ his.”

“Aye, an rightly so,” the first man
countered. “Cursed be the fool who watches the flight of a left-thrown arrow!
Satan’s own hand pulls the string, so it does.”

Wardieu had only been half attentive to the
outburst, but at this last righteous declaration, he again held up a hand to
interrupt De Chesnai and stared at the servant.

“What was that about a left-thrown arrow?”

Before Thomas Crab could persuade his
trembling legs to carry him forward to reply to the question, the pain pounding
in De Chesnai’s temples relented enough to smooth the frown from his forehead.

“By God, the fool is right, my lord,” the
captain growled. “The outlaw did favour the left hand. Why … there could not be
five archers in all of England with his skill.
Discover the name of the one who shoots with the Devil at his elbow and we will
have the true identity of the rogue who dares to commit his crimes in your
name!”

It was Lucien Wardieu’s turn to feel his
composure shaken. “He … used my name?”

De Chesnai stiffened slightly, his dark eyes
flicking to the sheriff, but Onfroi was still too engrossed questioning his own
sanity at offering insult to the Baron de Gournay to worry that he had
neglected to include this rather astounding claim on the outlaw’s part.
Foremost in his mind, even as he sweated and twitched, oblivious to the
conversation between the two men, was the expectant grin on D’Aeth’s face. The
watery piglet eyes were glazed with thoughts of bloodletting, and De la Haye
treasured every drop that flowed through his veins.

“Was there … anything else in his appearance
that you recall?” Wardieu asked, his voice sounding forced and ragged. “Anything
unusual? Any … scarring, or … obvious disfigurements?”

“No, my lord. He was in full possession of
all his limbs and appendages. There were no scars or brands that I could see.
He was a big brute, to be sure, but it was possible he was made to look more so
by the vest of wolf pelts he wore.”

Wardieu forced himself to take a slow,
steadying breath. For a moment there, he had almost thought the impossible. He
had almost thought … but no. Despite the nightmares and the premonitions, the
dead remained dead.

To cover his brief lapse he asked, almost as
an afterthought: “The Lady Servanne … she endured the ordeal well?”

“As well as could be expected, my lord,” De
Chesnai answered, his loyalty for his mistress fairly bristling across his
skin. “She was frightened, to be sure, but very brave and courageous. I thought
she was wont to scratch the outlaw’s face to ribbands when he dared use your
name, but she was taken away unharmed, by God’s grace.”

Wardieu accepted this avowal of his
betrothed’s courage with a pang of guilt. If his life was dependent upon an
answer, he could not have described in detail any given feature belonging to
Servanne de Briscourt. The best of his recollections, as he had admitted to
Nicolaa, presented her only as a pale shadow he had once glimpsed standing
alongside the frail old warhorse, Hubert de Briscourt. It was the land he
wanted, not the thrall of a bride. Prince John had already demanded and
received an outlandish price for arranging his brother’s seal on the marriage
petition, and now, ten thousand marks was a great deal to pay for something he
did not want. Unfortunately, there were too many equally rich and powerful men
who knew of his hunger for the De Briscourt estates, and he could not afford to
trust either Prince John’s greed or an outlaw’s promise to gain control of the
lands.

“Unharmed,” he murmured. “Then this”—he held
up the blood-stained canvas sack—“does not belong to the Lady Servanne?”

“No, my lord. The wolf’s head took it from
one of the dead guards. All he added—and then only after a lengthy debate—was
the ring.”

“The ring?” Wardieu loosened the thong and
emptied the contents of the sack onto his hand. The finger tumbled out freely
enough and was tossed aside into the grass with no further thought. But an
object caught up on some of the unravelled threads of jute, needed to be
forcibly pulled away from the cloth.

It was a gold ring, and, even before Wardieu
had wiped away the clinging bits of dried flesh and blood, he could feel an
iron fist close around his heart and begin to squeeze.

The face of the ring was carved in the image
of a dragon rampant, the band moulded to resemble scaled claws. A single blood-red
ruby marked the eye, and, as it trapped the fading rays of the sun, it seemed
to catch fire and reflect shafts of burning flame.

Wardieu’s fingers curled slowly inward. His
hand began to tremble and a fine white rim of fury etched itself deeply into
the bitter set of his mouth.

“My lord—?”

The stark blue eyes seared through De Chesnai
without seeing him. The grizzled knight took an involuntary step back, shocked
by the depth of the rage and hatred that was transforming Lord Lucien’s face
into a terrible and terrifying mask.

“My lord … your hand!”

Lucien looked down. Forcing his fingers to
open, he saw that he had squeezed the carved fangs of the golden dragon into
the hollow of his palm, cutting the flesh and causing blood to flow between the
clenched fingers. Blood slicked the dragon’s body and shone wetly off the
faceted surface of the ruby eye. The sight brought another image crushing into
Wardieu’s brain, stretching and swelling the bounds of reason until it verged
on madness itself.

The image was of death. Death on the hot
desert sands of Palestine. The face of death
had dark chestnut hair and piercing gray eyes; it spoke with a curse and a vow
to return one day and avenge himself upon the world.

That day was finally here.

Death had come back toEngland.

 

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