Thanks to my brilliant SIL, I think I have most of the kinks worked out of my puter. Still grumbling over which version of Paint Shop Pro I had/have, and how to get things back to normal, but…I’ve done two new covers for other authors and everything seems to have worked, so I guess I’ll muddle through LOL
Just a reminder too, that Pale Moon Rider is currently on sale at Smashwords for .99 I thought it could use a little loving. I, for one, like dark, sexy highwaymen, and the Scarlet Pimpernel was always one of my fav movies.
I hope you’re enjoying the readalong of Through A Dark Mist. On to…
CHAPTER NINE , Copyright 2011 © Marsha Canham
“Bastard born, but nonetheless of the same blood.”
Servanne stared. She had expected almost anything but this, and yet … the fact that they were brothers would explain a great deal. It would also present looming gaps in reason and understanding.
“Why?” she whispered. “How …?”
“I told you one of the kidnappers was very cooperative? When pressed into revealing where they were to take the children inEngland, he indicated a castle inLincolnshire—a castle on a cliff with a golden-haired dragon as master.”
“Bloodmoor,” she gasped.
“Until that moment, I had no idea Etienne was still alive.” The Wolf paused and plucked a leaf from a nearby vine, then started to tear it into tiny shreds as he continued. “I have not set foot in England for nearly half a lifetime because so far as I knew, the De Gournay titles and estates had been stripped away years ago and dispersed against a charge of high treason.”
“A charge as false as my brother’s heart,” he said savagely. “But one that went uncontested while my father was deliberately starved to death in a traitor’s cell. I had heard Etienne had died as well, a result of his conniving and greed, and had no reason to question his demise. I welcomed it, in fact, for it freed me to forget who I was and make a new life elsewhere. As it was, I was laid up some twenty months at a stinking desert oasis while these wounds you so expertly assessed healed. Another three years and more were spent gaining back memories the sun and fever had scorched from my brain. By the time I rejoined the living,Normandyhad become my home and I was quite content to keep it that way. I sold my services to the kings and queens ofEurope. I fought their wars, led their armies into battle, and won a reputation for myself as”—he stopped, seeming to reshape the words in midair before they tripped off his tongue—“as a rogue knight who would sell his sword to anyone with enough gold to pay.”
A mercenary, Servanne thought. Yes. It fit. That much of it, at any rate, for there was no doubt he was a dangerous man, adept at living on cunning and nerve. He was clever, daring, unprincipled. And far too close.
She took what she hoped was an unobtrusive step back. “You called him Etienne?”
“It is his God-given name: Etienne FitzRobert, born to my father’s mistress some three months after my own appearance in the world. It was said we were so alike in size, colouring, and temperament in those early years, we might well have sprung from the same womb. Even later, there could be no mistake we were of the same mould; his hair was lighter, his eyes darker, but all small things. Nothing that could not be altered or overlooked temporarily if one wanted to substitute for the other for a time. Moreover, we were both away five years under the desert sun. So much time spent in the heat, squalor, and stench of blood will alter any man’s appearance, as well as dull the perceptions of those who welcome him home.”
Servanne strained the limits of her powers of recall, trying in vain to conjure a clear picture of the golden-haired knight to whom she had been betrothed. Whether it was a trick of the mind, or simply the influence of the brooding figure in front of her, she could manage to do no more than replace the Wolf’s darker locks with those of honey-gold, his coarsely stubbled, blue-black jaw with that of a clean-shaven mirror image.
Impossible! The whole story was impossible and implausible. How could one man take the place of another for nigh on twelve years without someone uncovering the ruse? What about friends and family? What about the servant who used to carry ale to the table and serve it to Lucien Wardieu? Surely someone would have noticed a change in his appearance?
The Wolf laughed softly, reading her thoughts as clearly as if they had been spelled out letter by letter across her face.
“My mother died within a few hours of my birth. Etienne’s dam went mad and threw herself from a castle tower, screaming—so they say—that the Devil had cursed her. As to the rest—aunts, uncles, cousins—there were none. Or at least none who were close enough or cared enough to visit overlong at Bloodmoor Keep. Surely, as its intended chatelaine, you must have been forewarned of the horrors and spectres who roam the corridors and passageways? The walls that sweat blood? The footsteps in empty rooms? Stories all very carefully nurtured to keep the curious away.”
Servanne studied him for another full minute without so much as a hair moving against the mist. “Why did he want to kill you?”
“Greed, among other things. Had I died a natural death, Etienne would have inherited some of the estates, to be sure, but not Bloodmoor, and never the title of Baron de Gournay. Those would have gone to a distant cousin—another clumsy fellow whose ‘accidental’ death occurred within a few months of the baron’s heroic return from the Crusades.”
“He could not have managed such an elaborate scheme alone,” she said slowly.
“No,” he agreed quietly. “He could not. He would have needed someone’s help to arrange the warrants for Robert Wardieu’s arrest; he would have needed guarantees those charges could be rescinded again at the appropriate time.”
“Prince John?” she gasped. “Are you suggesting Prince John was involved?”
“He shares a similar hunger for power and wealth, not to mention an ambitious jealousy for his brother’s possessions. No doubt he demanded and received a huge payment for his services and seal, but I imagine Etienne thought the loss of a few properties a small price to pay. Especially since he has managed, by one means or another, to gain most of them back.” The Wolf’s eyes narrowed. “The acreage around Lincolnwoods is the last demesne of any importance to be reclaimed.”
Servanne stiffened at this. The Lincolnwoods acreage was part of her dower lands, to be deeded to her new husband upon their marriage.
“Are you … do you dare to imply that Sir Hubert was a part of it?”
The Wolf regarded her with a calmness that did not reveal whether or not he had noticed she had moved a healthy pace away from him. “Sir Hubert acquired the estates innocently enough, in lieu of a debt owed him by the regent.”
Servanne released her pent-up breath, but her head was spinning. It was too much to absorb, and there were too many twists and turns to try to unravel.
“Why should I believe you?” she asked, her fingers trembling visibly where they clutched the folds of her cloak. “Why, indeed, should I believe anything you tell me?”
“It is your prerogative, madam, to believe me or not. You wanted answers to your questions: I gave them.”
“I wanted the truth.”
“You wanted proof of the truth,” he corrected her gently. “And that I cannot give you until I am inside the walls of Bloodmoor Keep.”
Servanne’s teeth bit sharply into the flesh of her lower lip. “If … if what you say is true, why do you not just step forward and declare yourself to be the real Lucien Wardieu? For that matter, who do you declare yourself to be? Surely Queen Eleanor would not employ among her retainers a rogue known only as the Black Wolf!”
A grim smile touched the saturnine features. “Actually, the queen did have a hand in coining the name.”
“She believes your claim?”
The Wolf plucked another leaf and began destroying it in a similar fashion to the first. “In truth, I … thought it best not to burden her with all the sordid details of my past. Not just yet. She needed someone who knew the area—”
“She sanctioned a troop of her own men to sneak about the forests, thieving and murdering in the name of justice?”
The Wolf stared long and hard. He was not a man to tolerate continued skepticism, especially from a woman who was obviously accustomed to wielding her disdain like a sword to cut lesser beings to their knees before her. Moreover, he had already revealed far too much. Any further “truths” would be far too dangerous for her to know in the harsher light of day.
“The queen’s methods and justifications are her own,” he said coldly. “Suffice it to say she could not very well send an army intoEngland.”
“So she sent you? A man with blood on his hands and death in his eyes? A man who kills without thought or remorse; who takes women as hostages to act out his petty games of revenge! Truth?” She spat the word at him in a blaze of fury. “You would not recognize the word if it lay prostrate on the ground in front of you!”
He had had enough. Despite the two broad paces that now separated them, he was by her side before she could react to avoid him. A brutal and crushing grip on her wrists forced her even closer as he twisted both arms around to the small of her back.
“I gave you fair warning, madam,” he snarled. “Yet still you seem bent on testing just how long it will be before you are the one prostrate on the ground.”
“Was that not to be part of your revenge all along,” she said bitterly, the anger crowding the fear in her eyes. “Was that not what you intended all along?”
“Madam,” he said carefully, “had it been my intention all along, I would have had you on your back this morning, or last night, or, by Christ, in the glade when you first defied me to behave at my worst!”
“Should I feel gratitude then, that you have spared me this long?” she cried, her body beginning to tremble so badly, she would have crumpled to her knees if not for the support of his arms … arms that tightened further, forcing her to rise up on tiptoes and bring her face within a scant few inches of his.
“You should feel gratitude that I am not my brother,” he said thickly. “Were our positions reversed, I have no doubt he would have had you chafed raw by now, merely for the pleasure of knowing he had been there before me.”
Tears that had been collecting in shiny crescents along her lower lashes, splashed free on a horrified gasp and streaked wetly down her cheeks. Her chin quivered and her limbs shook like young saplings. The shock of contact was sending her senses reeling farther and farther from the bounds of reason and logic. She no longer cared who he was by name, she only knew …
“You are the Devil! Let me go!”
“The Devil?” he rasped, taken aback enough to grin sardonically. “So now you think I am the Devil?” “Yes!” she cried. “Yes! Yes!”
For the longest moment, the ardent desire to shake her into oblivion was foremost in his mind, but then he saw the wide, wet path of her tears, and felt the fear, as vibrant within her as the trembling of a lamb being led to slaughter. The anger began to drain out of his hands, and the vengeance to fade out of his eyes, and he recalled the look on her face when she had seen his scarred body that morning.
“The Devil,” he mused. “Deformed and maimed, capable of conjuring ghouls and grotesques … even elfin demons at the snap of a finger. Yes … I suppose the comparison is a fair one.”
Servanne could not answer. She could not think for the scalding ribbons of fear, apprehension, and … anticipation that began to twist through her belly, circling, swirling, rushing to tauten the skin everywhere on her body until her flesh was so rigid, she feared the slightest movement would shatter her like glass.
“Look at me,” he commanded softly.
Servanne opened her eyes, unaware she had sealed them tight against unwanted intrusion. The vast, dark breastplate of his chest filled her view; the heat of intimacy was like a flame, scorching and searing her through the layers of her clothing.
“Look at me, damn you.”
She shook her head, and kept shaking it until he caught her face between his hands and forced it to tilt upward. Her eyes were slower to obey, climbing by halting fractions from the broad, strong column of his neck, to the angular savagery of the uncompromising jaw. Driven by dread from the blatantly sensual mouth, she found herself drawn into the deep, merciless centres of his eyes, and a smothered gasp sent her fingers clawing into the thick fur pelt of his vest. A surge of wildness rose within her—a wildness that changed, between one heartbeat and the next, from an all-consuming terror, to a sudden, terrifying desire.
“I am only a man,” he insisted quietly, his words passing over her skin like velvet gloves. “I feel pain and I bleed like any other mortal man. I have scars, yes, and deformities hideous enough to be an offense to eyes as … innocent, and … as lovely … as yours. Yet you have seen them and survived. If you touched them, you would not burst into flame or see the bones turned to ash on a devil’s curse. Here. You say you seek the truth—”
He released one cloudy fistful of her hair and pushed aside the shoulder of his vest and shirt. He took her hand and pressed the ice-cold fingers over the healed ridges of scar tissue that serrated his flesh, and, while he would not have admitted it, nor expected it, the shock of contact was no longer hers alone.
Servanne stared at her hand where it lay against his flesh, then at the strong, lean fingers that remained curled around her wrist. She was melting. She was on fire. But the heat came from within, not without, and the flames were spilling down, pooling heavily in her loins, causing her to suffer stark, bold images of two naked bodies fused together, gleaming as they writhed under the mist and moonlight.
His hand moved again, traveling the miles from her wrist to her chin, drawing her so close her neck was arched and her hair dragged almost to her knees. His mouth was but a breath away, then it too conquered the seemingly interminable distance, claiming hers with a gentle pressure, shaping her lips to his, challenging her to seek what further proof she needed.
Proof? It was there—as she should have known it would be—in the unholy thrills that assailed her with the deliberateness of the caress. It was there when his tongue probed for resistance, found none, and effortlessly breached her lips to demand and win full possession of her mouth. And it was there, flaring hotter and brighter, when she heard herself moaning softly, helplessly in wondrous submission.
His assault became bolder and she could feel herself dissolving, liquefying everywhere—breasts, belly, thighs. Unthinkable urges and desires began to flood her senses, defying her not to respond as her mouth was plundered, held captive with a ruthless tenderness her young body was not prepared to defend against, nor any too eager to repel.
She was powerless beneath that mouth, surrendering everything he asked—and more. When his hand dared to skim under the woolen edge of her cloak, it was all she could do to curl her arms more desperately around his shoulders, all she could ask for to cling to the drugging surety of his embrace. His hand moulded purposefully around the aching tautness of her breast, and she could have screamed from the pleasure. Yet it was the Wolf who made an indistinguishable sound deep in his throat.
He found the nipple a proud, hard bead, surrounded by flesh that was warm, supple, and lush with promise … and for the first time in too long to remember, he wanted to know where that promise led.
The questing fingers, not surprisingly, took her ragged little cries to mean she shared his awakening appreciation, and they traced a route of quivering invitations downward to the silky V at the juncture of her thighs. For all of two … three disbelieving gasps, Servanne welcomed the exquisite pressure of his hand, even shivering her limbs apart so that he might find some way to ease the incredible throbbing ache that was blinding her.
But somewhere in the growing shame of her need and his impatience, the spell was broken. Their mouths were pulled apart by feverish necessity and she saw him reaching for the clasp that held her cloak fastened around her shoulders. The ingrained response to such a liberty was to strike out … and she did. Her hand flew up and the palm caught him fully on the bronzed plane of his cheek, the crack of flesh on flesh sounding like the breaking of a quarterstaff.
The slap had no less a devastating effect on the tension strung between them. The Wolf jerked back, too stunned to do more than repress the trained response to return the blow. Servanne stumbled back as well, still shaken by the emotions he had unleashed within her, still burning, trembling, aching with the need for assurances she knew were beyond his ability—or desire—to offer. Her lips felt bruised, her body violated. She wiped the back of her hand across her mouth as if she could remove the taste and feel he had left branded upon them, but her hands were themselves victims of his overpowering maleness and could not be trusted.
“I should kill you for that,” he said hoarsely, his face still turned away, his fists still clenched against the need for violence. “I may not be the demon you would take me to be, but in all good sense, madam, I would tell you to go. Now. Run back to the warmth and the light before I forget who I am and become what you would make me.”
Servanne’s eyes were two shimmering discs of moonlit tears as she whirled and ran along the broken path, her cloak belling out behind her, her haste startling small corkscrews of mist to whorl together in her wake.
Sparrow, stopped on the path by the sound of voices ahead, was nearly bowled top over toe by the sobbing figure who ran past. He had barely finished setting himself aright when an explosive curse, followed instantly by the fractious meeting of a fist against a hapless tangle of ancient grape vines, sent the wary fellow inching cautiously forward again.
“Is it a man or a wild boar loose in these gardens?” he queried hesitantly.
The Black Wolf wheeled around, the expression on his face rivaling the blackness of the night. His one hand was clasped about the wrist of the other, and, as he recognized Sparrow’s diminutive form, he released the wrist with a savage oath and shook the spasms of pain out of the scraped fingers.
“I trust it is not a sudden dislike of grapes that makes you want to deny them further longevity,” Sparrow remarked, wafting out of the fog like a faerie gnome.
“It is not the grapes I would deny longevity,” snapped his glowering companion after a moment.
“Ahh.” Sparrow puckered his lips thoughtfully. “Such pretty pieces usually do end up being more troublesome than appearances would imply.”
“Troublesome?” The word was raked past gritted teeth. “You do the word an injustice. Vipers are troublesome. She-cats are troublesome. That one … !”
“Tut tut. You like vipers and she-cats well enough when your thoughts are not occupied elsewhere.”
“Well then, thank the good Christ they are occupied. Saints assoil us—!”
“Here, give it to me, you great heaving lummox,” Sparrow said, reaching up to catch the flexing hand. His stubby fingers prodded and probed the thicker, more heavily calloused ones and decided nothing was crushed or bent out of shape. “You might at least have put a foot to a rock instead of a hand through a wall of vines. Better still, a fist to the jaw that caused such an outbreak of distemper. A fair beating would have tamed her to your purposes soon enough, I warrant.”
The Wolf reclaimed his hand with a scowl and sucked on a bleeding knuckle. “It would take more than a beating to tame that one, and a bigger fool than me to want to try.”
Sparrow sighed expansively. “You have been lurching about the forest like a pissed newt since she first crossed your path. If the wench is proving to be so resistant to your overwhelming charm, why not just toss her on her backside and have done with it? It will not be the first time you have persuaded a reluctant pair of thighs to spread, nor the first time you have won a reluctant pair of lips over to singing sweet and long after a night in your bed.”
“I doubt if rape would win her as a friend to our cause,” came the dry response.
“You do not have to win her. Only unbalance her so that there is room for doubt. She could prove a useful ally, not to mention a useful pair of eyes and ears to have inside the Dragon’s lair.”
“You place too much store in my abilities between the bed sheets.”
“Not so much so as I have not seen you send a filly from your thighs as bright-eyed and addled as a drunken maybug. What is more: A woman who fights the hardest also falls the farthest. To my mind, our quivering little peahen appears more than ripe and ready for a steep tumble … and if not by you, then surely by her lusty bridegroom. I warrant he’ll have no reservations about taming her.”
Sparrow saw, by the Wolf’s grimace, that his bolt had struck home, and did not know whether to be pleased or worried. Their leader bore heavy burdens on his shoulders, that much was indisputable, but would a dalliance with Servanne de Briscourt remove some of the pressure, or add to it? As it was, it had taken the strength and sheer brute force of a dozen stout men to keep the Wolf from going berserk when he had first learned his brother was alive and well and living in secluded luxury at Bloodmoor Keep.
Hearing of the impending wedding might have been the final straw—indeed, everyone in camp had braced themselves for an eruption of monumental proportions, for it did not take a scholar’s wit to trace the blame for the Wolf’s indifference to women, other than whores, to an event in his mysterious past. But to their surprise, he had taken the news calmly and coolly. He had even devised this clever plan to unsettle the Dragon and possibly open a breach in the impenetrable defenses surrounding Bloodmoor Keep.
Who would have thought a chick-pea with yellow hair and frosty blue eyes could have turned the tables and penetrated the armour around the Wolf’s heart instead?
“Bed her,” Sparrow advised sagely. “By rape or by charm, it makes no matter, for ’tis a certainty the Dragon will expect it. Would he do otherwise in your place?”
“I am not my brother,” the Wolf growled, pricked by the need to defend himself a second time that night.
“No, but you have aspired to put his bowels in a pinch. What better way than to molest, ravage, or even marry his bride from under him if it should suit your mood or purpose?”
“What if choking her suits my mood and my purpose?”
“Then I would hold her ankles for you while you did so,” the little man said with a shrug. “Bedding her would bring more pleasure to you, however.”
“I am not come in search of pleasure.”
“I have it already, whether she leaves here bruised or not.”
“You mean … he will not believe her to be untouched, whether she is or not?”
Sparrow pondered it a moment. “No. But would you condemn her to all the pain and none of the enjoyment?”
“She takes the greater enjoyment in her own chastity and purity. If anything, I should endeavour to give her a deal more over the next few days. As much as she can bear in maintaining those lofty heights of unblemished virtue. Yes,” he said slowly. “Yes, I should send her away from here believing she is a far better person for having frustrated me at my lusts and perversions.”
“And when the Dragon affixes hot irons to her toes to crimp the truth from her?”
“A few heartfelt screams should convince him of her righteousness,” he said evenly. “It will also convince her of my purity and my selfless sacrifice for her honour. Furthermore, he will not be alive long enough to crimp anyone’s toes. Nor would he attempt such a thing until the nuptials have been witnessed and blessed, and the deeds to the dower estates locked in his strongbox. She should be safe enough behind her protestations until then.”
Sparrow sighed. “It would be easier just to rape her. And far less of a strain on your own state of health.”
“My health is fine,” said the Wolf gruffly. “I would hasten to say yours might be in some jeopardy, but my own is fine, thank you very much. And now, if you have no more dilemmas to solve, or wisdoms to dole out, I suggest you fly on up to your nest and put your nose to sleep for the night to save it being wedged beneath someone’s boot.”
Sparrow scrambled prudently aside as the Wolf strode past him on his way back to the pilgrims’ hall. His feathers ruffled, he muttered to himself as he followed a discreet distance behind, wondering why there was so little appreciation in the world for people who saw other people’s problems so clearly, and could have resolved them so easily if allowed.
“Fine,” he grumbled to the darkness. “Your shoulders are overburdened? Fine. Let her go to the Dragon with her fear of you still wet on her lashes. Let him warm her thighs with sympathy and compassion and see how long it takes her to decide that he is the real Lucien Wardieu, and you are the impostor! Paugh! Great heaving lummox,” he finished querulously.
He emerged from the arbor of tangled weed and clinging vines and stopped dead in his tracks. Only his head and shoulders rose above the thickest layer of mist, making him look like just another of the stumps dotting the edge of the garden.
For a full minute … three … five … he remained utterly motionless, and was on the verge of cursing the fog for having raised the hackles on his neck, when he saw another flicker of movement out of the corner of his eye.
Someone else had been waiting, frozen against the shadows, questioning his instincts. It was not the Wolf, who, despite his size could slip about with enough stealth to cause bulk in a man’s drawers over the suddenness of his appearance. It was someone who did not want to be observed, however, but because his patience had run out a split second before Sparrow’s, was seen clearly as he melted from tree to tree and eventually ducked furtively through the gap in the outer stone wall.
“Hello?” Sparrow murmured under his breath. “Who are you and where might you be sneaking off to this time of the night?”
Nowhere necessary, he decided, since the privies and the stream were both on the other side of the grounds.
Sparrow debated sounding the alarm, but dismissed the idea as swiftly as it had formed. An alarm would send the men out into the woods, but he had seen nothing more than a blurred outline, thus the quarry could easily blend in with the searchers and return to Thornfeld, his secret intact.
The sentries were not due to be changed for several hours yet. There were no villages close by, no whores with open thighs to lure a man and his coin into breaking trust with the camp—certainly not this way. Besides, the men had, for the most part, been together for several years; their needs and appetites were well known and always taken care of. Only Gil Golden and Robert the Welshman were recent recruits, but both had proven themselves above reproach.
Or had they?
Heedless of the Wolf’s warning to guard his nose, Sparrow checked to see his bow was slung securely over his shoulder, and his quiver was full of arrows. He wasted no more time on his conscience, but moved quickly toward the same dark opening through which his quarry had disappeared.
Whoever he was following was very good; there was no telltale crackling of twigs, or crunching of leaves to betray the path he had taken. Then again, he was not as good as Sparrow, who climbed hand over foot into the nearest tree and took his first marker from the disgruntled hoot of an unsettled owl.
It did not take him long to identify the prey he stalked, nor, after two hours of carefully trailing the Judas, was there any doubt the path they were taking led directly to the Dragon’s camp at Alford.