The ground no longer rumbled with the thunder of horses' hooves and the clash of weapons. The air, still acrid with smoke from the smoldering ruins of the castle perched high on the motte and the sacked village at its base, was quiet. The damage was done; the enemy hadn't lingered. After all, it wasn't the castle he'd come to claim.
From across the trampled, body-littered field, a gentle breeze began to stir, drifting like a ghostly tendril over the carnage to where a boy lay, face-down and wounded. It ruffled his dark hair, coaxing him back to consciousness as it caressed his bruised and bloodied cheek.
"Mother?" he murmured, though he knew she was gone, slain before his very eyes just hours ago by Baron Luther d'Bussy, one of King Stephen's more ruthless warlords, when she refused to become his whore. Refused to share her bed with the man who had killed her husband three days past in a tournament gone awry.
Ten-year-old Gunnar Rutledge sobbed at the memory, gasping in a ragged breath and choking on the sweet, pungent scent of Wynbrooke's soil and the metallic taste of his own blood.
Just out of his grasp lay his father's signet ring, the token his mother had tearfully removed from her husband's stiff, dead finger as he'd lain in state. Despite the tremors of siege which had set the tiny chapel's stone walls quaking that morning, her voice had remained strong.
"Keep this always," she had said as she pressed the ring into his palm, "and remember your father's courage...his honor. When you are grown, wear it and make me proud."
But he hadn't made her proud. Instead to his shame, he'd watched her die. Helpless and afraid, his arms twisted behind him by a large guard, he had pleaded with the baron to spare her. Withstood his drunken, taunting laughter. Weathered the physical blows.
And screamed in terror an instant later when d'Bussy's blade ended her life.
How he had managed to break free of his captor's iron grasp, Gunnar could not recall. His last memory had been of running. Running out of the castle, down the motte, and through the field as fast as he could with a knight on horseback close behind him. Legs pumping, lungs near to bursting, he headed for the stream, thinking he might be able to hide in the bramble that flanked it. The thought had scarcely formed when, over the pounding hoofbeats, he'd heard a sword rasp from its scabbard. Then, in an instant, his world, his life, had gone black.
Now, through the haze of pain enveloping his senses, Gunnar heard the squeak of a cart wheel and the murmur of voices. Men's voices. Two of them, one close, the other several paces behind. Footsteps halted near his head.
Gunnar knew the name of the man summoned, recognized the old healer's limp in the crunch of twigs and pine needles beneath his heavy gait as he approached, the familiar smell of herbs clinging to his clothes.
"Look ye what I found near this unfortunate thief."
Merrick clucked, his voice somber. "'Tis the Rutledge signet ruby."
"Are ye certain?"
"Aye. Yestereve it rested on milord's lifeless hand in chapel. And lest you mean to keep it for yourself, my friend, think first on the price this lad paid for stealing--" Merrick suddenly sucked in his breath. "Jesu!" he exclaimed, falling to his knees. "This is no thief bleeding at our feet, man. Look closer! 'Tis young lord Gunnar!"
Heavy fingers inspected Gunnar's ravaged back, tore the sticky linen of his rent tunic away from his wounds. The old man swore an oath. "'Tis by far the worst damage I've ever seen suffered on a child."
"Is he dead?"
"Nay, but soon enough, I reckon." Gunnar heard a rustle of fabric then felt the rough wool of the old man's cloak cover him. "Half-dead or nay, I'll not leave him to rot out here like some hapless beast. If I cannot heal him, I can at least provide him comfort in his final hours. Come, help me lift him."
Limbs numb from loss of blood, Gunnar felt himself rise from the ground, heard the men's scuffling footsteps in the grass as they hefted him several paces from where he had lain. The sweet tang of moldy hay assailed his nostrils before he felt the crush of his own weight and he was placed on his stomach atop a straw-lined litter. His rescuers hurriedly dragged him across the field toward the village.
Each rut they hit, every furrow, nearly jolted him senseless with pain but his broken heart continued to beat. God help him, but he did not want to live. He had proven a coward; he deserved to die. Living would mean every day facing his guilt, his dishonor. He was too weak; he could not bear it. He prayed for deliverance from his suffering, from the anguish of his shame. His family was gone, his home destroyed. What reason had he to live? What purpose?
The answer came swiftly, softly at first, a dark whisper that curled around him, anchoring his soul to the earth with shadowy tethers. It called to him, beckoning him to hold on, entreating him to fight.
And, as the healer carried him into his hut and went to work on his wounds, the whisper grew in strength and meaning until it filled his mind, his heart, his soul. It was a single word. A mantra. A vow.
Baron d'Bussy's name was on the lips of well nigh everyone in England. For weeks past, criers had spread news of his grand tournament to the far reaches of the land, the scores of tents and pavilions now pitched on the wide plain outside Norworth Castle a testament to both his vanity and his thoroughness. Everywhere, pennons and colors flew, marking the independent warriors and those representing neighboring baronies and lords.
In the gathering twilight, men, women and children--perhaps a hundred in all--wandered the wide avenue that ran through the center of the makeshift village. At the far end of the lane, two men, stripped down to their braies, fought bare-fisted to the gasps and cheers of a small circle of enthralled spectators. Boasting, swaggering knights were everywhere, many stumbling drunkenly toward their tents with a wench--some with two--under their arms. The more serious-minded competitors and dutiful squires tended destriers; others sat outside their tents polishing armor and inspecting weapons that would be well-used on the morrow.
Amid this festival atmosphere, a distant flash of lightning went unnoticed.
It ripped across the darkening sky and reflected in a pair of eyes staring not at the bustling valley, but at the castle looming over it. Those emotionless eyes, deep and cool as the forest that obscured them, blinked once then looked up to the dismal clouds.
It began to fall almost immediately, pattering softly onto the canopy of leaves above, then swelling into a hard summer downpour that swept quickly toward the encampment. A grimace twisted the full lips that had until then been set in a determined line. Heavy rain meant a certain postponement of the morrow's tournament and worse, a delay of his promise.
Gunnar Rutledge cursed, his muttered oath swallowed up by a loud roll of thunder. Beneath him, his black destrier stirred in alarm, eyes wide and anxious. With a low murmur that sounded more a warning than comfort, Gunnar quieted the beast, stroking its neck with a rough, unpracticed hand.
He had no use for fear, nor the experience to soothe it. Long ago, he'd dispensed with his own fear, expelling it and any other emotion that might one day prove a weakness. He knew naught of celebration, did not indulge in dreams. His mind was fed on logic, his twenty-three-year-old body honed with hard work and countless battles until it now seemed more an extension of his armor and weaponry than it did flesh and bone. He had banished his feelings and exorcised his demons.
And now that demon had invited him into his lair, offering an opportunity more perfect than Gunnar could possibly have conspired to arrange on his own. He wondered if the baron ever thought about the possibility that he had survived. Did he sit up there in that massive stone fortress and consider--even for a moment--that a reckoning was imminent? Had he ever tasted fear? Did he feel as damned as the boy he had left on that field thirteen years past?
Soon, he would.
For according to the Holy Church, to slay a man in tourney was to condemn him to eternal damnation. Hence, melees were fought with ceremonial blades--dulled, though nonetheless dangerous--and blunted lances.
Yet accidents happened.
Private scores were settled.
To avenge his mother, Gunnar would confront Luther d'Bussy. To avenge his father, he would do so in the lists. The plan was simple enough. Best the baron, put the fear of God in his eyes. Make him plead for mercy.
And show him none.
The idea that he himself might not survive the day hadn't given Gunnar a moment's pause. He would keep his promise, no matter the price.
As the rain slanted down from heavy clouds, driving everyone to the shelter of their tents and turning the lists to mud, Gunnar wheeled his mount about and headed into the forest to make camp in solitude and search for patience enough to wait out the storm.
Bright morning sunlight filled the sky as Raina d'Bussy burst from Norworth's open gate astride a dappled gray mare and sped down the side of the motte. The fresh scent of the previous night's rains still clung to the air but she scarcely noticed it. She rode at breakneck speed, the skirts of her bliaut rucked up over her knees and her unbound hair billowing in a wild, sable curtain behind her. With a gleeful laugh she leaned forward over her mount's neck, urging it on faster and faster past the empty, bemired lists and across the marshy ground. Warm, muddy water splashed around her and kicked off the horse's hooves to dot her bare legs and splatter her face.
She rode at a hard gallop past the village of tents and up the gently sloping hill opposite Norworth Castle, toward the woods. Nearing the thick grove, she ventured a glance over her shoulder to judge her distance from the rider who fast approached from behind. His white stallion thundered up the hill, kicking tufts of ground loose under its heavy hooves. With an excited little shriek, Raina ducked into the shade of the tall trees.
She truly loved a race and, to the chagrin of her father and the young knight she competed with this day, she always played to win. Unladylike, to be sure, but having been raised by an indulgent father and without the benefit of a mother to correct her headstrong ways, Raina had developed her own set of rules. Giving less than all she had, be it suitable behavior or nay, was not among them.
A quick jerk of her reins brought her mount to a halt near the brook that marked the finish line of the race. Raina jumped to the ground as her challenger skidded to a stop beside her. She whirled to meet her lifelong friend with a wide, self-satisfied smile.
"Victory is mine, Nigel!" she crowed, nearly breathless with exhilaration from the run and the win.
Her grin faltered when she spied his expression. Somewhere along the way, the playfulness with which the two began their race had faded and Nigel now glowered down his nose at her. His lips compressed into a tight, intolerant line in the center of his wheat-colored goatee. The sparse little beard he had tried for so long to grow had met with disappointing results, she thought, making him look like a pointy-chinned elf. A rather cross one, at present.
"What a sight you are," Nigel chided with a slow shake of his head. He dismounted then pulled off his gauntlets and draped them over his baldric. Pale blue eyes assessed her from head to toe. "You have ruined your gown."
Raina pushed a matted tangle of hair from her face and looked down at her faded saffron-colored skirts, now spotted with water and mud. She shrugged. "'Twas my oldest and a small sacrifice to the victor."
Nigel chuckled, taking her hands in his. "That's hardly the point," he admonished. "Ladies do not go about ruining their garments for the sake of a race. Besides, your competitiveness is...well, 'tis unseemly."
Frowning, Raina pulled her hand from his. In the past few months, Nigel had changed. He was now so gravely serious about everything. What had happened to the boy who used to encourage her antics, who cheered her on whatever she did? "You used to enjoy competing with me," she whispered, her observation sounding more like an accusation, even to her own ears.
"Aye, so I did," Nigel replied, "when we were children. You are no longer a child, Raina, but a woman grown. And I am a man. 'Tis time for our games to end." When Raina frowned sullenly, he moved closer, lifting her chin on the edge of his fist. "If 'tis surrender you crave, I give it. You have won your race and I am vanquished...as ever when it comes to you, my lovely. Now, will you find it in your heart to mend my wounded pride? Afford me something to savor as I battle for your love in the lists come the morrow?"
He leaned in to kiss her.
"Nigel, don't." Raina pulled away, wrapping her arms about herself as she walked to the stream. His attempts of late to touch her were wearing thin her patience, but she tolerated him even as she rebuffed his advances, clinging to the idea that for nearly all her life, he had been her closest friend and confidant. She had noticed years before--and her father had issued stern warning--that Nigel had become a man, with a man's lusty designs, but it was painful to think that adulthood might spell the end of their friendship. "I don't understand. Why must it always come to this?"
Nigel strode up behind her. "Why must it always come to you casting me aside, you mean?" He exhaled sharply, a humorless, dejected sound. "Would that I knew, my lady love."
At his tender endearment, Raina squeezed her eyes shut, shaking her head. "Nigel you must stop thinking of me like that. Please, for my sake and yours, cease regarding me as aught more than your lord's daughter...and your friend."
Nigel chuckled and the brittle sound chased a shiver up her spine. "I fear you ask too much," he said and then she heard him breathe deeply of her hair, felt him sigh against her skin as his arms came about her waist. "How can I think of you in any other way than as the girl I would marry, the woman who would share my bed and bear my children?"
The very notion made her gasp with shock. She tried to move out of his embrace but he only tightened his hold and pulled her closer. "God's wounds, but you are a bewitching temptation," he growled, and his lips found their way to her neck, where they lingered, laving her skin in a wet kiss.
Raina twisted in his arms, trying to escape his unbidden attentions. His verbal advances were one thing, but never had he taken such liberties! "Nigel, you are acting crazed. Let me go!"
He ignored her struggling and dragged his mouth slowly up her neck. "Will you have me beg you, Raina? Forsooth, I will, and find no shame in it. Tell me what I must do and I will do it." He pulled her tighter, his grip like iron bands about her arms.
"Nigel, you are hurting me! Please, release me."
"Never," he vowed. "I'll never release you. Let me love you, Raina. Let me make you mine...right here, right now. Let me have you and your father will have naught to say about our marrying."
While that bewildering thought sank into her brain, Nigel's hand came up to cup her breast. Scandalized and enraged, Raina slapped him hard across the face. Nigel released her instantly and his hand came up to touch the blooming redness on his cheek.
"Nigel, I--" She started to say she was sorry but couldn't find the words.
Without warning, Nigel seized her upper arms, savagely hauling her to him. "Never strike me again, Raina," he warned through gritted teeth, "or I promise you, I will strike back and you'll never forget your place again."
His face was now very close to hers, breath heated with anger. In his eyes she saw a fierce, uncontrollable rage that shocked her, made her shrink away. A low, animal-like growl curled up from his throat before he slanted his lips over hers, pressing brutally, painfully against her teeth until she tasted blood.
She tried to wrench free but he pulled her closer, his fingers biting into her arms as he forced his tongue into her mouth. She gagged at the unexpected invasion, revulsion instantly coiling her stomach into a knot. Nigel's grip was like iron, cold and unrelenting, and for the first time in her life, Raina feared him.
Was this what her father had meant when he warned that with a maturing of body came a corruption of thought? Was this the harm he alluded to when he said that for her own protection she was not to put herself alone in Nigel's company? Would that she had listened to him!
Nigel had her arms pinned at her sides as he reached behind her with one hand and began hurriedly gathering up her skirts. Panic clutched her heart with icy talons. Surely Nigel didn't mean to take her, willing or not!
Raina struggled, her frightened outcry muffled against his mouth. She was panting now, terrified and trapped in his bruising embrace. Nigel seemed to take her fearful response as encouragement and, groaning, pressed the hard ridge of his groin against her hip. At last his mouth left hers and she screamed, hoping someone would hear her, praying for deliverance.
A deep voice boomed in answer. "Unhand the woman or feel my blade between your shoulders."
Nigel's grip eased off immediately and, with a snarl, he freed her, whirling to face the source of the intrusion. Raina brushed her skirts down, and from around Nigel's shoulder caught a glimpse of her rescuer.
A dark knight on a black charger held Nigel in a deadly-looking glare, the threat in his eyes backed up by his large, gleaming broadsword, now leveled unwavering at Nigel's heart. A face that could have been carved of granite for all its harsh planes and angles remained impassive; the wide, square jaw set, the mouth an unforgiving, yet shapely line.
This man did not appear a bright savior but rather a black specter, the devil himself. But as Raina stood wide-eyed and warily awed, Nigel charged forth with his usual blatant insolence.
"This is none of your concern," he barked, "and you know not whom you address."
"I am speaking to a knave who would force himself on an unwilling maid. Who you are is of little import, to my mind." The knight pressed his blade closer to Nigel.
With a brittle chuckle, Nigel held his hands in the air, palms up. This time when he spoke there was a hesitancy in his voice despite his bravado. "You have me at a disadvantage, sir. If you mean to dispute how I handle my affairs, I will gladly take the matter up with you, but as you can see, I am unarmed. The advantage you hold is unfair."
"As was yours with the woman."
"You would run me through then, without courtesy of defense?"
"Nay," the knight replied. "I would have you leave the girl and go back whence you came." He nudged Nigel with his sword. "Now."
Nigel stumbled backward, away from the blade, his voice rising to an incredulous pitch. "Who do you think you are? I'll have your damned head for this insolence!"
The knight seemed unconcerned. "Begone, little man." This time his jab was less gentle and Nigel looked down to his chest where a small red stain had begun through his tunic.
With a hissing expulsion of breath, Nigel moved toward his horse, eyes narrowed as he climbed up into the saddle. But instead of taking up the reins, he reached down and drew his weapon. Raina gasped. All Nigel had to defend himself with was his shortsword; having been on a leisurely ride on protected lands, he was unprepared for battle. He brandished the stubby blade with a malicious grin, obviously pleased with himself despite the fact that it looked like a child's toy next to the knight's fine weapon. In the next instant Nigel charged toward the knight.
Raina watched through splayed fingers as the swords clashed against each other, sparking violently. The blades met again and again, the harsh grate of metal on metal joining Nigel's string of filthy curses. It seemed the confrontation had only just begun when, with an upward snap of his massive arm, the dark knight knocked Nigel's weapon from his grasp and sent it flying.
Nigel glanced at his empty hand. A look of outraged surprise came over him before his eyes narrowed on the knight. Then, with a blood-curdling war cry, he lunged from his saddle. Raina shrieked for him to stay, but it was too late. Nigel flung himself at the knight, barreling into his broad chest. Both men toppled into the bushes.
The dark knight came to his feet first, yanking Nigel up with him by the front of his tunic. Nigel flailed and kicked and scratched, his technique sorely lacking the finesse and power of the other man's. While the knight struggled to capture Nigel's arms at his side, Nigel squirmed and thrashed about wildly. Somehow he managed to land the toe of his boot in the knight's shin.
Raina winced at the certain pain, but the knight uttered no response. He cocked his massive arm back and released it with the force of a January gale. An oath died on Nigel's lips as the knight's fist connected with his jaw. He spun on his heel, eyes rolled back in his head, then fell limply away like a stuffed, cloth doll.
"Oh, mercy!" Raina gasped, dashing to Nigel's side. She fanned his face, her fingers hovering over the trickle of blood and the swelling bruise that had begun under his eye. He didn't respond, just lay there unmoving. "Oh, Nigel, you fool! Now you've gone and gotten yourself killed!"
"He's not dead," the knight drawled from behind her. "Though I cannot fathom why the thought would cause you such distress when it seemed clear the cur held little regard for your well-being."
Raina glanced up at the source of that dark, velvet voice. The knight had retrieved his sword from the bracken and now stood at her side, his broad shoulders and large torso blocking the sun as he resheathed the blade. A scowl that seemed borne more of annoyance than concern wrinkled the center of his wide brow as he stared down at her. He was striking to be sure, a study in black, from his windswept, shoulder-length hair to his somber tunic, hose, and boots. From where he stood in shadow, even his eyes looked to be a potent midnight hue.
"Are you hurt?" he asked, and she realized he likely thought her dazed or simply dull-witted by the way she had been blinking up at him.
"Nay," she replied quickly, "though my pride is grievously wounded to admit I had to rely on the kindness of a stranger to save me from someone I consider a friend--more, at times a brother."
The knight held out his hand, indicating with a slight inclination of his head that she take it. "His intentions toward you just now were aught but brotherly," he said as he helped her to her feet.
Raina found the large, warm cradle of his palm against her fingertips such a keenly intriguing sensation, she nearly didn't hear what he had said. More intriguing were this man's eyes: a deep brown, so fathomless that upon first glance they seemed almost black. Unreadable as they were to her, their piercing stare seemed to penetrate her thoughts with ease. Feeling exposed, Raina pulled her hand away from his grasp, silently cursing the heat that now infused her cheeks.
The knight's scowl deepened and he brushed past her to where Nigel lay. "How old are you, girl?" he asked as he hefted Nigel's dead weight up over his shoulder and draped him, prone, over the saddle of his white destrier.
"I-I'm ten and eight," she stammered, then added proudly, "we marked the day of my birth just last week."
She thought her newly-advanced age made her sound mature and worldly. He, however, didn't look the least bit impressed, merely gave a grim nod that may as well have been a shrug. "Old enough to know better than to ride alone, particularly when the countryside is swarming with restless tourney competitors."
"I wasn't alone," she replied hotly, resenting the implication that he found her lacking good sense.
"This was your escort?" He hooked a thumb over his shoulder at Nigel's prostrate form, which from this angle provided a less than reassuring picture.
Raina bit her lip and the knight chuckled. "Like a lamb to the slaughter."
"What do you mean?"
"Men are wolves," he advised, taking up both mounts' reins as he walked toward her. "I would have thought a girl as comely as you might have learned that by now."
She felt fairly certain he hadn't meant to compliment her, but the effect of his appraisal was nonetheless pleasing. She masked her reaction with an upward tilt of her chin, but when he moved closer to her, she was helpless to contain the little tremor of excitement that shot through her veins and left her trembling in his shadow.
"Did your parents teach you naught of men and women? Or is it rather your practice to beguile men then plead the innocent when they expect more than just a friendly kiss?"
Outraged, Raina drew in her breath and straightened her spine until it felt strained with the effort. "My mother is dead," she informed him tightly. "And aye, my father has taught me much. I should think he'd throttle me if he saw me alone in the company of a rogue like you."
"Rogue?" He looked duly offended...or perhaps surprised, she couldn't tell and at the moment, she didn't much care. "'Tis rather haughty thinking for a bedraggled maid like yourself," he replied, his expression as wry as his tone of voice. "I should think your poor papa would be only too eager to push you into a knight's arms, rogue or nay."
She came within a hair's breadth of informing him that she was Lady Raina, daughter of Baron Luther d'Bussy of Norworth, and that her father would sooner see him flogged for his impudence than wed to his only heir. But she spoke the truth when she said her father had taught her much, and she had endured countless lectures about the dangers of her title, the hazards of being a wealthy baron's daughter in lawless times.
This bold knight thought her lacking sense, well, she would prove him wrong here and now. Let him believe her a peasant; better that than delivering herself into the arms of a potential ransomer. "I suppose then, you would have me think you a prince among these wolves simply because you came to the service of a lowly maid."
One black brow lifted sardonically. "Admittedly, I am no prince, but do you reckon a wolf would rescue a lamb only to set her free?" He smiled lazily, revealing a row of straight, white teeth and for an instant Raina wondered if she were about to be devoured where she stood. Heart fluttering, knees trembling, she didn't dare move when he reached out and hooked a tangle of hair behind her ear. She might have swooned if not for the presence of her mare, grazing at her back. "Don't look so stricken," the knight said with a knowing wink. "I've come on business, not pleasure."
And then his large hands were at her waist, his grasp warm and strong, the line of each finger pressing through her bliaut and against her skin. Raina sought his shoulders for support as he lifted her off the ground and placed her on her mount as if she were no more cumbersome than a feather bolster.
He circled round then to Nigel's mount and, with a light smack to the stallion's rump, sent it off at a canter. Nigel began to stir with the jostling ride, his moans carrying back to where Raina sat, staring down at her dark deliverer, captivated by his gaze.
"Get thee gone, little lamb," he commanded in a low growl, "before this wolf rethinks his charitable mood."
Masking her startlement at his bold remark would have been impossible. She gasped, feeling the flood of heat fill her cheeks as she wheeled her mare away from him. With trembling hands, she gripped the reins tightly and started for the edge of the woods, very aware of the dark gaze fixed on her as she fell into place behind Nigel's destrier.
Logic screamed for her to flee, to send her mount into a gallop and count herself fortunate to have escaped the day with little more than rattled nerves and a skittering pulse. But, like Lot's wife, no warning would have been stern enough to keep her from venturing a glance back to what might have spelled her doom.
She pivoted in her saddle and found him watching her, the increasing distance between them seeming scant inches under the power of his gaze. Even as her mount forged on and the space between them grew, it seemed as if he were close enough to hear her racing heartbeat, to feel the shiver of excitement coursing through her. Close enough to touch her. Heaven help her, but at that moment, if he had beckoned her back, she might have gone.
Like a lamb to the slaughter.
His grim observation rippled through her memory, dousing her foolhardy, wayward thoughts and setting her body into action. With a swallowed shriek of fright, she forced her attention back to her mount. Heart pounding, breath hitching, she sped past Nigel, out of the woods and toward the keep as if the devil himself were at her heels.
. . . end excerpt . . .