Southern England 1094
Draegon peered out from beneath his hood. A hellion storm approached--but not the churning deluge he spied just beyond the woodland trees, nay, that was a storm of which he could contend--even appreciate. It was a life storm that shadowed the perfection of this overcast day, the manner of tempest that uprooted all that was familiar and set one’s conscience against itself. It was a storm of consequence that weighed on him. He felt it to the core of his bones--its impending reality no less vivid than the telltale dampness in the air.
Thunder rocked the ground. A jagged flash of lightning lit the underbelly of a churning gray sky. Draegon smiled appreciatively. Throwing the folds of his cloak back over his shoulders, he opened himself up to the howling wind.
His smile deepened.
It was why he was here--why he had chosen this night to walk the wood in silent contemplation.
He drew a deep savoring breath, filling his lungs with the familiar perfume of meadow grass and wildflower. It was the scent of the northern meadow--a place far from prying eyes and curious stares. A place where he could take reprieve from the suffocation of heavy wool and expose his face to the wind and rain. Sliding back his hood, he freed the ebony mane that framed his face, setting its contrasting band of white to dance on the breeze. The wind intensified, and he watched the sky grow darker still as he lifted his face in welcome--basking in the temporary freedom he so looked forward to, glad to be out from the stifling heat of his own breath.
It was the only time he felt secure in shedding his cloak outside the sanctuary of Greystone.
Quickening his steps, Draegon forged ahead to the rolling meadow that bordered the wood. To watch the storm advance was an exhilaration he welcomed. He had done so many times--stood at the border of wood and meadow waiting for the gale to strike, for the cool downpour to wash him clean, if but for a moment, of the loneliness of many years spent shut away, shunned and feared.
Only his good friend and steward, Diminimis, and Lord Greystone, God rest his soul, had accepted him without reservation. Draegon gave his head a mental shake, driving back the pain. Now he, Draegon, was lord of Greystone. And though for six years he had ruled the demesne with a fair and prosperous hand, still, despite his efforts, he sensed fear in his people. Fear of him. It was why he hid beneath hood and helm, why he traveled in the dark of night to revel in storms that sent others scrambling to their lodgings for shelter. It was only in the blinding rage of a storm that he could shed his mask and feel true freedom.
The heavens rumbled above him. The ground trembled beneath his feet.
Running his fingers through his hair, Draegon sliced it into even gleaming rows. Freedom indeed. As long as he had need to hide his face, such was a privilege he would never know. Too much of a man’s soul could be seen in the eyes. In his eyes. He had learned that well enough as a lad of ten when Lord Greystone bid him always keep his face hid amongst the shadows. Never did Greystone tell him why but he had had no need to ask. He did already know.
Draegon paused and closed his eyes. Accursed eyes. Demonic eyes. But it was no escape. In the darkness he felt the strike of a whip across his back. A second strike. A third.
His eyes shot open and he pulled a sharp breath, driving back the memories of nearly forgotten years. He must not allow such imagery to torment his thoughts. Not this night. This night was his night of solace. A night that would bring him peace. The storm.
Braced at the edge of the wood, Draegon stood against the sting of the wind as a curtain of rain washed across the distant field. Eagerly he searched for the calm he always found in so tempestuous an eve, but this night what troubled him would not grant him leave. It gripped his throat like a hangman’s noose, cutting off his breath.
Nay! Draegon rolled his neck and swallowed hard, fighting it off. Closing his eyes, he waited for the first spear of rain to strike his face--then another and another, cooling his flesh as it trailed down the curve of his jaw to drip like dew from his nose and chin. He lifted his face at the pounding deluge. It beckoned him, daring him to step out from the shelter of the trees and into its fury--a challenge Draegon heartily accepted then froze, the hair at his nape standing on end. Quickly, he drew up his hood and concealed himself beneath his cloak. Backing against a huge oak that bordered the field, he pressed against its bole.
Its foul taste filled the air with a heaviness that made his flesh crawl. It was the storm. The other storm--the one he had felt when he’d first embarked on his journey. Good judgment bid him to return to Greystone. Curiosity held him bound.
Again a rumbling shook the ground, but this time, he knew, it was not the power of the storm. Draegon listened intently.
Soon a dappled-grey steed crested the meadow’s peak. It burst through the heavy wall of rain and entered the lower field, its flowing mane and tail whipping on the wind--a ghostly image in the low blanket of fog. But it was no ghost. From the distance its rider appeared hazy. Then the shadowed image of a windswept cloak blew free from its host, revealing a glowing white tabard that snapped sharply on the wind.
Or was it a tabard?
God’s breath! Not a tabard. A gown. The horse carried a lady.
Curious as to why a lone woman traveled at such great speed and at so late an hour, Draegon traced the steed’s path back to the crest. Five warhorses followed in the distance. Soldiers. His gut churned. Again he felt the crack of a whip across his back. His blood chilled. Long forgotten angst rose within him, crying out for justice, for freedom, for peace. Immediately, he slapped his side for the assurance of a sword that was not there.
“Merde!” he cursed. His grimace tightened as his hand met only the small sheath of his dagger. With only a dagger, he would be no match against five fully-armed men. He paced fervidly, contemplating a plan.
The raven wool of his cloak weighed heavy with rain, but the treated underside and fur lining kept the chill of the downpour from seeping through. He thought of his warmth then of the chill of the woman being pursued. He would do the lady no honor to die at her side, but were she a skilled enough rider to reach the forest, a place where he knew every secret concealment, a place he was most comfortable in.
Tugging his hood low over his face, Draegon stepped farther back into the trees. His heart pounded as his fingers caressed the cold hilt of his blade. She would make it to the wood, he assured himself as he wrapped his cloak about him. She had to.
~ * ~
Alys urged the destrier on, her heart pounding in unison with the fervent rhythm of its hooves. The dappled grey had been the fastest in the stable, Bastion’s pride and joy. Now it was her salvation.
Great puffs of air blew from the stallion’s flaring nostrils, steam rose from the foamy sweat of its coat. Pressing her heels into its flanks, she spurred it on as she crossed the lower field, commanding speed though she knew it gave all it had to give.
Still, she grabbed at what hope she could.
’Haps the approaching storm would discourage Bastion’s men from further pursuit. ’Haps they would tire of the chase and turn back--and ’haps she was the queen of England. She knew better--for each and every time she had run from Bastion of Worthingshire, his men had pursued her to completion, and the price of her insolence had grown more steep with each successive return. If she were captured this time, it would most assuredly mean her death.
Desperate to reach the trees and lose herself in the forest’s dark and winding trails, she nudged the Grey a second time, urging the horse to a faster gallop. A spear of rain pelted her face, then another and another, each merciless drop stinging her flesh before hiding in the silky folds of her gown.
Holding the reins steady in one hand, with the other she secured her hair and looked back over her shoulder. Five riders thundered in the distance, twenty pounding hooves tearing across the meadow, their forceful strikes sending tufts of sodden earth flying in their wake.
That she had expected.
What she hadn’t expected was Bastion himself leading them. Tall and foreboding, he bore full armor, his black tabard bearing the device that set him apart from all others--a menacing red hawk, its wings spread in descent, its powerful talons wrapped about its kill. Never before had Bastion accompanied his men in pursuit of her, and the implication filled her with a cold and sudden dread. Immediate conviction.
“Hyah!” Alys kicked harder still. Betrothed or not, never again would she allow Lord Worthingshire to humiliate her. Never again would he bed her against her will. Not while she still lived. Patting her side, she felt for the small dagger hidden in the folds of her skirt, assurance of her vow. Bastion was as evil as the devil itself, the proof of his heinous deeds strewn across her back where he had flogged her more than once for willful behavior. Nay, she swore. Never would he lay a hand on her again--not while freedom hovered so close--a freedom of which she had only ever dreamt. She could smell it as vividly as the sweet earthy scent of foliage in the not-so-distant forest--a forest whose hazy border lay just within her reach.
Her heart pounded and she snapped the reins with a force that caused the destrier to rear then fall. Catapulted from the saddle, she struck earth and rolled. Rocky terrain bit into her head and back. Striking her temple on a jagged stone, she came to an abrupt and painful halt. Tall meadow grass peered down at her. A warm stream of blood slid across her cheek and over her lips, tasting of metal and salt. Lifting her arm, she wiped the dampness of it on her sleeve then drew herself up to her knees. Forest and meadow spun about her in a dizzying blur and she nearly lost consciousness.
Freedom. She drew breath, steadying the sickness in her gut. Today was her day of freedom. Forcing herself to rise, she searched out her mount. Though pouring rain obscured her vision, still she found the wounded horse in the distance, struggling to stand on an oddly twisted leg. Her throat thickened so that she could scarcely swallow. Because of her, the animal suffered. Because she desired her freedom, it would have to be put down. A need to comfort the beast came over her, but such a need was overcome by a greater one--that of escape.
But escape from whom? Her gut tightened. Her temples throbbed. Shaking her head, she tried clearing the cobwebs, but the sudden movement only caused her to swoon, and still the name of her pursuer eluded her, as did her reason for running. Yet her fear remained strong, and her desire to flee weighed heavy.
She cast the horse a sorrowful look. “Forgive me,” she muttered then, turning from the wounded animal, staggered across the border of field and forest. The tangled thicket grew dense and bristled. Still, she pushed her way through, falling to her knees time and again as the jagged underbrush grabbed the silky fabric of her skirts and pulled her to the ground. Each time, she caught herself, crying out as thorny offshoots dug into the flesh of her wrists and palms. Despair hung over her. Never would she lose herself in the thick growth of the forest. Not on foot. Not in the raiment that she wore. She gathered her skirts in small tight fists and pushed on. If only there had been time enough to change into something more practical, she thought. A traveling gown. Tunic and braes. Something less full, less silky, and most assuredly, less white.
She shook her head, struggling to hang onto the single thread of coherency that still remained. White. Her gown was white. She fought the weakness of crying until her throat ached. She was a beacon in the night, a gleaming ghost in a world of deep dark shadows. Her pursuer’s troupes would have no trouble spotting her amidst the dusky greens and browns of the wood.
Fear sliced through her. Determination prompted her forward.
Alys tried contemplating the concept, but the constant throbbing in her temples blinded her and she stumbled. Cupping her head in her hands, she pressed against the pain in the hope that the counter pressure would alleviate it. It did not. Rather the throbbing increased and her incoherency grew thicker with every stride. Lowering her hands, she held them before her. Blood streaked her palms. A low sob caught in her throat.
Quickly, she stepped onto the main path to make better time.
She would not give up, would not allow the darkness to consume her. Too much rested on her freedom.
She trembled at the thought. How could something so important suddenly elude her?
A gravelly voice bellowed from just beyond a bend in the trail. Alys froze, her blood so frigidly cold she could scarcely move. Only her need to survive drove her on, forcing her to fight the dizziness and the fear--to run as fast and far from the voice as possible.
~ * ~
“Ungrateful wench!” Bastion bellowed. He spun his horse on the winding trail. Yanking the reins, he caused the huffing beast beneath him to nicker and rear. Steam rose from its sweaty flanks. Again Bastion whipped the spirited beast around. He scanned the forest through a narrowed glare as he seethed at the loss of his favored mount. “Show yourself, Alys,” he bellowed. “There is no escaping me. You of all people know this.” He fell silent, listening to the gravelly sound of his own voice as it echoed through the trees.
“Milord, ’haps we should divide into two groups to cover more area.”
Bastion glared at his second in command. Raising a mailed fist, he backhanded him with the heavy mesh of his gauntlet, splitting his lip and nearly knocking him from his mount. “Asked I your advice, Alan?” he asked.
Alan wiped the blood from his mouth with a rumpled sleeve. Already the damaged flesh swelled beneath his touch. “Nay, milord.” His eyes narrowed warily. “Forgive me, ’twas but an assumption.”
“Well, assume not. Should I require your infinite wisdom, I will ask it of you. Until such time, still your tongue, else I have it removed.”
“Aye, milord.” Alan turned from Bastion, suppressing the urge to tend his pulsing wound. He knew he could not do so. Such an act would show weakness, and if there was one thing Bastion abhorred more than insubordination, it was weakness.
Wheeling his beast about on the trail, Bastion faced his men. “Joseph, Kendrick, Alton, follow the southern trail. Alan, ride with me.” Bastion turned his mount eastward then paused. Before nudging the horse forward, he shot a hard look over his shoulder. In a low ominous tone, he warned, “And bear in mind the price to be paid for failure.”
Each man swallowed, a sight that brought a wicked curl to Bastion’s lips. “Find her,” he ordered.
The three guardsmen reined their mounts into a spin, tearing down the winding trail as if the fires of hell burned at their heels. Only Alan stayed behind, obedient, at Bastion’s side.
“Come, Alan,” Bastion commanded as he spurred his horse ahead.
“Aye, milord.” Making sure that Bastion rode a length or two ahead of him, Alan nudged his horse forward, pacing it so as to keep a safe distance in the rear. Nothing on God’s given earth could prompt him to spur ahead of his lord. Nay. To ride before Bastion when he was in one of his moods was akin to suicide.
~ * ~
That voice. Alys shivered. Quickly, she left the main path to push her way through the tangled brush. Grabbing hold of her outer skirt, she lifted its dirty hem and wiped the dampness from her eyes, smearing a thin sheen of mud across her cheek as she stumbled forward. Again sharp brambles caught her silk skirts, rending the soft material with a sound that seemed loud amidst the eerie silence of the wood. She was sure, at any moment, the whispering rip of fabric would give away her position, that the man with the voice of gravel and grit would hear the soft tear and pounce on her from the dark, that he would grab her about the throat and drag her back to--to where?
The question rose, as did the throbbing in her temples.
And with that throbbing came a dizzying haze more vicious than the last.
Wrapping her arms about her middle, Alys fell to her knees. Nausea gripped her insides and she fought the need to retch. ’Haps she should just give herself over to the man who pursued her. ’Haps all was for naught. After all, if she could not remember why she ran, surely her reason for running could not be so dire.
So why didn’t she believe that?
Because deep in her soul she knew it wasn’t true. Deep within a tiny voice warned her to take speed, to push on despite her exhaustion, to fight for her freedom, for her life, for the secret that she carried.
Secret? God’s breath! What secret?
Forcing herself to stand, Alys spied a shadowed thicket in the distance. Brushing sopping hair back from her face, she stumbled toward the promising refuge, a prayer of thanks on her lips then paused, a foreboding pulling her back.
She sensed the thicket held secrets of its own.
Ridiculous. She shook the feeling off. More than likely, it was merely a cave beyond the woven brush. Or perhaps a burrow. Aye, even a burrow concealed in its depths was promising. But would it be deep enough to hide the gleaming white of her gown? And could she make it that far? Already her knees wobbled beneath her weight. Already her vision blurred, her senses near lost to the pounding in her ears and the thick swirling haze in her head. She squeezed her eyes closed then open again to clear her vision.
A ragged breath escaped her, and she stumbled forward.
So close, she thought, so cursedly close. Yet her goal seemed unattainable.
No! Not unattainable!
Reaching out, she followed the line of her fingers, wishing the dark haven could reach out to her in turn, that it would take her by the hand and draw her into the sanctuary of its safe refuge. But it did not, and the futility of it caused her to stumble and drop to her knees.
Covering her face with her hands, she lowered her head. “No more,” she cried as the pouring rain melded with her tears. There was no more strength to pull forth, no more hope to see her through. Let it end, she thought. Let it end here and now.
The heavens cracked with thunder, a deafening bang that shook the trees. Leaves rustled sharply. Startled, Alys looked up to see a dark and ominous figure step out from the shadows of the thicket. Cloaked from head to toe, it stood strong and proud, a massive hood falling low over its face so that naught was visible but a voluminous black cape and strong, purposeful hands. She tried screaming, but it caught in her throat. Quickly she shuffled back on her elbows, the sudden movement causing her to swoon.
Death, she thought. The Angel of Death.
Her heart raced. She didn’t want to die.
Again she tried backing away when strong hands grasped her shoulders and yanked her up from the ground with such force that it stole her breath. Alys gasped then swore, her cry quickly squelched by a firm and calloused palm as it closed over her mouth. A solid arm wrapped its steely hold about her waist, pulling her back against a pillar of muscle and bone. Alys kicked and clawed but there was no pulling free. Whatever held her firm felt no pain.
Death would feel no pain. Death would feel nothing.
She felt a familiar bulge at her side--her dagger. A glimmer of hope rose from within her despair.
Carefully, she slipped the small weapon from its sheath; then drawing what strength she could, she spun in Death’s hold to face him. Aiming the blade at his chest, she pushed the weapon up and forward until it met resistance. A harsh curse rent the air. She felt the heat of it scorch her cheek as the dark figure’s grasp loosed its hold on her mouth to crush her grip on the weapon, causing it to fall at her feet. A hollow ache filled her chest--her only hope of escape now gone. She struggled, a scream rising in her throat when Death’s voluminous cloak whipped over her, enfolding her in its thick oppressive gathers and muffling her cry.
Her ears pounded. Flashes of past confinement filled her head, black as pitch, suffocating. Hysterics tore the air from her lungs. She pulled a calming breath through her assailant’s fingers, commanding herself to concentrate on the present and force past assaults aside. Lax in his hold, she drew another breath. Soon hysterics fell away and the void in their wake filled her with an unexpected sense of peace.
Alys wondered at it. Despite Death’s close proximity, a warmth and comfort embraced her from beneath its cloak, holding her bound as the soothing scent of forest, wool and man filled her through.
But was he man or was he Death?
She closed her eyes, savoring euphoric relief. Despite its power, despite its strength, despite its ominousness, there was comfort in the body she was drawn against, hard and warm as sun-kissed stone, a safe and welcoming harbor.
Saints! she swore, nearly giving in to the illusion. Could she not even trust her own intuition? Had she struck her head so fearsomely hard that she found Death pleasing? She had heard tales of such, though it was usually the aged or sickly who welcomed the darkly clad figure, not one such as she. Young. With so much to live for. Or had she much to live for? Her throat went tight. She couldn’t remember, nor could she recall ever having felt such complete serenity.
Resting against her abductor, Alys struggled with her thoughts. Again the familiar voice bellowed in the distance, the sound of it evoking fear. Though she couldn’t place its source, she knew it was Satan’s spawn spewing commands, hateful words from a barbed and wicked tongue.
Her heart raced until she could scarcely breathe.
Then Death shifted sharply.
Holding her firm, he stepped back, dragging her with him. From the darkness beneath his cloak, she felt her feet struggle to keep stride, knew he drew her into the shadows from where he had come. All instinct commanded her, resist, escape. But she could not. Not even should Death loose his hold and set her free. Nay. There was comfort in the arms of Death. So much so that she acquiesced to the power of his hold as he pressed his weight down on her and, like a great towering griffin, forced her to the ground until they were but another shadow in the brush.
Alys sighed beneath the shelter of his body. Perhaps death was a bright alternative to her elusive past. Perhaps with death came peace.
Peace. It was all she truly wanted.
Resting her cheek against the warmth of her abductor, she leaned into the heady scent of man and forest. Peace, Alys thought as she molded herself to the strength of the dark and crouching form. Finally, finally, peace. Again she sighed then, closing her eyes, gave in to the weariness of a shattered life and surrendered to the darkness.
~ * ~
“Diminimis!” Draegon kicked the main door of the Keep closed with the heel of his boot, the clash of wood and stone deafening in the hollow corridor. He stumbled into the main hall. “Diminimis, where are you?”
Leaning against the wall, he braced himself, fighting an exhaustion that nearly sent him crumbling to the floor as his legs struggled to support the weight cradled in his arms. He blew a sharp breath, sending droplets of rain from his nose and lips. Then his legs gave way and he slid down the grating stone at his back to rest on his haunches. Unable to pull himself to his feet, he called out once more. “Diminimis, help me.”
Diminimis rounded the corner. “Saints! You are soaked through to the bone.” Stooping, he slipped his arms beneath the bundle pressed to Draegon’s chest, relieving him of his burden, then stood. He cast Draegon a curious look. The bundle he had taken charge of was wrapped in Draegon’s cloak, leaving his lord to brave the storm in naught but a thin linen tunic and braes.
Ignoring Diminimis’s look, Draegon pulled himself up from the floor. He stepped forward, faltered, then bracing one hand against the wall for support, steadied himself. Every move commanded concentration as he forced strained muscles to perform. “Take her to the west wing chamber,” he ordered. “She will have need of a hot fire to ward off a chill. And have Moira strip her of her wet raiment. I would that she not fall ill. Several tunics rest in the trunk at the foot of my bed. Moira can slip one over her until suitable clothing can be found.”
“Her?” Diminimis asked. He paused on the stairs and cast Draegon a quizzical look over his shoulder.
“Aye, her.” It was a curt reply, indicating the conversation was over. But Diminimis would not be deterred. He lowered his gaze to the bundle in his arms. “And where found you her?” Again he looked to Draegon.
Draegon sighed sharply. Of anyone, Diminimis had a right to know. After all, it was he who would be taking on the brunt of her care. “At the far clearing of the wood.”
“The north meadow? God’s breath! ’Tis at the very least a two-hour journey by foot!”
“Three if you carry a load.”
“But--but why? How? Who?”
Draegon took the stairs to where Diminimis stood. Concern darkened his face. “Knighthawk hunts her.”
“Knighthawk!” A look of secret knowledge passed Diminimis’s face that he quickly veiled. “How know you this?”
“I did recognize his standard from whence I stood in the wood.” Draegon lifted a questioning brow. “Does something trouble you?”
“Nay, milord. Why?” Diminimis replied too quickly.
“You seem shaken.” Draegon watched his friend and steward, observed every hint of emotion that played across his face.
“I do know of Knighthawk’s reputation is all.” Diminimis leveled a serious look on the slight form in his arms. “And I wonder why he pursues her?”
“That, my friend, is yet to be learned.” Passing his steward, Draegon continued up the stairs. Reaching the top landing, he headed for his chamber.
Diminimis paused to secure a better hold on his charge. “Milord,” he said before continuing on to the west wing chamber. “We have much to talk about.”
Draegon turned, meeting his friend’s serious gaze. “Aye, we do.” He smiled slightly. “But later.” He turned on the heels of mud-laden boots and headed for the warmth of his solar. “When the lady is settled in her chamber, come to mine.”www.lindaciletti.net