Sunday, June 22, 2008

Draegon's Lair by Linda Ciletti

Chapter One

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.

The storm.

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.

Stormy nights.

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.

But what?

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.


Of course.

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.

Darkness. Suffocation.

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.”


Sunday, June 1, 2008

Bloodstone Castle - Chapter One

Bloodstone Castle

Chapter One

Genoa, Italy

965 A.D.

The black stallion galloped hard. The thrash of Duke Amoro Dragone's crop landed solidly against the animal's haunches. Sparks flew at each rhythmic strike of horseshoes against the old Roman road. Sweat saturated the stallion's sleek coat. The creature's nostrils flared scarlet. Its breath streamed ribbons of mist into the cold air.

Amoro glanced at the bodyguards who raced to keep up. One carried his family's standard of a scarlet dragon on a black background. He urged the mount faster. His mother needed him. Genoa needed him.

Flames from thousands of torches illuminated the city of Genoa, but grief blinded him to its beauty. He navigated the narrow streets by rote and ascended steep hills into the heart of the port city. Amoro rode across the open drawbridge into the courtyard of Castle Dragone. His bodyguards close behind. He dismounted and tossed the reins to a waiting groom. The stallion panted, its head hung low. Its legs shook with exhaustion. It pained Amoro to put his horse through such effort. “Tend to him with extra attention. He has earned it.”

Without waiting for acknowledgement, Amoro sprinted up the steps of the castle. The spurs of his boots jangled as he passed through the massive oak entrance and dashed through the corridors. He advanced beneath the shadow of an arch to the entrance of the great hall. Two guardsmen snapped to attention then opened the door at his appearance.

People crowded the room. His grief-stricken mother, Caterina, stood by the bier dressed in black. His father, Duke Bartolomeo Dragone, lay in his finery. Heaps of blossoms, aromatic herbs, and pine bows surrounded him. Shock halted Amoro. The man, so active in life, looked unfamiliar in death.

“Amoro,” Caterina hurled herself into her son’s arms and wept.

“I'm sorry.” Amoro embraced his mother. Words caught in his throat. She sobbed against his chest. Amoro's heart constricted to see her so anguished. His arms still about her, he escorted her to a chair near the bed and assisted her to sit. He raised her hand and kissed it.

Caterina ran a hand down his cheek. She turned her swollen eyes to the black and red dragon standard that covered her husband's body.

The Archbishop of Genoa hovered over the body and muttered solemn prayer. His face, serious and pale, contrasted with his brilliant purple vestments. Attendants whispered and emitted muffled sobs. A peculiar chill suffused the room.

I never anticipated this.

He knew no man as a kind and well respected. His heart pounded hard in his chest. At his father's bier, Amoro dropped to his knees. In repose, the body looked waxen and cold. He touched his sire's hand and pulled the stiff fingers to his forehead in one last obeisance, one last farewell. He opened his eyes and studied his father's face. Amoro plummeted into a void of despair. The sound of his sobs suppressed all other sounds. He crossed his father's lifeless hands atop the red and black pall. Amoro let his hand linger until he regained his composure

“Did he receive last rites?” Amoro asked the Archbishop in a voice raw with emotion.

“Yes, your father shall rest in peace.”

“I am grateful.”

“It is as God wished.” The Archbishop made the sign of the cross over Amoro and looked back at Caterina. “I'll keep you both in my prayers.”

Amoro turned to his mother. “They told me he was ambushed. Is this true?”

She stared with lustreless eyes clogged by shock, unable to respond.

Amoro looked beyond her and raised his voice to the assembled vassals arrayed in mourning. “One of you, answer me. Did he face an ambush?”

Roberto, his father's commander-at-arms of his troops, stepped forward. “It is true.” His gravely voice shattered the shocked silence. Amoro clenched his jaw. “How did this happen?”

“Yesterday we returned from Savona. Your father went there to collect a debt. Brigands accosted us. They outnumbered us. One slashed your father across the belly with a broadsword. We tried to stop the bleeding and dress the wound, but he lost too much blood. He died before the sun set.” Raw anger twisted Roberto's face.

Amoro swallowed hard. “And what of the man who felled him?”

“Dead by my own sword,” Roberto growled. His countenance turned grim, yet his eyes glimmered with satisfaction at the redress.

Amoro stepped closer, placed his arm around Roberto's shoulder, and led him away from his mother, so she could not overhear.

Amoro lowered his voice. “Did you know the man?”

Roberto shrugged. “No.” His looked turned venomous. “I ordered the body drawn and quartered. The bastard's head is impaled in the square.”

Amoro closed his eyes. Sangue di Dio. Roberto should have interrogated the man to discover the motive behind the murder. Nonetheless, Roberto defended his father, and for that, he owed the man his gratitude.

“You have been ever faithful to my father and our family. I'm proud to call you a friend. I shall see you well rewarded.”

“My lord,” Roberto said, his eyes gentled by compassion. “The night before he died, your father spoke with me.”

“Of what did you speak?”

“Of many things, but mostly of you.”

“Me?” The extent of Amoro's loss churned at his gut.

Roberto nodded. “We camped outside Varezze. The inn had no vacancy. The men drank too much wine and fell asleep early. Your father couldn't sleep, so he woke me. He seemed preoccupied. He confided in me.” Roberto faltered. Lines of concentration deepened along his brows.

It shocked Amoro to see the brawny man yield to his pain.

“Continue, Roberto, please,” Amoro urged.

“Your father wearied of the feud between your family and the Monterossa.”

Amoro's drew his brows together. “I weary of it. We all weary of it. Father rued the day his own father dishonoured the betrothal with a daughter of the Monterossa family. The wrath of their vengeance denies us any peace.” He paused as something occurred to him. “Do you suppose one of the Monterossa murdered my father?”

Roberto's mouth dipped into a deep frown. He shook his head. “We have no proof it is the Monterossa. We removed the disguise from the face of the lout we killed. None of us recognized him. Your father's men search from town to town to find the rest of the band. We may never learn the identities of the assassins.”

Anger replaced Amoro's grief. Try as he might, he failed to keep it contained. “I swear to hunt down the bastards who did this. They will suffer a worse fate.” Anxiety roughened Amoro's voice. “What else did my father say?”

“He placed all his hopes onto you. He wanted you to end the feud and atone for the past.”


“You must honour the marriage contract broken so many years past.”

“How am I to do that?”

You are to wed Contessa Morena Monterossa of Portovenere.”

“Marry the daughter of our enemy,” Amoro grimaced. With eyes closed, he shook his head. “Father never spoke of such a thing to me.”

“Nevertheless, that is what he said.”

Amoro stared hard at Roberto. Thoughts of Laria, his lover, came to mind. His father knew he wanted to marry for love. He asked the impossible. He returned to his mother. “Did you know of Father's wish for me to marry a Monterossa?”

Caterina nodded. Her voice cracked with emotion. “He spoke of it to me a while ago. He wanted to end the feud and for you to strengthen the Dragone family with sons. He sent a messenger to the king to propose the match and to acquire his permission.” Caterina pulled a small scroll from the pocket of her over-tunic and handed it to Amoro. “The king sanctioned the match.”

A tense silence enveloped the room as he read the document and handed it back to his mother. Hands clasped behind his back, it took Amoro only a few strides to reach his father's side. He glared down at the lifeless face then looked away. He pinched the bridge of his nose and shook his head. What could have possessed his sire to burden him with such a fate – to wed the enemy, someone not of his own choice? A woman he could never love.

He clenched the edge of the pall with his fists and raised it to his face. Raging emotions shook his body. To wed a woman sight unseen? What if she behaved as a shrew or bore an ill temper? If Umberto Monterossa refused? How could he honour his father's request then?

He swung around and stared first at Roberto then at his mother. “The idea of wedding the daughter of our vilest enemy is absurd. I do not believe my father would force this upon me.”

Caterina rose from her chair and rested her hand upon his arm. “Amoro, if that is the woman your father wanted you to marry then doubt him not. No man was more astute at judging the character of men and women than your father. Besides, we have all heard talk of her virtuous nature and beauty. Don't turn away from an opportunity to wed a well–dowered woman.”

Amoro returned to his father. He held his breath. Thoughts in his mind spun like a whirlwind. “Morena,” he tested the name. A torrent of emotions churned in his gut. To wed the enemy, a woman he didn't know. His father doomed him by such a ludicrous demand. His father's favourite proverb haunted him. Figlio mio, one day you must rise to your station. Do your duty and the balance will take care of itself. By the bowels of hell, what had his sire demanded of him?


Amoro looked down over Genoa and onward past the port. He watched as the wind blew over the sea and twisted the surface into thousands of broken ripples. Anchored barges rocked against rising tides. The blustery weather whipped through the cypress trees.

“Even in such weather, Genoa is beautiful,” said Laria Malacresta as she enfolded her arms around his waist and pressed her head against his back. “I have missed you these past few days. I didn't think your journey to the marches would take so long.” When he didn't reply, she sighed and murmured, “I regret the loss of your father. I know you loved him well.”

At her touch, he lifted her arms away and faced her. Lush ginger curls dangled about her beguiling face. Mischievous blue eyes sparkled above a delicate nose. Amoro studied the face of the woman who warmed his bed and had captured his heart these past months.

The memory of when they first met two summers ago flooded him. He and his men rode through a forest. They discovered her. Naked, beaten, and bloody, someone had left her for dead, like refuse. He carried her to Castle Dragone and summoned a healer. She lost the child she carried.

A bond developed between them during the weeks she convalesced. He learned she was a noblewoman. Her second cousin was a wealthy count who died childless. Trouble befell her when she became infatuated with the unscrupulous son of a rich merchant who impregnated her. Her family cast her out in shame. In desperation, she turned to her lover who spurned her and denied the child.

Her circumstances gave rise to a profound need within Amoro. Before long, he surrendered to his desire for her. What a temptress. Her carnal appetite matched his. They indulged in each other's flesh, often, the most pleasurable hours in his life.

As his father's heir apparent, Amoro understood that he must wed to increase his family's wealth or political standing. A marriage to Laria could never be. Not because she lacked noble blood, but because she could not enhance his family's political standing. He pondered about keeping her as a mistress, but mistresses brought discord between a man and his wife and he yearned for contentment in wedded life.

He didn't expect the day of their parting to arrive so soon. The worst of it would be to see her face crumble at the news that he must send her away. Amoro swallowed and fixed his gaze upon hers. “Si, I loved and respected him well. My father will be missed by many.”

“Time heals, Amoro. No one knows that more than I.”

“My life from this day forward will change.”

She caressed his cheek with her hand. “You are your father's heir, Genoa's Grand Duke now. Of course it will be different.”

Amoro turned to face the sea. Laria came to stand at his side. They stood in silence for a few moments.

“Laria, there is something we must discuss.” Amoro turned to face her.

Laria forced a smile. “Tell me, amore. There is nothing we cannot say to each other.”

“I must marry.” It broke his heart to see hope come to life in her eyes. He knew she loved him and secretly hoped to become his wife, but her ruination prevented such a union. How he hated to hurt her. He inhaled a deep breath. “Before my father died, he made it known he wanted me to marry Contessa Morena of Portovenere. I leave in two days to honour his wish.”

Laria paled. She furrowed her brows and tilted her head. Tears filled her eyes.

“Laria, I...” Amoro reached out to her.

She raised her arm to stop him and turned away.

Amoro waited, unable to ease her hurt. Moments passed. He watched as she squared her shoulders and raised her head. She faced him. He noticed ruddiness in her cheeks and bitterness in her eyes. Pain etched her expression.

“Laria, I'll see to it you are well cared for. You will want for nothing.”

Laria's face contorted. “You believe I want your money!” Her voice grew shrill. “It is you I want. I believed that you overlooked my lack of chastity. A union between us would have restored my respectability. These past months you took your pleasure and now you discard me? I believed you to be different from other men, but I erred. You are no better than those who preyed on me then left me for dead.”

I don't have a choice, Laria. I never made you any promises.”

“No, you didn't. Even so, I hoped that you loved me enough that when you became Duke you would discard convention, make your own decisions, or break whatever protocol to do what is right.” Laria hurled the words at him with fury. She drew a breath and paused. Her chest heaved with emotion. “I blundered in harbouring such thoughts.”

“I understand how this must hurt you.”

“Hurt? You know nothing about hurt.”

“Try to understand. I cannot disregard my father's last wish. I loved him.”

“And I love you. If you presume to rid yourself of me that easily, you are wrong. Seek this woman, but remember this – we belong together, and if I must fight to keep what is mine, then so be it.” Laria picked up her skirts and fled the palisade.


Two days later, in the crypt of his ancestors, Amoro stood alone at the foot of his father's tomb. He placed his hand on the cold marble and clutched the hilt of his sword to his heart. Since his father's death, he barely left his mother's side. After he placed his mother in the care of life-long servants and kin, he bid her farewell and promised a swift return.

He envied the love between his parents. Never did they speak an acrimonious word between them. Kindness and respect ruled their time together. Laughter filled the air when they strolled in the evening together. His father always advised him to wed for love. It confused him that his father changed his mind. To ask him to live without love? Could love bloom in the cold heart of an enemy? If a Monterossa murdered his father, could he wed into that family? Could he use the alliance to seek his revenge?

The time for grief passed. The time for action arrived.

“I pledge my oath upon your grave, Father. I swear to avenge your death and fulfill your final wish to end the feud with the Monterossa.” The words seared his heart. “I will marry Morena Monterossa.”

The rasp of his sword as it glided into the scabbard broke the silence. After a final sweep of his hand over the crypt, Amoro strode away.

His bodyguards waited outside. Amoro took the reins from Roberto and leapt onto his horse. Roberto shouted a command for the cavalcade to ride.

Amoro galloped away, entourage in tow, a cloud of dust in their wake. The horses of his cavalry wore black and scarlet blankets with ornaments of silver that dangled. Every item of his wardrobe and that of his bodyguards, from the black silk tunic to the luxurious scarlet cape trimmed in gold leaf, sparkled with jewels.

Villagers stopped all activities and lined the road to view the spectacle. Children scrambled into the street to collect any silver ornaments that fell. They thundered down roads and through meadows.

Fragments of doubt about the Monterossa woman swirled like a maelstrom in his mind. Could he stand firm to the oath he just foreswore, if unfair of face, or if plagued with a physical ailment? He must, because he valued his word as much as his life.

For years, he avoided his father's requests to marry and beget a son. When his mother paraded maiden after noble maiden before him, he paid scant attention. Perhaps he might have discovered on as his true love.

Fate doomed him to wed the daughter of the enemy. He must defeat his prideful arrogance and do his duty. Amoro rode into Portovenere under the afternoon sun. Crowds of people lined the streets to watch the spectacle of their arrival. Cobblestones disappeared and the road withered into dirt with boulders strewn on either side. The road ended at the edge of a very large hill. Another road to the right led down to Bloodstone Castle.

Amoro halted the men and studied the Monterossa family's castle. An azure sea sparkled like a brilliant gemstone in the background.

Amoro admired the architecture. Poised on the tip of a peninsula of rock, the structure soared above a landscape of breathtaking beauty. The Ligurian Sea surrounded the castle on three sides. He admired the fact that no enemy could arrive by sea unnoticed. The fortress stood sentinel over the sheltered harbour, for centuries.

Amoro understood why so many legends abounded about the ancient stronghold. The rose-colored edifice sat upon land and rocks richly veined with bloodstone. Rumours of a Roman casket filled with unimaginable treasures buried somewhere beneath its turrets and walls, intrigued Amoro most of all. He collected ancient Roman jewellery. To discover it, would be an additional benefit to wedding.

He appreciated the sweeping vistas of snug wood and stone houses with terraced gardens, abundant orchards, and three small islands in the nearby waters. A cool mist blanketed the fortress in an amethyst haze. The evening sun descended over tides and white-foamed waves. Clouds streamed across the sky.

Amoro ordered the white standard of peace unfurled. He led his men over a bridge to the gatehouse. Two large towers sat at each end. The roof of a large keep hovered behind, higher than the walls.

They rode into the barbican and stopped before the locked gates. Loud shouts and the urgent blow of a trumpet sounded from within.

“Who goes there?” The voice came from somewhere above.

“Amoro, Duke of Genoa,” he shouted back and looked upwards. The afternoon sun blazed in his eyes. He could not make out who spoke. “I come in peace to speak with Umberto Monterossa.”

The sounds of men scurrying into place emanated from inside. Amoro shielded his eyes against the sun and looked up at the bastions. The hot sun beat down hard as he waited.

The voice shouted down at him again. “Umberto Monterossa refuses to see you.”

Amoro clenched his reins tighter and shouted. “Then I'll wait.”

A heavy silence fell. Amoro held his ground as if he commanded each moment. The lack of response convinced him they scrambled to find another method to rid themselves of his presence. Amoro could not prevent the grin that touched his lips as he called out, “Advise Contessa Morena I seek an audience.”

Time passed.

“The Contessa is indisposed and cannot see you.”

Amoro ignored the snickers from behind the castle walls. The corner of his mouth twisted. “Inform the Count and his daughter I shall return on the morrow, and every day thereafter, until one or the other speaks with me.”

No response.

Amoro clenched his jaw and reined his horse around. Entourage in tow, he departed.


Amoro returned the next day with a small wooden casket bejewelled with coral and pearls. Secreted within was a parchment upon which he wrote some kind, persuasive words. An intaglio brooch of multi-coloured rock set in a golden shield bordered with twisted gold and engraved with two Roman goddesses lay upon the document. It was the most exquisite piece in his collection of ancient Roman jewels. He purchased it from a shrewd Venetian merchant after much negotiation and cost.

Before he announced his presence, a voice shouted down.

“Contessa Morena will not see you today.”

Amoro recognized the voice as the same one as the day before. He gritted his teeth and inhaled a hearty breath. “I brought her a gift.”

“Leave it outside the gate. I'll take it to her.”

“Think you I'm a fool?” Amoro shouted upwards. “I wager she will not see it. No, I'll tarry for her personal response.”

The castle gate creaked open. An unpleasant looking man with a surly face and fat cheeks walked out and halted two paces in front of Amoro. The man drew in a breath to speak.

Amoro waved him to silence. “I'll not tolerate any further stalling. See to it that you place this into the hands of the Contessa. I await her answer.”

The man sneered.

Amoro's eyes narrowed as he passed the man the casket. He held it longer than necessary before he released it. He fixed his eyes on the man's back as he lumbered back to the castle and the gates slammed shut behind him.

Amoro waited. An eternity passed before the gates creaked open and the same man strode out. In a hardened voice with no vestige of sympathy, the man shoved the casket back at him. “The Contessa refused your gift.” His eyes shifted when he spoke as if he guarded a secret.

Amoro lifted the lid of the casket to examine the contents. All appeared intact. He raised his eyebrows and suppressed angry words. He cast a venomous glare at the man and held the man's gaze. When the man could no longer bear it, he looked away.

Satisfied, Amoro leapt onto his horse and cantered off.


Amoro dispatched a parade of messengers to Bloodstone Castle. Each bore extravagant gifts: pearl necklaces, bracelets of fine Saxon silver, a lock of Saint Peter's hair, a Psalter illuminated with inks of purple and gold, a velvet mantle lined with ermine, and numerous gemmed garments of silk. Each gift carried a well-crafted note that proposed marriage and described his desire of peace. Each endowment returned to his hands unopened.

He took residence at a nearby inn. The innkeeper and his wife treated him well. They befriended and encouraged him. The couple practically salivated over the many gifts he sent to Morena and shook their heads at each refusal.

Word of Amoro's benevolence spread. The villagers took notice. Their wariness towards him faded. Each day, townsfolk gathered in greater numbers to watch his liveried messengers depart for the castle with new, extravagant gifts. They took great interest at his campaigns to win the heart of their Contessa.

If only they knew the truth. Let them think him a forlorn romantic for it mattered naught.


A fortnight passed. Amoro made no progress. He sat alone at a corner table in a crowded, raucous inn, and brooded. He finished a meal of roasted venison and fresh bread and downed his second goblet of red wine.

A man approached.

Amoro stared at him with deliberate sternness. In no mood for trouble, he poised his hand on the sheathed dagger on his thigh.

The tall, muscular stranger with fair hair and brown eyes gazed back at him. “May I sit?”

Amoro looked around the room. “I see several unoccupied chairs. Take one of them.” He returned a dark gaze to the goblet in his hand in dismissal.

“I believe you will be interested in what I have to say.”

Amoro glared at him.

The man did not waver.

The display of confidence impressed Amoro. He studied the man's face to judge his trustworthiness. “Say what you have come to say, then be gone.”

“I know of your intentions to wed the lady Morena.”

“Hah. That is no secret.” Amoro raised his goblet to toast the comment. He downed a swallow and looked away to dismiss the man again.

“I can help you.”

Amoro twirled the stem of his goblet. He leaned back into his chair. “How?”

The man grinned. “My reasons are my own, but suffice it to say that I would rather see the Lady Morena marry you than that scoundrel, Ernesto of Savona, to whom she is betrothed.”


“A betrothal document exists already, made many years before.”

“Then why do you wish for the lady to marry me?” Amoro leaned forward. Perhaps something this man knew might release him from the trap of marriage that hung over his head.

The man stopped a serving-maid who walked past with a tankard and two empty goblets. “I'll take one of those.”

He grabbed one of the cups and held it out for her to fill. He raised the glass to her and returned his attention to Amoro. “I owe Umberto Monterossa a great debt. As a lone child, after the murder of my parents, he took care of me as if I were his son.” With every word, pain showed in the man's face.

“And you want to discharge your debt by seeing the lady wed to me?”

“If she marries Boccanera, she will suffer.”

The man captured his full attention. Amoro gestured with his arm to the empty chair across the table. “Who are you?”

The man grinned as he straddled the chair and leaned forward. He looked to either side to ensure no one could overhear. “My name is Massimo Baronno. I'm a close friend of the Monterossa family. I know of a secret door into Bloodstone Castle.”


The Complete Tour Schedule –

During the tour, we encourage people to visit each tour stop shown on the schedule. Each comment on any of the tour stops is an entry in the book giveaway. Several copies of Bloodstone Castle will be given away at the end of the month. One will be given to the “best” comment, one for the “most unique and relevant” question. In addition, the blog host where the winning comments were posted will also win a copy of the book. So, visit Mirella, learn more about Bloodstone Castle and post comments. Mirella looks forward to getting to know her readers.