This Is All I Ask (de Piaget Series #5)by Lynn Kurland
From Lynn Kurland, the New York Times bestselling author of the Nine Kingdom series.
Set near the Scottish border at a rugged castle on the edge of the sea, this is the story of a courageous lord who lost everything he held dear. Of a strong young woman willing to sacrifice everything for happiness. Two lost souls who find in each other a/b>/i>… See more details below
From Lynn Kurland, the New York Times bestselling author of the Nine Kingdom series.
Set near the Scottish border at a rugged castle on the edge of the sea, this is the story of a courageous lord who lost everything he held dear. Of a strong young woman willing to sacrifice everything for happiness. Two lost souls who find in each other a reason to live again, to laugh again, and to love for the first time...
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PRAISE FOR NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLING AUTHOR LYNN KURLAND
“Clearly one of romance’s finest writers.”
—The Oakland Press
“Both powerful and sensitive . . . a wonderfully rich and rewarding book.”
—#1 New York Times bestselling author Susan Wiggs
“A sweet, tenderhearted time travel romance.”
“A story on an epic scale . . . Kurland has written another time travel marvel . . . Perfect for those looking for a happily ever after.”
—RT Book Reviews
“[A] triumphant romance.”
“A perfect blend of medieval intrigue and time travel romance. I was totally enthralled from the beginning to the end.”
—Once Upon a Romance
“Woven with magic, handsome heroes, lovely heroines, oodles of fun, and plenty of romance . . . just plain wonderful.”
—Romance Reviews Today
“Spellbinding and lovely, this is one story readers won’t want to miss.”
—Romance Reader at Heart
“Breathtaking in its magnificent scope.”
—Night Owl Romance
“Sweetly romantic and thoroughly satisfying.”
“A pure delight.”
—Huntress Book Reviews
“A consummate storyteller.”
—ParaNormal Romance Reviews
“A disarming blend of romance, suspense, and heartwarming humor, this book is romantic comedy at its best.”
“A totally enchanting tale, sensual and breathtaking.”
Titles by Lynn Kurland
STARDUST OF YESTERDAY
A DANCE THROUGH TIME
THIS IS ALL I ASK
THE VERY THOUGHT OF YOU
ANOTHER CHANCE TO DREAM
THE MORE I SEE YOU
IF I HAD YOU
MY HEART STOOD STILL
FROM THIS MOMENT ON
A GARDEN IN THE RAIN
DREAMS OF STARDUST
MUCH ADO IN THE MOONLIGHT
WHEN I FALL IN LOVE
WITH EVERY BREATH
TILL THERE WAS YOU
ONE ENCHANTED EVENING
ONE MAGIC MOMENT
ALL FOR YOU
ROSES IN MOONLIGHT
The Novels of the Nine Kingdoms
STAR OF THE MORNING
THE MAGE’S DAUGHTER
PRINCESS OF THE SWORD
A TAPESTRY OF SPELLS
GIFT OF MAGIC
THE CHRISTMAS CAT
(with Julie Beard, Barbara Bretton, and Jo Beverley)
(with Casey Claybourne, Elizabeth Bevarly, and Jenny Lykins)
VEILS OF TIME
(with Maggie Shayne, Angie Ray, and Ingrid Weaver)
(with Elizabeth Bevarly, Emily Carmichael, and Elda Minger)
LOVE CAME JUST IN TIME
A KNIGHT’S VOW
(with Patricia Potter, Deborah Simmons, and Glynnis Campbell)
(with Madeline Hunter, Sherrilyn Kenyon, and Karen Marie Moning)
TO WEAVE A WEB OF MAGIC
(with Patricia A. McKillip, Sharon Shinn, and Claire Delacroix)
THE QUEEN IN WINTER
(with Sharon Shinn, Claire Delacroix, and Sarah Monette)
A TIME FOR LOVE
“TO KISS IN THE SHADOWS” from TAPESTRY
All I Ask
Table of Contents
THE TWIGS SNAPPED AND POPPED IN THE HEARTH, SENDING a spray of sparks across the stone. The cauldron bubbled ominously, the thick brown contents slipping up to the edge and almost over, much like a youth looking into the abyss of sin and toying with the idea of leaping in headfirst.
“Magda, mind the kettle!”
A wizened old woman jumped as if she’d been stuck with a pin, pushed her white hair out of her face with a plump hand and hastened to the fire.
“Sweet Mary, I think I’ve burned it again!” Magda cried.
“By the Fires of Hell, I do hate it when you use those saintly epitaphs,” the second said, coming over and taking away the spoon. She tasted, then cursed. “Lucifer’s toes, must I do everything myself?”
“Oh, Nemain, what shall we do?” Magda exclaimed, wringing her hands. “I cannot bear watching them lose this chance when the Fates have worked so well in our favor thus far!”
Nemain grumbled as she pulled the pot off the fire.
“Berengaria, come taste this. I say ’tis the worst love potion Magda has burned yet.”
Berengaria didn’t answer. She was far too busy staring out the window and watching the past unfold into the future. It was a gift she had, this Seeing. It had amused her in the past to see what the future held, to know how kings would die and lands be lost. It had also come in handy to know beforehand when whatever castle she lived near was to be besieged, leaving her time enough to pack her belongings and seek out new lodgings before the marauders arrived. But this task that lay before her now was her most important yet: to bring two unwilling and, frankly, rather impossible souls together. Aye, this was worthy of her modest arts.
She felt Magda tiptoe over to her, heard Nemain curse as she stomped over with her worn witch’s boots, but she didn’t pay them any heed. Failure had been but a breath away. Had the lord of Blackmour possessed a bit less honor, he would have ignored his vow to protect and defend a woman he hardly knew. Perhaps honor wasn’t a wasted virtue after all.
Berengaria let the present pass before her eyes, watching the dark, dangerous knight the Dragon of Blackmour had sent as his messenger. She scrutinized the battle-hardened warrior and was pleased to see that he wouldn’t falter in his errand. He couldn’t, or all would be lost. There would not be another chance such as this.
“Magda, by my horns, that is a foul smell,” Nemain snapped as she retreated to the far side of the hut. “Pour it out and start over again. And go carefully this time! It’s taken me a score of years to find the thumb-bone of a wizard and you’ve almost used it up. I’ve no mind to venture up to Scotland again to search for another!”
“Stop shouting at me,” Magda sniffed. “I’ve only been at this a few years.”
“I daresay even the lowliest priest could tell that. He would sooner think you a nun than a witch.”
Berengaria ignored the renewed bickering. Instead, she watched a homely woman-child of a score-and-one years who practiced with her forbidden sword in the garden at Warewick. The girl’s father wouldn’t be pleased with her disobedience, but with any luck the Dragon’s messenger would be there before Warewick could learn of her actions. Berengaria nudged the knight a bit more, like a pawn on a chessboard, forcing him to urge his horse to greater speed. Satisfied he would arrive in time, she turned her attentions back to the young woman.
“Just a few more moments, my child,” Berengaria said softly, “and then your new life will begin.”
Warewick Keep, England, 1249
THE TWIGS SNAPPED AND POPPED IN THE HEARTH, SENDING a spray of sparks across the stone. One of the three girls huddled there stamped out the live embers, then leaned into the circle again, her eyes wide with unease.
“Is it true he’s the Devil’s own?”
“’Tis the rumor,” the second whispered with a furtive nod.
“He was spawned in the deepest of nights,” the third announced. She was the eldest of the three and the best informed on such matters. She looked over her shoulder, then looked back at her companions. “And I know what happened to his bride.”
Gillian of Warewick paused at the entrance to the kitchens. She didn’t like serving girls as a rule, what with their gossiping and cruel taunts, but something about the way the maid uttered the last of her boast made Gillian linger. She hesitated, waiting for the girl to go on.
“’Tis said,” the third began, lowering her voice and forcing the others, including Gillian, to edge even closer, “that his lady wife found him one night with his eyes as red as Hellfire and horns coming out from atop his head. He caught her before she could flee and she’s never been heard from since. ’Tis common knowledge that he sacrificed her to his Master.”
Gillian felt a shiver go down her spine. Her knowledge of the world outside the castle walls was scant indeed, but she could well believe that England was full of witches and ogres who wove their black magic in the dead of the night. Her brother had told her as much and she’d had no reason to doubt his tales.
“He never leaves his keep, or so I’m told,” the second girl said suddenly, obviously trying to sound as important as the third. “He has his familiars see to his affairs.”
“Perhaps he fears someone will learn what he truly is,” the youngest of the three offered.
“A monster he is,” the second stated, bobbing her head vigorously. “There isn’t a soul in England brave enough to face him. A mere look from his eyes sends them fleeing in terror.”
“And no children in his village,” came the third voice, as low as before. She paused. “Blackmour drinks their blood.”
Gillian gasped in horror and her wooden sword clattered to the floor. Blackmour?
The girls whirled to look at her. The eldest girl hastily made the sign of the cross, then fled, pulling the other two after her.
Gillian stared after them, speechless. The wenches had been talking about the very Devil’s spawn himself, yet they crossed themselves against her?
“Lady Gillian, your father is waiting.”
Gillian spun around to find her father’s man standing behind her. She thought of asking for time to change her garments, then thought better of it. The longer her sire waited, the angrier he would be. When he saw how she was dressed and realized what she had been doing, he would be angry enough.
She picked up her wooden sword and forced herself to stand tall as she walked behind the steward, even though the mere thought of facing her father’s temper was enough to make her cower. She whetted her lips with a dry tongue as she followed the seneschal up the stairs and down the passageway to the solar.
Gillian left her sword against the wall before she trailed her father’s man into the small chamber where her sire conducted his private affairs. Her heart pounded so forcefully against her ribs, she was sure both men could hear it. Oh, how she wished William were alive to protect her! She took a deep breath and clutched her hands together behind her back.
“You sent for me, my lord?”
Bernard of Warewick was a tall, heavyset man, a warrior who had survived countless battles and would likely survive countless more. Gillian forced herself not to cringe as he turned his substantial self around and looked at her, starting at her feet and working his way up—his eyes missing no detail. She felt as if her boots were caked with twenty layers of mud, not just one. She was painfully conscious of her worn tunic and patched hose. Her hair, which was never obedient, chose now as the proper time to escape its plait. She felt it fall around her face and shoulders in an unruly mess.
Her father’s eyes narrowed.
“Can you not do something with those locks? They look like straw.”
Gillian’s shoulders sagged.
“And I expressly forbid you to set foot in the lists. Perhaps you need to have your memory refreshed.” His eyes slid pointedly to a birch switch leaning against the wall.
“I wasn’t in the lists,” Gillian whispered. “I vow it.”
“You were in the bloody garden!” he roared. “Damn you, girl, I’ll not bear such cheek!”
Before she could move, he had snatched up the rod and brought it across her face.
The sting told her the skin had broken, but it could have been much worse. She took a step back, ready to drop to her knees and curl up to protect her face from more painful blows.
“My lord,” the seneschal put in quickly, quietly, “perhaps you should wait. Until after,” he added.
The sound of the cane cracking against the far wall made Gillian jump. At least the switch was far from her. She looked up to see the tic under her father’s eye twitching furiously. Sweat began to drip down his face and his breathing was a harsh rasp in the stillness of the chamber. He fixed his man with a furious glance.
“Bring the whoreson in. I’ll beat respect into this wench after he leaves.”
The moment her father’s notice was off her and on the door, Gillian scurried over to a corner. She put her hand to her cheek and found the cut to be only a minor one. Oh, how was it all the other daughters in England bore such treatment? She had lain awake nights in the past, wishing she had the courage she knew other maids had to possess. She imagined them bearing up bravely and stoically under the lash while she herself was reduced to tears and begging after only a stroke or two. Lately, just the thought of the pain and humiliation was enough to make her weep.
Her brother had sheltered her as much as he could, but he had been away much of the time, squiring and warring. But when William had been home, he had shooed the maids from the solar and taught her the rudiments of swordplay—with wooden swords, of course, so no one would hear. He had even fashioned her a true sword, a blade so marvelously light that she could wield it easily, and so dreadfully sharp that she had once cleaved a stool in twain without much effort at all.
But her sword was currently hidden in the deepest recesses of her trunk and it was of no use to her. Her brother was buried alongside her mother in the deepest recesses of the chapel and he could not save her. Gillian again put her fingers to her cheek, the feel of the broken skin reminding her all too well what she would suffer at her father’s hands once his man had departed for safer ground. She never should have gone out to the garden. If she hadn’t thought her father would be away for the whole of the day, she wouldn’t have.
The door burst open and a tall, grim man strode inside. He was dressed in full battle gear, as if he expected to sally forth and slay scores at any moment. Perhaps he had expected a battle in Warewick’s solar. Gillian would have sold her soul to have relieved him of his mail and donned it herself.
The man made her father a curt bow.
“Lord Warewick, I bring you greetings from Lord Blackmour. He trusts all is in readiness.”
Gillian paled. The Dragon of Blackmour? What could he possibly want with her father?
“Aye, all is in readiness,” Bernard barked. “But he was to come himself. I’ll not bargain with one of his underlings.”
The man smiled. It wasn’t a pleasant smile. “My lord Warewick, I am Colin of Berkhamshire and I am not an underling.”
Gillian caught her breath. Merciful saints above, Colin of Berkhamshire had a reputation for violence and cruelty that spread from the Scottish border to the Holy Land. William had traveled with him on the continent and told her tale after bloody tale of the man’s lack of patience and his love of slaying those who offended him. It was said he’d once cut down five knights his size because they dared comment on the style of his tunic. Seeing Sir Colin in the flesh left Gillian with no doubts the tale was true.
She looked quickly at her father, wondering if he had realized his error. His expression gave nothing away, but the tic under his eye twitched with renewed vigor.
“Hrumph,” Warewick grunted. “Even so, I’ll not have Blackmour insult me by not coming himself.”
Colin’s smile grew chillier and Gillian pressed herself harder against the wall, ready to duck should a fight ensue.
“I’m of the understanding that you can find no other mate for the child,” Colin said. “As she is far past the age when she should have been wed, I should think you would be anxious to rid yourself of her. My lord has accepted your rather ordinary and unimaginative dowry and done it willingly. Perhaps you would be better served by keeping your pride on a tighter leash. There are other maidens with more attractive holdings than hers.”
Colin’s words sank into Gillian’s mind like sharp daggers, painful upon entry and excruciating as they remained. She wanted to draw air into her lungs, but her shock was too great. She stood still, listening to her father and Colin of Berkhamshire discuss her marriage.
To Christopher of Blackmour.
“Nay,” she whispered, pushing herself away from the wall. “Father, nay!” She crossed the chamber and flung herself down at his feet. Her terror of Blackmour overcame all the fear she felt for her father. Anyone but Blackmour, anyone at all. He had horns, he drank children’s blood, he danced under the moon as he worshipped the darkness. “Father, I beg you—”
“Silence, wench,” he thundered, backhanding her.
Gillian went sprawling. She rolled herself into a tight ball, preparing for the inevitable blow to follow. She cried out when she felt hands haul her to her feet.
But the chest she was gathered against and the arm that pinned her against that chest were not her father’s.
“Hush,” a deep voice commanded. “I’ve neither the time nor the patience for tears.”
Gillian had never been so close to a man other than her brother or father and she found she didn’t care much for the sensation. Not only was Colin of Berkhamshire only slightly less evil than the Devil himself, he smelled.
“The child comes with us. Now. The ceremony will be a se’nnight hence. The banns have already been read.”
Gillian closed her eyes and began to pray. Oh, God, not to Blackmour!
“The bold whoreson! I might have changed my mind.”
“Indeed?” Colin drawled. “You rid yourself of your daughter and gain a powerful son-in-law with the same deed. I suspect that changing your mind was the last thing you intended to do.”
“Begone,” Bernard snapped, but there was no fury behind his word. “And take that sniveling wench with you. The sight of her sickens me.”
Gillian was too terrified to argue. She squeezed her eyes shut as Colin swung her up into his arms and carried her from the solar.
“Your chamber, my lady?” he barked.
Gillian couldn’t answer. She couldn’t even find her tongue to ask Colin to pick up her training sword—not that wood would have served her where she was going. Steel was the only thing of use against warlocks, or so she’d heard.
She listened to her father’s steward give Colin directions, respectfully spoken of course, then felt herself being carried up the steep, narrow steps to the tower chamber, a pitifully small place where she had passed all of her days.
“Pack only what can be carried easily,” Colin said curtly as he set her down on her feet. “Your husband will provide you with whatever else you may need.”
Husband? The Devil’s own spawn? Despoiler of maidens, scourge of England, ravager of Blackmour? Aye, she knew much of Christopher of Blackmour and the tales were grim ones indeed.
He had driven his wife mad, killed her and then buried her unshriven. He was known to take the shape of a wolf, loping over his land with long, lanky strides, ripping the throats from sheep and unwary travelers alike. It was rumored he practiced his dark arts by candlelight in his tower chamber, for ever the shadows could be seen dancing wickedly therein in the deepest of nights.
She had no doubt that all of what she’d heard was true. She believed in witches, and magic, and in men changing their shapes when the moon hid his face. And she could readily believe the rumors of Blackmour’s harshness, of the beatings he dealt his servants, of the cruelty he showed to every soul who crossed him. And now she was to be his. Exchanging one prison for another, with like jailors.
For a brief moment, she toyed with the idea of taking her own life. She could pull the sword from her trunk and fall upon it before Colin could stop her.
A firm hand grasped her by the chin and forced her face up. She looked into Colin’s grim expression and quailed. It was no wonder he was so feared. There was no mercy to be found in his gaze.
“The cut on your cheek is not deep,” he said. “I should kill Warewick for having marked you, but my lord will be displeased if I rob him of future sport. Gather your belongings and let us be off. We’ve a long ride before us and I’ll start it before more of the sun is spent on this ill-fated day.”
She was surprised enough at his words to hesitate. Had he come near to offering to defend her? He wasn’t going to simply ignore Warewick’s treatment, as did all the rest in the keep?
“I’ve no time to coddle you, girl,” he said, releasing her face abruptly. “Don’t stand there gawking. Your father has sold you to the only bidder and you’ve no say in the matter. Pack your things and let us be away, while my mood is still sweet.”
The saints preserve her if she ever saw him when his mood was sour. As for the other, she readily recognized the truth of it. Her father could have sold her to a lecherous dotard or a five-year-old child and she wouldn’t have had a say in either. That he had sold her to Christopher of Blackmour only proved how little he cared for her. Aye, her fate was sealed indeed.
Unless she somehow managed to escape Colin between Warewick and Blackmour.
She turned the thought over in her mind. Escape was something she had never considered before, knowing it would have been impossible to get past her father’s guards. Now things were different. She might manage it.
She turned to her trunk, her mind working furiously. Aye, she would escape, and she would need clothing that wouldn’t hamper her as she did so.
She reached for her two gowns, ones she had worn to please her father, to make him look on her with favor—gowns that had tears in the back, reminders of just how futile her efforts to please him had been. Nay, those garments wouldn’t serve her while she fled. And, should she by some malevolent bit of misfortune arrive at Blackmour, she had no intention of anyone knowing how her clothing had been ripped so she might be beaten more easily.
She pulled tunics and hose out instead, things of William’s she had cut down to fit her frame. No matter that they were patched and mended a score of times. Indeed, such mending would perhaps make others think she was merely a poor lad in search of supper. She would beg a few meals, sleep a night or two under the stars, then find herself in London where she would seek aid from the king.
Assuming, of course, that London could be reached in a day or two. How large was England, anyway? A pity her father had been too ashamed of her to let her outside the inner bailey. It would have helped to know where she was going. No matter. She would watch the position of the sun, as William had taught her, and go south. London was south. She would reach it eventually and find the king. He wouldn’t refuse to aid her. After all, she was the only child left Warewick, flawed and unworthy though she was.
Clothing decided upon, she dug into the bottom of her trunk and came up with her sword, wrapped in a tunic.
It was torn from her hands and Colin barked out a laugh. “What is this?”
Panic overcame her. Nay, not her true sword. Not the sword William had gifted her . . .
“’Tis naught of yours,” she said, making a desperate lunge for it. Her sword was the one thing in the world she could trust to protect her and she would never relinquish it.
Colin held it above his head, far out of her reach. “You’ll have no need of this, lady. My paltry skills will assure your safety.”
“That is mine, you . . . you swine,” she blurted out, using William’s favorite slur.
Colin’s expression changed and she knew her cheek would cost her. In an instant, her choices paraded before her, showing themselves in their fullest glory. She could defend herself, or she could die. She might have survived a beating at her father’s hands, but she knew she wouldn’t survive the like at Colin’s. She grasped for the last shreds of her courage and brought her knee up sharply into Colin’s groin.
He dropped her sword with a curse and doubled over, choking. Gillian dove for her sword, then lurched to her feet, fumbling with the wrappings. She jerked it free of its scabbard and brandished it.
“I know h-how to use this,” she warned Colin’s doubled-over form, “and I wouldn’t think t-twice about g-gelding you if need be.”
“Pox rot you, wench,” Colin gasped. He lurched toward her, still hunched over.
Gillian leaped backward in terror. She caught her foot in her gown and went down heavily, dropping her sword along the way. It skittered out of her reach. Gillian cried out in fear, for she had lost her one advantage. She knew it would be impossible to retrieve the blade before Colin reached her. So she did the only thing she knew to do: she bent her head and cowered, waiting for the first blow to fall.
“Pick up your sword, girl,” Colin said, panting. “I’ve no stomach for beating women. And I remember telling you I wanted to be gone before the morn was wasted. Your father’s house feels more unfriendly than a camp full of infidels. I’m certain you’re as eager to leave as I am.”
Gillian froze, hardly able to believe her ears. When she felt no blow come, she lifted her head to see what Colin was doing. He was staring down at her, but his hands were clutching his thighs. They were not clenched and held high, which, to her way of thinking, boded well.
“I said, wrap up your blade, wench.” Colin straightened, then limped over to her trunk and looked inside. “What of these gowns? None to suit your finicky tastes?”
Gillian couldn’t manage an answer. Colin hadn’t struck her. Indeed, he seemed to have forgotten her insults. She watched him in shock and not just a bit of suspicion. She had wounded more than just his pride and he wasn’t going to repay her for it? It took nothing more than the thought of such an act of defiance crossing her face for her father to punish her. What manner of man was this Colin of Berkhamshire?
Colin picked up a gown and looked at it closely. Gillian wasn’t a skilled seamstress and the gown showed clearly how oft it had been torn. There was even blood on the garment he held, a mark she had scrubbed repeatedly, and unsuccessfully.
Colin flung the garment into the trunk and slammed the lid shut. “Christopher will have other gowns made for you. You’ll not wear those in his hall. Saints, but I’d pay for the pleasure of meeting Warewick in the lists,” he muttered.
He turned, strode over to her and drew her to her feet. He retrieved her sword, scabbard and dropped clothing, then shoved it all into her hands. He took hold of her arm and kept hold of it as he pulled her from the chamber, down the circular stairs and across the great hall.
Her father stood at the door to the hall, his mouth open and likely full of more words that certainly wouldn’t please Colin. Colin shoved him out of the way, then herded Gillian and the rest of his men to the waiting horses.
“You can ride?”
“A bit,” she managed the moment before he tossed her up into a saddle.
They were through the inner gates before Gillian had the chance to find her seat astride her horse. The outer gates had been reached and breached before she could catch her breath or find her wits to marvel at the dumbfounded look on her father’s face. Whatever Colin of Berkhamshire’s other flaws might be, he certainly had a way about him that annoyed her father. The memory of her sire’s spluttering was almost enough to make her smile.
Colin set a brisk pace and by the time Gillian thought to look over her shoulder, her father’s hall was small and becoming smaller by the hoofbeat. She clutched the hilt of her sword and stared back at her prison in fascination. Odd how a place that had held her captive for the past one-and-twenty years seemed so puny and insignificant when viewed from a safe distance.
“Watch your mount,” Colin barked, snagging her reins. “I’ve no time for coddling your tears.”
“Oh, but I’ve no tears to shed,” she assured him quickly.
“I shouldn’t think you would have,” Colin said, tossing her reins back at her. “Look sharp, lady, and don’t force me to halt for you. I haven’t the patience.”
Gillian nodded and took hold of her reins, contenting herself with that tiny bit of control. It was, like her freedom, not destined to last more than the time it took them to travel from Warewick to Blackmour.
Unless she could truly wrench destiny to her own pleasure.
She looked about her at the score of grim-faced warriors and her heart sank. How could she elude them? Or escape them once they took up her trail? There wasn’t any hope. She was doomed to be carried off to another prison likely as terrifying and stifling as the one she had just left.
Courage, Gill. You’ll not live forever at Warewick. Someday a handsome lord will take you away and make you his, and then think on how happy you’ll be. I know it will be so.
William’s dying words came back to her, making her want to weep with despair. What William couldn’t have known, what even the most fiendish of village witches couldn’t have imagined, was that she wasn’t going to a man who loved her, who had offered for her out of affection, or even lust.
She was going to the Dragon of Blackmour.
THE DRAGON OF BLACKMOUR SAT IN A CHAIR IN HIS BEDCHAMBER with his feet up on a stool and cursed the fool who had invented ale. Saints, it was poison! His head throbbed. The fingers he put to his head throbbed. He could have sworn the soles of his feet throbbed, but he wasn’t truly sure as he couldn’t feel anything past his knees.
He fingered the rolled parchment he held, then cast it aside, not caring where it came to rest. It wasn’t as if he couldn’t remember every bloody word written there. He closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the chair, allowing the words to swim before his mind’s eye.
I, William of Warewick, send greetings to Christopher of Blackmour. Time is short, my friend, for I know I am approaching my end. I adjure you to remember your vow, the one I begged you to make in the event of my death. You are the only one I trust with such a deed, Christopher, and I implore you not to fail me. Upon your honor, hold fast to your oath and see to what I cannot. God will bless you for your goodness.
I write this by my own hand, this fourth day of April, the Year of Our Lord, 1248.
William had penned those words a year ago. At the time, Christopher had thought William had slipped too far into his cups and was imagining his coming demise. With his own head currently paining him nigh unto death, Christopher could well understand the feeling.
But now he knew William had been in earnest.
And it was all because of the vow. By the saints, he had been daft to ever make such a promise. The very last thing he needed was a bloody wife!
He rose with a hearty curse and left his bedchamber, making his way with care down to the great hall. Too much ale had made him clumsy and he had no intentions of misjudging his step and tumbling down the stairs.
Chris, I’m trusting you to see to Gillian if anything ever happens to me. Do whatever you have to do to take her from my sire. You know as well as I what her fate will be otherwise. I know she’s not beautiful, but there are qualities more desirable than beauty.
Christopher smiled bitterly at the thought. Aye, qualities such as loyalty, something he knew firsthand.
“My lord, I brought you something to eat.”
Bile rose in Christopher’s throat at the mere smell. “Take it away, Jason!”
He listened to his squire scurry away, then sighed as he made his way to his chair at the high table. Jason of Artane should have had a better master, one who could have given him the training he needed. Christopher had tried to send him away three years ago, after the wounding, but neither Jason nor his father would accept it. Christopher had been left with no choice but to allow the boy of ten-and-six to remain, to become indispensable to him. A pity, really. Jason deserved better.
“My lord, here is herbed wine. If you’ll hold your nose and drink it, your stomach will be settled.”
A cold cup was pressed into Christopher’s hand. He held his breath and downed the contents, then waited for the nausea to come. He leaned back against the chair and closed his eyes, remaining still until he was certain his stomach wouldn’t reject Jason’s brew, then he nodded and handed the cup back to his squire. A calm belly was no blessing, though, for it gave him nothing to think on but his own black thoughts. Saints above, what had ever possessed him to promise William anything at all?
He hadn’t given much thought to the vow he’d made his friend, though he remembered well enough the giving of it. It had been during the time he and William had been squiring together at Artane. Christopher had been watching Lord Robin, a man he worshipped to the depths of his soul, pick up his young daughter and carry her back to the house, giving her gentle words all along the way. He had followed, then run bodily into William, who had been staring at their lord with a grief-stricken expression.
Christopher had never forgotten the look on William’s face. He had never known his friend to be anything but merry, but that day William had turned to him in obvious torment.
“Promise me,” he had said, his face ashen. “Promise me that if anything happens to me, you’ll take my sister away from my sire. Vow it by the Holy Rood, Chris. Vow it now.”
Christopher had been too unsettled to do anything else. Once he had given his word that he would see to William’s sister, his friend had slowly returned to his normal, cheery self. But from then on Christopher had marked the way William studied their lord with his daughter.
Christopher sighed and raked his hand through his hair. It had been years since he had given any thought to his rash words. He had been far too busy seeing to the tangle that was his own life. He’d had holdings to see to, a short, disastrous marriage to endure, then months to spend living in his own private hell as he recovered from the sabotage which had cost him so dearly.
Then had come the fateful visit from one of William’s guardsmen. Edward had arrived half a year ago and given Christopher the tale of William’s death—and the sounds of beatings that echoed in the stillness of the night at Warewick.
And of Gillian’s attempts at pretending she wasn’t the recipient of those beatings.
Christopher forced himself to release the arms of his chair, then flexed his fingers. It wasn’t wise to let the tidings affect him so deeply. What went on at Warewick wasn’t anything that didn’t happen frequently in the whole of England. Christopher himself had endured several choice beatings at his father’s hands.
But he had given William his word and William had called him on the bargain. His damnable honor had risen up like fat to the top of soup and he had choked on it. He had fought for air for almost half a year after William’s death before giving in and sending his messenger to Warewick with his offer.
He had known he wouldn’t be refused. As far as he knew there wasn’t another man in the realm who would take Gillian’s dowry, something he had no use for. Her gold could be spent in one trip to market. Braedhalle, her dower estate, was the most pitiful, overworked, barren bit of soil he had ever seen. Add that to her lack of beauty and it was a wonder Warewick hadn’t packed her off to a convent years ago. Nay, not even the Church would have taken her. In their eyes, she had no value at all.
Christopher rose with a curse. As if he cared what anyone thought of the girl! The Church likely had reason for not wanting her. What would they want with a child who possessed neither beauty nor wealth?
He strode across the hall, wanting nothing more than to escape his thoughts. He had done the honorable thing and sent for her. He would wed her and give her the protection of his name. His word was fulfilled and now he could turn his mind to other things.
Without warning, he smacked his shin smartly against the end of a bench and gasped out a curse.
“Who put this here?” he bellowed.
“I beg your pardon, milord,” a timid female voice answered. “I moved it to clean the hearth and forgot to move it back.”
“Don’t forget again,” Christopher snarled and marched across the rushes. He marched carefully, though. His shin smarted worse than his pride, and that was smarting mightily at the moment.
He stepped outside the hall and a chill breeze caught him full in the face. It cleared his head far better than Jason’s brew had. He moved over to the bench that sat near the door to the great hall, probing for it unobtrusively with his uninjured leg. Upon successfully finding it, he lowered himself with a sigh. The wall at his back was cold and the early spring sun a poor warmth; but he didn’t care. He fixed a grim look to his face, one that was guaranteed to insure privacy. And with his precious privacy, he made a list of what he would not do.
He wouldn’t let Gillian disrupt his life. He would bed her a time or two, get her with child, then never speak to her again. That was the only way to assure she didn’t steal his heart, then rend it in twain.
He would also hide his flaw from her. She, like most of his household, would never know just how badly he had been injured.
Christopher sighed at the interruption. “Aye, Jason.”
“I’ve the missive you dictated to my sire, informing him of your coming nuptials. It requires your signature.”
“Bloody Hell, I’m occupied now.” Saints above, would this farce of a marriage never cease to disturb his peace?
“It will take but a moment, my lord. I’ve everything needful on this board: ink, a quill, and wax. And you wear the proper ring.”
Christopher felt the indentations on the ring he wore. “I knew that, Jason.”
“Of course, my lord. ’Twas merely a tactic to convince you of the ease of the task.”
“I don’t want things that are easy, damn you!”
There was silence.
“A poor choice of words,” Jason said softly. “I only meant that it would be quick and painless, not that it was simple.”
“Aye, I know,” Christopher said, with a deep sigh. “My growls are just growls, lad, and not meant as censure. Here, give me what I need.”
Jason set the small board on Christopher’s lap and put the parchment atop it.
“At the bottom, my lord. On your right hand.”
“In the usual place,” Christopher observed dryly.
“You like things to be orderly. I try to humor you as I may.”
Christopher felt a smile tug at his mouth. If there was anyone who could charm him out of his foul mood, it was his squire.
“Such cheek from such a wee lad,” he said. “Perhaps we’ll wrestle after I finish this great, imposing task, and I will repay you for using me as sport.”
“I would relish the challenge, my lord.”
Christopher felt for the edges of the missive, then lifted the quill.
“A bit more to the left,” Jason murmured, so softly that Christopher barely heard him, “and up. Aye, that’s it.”
Christopher signed his name carefully, then lifted the quill. It was taken out of his hand and he heard Jason brush sand across the parchment. It was rolled, then Jason swore.
“Bloody Hell,” he muttered, with the same inflection Christopher always used. “The wax never goes where I want it to.” He was silent for a moment or two more as he worked with the missive. “Here, now, my lord. ’Tis ready.” He took Christopher’s hand and guided it to the parchment. “Hold but for a moment. Aye, well done. With your leave, I’ll deliver this to the messenger, then return for your sport.”
Christopher nodded and waved the lad away, unable to speak. Life was a bitter taste in his mouth. He couldn’t swallow past it, couldn’t spit it out, couldn’t drink to cover it up. As with his affliction, life was something he couldn’t escape.
Saints, what would Gillian think when she learned?
GILLIAN HAD BEEN CURIOUS AT FIRST, WHEN SHE COULD see only a speck in the distance that Colin assured her was indeed Blackmour. She had envisioned a humble place, likely smaller than her own home, and rather more primitive. After all, it was rumored to be only a few days’ ride from the Scottish border.
But now, as she sat but a few hundred paces from the outer walls, she realized just how wrong she had been.
Blackmour was enormous. It was a grim fortress that sat so far on the edge of the land that she fancied it ran the tremendous risk of slipping over the cliff and plunging into the sea—though how anything so large could have ever been moved she didn’t know.
The first line of defense was a tall, smooth wall topped with unfriendly arrow slits. She watched the weak sunlight glint off the helmets of the guards who walked the walls, guards whose eyes searched out the landscape for any who might attempt entrance without permission. The drawbridge yawned open as she approached and a heavy portcullis was raised, its steel-tipped spikes hanging threateningly over the pathway through the tunnel.
She reined in her mount and simply stared at what was going to become her home. How would she ever survive a lifetime in this gloomy place? From what she could see of it, the inner wall was no less tall than the outer and it boasted not only arrow slits but fixtures for the dropping of boiling oil onto whatever army dared topple the outer walls. Gillian suspected no foe ever saw the inner walls, much less stood underneath them to be boiled alive.
She blinked, startled from her contemplation of her new prison, and looked at Colin. “Aye?”
“We’ll stop again in the inner bailey and you’ll look to your heart’s content. I’ll not linger outside the walls.”
Gillian nodded and followed his horse up the final distance to the outer bailey wall. Her eyes adjusted readily to the darkness of the long tunnel under the wall and she suddenly found a strange comfort in knowing that the outer defenses were so thick. If nothing else, Christopher of Blackmour would keep her safe.
But that also meant that if no one could get in, she wouldn’t be able to get out. Merciful saints above!
She only realized she had jerked on her reins when her horse reared.
“Whoa!” Colin exclaimed.
Without warning, he scooped Gillian off her saddle with one arm and set her down sideways behind him.
“Peter, see to her mount. Do not look down, lady. I’ll not have you send us both into the abyss with your screaming.”
Abyss? She looked down to her left and stifled a cry. They were nigh onto crossing the bridge that spanned the short distance from the whole of England and what she could see was the lamentably small island that served as Blackmour’s foundations. She clutched the back of Colin’s cloak as his surefooted mount trotted over the heavy stone bridge. In truth, the span was large and sturdy, but that knowledge didn’t convince her to loosen her grip. The slightest misstep would have plunged them over into the sea.
“You never said it was perched out here on nothing,” she ventured, clinging to fistfuls of Colin’s cloak and praying she could keep her tenuous seat atop the horse’s rump.
“A fine aerie for the Dragon of Blackmour, is it not?”
She could have sworn he was laughing, for his voice quavered just the slightest bit. She, however, saw nothing humorous about the Dragon’s choice of nests.
“If one doesn’t care for great tracts of land surrounding one’s home,” she muttered under her breath.
“Nay, lady,” Colin said, “Blackmour suits those of us who live here perfectly. Christopher employs his own guard year-round and his men have grown accustomed to the lack of land about the walls. This isle is far larger than it looks at first glance, so you needn’t fear for places to roam. You’ll see that for yourself soon enough and no doubt find it to your liking.
“Of course,”—he cleared his throat suddenly and made a few gruff noises—“I couldn’t care less if you like it or not. And I’ll surely not have any time to show it to you. You’ll see it or not by yourself.”
Gillian pretended not to notice the slip in Colin’s ruthlessness. It wasn’t the first time it had happened. Though he’d complained loudly about every stop he had called for her sake, he had called them often and ignored her protests that she was managing well enough with his brisk pace. It was difficult to believe that a man of Colin of Berkhamshire’s reputation could possess any sort of kindness, but she couldn’t deny what she had seen. A pity her future husband was a sorcerer and would possess no kindness whatsoever. No warlock did. All the gentler emotions were burned out of them in the course of their mastery of the darker arts.
She forced thoughts of Lord Christopher’s evil habits out of her mind as they rode out into the inner bailey. It did no good to think on what he was, for it would only increase her fear. She already had enough of that, and to spare.
She stared at the lists on her left. Mailed men currently trained with their weapons of war. The men trained very hard—likely in fear of incurring Blackmour’s wrath. She would have trained just as hard in their place.
The lists gave way to a smaller wall that surrounded the inner courtyard. Smaller was, of course, an understatement. Indeed, all of Blackmour seemed to make a mockery of her home, a place she had considered quite large and fine.
Tucked into one corner of this smaller courtyard was the great hall. A chapel huddled a ways away from it, along with a garrison hall and, further still, the stables. A modest garden sat between the great hall and the chapel. A pity she would never know the peace of sitting amidst the herbs and dreaming.
Colin dismounted at the steps to the great hall, then held up his hands for her. She was deposited on her feet and commanded to enter the hall.
Gillian paused at the threshold, wondering if it were too late to turn and bolt.
She turned away, and her nose made immediate contact with Colin’s broad chest. He put his hands on her shoulders and turned her back around to face the gaping hole of the hall doorway.
“Courage, my lady.”
If she’d had courage, she would have drawn Colin’s sword and run him through, then escaped on his horse.
But she was a coward.
So she crossed the threshold.
• • •
CHRISTOPHER CONCENTRATED ON COUNTING THE FINAL steps down to the great hall. He seldom miscounted and usually descended them with a confident air. Now he crept along like a bastard son of the lowliest tanner, afraid of even his own shadow. Ten-and-six, ten-and-seven, ten-and-eight. He inched the toe of his boot forward and encountered nothing but solid ground. He cursed under his breath. What had ever possessed him to offer for her? He was a fool!
He hadn’t been waiting in the hall when she had arrived, though he’d been kept abreast of the happenings. Jason had been run ragged trying to see to Gillian’s comfort and appease Christopher’s demands for tidings at the same time. But the lad was young; he would bear up well enough under the strain.
The one person Christopher hadn’t talked to was Colin and he was furious about it. He had sent Jason down with explicit instructions that Colin present himself with all due haste. Colin had sent word back that he couldn’t possibly leave Gillian alone and if Christopher wanted to talk to him, he could bloody well haul his stubborn arse below to do it. There were times Christopher wondered why in hell’s name he had ever saved Colin’s sorry neck in the battle of Coyners. He was even sorrier that Colin was his brother-in-law and not his vassal. It made ordering him about nigh onto impossible.
Now, hours later, Christopher stood unwillingly at the bottom of his stairs, wondering why he found himself in this pitiful state.
He listened to the sounds in the great hall, trying to divine where everyone was. There was the usual racket from the kitchen: pots being washed, servants gossiping, kitchen lads being slapped and scolded for stealing treats. He heard the scrape of wood against stone as the trestles were dragged across the floor to the wall. A man laughed and others joined him. He heard Colin’s booming curses, but he did not hear a woman’s voice.
Yet he knew she was there. The hall smelled different. The faintest scent of roses drifted toward him.
“Gillian,” he barked.
The splat of wine and the ping of a silver goblet hitting the stone floor told him he hadn’t been mistaken. He could have sworn he heard her teeth begin to chatter.
“Come here,” he commanded.
He heard Jason murmur soothingly and heard a chair graze the stone. He held out his hand, waiting for her to come put hers in it. Her shuffling step stopped; then cold fingers came to rest on his palm.
She was terrified. He could feel it in the chill of her skin and the way her hand trembled against his.
“Jason, she should be sitting closer to the fire,” Christopher rumbled. “Her lips are blue.”
That was a flash of inspiration. Her hands were freezing; her lips would surely be blue.
“Forgive me, my lord.”
Her voice was whispery soft and tinged with terror. Christopher dropped her hand immediately and felt for the wall behind him. The saints help him, he was going to do something absurd, like haul her into his arms to comfort her. He backed up until his heels hit the bottom step.
“We’ll wed at noon, five days hence. Do not make me wait when the time comes. I am not a patient man.”
With that, he turned and walked back up the steps, concentrating on nothing but their number. He sighed as he reached the top, then went stumbling forward before he realized he had miscounted. He caught himself heavily with one leg, the impact shooting pains up through his foot to his hip.
“Bloody Hell,” he muttered under his breath. He straightened, hoping no one had seen him, and continued on his way to his chamber.
Once there, he closed the door and made his way to the hearth. The lit candle was exactly where it always was and he started a fire quickly with the peat and kindling. He wrapped up in a fur and sat down with a deep sigh. The chill dampness of the ocean rarely bothered him, but tonight was different. The chill was in his heart. A few days ago, he’d complained loudly about what little Gillian had to offer him. Now he began to realize just how little he had to offer her.
A wet nose nudged his hand and Christopher sighed again as he scratched his favorite hound behind the ears.
“Women,” Christopher muttered. “Wolf, my friend, keep yourself away from them. They’ll cause you naught but grief.”
Wolf growled softly and licked Christopher’s hand. Christopher ruffled the hound’s fur as he turned his face back to the warmth of the fire. There was much to be done in preparation for the ceremony. He knew he wouldn’t be so fortunate as to have Warewick decide not to appear at his daughter’s wedding. Nay, the man would come to gloat, if nothing else. After all, he was gaining a tie to Blackmour and all that went with it. A tenuous tie, to be sure. If Warewick thought to form any kind of friendly alliance, he was deluding himself.
Wolf lifted his head suddenly. Christopher stiffened along with him at the sound of a soft footfall behind him. He hadn’t heard the door open. Thinking deeply behind an unbolted chamber door was never wise.
Wolf growled low in his throat, which narrowed down drastically who the caller could be. Wolf accepted few people: Jason, Colin and Christopher’s captain, Ranulf. Anyone else was considered a threat and treated accordingly.
“Who is it?” Christopher asked, not turning his head.
“Janet, my lord. Master Jason thought you might be wanting something to eat.”
“Put it on the table.” He waited until he heard the sound of a wooden trencher being set down and the girl’s footsteps retreating before he rose and bolted his bedchamber door.
Christopher forced himself to eat, though he had no appetite. Aye, ’Twas the thought of marriage that soured him so on the idea of food. A pity just keeping Gillian at Blackmour wouldn’t be sufficient to keep her safe. Marriage it had to be.
Christopher put the trencher down on the floor and let the enormous black hound finish the meal. He couldn’t bear the smell.
Rising abruptly, he walked over to the alcove and threw open the shutters, letting the chill sea breeze wash over him. Saints, he didn’t want a wife! Gillian would expect civility, perhaps even kindness, and he had none of either to give. His heart was cut off from those foolish feelings just as surely as his keep was severed from the rest of England. He had no desire to change things.
Why should he? Life had dealt him the crudest of blows. How could anyone expect him to bestir himself to care for another soul? He had his hands full with Jason and the running of his household. He had no need of any more complications.
And if it weren’t for his damnable honor, he wouldn’t be contemplating the thought of facing a priest with a woman by his side for the second time in his miserable life.
He closed the shutters with a bang, then turned and strode across the chamber. He snatched up his sword and stalked out into the passageway, feeling the intense need to cut something to ribbons. Perhaps a few hours in the tower chamber would take his mind off what his vow would demand he do five days hence.
What a perfect waste of a man’s energy.
GILLIAN SAT IN HER CHAMBER, CHILLED TO THE BONE. She had risen at dawn, dressed, then remained where she was. There was no sense in giving up the safety of a barred door, though the necessity of that was still in question. Lord Christopher had taken one look at her and fled back up the stairs, surely to retch over her ugliness in private. It was unlikely he would seek her out and she couldn’t have been happier about it. She hadn’t seen his horns the night before, but then again, she hadn’t had much of a look at him.
A soft knock sounded on the door and she jumped. She wiped her suddenly damp palms on her skirts and crossed to the door.
“Aye?” she asked hesitantly.
“Lady Gillian, ’tis Jason. I’ve come to fetch you down to break your fast.”
Gillian hesitated. What fate awaited her below? Would Lord Christopher be there? Would he beat her in front of the servants to show them her place from the start?
“My lady,” Jason said, “should you fear Sir Colin’s poor manners at the table, there is no need. He and my lord are shouting at each other in the lists and will likely remain there for the rest of the day. You may come eat in peace.”
Gillian opened the door slowly and looked out. Jason made her a low bow and smiled. Gillian returned his smile, albeit shakily. Jason of Artane seemed to be a sweet, gentle boy and she wondered what had possessed his father to send him to squire with a monster like Christopher of Blackmour.
“Come now, lady,” Jason said, offering his arm. “My lord gave me leave to eat with you and I never forgo the pleasure of serving a comely maid. Then, if it pleases you, I will show you about the castle.”
She nodded and took his proffered arm. If Jason noticed her hesitancy in doing so, he hid it well. He kept up a steady stream of chatter as he descended before her down to the great hall. Gillian paid little heed to Jason’s words; she was far too busy gaping at her surroundings. In her fear the day before, she hadn’t had the stomach to do more than stare at the floor and pray for deliverance. Now she wondered how she could possibly have been so distracted that she didn’t mark anything about her new home.
Blackmour’s great hall was the finest thing she had ever seen. It made her father’s small hall, with its fire in the midst of the floor and the thick smoke clogging the air, seem barbaric. Lord Christopher’s hall boasted four hearths set into the walls, with flues to carry the smoke outside. Gillian could actually look up and see the ceiling.
Not only was there a great lack of smoke inside, there was light from windows set up high in the walls. The weak spring sunlight filtered in and was absorbed by the fine tapestries lining the walls. It must have taken a score of seamstresses years to complete those hangings. Oh, how much she had missed in never having seen aught but her father’s house! Either all of England was much richer than her sire, or Christopher of Blackmour had more gold at his disposal than the king.
The meal was certainly the finest she had ever been served. There was white bread and tasty porridge in abundance, though she ate little of it. She had intended to use it to shore up her strength, but after the first time a knight had come bursting into the hall, she remembered again just what her situation was: She was a prisoner in the Bane of Blackmour’s keep. The saints only knew what torments he had planned for her. Terror lodged in her throat, making it impossible to swallow her meal.
Jason, though, seemed to have no fear of his surroundings, if the relish with which he attacked his food was any indication. Then again, a lad of some ten-and-six years likely never let anything get in the way of filling his belly.
She jumped when she found he was looking at her. His brow was furrowed.
“The fare doesn’t please you? Shall I call for something else?”
She shook her head quickly. “’Tis wondrous, truly.”
“Then why don’t you eat, my lady? You’re powerfully thin.”
“Gillian picked up a bit of bread and ate obediently. There was no sense in offending her future husband by having him learn she hadn’t partaken of his food. She wouldn’t give him reason to beat her—more reason than he would find on his own.
“Perhaps you would care for a bit of air?” Jason asked.
Leave the great hall? Venture out into the same place where Blackmour might be roaming? She felt her chest tighten and her breath begin to come in gasps.
“I couldn’t disturb His Lordship,” she managed.
“I spoke of the battlements,” Jason said. “’Twill give you a commanding view of the surroundings. I daresay Sir Colin didn’t allow you much time to look about.”
Gillian felt some of her fear diminish. Perhaps she could manage the battlements. If Christopher and Colin were in the lists, she would be safe above.
She nodded and then allowed Jason to help her up from her chair.
“I always go up to the battlements when I’m allowed time for myself,” he said, as he walked before her up the steps.
“The view is so fine?”
Jason grinned. “Nay, I know that ’tis the one place I am safe from Sir Colin and his foul temper.”
“And why is that?”
“He is terrified of being much further off the ground than where being atop his steed places him.”
Gillian blinked, surprised. Then she smiled. The thought of the fierce and intimidating Colin of Berkhamshire being afraid of such modest heights was the most ridiculous thing she had ever heard. Why, even she had felt no fear when gazing down at the courtyard from her tower window at Warewick. Well, that was certainly something to remember the next time the man frowned at her to frighten her.
“I tease Sir Colin when I can,” Jason continued, “by inviting him to come up and scout with me, telling him that my lord finds it too menial a task for himself. ’Tis usually at that moment that something pressing requires his immediate attention. I try not to laugh, but I usually can’t help myself.” He grinned again. “If I’m quick enough, I can flee to the battlements and escape his wrath, though he usually lies in wait for me below. A lad can only haunt the walls for so long before hunger drives him to descend.”
Gillian froze in midstep. “He beats you then?”
“Of course not, my lady,” Jason said, a puzzled frown crossing his brow. “He wouldn’t dare. I belong to my lord Christopher and Sir Colin would surely answer to him if he took sport of me. That isn’t to say,” he added, with the twinkle back in his eye, “that he doesn’t propose a wrestle now and then. He does his bloody best to crush the life from me, but I relish that challenge. There are few who face Colin of Berkhamshire and live to tell the tale.”
“And your lord?”
“Even fewer, my lady, even fewer. Know you nothing of him?”
“Just rumors,” Gillian said as she resumed the climb. “I know little of the world outside my home. This journey was the first I’d ever made out of the inner bailey.”
“I see. Then perhaps ’tis best that I leave you to form your own opinions. Here we are at the door. You aren’t afraid to go out, are you?”
She shook her head in answer.
“We’ll make the circle then,” Jason said, taking her arm and leading her over to one wall. “This wall faces west, over the baileys and inland.”
Gillian looked down over the courtyard and saw the chapel and other outbuildings housing the smiths and such. Outside the courtyard wall the bailey was full of merchants milling about, dogs barking, men cursing, horses stomping and pawing the earth. The sound of hammer against anvil rang out in the morning air, mingling with the other sounds of castle life. It was a bit like Warewick; only here it seemed wilder, more untamed. The peasants at her father’s hall lived in terror of attracting the lord’s gaze. These souls either didn’t care or were of much bolder stock, for they didn’t cower.
In the lists mailed knights jousted, men fought with swords; still others wrestled with their mates or trained their mounts. Gillian looked for Christopher but couldn’t mark him. From what Jason had said, she should have been able to hear him shouting at Colin from where she stood.
Jason took her hand and led her to the north wall.
“Scotland is to your left, though many leagues away. My home is also north, on the edge of the sea as is Blackmour, though Artane is not perched up on a bit of rock as we are now.”
“Do you miss your family?” she asked, looking into his pale gray eyes.
He smiled. “Aye, I do. But I see them now and then. My father comes two or three times a year to assure himself that I haven’t driven Lord Christopher daft. I am sent home each summer to present myself to my mother and prove that I am behaving as I should. But I return to Blackmour willingly. I am the youngest son and have no title, though my father has vowed to be most generous with his lands. In truth, I don’t know if I want them. My lord has need of me yet and he will see that I lack for nothing.” He smiled again and shrugged. “I am content.”
With a beast like Blackmour? Gillian couldn’t believe it. Perhaps the lad was more innocent than she thought.
“And now for the east. This is what I come to look at when I make the climb. You’ve never seen the sea truly, have you?”
She shook her head.
“Then close your eyes and let me lead you. Never fear, I am quite adept at this.”
Gillian clutched his arm and followed him, stealing looks down at her feet as they went. Her trust only went so far.
Jason stopped and placed her hands on the wall.
She lifted her head and gasped in surprise, then backed away from the wall. Jason grabbed her arm and jerked her back from the edge of the parapet.
“Careful,” he exclaimed. “Hold onto the wall, my lady. My lord would have me flogged if aught happened to you.”
Gillian peeked over the wall and flinched as a wave crashed against the cliff below her. The sea surged and billowed, throwing itself against Blackmour’s foundations. The white spray erupted below her with a fierceness that frightened her. How puny and weak a mere mortal woman was when compared to the savage forces of nature. She clutched the cold stone wall in an effort to reassure herself that she wouldn’t tumble forward and become swept away by the violence of the waves.
And slowly, in spite of her unease, she fell under the sea’s spell. The ebb and return of the waves was hypnotic, teasing her into a strange, fragile sense of peace. At that moment she knew, beyond all reason, that her entire life had been naught but waiting for this, for the sea and for this place, this gloomy keep perched atop its steep cliff, pounded by the elements until it was weathered and beaten. Blackmour took that pounding and survived it. Gillian doubted that anything could ever tear down the keep beneath her. And in that strength was power. She felt it as surely as if it reached up through the rocks and grasped her in its embrace. Aye, nothing would ever shatter this keep. If anything, a man would break himself against it in the attempt.
And now this bleak, weathered place was to be her home for the rest of her life. She tightened her grip on the stone wall. The fierce beauty of the sea below her was almost enough to convince her to stay. To be allowed to look on that sight each day would be a great pleasure and she had had so few pleasures in her life. Perhaps the sea would be recompense for being wed to Christopher of Blackmour.
Fear slithered down her spine. How could the sea possibly soothe her if it were viewed from Blackmour’s tower chamber, the hellish place where he worked his dark arts? Would she see the waves one last time before he raised his knife and—
“South is next,” Jason said softly, interrupting her thoughts. “The view is less fine, just the sea and a bit of land. I prefer the ruggedness of the north myself so I don’t often look south.”
Gillian took a deep breath to calm her pounding heart.
“London is south,” she said, looking at Jason. “Isn’t it?”
“Aye, London is south.”
Gillian nodded, swallowing with difficulty. At least she knew in which direction she should flee.
“I think I’ve seen enough,” she managed. “Would you take me back now?”
“Wouldn’t you care to see the rest of the keep?” Jason asked.
She shook her head, praying she could keep her tremors at bay until she was safely locked behind her chamber door. There was no sense in letting Blackmour hear how terrified she was. It would only give him pleasure.
“As you wish, then, my lady,” Jason said, with a bow.
He led her back to her chamber, built up the blaze in her hearth and left only after she assured him she truly wished to rest after her journey. Once she had bolted the door, she changed her clothes and dug in her trunk for her sword. Practicing her skills against imaginary opponents was a twofold blessing. It would take her mind off her fear and also sap her strength enough that she would sleep soundly. She knew she would be wise to sleep while she had the chance. It would be only during the dead of night that she would be able to escape Blackmour and she wanted no weariness to hinder her when the opportunity to flee arose.
The feel of cold steel in her hand caught and held her attention. She sized up her unseen opponent and began to work, watching for the inevitable false move that would give his weakness away.
• • •
GILLIAN TURNED OVER ONTO HER SIDE, SEEKING A comfortable position. After a few moments, she gave up and rose from the bed, shivering. She looked in trunks, under the bed, behind tapestries. Fruitless. What fool had decided that leaving her without a chamber pot would be fine sport? She drew her cloak around her and contemplated the heavy wooden door. It was either leave her chamber and seek out a garderobe or remain bolted inside and suffer.
Another cramp in her belly told her that suffering wasn’t an alternative. She took her courage in hand and unbolted her door as softly as she could, which was very softly indeed. The door made no sound as she opened it and slipped out into the passageway.
Finding a garderobe at her father’s house had never been difficult. Even if she hadn’t known where they were, she could have found them by following her nose. Her father never emptied the cesspit unless it was nigh to backing back up the shaft and spilling out into his passageways.
Blackmour was, as in all other things, completely different from her home. Gillian walked until she was weak, seeking nothing but relief. It was only by sheer luck that she opened a door and saw the moonlight coming in the window slit.
She saw to her needs, then stepped out into the passageway. She’d become so turned about that she had to stop and give serious thought as to where she had come from. She looked to her left, then looked to her right.
That was when she saw the shadows dancing along the wall.
It was as if her eyes were possessed by a contrary spirit. The very saints in heaven knew she didn’t want to look up, but she was powerless to stop herself. There, to her right, was a stairwell. There was obviously someone in the chamber at the top, for the light was coming from above.
But it was a tower chamber.
Christopher of Blackmour’s tower chamber.
She wanted to flee back to her chamber, but her feet seemed to have something else in mind. Before she could stop them, they were carrying her toward the steps. Then she found herself climbing those steep steps. Her breath came in harsh gasps, her body trembled. She had no desire to see what the tower contained, no matter what her feet seemed to think about the matter. She already knew what awaited her above. It was Lord Christopher, practicing his dark arts.
She clapped her hand over her mouth as she climbed up to the landing. The tower door was ajar. Faint light spilled out, sending shadows flickering along the stone.
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