Excerpt: This Is All I Ask

Excerpt: This Is All I Ask

The de Piaget Family

Chapter One

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 of 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.

“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 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 relieve him of his mail and donned it herself.

The man made her father a low 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 has 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 up 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.

“Harrumph,” 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 her 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 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 tall 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 of 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 didn’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 misfortune arrive at Blackmour, she had no intention of anyone knowing 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 ever 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 bend 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 suit your finicky tastes?”

Gillian could not 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 the 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 even offered for her out of affection, or even lust.

She was going to the Dragon of Blackmour.