Of Mist and Shadow--
Volume one of the Noble Hearts Series
A medieval adventure filled will
noble hearts, dark deeds,
and a love too deep to be denied . . .
When I was a girl, I loved Saturday afternoon television. Saturday morning cartoons were great, but in the afternoon, the networks would broadcast what have now become classic movies. I was mad for the swashbucklers. The Spanish Main with Maureen O'Hara and Paul Henreid, The Adventures of Robin Hood and Captain Blood with Errol Flynn, The Vikings with Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis--these films filled me with vicarious excitement as I, curled up safe and cozy on my living room sofa, delighted in romantic pirate adventures or tales of sword-wielding knights and their ladies fighting for an honorable cause. Oh, to be living a life in sweet jeopardy.
These stories inspired me to write Of Mist and Shadow, my take on a medieval adventure of passion and honor, with a little pride and prejudice thrown in for good measure. In romantic tradition, the hero is handsome and strong and, while acting with the noblest of intentions, doesn't know quite as much as he thinks he does. The heroine is at the same time capable and delightfully naive, yet ardent in her principles. The villain (of course, there has to be a dastardly villain) is dangerously wicked, yet intriguingly attractive to those unaware of his dark deeds.
I hope Of Mist and Shadow will sweep you away to a faraway land filled with suspense and romance and ideals worth fighting for--just like those classic movies that inspired it.
Read on for a sample of--
Of Mist and Shadow
© 2015 by Lu Erickson
Of Mist and Shadow
© 2015 by Lu Erickson
Lockshire, England, Spring 1173
Gwendolyn Greyson sat at the writing desk in the solitude of her bedchamber, a frown of concentration constricting her features as she tallied the remaining stores of grain. Last year had been a lean one, and as mistress of Lockshire it was her responsibility to ensure that current supplies would see her people through until harvest. If she were prudent, all should be--
"M'lady!" Edwina cried, running wild-eyed into the bedchamber.
Gwendolyn Greyson dropped the quill and rose quickly from the desk. "What is it? What's happened?"
"'Tis bandits!" Edwina wailed. "They'll murder us all!"
Gwendolyn rushed to the window. From her third-story vantage point, an emerald vista stretched to the edge of the surrounding woodland. In the center, a band of riders marred the verdant scene, moving swiftly up the road toward the manor house.
Gwendolyn laid a reassuring hand on Edwina's shoulder. "Hush, now. All will be well." Yet her mind filled with scorched images of neighboring Kirkby. The village had been razed two months past, its inhabitants slaughtered and its crops and cottages torched. The culprits remained unapprehended and unidentified, yet Gwendolyn had her suspicions.
She sped down the timber stairs with Edwina close on her heels. A scabbard hung on leather strips beside the front door. Gwen wrapped her fingers around the hilt of her father's dagger and slid it from its carved wooden sheath. It had been forged for stronger, more capable hands—hands that had comforted and protected her. But her father was gone now, and the fate of Lockshire rested solely upon her shoulders.
Meghan shuffled in from the kitchen, her black shawl tied snugly around her thin body. "What are you doing, child? You can't mean to face them!" The old nurse's gnarled fingers latched onto Gwendolyn's arm.
Gwendolyn turned to the woman who had cared for her with a mother's love, who in truth had been the only mother Gwendolyn had ever known. "I won't hide behind stone walls, leaving my people to fend for themselves."
"Don't be foolish! They'll strike you down!"
"Then I will fall protecting what Father entrusted to me."
"How many times have I cautioned you not to rush in before you think? Your impetuous soul will be your undoing. I beg you, darling girl, heed my warning."
Gwendolyn's heart fought with her head. She knew her odds of surviving this day were bleak. King Henry's redistribution of land to reward his supporters and punish those who'd betrayed him had resulted in homeless knights roaming the countryside, committing brutal devastation. Yet, if she, as mistress of Lockshire, did not make a stand, surely the village had no chance.
She hid the dagger within the folds of her gray wool gown, then looked from Meghan to Edwina. "Bolt the door behind me."
Tears pooled in Meghan's pleading eyes as Gwen steeled herself and walked from the manor house.
With her heart thudding in her ears, she descended the outer stone staircase into a maelstrom of dust and confusion. The manor dogs ran to and fro, frantically barking their warning and sending the chickens skittering and squawking away. The villeins scattered from the yard, tucking behind outbuildings or running to their shelters.
With pounding hoofbeats that shook the ground, six chain-mailed knights rode into the chaos. Their ominous presence sucked the air from Gwendolyn's lungs.
James, her estate manager, and Edmund, the village blacksmith, came to stand beside her. She welcomed their loyalty and steadfast support, but none of her people were battle-trained and would be of little help in the face of such a formidable force. She tightened her grip on the dagger.
The leader nudged his warhorse forward until she could feel the massive animal's hot breath graze her face. She pulled herself up to her full height and looked past the horse's scarred muzzle into the eyes of her enemy. He removed his helm. Dark, sweat-dampened hair fell in waves to his shoulders and a many-days growth of beard covered the lower half of his face. He scanned the yard with his mouth set firmly and his thoughts unreadable.
Gwendolyn swallowed hard as she awaited his words, words she feared would threaten everything she held dear.
But the man looked past her to James and Edmond, giving her as little notice as he might a pebble in his path. "Who is in charge here?" His voice echoed through the eerie stillness of the yard.
What? Was she invisible? Gwendolyn took a quick step around the horse's offending nose. "Is it not obvious who is mistress here? If you've anything to say, you'll say it to me."
The man leaned forward as if truly seeing her for the first time. He rested his forearm on the pommel of his saddle, and his hardened gaze bored into her for a long moment before he turned to the man beside him. The young knight, a slighter version of his lord, chuckled, and Gwendolyn saw the echoing twitch of a smile on the leader's lips.
The leader's gaze returned to her and traveled slowly down her body to the tip of her toes and back again to her eyes. "And who might you be?"
Gwendolyn cursed the heat rushing into her cheeks. "I see no reason to waste time on introductions, sir," she said, willing authority into her voice, "since you and your men will not be staying."
The man's smile deepened, displaying teeth made distinctly white in contrast to his dirt-covered face. "Come now, Lady, surely even in this God-forsaken outland, good English hospitality is still in order. We've been in the saddle many days and would appreciate whatever accommodation you could provide."
He swung his leg over his horse and slipped to the ground. Gwendolyn stepped back. Her gaze cut from his broad, chain-mailed chest to his predatory glare. Slate-blue eyes observed her keenly, and the smell of sweat, horseflesh, and leather met her nose.
She was a tall woman, accustomed to looking a man in the eye—by the saints, in her father's absence she had ably led the villeins of Lockshire, and they had followed her willingly, accepting her word as law. But this man made her feel small—and vulnerable.
Gwendolyn felt her courage slipping. She called upon the memory of her father and held it close, imagining his hand on her shoulder, guiding her, strengthening her. She reminded herself that he had entrusted Lockshire to her alone because he had believed her equal to the task. She would not disappoint him.
"I am not in the habit of offering hospitality to disinherited knights who roam the land setting fire to anything they cannot steal."
The man frowned. "What say you? Surely you can tell from our appearance we are hardly thieves. I am Aidan Blakeslee and this is my brother—"
"As I've said, there is no need for introductions, and as for your appearance, any manner of man could lurk under the road dust that covers the lot of you. The odor wafting off the lot of you announced your arrival well before you came into view."
The man eyed her as if she'd lost all sense, but his brother erupted in laughter. "She has you there, Aidan. There's no denying we're ripe as wallowing pigs."
The younger knight turned his attention to Gwendolyn. He prodded his horse forward and leaned down. "Our apologies, Lady," he said with a crooked grin. "We've been too many days in the saddle. Mayhap you might honor us by having a bath prepared. Is it not the duty of the manor's lady to see to the welfare of her guests?"
The leader's eyes warmed at his brother's suggestion and his mouth relaxed into a smile.
God's blood, they were laughing at her! She'd show them the price of patronizing the daughter of John Greyson. In a flash, she brought the tip of the dagger to the leader's throat.
Gwendolyn heard a collective gasp.
"M'lady!" James stepped beside her.
She prayed she'd not gone too far. But now that her blade rested against his skin, there was no help for her but to bluster down the path she'd chosen.
The spring breeze played about them, belying the tension filling the yard. The rustle of her skirts and the creak of leather as the knights shifted in their saddles were the only sounds to break the surrounding hush. Gwendolyn's anger had served her well, holding her trepidation at bay. But now, with each passing moment, she felt fear eroding her hard-won composure.
The man known as Aidan Blakeslee stood dark and forbidding, his gaze intense and strangely illuminated above the growth of dark beard and the dirt from his journey. The knife at his throat had extinguished any spark of humor or good will that had rested in his eyes.
"I assure you, Lady, I do not forget a blade drawn against me."
The controlled power in his voice made her tremble, threatening her grip as she awaited his next move. If he gave the command to cut her down, would she have the courage to drive home the dagger?
But his ensuing words were not directed to his men, but to her. "You say I am not welcome here, yet as I am lord of this property, that is hardly possible. Does not the lord say who is welcome and who is not?"
As Gwendolyn fought to grasp his meaning, he slipped a hand within his overtunic, withdrew a parchment tied to a large red seal, and held it out to her. "An order of the king, conveying this land to me."
Gwendolyn glanced to the document and back to the man. "What nonsense do you speak? This is Greyson land and has been for four generations."
"Read the order!"
She snatched it from him. The tip of the dagger slipped an inch as she shifted her gaze between the document and the knight. It appeared to be a deed, validated by King Henry's signature and royal seal, granting the property of Lockshire and all it held to the Earl of Faringdon, Aidan Blakeslee.
The implications of the order flooded through her. Was this man truly one of the king's earls? If so, she would be poorly matched to make her case as heiress of Lockshire. Or could it all be some calculated plot to cheat her of her inheritance?
She tossed the deed back at his chest, and by reflex alone he caught it. Tightening her grip on the dagger, she stood tall and met his gaze.
"I am Gwendolyn Greyson, daughter of the late Sir John Greyson, loyal knight and master builder to King Henry. My father intended this land and everything it holds to be mine." She paused, trying to buttress her composure, fighting the realization that she very possibly addressed an earl of the realm. "I do not know what manner of Norman scheme you have concocted here. But I assure you I have no intention of handing over my home and the home of my people based on the contents of a piece of parchment."
"And what do you and this impressive force assembled before us propose to do?" he asked dryly, dismissing with a wave of his hand the men at her side and the frightened villeins peeping from their hiding places. "Slit my throat and those of the five other knights before you? This land has been transferred by order of King Henry."
"Then return to the king and tell him he has made a mistake."
The man pressed his well-defined lips into a tight line. "Our king does not make mistakes."
"If you speak true, I can see no other explanation." Gwendolyn looked to the weapon she held in her hand. It would be of little use against one of Henry's own barons. Reluctantly, she lowered the blade and challenged him with a raised chin and narrowed gaze.
His features closed, his mouth hardened. "You cannot seriously mean to defy your king."
"My father was not only the king's master builder, but his friend as well. If indeed that order is by the king's hand, it is because circumstances have been misrepresented or he has been ill advised. There is nothing for you here, Lord Faringdon."
Their eyes held for a long moment. Abruptly, she turned and strode back toward the manor house. She passed Edmund standing with his mouth agape, looking much like a trout dressed out for evening meal.
Her mind was a war of information. The invaders were not bandits. Not the common kind, anyway. But highborn Norman men accustomed to having things however they willed it. They'd not come to destroy what belonged to her, but to take it—home, stock, and stores—all with the wave of a deed she had no way of validating.
As she neared the top of the outer staircase, she heard footfalls and realized James had followed.
The door to the manor house swung in. Meghan stood there, her cap askew over frizzy pewter curls, with her hand on the latch. "You are unharmed?" Relief filled her voice.
"Aye." Gwendolyn replied as she and James entered.
"Praise God! He has heard the prayers of an old woman. Come, child, come." Meghan moved to the table as fast as her old bones would take her. "Sit and tell us what has happened."
Edwina popped up from her hiding place behind an old trunk in the corner and rushed forward. "Aye, tell us all!"
"Arrogant bastard," Gwendolyn muttered as she paced the rush-covered floor, too stunned by what had passed in the yard to pay much heed to the women. Her hand strayed to the gold and ruby cross that hung from a long gold chain about her neck, and she worked it between her fingers.
"Are they the brigands, m'lady?" Edwina asked, her voice hardly more than a tremulous whisper. "Are they the ones who attacked Kirkby?"
Gwendolyn stopped before the window and gazed into the yard. Lord Faringdon had remounted and appeared to be giving orders to his men. He glanced to the manor house, and although it was unlikely he could make her out from that distance, she returned a deadly glare for good measure.
James put his hand on Edwina's shoulder. "If they were bandits, they would have come brandishing sword and torch, not a deed."
Gwendolyn turned to face them. "They claim to be gentlemen, and according to the deed they carry, have permission from the king to take all I have—a much more efficient way for noblemen to steal from those who don't have their advantage."
Edwina's gaze cut from her mistress to James and then to Meghan.
Meghan shrugged, and looking back to Gwendolyn, patted the top of the heavy planked table. "Come now. Sit and tell us all."
Gwendolyn gave up her pacing. "Their leader, an earl of the realm no less, if I can believe his claim, says he is now lord of this land." She dragged out the chair and plopped into it. The memory of the presumptuous Aidan Blakeslee, looking down his patrician nose, made her blood boil anew.
"I assure you the man is sadly mistaken if he thinks he can simply ride up to my gate and boot us out into the cold. It will take more than six irksome knights and a flawed claim to move me off this land."
"But an earl? What will happen to us?" Edwina asked, hugging herself tightly as she looked from Gwendolyn to the window. "Mayhap he is a cruel man who will beat us all."
"There is no use in thinking the worst." James placed his hands on his hips, accentuating the ample belly that pushed against the fabric of his tunic.
Gwendolyn's gaze shifted from James to Edwina. The maid's lack of faith in her ability to safeguard Lockshire pricked her pride. She'd given her heart and mind solely to the estate since the moment she'd been old enough to stand at her father's side. She'd absorbed his every word and watched his every deed while he directed the villeins, preparing the fields, ordering the planting, managing the stock, overseeing trade—in addition to nursing the sick and the domestic duties of the manor house. And once she'd reached an age, all decisions for Lockshire's welfare fell to her during her father's absences.
Yet, how will you outwit a highborn nobleman and his band of armed warriors? her inner voice challenged.
"James, what know you of Lord Faringdon?" Despite what the man claimed, mayhap this Aidan Blakeslee was a lesser knight out to further his position by deceit.
"I heard his name spoken once in the hall at Castle Carlisle. If the gossip is to be believed, Lord Faringdon distinguished himself on the field, fighting fearlessly. His knights turned the invasion of Brittany to King Henry's advantage. Now, he is one of the king's most favored knights, not only as a commander but in council chambers as well."
Gwendolyn felt herself deflating like air through a bellows. The situation was getting bleaker by the moment. "And his holdings?"
"His family has held the estate of Faringdon for many generations. I understand it is an immense and rich holding not far from Oxford." James rubbed the dark stubble on his chin. "Which makes me wonder why the king would bother him with a small property such as Lockshire and why Lord Faringdon would come himself to claim it."
"Surely there is some mistake," Meghan said. "Sir John would not have allowed this. He loved you as much as any man can love his child."
Gwendolyn exchanged a long look with Meghan, before sighing and resting her chin in her palm. "Aye, he was the dearest of fathers. And yet, we both know that I was not truly his." The thought had been nagging at her ever since Lord Faringdon had thrust the king's order under her nose. And now that she'd put it to words, doubt planted itself like a weed in her consciousness.
Meghan covered Gwendolyn's hand with her own. "You were his ward in name only, and you know none at Lockshire would challenge you as Sir John's true heir." The old nurse leaned closer. "Your father knew how much you loved this land. This is not his doing, child."
Gwendolyn wanted to believe that her father would have provided for her future in the event of his death. But such matters had a way of being put off until another day. How could one foresee a fatal weakness in a heart so big?
"Could the deed be false?" Edwina asked hopefully.
Gwendolyn straightened, recalling Henry's bold signature splashed across the bottom of the deed. She'd seen that signature before on the royal orders he'd signed for her father. "It would be madness to forge the king's signature, and as much as I wish it were not so, the seal did appear legitimate."
Meghan offered a comforting smile. "Surely 'tis all a misunderstanding."
"Aye, a misunderstanding of royal proportions," Gwendolyn replied as she watched Edwina sneak to the window and peer out.
"Are they still in the yard?" Gwendolyn asked.
"Aye. What a wicked, fearsome lot," she answered, her eyes riveted on the knights.
Gwendolyn joined Edwina at the window. The battle-clad knights were a fearsome lot indeed, mounted on their warhorses and heavily armed with broadsword and lance. Lord Faringdon gave one last glance toward the manor. He looked more the savage warrior than a highborn nobleman. His dark, untrimmed hair blew about his face, and his towering presence attested to his power.
The anger that had sustained her melted away, and she clasped her hands tightly at her chest. She watched the Earl spur his horse. The animal whirled and lunged away, and the other knights followed.
"Good riddance," she muttered, watching the villeins filter into the center of the yard. Gwendolyn could hear the buzz of their agitated conversation and see their pointing fingers and flailing arms as they recounted to each other the exchange between the intruders and their mistress. What would be their fate if Lord Faringdon proved successful in his claim? Perhaps Edwina had been right to question her ability to thwart such an imposing foe.
Gwendolyn shook her head and turned away. There was still the chance it was all a mistake. Aye, now that the interloper knew of her existence, he would return to Henry's court and discover he had been misdirected after all. But a nagging doubt told her it was more likely only the beginning of her dealings with Aidan Blakeslee, Lord of Faringdon, and very possibly, of Lockshire Manor.
As Aidan and his men reached the cover of the woods, he drew up his mount and turned to Sir Gavin. "Take the men and scout the surrounding area. Go, too, into the village. Keep your eyes and ears open for any news of the Scots moving through the borderlands. Be discreet. We'll learn more if we don't reveal our true intentions." Aidan gave a nod toward the manor house. "Kevin and I will remain here to deal with this unexpected turn in circumstances."
"If the Scottish devils are about," Sir Gavin replied, "we'll find them."
"If you do, do not harm them. Bring them to me immediately for questioning."
"Aye, m'lord." Gavin gazed past Aidan's shoulder. "Do you think the woman is truly the master builder's daughter?"
His words echoed Aidan's own thoughts. He had once met Sir Greyson at Henry's court to discuss the rebuilding of Dover Castle. He'd liked the man, and respected him for his knowledge of architecture and construction. But the conversation had never turned personal. Yet, wouldn't he have heard if the man had a daughter? God knew that every other noble maiden of marriageable age had been paraded under his nose.
"She certainly behaved like she owned the place," Aidan replied, following Gavin's gaze to the stately three-story stone house.
Sir Greyson had utilized his knowledge and talents well, building a strong stone structure where normally timber sufficed. Freshly plowed fields and a village of neat little cottages attested to its overseer's skill and competence.
Aidan scanned his surroundings. The remote Cumbrian town was perfectly situated for the mission Henry had given him. The possibility of a female heir was an inconvenience, but hardly insurmountable.
"Kevin and I will get to the bottom of it. Be back within five days. That should allow ample time for me to deal with Lady Greyson—if indeed she is Lady Greyson—and make arrangements for a place for you during your stay. When you return with your report, we'll decide how best to proceed."
"Aye, m'lord. God's peace." Gavin turned his horse and led the other knights into the dense woodland that edged the east boundary of Lockshire.
Aidan patted Draegon's neck, calming the great beast. He looked back across the field to the manor house. In his mind's eye he saw Lady Greyson striding toward him, her head held high, her hair glinting in the sun as if flecked with gold, and the fabric of her plain wool gown molding to her body in the warm spring breeze.
"You must be losing your appeal to the fairer sex," Kevin said, breaking into his reverie. "For a moment, I thought the lovely Lady Greyson might slit your throat."
Aidan waved away his brother's words. "Nay, her tongue was sharp, but her eyes held no real threat. The woman showed her mettle, though, facing us as she did."
"Do you think she's whom she claims?"
"She was quite splendid, don't you think? I saw your eyes resting on that fine backside of hers as she strode away in a huff."
Aidan would not be baited. "If she were Greyson's daughter, why would he not have provided for her?"
"And that hair," Kevin persisted, a mischievous glint in his eye. "Can you not see it spread out beneath her on the bed furs?"
"You are like a gnat buzzing in my ear," Aidan replied with a scowl. "Tell me, if Greyson had such a daughter, why would he hide her away in the North Country, miles from anywhere when she could fetch much by way of a dower portion?"
"So many questions, and yonder fair Gwendolyn holds all the answers. Why did you not pursue her? Come, we could still follow and beg a meal."
"Nay, an hour of daylight remains. We'll take a turn around the property and see how best to set up watch."
Kevin huffed. "God's blood, my arse has all but grown roots into this damned saddle. Can we not take a short break from King Henry's lofty business?" He looked more like a lad of ten than the twenty-two-year-old knight that he was. "We could find some wenches and wine in the village, and pursue a little business of our own." His mouth turned up on one side. "Mayhap you could persuade the lovely Lady Gwendolyn to join us."
Aidan turned to his brother and grinned. "I take my women a bit more on the congenial side, thank you. But judging from the way she handled that dagger, she might prove a worthy match for you on the battlefield, little brother."
Kevin scoffed. "It is not of the battlefield I'm thinking, and neither are you, I'll wager."
"I assure you I'm thinking of nothing more than accomplishing the mission we were sent to do." Yet, in his thoughts rose the memory of the lady's softly curved mouth and the way her breasts strained against the fabric of her gown as she'd gathered her courage and straightened her shoulders to face him. If allowed, a woman such as Lady Greyson could become an intriguing distraction. But he chose not to share his opinion with his younger brother, whose over-active imagination needed little encouragement.
With much effort, Aidan pushed the engaging vision aside. He had more important matters on his mind than enticing women and country dalliances. He cast his gaze from the rose glow of the sun's last remaining rays north to Scotland. Times were restless and the smell of treason sickened the air.