New cover of Dark Champion

Excerpt from Dark Champion,

    Imogen of Carrisford stood in the dark cold, shivering at the muted sounds of horror. Even here in her castle's secret ways, she could not escape the distant clash of arms, the howls of battle rage, the frantic bellowed orders and screams of terror.
     Screams of death.
    The clamor told of horrors beyond her imagining but her small spy hole revealed only the beautiful great hall of Carrisford Castle, empty, untouched, and gilded by torch and candle light. The only violence there was in the precious wall hangings, where silken warriors fought with gilded swords.
     The trestles had been broken down after the evening meal but the mighty oaken high table sat in its place with the two solid great chairs behind it. Her father's chair and her own.
    Her father was dead.
    A flagon of wine and some goblets told of the meeting so rudely disturbed. She and her father's officers had been making sad but orderly plans for the future. One silver goblet lay on its side, red wine soaking into the wood and dripping slowly down onto the rush mats.
    The only sign of disarray.
    The peaceful, familiar chamber tempted her out of her dank hiding place but she stayed. Sir Gilbert de Valens, her father's marshal, had thrust her into the secret space between the walls and bade her stay there at all costs. The invaders -- whoever they were -- had surely come for one thing only.
     The Treasure of Carrisford.
    Heiress to all her father's vast wealth and properties.
    The secret way was narrow, only wide enough for most men to pass sideways. Though Imogen was not as large as most men her body sometimes brushed the outer wall, and the dampness which seeped through the massive stones crept chillingly into her gown.
    Or perhaps the chill came from terror.
    Or perhaps it came just from the agony of waiting.
    Imogen would much rather have been out among the noise than cowering here. As mistress of Carrisford, surely she should be with her people.
    They were invaded, but how?"
    Carrisford was a mighty, impregnable fortress. Her father said it could hold against the whole of England.
    She stifled a whimper. Her father was dead.
    The bereavement, the raw and recent loss, swelled up to drown out even the sounds of horror. How could Bernard of Carrisford, mighty lord of west England, die so quickly of a scratch taken out hunting?
    Father Wulfgan said it was the hand of God. Her chaplain had instructed her to mark well how such a fate could strike down the mighty as easily as the low. He was right, she supposed. The simple gash had festered and before they knew it, her father had the wound fever and neither hot iron nor poultice, woundwort nor holy water, had stopped the spread.
    In his death agony Bernard had dictated a plea to the king for protection; then he had commanded that the castle be sealed tight, that no one other than the king's envoy be admitted, high or low. All to safeguard his only child, now vulnerable at sixteen to the first greedy man to hear the news. Now trembling in this cold dark hole.
    It was impossible, but it had happened. Before the earth was smooth on Lord Bernard's grave a greedy man had heard, and come, and entered. It could only be treachery, but that was for later. For now it was Imogen's duty to escape this brutal wooing.
    The clamor grew louder and Imogen flinched back from the hole. But then she pressed her eye close again seeking any evidence of what was happening. A piercing scream told of violence just out of sight. Was that her Aunt Constance? Surely not. Who would hurt such a sweet, gentle lady?
    Imogen gave thanks that there were few innocents to suffer here. Her own two girlhood companions had recently left to marry, and her father's squire and pages had set off for their family homes yesterday after the funeral.
    Which left only Aunt Constance.
    If only she had been with them in the hall when the alarm was given. But the dear lady had taken no interest in political matters, and had been in her beloved garden. Heaven only knew what was happening to the poor lady.
    Sweet Jesu, what was happening?
    One of the great hall doors swung open and Sir Gilbert de Valens staggered into view, swaying from exhaustion and the weakness of wounds. There had been no time for him to arm; his bare head was matted with blood, his tunic torn and stained. His sword hung wearily from his right hand and blood dripped from his useless left with mesmerizing regularity.
    Imogen found herself watching those droplets of scarlet blood. Drip. Drip. Drip.
    Now the true face of violence was before her she felt numb rather than afraid. She supposed she was as safe as possible. Only the family and a few senior servants knew of the secret passages. The chink she was looking through was disguised by a shield hung on the wall...
    Her father had taught her all these things.
    Her father was dead.
    Drip. Drip. Drip.
    That wound needed binding. She must go to aid Sir Gilbert. Soon his very life would drip away into the rushes and it was her duty as Lady of Carrisford to aid the sick and wounded. Even as she formed the thought the half-open doors were slammed back to bounce against the walls. A monstrous figure appeared in the entrance, backed by a horde of villainous, howling followers.
    Arnulf of Warbrick!
    He was a giant of a man -- tall and massive. Under his chain mail his belly swelled like a monstrous pregnancy, and as he swaggered into the room his tree-trunk legs were far apart, unable to meet.
    Warbrick. Vile Warbrick, brutal brother of the infamous Robert de Belleme....
    When Warbrick had come courting Imogen in satin and velvet she had been hard pressed not to laugh at such a barrel of a man. There was nothing amusing about the demon before her now. Every word of his reputation for bestial cruelty and superhuman strength was surely true.
    And he came to wed her.
    "Ha! Sir Gilbert!" he bellowed. "Where's the pretty morsel?"
    "Lady Imogen has already left to go to the king," Sir Gilbert said faintly. "Leave us in peace, Lord Warbrick."
    Warbrick advanced on the knight. Gilbert raised his sword, but it wavered. Warbrick took the man's wrist in his beefy paw and controlled him with ease. "You lie. I have had the roads watched for days. The only one to leave here for the east was the messenger you sent to the king, seeking his protection for the girl."
    Gilbert fell to his knees. Imogen felt her own legs weaken with fear. If Warbrick knew of the message he had stopped it. No aid was on the way.
    Warbrick took the older man's throat in his fist. "Where is she?"
    "Gone," Sir Gilbert choked.
    "Where!" Warbrick's gross face flushed purple with rage and he shook Sir Gilbert like a dog with a rat.
    There was only a rattling noise. With a snarl Warbrick threw the man aside. Imogen stared in blank horror at her father's friend and faithful vassal. His throat had been crushed.
    She began to tremble. Nothing could stop it. She was sure the men in the room could hear her teeth as they clashed together hard enough to break.
    She couldn't move.
    She couldn't think.
    A woman ran into the room, fleeing some terror but finding worse. It was Janine, Imogen's middle-aged handmaid. She stopped and tried to back out again but two of the soldiers seized her.
    At a word from Warbrick they threw her down on the table and yanked her skirts up over her head. Her shrieks and futile prayers were muffled. The men grasped her kicking legs and held them apart. Warbrick opened his clothing to let free a monstrous phallus. He thrust into Janine and pumped at her. The woman shrieked at the first assault, then her cries took on the rhythm of Warbrick's thrusts in a mesmerizing way.
    Janine gave short, high-pitched despairing screams. Warbrick grunted. His gross body thumped, thumped, thumped.
    Imogen found she was moaning in horror in time with the rape, and thrust her fist into her mouth to stifle the noise. That was her fate if she were caught.
    She supposed Warbrick would marry her before he threw her down and thrust into her, but there the difference would end. She had no doubt that if she fought him he would have his ruffian soldiers hold her down for his pleasure.
    She wanted to look away but was transfixed. To look away would be to abandon Janine, to abandon Sir Gilbert's already cooling corpse.
    Imogen watched as Warbrick readjusted his clothes and nodded to one of Janine's captors. The man grinned and repeated his master's crime. The maid's shrieks changed into an altogether more dreadful moan of despair.
    Imogen couldn't stand this any more. Sir Gilbert had instructed her to stay in the secret passage no matter what happened, but Sir Gilbert was dead. Imogen was what Warbrick wanted and if she surrendered, the horrors would cease. Janine would be left alone. She began to sidle along the narrow space toward the entrance slit.
    The thought of giving herself up to Warbrick brought bile to her throat, but to be doing something was an immense relief. After all, she might be able to escape before marriage formalities could be arranged. If not, she thought sickly, she could always kill herself.
    Away from the spyhole there was little light but Imogen knew she had only to follow the passage to find the exit beneath the west stairs. She worked her way by feel alone, grateful for the blackness around her. Nothing to see, little to hear, but at long last something to do.
    A faint gleam of light told her she was near the exit. She moved more quickly.
    Abruptly, the light was obscured. Imogen gasped and shrank back.
    "My lady?" someone whispered.
    "Siward?" She sagged with relief. "Oh, Siward. We can't allow this to go on. I must give myself up to Warbrick."
    "I was affeared you'd be thinking that," her seneschal said, and his fist connected with her jaw. That was the last Imogen knew.

    Imogen came to her senses in the woods. There was a moon, so it was not pitch dark, but under the heavy canopy of summer foliage it was close enough. Imogen was first aware of a very painful jaw and rubbed it, muttering unflattering comments about the perpetrator.
    Then she remembered.
    Sir Gilbert.
    Siward must have forced some potion into her to keep her unconscious for so long, and perhaps that was why she felt so numb. It was a relief to be so. Her memory could repeat scenes of horror for her again and again -- she thought it would do so for the rest of her life -- but it was like a mummer's play. It did not touch her.
    Or not too much. Her teeth began to chatter again, and she clenched her jaw to stop them.
    Then winced at the pain.
    She buried her swimming head in her hands. What was happening now back in the castle, her beautiful, tranquil home...?
    Immediately, her mind shied away.
    She looked up and made out Siward sitting near by. A few dark shapes showed that other people had escaped.
    "Siward," whispered Imogen, "you have done a terrible thing. What will happen to my people with Warbrick tearing Carrisford apart looking for me?"
    He was hunched over, and she realized he was an old man, and that he too was accustomed to an orderly life. At her words, however, he straightened and spoke firmly. "What will happen to your people if Warbrick forces you to wed him and thus becomes Lord of Carrisford, Lady? Sir Gilbert deputed me to keep you safe, and so I will. You must stay out of that devil's hands."
    Imogen pressed her hands to her face. He was right, she supposed. For her sins, she was the Lady of Carrisford and the heir to the castle. She was the key to possession of great wealth and power and must act for the good of all her people. A leader had to be willing to sacrifice a few for the good of the many.
    But it was hard. She could not forget her maid crying for pity and for help...
    "Janine," she moaned. "Did you see...? Oh, Siward, did you see?"
    Wordlessly, he gathered her into his arms and she shuddered there, far beyond tears.
    Imogen had never experienced violence, and today she had near drowned in it. She had never seen the act between man and woman before, but now the picture was imprinted on her mind and the sounds rang in her head.
    And she would have to come to that some day with some man....
    She thrust that thought away before it truly drove her mad. Not Warbrick. At least, not Warbrick. If she could keep out of his hands, perhaps she could bear it. Not all men could be so vile.
    Siward's voice broke into her panicked thoughts. "We can't stay here, Lady. It's not safe. Where shall we take you?"
    Imogen looked up in shock. She'd thought her people had the matter all in hand but here they were looking to her to lead them.
    She had no idea what to do.
    Until two days past she had been the pampered daughter of Bernard of Carrisford, great lord of Gloucestershire. Her days had been an orderly succession of music, needlework, hawking, and reading the treasured manuscripts in her father's possession.
    Until the past spring her future had been securely planned to continue in this pattern. She had been betrothed at ten to Lord Gerald of Huntwich, a pleasant and able man fifteen years her senior who would surely have secured her peace forever.
    He had always treated her with the same kindly indulgence offered by her father, and had been content to wait for her woman's courses to come upon her before taking her into his home. That had happened, however, in April, and the wedding date had been settled for October 20th., Imogen's seventeenth birthday.
    But in June Gerald had eaten tainted fish and died of the gripe.
    Imogen's father had brought her the news, awkward because he feared that she would be upset, and irritated at this disruption of his plans. Upset, too, at the loss of a friend.
    "You'd think the man would have more sense," he grumbled. "Now there'll be a stirring, and with times so unsettled I've no mind to choose you a new husband just yet."
    Imogen was silently testing the fact that she felt only mild regret at the death. How strange. "God keep his soul," she said, grateful for the needlework which occupied her hands and eyes. "What will happen now?"
    Lord Bernard suddenly chuckled, and dropped into a chair. "Every eligible man in England will be sniffing around you, dearling." He flicked the parchment in his hand. "Some are hot off the mark. Here's a polite note of condolence from Lancaster, with the news he'll be passing by next week."
    Imogen looked up sharply. "Lancaster! But his son is too young, surely."
    "Aye, but his wife died just past Christmas, if you remember. He's hunting for himself." He must have seen the shadow of doubt cross her face. "He's only a year or two older than Huntwich, Imogen, and a powerful man. He'd keep you safe."
    Imogen was fond enough of the earl of Lancaster as an acquaintance of her father's -- another big, powerful man stepping gingerly through England's tangled politics. As a husband, however, she found she did not care for him. He dressed too richly, his hands were too soft, and she thought he was sly rather than clever. Imogen had been sheltered by her father, but she still appreciated an honest fighting man. Her father was an honest opponent and could still hold his own in combat.
    She was not nervous about the matter, however for she knew her father would not force her into a match she disliked.
    "Do I have any other suitors yet?" she asked, beginning to like the thought of being courted. At ten she had been little interested in the matter; now it might be fun.
    Lord Bernard ran off a shrewd list of the men who would doubtless make moves to gain one of England's greatest heiresses for themselves of their sons. "But I'll make no decisions yet, dearling. I'm not sure of Henry Beauclerk's ability to hold his throne. I've sworn my oath so I'll hold true to him, but I don't know about others. If Henry's still king come Michaelmas, we'll see who the men of power are then."
    It was less than a year since the ascent of the new king -- Henry I, called Beauclerk -- and the king's older brother Robert, Duke of Normandy, was still contesting the succession. Robert was even now gathering a fleet to invade England as his father, William the Conqueror, had invaded.
    Imogen shuddered. "Will you have to fight, Father?"
    He shrugged wearily. "We all do what we have to do, daughter. Never forget that. Protect you as I may, doubtless the time will come when you will have to bite into gall to maintain our honor, or even to survive." He pushed up out of the chair and chucked her under the chin. "For now, dearling, enjoy yourself. I doubt not you'll have the might of England prancing through here in silks and tissue, and so long as you choose a man of honor, you can have your pick of 'em."
    It had been as her father had predicted. Imogen had enjoyed a pleasant summer entertaining the eligible men of England in their silk and tissue.
    Then in July the Duke of Normandy had invaded, and Lord Bernard had marched out to support his king. Courtship games had halted. In early August, however, the duke had quailed before King Henry and his supporters, and slunk back across the channel.
    Lord Bernard and his men had returned without a scratch, and Imogen had been surrounded by eager suitors again. It had been far too much fun to cut short and her father had not pressed her.
    Which, with hindsight, had been a mistake.
    If Gerald had lived, or if Imogen had been legally betrothed to another, Warbrick would have been unlikely to have tried such a crude wooing. Now there was little to prevent a man from forcing a match.
    She had escaped the trap, but only for the moment. Imogen shuddered at the thought of her fate at Warbrick's hands. His brutality was only exceeded by that of his brother, Belleme. Belleme's first wife had died by violence, and his second, Agnes of Ponthieu, had fled him a broken women.
    Imogen knew she had truly been mad to want to give herself into Warbrick's power. Why had she thought he would wait for a marriage ceremony to claim her? If she fell into the hands of any ruthless, godless man it would be rape and imprisonment until the formalities were completed. And could even the king undo such an alliance?
    She clung to Siward. She wanted to burrow into the leaves on the forest floor and hide like the hunted creature she was, but as he said, there was no safety here. As soon as Warbrick was sure she was not in the castle, he would tear Gloucestershire apart in the search for her.
    She needed someone of equal power to protect her.
    Siward stroked her head. "We could try to get you east to the king, Lady." He sounded dubious, and with reason. Warbrick's land lay to the east and his men watched the road.
    Imogen reminded herself that she was her father's heir, heir to his responsibilities as well as his wealth. She removed herself from the steward's arms and forced herself to think, to lead.
    "No. That's the road Warbrick will watch most closely. And who's to say where the king is, or if he's able to come to my aid? He's likely still watching the coast in case his brother changes his mind again. It would take at least a week of walking just to reach London, and if Warbrick didn't stop us I fear some other hazard would." She looked around. "Did any of my father's men-at-arms escape?"
    "None that I know of, Lady."
    Totally undefended. Imogen had never in her life stepped out of her castle unguarded and now she felt naked before the world, but she forced her voice to steadiness as she said, "We must seek aid closer by, then."
    Siward shook his head. "But where, Lady? To the north and east is Warbrick and Belleme. To the south is Sir Kyle. To the west is Cleeve."
    Imogen shivered. Put like that it was a withering choice. "Sir Kyle would do me no harm," she said, thinking of the elderly knight who held Breedon Castle for the Earl of Lancaster.
    "And little good, I fear, Lady. You know well enough that he's an old man and of a nervous disposition. He's been secure, for no one had reason to risk Lancaster's wrath, but you would be enough to tempt Warbrick to take the risk. If Warbrick and his jackals arrived at Breedon gates, old Kyle would hand you over."
    "Surely not," protested Imogen, but she knew it was true. She was fighting the obvious source of help. "You think I should go to Cleeve?" she whispered. "But it's in the hands of the one they call Bastard FitzRoger!"
    "Cleeve's your only chance against Warbrick unless you want to hide in the woods until the king comes."
    An owl hooted and there was a scurrying in the undergrowth. Imogen felt like that small animal, frantically hiding from predators.
    She turned away that puling image. She was Imogen of Carrisford. She was a wolf at bay, not a rabbit. What she needed was an ally.
    "Is FitzRoger as hard a man as they say?" she asked.
    Siward rubbed his long nose. "He's not been hereabouts long enough to tell, Lady, only since January. And not about the place that much, what with helping the king establish himself and driving off the duke. All we know of him is rumors and gossip. You know he was maybe son to old Roger of Cleeve but raised in France. Came over with the new king and looked up his family, so to speak. That weakling brother of his was still lord then, but when Lord Hugh died without heir, the king gave FitzRoger the place."
    Imogen did know this, and more. Rumor said the bastard had killed his brother. Lord Bernard had said little on the subject, however, and Imogen had been too busy teasing suitors to care. Old Roger of Cleeve and his son had been such an unpleasant pair that Carrisford had had nothing to do with them.
    "The local people must have some opinion of him," she said.
    Siward shrugged. "He's a young man, they say, but well proved in war and tourney, and close to the king."
    A man perhaps able to stand against Warbrick and Belleme, perhaps, but at what cost to herself? "I have heard he is a harsh man," she whispered.
    "Aye," said Siward. "He's taken Castle Cleeve in a firm grip, sure enough."
    A vision of Warbrick's fist around Gilbert's throat flashed through Imogen's mind, and bile choked her. She forced herself to ignore it. "You almost sound as if you approve of him, Siward."
    "It's not for me to approve or disapprove, Lady."
    "What I mean," asked Imogen impatiently, "is do you think FitzRoger is a lesser risk than Warbrick? You know my father sheltered me. I don't know enough."
    "There's no risk with Warbrick," said Siward flatly. "There's just certainty of evil. From what they say, FitzRoger's a hard man and a good soldier. That's what you need right now, Lady. He'll likely help you, for Cleeve and Warbrick have long been at odds. Besides, he's the king's man, and Belleme and his family are a thorn in King Henry's side. I judge FitzRoger rich and strong and brave enough to stand against Warbrick, do he choose to, maybe even take vengeance for what was done this day."
    As soon as the word was spoken Imogen knew she wanted it, hungered for it. Her home had been despoiled in the most vile manner. Her people had been abused and slaughtered. She wanted her castle back, but more that than, she wanted Warbrick dead in the dirt for what he had done.
    To achieve that, she'd pay any price.
    She sat up straight. "Then I had best go to FitzRoger and enlist his aid," she said. "Now let us think how I can make my way there safely."
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Original cover of Dark Champion