Wednesday, 2 May 2007

Just Released - Night Prey by Tara Nina

Chapter One

Something in the air didn’t smell right. With each pace along the castle walls, his senses heightened straining to locate the source of his discontent. Everything about this night didn’t sit well with him. The howl of the rising wind informed him of the impending storm. But that wasn’t the reason he was ill-at-ease. A strange scent upon the wind and a gnawing sensation at the base of his brain that something was wrong kept him on edge.

Lightning cut the night sky reflecting off an object in the distance. His best guess set it several hundred yards away. The faint sound of weapons clashing and the minute scent of fear upon the wind sent him jumping from his nightly perch upon the castle walls.

In no way would this land be invaded, not on his watch. Though being assigned to these lands was not of his choosing, he refused to falter in his responsibilities. King Henry granted him this title and properties as reward for years of exemplary service. As Lord of Pantera Manor, it was his duty to protect the people within his realm. But he’d much rather be crusading for the king than babysitting a title and holdings in the fishing community of Sutton.

The king had other ideas for him. What they were, he had not been told. Now, as he raced through the whipping rain and torrid wind, his blood roared though his veins with the need for battle. This was the first discrepancy of any kind to happen since his arrival six months ago and the adrenaline rush felt good.

Closing the distance in record time, Alessandro stalked the shadows seeking his prey. His enhanced eyesight gave him the means of perfect night vision. When humans around him were unable to see, he held the ability to penetrate the dark with a simple glance. A solitary wagon sat disheveled at the roadside. Its horse neighed and tugged violently at the reigns tethered to a nearby tree. An elderly man was on his knees, bleeding from a head wound while another man dressed in black stood over him brandishing his sword as if daring him to move.

How chivalrous Alessandro thought as he bit back his growing rage. The time was not right for attack. Not yet. From his vast military experience, he learned that patience was a great aspect to a good strategy. And at the moment, with the driving rain hindering his sense of smell, he was unable to determine if the one acted alone or if there were other bandits in on this robbery.

“Where is it?” The man with the sword shouted at the injured party.

“I know not of what ye seek,” rasped from the man who was shivering as a puddle formed around his knees.

“I believe ye do,” the oversized brute retorted as he raised his hand to strike but stopped short when he was interrupted.

“Look at what I found.”

Alessandro froze in his hiding place at the sight of a woman being dragged through the mud in the onslaught of rain. Though she struggled and fought, she did not scream. Not a sound did she make. Every hair on the back of his neck stood on end and his muscles tightened. No woman should be treated as such. He hunched into position and waited for the right time to take either of the dark dressed heathens down. Obviously, they were no match for his strength if they had to prey upon the weak and elderly.

“Nay, please leave her be!” The elder man yelled as he lunged at the knees of the man in front of him. When the brute pummeled the back of the elder man’s head with the hilt of his sword, Alessandro sprang into action.

Using the shadows as his shield, he tackled the man with the drawn sword, toppling him to the ground. Entwined, he struggled to guide them rolling and sliding back into the shadows as he ripped the man’s throat open in one swift grip. Before he could disengage himself completely from the dead man’s weight, the other man was upon him. Sword drawn, he screamed and lunged at Alessandro.

In the flash of a brilliant stroke of lightning, a dark shadow pummeled the side of Alessandro’s assailant. The two rolled end over end until they skid to a stop beneath the wagon. But from the scent of blood in the air, he knew the battle was over. Both men lay dead in the mud, one in the shadows where Alessandro left him. The other under the wagon where his cousin, Kade finished the bandit without much effort exerted.

The two shook and stretched as they stood.

“I could have handled it,” Alessandro stated as he faced his cousin who stood eye to eye with him at the height of six foot four.

“Aye, ye could have.” Kade laughed as he slapped him on the shoulder. “But did ye not figure that I might have a hunger for a fight also? When I saw ye venture out of the castle walls on a night such as this, I thought ye might be up to something.” With a quick glance at the two dead bodies, he smiled at Alessandro. “I see that I was right.”

A soft moan caught his ear and Alessandro turned to see the dirt covered, rain soaked woman crawl toward the unconscious man laying face down in the mud. He rushed to her side and she froze, curling into a ball as if she were afraid that he would strike her. Alessandro hesitated. He knew he had tried to shield her from the fight but, had she seen? Had she seen him in his second skin?

He couldn’t be sure and at the moment, he chose to take no chances. Stooping, he gathered her in his arms and cradled her against his chest. The woman shivered violently and he was unsure if from fear or simply from the chill of the harsh weather.

“Are ye all right?” He questioned as he searched her face for injuries other than packed mud and debris in her hair from being dragged.

Her dress was ripped from her shoulder. The sight of her bare flesh made him wish to touch it and test its softness. Alessandro licked his suddenly dry lips. Flesh such as that of the tender lady in his arms was not meant for the likes of him.

Slowly, her lids fluttered open. Lightning flashed and reflected in her eyes. A deep shade of brown with honey gold flecks stared back at him. Her lower lip quivered as she touched his cheek. The heat of her palm against his skin sent an arrow of warmth through his system and he shuddered inwardly. She nodded her head but did not speak.

Forcing his gaze to pull away from the unusual color of her eyes, he lifted his chin and looked at his cousin.

“Is he alive?”

“Aye, but not for long if’n we don’t get him out of this storm.”

With a nod, he headed to the back of the wagon and laid his precious cargo inside. Kade followed and placed the battered body of the injured man inside the wagon. The moment they stepped back, the woman started tending to the man’s wounds.

After calming the horse hitched to the wagon, Alessandro and Kade drove it to the castle. The man at the gate didn’t even flinch when he opened to a wagon driven by two naked men. He was one of many of Alessandro’s men who had fought with him in the past and knew of his true nature. Hell, half of his knights were men of his kind. Shape-shifters who tended to drift from battle to battle in search for that one kill that would release the inner lust for blood.

But was it that blood lust that had finally caused King Henry to rethink Alessandro’s position in his kingdom. Was this why he had been given a position so far south of the throne that many men knew nothing of this region?

Alessandro shook his head. There had to be another reason.

Pulling up at the castle steps, he stopped the wagon and jumped down. Immediately, several of his men hustled out the front doors to his side. His squire, Joseph carried a long cape for himself and one for Kade. With a quick toss of it around his shoulders, Alessandro hurried to the back of the wagon and hoisted himself in.

The woman sat quiet with the man’s wounded head in her lap. His eyes were closed and his breathing was stilted but he lived. With the help of Kade, they lifted the man and handed him over the side to two of his men. Alessandro held his hand out to the woman who hesitantly took it. As she stood, she fainted and Alessandro had to act quickly to catch her before she fell.

“Typical,” Kade jested. “The women always fall for ye.”

Before Alessandro could reply, Kade jumped from the wagon and held his hands up for him to hand the woman over the side. But he couldn’t do it. For some reason, he didn’t want his cousin’s hands or the hands of any man touching this woman. A feral need to claim her suddenly rippled up his spine as he clutched her tight against his naked chest. He wrapped the cape around her as much as possible then leapt to the ground.

He took the steps two at a time. The need to get her dry and warm flowed great within his veins. Knowing that his bed had been made ready for him earlier, he cut across the great hall giving orders to the staff as he made for the stairs. At the top, his squire stood waiting at his bedroom door.

As if she were a newborn, he laid her gently on the foot of his oversized bed and stepped back. Using only his fingertips, he brushed the muddy, matted strands of hair from her face. She looked so fragile and though dirt smudged her cheeks, he saw the paleness of her skin. The slow rise and fall of her chest was the only sign that she was even alive.

“So what have we here?” the sound of a feminine voice came from behind him but he didn’t turn to see. He knew who it was. “Is she one of yer many conquests, mi’lord?”

“Cease yer sharp tongue, Mikala.” Alessandro snapped. “As long as I’m master of this castle, ye will know yer place. Or leave,” he added on a hiss as he glared across his shoulder at her.

Though many of the prior lord’s servants had chosen to stay under his command, Mikala was one of them he wished had left. Soon after taking his position, it became evident that she thought she was entitled to the same privileges she’d had with Lord Lindsey. But Alessandro didn’t agree. Even though she was not hard on the eyes, with brown hair and eyes, and a well formed womanly figure boasting rather large breasts, she was not of his liking. Nor did he wish to seek pleasure with a woman of whore stature.

Unfortunately, Mikala didn’t give up that easily. On an exasperated breath, Alessandro turned to face her.

“If ye would like to assist me…” Before he could finish his sentence, Mikala was across the room and grappling for his cock under his cape. Alessandro grabbed her hand and glared down at her. “That’s not what I meant!”

Though the words seethed between his clenched teeth, she grinned up at him. Growling under his breath, he turned his back to her and marched over to his squire and stepped into the trousers handed to him then slipped the cape from his shoulders. As he tied the laces, he explained the situation to Mikala.

“The woman is in need of assistance. She was traveling with a man when they were attacked. Since this occurred on my lands, we must grant them care.” After tugging on a fresh tunic, he turned to face her. “Clean her, tend her wounds if there are any and see that she is made comfortable. She is me guest and will stay in this room until further notice.”

Without giving the wayward chambermaid a chance, he exited the room before he changed his mind and undressed the sleeping beauty in his bed and bathed her body himself. Tempting visions of what he might find under her soiled clothing flashed within his brain as he hustled down the stairs to check on the other new guest of Pantera Manor.

Joseph grabbed Mikala’s sleeve as she turned to leave.

“Sire said for ye to tend to our guest.”

“Ye do it!” Mikala sneered, jerking her arm free of his grasp. “Such work is beneath me.”

“Ye clean chamber pots.” Joseph stated to her back as she flounced toward the door. “Ye’d think cleaning a person was a step up.”

If looks could kill, Joseph would have been dead the instant her gaze sliced his way. The fact that she didn’t intimidate him only infuriated her more as she stomped out of the room. But Joseph wasn’t the typical squire. Average in height, he kept his lean body fit by practicing with the knights and his dirty blond hair tied in a ponytail though it was barely past his shoulders. He earned his place assisting his master and held that job as a high honor close to his heart. Lord Alessandro saved him from certain death as a thief living in the streets of London. He took him in and was training him to be a knight. There was nothing Joseph wouldn’t do for his sire.

As he turned to find their visitor awake, his laughter at Mikala stalled. Clearing his throat, he walked over to her.

“Milady,” he stated as he bowed. “Hot water is on its way for yer cleansing purposes. Are ye hurt?”

The woman sat upright, scanning the room as if frantically looking for something or someone. When Joseph stood, she scooted back on the bed away from him.

“Milady, you are safe. The gentleman you were with is being attended to downstairs. He is safe as well.”

Her audible sigh and the sight of her eyes closed and her features softened made him think that she understood. But he couldn’t be sure for she hadn’t spoken. When several of the kitchen staff appeared in the doorway carrying buckets of hot water, he moved across the room and pulled the privacy drape back from around the tub.

Joseph watched her face as she sat with her mouth slightly open staring at the large claw-footed tub as if it were a gift from heaven. Though Joseph himself didn’t care much for the bath, the master did. It was common practice for him to relax in a hot bath. He claimed it helped him think. But Joseph thought it strange that a man of the master’s abilities would even care for water at all.

After overseeing that the tub was filled, he returned to the woman. He laid a drying sheet and a mound of scented soap on the foot of the bed.

“Should ye need assistance with yer dress, milady,” he nodded toward a timid mouse of a young maid who stood quiet in the doorway with her arms filled with clothing, “Mary has been assigned to yer care. She has fresh clothing for ye. Ye needs not worry. The clothing belongs to the master’s sister. She’s in London for the season with her aunt and these are items she left behind.”

Before he could step away, she clasped his hand in hers and smiled. It was at that moment the young squire realized the reason for her quietness.

“Ye can not speak, can Ye?”

The woman simply nodded no.

* * * * *

Alessandro entered the room of the injured man. Ilene, the chief house keeper, was applying the final finishing touches to the bandage around the man’s head.

“Ye’s lucky ye’s still got yer head.” She quipped as she stepped back from the bed and gathered her supplies.

With the nearest known physician a day’s ride, Ilene acted in his place. In Alessandro’s opinion, she was better than most of the male healers who’d ever had a poke at him. It was the main reason he took her on every jaunt from the first time she’d ever stitched him after battle. Not to mention, he liked her motherly ways though he’d never admit to it.

“I thank ye for yer assistance, milady.”

“Milady!” Ilene snorted as she turned to leave. “Imagine that, ye’s injured in the head more than I thought if’n ye calls me a lady.”

Alessandro touched her arm and whispered near her ear. “To me, ye are a lady.”

Ilene playfully swatted his hand with the cloth in her hand and left the room laughing. Her long gray braid swung as she walked and her broad hips swayed carrying her short round frame out of sight.

“I have no coin with which to pay ye.” The injured man stated as he attempted to get up from the bed. “But I work hard.”

Alessandro grabbed the man’s arm before he could stand. “There’s no need for that now. Ye needs yer rest.”

“But, I need to find Rose.” The old man’s eyes pleaded from beneath the thick bandage wrapped around his head. He looked weak and pathetic, but he still tried to stand as determination set in his spine.

“Would that be the young lady who was traveling with ye?”

The man simply nodded as he spoke. “Is she alright?”

“Aye, she’s been given a room upstairs to rest.” Alessandro chose not to tell him that he was uncertain as to her condition since when he last saw her, she was unconscious. No need to concern the injured man anymore than he already was.

Relief washed over the man’s tired features as fatigue took over and he slouched, teetering on the edge of the bed. Alessandro carefully gathered one arm under the man’s legs while supporting his shoulders with the other and shifted him into a more comfortable position lying back on the bed with his head upon the pillow.

“Sir, where are we?” The man asked as Alessandro pulled a blanket up over him. “Please tell me we are near Sutton.”

“Ye are in Sutton at Pantera Manor. And I am Lord Alessandro.” With a nod of his head, he continued. “And what shall we call ye?”

“Forgive me, mi’lord.” The man stuttered as he tried to get up, but Alessandro refused to let him.

“Sir, ye needs to calm yerself.” He gently held the man by his sleeve, not wanting to do any further damage to his head wound in this unnecessary struggle.

“Mi’lord, I am but a blacksmith. I deserve no such finery as this bed. Please point me in the direction of yer stable. It will suit me just fine, mi’lord.” The man seemed flustered as he spoke but he no longer fought against Alessandro’s grip on his arm

“It is I who chooses where my visitors sleep, dear sir. And this room is where ye’ll stay until ye are healed enough to move on your own strength.” He released the man’s arm as his words seemed to soothe the man’s worries. “And I ask again, what shall we call ye?”

“My apologies sire. I am Wilhelm Smythe of Falmouth. Rose is me daughter. We travel to Sutton to…”his voice faltered as if a thought just struck him. His face paled as he sat up, grabbing Alessandro’s sleeve. “Me wagon, is it here?”

“Aye, it is.”

“Thank the heavens,” he replied on a heavy sigh as he fell back into the pillows. As the man closed his eyes, Alessandro had to strain to hear his whispered words. “’Tis safe for now.”

What was safe? Though he wanted to question Wilhelm further, the steady rise and fall of his chest implied that he had fallen asleep. Alessandro left the room with much on his mind. As he entered the great hall, he was greeted by the lone figure of his cousin Kade seated at the table.

“Ah, come join me in a drink of mead, Alex. ‘Twill take the edge off and make it easier to sleep this night. Or,” Kade waggled his eyebrows as he spoke, “is sleep not what yer want considering there waits a subtle young woman in your bed?”

Kade was one of the few who got away with needling him like that. Anyone else would have met the tip of his sword for disrespect. Shaking his head, Alessandro took a seat across the table from Kade and caught the filled mug slid to him. After taking a deep gulp from his mug, Alex leaned back, propped his feet up on the table and closed his eyes, holding the mug firmly in his lap with one hand.

“Well, if’n ye plan to sleep here,” Kade quipped as he stood. “Then perhaps the lady shall share with me the reward for rescuing her.”

Without opening his eyes, Alex commanded on a deep growl. “Take so much as a step in her direction and a eunuch ye shall be when I finish with ye.”

Kade’s laughter echoed as he returned to his chair. “So there is an interest. No wonder ye would not release her into me arms outside. Ye didnae want me to touch her. Ye fear she’ll fall for me instead. After all, I am the more handsome and valiant of the two of us.”

Alessandro opened his eyes, leveled his gaze on Kade and took another swig of his mead. Aye, he’d have to give him that. Though Kade had proven himself in many a battle, his face held no scars such as the one Alessandro had along the left side of his forehead near his hairline. When one who did not know them looked at them, at first they were assumed to be brothers instead of cousins. Each stood six foot four and had long thick black hair that lay in a ponytail down to about mid-back.

They both were strong men who kept their bodies battle ready with daily routines out on the practice field with the knights and men of their regimen. But it was no secret which of the two held more scars. Alessandro was labeled the Black Knight of Death when it came to his opponents. And whenever he was in a fight, it was as if a switch flipped inside his gut and he turned into the angel of death and destruction. No matter how wounded he became, he never lost a battle. And he never would, not as long as he could weld a sword or change into his second skin of the lethal black panther.

Swallowing hard, Alessandro shook his thoughts from war. There was something burning in his brain and Kade was his usual partner of discussion.

“I have no need to discuss Rose with ye.”

“Ah, a beautiful name for a beautiful woman.” Kade sighed loudly as if he were trying to goad him more. “Pray tell, she is not his wife?

But Alex refused to bite. Instead, he arched a warning brow and held a level stern gaze on his cousin as he spoke. “Nay, she is his daughter and I have no need to speak of such things with you now. How much did ye hear when we were near the attack?”

Kade wasn’t stupid. He knew when to quit.

“I heard the bandit demand to know where something was,” he stated as he leaned forward with his elbows on the table, holding his mug of mead in his hands. “But our guest didn’t seem to know what he wanted.”

“I think that he does.” Alessandro replied as he sat upright. “Did ye search the wagon?”

“Aye, but found nothing impressive.” Kade shrugged. “A chest full of blacksmith tools and a small bag of clothing. Not anything of value.”

“That makes sense. Before he went to sleep, he gave me his name, Wilhelm Symthe of Falmouth and that his trade was blacksmith.”

“Falmouth’s about two days ride south of here on a good horse. Three or more by wagon. Did he say where they were headed and why they weren’t bedded down somewhere during this storm? Only a fool would be out in this.”

“Nay, he fell asleep before I could get much out of him other than the fact they were traveling to Sutton.” He took another drink then continued. “He did seem pleased that the wagon was here.”

“It’s possible that the wagon and the things inside are all he possesses.”

“Possible.” Alessandro swirled the mead in the mug as he stared out over its rim. Something wasn’t right. He’d known it as he walked the castle walls earlier and the feeling was no different in his gut now.

“What makes ye think differently, my cousin? I’ve seen that look before. It usually spells trouble for someone and for once,” Kade smiled broadly as he continued. “It is not me.”

“’Twas the way he spoke his last words before he fell asleep.”

“Well, what he’d say?”

“‘Tis safe for now.”

“Ye don’t think he’s just happy that he and his daughter are still alive and safe from the weather and the bandits?” Kade held his gaze leveled on Alessandro’s. If anything, in all his time with his cousin, he never knew the man’s gut instinct to ever be wrong. If he felt that something was amiss, then it most definitely was.

“Nay, cousin. I think he’s happy they’re safe. But, ‘twas something else that he was glad to hear was safe as well. Something to do with that wagon.”

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