Authors: Karin Tabke
She struggled to stand, her legs tight from her position on the hard stone floor. The dark knight took her elbow. She swatted his hand away and nearly fell back into the fire. Rohan grabbed her to him, laughing at her struggle to be free of him. “I do not bite, damsel.”
With reluctance, Isabel allowed him to steady her and guide her upward. “’Tis not your bite that concerns me, sir.”
He threw his head back and laughed heartily. He peered at her, a genuine smile gracing his lips. Something shifted deep inside her. The transformation to his face when he smiled was staggering.
He lowered his voice, and as if they were the only two in the great hall he said, “You may well find you would come to crave my bite.”
Heat rushed to Isabel’s cheeks. Her back stiffened. “I would never!”
His grin widened, and he bent close to her and whispered, “Never say never, damsel. Those words may come back to mock you.”
Isabel stepped back from him, shaking her head. Her heavy hair swirled around her shoulders. “Do not speak to me of such things. ’Tis not decent.”
His face closed at her words and his eyes hardened. “Nor am I.”
Good Girl Gone Bad
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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2008 by Karin Tabke
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Of course, this wonderful story would never have seen the light of publication had it not been for my agent, Kimberly Whalen, falling in love with the original fifty pages of what was to become Rohan and Isabel’s love story. Thank you, Kim: your love and support of this project has been the fuel in my tank.
I would also like to acknowledge all of the regular ladies who stop by my blog, The Write Life, who helped time after time with title suggestions. Though none of them were used, I thank you all for the time and thought. To Jake, Cele, and “hubby”: thank you for the many memorable LOL moments with your dueling title contest contributions. Anna Lucia, thank you for answering
of my questions!
The great title search was not all for naught, however. Because of my dear friend Lee Lopez’s comment regarding the term “Blood Sword” the idea for the Blood Sword Legacy series was born. Lee, thank you!
Of course, I must acknowledge my husband, Gary, without whose unshakeable belief in what I do, I could not do it. To my youngest son, William; sweetheart, thank you for understanding those many days and nights Mommy stayed holed up in her office growling and snapping while she tried desperately to manage a scene.
I want to thank my entire family for giving up our traditional holiday so that I could write through. The second time was the charm, kids! Thank you for not complaining too loudly.
Thank you for believing in me
and pushing me to write a better story.
Master of Surrender
belongs to you.
Jubb Prison, Viseu, Iberia
he pungent odor of urine, the copper tang of blood, and the stench of terror blended in perfect union with the wailing moans and strangled screams of the multitudes of prisoners begging for merciful death.
In the cell where Rohan hung from iron shackles, the spiked anchors embedded deep in the damp stone wall securing him forever, the stench of death had yet to penetrate. Nay, death was not an option. Vengeance burned white-hot in his heart. It burned as hot in each and every man in the cell with him. All of them proud warriors who would spit in the eye of Atropos as she cut the last thread of life.
A low growl rumbled deep in his throat. Rohan yanked at the shackles, ignoring the pain the gesture cost him.
God’s blood! Imprisoned. Condemned to death.
the pit, renowned for its unique and final end to a human life. In ordinary terms it was a dungeon filled with bats. Flesh-eating bats, which over the centuries had grown to crave the taste of human flesh. He’d heard the screams. He heard them in his waking hours. He heard them in his bouts of fitful slumber. The heavy cacophony of thousands of wings, the gurgling cries of the victims as they were eaten alive. His skin crawled. ’Twas no way for a man to die.
Rohan rolled his head back against the wet wall. His long hair was damp, matted, and lice-infested, and it hung in a heavy shroud down his shoulders. How long they had been there, in the hellhole, he did not know. Most days, barely a glimpse of sunlight seeped through the cracks in the higher slabs of stone. He’d lost count of the sparse meals of dark moldy bread and limp leafy vegetables he knew came only once a day.
He closed his eyes, the grittiness of his lids scraping against the dryness. Balancing on his good left foot, he tested his right foot, moving it up and down. The heel had finally healed from a near-fatal cut, compliments of his torturer, Ocba. Had the blade gone further in, he would never walk again. He still might never. Escape was but a dream. He fisted his left hand. Thick scars replaced the ravaged burns he had endured for Ocba’s pleasure. He glanced over at his man Ioan. The tall Irishman hardly recognizable under a thick, wooly beard had lost more flesh than any of them. And that was considerable. Ioan was a brute of a man. A worthy second in battle. Rohan’s tired eyes fell from Ioan’s hollow face down his mud-encrusted body to his right thigh. It still swelled, broken in a wooden vise. Again for Ocba’s amusement. Rohan could still hear Ioan’s screams in his dreams. Had it healed enough that if by some miracle they escaped, he could ever ride again?
“Rohan,” a low, hoarse voice called. He turned his head, the pain in his neck from hanging suspended so long shooting to his lower back and then to his legs. Rohan bit back the ache and looked to his right. If he could, he would smile. Thorin. Not more than one arm length from him. In the dim light he could count the Viking’s ribs.
“Aye, Thorin, I hear you.”
“We are next, brother.”
Rohan nodded, knowing the cell he occupied with no fewer than a score of other captured knights and a tattooed Saracen would soon see it void of them. Each day the sound of the emptying cells came one closer. His anger flashed anew. They’d been betrayed, the lot of them. Set up like unsuspecting chess pieces in a war where one day you fought beside your fellow knight and the next he slew you from behind.
Rohan swallowed hard, the drag on his parched throat no less painful than the torture he’d endured. He was dying now, from the inside out.
“I swear you this, Thorin: I will take at least a dozen of these Cretans with me before the bats devour me.”
“Aye, and I as well.”
From beneath his lashes, not having the strength to fight for more, Rohan looked around the cell, at the men, mercenary knights like he who had been captured in an ambush during a raid on a sleepy village in the mountains shrouding the Saracen town of Viseu. Hatred burned as fiercely in their eyes as he felt it in his heart. The men hung from manacles high above their shoulders, clad only in loincloths. The only tenuous balance they had was found standing on their toes to keep them from pulling their arms out of their sockets.
He gazed at the faces he knew from his birth land in Normandy. Warner, an orphan from his foster father’s house; Stefan, the Comte de Valrey’s eldest son; and Rohan’s old friend and companion since his youth, Thorin. The others—Wulfson, Ioan, Rhys, and the Scot, Rorick—he had met here, fighting in the land of Saracens, now reunited in the pit of death.
They all shared a commonality. By blow each and every one of them. Forced to wield a sword to survive. Aye, mercenary knights they were who pledged a troth to Ferdinand of Castile-León. For a price. And all of them, it seemed, doomed to die a heinous death in this foreign land because of it. Such was the life of his kind.
“They can be beat,” a deep foreign-accented voice said from the other side of Rohan. He turned his head to look at the man whose skin rivaled the darkest of moonless nights. In all the days the man had shared this small space with him, he had not uttered a single word. Why now? Did he, too, know their time was near?
With the man’s words, the energy, small though it was, rose in the confines of the dank cell.
“Why should you tell us, Saracen?” Rohan demanded.
“I am Manhku. Like you, I do not wish to die.”
“Tell us, Saracen. Tell us how we rid ourselves of this scourge!” Wulfson demanded from across the room.
As if summoned by their conversation, keys rattled outside the thick wooden door. The grinding sound of metal on metal gave way to the screeching groan of the hinges opening.
The man who strode through the door, blazing torch held high, was not Ocba, their usual tormentor. This man was better dressed. His robes clean and rich in silk. He practically pranced across the muddy urine-soaked floor. He pressed a crimson silk scarf to his nose, and Rohan laughed at him when the fop retched in his hand.
“You’re not man enough to venture here, Saracen,” Rohan goaded. Manhku hissed in a breath, and the surrounding men kept silent.
The newcomer dabbed at the corners of his mouth, oblivious to Rohan’s taunt. After setting the torch in the iron ring on the wall, he snapped his fingers. Behind him Ocba and another guard pushed a deep metal cart of glowing coals through the open doorway. Rohan’s muscles tightened. Several sword hilts protruded from the coals. One he recognized as his.
Having collected himself, the man lowered the scarf and turned ebony-colored eyes on Rohan. “I am Tariq ibn-Ziyad, second son of Aleyed, Emir of Viseu. I have come at his request, because it appears you Christian knights who offer your sword to the highest bidder have defied the odds of Jahannam.” His beady black eyes scanned the lot of them. Purple lips pulled back, showing startling white teeth.
“So now you will torture us further for not succumbing to your hospitality?” Thorin charged.
Tariq smiled, the gesture more a ruthless leer. “It is so.” He pulled on heavy leather gloves. “And since you refuse to bow down to Allah, the one and only true god, to save yourselves, be prepared to bear the mark of one who lives and dies by the sword.” He pulled Rohan’s sword from the coals. It glowed molten orange. He sliced it through the air. His sharp-angled face lit up in delight when his dark eyes rose to Rohan’s. “A most worthy weapon, would you not say so,
Ocba, assisted by the other guard, grabbed Rohan’s legs and pulled his body taut. Rohan steeled himself against the stone wall, knowing full well the Saracen’s intention.
Tariq stepped closer to Rohan, swinging the tip of the blade under his nose. The heat of the weapon scorched his skin. “Now, be prepared to wear it for eternity!” Tariq pressed the sword, point down, crossguard just below his throat, full length into Rohan’s chest. “In the name of Allah! I brand you for the mercenary you are. Bear the sign of the blood sword to hell!”
Rohan roared his battle cry, the inscrutable pain and sickening stench of burnt flesh pushing him to the brink of sanity. Blackness engulfed his eyes, the pain so intense. In his agony he twisted beneath the sword and kicked at both guards, the velocity setting his legs free for the moment. The blade fell from his chest. Rohan opened his eyes and managed a grimace of a smile when he saw Tariq in his silken robes, arse and hands planted firmly on the slippery mud of the floor.
Rohan’s small triumph was short-lived. His breath and strength expelled, his body slumped. He closed his eyes and, for the first time in his life, welcomed the peace of death that his tumultuous life had never brought him.
The last things he sensed were Thorin’s hoarse screams beside him and the stench of more seared flesh, then blackness.
He must be dreaming. The soft, exotic scent of a woman filled his nostrils. Cool, soothing hands ministered to his incinerated flesh. An angel? Come from heaven to take him home? Nay, where he was going no angels abided. He was where he was supposed to be, Jahannam, the Hell Fire.
His heavy eyelids opened to light. He was on his back, in the mud of his cell. No longer hanging from the dank stone walls, though he still felt the weight of the shackles around his wrists and ankles.
He looked to his left. Big brown eyes framed by thick black lashes stared at him from behind a black veil. He could tell by the deep creases at her eyes that she smiled. A woman? In a Saracen prison? She nodded and continued to apply the soothing balm to his chest. Rohan moved to lean up on an elbow but fell back to the ground. His shoulder was not properly aligned. He would need the strong arm of a man to set it aright. He turned his head in the mud to see Thorin lying still beside him. To his right the ebony giant. From where Rohan lay, he saw the other men, shackled and lying on their backs. He closed his eyes.
When next he opened them, he was greeted with utter darkness. “Thorin?” he whispered through cracked lips, his throat raw from his screams.
“I am here,” came his friend’s barely audible voice.
Rohan fisted his hands. He started at a sharp prick in his right hand. What was this? Careful so as not to lose it, he fingered a piece of smooth iron the length of his longest finger. A nail? One he could use to pry open the lock to his shackles? His heart thundered in his chest. Had the angel given him an out?
The grating of metal on metal curbed the elation of his discovery. Rohan closed his hand around the nail and relaxed back to the floor. Light infiltrated the cell, casting weird shadows around them. Rough foreign words were spoken. A soft female voice responded, steel lacing her words. The door closed behind her.
His angel of mercy had returned.
As she had before, she applied the balm to his chest, her soft hands moving quickly over his body. When he looked at her, she lowered her eyelids.
Rohan reached a hand to her face, and she pulled back, a stricken look in her brown eyes. Swiftly she moved from him to Thorin and around the room, tending each man until she came to the hulking giant beside him. Manhku muttered in his native tongue. The woman hissed.
She moved away from him and did something that astounded Rohan. She made the sign of the cross several times before standing. The door was flung open, and Tariq strode in, his eyes flashing in fury. He grabbed the woman. She shrieked and kicked at him. In a defiant gesture, she tore the veil from her face. Rohan’s anger flared at the sight. The deep honey color of her skin melted into shiny twisted red scars marring the bottom part of her face.
“Do not look upon her face,
!” Tariq screamed.
The woman stood defiant before the Saracen. In one brutal blow to her face, Tariq struck her down. She landed at Thorin’s feet. When Tariq reached down to grab her, Thorin pulled her out of his way and glared up at the Saracen. “Leave her!”
“You would dare look at her!” Tariq raged.
“You work your torture well, Saracen. Can you only prevail over chained knights and helpless women?” Thorin challenged.
Tariq pulled his scimitar from his belt. “Now feel the price you pay for daring to look at her,
In a movement so quick and so vicious it caught them all off guard, Tariq slashed at Thorin’s right eye. Thorin screamed out in pain. He turned his head from the blade as blood rushed from the socket. Tariq brought his sword up to destroy the left eye.
Rage infused Rohan. He roared his mighty battle cry and twisted in his chains. His long legs kicked out, knocking the Saracen from his feet. The scimitar fell from his hand, landing next to Manhku, who grabbed it. As nimble as an ocelot, Tariq turned with a short dagger in his hand and lunged at Rohan.
He stopped wide-eyed in mid-flight; a low gurgling sound followed the slow hiss of air emanating from his chest. Tariq looked down and grabbed at the hilt of his sword, buried in his chest. He looked from it to Manhku, then to Rohan, in stunned silence.
The woman jerked it from his body and pushed him to his knees. “Beware, brother! The seer foretold the coming of the Blood Sword. You are a fool for doubting her.”
She turned to Rohan, then to each man in the room. “Be aware of your destiny, bastard knights. Swear your fealty to the other now, for those of you who survive this land of the Saracens to venture over the great mountains to Gaul will have only the other. Much intrigue awaits your future across the water.”
She reached down and took the dagger from her brother’s grasp. In a movement so quick he had no time to react, she cut a small nick in Rohan’s chin. She repeated the move on each man. She moved to the middle of the room, and with both hands she raised the dagger toward the sky. The blood of the knights mingled on the blade, then trickled down her arm. “You bear the mark of the sword on your chest, your blood mingles here on this blade, binding you as knights of the Blood Sword to the end of time, and with it the legacy begins!”
She closed her eyes and chanted unintelligible words. Her body stiffened. When she opened her eyes, a faraway look clouded them.