Excerpt - Spirited Away
Dreadmoor Keep, 1292 Northern England
Tristan cracked open an eye. He shook his head and peered through the hazy light. Slowly, he stood.
A single torch flame cast shadows across a floor littered with broken shell and rock. Stripped of his mail, he felt the chilling damp that clung to the air and seeped into his bare skin. He moved forward, but cold shackles held his wrists. With effort, he threw himself hard against the iron fetters. The chains held fast. Panting, he gathered what strength remained and grunted, pushing all of his weight against the bindings.
Blood pounded behind his eyes, his vision blurred. Rough stone wall caught his weight as he fell back, spent. His head hammered and his stomach rolled. The stench in the dank chamber threatened to make him lose what little remained in his stomach. He'd know that rancid smell anywhere.
'Twas his own bloody dungeon.
A soft groan came from the corner. Squinting, he made out the slumped form of his youngest knight. Beside him, his captain. Both were tethered to the wall.
“Jason?” His voice cracked through the silence. “Kail? Answer me.” Neither made a sound.
“Come forth!” Tristan's bellowing command echoed off the stone walls. A warm stream trickled down his face and caught on his lip. The bitter taste of blood clung to his tongue and he spat it out. God's teeth, he would kill whoever did this with his bare hands!
“Ahh, the notorious Dragonhawk.” The calm, smooth voice scolded from the darkness. “Such a temper. It seems to favor your family. Loud, disgusting heathens, the lot of you. No doubt your mother's Scottish barbarian blood.” A man emerged from the concealing shadows. “Whatever shall I do with you?”
The blood drained from Tristan's face, a knot formed in the pit of stomach. The breath lodged in his lungs, choking him as he stared, disbelieving, at his foster father. “Erik, what is this?” He pulled at his restraints. “Remove these shackles!”
“Nay, my bound giant. I do believe I have you,” he inclined his head toward Jason and Kail, “and them, exactly where I want you.” Erik de Sabre reached for the scabbard strapped to his side and produced a sword--polished, gleaming, and lethal.
A sapphire stone in the hilt winked its apology at Tristan.
'Twas his own sword.
His body shook with rage. “What is the meaning of this? Erik!” He threw himself at his foster father. “Erik!”
De Sabre closed his eyes and swayed. A soft, murmured chant rolled from his tongue.
Tristan stared in disbelief. A curse? “What has befallen you? Are you mad?” He bucked hard against his bindings. “Erik, cease!” God's teeth, had he killed his men?
Erik de Sabre continued his chant, the strange words falling fast, slow, fast. Then with a jerk, he looked up. “I've waited years for this moment, de Barre. I gave you and those other scrawny lads twelve years of my life. I taught you everything.” His eyes blazed. “I made you, Dragonhawk. Then you…killed my boy. And you and your pitiful knights shall pay.” He lifted the sword, eyes fixed on the stone. “I have carefully practiced the verse taught to me. It will bind you, Tristan de Barre, to Dreadmoor Keep for eternity. Never to sleep, nor eat.” He stroked his beard and turned, sinister eyes fixed, unblinking. “Never to draw your blade, nor ride a horse. Never again to taste the flesh of a woman, nor have her bear your children. A most perfect plan, indeed. Do you not agree?”
Confusion mixed with hatred and churned low in his stomach as Tristan met de Sabre's cold stare. How could this be? His own foster father. “Christ, Erik. This is about Christopher? Damnation, we tried our best to save him!” He couldn't believe what he was hearing, or seeing. “You were like a father to me–to all of us!”
A brief flicker sparked in Erik's eyes, but quickly extinguished. “You'll never know the pain I suffered when my only child was murdered, and whilst in your care, high and powerful Dragonhawk. 'Tis unfathomable. But you'll certainly know the pain of death, as will your men. Along with an eternity of misery.”
Tristan growled and stretched his iron fetters taut. “I don't believe in curses.”
One corner of de Sabre's mouth lifted. “Ah, but you will. How does it feel, Dreadmoor, to know you are about to draw your last breath?” One eyebrow lifted. “And in the dungeon of your very own keep?” He took one step closer, just out of Tristan's reach. “I do wish your beloved family could see you now. Bound, like a mad beast, begging, frothing at the mouth--”
Tristan lunged, but the chains snatched him back. Enraged, he pitched forward again, straining against the manacles. His roar filled the dank chamber as he cursed in his grandfather's French-Norman tongue. “You're wrong, Erik! Your son's death was an accident, and you damn well know it! Don't do this, or you will die by my hands. I vow it!”
De Sabre's quiet laugh filled the chamber. “I think not."
Tristan held de Sabre's unholy gaze as his foster father hefted the sword. Gritting his teeth, Tristan hissed as the cold steel of his own blade slid between his ribs. Erik's face grew dark as he pushed the sword deeper.
He lowered his mouth to Tristan's ear. “If you're wondering where your mighty knights are, don't. I've called for them. They're rushing here at this very moment.” He gave the sword a push. “They'll be here to watch you die...”
Tristan sucked in an agonized breath. Pain ripped through his body but he forced his eyes to remain on the man he once trusted with his life, a man whose mind was maddened from the loss of his son. His words gasped from his lips. “I--will--not--yield.”
De Sabre twisted the blade. “Aye. You will.”
The chamber shifted and Tristan's vision blurred, shapes and planes faded, losing their color, their rigidness, settling into distorted figures, shadows....and then darkness.
Northeastern Coast, England Present Day
“You want me to do what?” Dr. Andi Monroe wiped the rain from her eyes and stared, disbelieving, at her boss. “You're kidding, right? A joke?” She pushed the hood of her weatherproofs from her head and pointed at the five by five meter square area of mucky earth. “You want me to pack up? We've only been on this for three days, Kirk. We've still hours of recording to do, photographs, soil samples and screening–-and Jamie's just getting started with the GPS unit-”
A gust of wind whipped in from the moors and caught the corner of the rough canvas tarp. The stake anchoring it jostled loose and a sail of wet cloth slapped her face. “Oh, crap.” Grabbing the flapping material, Andi fell to her knees, then pulled the small mallet from her tool belt and secured the tarp before it exposed the dirt-stained humerus and skull remains nestled in the spongy black soil. “Kirk, this is not the time for jokes. You know how excited I am about this find.”
Kirk Grey, British-born with a clipped accent, squatted beside her and leveled his gaze with hers. He grinned through the drizzle. “Dragonhawk.”
A breath escaped her lips. She blinked. “What?”
Kirk's gray eyes crinkled at the corners. “Terrance Daughtry just rang my mobile. It appears last night's storm turned over a massive oak, centuries old, right in the Dragonhawk's lair.” His smile widened. “A body of bones entwined in its roots.” He feigned an exaggerated yawn. “What appears to be a rather large hoard of medieval weaponry accompanies the remains–-I don't know all the details. Besides, I wasn't sure if you'd be interested, being so engrossed in this dig as you are, so I told him we'd have to get back–”
Andi laughed and flung herself into her mentor's arms. “Oh my God! Yes! Of course I'm interested! You know how long I've wanted Dreadmoor Castle!” She pulled back and searched his face. “When?”
“Tonight. But there's a catch, I'm afraid.”
Narrowing her eyes, she rose, then stepped back and cocked her head. “What is it?”
Kirk shrugged and stood. “You'll be excavating the site for the rest of the summer.” One eyebrow lifted. “Alone.”
She suppressed a snort. “Another joke, right?”
He shook his head. “I fear I'm speaking the truth of it. Dreadmoor's a terrible eccentric, from what I hear. He doesn't want a throng of people traipsing over his land. Very private, that one. According to Daughtry, Dreadmoor hadn't planned on even reporting the incident. Seems, though, his curiosity got the better of him.” Kirk rubbed his chin. “After Daughtry came out to investigate, Dreadmoor made it clear this project would be kept quiet. No museums, no Heritage Center involvement. So, he's agreed to only one forensic archaeologist for the remainder of the summer.” A smile curved his lips. “You.”
She turned and surveyed the Grey Archaeological Research team, busying themselves in their bright orange and yellow GAR weatherproofs under the steady pelting of rain. She shouldn't just leave them. Some of them, the volunteers, were first-year students. They were relying on her.
They'd been called to the remote moors of Northumberland where a pair of hillwalkers had discovered skeletal remains. They were excited about it. She hated quitting a job. Loathed it. “But what about–”
Kirk pulled Andi under the tarp. Tapping her on the nose, he then pushed a strand of wet hair from her eyes. ”I'll take over as site manager here. I know, it's been a while since I've gotten my hands dirty. Besides. You've done nothing but bore me with tales of yearning for that desolate heap of rocks, not to mention the tiresome tale of that scourge Dragonhawk. You'll just continue to do so if you don't get this dig out of your system.” He raised an eyebrow. “Unless you don't think you can handle it alone?”
Excavating alone, without even one little intern. Was she crazy? Yes, Monroe, you are.
She grinned. Dreadmoor Keep. Situated on an ancient shelf of rock overlooking the blustery North Sea, the thirteenth century hold had a haunted, mysterious past. Fifteen knights, the original Lord Dreadmoor, a.k.a. Dragonhawk, included, vanished from the keep in twelve ninety-two. No trace of them had ever been found. It was as though they'd never existed.
The memory of the majestic keep took her breath away. It had been years since she'd first crept onto the castle grounds–how old had she been? Eighteen? What a little daredevil she'd been. But she'd never forgotten it--had never forgotten him. A strange experience, one she wasn't too sure had even happened. Obsession didn't quite sum it up.
A massive man, dressed in thirteenth-century chain mail had appeared out of nowhere. He'd saved her from falling through a hole in the crumbling steps of the Kirk. She'd reached...her hand had fallen right through him.
Like a faded image on an old projector movie, he'd been there...but hadn't been there. She'd caught herself, screamed, and he'd been there again, talking her down from the jagged stone hole. When she'd reached the bottom, he had vanished. She'd chalked the mishap up to an overactive teenage imagination. Youthful drama. Yet, her scientific thought process aside, she couldn't help but wonder sometimes...Had he been one of the missing knights?
She'd gotten into big trouble with the Dean of Forensics. But it'd been worth it. Never would she forget that day, or those piercing sapphire eyes...
Andi met Kirk's steady gaze. A striking man of fifty-eight, he kept his salt and pepper gray hair clipped as close as his trademark pencil-thin goatee. Andi felt as though she'd known him forever–practically had. He'd not only been the Dean of Forensics, but also like a father to her, and the closest thing she'd ever had to family. An implanted Brit from Canterbury, he'd groomed her through all of her college years into the respected forensic archaeologist she was today. And he'd just offered her the chance of a lifetime.
“I take it yes is the official answer? I need to ring Daughtry, post haste. No patience, that one.”
Dreadmoor Keep. The legend of Dragonhawk and his private order of knights–-gone without a trace of their physical existence. And now, a body of bones and a hoard of medieval weapons turn up on Dreadmoor's land. Could it be?
She'd longed to return, but being private property, GAR had never been given an invitation. Until now. Shoving her hands into her pockets, she grinned. “Absolutely. You tell Daughtry I'll be there yesterday.”
“We're nearing the castle grounds, missy. Best ye get your belongings together,” Gibbs, the cab driver, said.
“We're already there?”
“Aye, 'tis but a few more miles ahead.”
She glanced out the window. Black and gray clouds twisted and churned overhead. Great. Another storm, and it looked like a big one. Storm or not, she couldn't wait to see Dreadmoor again. Even if it meant excavating the site alone.
A familiar feeling of anticipation knotted her stomach, just like the first time she'd laid eyes on the hauntingly beautiful keep. No guard had been at the gate, and it hadn't taken much maneuvering to sneak in from the shore side. Adrenaline had flushed through her veins with each new discovery. The dark corners, rough old stones, and the ancient church near the cliffs–-what a thrill! Now, only minutes separated her from the castle–-not to mention the fascinating find last night's storm had unearthed. What if the medieval weapons truly were clues to the castle's mysterious past? She couldn't wait to grid the area and get to work.
Andi pressed her nose against the cool glass of the window. Just south of Northumberland, she admired the quaint little seaside townships hugging the North Sea coastline. Beautiful stone cottages and old cemeteries flashed by. Although still daylight, the stores were all closed, their lights turned off. This time of year, the skies didn't darken until well after eleven p.m. A thick mist crept in from the sea, settling over the green landscape and slipping through the weathered, dark stone buildings like a silvery blanket. It gave the place a ghostly glow. A shiver scurried through her. She could barely stand the wait.
Gibbs shot her a lop-sided grin through the rear-view mirror. “You're that American archaeologist, ain't ye? Truth be told, we all thought ye was a gent.”
We? It'd been less than a day since she'd accepted the job, and the whole village knew about it? “I'm kind of used to the name-gender mix up. Happens all the time.” She smiled at Gibbs in his mirror. “And yes, I'm an American.”
“Figured as much. Well. Best ye watch yer step, girlie.” His eyebrows lifted. “Strange things have been known to go on 'round that old spooky pile o' rubble.”
Andi's thoughts rushed back to her own weird experience and Dreadmoor's unexplained past. “What kind of strange things?”
Gibbs shrugged, his bushy gray eyebrows disappearing under the bill of his cap. “Battle cries. Fierce ones, too. They can be heard all the way 'round to the village, on a good day. I even once heard a terrible thundering, like horse hooves pounding.” He glanced back at the road ahead. “I got paid an extra fifty pounds just to pick ye up and drive ye out here, ye know. No one else would do it.”
Andi stared back at the old cabby and raised an eyebrow. They were no more than two or three miles from the village. “What's there to be afraid of at Dreadmoor?”
Gibbs ignored her and pointed a long, bony finger. “Get your bags ready, missy, 'cause I ain't staying long.”
Andi looked up, surprised to find the castle perched high on the cliff ahead. Her breath caught in her throat. It was just as wonderful as it had been twelve years before. “Aren't you going to drive me through the gates?”
“Nope.” He turned onto the gravel path leading up to the outer barbican. “Jameson's the butler. He'll help you, once inside. A bit daft, that one, as were his ancestors before him, to work in that haunted heap. And there'll be young Will, the guard at the drawbridge. He just don't know any better. But that's as far as I go.”
Andi stifled her own concern. “All right, then. No problem.” She gathered her pack and site kit. Gibbs pulled up near the outer barbican and came to a halt. Barely.
“Okay, missy. Here ye go.” The cabbie's eyes darted back and forth across the castle grounds. Did he expect the ghost of Dragonhawk to jump out at any moment and run him through? Or was it all hype? England was full of ghost stories, and nearly every castle had one or two. Green Lady. White Lady. Lady in Gray. None, she thought, as fascinating as Dragonhawk and his missing knights. What, then, had she seen all those years ago?
“Ye heed my warning, girlie,” Gibbs said. “Watch yourself.”
“Don't worry. I will.” Andi cast the driver a smile and jumped out of the cab. She grabbed her bags and tools from the trunk and stepped back just in time. Gibbs pulled away as soon as her bags cleared the back end.
The car rambled down the cliff's path. With a shake of her head she faced the aged stone building and drew in a satisfied breath.
The barbican. In medieval days it would have housed several heavily armed and mailed guards. Hopefully, the present owner would be eccentric enough to at least house one, and maybe that one would help her lug her bags to the great hall. As she trudged closer, bags in tow, a man stepped out from the thick-stoned entranceway.
Without the first trace of a welcoming smile, the guard held his hand up. “Stop right there, miss.”
The young man wore a solid navy blue uniform–-like the constables she'd met on the moors. She smiled and shrugged her pack. “Hello. I believe I'm expected?”
“Nay, miss.” He shook his dark head to re-affirm his nay. “I've no lass on my roster.” He cast her a stern look. “I'll call your driver back. This is not a touring castle.”
“No, wait.” Andi hurried forward as the guard stepped back into the barbican. “Does your roster include a Dr. Monroe?”
The guard didn't even spare a look at the clipboard he held. “I'm afraid that is none of your concern, miss. Now. Himself doesn't take kindly to mishaps. So if you would step to the side and wait for your cabbie--”
“Wait--I am Dr. Monroe.” Andi flipped open a side pocket on her backpack and dug for her Grey Archaeological Research Institute ID badge. Normally, the confusion wouldn't bother her so much. But she ached, was tired, and had a gnawing sense of uncertainty that she'd like to have the owner of Dreadmoor alleviate–-ASAP.
A booming clap of thunder made her jump. Fat, heavy raindrops fell, on by one, and plopped on top of her head. Great. She flashed the guard her badge. “I am Dr. Andi Monroe--Andrea, actually, a she, not a he.” She threw him a pleading look. “Please, let me in.”