The Quest

The Quest

Virginia Brown

February 2018 $16.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-850-9

 
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Synopsis | Reviews | Excerpt


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Fighting for his son . . .

Rolf of Dragonwyck is better known as the Dragon. This man of myth and legend has always lived by the strength of his sword and fierce reputation. The only chink in his armor—his beloved young son, being held hostage by the pitiless Earl of Seabrook. When Fate gives him an option to turn the tables, he takes the chance.

Captured by the Dragon . . .

Swept away from Seabrook by the Dragon’s trick, Lady Annice defies this fearless warrior at every turn. Determined to escape, she is thwarted by the ferocious knight and expects the worst, but soon finds the Dragon is not at all what she had been told. His justice and decency invite not only her respect, but lure her untouched heart.

Yet in the tempestuous world of King John of England, is it possible for a dragon to love a lady? Can these two lovers survive the perils around them and rescue a small boy from his cruel captor? When the Dragon is presented with a dangerous choice, he must decide if the lady who has won his heart is worth risking his life and his son . . .


Virginia Brown has written more than fifty historical and contemporary romance novels. Many of her books have been nominated for Romantic Times’ Reviewer’s Choice Award, Career Achievement Award for Love and Laughter, and Career Achievement Award for Adventure. She is also the author of the bestselling Dixie Diva mystery series and the acclaimed mainstream Southern drama/mystery, Dark River Road, which won the national Epic e-Book Award in 2013 for Best Mainstream.

Reviews



"An intricate tapestry ablaze with vibrant characters, chivalry, betrayal, and passion, THE QUEST is a medieval lover's treasure.” –Lizabelle Cox, RT Book Reviews

Excerpt

Chapter 1

England

March 1214

MIST CURLED SOFTLY around high stone walls, tattered trails shrouding the turrets of Stoneham Castle. A light wind blew, sifting through mist and the tree branches burgeoning with fresh green buds of new life. A cock crowed sleepily to herald the approaching dawn. The faint clatter of awak­eninginhabitants inside the castle could be heard in the thick woods stretching beyond the moat that encircled Stoneham.

Waiting with ill-concealed impatience for the sun to rise, Rolf of Dragon­wyck quieted his restless destrier with a gentle rein and softly spoken word. He did it absently, his mind already on the anticipated meeting with the Earl of Seabrook. It was long overdue, as was a visit with Rolf’s son, Justin. Only recently returned from France, Rolf had hoped to see Justin by now, but Lord Thurston had delayed.

A surge of anger tightened his mailed hands upon the reins, and the black destrier gave a startled snort, shaking his head with a harsh jangle of bit and curb chain.

Leaning forward, Edmund de Molay said softly, "Patience, my liege. Mayhap this time Lord Thurston will relinquish the boy.”

Rolf did not reply for a moment. Edmund meant well. But both men knew that the likelihood of Thurston of Seabrook giving up custody of his nephew was slim. If it would not endanger Justin, Rolf would have risked the king’s wrath by razing Stoneham to the ground to get his son. ’Twould not be the first castle he’d reduced to a pile of rubble; but if he acted without King John’s sanction, he’d soon find himself one of the outlaw barons. He had worked too hard, endured too much, to lose it all now.

This time, with a letter from the Church pressing his suit to recover his only son and heir, he hoped for success. It had taken two years and many petitions and bribes to get even this politely worded letter from the cardinal. It was a slim chance at best. Even John ignored the Church when it was expedient. John’s quarrel with the pope over the appointment of a new archbishop of Canterbury had resulted in the king’s excommunication from the Church. Only the year before had the rift been mended, so now it was doubtful the letter he had worked so hard to secure would matter to Seabrook.

Yet Edmund de Molay’s hopeful words still rang in his ears, and Rolf managed a slight smile. "Mayhap he will, Edmund. I have heard that Thurston is not high in the king’s estimation at the moment.” His smile twisted into a sardonic curl. "Something to do with the debauchery of a young lady-in-waiting who had also caught John’s eye, I understand.”

Edmund laughed softly, his brown eyes gleaming with humor. "It has never been said that Thurston of Seabrook has either restraint or fore­sight.” He paused, then added as a curse, "Bloody swine.”

"Aye.” Rolf stared at the forbidding stone walls of the keep that held his son hostage. "But that swine had foresight enough to take my son from me. I have been held hostage as well as Justin and would have it done. If I must, I will pursue Seabrook to the death to take back that which is mine.”

Edmund lapsed into silence, and both men gazed at the mist-shrouded castle. One of the men-at-arms coughed, and a horse whickered softly. There was the muffled sound of hooves against dirt, mingling with the metallic clank of weapons and chain mail. They had brought only a small band of men, just enough to make a show of force without being a threat. Rolf wanted only his son, and he would take whatever means he could to move Seabrook to consent.

But it was not in his nature to plead, even for that which he desired most. Nay, Edmund had oft made the remark that Rolf was as his ances­tors of old, the daring Northmen who had mingled with Saxons to produce valiant warriors much more accustomed to storming castle walls with fire and sword than with letters and words. And it was true. Jests, but nothing truer had ever been spoken of him. He had not earned his fierce reputation by offering up flowery phrases and stilted speeches. Since he’d been a boy barely strong enough to lift a sword, he had been used to taking what he wanted by force. Always large for his age, he had learned early and by necessity that the weak were quickly vanquished, while only the strong survived. Yea, he had learned it at his father’s knee and, in so doing, had accumulated keeps and wealth.

But he would yield it all to have again one small boy....

"HAVE YOU HEARD who awaits without the keep?”

Annice d’Arcy turned at her cousin’s soft murmur. Gray shafts of early light streamed through a high window in hazy ribbons, picking out the pale glints in Alais’s hair as she leaned closer. Nearby, sleepy-eyed ladies huddled close to a large brazier, warming hands and bare toes at the glowing red coals. Alais beckoned one of them come to her to do her hair, then turned back to Annice with an expectant expression.

Annice was working a long strand of her hair into a neat twist, care­fully winding a thin blue silk ribbon around the coil. As she tied the ends in a long bow, she looked up with a faint smile. Alais loved to gossip and usually prefaced her choicest bits with "Have you heard... ?” If Alais wasn’t such a sweet-natured person who normally wouldn’t harm anyone, her fondness for gossip would have been more than Annice could bear.

"No,” Annice asked dutifully, "who is outside the keep on such a chill morning?”

"A dragon,” Alais whispered with a dramatic lilt in her tone. She glanced over her shoulder at the girl binding her hair, then added, "I long to view the ravening beast my husband says is the most vicious warrior in the land.”

Frowning, Annice said slowly, "Do you mean Rolf, Lord of Dragon­wyck? The man they call le Draca?”

Alais nodded. "Aye. Have you heard of him?”

"Yea. I have heard a little.” Annice paused. "His reputation is grim, even for one of the king’s warring barons. ’Tis said that he is ruthless with his enemies, and a stark man even with those of his close acquaintance. ’Twas le Draca who burned the entire keep of one of John’s enemies, giving no quarter to any inside.” She drew in a deep breath. "What does he here?”

"Thurston does not discuss business with me, but I know that he is guardian to le Draca’s son.” Alais smiled at her cousin’s surprise. "You have been here only a short time, so you could not know. Rolf was wed to my husband’s sister. She died in childbed, and Thurston was made guardian of their child. I do not understand myself why the king would name him guardian to Dragonwyck’s son, save that it does keep the Dragon on a short leash. Rather like a tame bear, Thurston once said.”

"I hardly think one could compare a man of le Draca’s brutish nature to a poor bear,” Annice murmured. "P’raps the title of dragon is more suited to him, after all.”

Alais laughed and gave her a quick hug. "Yea, and a comely dragon he is, I hear. Shall we see for ourselves how comely he is?”

"Of course. I am never averse to viewing a man said to be comely, even one also said to wage war as savagely as the Welsh.”

"I am so glad you came to stay with me. All the other ladies in resi­dence are dull creatures and much too dreary. I do hope your stay is lengthy.”

"No more than I do,” Annice replied. It was true. Though there were times when Alais could try her patience greatly, she was grateful she was there instead of imprisoned. Circumstances had rendered it impossible for Annice to remain in her own keep after her husband had been executed. Luc d’Arcy had been all that stood between her and disaster; even he had failed her in the end.

"Here,” Annice said when Alais sharply reproved her serving maid for pulling her hair, "let me bind it for you. I’m much faster.”

"Aye,” Alais muttered in relief. She waved the girl away with an impatient hand. "I vow I shall go mad if Thurston insists upon putting one more of these slatternly girls in my care. Do I look like a nursemaid?”

"Nay, sweet cousin.” Annice hid a smile. It was unusual to find Alais interested in her own two daughters, much less the young girls Thurston seemed to favor as serving maids. Annice was the one who often visited the nursery, not Alais. She tied the last ribbon in her cousin’s hair, neatly binding the willful blond tresses. "There, Alais. ’Tis done.”

Alais peered into a small mirror and nodded with satisfaction. "I think the scarlet ribbons look best in my hair, don’t you? Your hair is such a dark red that the blue ribbons look best on you. Now, come. We shall be late for Mass if we do not hurry. You know how ill-tempered Père Francois becomes if we arrive late.”

"It seems to me,” Annice murmured as she tucked her hair beneath the folds of an ermine-lined hood, "that Père Francois is much too fond of being ill-tempered.”

Alais broke into a peal of laughter. "Yea, but he enjoys it so. One should suffer the whims of the elderly, I suppose.”

Annice smiled faintly and went to warm her hands at the fire while Alais began to scold the ladies still gathered around it. A quick, hard slap or two was administered; then the group left the main chamber for the small chapel in the bailey.

Gray light filtered through the mist in shifting patches. Early-morning chill was still in the air. Even in her mantle of wool and ermine she was cold, and Annice slid her hands beneath the long cuffs attached to the sleeves of her cape to keep them warm. Her lambswool gloves had been lost recently, and she suspected that one of the girls Thurston had sent as attendants for his young wife was responsible for their loss. Poor Alais. She pretended not to know why her husband sent her the girls, when everyone else was well aware of Thurston’s penchant for casually tumbling serving wenches. It wasn’t that Alais wasn’t pretty, for she was; her complexion was fair and unblemished, her hair a golden blond that men seemed to favor, and her body pleasingly rounded. Yet Thurston of Seabrook favored lowborn sluts and common serfs in his bed instead of his wife. Why, Annice often wondered, were men such rutting beasts?

Père Francois was already waiting impatiently on them and cast a severe glance at the group of giggling girls with Annice and Alais. Alais gave the nearest girl a harsh pinch, and the giggling ceased at once as they entered the chapel.

It was so cold in the chapel that Annice’s breath formed frost clouds as she knelt to pray. First she prayed for the repose of the souls of her parents, then, more dutifully, for her husband. Candlelight flickered over gray stone walls, embroidered hangings, and the gilt threads in the elderly priest’s surplice. His voice seemed to drone on forever. The responses Annice made were reflexive, learned by rote and spoken by rote. As usual lately, her thoughts turned to her situation instead of to the priest’s homily.

These were perilous times for her. She had pleaded with Luc not to listen to the discontented barons mouthing treason, but her husband had refused to hearken to her. When the plot against King John had been discovered, some barons involved had been fortunate enough to escape to France. Luc had been one of the less fortunate. He’d lost his life, and his wife had lost her home. And her freedom.

Good fortune, however, had rescued Annice. Her father had been one of the few who had kindly tolerated the child John. Even after Hugh’s death ten years before, the king had not forgotten the kindnesses shown to a prince. It was a stroke of sheer whimsy that John had recalled Hugh de Beauchamp’s daughter, but that recollection had saved Annice from prison or worse.

It was at the king’s order that she had come to Seabrook to stay with her cousin. Luc d’Arcy had been the Earl of Seabrook’s vassal, and his death had left her Thurston’s responsibility. The earl had appointed a steward to care for her lands until he settled a suitable husband on her. Husband.

Annice hoped that it would be a long time before a husband was found. She had been betrothed in her cradle and wed at the age of thirteen to a man she’d never seen before; though Luc d’Arcy had not been an overly cruel man, neither had he been a good husband. Her first reaction to Luc’s death had been fear for her own safety, then irritation that he had so foolishly cast his own life away. Annice had observed the proper period of mourning with little emotion.

She blew warm breath over her icy fingers. In the eleven years she’d been wed to Luc d’Arcy, she had spent many hours in prayer. Not, perhaps, as she should. How many times had she knelt on cold stones to pray that she might have a child? More times than she could count, yet she had never conceived. That she was barren had always been a bitter draft to swallow, yet now she hoped it might dissuade at least some suitors for her hand in marriage. She had seen enough of men and marriage to last her an entire lifetime. If possible, she would rule her own lands and spend the rest of her years in happy solitude.

But that, she knew, was not likely to happen. Luc’s treason had wrested his lands from her grasp but left intact her inheritance. Though not a great fortune, it was substantial. Her only kin, a half brother raised in Normandy, would not dare interfere with the English king who was also his Norman overlord. As her overlord, Seabrook earned a tidy sum from her estates. She was a valuable pawn to the earl. With her dowry lands as prize, more than one man would press his suit.

When, finally, Mass was ended, Annice followed Alais and the others outside. The sun was higher now, burning off the mist. New green buds sprouted in the garden beyond the small fence, and she could hear the faint bleating of lambs. Spring at last, when everything was new and promising after the cold, bleak winter.

"Annice,” Alais said, nudging close to her, "let us hurry to the hall to break our fast. Mayhap we will actually see this grim Dragon who haunts our forest...”

The hall was chaotic, as always. A fire burned huge logs in the center of the room, smoke spiraling up to blacken the rafters. Well-trained birds of prey perched on the blackened beams, and an occasional feather drifted downward. Huge tapestries hung on the walls and fluttered slightly in elusive drafts. High windows filtered gray light. Torches sputtered in wall sconces, and branched candle holders glimmered at intervals on the long tables. The lord’s table was placed at the head, with more tables set up at right angles down the length of the hall to accommodate knights and guests. Servants scurried back and forth from the kitchens to the tables, bearing massive platters of food that was usually cold by the time it reached those crowded at the tables.

Lord Seabrook favored a substantial morning meal; with the usual bowls of porridge and milk, he required meat when it was not Lent, eggs, and large quantities of white bread. Annice ate sparingly. Seated at the lord’s table with Alais and her husband, she had the vantage point of viewing the entire hall. It was always interesting to her to observe the others who gathered of a morn. Some of them were knights in Seabrook’s service, and she recognized one or two of his vassals, as well as one of her own vassals. She knew few men seated below the saltcellars. There was no sign of the Dragon.

Dogs quarreled beneath the long tables, fighting among the rushes for scraps of food. An occasional yelp was heard when a booted foot made contact with a particularly quarrelsome dog. The hum of conversation ebbed and flowed around her.

It was a relief to Annice when the morning meal was over. Knights and vassals departed, and servants began to clear the tables. She started to rise. Alais quickly grabbed the trailing cuff of her sleeve and gave a sharp tug.

"Stay,” she whispered. "Don’t you want to see the Dragon?”

Annice hesitated. Curiosity prompted her to linger, but prudence bade her flee to her chambers. The less she knew of Thurston’s affairs, the better she liked it. The little she’d heard since she had been at Stoneham Castle was more than enough to convince her that she did not truly care for the earl’s method of dealing with his villeins or the barons loyal to him. But this meeting did hold interesting promise. As a matter of courtesy, Rolf le Draca should have been invited inside the castle to break his fast with the earl. That he had been kept waiting outside until the meal was over was an open insult.

"Aye,” she murmured, sitting back down on her stool, "p’raps I shall stay.”

Alais smiled and squeezed her arm. It was a conspiratorial gesture; if Annice had departed the hall, Thurston would have probably sent his wife away with her. As it was, he seemed not to notice either of them as he gave the signal for business to begin. Tall, thin, and with the sharp face of a hawk, Seabrook took his seat in the high-backed chair behind a small table and waited. Torchlight flickered over his dark head as he drummed his fingers impatiently. A scribe stood just behind him, holding a ledger and quill.

Trestle tables were being removed and stacked against the walls until the next meal, and only a few benches were left scattered among the rushes. At the far end of the hall, the massive wooden doors were guarded by men-at-arms. Annice noticed that some of the knights had returned to the hall wearing chain mail and bearing weapons. They lounged with studied indifference against walls and in small groups. There was an air of expectation in their stances, almost of eagerness. ’Twas plain they antici­pated trouble.

Annice’s hands tightened in her lap when the double doors swung open at last and the Lord of Dragonwyck was announced. The atmosphere in the hall was charged as if with summer lightning when he stepped into the vast chamber. Alais muttered something under her breath that sounded like a prayer, and even Annice fought the pressing desire to cross herself as if to ward off a demon.

Framed in the open doorway and quite alone, the Dragon paused to survey the hall before approaching. Annice’s first impression was of a much larger man than she’d supposed him to be. P’raps it was the armor he wore—or his demeanor. It was rumored that he descended from the fierce, huge Northmen who had raged along England’s shores at one time. The resemblance, it was said, was especially notable in battle, when he fought as one of the wild berserkers feared for their savagery and strength.

Annice thought now that the rumors must hold much truth. Despite the intimidation of the earl’s armed men in the chamber, the Dragon’s manner was casual, almost indifferent. Even, she thought with growing amazement, slightly amused as he looked around the hall.

He did not wait to be beckoned nearer. Rolf le Draca strode forward with the arrogant bearing of a king, ignoring the stir he made amongst those watching. There was none of the air of a humble petitioner about him, as one might have supposed. Nay, this man had the insolence to approach the table where Seabrook waited without performing the courtesy of a formal address.

"You know why I have come,” le Draca announced without pre­amble, and Annice shivered at the hostility in his rasping tone.

There was an odd unsettling in her stomach, as though she had eaten too many green apples. The Dragon was not at all what she’d expected; his massive shoulders were covered with chain mail and a surcoat that bore a rampant gold dragon against a field of black. A scarlet mantle swung from his shoulders, and a sword was belted at his side. He had removed his gauntlets and held them loosely in his hands. He wore no helmet, and his hair was a blaze of golden blond cut short over the ears and on his neck. His dark brown beard was neatly trimmed. Instead of the brutish, coarse man she had anticipated seeing, this man projected a leashed ferocity and aristocratic bearing that was startling. There was none of the butcher in his appearance; nay, he could have stepped from the verses of a romantic tale of knightly love. High cheekbones and a straight nose, large eyes beneath dark-blond brows, and a well-chiseled mouth that was now set in a taut line gave him the look of an archangel more than of a savage barbarian. Could this be the same Rolf le Draca whose name had been coupled with whispers of murder and vile excesses? It seemed unlikely, yet there could be no mistake.

The Dragon shifted impatiently when Seabrook did not reply; his spurs clinked. "Well, my lord?”

At last Thurston reacted, his voice light and faintly amused. "You have a novel method of begging a boon, Lord Rolf. ’Tis not my wont to discourse on such things in so terse a manner.”

A dark-blond brow rose abruptly. "Nay? ’Twas my thought that you would prefer not to discuss this at all, Seabrook. Yet I have brought you a recommendation from the cardinal that you release my son to me.”

"Have you?” Thurston leaned forward, clasping his hands on the surface of the table and smiling blandly. "Which cardinal, may I ask? As you know, there has been some contention as to who is the proper ecumenical authority in England.”

"Robert Curson,” was the growling reply, and Seabrook’s smile broadened.

"Ah. He is now the legate in France, is he not?” Thurston gave a careless shrug. "Though Curson may negotiate with kings, he has little power to sway me.”

"He is English born and an ecclesiastical power. I have proved my oath of fealty to the king. Now I would have my son returned to me.” Dragonwyck drew in a deep breath, and Annice studied him more closely.

Tension cut deep grooves in his face, and his eyes were slightly narrowed and intense. Beneath thick brown lashes, his eyes glittered a hot green that revealed tightly held fury. Yet there was something else there that intrigued her, a look almost of pain. His hands twisted his gauntlets into a tight coil as he waited for Seabrook’s response, and Annice was suddenly, inexplicably, sympathetic.

"I would see the document signed by the cardinal,” Thurston said after a moment, and le Draca withdrew a sheaf of folded parchment from a pouch on his belt. He stepped forward to place it on the table before Seabrook. There was an immediate reaction from the armed knights, a faint clink of swords and chain mail as they stirred. The Dragon paid them as much attention as he would have one of the huge hounds lurking under the tables. He stood impassively while Seabrook unfolded and read the missive.

Only Dragonwyck’s eyes moved, registering those around him with an alertness bred into well-trained knights. When his gaze shifted to her, Annice caught her breath. There was a faint flicker in his eyes; then he looked past her to the others at the table and beyond. She felt herself flush at his casual dismissal. There had been no interest in his gaze, only the recording of her presence as unimportant. It had been a long time since she had been so summarily dismissed.

For some reason his reaction rankled. Though she had no idea why she should care, Annice took affront. Few men looked at her without interest; even those infrequent visitors who had not yet been made aware of her status as heiress had appreciated her looks. She was not vain about her appearance, but she would have been utterly ignorant not to realize the effect she had on men at times. Too many men had stammered out paeans of praise for her "fair, beauteous face.” It had never mattered to her before, yet it was slightly insulting that the Lord of Dragonwyck did not seem to have the same opinion.

A crisp rustle of parchment drew le Draca’s immediate attention, as well as everyone else’s. Seabrook crumpled the document in one hand, his dark eyes narrowing into thin slits as he studied the man before him.

Annice was not at all surprised to hear Thurston murmur, "I regret that I must refuse your petition. Until King John returns from his sojourn in France, I have no authority to release the boy to you. It is at John’s request, after all, that I have been named protector for your son.” A faint, derisive smile curled Seabrook’s mouth. "Something to do with doubts about your loyalty to the crown, I warrant.”

"My loyalty to the crown and to England has never been in question,” was the sharp, snarling reply.

"P’raps I have heard wrongly, then. Forgive me. Alas, the outcome is the same. My decision is still no.” Seabrook’s smile grew a bit weaker when le Draca took an abrupt step forward, one hand dropping to the hilt of his sword. There was the metallic whisk of swords being drawn along the sides of the hall. No one else moved, though someone in the chamber gave a nervous cough.

Dragonwyck, however, seemed to recall his situation and paused, eyes still glittering with fury. There was a brief, sizzling silence when even the great hounds seemed to hold their breath; then la Draca inclined his head in a terse acceptance of Seabrook’s edict. "As you will, my lord. When the king returns, I expect to see you again.”

"When King John returns from his foray into France, perhaps you should offer your petition to him.”

Holding out his hand, le Draca said evenly, "So I shall. Return it to me.”

There was a brief hesitation as Thurston clenched the document in his fist. His eyes clashed with le Draca’s; then, slowly, he held out the crumpled sheaf of parchment; le Draca took it from him. He gently smoothed it before refolding it and placing it back in a leather pouch. Then he looked up at Seabrook with a cool stare that made the earl shift uneasily in his chair.

Lip curling, le Draca asked curtly, "May I at least visit with my son? It has been over a year since I have seen him.”

"Of course. He is being held hostage, not prisoner.” Seabrook gave an airy wave of his hand. "I will have an escort accompany you to a private chamber for a visit.” He paused, then added, "You will understand, of course, if I insist that you leave your weapons with my bailiff.”

"From you, my lord, I would expect nothing else.”

Annice realized she was holding her breath when le Draca pivoted on his booted heel and strode from the hall. She let it out slowly and heard Alais do the same. A curious silence lengthened; there was only the sound of the scribe’s pen furiously scribbling notes. The hush was broken when the earl cleared his throat and gave the order for the Lord of Dragonwyck’s son to be taken to an antechamber.

Turning to his wife, Seabrook commanded, "Go with them.” He did not give a reason, but Annice knew that the earl expected Alais to report upon everything said between father and son. If he had sent one of his men, it would have been too obvious. A gentlewoman, however, would not be as suspect.

"Come with me,” Alais murmured as she obediently rose from her stool, and Annice assented. Curiosity as much as compassion prompted her to attend her cousin. No small child should be forced to confront a man of le Draca’s fierce temperament alone, but Annice could not help but wonder what such a man would have to say to a son he had seen only a few times in five years.

And, she could not help but muse, it would give her the chance to study him at closer distance. For some reason she could not explain, Rolf le Draca intrigued her.


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