Despite the cool autumn breeze that blew off nearby Lac Léman,
sweat ran down
Christian’s muscles in steady streams, soaking his padded gambeson
and causing it to itch liked Hades against his skin. He had been training
his father’s men since morning. He was young for the responsibility—maybe
too young—but Gregori Durand preferred to leave his own flesh
and blood in charge. Since Christian was his only living son, that
meant the honor was his.
Though currently engaged in blocking a downward cut from a six-foot
caught sight of trouble from the corner of his eye.
“Hold,” he said to his training partner.
“Gladly,” William laughed, allowing the blunted tip of his
weapon to drop to the bailey
They fought in chainmail rather than plate armor, plate being more expensive
Conveniently, depending on your point of view, the iron ringed hauberks
were no lighter
than forged steel. Added to that, the two-handed swords they swung were
twice as heavy
as normal blades. The reason for this was simple. Stamina in battle
spelled the difference
between life and death. If they used more weight during practice, normal
easier. To gain that advantage, today they suffered. Though William
was larger than
Christian, his face was just as red and sweaty beneath his helm.
“Left arm!” Christian called to Charles, who was struggling
ineffectually against a taller
“Merde,” Charles cursed. The soles of his boots
slipped in the dirt as he went down flat.
With a happy chortle, Hans—the veteran—pressed the axe-head
of his halberd into
Charles’s mail-clad chest. Charles’s orange hair—the
bane of his existence, according to
him—had straggled from beneath his coif to plaster his face.
“He is stronger than me,” Charles said as Christian came
to stand over him. “And Christ
knows how many stone.”
“You would not notice if you remembered you had two arms. In any
case, you are faster
than he is. Why did you let him close with you that way?”
“We have been at this for hours,” Charles complained. “Forgive
me if I grew weary.”
“Battles do not halt because you are weary,” Hans and Christian
chimed in unison.
Laughing, Hans offered his felled opponent a hand up. The numerous scars
his cheeks made his grin a fierce thing to see.
“Walk until you catch your wind,” Christian said to Charles.
“Then go work with the
Charles groaned, because the pell was a hacking post and—while
not as dangerous as
combat—it was one of the more grueling exercises he could be set
“Left arm strikes only,” Christian clarified. “I shall
tell you when you may cease.”
“I shall tell you when you may cease,” Charles
repeated in mincing tones, but Christian
knew he would obey. Charles only pretended to be contumacious. When
the need arose,
he always fought valiantly.
“You stay with me,” Christian said to Hans, which wiped
the grin from the warrior’s face.
“Charles did not give you enough of a challenge.”
“Ha!” Hans barked, recovering his humor. “The day
you challenge me is the day I retire.”
With his hands spread wide on his halberd’s shaft, he brought
up the weapon and began
to circle. At forty and a few years of age, he was built like an old
prize bull. Even through
his chainmail chausses, Christian saw his thigh muscles bulge. “Do
you worst, stripling.”
“Christian,” someone hissed through the continuing clatter
of mock combat. “Your father
comes to the yard.”
Christian lowered his sword and turned. His father was indeed entering
the bailey of their
fortified hillside house. Like his son, Gregori Durand was swarthy from
French and Italian blood—a common enough mixture here in Switzerland.
Thanks to his
departed mother, who had been a Habsburg by-blow, Christian was a mite
taller than his
father but far less broad. In contrast to his offspring’s litheness,
Christian’s bearlike sire
walked as if each step ought to shake the ground.
Today he dangled a writhing burlap sack from one meaty hand.
The frightened yelps that issued from it had Christian’s stomach
sinking like a stone.
“Scheisse,” Hans muttered beside him. “He
Knowing there could be no delaying this confrontation, Christian closed
between him and his father. Gregori’s expression was, as always,
icy. His father never
showed his temper by losing it.
“Would you care to explain this?” he asked coolly.
“She is but a hound,” Christian said, striving for equal
calm even as his heart thudded in
his chest. At this point, any pretense of continuing to practice ceased.
The men were all
turned to him and his father, not drawing closer but watching. Whether
by accident or
design, the five who most often fought in Christian’s Rotte
stood nearest. Hans was the
exception among his silent supporters. Hans served in whatever group
Wanting to prove he was worthy of their espousal, Christian squared
his shoulders. “I
thought the vineyard owner’s children might like to play with
“I gave you an order,” his father said. “Are you saying
you cannot obey me any better
than this dog?”
“She is still young, Father. She did not mean to ruin your hunt.”
“What she meant does not matter. She acted without discipline,
and she cost me my prey.
The other dogs did not fail me the way she did.”
The other dogs lacked Lucy’s spirit—and her love for humans.
She was smart and playful
and brought out the boy in men who had earned their keep killing strangers
years than Christian had drawn breath. Lucy had slept on one or another
mercenaries’ pallets since she was a puppy, had shared their food
and sent them into gales
of laughter over her antics. Christian did not know a single member
of their household
who had not slipped her a treat or two.
Except his father, of course. His father had no love for any creature
that Christian knew.
“I will take the whipping,” Christian said. “This
is my fault for letting the men make a pet
His father stared at him, his eyes as black as wet stones. The back
of Christian’s neck
tightened. Too late, he saw he should not have offered this.
“You will take the whipping,” his father repeated, his face
Not knowing what else to say, Christian bowed his head in submission.
“Very well,” said his father. His hand gestured toward the
men. “Hans, tie him to the
The veteran soldier cursed too softly to make out which saint he was
blaspheming. He did
not, however, hesitate to lead Christian off. All of them knew better
than to stand against
their commander, for each other’s sake as well as their own. Christian
did not resist his
mail tunic and shirt being stripped from him, nor did he protest when
his best friend
Michael was ordered to wield the single-strand rawhide lash. This was
simply another in
the endless series of tests his father was forever requiring them to
pass. Whip your friend.
Kill this dog. Grovel until your knees grind down. The reward was
never approval, but
just living another day. Christian even understood why his father did
it. This world was a
hard and bloodthirsty place. Only those who commanded fealty could survive.
Hans’s motions were brisk as he bound Christian’s wrists
together with a thick hemp
cord. Christian hugged the pell, the hacked wood post a support he would
be grateful for
“Ready?” Michael asked, the single kindness he would permit
himself to give.
Christian nodded and clenched his jaw.
His father ordered him to take twenty strokes, and Michael’s strong
right arm ensured
they were hard enough to suit the elder Durand’s tastes. Once
destined to become a
monk, Christian’s golden-haired friend grunted with the force
it took to break Christian’s
skin. Luckily, Michael’s aim was precise. The leather stayed on
his back and shoulders
and away from kidneys and spine. This whipping would neither kill him
nor leave a
disabling scar. Christian would live to earn other ones.
His breath whined through his teeth by the fifteenth lash, his body
jerking helplessly at
the pain. Christian tried to contain any other noises, not only because
they would betray
weakness to his father, but because the evidence of his suffering would
distress his friend.
Though Michael was a few years older than Christian, his heart would
never be as hard.
Keeping silent was a luxury Christian fought for. Salt-sweat stung his
wounds like acid as
Michael was obliged to cross stripes he had already made.
“Nineteen,” he counted, his voice ringing out as if he,
too, were being struck.
Then he brought the last blow down.
Christian’s back was throbbing, the fiery heat of the lashes like
snakes writhing on his
skin. He flinched when the blood from one rolled into the next.
“Water,” someone said quietly. A moment later, a bucket
of blessed coolness was poured
Hans cut his wrists free, gripping Christian’s elbow just long
enough to help him lock his
buckling knees and stand. The scarred old warrior’s face was angry,
but only if you
looked closely. Nostrils flaring, Hans stepped away and stood at attention
as soon as
Christian faced his father. Christian was shaky, but his head was high.
He blinked until
the sweat cleared from his vision.
To his amazement, his father laughed.
“I give you this, son,” he said, almost sounding pleased.
“You are no swooning lad.”
Christian had one shocked heartbeat to enjoy this rare piece of praise.
expression sobered as he once again lifted Lucy’s sack. He thrust
it squirming in
Christian’s direction with his usual flinty look.
“Now,” he said. “Kill the dog.”
* * *
Afterward, Christian sat
in the dirt with Lucy cradled in his lap. She was . . . She had
been a short-haired hound, white with liver-colored splotches. Her once
wagging tail hung limp, her body cooling under his petting hands.
Christian’s eyes were dry. If he had cried even as a child, he
could not remember it.
“We will take her,” Philippe said. “Matthaus and I
will bury her outside the walls under a
“Bury her deep.” Christian’s instruction was distant
but steady. “Else, some animal will
dig her up.”
“We will,” Philippe promised, easing Lucy’s slight
weight from him. He glanced back
over his shoulder to where Matthaus waited, slim and tall . . . or perhaps
his gaze scanned
the shadowed archway where Christian’s father might again emerge.
Christian found it difficult to care. Other hands helped him up, careful
to support him
without touching his bleeding back. Christian’s eyes met Michael’s.
His friend’s face was
tight and angry over the beating he had been forced to inflict. Christian
exhausted, as if he could drop where he stood and never get up again.
“Be not troubled,” he said to Michael. “No one else
could have whipped me as well as
Michael snorted out a bitter laugh, then cleared the gawking servants
from the bailey
entrance with a sharp command.
“Find Cook,” he snapped. “The young master’s
wounds need tending.”
The staff scurried away even as the men half-carried, half-dragged their
young master in.
Gregori Durand’s fortress was a thick-walled square built around
a large courtyard. His
men-at-arms slept on the upper floors, three or four to a chamber close
to the weapons
stores. They had never been attacked at home, but they all knew it might
happen. No one
could doubt they had rivals among the area’s mercenary bands.
In these parts, war still brought in more gold than wine.
Christian was one of few with a private room, a narrow, stone-lined
chamber with a
single window—monklike quarters, at best. The two most massive
of the men, Hans and
William, laid him on his bed face down. Despite their care, Christian
hissed with pain as
the muscles of his back shifted.
“St. Sebastian’s balls,” Hans swore darkly. “If
your father weren’t such a good
commander . . .”
He was, though, sharp as an Venetian dagger on the battlefield and off.
found them contracts and got them paid, not always an easy matter when
they had been escorting decided he would rather spend their fee on a
“’s fine,” Christian mumbled into his mattress. “I
shall sleep in tomorrow.”
Only Michael stayed while Cook came to clean his wounds and dress them
He sat on the bed after she had finished, not touching Christian but
probably wanting to.
Ferocious though he was in battle, Michael had a tender heart—and
a tendency toward
guilt left over from his former failed calling.
“I am sorry,” he said now.
“You had to whip me,” Christian said. “If you had
not, Father would have demanded
“No. I am sorry your sacrifice failed to save Lucy.”
Christian’s hands curled into themselves. “She was just
a dog. I should not have let you
men get attached to her.”
Michael’s order was sharp. Christian rolled onto his side to look
up at him. His friend’s
lean, ascetic face was flushed with intensity. “Do not turn into
him, Christian. Your father
is no better than a beast. In truth, he has less soul than that dog
“Do you want me to weep for her?” Christian asked, hard
with scorn. “Do you think that
would change anything?”
“I want you to feel. Or pray. Anything human.” Michael covered
his clenched hand.
“Your mother would not want you to grow cold like this.”
Against his will, Christian’s gaze slid to the wooden crucifix
that hung on his wall. This
and a small gold ring were all that remained of the woman who had brought
him into this
world. He had been seven when she died in childbed, trying to birth
the third of his
brothers who had not lived. He still remembered his father saying good
riddance to weak
stock. A burn flashed across his eyes, but he tightened his jaw swiftly.
“Let her pray for me,” he said. “Let her look down
from heaven and pray for me.”
Christian tugged his hand back, and Michael rose. He paused, seeming
as if he would
speak further. But the one-time monk could not bring himself to preach.
As he put it, his
flesh had always been too weak to counsel others to holiness. Instead,
his breath sighed
out of him and he left.
Christian knew he had disappointed his friend. He also knew he could
responded any other way. He wanted to survive, wanted to protect the
men who relied on
him. If that meant hardening his heart, so be it. From what he could
see, God and the
saints were a capricious lot anyway.
He rolled onto his face again, ordering his fists to relax. His right
hand stroked the coarse
wool blanket on which he lay, fingers petting it until he recognized
what he did. Pain
seized his rib cage worse than any scourge. He could feel Lucy’s
fur again beneath his
fingers, could see her eyes turned trustingly up to his. She had thought
herself safe up
until the instant he snapped her neck. She had thought herself safe
The first sob tore from him, so harsh and strange he barely knew what
it was. Tears came
with it and he could not stop them, though he fought hard enough. He
breathe through the fit of sorrow, the violence of it taking him aback.
Stupid, to cry for a dog. Stupid and pointless.
His sole consolation was that no one was there to see.
* * *
Grace was on her feet,
standing on the grass-clad stage beneath the magical movie screen.
She felt as if her cells were going to explode. Never had she felt more
called to action—
or more helpless. Considering her recently ended life, that was no small
“I should be there,” she said, so sure of it her voice vibrated.
“You said he was my friend.
I should be there to comfort him.”
Her tuxedoed guide came toward her down the broad aisle steps, his expression
and unreadable. “These events happened long ago.”
“You said you could do things for me if I allowed it. I’m
willing to be sent to him.”
“I can’t send you like you think, Grace, not as a person.”
“But you can send me.”
He glanced at the screen where the young man named Christian lay racked
with grief on
his narrow bed. “I can send you after a fashion. If that’s
what you truly wish.”
“I promise you, it is.”
He looked at her, considering. “I didn’t expect you to ask
this. There are . . . limitations
on this sort of thing. Time will stretch but not indefinitely.”
“I accept the limits. Don’t you want me to help him?”
She knew she had to convince him. She’d never had a friend that
she could remember,
not one she’d been allowed to keep. Dead or not, she wanted to
know this one.
Michael smiled, slowly, sweetly, his face abruptly so lovely that it
hurt to look at it. “I
would like you to help him, yes.”
His words had power. This place she’d ended up in—the emerald
grass, the plush red
seats, the flickering screen—melted around her like colored sugar
left in the rain. For just
a moment she was frightened like the old days.
Holy cow! she thought.
And then her feet found solid ground again.
© 2010 by
Emma Holly. It is illegal to
reproduce or distribute this work in any manner or medium without written
permission of the author.
years, mercenary captain Christian Durand has done everything he can to
protect his men from his power hungry father. When a beautiful ghost appears
to offer comfort, he assumes the strain has finally pushed him over the
edge. The specter claims she’s his friend from another life—a
tale the cynical soldier finds difficult to believe.
Grace Gladwell has her own experience with abusive fathers. Thanks to
an accident with hers, one moment she's in 1950s America, the next, she’s
in 1460, Switzerland, trying to convince a Medieval soldier that she's
neither a figment of his imagination or an imp
would be challenges enough without vampire queen Nim Wei setting her immortal
sights on Christian. When she threatens to help his father destroy them
all, Christian must choose between his darker urges and a love that spans
UNIQUE PARANORMAL ROMANCE