First Sample ChapterHere is the first sample chapter of the medieval romance novel Badge of Honor.
England - 1212
Honor is the reward of virtue. -- Cicero
Catherine drew in a breath of the frigid night air. A thousand shards of ice lanced her throat; she bit off a moan, holding still against the pain. Winter had not yet released its glacial grip on the town. Arctic gusts caused her breath to puff out in frosty clouds of shimmering white. She snugged the thick hood of her cloak closely in around her face, pressing tightly against the alley wall, seeking even the slightest shelter from the cutting wind. The warmth of the inn’s fire was tantalizingly close, just around the corner and through a door, but she pushed the image from her mind, steeling her resolve. She would not abandon her watch post, not now, not with so much at stake. It was only a matter of time before the threat appeared, before she balanced on that knife’s edge between courage and foolhardiness.
There – she caught the glimpse of movement in the distant shadows. A small group of rough mercenaries loped down the cobblestone alley facing her, one of the men blowing into his cupped hands to keep his fingers limber.
The group’s leader came to a light-footed halt at the edge of the deserted square, and the men drew to his side. She watched them with careful appraisal, judging. They were now near where the alleyway opened up into a large cobblestone intersection, ringed on all four sides by multistory stone buildings. The courtyard was brightly lit by the waning gibbous moon. A brilliant exuberance of stars coated the clear January sky like a dense school of sparkling minnows in an ebony pond.
Catherine’s eyes focused in on the man in front, and she shivered. Conrad. Of all the men to have been sent … she shook her head. She knew him well, knew his cold heart, his ruthless sharpness, his clinical efficiency in dealing out death. A band of iron pulled tightly around her chest, and she let out a long breath, willing herself to relax. She had faced many challenges in her life, and as desperate as the odds seemed, she would see this through.
In a few days she would have to put this life behind her. If this was to be one of her last actions taken as Shadow, her alter-ego, she would make sure it represented her very best.
It seemed her opponent was taking no chances tonight. Conrad waited without moving, absently brushing the long mane of white-streaked hair out of his eyes with a gloved left hand. His sword hand held at the ready near the hilt. He stayed well in the shadows thrown by the edge of the building, his dark clothes helping him to blend in.
Catherine’s eyes creased in confusion as she waited, motionless, looking over the group. Tall and haggard, Conrad had maintained his domination of the bandits for many years despite numerous attempts by rivals to unseat him. Now nearly forty, he usually disdained such trivial tasks as this. Why was he out with his crew on this desolate night, crossing her path?
Bitterness shadowed her heart; she pushed it away with fierce resolution. The man was a scorpion. She would have rather faced almost any other team than his. But he was here, and she had to ensure he did not succeed.
She could follow his gaze as Conrad’s eyes roamed smoothly over the landscape, focusing carefully on potential danger spots. To his left a wooden sign hung from a pair of iron chains over a decrepit doorway. A black rooster was sloppily painted on the sign’s cracked surface. The creaking of the rusty metal, swaying unsteadily in the breeze, was the only noise in this desolate corner of town. There were no signs of candles or movement in any of the windows. The other walls presented only dark windows and alleyways.
His voice was low, oily, but even so it carried to her across the crisp air of the courtyard. “Marc - that seems to be the only inn on the square,” Conrad commented to his second-in-command, a wiry blond. Catherine glanced over at the shorter man, her eyes noting Marc’s thinning hair and scrawny build. The flicker of a smile crossed her face. No threat there, she thought wryly, nodding. It was undoubtedly why Conrad had chosen Marc for his right-hand man.
Conrad was speaking again, and she pulled back her hood to make out the words over the brisk wind. “Let me make this clear, so we do not have a repeat of the Mercador debacle. We will search the inn room by room. When we find them, we will hogtie them, gag them, then haul them – kicking and screaming if need be - to the meeting point.” The mercenary glanced up at the building, pausing for a moment. “If they are not there, then we start on other buildings in this area, clockwise, working our way outwards. Our orders were final. We have to find them tonight.” His eyes swiveled to skewer Marc’s. “No distractions this time,” he added sharply.
Catherine had heard enough. In her experience half of any conflict was mental - the chess-game of setting expectations and bluffing power. It was time for her to begin. She pulled her scarf across her lower face, drew her hood down over her eyes, and pressed away from the shelter of the wall.
She slid out of the alleyway across from them, gliding through the open courtyard in silence.
Conrad froze as he sensed the motion. She watched as he scanned up her form with a practiced eye, judging the danger. She knew he was trying to ascertain her threat from her appearance. She had given him little to go by. She wore low, soft black leather boots, dark leggings, and a loose black tunic without adornment. A heavy black cloak was joined at her neck with a matte iron clasp. Her hood was up and pulled low, shielding her face from view, and her scarf completed the mask.
Her cloak swirled in a gust of wind as she smoothly crossed the center of the square, revealing the long scabbard at her left hip. She let them see the glimpse, then furled the cloak around her again, protecting her body from closer scrutiny.
As she approached, the group instinctively lowered their hands to their swords. Marc moved up alongside Conrad, his thin body tense. The rest of the wolves’ heads looked to Conrad with curiosity, watching for a sign of how to react.
Conrad’s hand, like that of his fellows, rested casually on the hilt of his blade. She drew to a stop, leaving about five feet between her and the men. It was close enough that they could talk quietly, yet far enough that they would have to take a step before a sword blow could reach her. The distance, along with the moon at her back, would help ensure her disguise remained intact.
Conrad flashed a wide, ingratiating smile, nodding in recognition. “Shadow, what a surprise,” he welcomed. “What might you be doing in this particular corner of the world?” To hear his voice, the two might have been old friends catching up on news at a country wedding.
Catherine bowed her head in greeting, acknowledging the name of her alter-ego. She kept in the darkness while looking up at Conrad, who was a good five inches taller. “It has been a while,” she gave in low reply, maintaining the same style of even tone. “You have admired my bluntness in the past; let us be so here. I am here on a job, as I imagine are you.”
Her eyes moved past Conrad to scan the five men who stood behind him. “It is important that our assignments do not ... collide in any manner.”
Conrad’s grin grew toothy. “Well, now, let us see what we can do. Why not start by telling me what you are after.”
Catherine’s eyes returned back to meet Conrad’s, considering for a moment. She let the pause linger, waiting until Conrad’s brows narrowed, until she could see the tension pull in at his shoulders. Only then did her low voice rumble from the depths of the hood.
“Fair enough,” she agreed, smiling inwardly as the tension released slightly, as she eased their strings like marionettes. In their eyes she had just made a concession. Their trust in her would ratchet up a minute amount. It was a game of inches, of subtle encroachments.
“I am here to protect a certain asset and to ensure that no ... local constabulary interference results. It is therefore critical to me that whatever it is you are up to is done quickly and quietly.” She could not help herself, and added lightly, “Unlike, for example, the incident in Kidderminster.”
Marc pushed forward, his shrill voice piping up with anger. “Hey, that was not our fault!” he shot out, his voice rising. “How were we supposed to know -”
Without looking, Conrad silenced him with a sharp wave of a hand. His eyes remained fixed on Catherine. “We will do what we have to do to get our job done,” he replied smoothly, his smile icing slightly. “Now, if you do not mind, we have a task to perform.” He nodded to his men and the group of six moved past Catherine toward the darkened inn.
“The priest is not there,” offered Catherine with a soft chuckle.
Marc spun at this, his eyes blazing with fury. His hand dove toward his sword’s hilt. “How did you know -”
Catherine reacted instinctively, knowing her control of the situation was all she had in her favor. Before he could complete his thought or action, Catherine’s blade was glinting in the moonlight, the tip pressed tightly against the thin man’s neck.
The group froze, all eyes caught by the tableau. Her sword was clearly of fine quality, but held no engravings, no markings of any kind. Catherine’s black leather glove held the hilt in a gentle but firm grip, keeping the point steadily in position.
“You had better acquire a leash for your pet, Conrad,” she suggested, her smile hidden by the scarf across her face but quite evident in her tone. “He might find himself injured.”
“Marc, back off,” ordered Conrad brusquely. Marc hesitated a moment, then pulled away from the sword, stepping back a pace, his face surly. Conrad kept his eyes locked on his opponent’s, contemplating. “Now, why would you believe we were after a priest?”
Catherine resheathed the sword in a smooth movement and furled her cloak back tightly against the winter chill. “I know many things about your organization,” came her inflectionless reply. “As for the priest, I have been watching this area of town for the past week. I made it my business to know who has been going in and out of these buildings.”
Conrad eyed her speculatively. Without turning, he spoke to one of the smaller mercenaries who had been skulking in the back of the group. “Mouse. Go in and check out the inn - but do it quietly. If our quarry has truly flown, there is no sense in risking town watch involvement.” Conrad’s eyes flicked to Catherine for a moment, then he continued. “We will wait here with our ... friend.”
Mouse nodded and ran with light-footed grace across the cobblestone square. Glancing around one last time, he eased open the inn’s front door and slipped noiselessly inside.
Marc glared at Catherine with venom, absently fingering his sword hilt. “If this Shadow knows so much,” he growled with quiet but clear anger to Conrad, “I say we give him a few cuts and convince him to tell us everything. Why trust his word?”
Catherine ran a steady eye down the line of five bandits. In addition to Conrad and Marc, the other three men were clearly seasoned warriors, in good shape despite their rough appearance and shaggy hair. She had no doubt they were well worth the coin paid to them. Each man wore leather armor and carried a scuffed longsword at his side.
To a man they appeared ready to draw on command and to take whatever action was required for the job. Catherine knew that any fight with this group would be a formidable task to win. Conrad alone had more assassinations to his credit than any man she knew of, living or dead.
Conrad glanced at his companions, then back at Catherine. “Interrogate Shadow. It is certainly a thought,” he agreed, smiling with cold amusement.
Catherine flicked back a shoulder with a smooth motion and the swirling cloak exposed the sword blade’s hilt. In the bright moonlight the men could see the moss-green-dyed leather wrap on the hilt, held in place with bronze wire. In the ensuing silence, one of the bandits murmured to the other, “He is a Bowyer.”
Catherine nodded in agreement. It was time to increase the stakes. “I see you have heard of my clan and our sword fighting reputation. Let me assure you that if you try to prevent me in fulfilling my current assignment, I will spill the entrails of at least one of you. I may even slice open two or three of you, ensuring an agonizing death, before I am done.” She created eye contact with each mercenary in turn, confirming with each man that he was her chosen first victim. When she spoke again, she pitched her tone to be a melding of ice and steel.
“Which of you will volunteer to be the first to die screaming?”
The silence stretched on for a few moments while the men eyed the potential threat speculatively, sizing up the challenge. Catherine did not move. A tense calm settled across the group. Each person there had been in many fights; there was no compunction about one more. It would only take a word from Conrad to start a fierce, coordinated flurry of swords.
Catherine knew she had little hope of taking on all five well trained mercenaries, but there was no backing down now. With practiced ease she first tensed then relaxed each muscle group, watching for any sign of movement. The command would come from Conrad; these men were too disciplined to move until the signal was given. She would need to subdue Conrad first – if such a thing were even possible.
The mercenaries had changed their stance subtly, settling into combat readiness. The four subordinate men were focused on Catherine, but clearly watched Conrad for a sign.
A movement came from the courtyard; all eyes instinctively turned toward it. Mouse came scurrying out of the inn and ran quickly across the cobblestones to Conrad’s side. The smaller man seemed oblivious to the tension in the air and gave his news to his boss in a rapid, soft whisper.
“Shadow told the truth. There is no sign of the priest or his followers,” he reported in his barely audible voice. “I checked every room. Now what?”
The mercenaries relaxed slightly at hearing this information. Conrad took his hand off his sword and glanced over at Catherine. “So, any other interesting information to share with us?” he asked, his smile glinting in the moonlight.
Catherine returned Conrad’s gaze without saying a word. There was a long silence which Conrad made no move to break. When Catherine finally spoke, she pitched her voice to be low and reluctant, as if she were providing an unplanned concession.
“It is in my best interest to tell you, I suppose, as it will get you out of this area,” she offered in a growl. “The priest and his entourage left the inn earlier today in a great hurry. They headed north; in that direction lies the old stone bridge.”
Conrad eyed Catherine for a long while, considering. He crossed his arms, fingertips drumming on the heavy muscles of his forearm.
“Here is what I will do,” he offered at last. “We will make our way to the bridge and see if we pick up the trail. Yes, I am sure it is in your best interest to have us leave, and I will take that at face value.” His eyes sharpened. “However, if we find you have misled us for any reason, we will be back. When we find you - and we will - we will make sure you greatly regret having caused us to waste our time.”
Catherine nodded amicably and stepped back. “Good hunting.”
With an answering nod, Conrad turned on his heel and strode northwards. The mercenaries moved in closely after him.
Catherine remained motionless and carefully watched their movements until they had dissolved into the obsidian night. Then without a sound she turned and retreated down the alleyway in the opposite direction, regaining her watch position, furling herself back into the shadows.
* * *
In a window high over the square and opposite the Black Cock inn, Jack sat back in the ancient leather chair, its decaying hide crackling beneath him. He ran a hand through his thick hair, contemplating what he had seen.
The second floor room had been too high up to hear the conversation clearly, but an alliance between Conrad’s well trained mercenaries and Shadow’s sword prowess was definitely not a good thing.
Jack looked over at the elderly priest who lay slumbering peacefully in the corner of the room, surrounded by his three young acolytes. His brow furrowed as he considered his options.
He would be very happy when he had delivered the group safely to Worcester Cathedral.
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