In an age of knights and sorcery, a good king must raise a monster to protect his people from the demon unleashed by a dark-hearted enemy determined to claim his kingdom. But once called forth upon blood-drenched fields, can such evil ever be truly laid to rest?
To a present day community held hostage by fear, a serial killer will soon be the least of its worries after two off-duty firefighters enter a forest and find a grave. What they dig up isn’t a victim or family pet. When they race from the woods, they bring a timeless hell with them . . .
Under her own name, she’s a bestseller in contemporary romantic suspense, has written an award-winning vampire romance series, and has a six book shape-shifter series with Pocket Books. Also listed on the International Movie Database (IMDB), she collaborated on Indie horror films In the Woodsand Savage with screenwriting and ADR script credits, and even played a small role, that of “bar extra.”
Writing historical romance as Dana Ransom, she’s a “Career Achievement for Historical Adventure” and “K.I.S.S.” award winner with books published in Romanian, Italian, Russian, Danish, Dutch, Portuguese, French, German, Icelandic and Chinese.
As Rosalyn West, she’s a HOLT Medallion winner with nominations for “Best North American Historical Romance” and “Best Historical Book in a Series.”
A prolific writer, Nancy attributes her creative output, which once peaked at seven novels in one year, to her love of history and a gift for storytelling. She also credits the discipline learned through a background in journalism and OCD. The due date for her third book and her second son were on the same day . . . and both were early! When on deadline, she turns on the laptop between 4:30 and 5:00 a.m. to get a chapter in before heading in to her full time job as a legal assistant. She’s a member of GDRWA, MMRWA, FF&P and dotes on her critique group.
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Only on this day, the chorus ringing out beneath the canopy of spreading oaks wasn’t a symphony of life. It was a loud, discordant dirge of death.
The resounding clash of steel on steel peeled through the woods, harsh, out of place amid the peaceful setting, an ugly man-made tune where only the delicate melodies of nature should have played.Branches snapped, brush gave way in a noisy yielding to activity not at meant for a quiet glade. Against the mellow pallet of greens and carpet of mossy browns, glints of callous metal flashed when touched briefly by spears of sunlight that penetrated the tunnel of interlaced limbs. And a scent, both redolent of life and death, challenged the earthy cycle of woodland decay as vivid red blasphemed the sacred forest floor.
Battle raged between armored knights, fighting man-to-man in the most primitive of combat, for that was all the dense stand of trees would allow. It was no organized attack, with orderly lines and mounted men. The terrain over which they fought would not permit such luxury. Instead, a brutal, chopping, hacking, within arm’s reach war raged with barely room to accommodate the full swing of a sword, but plenty to provide for the spilling of blood. Two sides engaged, one in the pure gleam of silver, the other in the flat black of death’s very door. None could say which side ruled the day, only that each foot of ground, given or taken, was earned or lost with a tragic toll. Such was the way of any war once reduced to its most basic component.
“It’s hard to see just how many there are, sire! They’re coming out of the forest like rodents!”
“Which is what they are!”
Prince Freeacas threw up the visor to his helm and glared through the tight grouping of trees. He could see glimpses of warriors, both his and the enemy’s, engaged in close quartered combat—a sword slashing here, an ax falling there, everywhere the ringing of mortal blows upon steel and bone. Pure madness, waging battle under such conditions, but war was not a sane endeavor under the best of circumstances. Here, it was necessity.
A sudden movement to his left distracted the young prince. He caught the dull black sheen of his enemy’s armor, like darkness fast approaching, as a knight charged from the cover of the trees bent on slaying him to win the day. Before Freeacas could react in his own defense, Galan, the silver knight who served as his protector and friend, stepped in to deflect the blow with his own sword. A brief contest of strength ensued as blades locked at the hilts, and hate-filled eyes met with only inches between them. Then Galan threw forward with all his weight behind it, upsetting the would-be assassin who stumbled back, his balance precarious. Galan drove on, taking full advantage of the weakness, forcing the man to his knees, then to his back, ending it at last with a fateful thrust of his blade through a vulnerable gap of the breastplate where it gave at the underarm.
Freeacas stood unmoved by the savagery. After years of trying to conquer a foreign land with only his wits and the strength of his right arm to keep him alive, nothing held the power to shock the young prince. He understood battle, and he understood the fighting man’s mind. Loyalty was best demanded when it was fairly earned. He was not one to retake his lands by directing others from a safe distance. The staining of souls lost to his massive blade darkened his mail and mood. These were his properties, his inheritance, stolen by cunning thieves whilst he was away in the Holy land fighting for their salvation. He could not expect others to die at his command if he were not willing to do the same at their side.
Of late, the countryside seemed bathed in blood. Men steeped in violence with the scent of dying in their noses from long hard years at the Crusades had no patience for peaceful solutions. They fought each other as viciously as they had faced the Arab hordes, only this time, the Promised Land they died for was their own home soil. A man was capable of terrible things when he was defending what was his by birth and royal decree. As this land was his, and would remain his while he had yet breath in his body.
A cruel and clever adversary, Karth bid his time until his neighboring king was left unprotected as his knights and only son sailed for Jerusalem. Karth had expended none of his own in that noble cause and hence ruled a mighty number. King Haggert lost more than he held to the plundering black plague of knights, but now that Prince Freeacas was home to lead his vassals in a reclaiming quest, the odds were more than just even.
Or so they had been to this point.
Prince Freeacas frowned as he observed several of his knights running afoot, not toward battle, but rather fleeing from it. A man of iron fortitude, he hated cowardice almost as much as he loved his father, the king. There was no room for the faint of heart and weak of nerve in the heat of confrontation. Had he been able to recognize those yellow curs, he would have made note to strike them of all their courtly privileges and strip them of their feudal lands. Such behavior was not to be tolerated by any man of honor who’d taken oaths of fealty that bound as firmly as blood.
Furiously, he stalked in their direction, shouting, “Where are you men running? Are you not warriors?” in hopes of shaming them into standing their ground. But he saw one last flash of silver as they disappeared into the trees. He still cursed them as another knight came running from the foray, also abandoning his duty to his king.
It would not be borne!
Freeacas lunged forward, gripping the knight by the arm. The man swung toward him, sword half raised in his own defense until he recognized his liege. He went still, then slowly lifted his visor.Freeacas was struck by the look of sheer terror upon his features.More than just a healthy fear of consequence placed that deathly pallor upon his face and left his stare blank as gazing crystals.
“The battle’s not done ’til all are bleeding!” he called angrily, wanting to shock the cur from his fright with the boldness of his words. But no such concession could be won. Instead, a deeper panic rose, and with it, incredible words came pouring forth.
“Sire, a beast came out of the sky and attacked us!” the knight all but babbled. His gaze flew over the prince’s shoulder to anxiously scan the woods beyond as if expecting some supernatural terror to charge out in pursuit.
“Beast?” Freeacas jerked the man up close, fighting the want to shake him. What nonsense stemmed from a fearful imagination. Beast, indeed. Probably the man’s own conscience swooping down to chastise him for failing upon the field of honor.
But the knight wasn’t daunted by the prince’s sneering doubt.He pointed, plates of armor rattling upon his quivering arm.
“Over the hill! Our men are being ripped apart!”
And speaking that much of the horror he’d seen, the knight broke free of Freeacas’s hold and continued to run into the concealing depths of the forest.
Spitting an oath to banish the ominous chill the man’s actions awoke in him, Freeacas looked toward the far hill. It was framed like a mounded grave against the glare of the now sinking sun. He squinted, able to distinguish silver or black upon several shapes moving between the spearlike jut of trees. With Galan at his side, he marched toward the incline, determined to discover if the knight’s words be fancy or more impossibly, fact. Passage wasn’t easy over the rutted ground, where a carpet of leaves ofttimes hid a treacherous twist of roots. He stumbled frequently but struggled on, sweating heavily now inside the weight of his protective mail. He told himself the steamy forest heat caused that steady stream, not anxiety over the knight’s fantastic claims. Superstitious folly! What kind of beast came from the heavens to send brave men-at-arms scurrying like threatened forest hares beneath the talons of a hawk? God’s blood, he would soon find out!
Three of his men burst over the crest of the hill and came racing downward with two black knights in hurried chase. His knights must have seen him, for their wide, glazed eyes fixed with his for timeless seconds as they approached then split to pass him on either side.They never slowed, never looked back as they left their prince to fend off their pursuers.
They didn’t stop. Nay, they didn’t even pause in their self-preserving flight! Momentarily stunned, Freeacas exchanged a look with Galen, who appeared equally outraged and just as confused by the behavior of their seasoned warriors. These were not green lads plucked from humble roots. They were the realm’s finest crop of defenders at arms, no strangers to battle.
There was no time to think on it longer. Upon spotting them, the black helmed pursuers gave a shout of challenge.
Not one to be influenced by another man’s cowardice, Freeacas didn’t wait for the black knights to engage him. He charged upward, straight at them, drawing his sword as he let loose his own fierce battle cry. He could hear the clanking thunder of Galan on his heels.
Just as he neared the top of the hill, a black knight stepped out from behind the shield of an oak and swung his sword. Freeacas felt the impact shiver through the very marrow of his bones, but he didn’t fall, nor did his armor fail him. As he came about to face his foe, he had a clear view of his knights as they bounded into the safety of the trees beyond, less concerned about the life of their leader then they were their own.
Fury braced Freeacas. Letting out a yell, he barreled into the opposing knight. They both went over like felled timbers upon the uneven terrain, skidding downward upon leaf-covered ground, wrestling for purchase, until the prince managed to deliver a lethal blow to the head of the other. He pushed free and stumbled to his feet, leaning momentarily upon a nearby tree as breath forced against bruised and complaining ribs. Galan had overpowered his first opponent and was intent upon defeating the second. Freeacas’s help wasn’t needed there, so as soon as his wind was recovered, the prince, again, forged his way toward the hill’s pinnacle to see what lay beyond.
To discover what made his men abandon honor and all that was righteous.
Even for his youthful years, Freeacas had seen some horrific scenes of battle. Carnage that would haunt his nights for an eternity.He’d partaken in skirmishes so brutal and vile that he’d come to doubt his own humanity. But never, never had he witnessed such a sight of unbelievable slaughter as that which played out on the battle ground below. In that moment, he understood the terror of those who’d fled before him, for he felt it rise, cold as death to seize his heart in a fist of constricting panic.
“Lord help us all.”
The words whispered in an unthinking prayer from a man too numbed to comprehend more complex thought.
What in the name of all that was holy?
Was he mad? Surely his eyes deceived him, for what they beheld was not of this earthly plane.
The rattle of armament and thud of hoofbeats bearing down up him tore the prince from his daze. Instinct borne in the heat of many combats served him, steeling his fractured wits with a survival-sharpened calm. He swiveled to face the mounted knight surging up the hill, intent upon impaling him on lowered lance.
With sword raised, Freeacas stood his ground until the last possible moment. Then, just before the lance point found its mark, he dropped to one knee, forcing the tip downward with a two-handed chop of his blade. Sparks shot up from the connecting friction. A furrow ripped along the ground, the way the charging knight had meant for it to tear through Freeacas, until the lance buried deep. The sudden shock of stopped motion hurtled the knight backwards from his saddle.
Freeacas was up before knight met earth with a stunning crash of armor. A single blow was enough to nearly separate head from shoulders.
The prince wasted no time gloating over his victory. With one last look into the valley below, he rushed to catch the reins of the dead knight’s charger and struggled to mount unaided. To Galan, he cried, “Signal the men to retreat. We cannot win this day. I’ve news I must take back to the king. He would believe it from no other’s lips.”
And as Galan glanced down into that valley of death, his gaze blanked with dread and understanding.
For racing at the side of their enemy was an unearthly champion; the beast of which the terrified knight had spoken. Words could not describe the whole of it, the awful unnaturalness of it. A beast, true. A demon, most likely.
As Freeacas sped toward his father’s council, the huge, wolf-like creature, the length of a destrier, continued its attack. With its jaws full of dagger-sharp teeth, it crunched through mail to bone below. With tusks and a central horn, it gored its victims like a vengeful blade. With taloned feet, it tore open armor as if shredding fragile parchment, while delivering blows from its thick, serpentine tail with all the brutal force of a Norseman’s smashing hammer.
A devil dog. A hound from hell.
The bane of their survival.