Dead By Dusk Page 1



Raoul Masson, squire to Conan de Burgh, burst in upon his master where the great Norman warlord sat at his desk, writing letters to his king in Paris.

Startled, Conan de Burgh looked up.

Raoul was in a rare state of anxiety.

"They're coming. The villagers, the people, from miles around. Knights who have long since surrendered have taken up their swords and shields again."

This area of fierce Calabrian tribesmen had certainly produced its share of excellent fighting men, and yet, it was difficult at first to understand Raoul's agitation. Fighting to subdue the populace had often been brutal and cost many lives, but the battles were long done. The townspeople were little able to make war now against the power of the Comte de Burgh's well horsed, trained, and steel-armed knights. Though de Burgh had reached his position of power through heated battle and tournament, time and time again, he was a man who had come to greatly love peace and the riches of posterity. He was known for the mercy he showed those who were conquered and brought under the Norman yoke. Though his men could easily smash a small rebellion of peasants bearing scythes and hoes, he did not want the slaughter it would cause. Even if a great number of trained soldiers had arisen again, they had been bested before and could be brought down again.

He was puzzled. The chain of command had been running smoothly. In the last year, he had proven to the people that they could live well beneath his rule. To many peasants it mattered little where the man had come from who called himself lord, just that he refrained from slicing their necks, raping their wives, and stealing their entire produce.

Conan frowned, rising, reaching for the heavy battle sword that never left his side.

"What is their grief?" he asked Raoul.

Raoul, a strapping young man, looked ill. "The slaughter, my lord. Sweet Jesu! The slaughter. I saw… I saw myself. They were strewn… in pieces… across the field. They say that it was the Lady Valeria, so they were told, and there have been the whispers… you must see yourself, you must see! The people…

they are not rising against you. They are demanding that you act. You have refused to see the evil in Valeria and François, my lord, but now the people are rising against you. François intends conquest even here, and she is with him."

Conan felt ill. His heart sank.


He had come here, the great conqueror, proven, confident, and self-assured, but then found himself at a loss, shaken by his deep desire for the incredible daughter of the Italian magnate Paolo Ratini. Quick to see the power of the great waves of Normans, Paolo had astutely joined forces with the conquerors.

The first time Conan had ridden to the Palacio Ratini, Valeria had stood out upon the balcony, and he had seen her, ebony hair bared to the sun, eyes huge and deep blue, face sculpted like the finest porcelain. She had smiled, evidently fascinated by the sight of him—or his great party.

He hadn't known or cared.

The great passion of his life had been born. She was well bred, naturally, the daughter of such a man as Paolo. He had intended marriage from the moment he saw her, and it would have been right, natural, just like the nearly excruciating hunger that had grown between them. A vital man of tremendous strength, bred himself to conquest, power, courage, and the endless battle such a life required, he'd known innumerable women throughout his life, from the basest whores to the most refined nobility, and yet, he had never known anyone like Valeria. She had been widowed during one of the first battles between native lords and encroaching Normans, and was experienced, fully mature and beautiful in her form, the mother of a young daughter. Intimacy with her was as raw as the rugged cliffs and verdant earth of Calabria. It was something more as well, almost ethereal, a touch of heaven, thoughts that a man such as himself shared with no one, including the woman who so enthralled him. He had planned on marriage, a life of such never-ending fever and bliss.

But destiny had other plans for the lady in the form of François de Venue, an illegitimate cousin of the king in Paris. Thus far, Conan's great strength, and his natural ability to lead and draw others to him with absolute loyalty, had preserved his presence here, and he assumed that François would not dare to challenge him. But the bastard royal, François, had arrived upon the scene with a brutal and unnecessary violence. Those areas still in minor rebellion fell beneath his onslaught. Men who still might have ridden proudly beneath a Norman banner had been slaughtered. Somehow, François and his men had triumphed over larger forces, leaving battlefields with few of their own lost, while the enemy lay decimated.

The first conquest François had made upon his arrival had been that of Valeria, as well as her father's holdings. Conan was stunned by the betrayal. Had Paolo turned his daughter over to François in pursuit of what he perceived as a greater power? Or had the man been threatened to such an extent that he'd felt he'd had no choice? The one tryst Conan had managed with Valeria after the arrival of his French counterpart had been deeply wrenching; he had been willing to fight any man for Valeria, including his own king. But while the beauty clung to him, in tears, holding tight as if she might forever memorize their time together, she denied him. She didn't want him to fight for her. He would never understand, but she was betrothed to François because she had to be, and any effort Conan made on her behalf would cause her nothing but harm. And so he had stepped aside. He had kept his fury leashed, watching François ravage the countryside, killing again and again. He had been stunned to hear that Valeria had often appeared on the battlefield at the side of her betrothed, and it was rumored that it was she who brought about such death and destruction. He had never thought, however, that an entire populace could believe the woman capable of such horror. And yet…

He heard again and again that indeed, it was she, Valeria, who brought about the anguish and bloodshed. The people had spoken of her as if she were a witch, a monster, the devil's own bride cloaked in beauty. As of late, he had even begun to fear for her.

"My lord, they will be upon us any minute," Raoul reminded him, urgency growing in his voice.

Conan strode for the door in the office of the magnificent fortress, built right into one of the cliffs and almost impregnable. A fine hallway with Roman marble columns brought him to the sweeping stairway; he descended to the great hall, where his knights were assembling. Well trained and attuned to his every move, men rushed forward with his armor, buckling chain and plate into place and proper position.

Hagar, his massive black war stallion, was brought to the entry, and he strode at the head of his men, readying to meet the hordes.

And they were coming. Just as Raoul had said. It was night, but then, he had heard that much slaughter had taken place at night, and de Venue and his company had often fallen upon the innocent during the very late hours, before the dawn. They rode with monsters, he had been told, great dogs that tore into the flesh of men and babes alike.

Now, torches burning in a sea so great it might have been day, the people were coming. Some were soldiers, some peasants, others were women and children.

Conan mounted Hagar at the head of his men; he motioned that the gate down the slope be opened, and he rode out from the walls with his most trusted knights at his side, his men-at-arms following in rank.

Before the great field at the foot of the cliff, his fellows flanked him in a line; then he rode forward alone.

"Halt! Tell me, what is it that you seek from me?" he bellowed loudly to the crowd, his voice deep and rich with the confidence and authority he never failed to wield.

A fellow burst forth from the crowd, a man he knew: a fine Calabrian warrior who had lain down his arms and accepted a truce. He was Giovanni da Silva, young and intelligent, a man of God and of faith, and yet tonight, his eyes were as wild as those of a madman.

"Lord Conan!" he called. "We have accepted your rule—the peasants beneath you saw a kinder man than they had served before. But tonight, if you do not lead us against the devil horde of François de Venue, we will die to a man—indeed, the women and children among us as well!—if you do not take arms against the unholy butchery of your countrymen. Against him, the witch who commands the wind and fog, and the demon dogs that come before them. Lord Conan, you alone have the power to fight such unearthly demons, and you alone, blessed sire, must rid us of the monster queen who would slay us all."

"Good fellows, knights and peasants among you, surely you cannot believe that the woman is such a monster!" he called back.

"Make way!" da Silva called, and a woman, young and slender, work-worn at a tender age, burst through with the bloody, battered body of a young lad in her arms.

"She did this!" the woman cried brokenly to him. "I saw her. Saw her stand upon the hill, and the demon dogs rushed around her, and laid claim to our village. I saw her! Saw her lift her hand, saw the light of hell in her eyes. If you do not stop her, slay her, she will tear down everything. By gracious God, dear Lord Conan!" She fell to the earth, her tears mingling with the blood of her son. "You must help us!"

From the southeast, a bloodcurdling howl suddenly encompassed the night. The earth itself seemed to tremble. Conan was not a man who feared battle, pain, or even death. Yet at the sound of that howling, he felt as if his blood grew cold and congealed in his veins. Fear trickled in icy rivulets along his spine.

Angrily, he ignored it, ignored the unholy unease that seemed to filter into his very being.

Wolves. Wolves crying to the moon by night, nothing more. Or wild dogs, perhaps, their one-time owners dead and decaying upon shorn fields where battle had taken place, now left to starve and rampage and ravage on their own.

"Wolves, or wild dogs," he said aloud.

"No! You don't understand, you've yet to see… you won't believe. You must come, now. You must lead us. They attack yet another village!" da Silva told him. "Lord Conan! For the love of God!"

He nodded. Best that he lead the forces against François and Valeria, who was surely forced to ride at his side, who must now have witnessed such horror that she stared upon it, her eyes glazed with dismay.

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