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When a panting Sir Hollis arrived at the top of the stairs in response to his lord's thunderous summons, he was surprised to find the tower door closed and bolted.
Troubled by the silence within, he pressed his mouth to the door. "My lord?"
"Are you alone?" came a savage whisper.
He peered over one shoulder, then the other. "Quite."
The door creaked open. A muscular arm shot through the crack, jerked him inside, then slammed and bolted the door behind him.
Hollis barely had time to catch his breath before it was knocked out of him again by the fearful sight of his lord. Bannor stood with legs braced and chest heaving, his powerful hands clenched into fists. His dark hair hung around his face in a wild tangle, framing eyes that were red-rimmed and feral. But most startling of all was the condition of his fine black beard. Or what was left of it. Hollis leaned nearer to his jaw and sniffed. 'Twas not his imagination. His master positively reeked of smoke.
"Good God, man! Have you been attacked?" Hollis looked around wildly. "Is there an assassin lurking within the walls of the castle?"
"Aye," Bannor replied grimly. "Ten of them to be exact. All armed with naught but their wits and their whining."
"Ten?" Hollis frowned, then nodded slowly as comprehension dawned. "Oh, you mean the children."
"Children?" Bannor snorted. "'Tis too gentle a name for those demon spawn. Had I not counted his toes myself when he was a babe, I would insist that you check Desmond for a forked tail and cloven hooves."
The steward wisely suppressed a smile. "I suppose they are a bit . . . rambunctious. Perhaps 'tis only the natural exuberance of youth."
"Exuberance? Malevolence, more likely." Bannor flung himself into a chair and swept his arm across the table, scattering several scrolls and sending up a cloud of dust. "Curse this wretched peace anyway! Would that the war with France had lasted a hundred years!"
Hollis sighed wistfully, wishing the same. If Edward hadn't signed the treaty at Brétigny, he and Bannor would be sitting in a tent on a distant battlefield, toasting their latest victory. After years of being comrades, the end of the war had thrust them into the awkward roles of lord and vassal. He feared he was as ill-suited to being steward of a vast holding such as Elsinore as his lord was to playing doting papa to a passel of brats.
Hollis blew the dust out of a goblet and poured Bannor some ale from the earthenware flagon resting on the table, hoping to soothe his temper. In case he failed, he poured some for himself as well. "You've been off on one campaign or another since you were little more than a lad yourself, my lord. Perhaps the children are simply in want of some discipline."
"You don't understand." Bannor leaned across the table and lowered his voice to a hoarse whisper, as if to confess a terrible sin. "They're not afraid of me."
Hollis had to sink down on the hearth and swallow a generous mouthful of ale to digest that startling revelation. He'd fought at Bannor's side for over thirteen years and had yet to encounter any man who didn't wince with dread when Bannor rose to his full height or raised his voice above a murmur. Why, only this morning, he'd sent a page scurrying from the great hall in tears simply by baring his teeth at the lad and wishing him a pleasant morn.
"Well, you can't spend the rest of your life locked in this tower," Hollis said thoughtfully. "Perhaps you need to make them afraid of you."
"And how would you suggest I do that? Throw them in the dungeon? Threaten to lop off their little heads?" Bannor rose and paced to the window, sloshing ale over the rim of his goblet with each furious stride. Intrigued by the gleeful shriek that wafted in on the wind, Hollis joined him.
Chaos reigned in the courtyard below. Angelic little Mary Margaret was busily pumping lamp oil into the deflated skin of a blood pudding while two of her sisters played at dismembering their dolls. Desmond and three of his brothers had captured one of the younger pages and were holding him upside down by his ankles over an open well.
"Desmond!" Bannor shouted, leaning out the window. "Free that lad this instant!"
Before he could recant his unfortunate choice of words, a splash and a hollow wail drifted to their ears.
As a squire went trotting over to drag the howling boy out of the well, Desmond gave the tower window a fawning bow and shouted, "'Tis ever a pleasure to do your bidding, sir."
Bannor growled beneath his breath. "'Tis the Elsinore curse, you know. My own father, heartless wretch that he was, sired seventeen legitimate children and thirty-six bastards, two on his deathbed. You'd think the family motto wasn't 'To conquer or die,' but 'Be fruitful, and multiply.'"
Hollis did not have to be reminded that his master had been one of those bastards. Had he not endeared himself to the king with his unflinching loyalty and skill in battle at the tender age of seventeen, Bannor might still be a penniless man-at-arms instead of lord of one of his father's richest holdings. A holding he had wrested from his eldest legitimate brother with the king's hearty blessing. His brother and all the rest of his half-siblings had fled to one of their father's castles in the south upon hearing that Bannor the Bold, one of Edward's most dangerous and trusted young knights, had amassed an army and was preparing to march upon Elsinore.
Bannor looked despairingly at Hollis. "God must be punishing me for my lust. 'Tis my only failing, you know. I've never been given to strong drink, uncontrollable rages, or taking the Lord's name in vain."
"You cannot bear all the blame for your children's existence, my lord. Both of your wives adored you. Even when you sought to grant them a respite from your attentions, they would creep into your bed in the dead of night and insist upon fulfilling their marital duties." He gave Bannor a look that was both sympathetic and slightly envious. "'Tis that wretched face of yours the ladies cannot resist."
Bannor shook his head and sighed. "If only I'd been born homely like you . . ."
Hollis, who considered himself more than passably handsome with his bristling mustache and thick head of brown hair, shot his friend an offended glare before he caught the mischievous twinkle in Bannor's eye.
He parried with a smirk of his own. "Given your fine looks, my lord, this might be just the beginning of your brood. After all, you're only two-and-thirty. Why, I've heard of men siring babes as late as their seventy-fifth year!"
Bannor shuddered. "God forbid. I should geld myself first."
A knock sounded on the door. Panic flickered across Bannor's face. "Find out who it is before you open it. Desmond is more cunning than the Black Prince," he said, referring to King Edward's son, who had been wily enough to take the French king hostage at Poitiers. "It could be a trap."
Hollis obeyed. "'Tis Fiona, my lord."
At Bannor's nod, he opened the door to reveal the wizened Irish nurse standing at the top of the stairs holding a squirming bundle.
Bannor drained the rest of the ale before dropping his head into his hand and muttering, "Dear God in heaven, not another one."
"I'm afraid so, m'lord," Fiona said, bustling into the tower. "'Tis the second one in a fortnight. I found her in a basket outside the gatehouse."
"Did this one come with a note?"
"No, m'lord. Just a blanket and a rash."
Although Bannor remained firmly at arm's length, Hollis could not resist peeling back the threadbare blanket to steal a curious peek. The babe's face was even more wizened than Fiona's.
Hollis frowned, perplexed. "Why, this child can't be more than a few weeks old. Wouldn't you have been in Gascony with Edward when"
Bannor cut him off as if he hadn't even spoken. "Send to the village for a wet nurse, Fiona. And tell the priest to christen her and give her a name. The poor creature at least deserves a name." He pointed a warning finger at the beaming nurse. "But not Margaret. Or Mary. We already have three Margarets, one Mary, and one Mary Margaret. 'Tis enough to muddle a man's thinking."
"Aye, m'lord," Fiona replied, bobbing a clumsy curtsy.
As she turned to go, the babe began to wiggle and fret. The nurse lifted the child to her shoulder, crooning softly in Gaelic. The babe subsided as if falling beneath the spell of some sweet enchantment, blowing joyful bubbles of spittle and cooing like a dove.
Bannor watched them go, a most curious expression on his face. "Perhaps 'tis not a man's firm hand my children require," he said musingly, "but a woman's gentle one."
"Fiona's a woman," Hollis pointed out.
"Aye, but she's getting on in years." A wistful shadow passed over Bannor's face. "And there's still no touch so tender as a mother's."
As he turned to fix Hollis with a piercing stare, all traces of softness vanished from Bannor's face. His rugged features took on the ruthless cast they always bore when he was plotting a campaign . . . or an ambush. Hollis took an instinctive step backward, fearing he just might be its target.
His fears were proved justified when Bannor began to stalk him, a predatory smile curving his lips. "Why, Hollis, I do believe you might be just the man to find my children a mother."
"Me?" Hollis backed into the table, rattling the ale flagon. "B-b-but, my lord, would it not be wiser for you to choose your own bride?"
Bannor waved away his objections. "I have no wisdom where women are concerned, only folly. If it were left to me, I'd choose another buxom, sweet-smelling beauty like Mary or Margaret. Before I could clear her perfume from my head, I'd have a new litter of brats to terrorize me."
He marched to the other side of the table and began to sift through the scattered scrolls until he found a scrap of blank parchment. He dipped the tip of a feathered quill into a flask of ink and began to scribble furiously. "The king is rumored to be at Windsor, overseeing the castle's renovation. If he grants my petition, you shall have full authority to choose a bride for me, arrange a betrothal with her family, and make my sacred vows to her before a priest."
Hollis's panic mounted. "You want me to marry your wife?"
Bannor stopped scribbling long enough to shoot him an exasperated look. "Of course not. I simply want you to stand in my stead while the banns are read and the priest blesses the union." He sealed the missive with a dab of melted wax, then rose to slap the scroll into Hollis's hand. "When you return to Elsinore with my bride, the deed will already be done. I will be wed to this woman in the eyes of both God and the king." He clapped his friend on the shoulder. Hollis tried not to stagger. "I'm trusting my future to your hands, my friend. What I need is some maternal, bovine creature who will prove to be no temptation to my appetites."
Hollis tucked the scroll into his belt, sighing in defeat. He knew better than anyone that there was no dissuading Bannor once a course of action had been decided upon. "Since you're known throughout the kingdom as one of Edward's favorites, finding you a bride shouldn't prove too great a challenge."
Bannor arched one dark brow. "It might be more of a challenge than you think. I did kill my first two wives."
"Through no real fault of your own, my lord."
Bannor returned to the window and stood gazing down into the courtyard, his hands locked at the small of his back. A child's giggle floated to their earsinnocent and wistfully sweet.
Bannor's expression softened, betraying the desperation beneath his gruffness. "Find her for me, Hollis. Find the woman who will love my children as if they were her very own."
As Hollis gazed upon the troubled countenance of the most devoted friend he had ever known, his heart surged with loyalty. "I shall find her, my lord." He dropped to one knee and rested his hand on the hilt of his sword. "I swear it upon my very life."