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Conquer the Night
Graham Clan, Book Two
By Heather Graham
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2000 Shannon Drake
All rights reserved.
Seacairn Castle, near the forest of Selkirk The Year of Our Lord 1297
Kyra stood before the fire in the main hall of the old stone tower at Seacairn, watching as the flames rose and leapt, crimson and gold, dancing exotically to the whim of the drafts that ceaselessly filled the fortress.
No. No. Never.
The simple words filled her soul. She longed to shout, scream, cry out so loudly that the rafters would tremble with her denial, that the stone itself would shake and shudder with the force of her words.
She turned from the fire and raced up the curving stairs to the chapel above the main hall. She stared at the main altar, but turned from it. Far to the right of it was a shrine to the Virgin, and it was there that she fled, falling to her knees, her skirts billowing out around her. "No, no, no! Don't let it happen. Blessed Mary, give me strength! I will enter any bargain with God, or so help me, Lady, forgive me, but I would deal with Satan himself, to escape what fate destines for me. Dear Lord, but I'd rather die than—"
She broke off, startled by the thunderous sound of a ram slamming against the main gate of the castle. It was an ancient fortification, strengthened and enlarged by each power to lay claim to the land, for it lay in border country, where it seemed that every race known to Scotland had once ruled. Now, under the ruthless determination of Edward I, the castle was in English hands. And with Scotland in turmoil since the death of the Maiden of Norway, vicious battle could come at any time, and the man who held a castle was he who ruled it, no matter what his nationality.
Kyra rose and spun around as her maid, Ingrid, tore into the chapel.
"What is happening?"
"They've come, milady! Marauders, murderers, wild men, savages! Horrible, heathen Scots out of the Highlands!"
Ingrid was young, a buxom girl who had been raised in a convent. She was convinced that most men were savages and that Scotsmen were little more than the lowest, most barbarous beasts.
Kyra rushed to the arrow slit and looked down. It was true. Mounted men, some in chain and plate armor, some in leather, some with little more than sharpened shovel poles or sickles as weapons, were shrieking out fierce battle cries and bearing down upon the castle. They had already breached the outer gate and were in the bailey, fighting the meager forces left behind by Lord Kinsey Darrow, the Englishman granted rule here by Edward of England after her father's death.
She could see the hand-to-hand combat being waged. She could hear the screams and cries of the dying, see the spatter of blood as battle-axes and swords met flesh and bone. Someone cried out that those who surrendered would be granted mercy, more than the Scots had received at the hands of the Englishmen.
"God help me!" she said softly, backing away from the window.
"They've come for you, my lady!" Ingrid said. "They've come for you, because of what Lord Darrow—"
"Ingrid, enough!" came a firm masculine voice. "Say nothing more to your lady!"
Again Kyra spun around. His head hooded, face shrouded by the wool of his garment, Father Michael Corrigan had come quietly into the chapel. She had long thought that as an Irishman, the spiritual leader of this fortress would give his sympathy—and his prayers—to the Scots.
"What does it matter what she says?" Kyra asked him, fighting to remain calm. "They have breached the walls. They are here, quite simply. Lord Darrow's men have fallen or surrendered. The enemy will be here any minute. The truth is that we're all about to be murdered by heathens—"
"I rather doubt they've come to do murder."
"Oh, come, now, Father, do you see what happens below?"
"Indeed, my lady, they've come for vengeance. They've come for the castle, for its origins are ancient and Gaelic, and—I dare say—they've come for you."
His face lay in shadow, yet she knew that he watched her. Was there vengeance in his heart as well as in the souls of the enemy below? Or was he simply detached, wondering if she would dissolve hopelessly into tears or attempt to throw herself from the battlements in despair.
"The soldiers out there will die for you," he said, and she wondered if he applauded their valor, or mocked her worth in return for their lives.
She lifted her chin. "They must not do so. If the barbarians can be induced to offer mercy in any way—"
"Darrow herded fighters and farmers alike into a barn and set fire to it, Lady Kyra. Difficult to ask mercy in return."
"It is never difficult to ask mercy, Father. The difficulty may lie in the enemy's ability to give it."
She turned. Capt. Tyler Miller of the castle guard had come. He fell on a knee before her. "Sweet Jesu, lady, we will gladly die in your defense, but I'm afraid there's no help in it. Perhaps there's a way for you to flee...."
"Captain Tyler, I beg you, get up. And I command that you surrender your men if you believe there's any hope of mercy."
"But, my lady, perhaps we can buy time with our lives...."
"I'll not have you imperil my soul with your lives, Captain Tyler, please. Leave me to my defenses. Hold the wild men off if you can, but in Lord Darrow's name, I command you to surrender when all is lost."
Tyler bowed, then turned to go.
"They will be quickly bested," Father Corrigan commented.
"God help me then!" Kyra said fiercely. God help her, yes. How strange that she had just come here, so desperately seeking intervention from the Virgin for the life she had been destined to lead.
How strangely prayers were answered! What in God's name was she going to do?
"God help me!" she repeated to herself in a whisper. But Father Corrigan heard her whisper; he was listening, if God was not. He smiled. "Remember, my child—God helps those who help themselves."
"Indeed, Father? Then by His grace, and certainly with your blessing, I will seek to help myself!"
"Lay down your arms!" Arryn cried. His first opponent inside the bailey, once they had breached the outer walls, had been a large, well-muscled, and experienced warrior, but the man he now faced was no more than a lad, and the way he swung his sword showed training, but no experience.
"Nay, I cannot!"
The lad swung—a noble gesture. His sword fell short of its target, that target being Arryn's midsection. Arryn sat atop his great bay destrier—obtained several years ago from a fallen English cavalryman—and could easily have brought his own weapon down upon the fellow's neck and shoulders.
"Lad, give it up! You're beaten."
"Aye, I'm beaten. But give it up, sir? To perish in flames, or meet the hangman, or find death at a stake, or—"
"Lay down your weapon, you fool! I don't punish children for the misfortune of their birth!" Arryn cried.
The lad hesitated, then laid down his sword. As he did so, Arryn heard his name called. He swung the handsome bay around. Jay MacDonald, head of the fighting members of his clan, was rushing through the bailey to reach him.
"He's gone—Lord Darrow is gone. They say he heard that an army of wild men was nearly upon him—and he ran!"
"Aye, so 'tis true; the rat has sprung the trap!" Arryn said with disgust, spitting down into the dirt. God, it hurt! His anger and frustration were so great that they actually created a physical pain within him. His heart hurt; his soul hurt. What Kinsey Darrow had done was unforgivable, not to be forgotten. And all under the full blessing of the English king! There was nothing to do when such atrocities were law, except to defy the law. In a land where there was no justice, there was little left to a man except the pursuit of revenge. And by God, if not today, he would have his revenge one day. Kinsey Darrow would die, and die by his sword, or else his own life would be readily, gladly given in forfeit. As it was, by God, he could not live with his dreams. He heard her screams into the night, and even into the dawn, and they would rip him apart as long as he lived, perhaps even through all eternity.
"Arryn, did you hear me? King Edward of England's wretched coward of a lackey is not here!" Jay said.
Jay indicated the corner where the castle guards stood, their weapons cast into a heap before them as they waited, eyes darting nervously as they surveyed their Scottish foes. "Ask the lad, Arryn. Lord Darrow rode out this morning."
"It's true?" He had yet to see the boy's face, for Kinsey Darrow was a rich, landed knight with the resources to arm his men well. The lad wore a helmet with a fitted faceplate and tightly knit mail with heavy plates as well. A tunic with Darrow's colors and crest lay over his armor, but didn't conceal its fine workmanship.
The lad lifted his helmet from his head. As Arryn had suspected, he was very young. He stood tall and, though obviously afraid, he meant to stand his ground. He looked at Arryn and nodded. "Aye, sir, 'tis true. Lord Darrow came here to meet his lady, but received a message soon after from the Earl of Harringford, and departed with more than half his forces."
Arryn arched a brow, leaning down against the bay's neck to better study the boy's freckled face. "Came here to meet his lady?"
"And he met with her?"
"And he rode out with her?"
"Nay, sir, he did not."
"Then she remains?" Arryn queried, glancing over at Jay.
"Aye, sir, she remains."
"This is the Lady Kyra we're speaking about?" he stressed.
"Aye, sir, the Lady Kyra." He appeared flushed and unhappy at that. "Aye, sir, Seacairn was always her father's holding, through Edward, and in his time, through Alexander. With our king long dead and Balliol humiliated and a prisoner ... well, the castle has remained in English hands."
"I know the history of the castle, lad. It is Lady Kyra who interests me now."
"But, sir—" the lad protested, red and afraid, his voice trailing. Yet, why not? He should fear for his lady. Darrow's sins were such that they could not be forgiven, and there were those who suggested that he destroyed and pillaged with her full support and agreement.
"Lad, get to the wall with you, and no harm will befall you," Arryn said.
"But, sir, I don't think you understand—"
"Go to the wall now, boy," Arryn said, his voice low, a warning note within it.
The lad turned, still tall, proud, and headed toward the other prisoners grouped against the inner wall of the tower.
"Arryn," Jay said, "I can only assume you'll be going for Darrow's lady."
"I know you've been thinking of little other than revenge, and with just cause—"
"Aye, that I am."
"—to take what is his. But still, I implore you to remember, you are not such a creature as Kinsey Darrow."
Arryn lifted a hand with a gesture of impatience. "I intend to take the castle and the woman. What else would you have me do?"
Jay grinned suddenly. "Ah, Arryn! So we have the castle; you'll shortly have Darrow's woman."
"Well, she could be ugly as sin, of course."
"Wrinkled beyond all measure. She is rich, but wealth is certainly not always accompanied by youth or beauty."
Jay studied his friend for a moment, wanting to feel the same sense of humor. He could not.
"If she is as ugly as sin, as wrinkled as a prune, it will not matter. She is Darrow's, and that is all that counts. Was Darrow's. No more. The boys who were left to defend this place will have mercy, but ..."
"Aye?" Jay demanded.
Arryn shook his head. "What more is there? She, too, is at my mercy." He inhaled and exhaled, feeling as if he breathed in bitterness. "Nothing here is for pleasure. It is vengeance, Jay. She is simply to be used, ruined."
"Aye, but ... is such vengeance humanly possible if such proves to be the case? I mean, if a maid is preposterously ugly—"
"You have mercy, Jay."
Jay, his helmet in his hand, smoothed back his rich brown hair. "Ah, there's the word! Mercy! Such a virtue, and lost to Scotland and Scots for so very long, so it seems. You've granted mercy to these men."
"But you would have me grant mercy as well to the woman who encouraged Darrow in his vicious and bloodthirsty behavior?"
Arryn leaned downward, his gloved hand curling into a fist that he slammed against his chest. "Sweet Jesus, I cannot forget or forgive what happened!"
"But she could be quite simply repulsive!" Jay stated.
"Then I will meet her in the dark, with a sack upon her head! Come, we've taken the bailey; now the towers must fall to us!"
He spurred his horse, leaving Jay to rush behind him to his own mount. Angered, restless, still feeling the pursuit of inner demons, Arryn rode hard to the great gate at the main tower. He called out orders, commanding his men to bombard the structure with a ram. Defenders overhead shouted, threatened; they would hurl down oil and flaming arrows to set them all ablaze. One fellow, in particular, shouted down that he would burn with them in hell.
"Seize the great oak shield and continue ramming the gate!" Arryn commanded, and his men quickly backed away toward the shield they had fashioned of heavy oak, a piece of siege machinery that protected them like a wooden roof from the missiles cast down from the arrow slits in the main tower that stretched above them.
The door shuddered.
The flames cast down burned, smoked, and went out. The oil dripped off the curve of the shield.
The ram thundered against the door.
"Hold! For God's sake, we will surrender!"
Arryn lifted his visor and looked up. The same fellow who had sworn to burn with them all in hell was the one offering the surrender.
"You protect Lord Darrow's lady, sir. You would give up so easily?" he queried mockingly.
"You've granted mercy to the soldiers in the bailey. I am Tyler Miller, captain of the guard, and I've heard, Sir Arryn, that you keep your word. Swear mercy to us and I will open the gates; thus you will have taken a castle you can still defend."
"Aye, I swear mercy. But I ask again, what of your lady?"
"It is her command that I surrender," he said, his voice suddenly tremulous. "She, too, must cast herself upon your mercy. We are too few, we have no more oil, no arrows, and we are poorly armed. And ..."
He hesitated, looking down. "Sir Arryn, we've heard of the fate befallen so many of your people. We humbly beg pardon, and swear we were not among those who attacked your holdings. God help us, we were not. These are Lowlands here, and aye, we've English in our blood, but many of us are Scotsmen as well, sworn allegiance to the old lord here, the lady's good father. Aye, he was an Englishman, but ... we're not all vicious dogs, sir."
"Open the gates then," Arryn commanded.
"I've given my word."
The great gates to the main tower of the fortress creaked open. Arryn nudged his horse forward, only to realize that Jay had ridden behind him. "Take care—it could be a trap."
"I must lead the way in," Arryn murmured.
He spurred the bay lightly; the horse pranced prettily and swiftly, making its way across the threshold and into the stone entry. Arryn held his sword at the ready—it still dripped the blood of Englishmen—but the threat was not necessary. The soldiers from the inner courtyard had laid down their weapons. There were only five of them. One stepped forward, helmet in his hand, offering his sword to Arryn. Arryn dismounted from the bay and accepted the sword. Jay came behind him, along with Nathan Fitzhugh and Patrick MacCullough. The other guards turned over their weapons in total surrender.
"Where is the Lady Kyra?" Arryn asked, careful to continue speaking his native Gaelic.
Tyler hesitated, wincing. "In the chapel."
Arryn dismounted and started to walk past him.
"Sir!" Tyler called.
Arryn paused, looking back.
"You swore mercy."
"To you, I swore mercy."
"Get these five outside, to the wall with the others," Arryn commanded Jay.
"Aye, Arryn," Jay agreed, watching as Arryn strode toward the wielding stairs. "Arryn, there might still be danger."
"This danger, Jay, I'1l face alone. Secure the fortress." Arryn continued on up the stairs to the chapel, anxious, his blood racing and burning in a turmoil.
He reached the top of the stairs, and through a short hallway, came to the chapel.
And there, before the main altar, a woman kneeled.
Her head was bowed; she was deep in prayer. But she heard him. He saw her back stiffen. It was a broad back.
Slowly she rose. Even more slowly, she turned to him.
She wasn't repulsive. That would be far too strong.
Excerpted from Conquer the Night by Heather Graham. Copyright © 2000 Shannon Drake. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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