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'Finish the words and you will be a widow before you are a wife,' Giles Fitzhenry, knighted warrior of William the Conqueror, promised in a harsh whisper.
The blood from the gash above his eye flowed down his face and dripped on the lady's shoulder, but still he did not relent in his crushing hold. It would take but a moment's pressure to crush her throat and he swore to himself and then aloud that he would do it if she spoke the words of the vow. Giles turned to face the now-quieting crowd in the small chapel and revealed the dagger he aimed at her ribs, another assurance that the lady would die if anyone tried to intervene.
His intended moved with him, gripping his hand as though she could stop him. Lady Fayth of Taerford should have thought about the repercussions of her actions before he arrived. Before his men and hers had been killed in the battle for the keep and for possession of her. Giles nodded to Roger and his man held his sword to the neck of the lady's comrade in this crime, waiting for her response.
'The keep and lands are mine now, lady, as are you. Your choice of words will simply bring his death more slowly or more swiftly.' Giles watched as the woman in his arms exchanged glances with the man held a few yards away.
He felt her body relent before she spoke the words of surrender. Trying with all his determination to ignore the soft, womanly curves beneath his arm, he lessened his grip a tiny bit and lowered the dagger to give her the opportunity to make the choice. 'Do you take him to husband instead of me?' he asked aloud.
'I do not,' she whispered hoarsely into the deathly silence that had covered the room.
With her capitulation, his men surrounded her people and began to force them from the chapel. Without letting go, he nodded at his second-in-command and then at the man who she had chosen as husband. 'Kill him.'
The priest protested loudly, but his men ignored the old man and prepared to follow Giles's orders. It was her quiet voice that stopped him.
'My lord,' she began, trying to face him in spite of his grasp. Her movement simply made his blood drip and smear more over her cloak. It wasn't until he lessened his grip on her that she could speak louder.
'I beg you, my lord. He is not to blame. Truly. Mercy, my lord. Mercy.' She leaned her head back, offering herself as a sacrifice to his anger.
He would tell himself later that it was his need to put an end to the bloodshed that made him relent. He would tell himself that he had never planned to kill the man cajoled or ensorcelled by his betrothed into this foolhardy plan to interfere with his rights to her and the land. But Giles only knew that at the moment when his gaze met hers he wanted to grant her whatever she asked of him. He let out his breath and nodded.
'Take him and his men to the edge of my lands and release them,' he said in a loud voice. 'And if, from this time forward, they step back onto my lands or try to contact my wife, kill them without hesitation.'
After Roger dragged his prisoner from the chapel, Giles released his hold on her. She gasped for breath as he pushed her to another of his men. There was much to do and he needed her out of his way.
'Find a place and secure the lady.'
Reaching up to touch her throat, she turned as though she would speak, but said nothing. His bloody handprint marred her neck and he knew that the armour gauntlets he wore would leave bruises on her fair skin where he'd held her. Any measure of sympathy he began to feel for her was extinguished when he saw that two of his men lay dead in the back of the chapel.
Giles met her gaze once more and the hatred burning there in her dark green eyes said more than her words would have or could have. Giles smiled grimly at her, accepting the challenge made silently.
'Nothing is to happen to her, except by my word or by my hand,' he called out.
Aye, my lord,' his soldier answered as he dragged Fayth from his presence.
After surveying the chapel and making certain that his dead and wounded were cared for, Giles strode to the keep to see what his new home looked like.
She smelled the metallic odour of his blood on her and felt its stickiness on her skin where his gauntleted hand had clutched her. It was as though he had marked his possession of her where all could see it. Fayth's throat burned and her chest ached from his crushing hold. As his men dragged her across the yard, she saw Edmund and his men being chained together. Pulling against her guard, she managed to come to a stop, but she feared the cost of calling out to Edmund. When their captors finished chaining them, they were hauled across the yard and out of the gate.
Would she ever see him again? Would her new lord and master keep his word and see them released? Fayth fought back tears at the thought of never seeing her childhood friend alive again. At least she'd been able to save his life, but now that everyone who had protected her was gone, she alone was left to face this invasion.
The clamouring at her side caught her attention and Fayth looked on in horror as her people, the servants and villeins of the keep, were herded into the yard that usually held their horses. Men, women, children. Sir Giles's men were systematically going building by building and forcing all of her people out to the yard where they were thrown with the others.
Did he mean to kill them all? They called out to her, fear in their voices and terror in their gazes. What could she do now for she was a prisoner herself?
When one of the Norman soldiers tossed the cook's young daughter to the ground, she could no longer stand by silently. With a strength that surprised her, she pushed off the grasp of her guard and ran to young Ardith, knocking the warrior away from her. Helping the girl to her feet and urging her to run, Fayth turned back just as her guard caught up with her and as Ardith's attacker regained his feet.
Cursing in Norman French, words too gruff and too fast for her to comprehend, the man grabbed her by the cloak she wore and pulled her to face him. The anger flared in his eyes at being interrupted in what he must have thought was his due as the conqueror. He raised his fisted hand and swung it at her. She tried to lean away to avoid the blow, but his hold was too strong.
Pain exploded in her head and then there was nothing but darkness.
He watched the chaos of the yard from the open window in the chamber he claimed as his own. The large room boasted a hearth built into the wall, a privy closet and this window that overlooked the yard and gate. Below him, most of the people of Taerford Keep were collected in an enclosure with a few stragglers being taken there now. His men controlled the gate and the roads leading to it.
They'd fought their way from Hastings, along the roads past London and out to the west, into Harold's country. William urged his haste in following a few who escaped the battlefield and ran to organise resistance to the duke's lawful control of England. Days became almost a week as they faced battle after battle and finally made their way to his promised fief.
In spite of sending word ahead of his claim and his approach, the lady and those who conspired with her had nearly completed their hasty marriage when Giles managed to take control of the keep. He smiled grimly.
Now, it was his.
The building was not very large, but would suit him. It contained three floors with several private chambers and a separate kitchen building. The keep, kitchen, chapel and several other shops were enclosed by the wall. It was not large, but it pleased him and would offer protection until he could replace the wood with stone as William had ordered.
Pushing the mail coif off his head, Giles looked for something to staunch the bleeding from his wound and found a small linen kerchief on the bed. Pressing it against the deep gash, he walked back to the window to watch his orders being carried out. Unfortunately, things were not going as he had instructed.
The newest soldier in his company had some young girl in his grasp, his intent obvious even from this distance. Damn him! Giles had made it clear that such attacks were unacceptable, but Stephen had thrown control away during the battle and now the girl was his next target. Running from the chamber and down the stairs, Giles reached the yard in time to see the lady Fayth intervene.
Before Giles could shout an order, Stephen reached out and grabbed Fayth, lifting her from her feet. Giles called for him to stop, but the noise in the yard prevented anyone from hearing it. As he took off running towards them Stephen hit Fayth with enough force that the lady fell to the ground unconscious. Without stopping, Giles ploughed into the soldier and took him to the ground. Heedless of those watching, he pummelled him until he himself was pulled away.
'Andre!' he called to a guard. 'Carry the lady to my chambers. Henri, find her servant or a healer and see to her care. And,' he added, wiping his mouth of the blood that flowed freely once more, 'do not leave her side.' He turned to face Stephen, who still lay on the ground at his feet. 'Your disobedience and lack of control have ever been your weakness,' he accused. 'You have been warned about this and you have not heeded my words.'
Giles ordered him lifted, stripped to the waist and tied to the fence. The yard was eerily silent now as all watched their new lord discipline one of his own. He would rather not have carried this out now, but a prompt response to disobedience by any of his men was necessary, especially in a time of war. He tugged off the gauntlets and accepted the whip from his second-in-command. Giles did not do this lightly, for he'd felt the lash bite his skin, but he'd learned the hard lesson it taught quickly and had rarely faced discipline again.
Walking to the fence, he looked at those now held in the enclosure and at his men. 'For disobedience of my standing orders, the punishment is ten lashes. Call them, Thierry.'
Giles unwrapped the length of leather and flicked it into the air. The tip cracked loudly and many of those around him flinched, though no target was touched. He took several paces back and then applied the punishment he had decreed. Thierry counted out the number so that all could hear. Although Stephen hissed with each lash, he kept himself from crying out or bucking. At ten, Giles took a deep breath and paused.
And for laying hands on the lady Fayth, ten more.'
His words surprised all who watched for he heard the gasps at his declaration. Giles lifted his arm again and again until the strokes numbered ten. Stephen's control had waned and he moaned at each bite of the whip. No one moved until Giles nodded his consent.
'Remove him and leave him there. When we finish the work we have ahead of us, then someone can see to his wounds.'
He met his men's gazes then before turning around and walking away. Two of his men removed Stephen and went back to the tasks he had assigned before the incident had stopped them, now a man short due to the stupidity and lust of one of their own.
Giles looked around and noticed the sun was not even at its highest point in the sky yet. Sweat and blood now poured down from his head, under his mail and tunic. He had been fighting since just after dawn and he was tired. Once he was certain that his men had control over the yard and the inhabitants, he motioned to Thierry to follow him into the keep.
The days of fighting his way across England were catching up with him and he wanted nothing so much as a secure home, a hot bath and a meal to fill his belly.
From the looks of the keep and the turmoil still moving through it, Giles knew that he would not be getting his wishes fulfilled this day.
And he still had to deal with his new wife-to-be.
Her first attempt to open her eyes met with a head-shattering pain, so Fayth lay very still and waited until the urge to vomit quieted. She listened without moving as someone, or some ones, shuffled about the chamber. She was tempted to try again, but the waves of pain pulsing through her skull warned her not to.
'My lady?' The whispered words came from a familiar voice, but she could not recognise it so at the moment. 'My lady?'
Fayth swallowed and then again, but she could not speak. Her head felt as though it would shatter if she tried to answer, but the blasted woman, whoever she was, was relentless.
'You must wake up, my lady. He is coming.'
Lifting her hands, Fayth slid her fingers over her forehead and scalp until she found the lump. Gliding softly over it, she knew the source of the pain. With her arm shielding her eyes from the light pouring into the chamber, she forced them open.
It was Ardith. The young girl's tear-streaked face filled with terror as she turned to the door and then back to her. When the door opened, Ardith jumped to her feet and backed away, stopping only when her body hit the wall of the chamber. Fayth watched her as long as she could, but the waves of dizziness made it impossible after a few moments.
'You were told to care for her wound. Why is she still covered in blood?'
The words, in halting English, echoed in the room, making Fayth's stomach clench. Ardith was terrified into silence and could only offer a soft sobbing sound at the question. If Fayth could, she would intervene. But the pain and dizziness made it a thing she could not accomplish. She finally found her tongue.
'She is not used to such duties,' she whispered, hoping that the effort was enough. It made the terrible pain increase and made her stomach begin to heave.