Clydon Castle, England, 1192
Bang! Again, again-bang! The sound of the battering ram took precedence over the screaming confusion on the inner battlements, over the death cries below in the outer bailey as arrows struck true, over the thundering headache that pounded inside Reina de Champeney's head. Bang! Again.
It had happened too quickly, the attack. Reina had been aroused from sleep by the cry "To arms!", to find the outer bailey already breached by trickery. The supposed pilgrim she had given succor to the night before had opened the gate on the outer curtain wall at dawn, letting in a small army. Thank God she had not let the cur bed down in the inner bailey or in the keep itself, or she would not now be directing a defense from the battlements above the inner gatehouse. But that was all she had to be grateful for.
The attacking army might be no more than a hundred men, but Clydon was presently grossly undermanned for a castle of its size. After her father had depleted the garrison for the army he took with him on Crusade, she had only fifty-five men left, not all of whom were present. Twenty men-at-arms and ten crossbowmen and archers were about. But at least six of that number were dead or trapped on the outer walls, which the attackers were not even bothering to secure, since there was no archer of any skill there to cause damage to their flanks.
"Put more fuel on that fire!" Reina shouted at one of the menservants, all having been commandeered to help with the defense. "We need that boiling water now, not after the gate gives way!"
She leaned over the parapet in time to see a fat rock drop at least threefeet away from the battering ram, then roll harmlessly into the dry ditch below the wall. She turned a murderous glare on Theodric, her most trusted servant. The gangly youth of eight years and ten had insisted on helping even though Reina had tried to send him below after he brought her specially made armor and dressed her right there on the battlements.
"Idiot!" she snapped at him in disgust. "You are supposed to break through the ram's thick cover, not stir the dust to coat their feet!"
"These rocks are heavy!" Theodric snapped back peevishly, as if that could excuse his wasting their supply of missiles.
"Aye, and you have not the muscle for lifting them, so leave off and do what you can do, Theo. We need more water up here for boiling right quickly, and another fire, too. We are running out of time."
She turned before seeing if he would swallow his prickly pride and do as she ordered, only to nearly knock over little Aylmer, who had come up to stand by her other side. The seven-year-old boy wrapped his skinny arms around her leg to keep from falling, but Reina's heart jumped into her throat, for the fall could have taken him right over the wall, since with his crippled foot he had not the balance or the dexterity to save himself.
"What do you here?" Reina shouted, furious at the scare he had given her.
Tears formed immediately in the brown eyes looking up at her and caused a like moisture to gather in her own eyes. She had never yelled at the child before, never had aught but a kind word for him or a soft shoulder onto which he could cry his hurts. She was the closest thing he had to a mother, orphaned as he was and unwanted by any of the villeins because of his crippled foot. He was only a serf, but she had brought him through so many childhood illnesses that she thought of him as her own -- at least hers to protect and care for.
"I want to help you, my lady," was Aylmer's answer.
Reina knelt down before him to wipe the wetness from his smoke-smudged cheek, hoping the smile she offered now took the bite out of her earlier surliness. "I am glad you have come, Aylmer," she lied as she moved him to put her mail-clad back between him and any arrows flying over the wall. "I came up here so quickly there was no time to set my ladies to what is needful inside the keep. Do you go and tell Lady Alicia to cut bandages and make ready for the wounded. Stay with her and Dame Hilary and help them as you can. And, Aylmer," she added with a forced grin, "try to assure the younger ladies there is no reason yet for alarm. You know how silly they can be."
"Aye, my lady. They are only girls."
And you are only a boy, she thought tenderly as she watched him hobble to the ladder, his pride at least intact. Now if only she could think of something to get Theodric out of the way as easily. She saw him about to help another man tilt the large cauldron of boiling water over the wall and opened her mouth to shout him away, only to have an arrow fly past her cheek. In the next second, she found herself tackled to the floor by Aubert Malfed.
"Jesu, my lady, you almost -- "
"Get off me, you beef-witted oaf," she growled into Aubert's ashen face.
"But, my lady -- "
She cut off his protest furiously. "Think you I want to be here? But with Sir William taken sick last eventide, no doubt poisoned somehow by that false pilgrim, there is no one else to lead the defense."
"You cannot," she said with less rancor. How she wished he could, but Sir William's squire was only five years and ten, and she was the one William had dragged up here just this past week for a thorough if quick lesson in defense, not Aubert. " 'Tis me they want, and I will hold my own fate in hand, thank you. If I am taken, it will be my own fault, no one else's."
"At least stay back from the wall," he beseeched her as he helped her to her feet...