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The accusation rippled through the crowded hall. Carried from one courtier to the next, the word found its way back to the man accused of the foul deed.
"Rhys, Lord of Faucon, for the murder of Guillaume du Pree your lands and properties are forfeit to the crown."
The black-robed holy man smiled with satanic glee as he finished his proclamation. "Your life will be forfeited to the devil you have served."
From his chair on the raised dais King Stephen leaned forward. "Rhys?" He waited but a heartbeat before continuing. "Faucon, have you nothing to say?"
Rhys wanted to say much, but he bit back his sarcastic retort. The hard, cold floor beneath his knees helped keep his tongue in check. Chained like a dog, he was in no position to test King Stephen's humor.
Instead, Rhys searched the crowded hall for one ally who would vouch for his honor. Those who would do so were oddly absent from this gathering.
He strained against the chains binding his arms behind him. His muscles burned with pain. Rhys glanced across the torch-lit hall, seeking the three men who'd roused him from his much-needed slumber. They glared back at him. Their odd array of blackening eyes, swollen lips and bloodied noses gave him a measure of satisfaction. He'd not made their task an easy one.
"Answer your king!" The cleric scurried toward Rhys. The man's robe flapped about his stout legs.
Rhys looked up at King Stephen, ignoring what seemed to him nothing more than a short, cawing crow. He weighed his words carefully. His life and the continued welfare of his family rested on his ability to control his tongue. "Sire, I have killed many men while serving under your standard. Who is to say whether those who perished during the heat of battle were friend or foe?"
"No one asked you about an honorable battle. We are speaking of a coward's ambush." The squawking man positioned himself in front of Rhys. With fisted hands resting on his ample hips, the holy man glowered at him.
Even though Rhys knelt on the floor, the cleric's hard stare was nearly at eye level. This man of God - if he truly was - had the power to take away all Rhys held dear. And it seemed at this moment a possibility.
The cleric shook his fist at Rhys. "You whoreson of the devil. What say you for killing the good master du Pree?"
Rhys burned the man's features into his mind. He would not forget, nor forgive, the man's actions this day.
He addressed the king. "Who accuses me of this foul deed?"
The cleric sputtered. "Who? What matter does that make? You are guilty and the Lord Almighty will see justice done."
The noise in the hall grew louder as those gathered voiced their opinion of du Pree's murder.
"Enough!" King Stephen's shout brought a semblance of order to the hall. He instructed the guards to release the bonds, then motioned to Rhys and ordered, "Follow me."
After struggling to his feet, Rhys waited impatiently as a guard freed him from the chains. While rubbing the circulation back into his burning arms, he followed the king. The hissing of disappointment shadowed his departure. Vultures behaved better than the scavengers gathered here.
Certain his executioner awaited him, Rhys paused in the doorway to the small chamber where King Stephen led him. He cautiously peered inside and almost cried aloud with relief. The room was empty save for the presence of William, the Earl of York.
His allies may have been absent from the hall, but here in this private chamber the only supporter Rhys needed raised a goblet to herald his arrival.
Once the three occupants were seated, Stephen addressed both men. His focus riveted on Rhys, the king began, "Faucon, by permitting the tales about you to grow unchecked, you have brought this upon yourself."
Stephen grew silent, giving Rhys time to realize the truth of his words. It was not a lie. He'd enjoyed the tales told of the evil Faucon - even if they were not true. His overblown reputation won more than half the battles he'd engaged in, saving him and his men from any defeat.
But defeat loomed before him now.
With a slight wave of his hand, the king motioned toward the door. "While some of the barons call for your life, it seems not all believe this cry of murder. Just as they didn't believe the cry before. However, this time much more hangs in the balance. I can ill afford to lose any of the supporters I have over this accusation."
Again, the king spoke the truth. This battle for the throne cost much. Every supporter who left Stephen's side to fight with the Empress Matilda took along their men and gold. Regardless of any friendship, Stephen could not permit this matter to come between him and his quest to keep the throne.
Rhys leaned forward and swore, "Sire, upon my honor as a loyal knight and subject, I have killed no man in such a cowardly fashion."
Stephen shook his head. "Your word held little weight when Alyce died, yet most looked the other way. We are not now speaking of a vile-tongued wench. Guillaume du Pree was well liked by some and mistrusted by others. I am afraid, Rhys, that outside of this chamber, your word means nothing."
Rhys flinched under the reminder of his faithless wife. Over five years had gone by. When would the mere mention of her name not cause his heart to constrict? He pushed the memory down into the recesses of his mind. "I can prove my innocence with nothing but my word."
"You need find another way - quickly. The men gathered here are bored, Rhys. A trial by combat would alleviate that condition."
Had the king cleaved him with a battle-ax, Rhys would not have been more shocked. His mouth went dry at the thought of proving his innocence in a fight where fairness and honor would be missing. Neither battle, nor death frightened him. However, his accusers would arrange this event, going to great lengths to ensure his death and the loss of his family's wealth and honor.
Rhys swallowed his uncertainty before admitting, "I can think of no other way." Against unimaginable odds, he would simply have to win.
"Let us not be hasty." William took a long draught of wine and then stared at Rhys over the rim of his goblet.
"You are forgetting that someone did commit the murder."
"True. And this someone does need to be found." King Stephen agreed with William's statement of the obvious before adding, "Within the next four weeks."
Excerpted from Falcon's Desire by Denise Lynn Copyright © 2003 by Denise Lynn
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Posted March 30, 2013
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