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Ashforde Keep, Devon, England Early summer 1143
Bryce of Ashforde squinted through the billowing smoke at the charred remains of Ashforde Keep. Nothing had been safe from the fire set to lay waste to his newly granted land.
He'd been gone seven short days. Long enough to meet his intended betrothed and her family, and to begin the marriage arrangements with Empress Matilda and her husband Comte Geoffrey of Anjou. A sennight ago, when he'd first come to claim Ashforde Keep as the new lord, it had been sound. Now...now it lay in smoldering ruins.
Much would be required to rebuild; men, more gold than he possessed and a great deal of time. But half of his men were missing. The majority of his gold now filled Empress Matilda's coffers. Time was sparse.
The final betrothal agreement was in his saddlebag, waiting only for his signature. Once it was signed, they would set a date to exchange their promises of the future. Then they would wed, a necessity for any lord of the realm. He needed a chatelaine for the keep and children—both requirements that could be filled by marriage. But he was to bring his new wife, Cecily of Glynnson, home to what?
He would have to hire someone to oversee the rebuilding of his keep. Because he would be gone, using those weeks...or months...hunting those responsible for this devastating act.
His nose burned. His chest tightened, protesting the dense, acrid smoke that made his eyes water and brought a harsh raspy cough tearing up his throat.
He'd counted seven bodies—apparently villagers by their obvious lack of weapons and chain mail. Why were his men not among the dead? It appeared they'd been removed from the keep. Or, that they'd run at the first sign of attack. He refused to believe they'd run. When Empress Matilda granted him the title and the land, she'd also granted him twenty men. Each one of them had willingly sworn their allegiance to him. He'd been assured they were faithful, honorable and brave men.
So, where were they?
The wind gathered speed, threatening to pull his hooded cloak from around his shoulders. It blew the smoke across the scorched field.
Bright summer sun sparkled off an object sticking out of the rubble. Bryce kicked the smoldering wooden beams away from what appeared to be a sword. After wrapping the edge of his thick woolen cloak around his hand, he pulled the weapon from the smoking pile.
Even though his heart felt as heavy as a boulder in his chest, and his throat ached from choking back a scream of rage, a bitter smile turned up the corners of his mouth.
A falcon was etched on the blade. The raptor's wings were spread, as if hovering over an unsuspecting prey.
Only one man would mark his weapon in such a manner—Comte Rhys of Faucon. While he'd never crossed swords with Faucon, he'd spoken to men who had. Each of them mentioned the etched falcon.
One question was answered—he knew the party responsible. He stared out toward the forest, now to find his missing men.
Bryce returned to his tethered horse and secured his own sword in a leather loop dangling from the saddle. With great care, he wiped the ashes from the sword he'd found, then held the weapon up toward the blazing sun and vowed, "I promise you, Faucon, I will return your sword and repay you in kind."
Faucon Keep, Normandy October 15, 1143
Every autumn, for as long as Marianne of Faucon could remember, the Comte of Faucon hosted a grand tournament and faire. First her father's father had hosted the event, then her own father. The task now fell to the current Comte of Faucon, her brother Rhys. It had been taking place for so long, that it was an expected celebration.
The only difference this year was in the number of attendees. A devastating famine swept England, bringing more and more people to Normandy, France and other far-flung locations.
An imposing assembly of troubadours, jugglers, dancers and musicians came to entertain the masses gathered while lining their purses with coin. Knights and warriors, tired of earnest battle and seeking to fill their empty coffers with gold or the spoils of those less fortunate at combat, came to test their prowess on the tourney field. Merchants, desperate to profit from the throng and lighten their load of goods before winter set in, flocked to the keep.
It was a festival of merriment and necessity attended by many—evident by the multitude of gaily colored tents dotting the open area between the forest and the keep. Brilliant multihued pennants fluttered in the warm autumn breeze.
Surrounded by more people than she could count, Marianne could not dispel the restlessness coiling tight in her belly. It rested there all day, growing stronger with the setting sun.
Neither the clang of sword meeting sword, nor the excited shouts and laughter of spectators in the stands broke the unsettling gloom cloaking her like a dark, suffocating shroud.
An unhurried stroll amongst the vendors produced nothing to lighten her mood. No bright hair ribbons, exotic scents from the East, nor carefully crafted jewelry caught her eye. It was truly a sad day when she could find nothing new to purchase that would lift her spirits.
Marianne sighed before moving away from the crowd attending this day's events. The annual festivities used to send a thrill through her body. She'd looked forward to the excitement for months in advance. Over the last two years, the thrill had steadily begun to pall.
"Surely you are not leaving so soon?"
An arm draped across her shoulders slowed her departure. She knew by his simple act of lightly caressing her shoulder, which of her three brothers sought to prevent her leaving.
Her eldest brother Rhys would not have taken the time to approach her. With so many armed men about, he was far too busy keeping them in check.
Darius, the youngest brother, would never think to be so familiar with her. He'd not lived at Faucon while she was growing from child to young woman. Their relationship was more formal than the one she shared with her middle brother Gareth.
Marianne lowered her shoulder and sidestepped Gareth's touch. "Yes. I am. The day has been long. My head aches and the noise worsens the pain. Perhaps a few quiet moments in my chamber will help lessen the throbbing." The lie was a small one, surely not of a size worth an eternity in hell.
He grasped her wrist and tugged her back to his side, bringing her escape to a halt. "It is heartening to discover you have not lost the ability to fabricate tales with a straight face."
Marianne smiled up at him. "I learned from the best, did I not?"
His eyes widened briefly before his lips turned up into a crooked, answering smile. "I suppose you did." He released her wrist and ran a hand through his sweat-dampened hair. "But maybe it is time to refrain from following in your brothers' footsteps. After all, you are a girl."
"Girl?" Oddly enough, Marianne's temper sprang to life at his innocent statement. Her blood ran hot and her heart quickened its pace in her chest. She had not been a girl for many years. It was doubtful if anyone outside of her family would mistake the roundness of her hips, or the fullness of her breasts for a girl.
Gareth raked her from head to toe with a slow, piercing stare. The sort of studied perusal a man used when uncertain of what he saw before him. A frown creased his forehead. He rubbed the bridge of his nose, before shaking his head. "Nay. You are a girl no longer, are you?" He sounded surprised. "When did this happen?"
His sudden realization of the obvious banished her ire. "Oh, I am fairly certain it occurred just last week." She could no more refrain from teasing Gareth than she could cease breathing.
He ignored her banter and glanced briefly toward the lists, obviously eager to return to the last of the day's action provided in the tourney ring. With a resigned sigh, he brought his attention back to her. "Why is it that you are unwed?"
Unrestrained laughter burst from her lips and worked its way through her whole body. She wiped the tears from her eyes, shook her head, then gesturing toward the men waiting their turn to joust, she asked, "And who among those gathered would Comte Faucon find suitable? Which man would be worthy of my hand in marriage?"
"What are you saying?"
"Simple, my dear brother, of late I have encouraged more than one eager man to seek Rhys's approval, to no avail."
"Were his reasons not sound?"
"To him, perhaps. But to me they seemed minor." Marianne recited them. "Too old, or not old enough. Not wealthy enough, or strong enough. Too arrogant, or not arrogant enough. One was even deemed not intelligent enough to become related by marriage to the great Faucon family."
Gareth stared at her. "Why did you never complain until now?"
"I never felt that anything was missing in my life until now."
"What do you wish me to do?"
Marianne shrugged. "Perhaps you could talk to our brother, the Comte, and convince him that my heart, too, is deserving of love."
"It may not help, but I promise to try." Certain Gareth would indeed talk to Rhys, she resumed her escape of the crowd. The short jaunt to the keep was uneventful in an annoying sort of way. She would give anything if some brutish lout would think enough of her to take advantage of the fact she walked alone.
No maid accompanied her. When she'd left the keep earlier, they'd been too busy attending to the numerous honored guests. A blessing as far as she was concerned. It was rather enjoyable to have the freedom of movement without her every step being watched.
Although, if Rhys or his wife Lyonesse discovered her outside the keep without a maid or guard in attendance, Marianne's ears would burn from their words of censure.
Both of them acted as if she was some great prize who needed to be protected at all costs. It might make sense to her if she was of royal blood, but she wasn't. The only thing of value, besides the land from her mother's family, was her virginity. And at the moment she'd give that useless treasure away to anyone bold enough to ask for the honor.