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Chauvere Castle, Nottinghamshire, England
Alyss of Chauvere winced at the grating thud of stone against stone. Another catapult strike. She clinched her teeth and frowned. Blast and bedamned to Sir Jasper of Windom for attacking her home. The land-greedy wretch. Another jolting crash sent her thirteen-year- old sister, Evelynn, into Alyss's arms. The girl's stiff form trembled, and Alyss knew she fought back tears.
Hovering just inside the solar, Chauvere's priest braced himself.
"Have mercy on these your children, O Lord." Father Eudo closed his eyes and raised his pinched face piously in the direction of heaven, but his thin hands never loosened their grip on the door jamb.
Alyss slanted a glance at Evie, whose face pressed against Alyss's shoulder. "If God had mercy, he'd direct a bolt of lightning at Sir Jasper's black heart. Although He probably couldn't find it."
Evie choked out a laugh, and her tense muscles eased under Alyss's fingers.
The priest leveled his unamused gaze at the two.
Oh, dear. Alyss sighed. He had his women-are-the-spawn-of-Satan look. If he began his speech about females understanding their place in God's plan, he'd be impossible to divert.
"Father, are you certain you can get Evie away unseen?" Alyss hoped the question turned his thoughts away from his impending lecture and back to the upcoming journey. For good measure, she added, "I can always send one of the guards."
The maneuver worked.
"I am the best one to escort Lady Evelynn to the convent." Father Eudo's tone lost its sanctimonious lilt when he added, "From the sounds of the army outside the gates, all our soldiers are needed here."
His expression managed to convey both indignation and scorn — indignation at the thought of sending another in his place and scorn that Alyss resisted the siege.
Alyss gave Evie a hug and stepped away, hands clasped at her waist. "I trust no one more than you with my sister's safety. I'm certain Sir Jasper's attack will end soon. No knight would intentionally destroy a holding he wants as his own."
If only that were true. She didn't trust Windom's lord to behave reasonably; experience proved him a lying schemer.
Father Eudo's mouth twisted in disdain. "Perhaps if you had accepted his offer of marriage — but I've said all I can on that matter." He released his hold on the doorframe and made for the corridor. "I will be in the chapel, praying for our journey. Have your sister ready to leave following compline."
After he disappeared, Evie raced to drop the bar across the door and whirled to Alyss. "If Sir Jasper won't do more damage, there's no reason for me to go. And Papa will be better soon. Things will change."
Her voice brimmed with such confidence, such faith. Alyss recalled a time when she'd possessed a similar trust in the world. Long ago, it seemed. Now she knew better, and she'd do everything in her power to postpone the hard awakening destined for her sister.
Evie had to leave. The outer bailey defense had weakened, and if Sir Jasper and his soldiers breached it with their infernal catapult, who knew how long the inner bailey wall could stand? A chill skittered down Alyss's arms at the thought of what might happen to her sister then.
But worst of all, Papa would never be better. Not in this life.
She must not allow Evie to suspect. Alyss swallowed against a burning tingle in her throat. This was no time to break down. And frankly, she couldn't do what she must with her sister close by. The danger was too great.
"You know it is for the best, love." Alyss tucked a glossy brown curl under the cap covering Evie's hair. The rough black wool was part of the clothing Alyss had borrowed from the cook's son. Father Eudo had been horrified when Alyss suggested it. But enemy soldiers took no notice of a boy.
"Papa will feel easier when you're not in danger. Visiting at St. Ursula's is wise, just until this dispute with our neighbor is settled."
"Come with me, then," Evie begged, her voice edged with panic. "I don't want to leave you alone."
"Until Papa is better, I am needed here. But if things get too bad, I'll join you at the convent." God forgive her for the lie. Alyss would not be leaving Chauvere.
As long as no one knew the seriousness of Papa's condition, the castle would be safe. Provided the garrison withstood this latest threat. Sir Jasper had proved disgustingly persistent since she'd rejected his last offer.
"If I go, do you vow not to marry Sir Jasper?" Evie whispered. "I'm afraid of what will happen."
"You have my pledge. Nothing could force me to wed that snake." He cared not a whit about her. He wanted access to Chauvere's extensive land and tenants. With her brother away and her father's health failing, Sir Jasper intended to take advantage. If she wouldn't marry him, he'd try to find another way to usurp control of the castle.
He'd underestimated his opponent. She'd never relent. And with Evie safely away, he'd have no means to compel her.
Evie half-heartedly stuffed a comb into her pack, then knotted the top. "When do you think Henry will return? If he were here, no one would dare attack us."
When indeed? Their brother needed to be home now, not gallivanting in another land, awaiting the convenience of the kidnapped King Richard. "The king's ransom is being delivered, and he's bound to be released soon. Henry will accompany him back to England."
Evie studied the satchel. "What if he doesn't arrive in time?"
Alyss hugged her. "Stop fretting. Sir Jasper will go home, like before. He doesn't really want to destroy the castle. We will be fine. Now, while you say goodbye to everyone, I'll make certain enough guards are posted for the night. Listen. You hear? The barrage has stopped."
Striding along the corridor toward the great hall, Alyss prayed the decision to send Evie away tonight had been the right one. Even if Sir Jasper resumed attack come dawn, the night promised cover enough for two people to slip through the secret tunnel. Once in the village, Father Eudo and Evie would gather horses and be off to St. Ursula Convent. It lay close enough for the priest to return by first light.
The evening passed in a fog of unreality. Alyss bid farewell to Evie and Father Eudo, then returned to the keep where she prepared a tray for Papa. Perhaps this night he'd awaken and wish for soup. Or at least some ale. He did like his ale.
When she slipped into her father's bedchamber, his still figure lay in the same position it had when she left hours ago. Alyss placed the tray on a table, added a few lumps of charcoal to the brazier, then pulled her father's carved-back chair close to the bed. As she had last night and the night before, she wrapped a fur around her shoulders and prepared to keep vigil.
Placing a hand lightly on his chest, she kissed his forehead. "I'm here, Papa. Please come back to us. If you can't, then know we love you. And give Mama our love when you see her."
* * *
Alyss awoke abruptly, as if she'd been prodded. Silence. A weak flame from the night candle winked in the darkness. Chill enveloped the room. Around the edges of the window covering trickled the faint light of dawn.
She rose and touched her father. Beneath the furs that covered him, his hands were cold. She lifted one to her lips. The skin held an odd quality, apart from the temperature of the bedchamber. She knew this chill. Her mother's skin had the same feel after the fever claimed her.
Alyss collapsed onto the chair. He was gone. Her strong, courageous, warrior of a father. At three-score and ten years, he'd lived a long life, filled with glory in battle, and love for his wife, his children, and his people. And they all had loved him in return. The knowledge didn't lessen the pain in Alyss's chest. She'd need to notify Sir Baldwin and the others. Head bowed, her father's hand clutched between both of hers, she wept.
Suddenly, the grinding crash of rocks penetrated her grief. Startled voices mingled with the grating, shuddering thuds that echoed in the too-still bedchamber.
Alyss leaped to her feet, laying her father's hand on his chest. Sir Jasper had used the catapult again. Jesu. She raced to the window, pulled aside the thick linen covering, and opened the wooden shutter. Cold dampness bathed her cheeks as she peered into the fog-drenched darkness. Heart thudding, she listened.
Nothing. Perhaps he'd thrown one last, bitter volley as a farewell. Now he'd pack up and leave, as he had the last time. He'd likely be back, as happened before, but she'd face that problem when it came.
Then another thud ... and the sound of crumbling rock rumbled. Shouts floated upward. She stood on her toes to see what had happened, and ... Her breath caught in her throat. The outer bailey! Whether or not he'd intended to bring down the curtain wall, it had collapsed.
Chauvere's emergency plan called for the men to retreat to the inner bailey where they'd take up pre-assigned posts. The wall there was strong, as was the gate. Still, Sir Jasper gained an unexpected advantage. Knowledge that the enemy had breached a part of the perimeter was bound to affect the people's confidence. She needed to reassure them.
First, however, she returned to the bed, gently smoothed the arm of her father's shirt. He was pain-free at last. She should thank the Holy Mother for that. But she wasn't grateful, she was sad — and angry. Her rock of a father gone — it seemed impossible. And how could his people grieve him properly when they must battle a heedless enemy?
For the last sennight, after Sir Jasper brought his army to camp in the clearing outside the castle, the soldiers had displayed little aggression. They much preferred to relax in their tents and devour food confiscated from the villagers.
Why attack now? It was as if Sir Jasper learned her father's health had suddenly worsened. But only Sir Baldwin and Father Eudo knew. Alyss had asked that no one else in the castle or village be told. They'd enough to worry over without fearing for their lord's life.
Even Sir Godfrey had left for Mainz immediately after her father had collapsed days earlier, before this last decline. How long would it take him to bring back Henry, along with the men of the garrison who'd gone with her brother to fetch the king?
Alyss couldn't deny Sir Baldwin's devotion, but battle days were long over for the old knight who took Sir Godfrey's place as captain. At least she'd been able to help plan the defense.
Someone pounded at the door. "Lord Ulrich. Lady Alyss. He's gained the keep."
Impossible! Sir Jasper's soldiers couldn't have overrun the inner bailey so quickly. Brushing back a strand of hair, she dashed to the window again.
A glow of weak morning light revealed a lifting of the fog — and Windom's army, just clambering over sections of the outer bailey wall where the rocks had given way. Nowhere near the castle. Who was inside?
Clashing metal sounded right outside the door. Heart at the back of her throat, Alyss raced to the bed. She grabbed her father's prized dagger, always at his side since the old King Henry bestowed it, and tucked her hand behind her. Pressing her other palm against her stomach to quell the trembling, she sucked in a breath and waited. If her life had come to this, so be it. At least Evie was safe.
The knife handle lay warm and smooth beneath her fingers as she maneuvered the grip in readiness. She'd never surrender. If Sir Baldwin could not come to her aid — well then, she would see how well his lessons had prepared her.
Alyss heard a grunt followed by a thud. The door shook. It burst open under a heavy boot and hit the stone wall behind.
Sir Jasper of Windom ducked his head and barreled through the opening, his sword lifted to catch the expected blow that never came. He stopped. He looked at the still figure of Sir Ulrich, then at her. He smirked.
"I heard your father was ill," he said, lowering his sword. "Pity."
He stalked toward the bed. "I had hoped to settle this today."
He stopped, sweat dripping onto his gray, bristly chin, moisture from his blue-veined nose coating the hair around his upper lip. The smell of horse, sweat, and unbathed man surrounded him. Alyss swallowed a gag.
"Ah, well. I still can." In what seemed like slow motion, he lifted his sword and plunged it into her father's chest.
She raised a horrified gaze to Sir Jasper. Her heart pounded, and she couldn't draw breath.
He laughed and strode toward her.
Alyss clutched her father's dagger and waited.CHAPTER 2
On the road to Cologne
Early February 1194
He couldn't breathe.
Sir Roark of Stoddard struggled to free the twisted metal pressed against his nose. Finally it dislodged. He ripped off his bent helm and gulped in lungsful of air while his destrier, Cin, stood, head bowed. The battle raged nearby.
The king. Roark flung the helmet to the ground and surveyed the area. At the edge of a small clearing, Richard remained mounted, circled by his cadre of personal guards. Roark squinted toward a haze of dust disappearing down the road. Most of the soldiers chased the retreating outlaws.
Safe, then. He settled back and allowed himself a moment of ease. His left arm braced on the edge of the saddle, and his right arm rested along his thigh. In his hand drooped his sword, a pregnant drop of congealing blood trembling near its tip.
A sweet-metallic smell mixed with a sour stench clogged his throat. He'd nearly forgotten the murk of death surrounding a battle — odors of cooling blood, the bowels of men and horses, loosened in death. He had hoped never to experience it again.
He should have known better.
And just where in Hades had the band of outlaws come from? Surely they knew whom they attacked. Richard always traveled in ostentatious style. Which meant they hadn't been common thieves, to set upon a royal party bristling with guards.
A movement at his right brought his head around. Sir Alain reined in his horse and nodded toward the disappearing figures. "They were routed mighty quick."
"So they were," Roark muttered, then straightened. "I must find Lord Martin."
His liege lord had disappeared at first sign of attack, undoubtedly to aid King Richard. Roark prayed so. Martin of Cantleigh had been acting mighty odd the last days before Richard's release. Secret meetings, new mercenaries added to the troop, all with no word to Roark, captain of Cantleigh's guard.
"Where did he go?" Alain asked. "When I chanced to look, he'd disappeared."
Roark didn't answer. He rose in his stirrups to gaze again at the small clot of knights surrounding the king.
There. He picked out Cantleigh's wine-colored surcoat. His lord led a trio of horsemen approaching the royal circle.
Suddenly, a second band of riders burst from a clutch of thick brush and trees behind the king. Satan's balls. They must have waited while the others lured the bulk of the soldiers away, leaving the king vulnerable.
Roark touched his mount's flanks and raced forward. From the corner of his eye, he saw Alain alongside. Ahead, Richard's personal guard turned to meet the new onslaught. They were outnumbered.
The tight ring of warriors shielded the king. But damn. There went Richard, around the side with his sword drawn. Did he have no sense at all? That left his back unprotected.
Roark had almost reached the battle when he saw help approach the beleaguered group. Cantleigh and his three soldiers circled behind. But —
They didn't turn to ward off the enemy.
Roark froze with an icy sense of inevitability. Just what he'd feared. Damn all greedy nobles to fiery hell. Bile churned in his gut as he watched Cantleigh raise his weapon. Point it at the king's back.
The scene moved slowly before Roak's eyes, as if the action struggled through cold honey. Yet his thoughts raced to the decision he must make.
His liege lord or his king?
The man who rescued a miller's son from a burned cottage and set him on the path to knighthood, or the ruler to whom Roark pledged his life?
Before he was conscious of deciding, he roared, "'Ware, Richard. 'Ware the king."
The words scarcely left his lips when one of the guards broke away. Someone had heard, praise God. Turning, the knight met Cantleigh's attack.
The remaining guards hacked their way forward, pushing back the assassins. For the moment. But the odds were not favorable. Unless the absent soldiers gave up pursuit of the original outlaws and returned, the king's men would fail.
But by God's heart, they'd try. He'd try. The knowledge that his own lord turned traitor threatened Roark's concentration. He pushed the distraction aside. He'd deal with it later.
For now, he guided his horse to the right, behind the last of Cantleigh's men. Roark recognized Jenkins, the latest hire, from the man's studded shield and stained brown tunic.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "For This Knight Only"
Copyright © 2019 Barbara Huddleston.
Excerpted by permission of The Wild Rose Press, Inc..
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