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Northeast England, beginning of March AD 1314
"Dash it all!" Sir Roland snarled as he stormed into his allotted dwelling. He kicked a three-legged stool with his boot. It flew across the tiny chamber, hitting the hard-packed wall and breaking into pieces. A chicken squawked loudly outside, its wings flapping as it fled the disturbance. Slamming the door shut, he punched his bare fist into it. The ensuing pain was nothing to his frustration.
I've tried so hard to keep a low profile these past weeks. Took excessive efforts. And now this!
Lord Craven had just summoned him, by way of a messenger, to his private conference room ... for reasons unknown.
Have suspicions surfaced about me already? Is my investigation at an end before it's really begun?
He let out another throaty growl and ran a stiff hand through his dark red hair. His fist clenched the hair on top of his head. His scalp tingled and stung with the firm pull, but he welcomed the pain as an offset to his aggravation.
Claiming to be desperate for work, Roland had secured employment in the form of service to Festus Craven, Earl of Guildon Castle. No one in their right mind would travel so close to the border of Scotland unless they were desperate. Nothing else would push them to enter such dangerous territory. Raids and hostile sieges were a common occurrence between England and Scotland, especially after the death of sure-fisted King Edward I. When his son Edward II took over the throne six years ago, it was only in body, not in mind. He barely concerned himself with matters of security at all, preferring instead the leisurely sport of boating and attending jovial social events. Under the lax attention of King "Eddie," the Scots had grown bolder in reclaiming their lands and freedoms.
Guildon, however, was known for being a rare stronghold that the Scots dared not attack. No one could say exactly why the Scots chose to leave it alone. Some whispered of a treasonous pact between Guildon and the Scots. Others said Guildon Castle was haunted, and that's why the superstitious Scots wouldn't go near it.
But whatever the reason for Guildon evading assaults, be it treachery or ghosts, it was of little concern to Roland. No, he was here on another matter — a personal one.
Roland's hand loosened from his hair. His scalp soothed as the tightened skin relaxed.
He'd wanted to establish himself as an inconsequential regular before starting his investigation. His "commitment" to Guildon kept him too busy to pursue it anyway. Between training, patrolling, and dealing with minor issues of security in the village, he was left with little time to himself. If only he held a position that allowed him more freedom to choose his hours of service, then maybe he'd discover what he came here for.
But would having more time really help his cause? Even if he had moments to question others, he knew people would be careful with their gossip around a newcomer.
Shaking his head, he stepped over to the splintered stool, the innocent article having been in the wrong place at the wrong time. He gathered up the pieces, cursing his anger. He often overreacted to situations before thinking them through first. And all he had to show for his outburst this time was a broken piece of furniture that he now had to replace. His anger benefited nothing and no one — especially not himself. His adoptive parents, as well as his previous caretaker, had often warned Roland about his temper, telling him it might one day cause great anguish for himself and those he loved if he didn't control it.
Roland forced a deep breath, and then another, until his heart returned to a normal rhythm. He made a neat pile of the broken stool pieces beside the door along with a mental note to replace it the next time he was in town. Though he would only receive pay for his service once a month, he'd brought a little money from home as supplement should the need arise.
He sat down on the straw mattress placed directly on the dirt floor. Setting his elbows on his knees, he rubbed his tired eyes before moving his hands down over his cheeks. The seven-day-old beard scratched at his palms. It was time to shave again. He forced his mind to more rational possibilities for having been summoned by Lord Craven.
Perhaps the earl simply desired to meet his newest knight face to face. After all, I've only been here a few weeks.
Roland had been hired by the acting knight-in-command at the time, instead of Lord Craven or his head knight Sir Doyle Lorcan. But that was a common practice which some lords preferred.
Standing up, he smoothed the brown leather tunic down over his chest and pulled it taut under his black belt. The long hem hung over his chausses and reached past his thigh. He readjusted the sword at his waist, cinching it a little tighter. He eyed his crossbow and wondered whether to take it as well ... in case of trouble.
No. His blade would be sufficient if something occurred. Besides, a knight always carried a sword at his side. Bringing more than that would make Lord Craven suspect something even if he hadn't previously.
He stepped from his living quarters and into the outer yard. Most of the sentries and lower-ranking knights were housed within this portion between the outer and inner walls of the main castle. The cool morning air, still moist with a light drizzle, met his warm face. He inhaled the stench of mud fouled with animal droppings and rotten leftovers that had been thrown out. The smell was ever present in his little abode but not as strong as it was in the open.
His muddy walk to the main structure was shrouded in shadow, the sun obscured by dark rain clouds. He passed through the gatehouse and entered the inner courtyard, making his way to the great hall. Stomping off what he could from his soles, he entered the massive common hall. His knight spurs, attached at the heel of his boots, clinked lightly with each step as he crossed the room. The hall was devoid of people, and though breakfast had since been cleared, the aroma of food still lingered. Roland zigzagged his way around the long tables set near a massive fireplace in which hot coals still glowed. They warmed him as he passed by. Beyond the fireplace sat an open archway marking the entrance to the stairwell leading up to private meeting chambers as well as living quarters for the most privileged.
Roland had just placed a foot on the first step when a hair-raising scream ripped through the great hall, reverberating off the stone walls. He instinctively stepped back and drew his sword, his head turning to search the hall.
No one was there. A potent shiver racked his body.
The cry must have originated from elsewhere. He waited a minute before turning back to the stairwell, his sword still out. The cry echoed again, making him pause a second time. The scream was of someone in terrible, agonizing pain. Whether it was male or female, he couldn't tell. It assaulted his ears for a time before stopping abruptly, as if something had forced its termination. He held his breath and continued to listen, but he heard no more.
His head whipped around at the sound of soft footsteps and rattling wood coming down the stairs. A young servant girl, probably no more than ten years of age, rounded the corner with a large wooden serving tray piled high with bowls, plates, cups, eating utensils, and leftover food gathered from the various living compartments above. She strained under the heavy load, her slight body bent sideways and her arms straight as she balanced one side of the tray on her hip and held the other side in a white-knuckled grip.
Surely she had heard the scream too.
"Did you hear that yell a moment ago?" he asked the little blonde girl.
The lass jerked upon hearing his voice, and her step hesitated a moment before she cautiously continued her descent. She slowed as she neared the bottom, her wary eyes gazing down at him in the doorway.
Realizing he must appear threatening with his sword drawn, Roland quickly sheathed it and softened his voice. "Do you know what that shriek was?"
She shook her head and said nothing. Her wide blue eyes and furrowed brow suggested she was frightened though. Was it from the scream she denied hearing, or was she unsure about his blocking her exit?
She stopped two steps away from him, her bottom lip quivering. He stepped aside, allowing her plenty of room to pass by. She glanced in both directions before returning her gaze to his chest and then, cautiously, his face. Servants didn't usually look into the faces of those above their station, but she seemed to want to tell him something.
"The sounds," she muttered, "always there ... they scare me ... give me nightmares." Her bottom lip trembled again. He thought she'd say more, but she simply dropped her troubled gaze to the floor and uttered, "Pray excuse me, sir." She scurried away before he could ask anything more.
The strange incident left him feeling uneasy, shaken a bit under the already tense circumstances. Though his stomach still vibrated from the harrowing sounds, he wiped his sweaty palms on his tunic and continued up the staircase, ascending two steps at a time. Peculiar happenings such as this might account for why people thought Guildon to be haunted, but he didn't put much merit in ghost stories. There had to be a more logical explanation.
Had the cries come from the dungeon? Roland hadn't been down there personally, but he'd overheard rumors from the servants about the torturous conditions set upon prisoners who defied Lord Craven. Roland had gathered from loose comments that Sir Doyle personally oversaw the goings-on down there and often spent hours in the dark chambers. Still, it was just rumor.
Exiting the stairs, he walked down a lengthy corridor, nearing Lord Craven's meeting room. Seeing it at the end of the hallway, his unease intensified. Two armed guards stood on either side of the double doors, their spears held at their sides and their faces stern in sober attention.
Did they wait to grab him the moment Craven gave the signal? Would they kill him on the spot or throw him into the dungeon to die an agonizing death, his cries echoing like those he'd just heard?
Roland's steps slowed, his methodic breathing mingling with the sporadic crackles of burning torches along the gray stone walls. The nearest light sat six feet above the floor. His eyes almost level with the dancing fire, he stared into it as if searching the flame for answers to his dilemma. He received none.
Just act pleasant and calm, he told himself.
Roland squared his shoulders and marched up to the guards.
"Sir Roland, at Lord Craven's command." He gave a stiff half-bow to the guards.
The young sentry to his right nodded and pushed the door inward, allowing Roland to enter the dimly-lit counsel room. Two large windows opposite the door were shuttered. The only light came from several torches and a few candles around the room.
"Sir Roland, milord," the guard announced.
Directly ahead of him was Lord Craven. The bearded man, his dark blond hair exhibiting a touch of gray, sat hunched over parchments and scrolls spread over one end of a twelve-foot-long table. He didn't look up at Roland's arrival but waved the guard from the room. The guard shut the door behind him, returning to his position outside the door with the other sentry. A good sign. If Craven had planned an arrest, the guards would have followed me inside.
Roland stood his ground until given permission to proceed farther into the room. After five minutes, however, Roland's nerves, though he was no longer anxious about a possible arrest, were set further on edge by Lord Craven's treatment of him. Roland wasn't a mere servant. To summon him here and make him wait was rude. He was a knight, by heaven! Even the lowest ranking knight deserved more respect than Lord Craven showed. This behavior revealed more about Festus's pompous attitude than any gossip Roland had previously heard. His jaw bones twitched as his teeth ground between them.
Under other circumstances, Roland would have challenged the slight as a dishonorable act. But needing to keep himself low and humble for the sake of his quest, Roland stood still and continued to wait, forcing down the frustrated huff aching to escape his tight lips.
It was a good ten minutes before Festus put his parchments aside and motioned with a stern flick of his right hand for Roland to advance.
Roland did so, stopping at the opposite end of the long table and bowing to the Lord of Guildon.
"Sir Roland at your service, milord," he said with more civility than he felt.
Festus leaned back in his tall chair, cupped his chin in his right hand, and, while resting his left arm across his belly, studied Roland a moment with pursed lips.
"There's something unique about you," he said without expression.
Roland didn't know how to interpret the statement. "Milord?"
Festus stood, pushing his oaken chair back. It scraped the wooden floor, making a hollow echo in the dark room.
"I've been watching you. The way you conduct yourself is altogether different from my other knights."
Though Roland's countenance and stance remained impervious, his heart beat an unsteady rhythm. Does Festus suspect something then? He awaited the accusation of "impostor."
Festus began a slow pace, his hands clasped behind his back. "The way you don't get drunk on too much ale, the way you treat everyone with esteem, even the serfs. You don't laugh at coarse jokes, nor have my sources heard a foul word escape your lips." Festus stopped walking and looked at Roland. "Your skill and aggression on the training field are remarkable and unparalleled, not just with the sword and lance, but the crossbow as well, a weapon deemed cowardly by other knights."
Roland inhaled and stiffened at the potential insult.
Clearly reading his rigid posture, Festus smiled and shook his head. "I mean no offense, Sir Roland; I meant it as a compliment. The fact that you excel at the crossbow bespeaks of your evenhanded perception of practical weapons instead of rejecting them for cause of status."
Roland relaxed, but Festus's next question set him on edge again.
"Who are your kin? Your behavior indicates a virtuous parental upbringing."
Though Roland appreciated the compliment, he didn't want to divulge the facts. "Thank you, milord, but if you please, I'd prefer to keep my past to myself. It's somewhat, er, convoluted at the moment." He hoped his vague reply would lead Festus to think Roland had recently been at odds with his family and, therefore, had no desire to claim their name nor give him any more details.
"Yes, I heard you were disinherited," Festus replied, his raised chin and stern mouth showing disappointment at the lack of information. "Very well," he conceded. "It does nothing to change my reason for calling upon you this morn." Festus advanced and stopped five feet from Roland. The man's head was a good four inches lower than Roland's. "I have a proposition for you. A position above your current station."
Roland was relieved Festus had dropped the subject of his family, but he raised his eyebrows, curious over this "proposition."
"I would like you to tame my stepdaughter, Audrina."
Roland's mouth dropped open. This was the reason for his summons? Was Craven jesting? The earl's straight mouth and intense gaze suggested he wasn't. Roland hadn't even heard of a stepdaughter, hadn't seen a wisp of a little noble girl running around the castle in the two weeks he'd been here. "I don't understand, milord."
Festus shook his head and smiled, a bit smugly, Roland noted. "No, as a newcomer you wouldn't." Turning and walking back to his chair, he sat down and leaned back in his seat, crossing his right ankle over his left knee.
"Audrina, or Audri to those closest to her, is my wife's spoiled daughter, born while Lady Honora was married to her former husband, now deceased. But this girl is the seed of the devil himself. She's obstinate and headstrong and has grown almost unmanageable." Festus's lips curled into a sneer.
Roland didn't know when Festus had married Honora, so he couldn't precisely guess the child's age.
"The challenge is to make Audrina into a valuable bargaining piece, if you will, a suitable wife for someone in the near future," Festus continued.
Hmm, the girl might be fourteen years old, but possibly as young as twelve, if he was already thinking of giving her away as wife to someone. Though Festus had every right to do this with so young a child, most nobles waited until their daughters were a bit older.
"No amount of money on my part can purchase a husband willing to deal with the obstinate attitude of that beast," Festus continued. "Nor would her undesirable qualities make any kind of a decent trade. A man can look past a woman's physical appearance as long as she brings in a good dowry, serves him faithfully, and produces an heir. But for her to speak her own mind and make demands upon her husband? Well, that's too much for even the bravest to endure."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Perils of Wrath"
Copyright © 2018 Elsie Park.
Excerpted by permission of Amberjack Publishing.
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