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Montreau Keep—Spring 1142
Silent as North Sea raiders of old, the three longships slipped on to the sandy beach of Montreau Bay.
Lord Jared of Warehaven leapt from the centre boat, his booted feet splashing in the shallow water. Sword raised, he pressed forwards, leading his men into the cover of the tall grasses.
He glanced back towards the beach that had once been so familiar, but a thick cloud covered the moon, and hid his vessels from sight. Only in his mind's eye could he see the great dragon heads guarding the prows, each fierce beast nearly identical except for the colour of their jewel-toned eyes.
Jared turned to the task at hand. Anticipation rippled through his muscles. Smoothing his lips into a grim line, he headed for the cliff tops.
Situated between King Stephen's supporter, the Earl of York, to the south and the Empress Matilda's maternal uncle, King David of Scotland, to the north, Montreau was a choice bit of property. Especially now that its lord was dead, leaving only a lady in charge.
The same lady who had once promised to become his wife. Jared pushed the wayward thought aside. He had no time for reminiscing. The task at hand needed his complete attention.
After seven long years of a seemingly never-ending war for the crown, Empress Matilda, his deceased father's half-sister, had had an uncharacteristic change of heart. Her first order had been to take Montreau by force and hold it as her northern base.
But for a reason Jared could barely fathom, she'd changed her mind. While he was still to take the keep by force if necessary, he was ordered to retain Mon-treau's neutral position in the war and see to the safety of its lady and people.
The only true differences between the orders was that now lives would not be lost if the people didn't resist. And the Lady of Montreau would not be stripped of her holding. Instead, she would remain as a guiding hand—one that reported to him. A position he would relish until Matilda decided otherwise.
In an odd way Matilda's decision did make some sense. If nothing else the move would keep King David's men from gaining more ground in England, which in turn would keep Matilda from having to evict him once she attained the throne that rightfully belonged to her.
While his aunt disliked warring against family, she would do so if backed far enough against a wall. Jared well remembered his father's hasty exit from England.
Once Matilda decided to fight Stephen, Randall of Warehaven had chosen the safest option for himself and his family—he'd agreed to take charge of his wife's lands in Wales. That had left Jared in control of Ware-haven and the task of choosing a liege.
An easy choice for Jared to make, considering King Stephen had wanted control of Jared's ships, whereas Matilda had vowed she'd do nothing so foolish. Thus far she'd stood by her word.
It would be interesting to see what Stephen would do once he discovered a small part of Warehaven's fleet in Montreau Bay and Jared in control of his runaway betrothed's keep.
At the top of the cliff separating the beach from the demesne land, he stared across the distance toward his target. The wavering light of numerous torches lining the walls showed that the messenger's description hadn't been exaggerated.
While Montreau was little more than a partially lit outline in the night, gone was the wooden tower keep with its timber pales encompassing the bailey. Now, even a fool could see it was more royal castle than keep. Larger than most stone keeps, it would not be easily taken.
What kind of reception would be waiting for him? He narrowed his eyes and smiled with wicked mirth. The lady would be shocked and outraged at his arrival. Jared tapped his weapon against his leg, ready for the confrontation to begin.
Soon, all would know if Montreau would remain neutral. And soon, he would know the sweet taste of revenge. He motioned the first group of ten men forwards.
A red-faced guard bolted through the double doors to the Great Hall. He dropped to one knee before the armed chair on the raised dais. 'My lady.' His head still bowed, he paused, gasping for breath, then he continued, 'The ships have beached.'
Lady Lea of Montreau pulled her sapphire-hued cloak tighter around her shoulders before once again glancing at the crinkled, well-read missives in her hand.
She'd known this moment would come. Three days ago a messenger from the Empress Matilda had delivered one missive announcing that a man would soon arrive to protect her and Montreau's future.
Lea had read between the lines more times than she could count. This unnamed man was being sent not just as a defender of the land, but as a prospective husband.
Five days ago, King Stephen had also sent a missive. His note had been more to the point. If Lea wished to retain control of Montreau, she had but a few months to deliver Montreau a son, or else wed one of Stephen's men.
She'd been widowed just over two weeks. Her husband had chosen a fine time to drown. He could have at least waited until she was with child. She shivered at the thought. It had been hard enough to be in the same room with Charles, let alone in his bedchamber—or bed.
The one time they'd tried to share a marriage bed had ended badly. Thankfully, in their four years of marriage, Charles hadn't found the desire to repeat the event.
If either royal liege thought she'd meekly accept another husband, they would be wrong. She'd had one husband and as far as she was concerned, that had been one too many.
She'd given her heart away many years ago, only to have it trampled beneath duty and honour. Thankfully Charles hadn't expected, or wanted, her love. By the time they'd wed she had learned to live with her broken heart and shattered dreams.
Lea pushed away the thoughts and attended to the guard. 'How many ships?'
'Three dragon prows.'
The room spun and the floor beneath her chair tilted. Lea swallowed her gasp and closed her eyes, forcing herself to remain calm enough to think. After receiving the king's missive, she'd frantically summoned Montreau's midwife, knowing there was no man on her land who would fulfil her need of getting with child. Besides, she didn't want the man around afterwards to claim the child as his. Everyone needed to believe the babe was Charles's, conceived just before his death.
Uncertain how to find such a man on extremely short notice, she'd requested that the old woman create a charm that would quickly draw someone to her.
She had no use of a husband. In fact, she was much better off without one. The happiest days of her marriage had been the ones when Charles had been away from the keep. She and marriage simply did not suit. Her parents had made her aware at an early age that husbands and wives were little more than bitter enemies living beneath the same roof.
However, she did have need of a man.
The midwife had created many charms for her, some so malodorous that she'd not subject the pigs to the stench.
Lea had chosen a dream charm—one that would enable her to dream of the man who would best serve her needs.
While the charm had filled her dreams with visions of the man, unfortunately, he'd not appeared fully formed. He'd been nothing more than a vaporous warrior disembarking from a dragon prow before leading his men to her keep.
But Lea hadn't needed to see his face to know his identity. She'd yet to say his name out loud, because she had feared giving it voice would make it true. She had prayed hard and long that it would not prove true, that he would not come to Montreau and would remain only a wispy dream of the past.
Her prayer had been in vain.
What would she do now? She desperately needed a child, but not by him. Dear Lord, not like this. Her stomach knotted. She longed to run away, to hide, to simply vanish from Montreau. Anything, so that she didn't have to face the past.
But that wasn't going to happen. Whether Empress Matilda had sent him on purpose or not made little difference, her fate had been sealed. If she wanted to retain possession of Montreau, she had to produce a child.
Agatha, once her nursemaid and now her lady's maid, stepped closer to ask in a whisper, 'Lady Lea, what are you thinking?'
'You know what I must do.'
Agatha rested an age-gnarled hand on her arm. 'Nay, this is a choice you need not yet make.'
Lea shivered, wishing it could be otherwise. But there was no heir for Montreau and Lea would rather take her own life than pledge herself to one of Stephen's men.
She never should have taken Agatha into her confidence. But what was done was done. She ignored the maid to once again address the waiting guard. 'Tell the men to pull back into the courtyard.'
He said nothing, only rose and rapped his fisted hand to his chest before leaving to do her bidding.
'You will give yourself to the Empress Matilda's man simply to create a child?' Agatha's tone of censure said more than her question had.
Lea glared at the woman. 'Not just a child. An heir for Montreau.'
Her words had been clipped and steady. But her insides were a-quiver, trembling like a child frightened of a storm.
After a quick glance around the hall to make certain none was within hearing, Agatha queried, 'Is this stone keep worth more than your virtue, is it more important than your honour?'
Lea gripped the arms of her chair and leaned forwards. 'Yes. It is.' Until she could sort out her feelings and fears, she had to brave this through. 'What would you have me do? You know as well as I that if Stephen or Matilda controls this keep, our men will be forced into this war. How many lives should I sacrifice?'
Why did Agatha not understand? Montreau had been her entire life. As their only daughter, Lea had been groomed with the same goal in mind that they had had for her brother—until his death—and that was to retain control of Montreau. That was the only thing her parents had ever agreed upon.
They had raised her like the queen of a small country. Just like her brother Phillip, she'd been educated at great cost. They'd made certain she could read, write, speak French, Latin and English and understand mathematics. She'd not let their sacrifices and training be for naught.
Her family held this keep by the grace of King William I. The sealed writs were in a trunk at the foot of her bed. She would not permit Stephen or Matilda to drag Montreau into their war. Her men would not die in vain.
'But, my lady—'
'No!' Lea lowered her voice. 'Stephen offers nothing but war. Matilda offers neutrality—for a time.' She was well aware that the Empress could and did change her mind as often as the barons changed their allegiance. 'We will welcome her man into this keep.' Lea pinned her maid with a hard stare. 'Somehow, I must see to it Montreau gains an heir.'
'Lady Lea, you cannot place all your faith in dreams.'
Because she hadn't wanted to speak his name, she hadn't told Agatha the man's identity. As far as the woman knew, Lea had dreamed of a faceless man.
'I don't place all my faith in dreams.' Lea reached into her cloak to pull a small sachet free. Holding the yarrow dream charm in her hand, she mused, 'But sometimes dreams and fate are all that's left.'
Her gaze lingered a moment on the sachet before she lifted her head to once again face Agatha. 'You have always placed your trust and sometimes my well-being in midwife Berta's hands. Should I now turn my back on what you have taught me not just by word, but by deed?'
Agatha's face crumpled as she lowered her gaze to the floor. 'No. I only ask you to have a care for your own safety and give a thought to your virtue.'
'Would that I had the opportunity to do so.' Yet deep inside, she knew time was of the essence.
But her thoughts at the moment were focused on more than just her virtue. The man who had so ruthlessly tossed her love aside had come back. Not to—or for— her, but because he'd been ordered to guard Montreau.
And Jared of Warehaven always followed his liege lady's orders.
She should be outraged—and Lea knew that she would be—later. Right now, though, she risked becoming lost in memories and thoughts of what might have been.
She couldn't allow that to happen. If she didn't want to relive the pain of loss—and she didn't—then she needed to act as if the past had never happened.
If she treated him like a stranger perhaps then she'd be able to see her plan through—somehow.
Her other worry—the one that should be at the forefront of her concerns—was about Montreau's men. If they thought her life was in danger, they would defend her and the keep to the death.
It was imperative that she keep her wits about her. She'd not have unnecessary bloodshed on her hands, nor on her soul—not when it was within her power to prevent it.
Lea rose and lifted her face to the cool draught ever present in the Great Hall. 'Do you not feel it, Agatha? Can you not sense the change in the air?'
She folded her hands and stared at the doors. 'I may stain my virtue in your eyes, but in the end Montreau will remain safely in my hands.'
'My lady.' Agatha rested a hand on Lea's shoulder.
She patted the maid's hand, hoping to alleviate the woman's worry without divulging how familiar this man was to her. 'I do not fear what need be done. Have I not dreamed of this warrior? His arrival in a dragon prow only confirms the rightness of this decision.'
The maid sighed, then lowered her hand. 'What would you have me do?'
'Take yourself from the hall. Be safe and keep well until I have need of you.' Lea glanced at Agatha, adding, 'I would not rest, knowing you were in harm's way.'
Once the maid exited the hall, Lea debated whether to meet him here, on the wall, or in the bailey. Her experience with men was limited to having her heart broken by one man and being wed to another who had proved how much he despised being married to her at every turn.
No. She'd not think of failure. She could do this. But how was she to set her plan in action without her lack of experience proving her downfall?