My feet pound the cold flagstones as I dash the length of the deserted great hall. The servants have already fled the palace, at least those who were able to discover a way out, past the besieging forces. Those less fortunate, or less quick off the mark, are milling in the bailey, confused, fearful, desperately seeking solace with loved ones. Such soldiery as remains in the castle linger on the battlements, or are preparing to surrender the besieged keep to the army now surrounding us. I have little time left.
Unseen in the shadows, secreted in the corner of the hall, I listened as my cousin Susanna conferred with Ulrich, the commander of our garrison. All is lost, this great castle is about to fall to the enemy. For all his youthful inexperience Ulrich knew it, Susanna too. And I see no cause to doubt that outcome either.
For the women of a conquered foe, surrender is a disaster. We will be seen as the spoils of war, our bodies, our lives at the mercy of a rampant, hungry, victorious army. Rape is a foregone conclusion, bloodshed and murder likely enough. The fate of children might be less precarious, but only marginally so. The little ones will be unprotected, afraid, and will likely witness atrocities that will scar them for the rest of their lives. I want to spare Sophia that. My dear, adored Sophia.
So I run. I run for my own life and for that of my stepdaughter. With the death of my husband just half a year ago, care of his orphaned daughter was wrested from my hands. Guardianship of the child transferred to the court of Hohenzollern, nominally to my second cousin, Princess Susanna. In truth, Lord Eberhard would have controlled Sophia’s fate, but mercifully one small three-year-old female who slipped into the palace nursery never attracted his notice.
Now, if I understood correctly what I overheard, Lord Eberhard is gone. He has disappeared. He fled to save his own hide. Susanna has ordered his execution and I doubt any will weep at his passing, though they have yet to run him to earth.
I would have loved to continue as Sophia’s mama, but as the penniless widow of the count of Chapelle, a childless third wife at that, I lacked any power or influence. I consider myself fortunate to have been invited to join the Hohenzollern court as one of Susanna’s ladies as this has meant I could remain close to Sophia. I see my stepdaughter daily, play with her, watch her grow. I had hoped our situation might remain thus throughout her childhood years, and later perhaps, when Sophia has no need of me, I could take the veil. I harbour no desire to marry again. Twice is enough.
But none of that will come to pass. Our world is upturned, our lives forfeit for the self-serving stupidity of Lord Eberhard.
Well, my life is lost, as will be that of Princess Susanna and the rest of the nobility here. But our conquerors will spare the children. Surely, they will not butcher innocent babies. If we are able to get the little ones to sanctuary, to the palace chapel perhaps, they might well be spared.
So I run for the stairs, charging up two flights to reach the nursery where seven frightened little faces await me. Their nurse is huddled in the corner with the two smallest ones; she at least has not deserted her post. Sophia rushes into my arms as I burst through the door.
“Mama, mama. Too much noise. Too loud.” She buries her face against my skirts and clings to the woollen fabric.
I crouch to comfort her, my heart twisting in anguish for the terror these little mites are experiencing. The screams from within the castle walls, the shouts of the army outside, the crash of rocks hurled from the enemy trebuchets breaching our outer defences. The din must be truly terrifying. And likely to get worse.
“Hush, sweetheart. You will be safe, I promise.” Please let it be so. “But we must leave here. We must hurry. Come with me now.” I stand and take her small hand in mine. “All of you, follow me. Quickly.”
“Where are we taking them, my lady?” The nurse stands, a baby in each arm.
“The chapel. We can seek sanctuary for the children there. Here, give me one of the babies. I’ll lead the way, you follow at the rear.”
The nurse—her name is Annis perhaps, though I am not certain—wastes no time in further discussion. In moments we have lined up our charges and the frightened children are filing between us as we scuttle along the empty hallways. The sounds of battle from outside are more muted as we pass through the bowels of the fortress, or maybe the fighting has ceased. If so, we only have minutes before the gates are splintered and the opposing forces overrun us. We emerge into the corner of the bailey and run the final few yards to the chapel entrance. I chance a glance sideways at the utter chaos surrounding us. The entire population of Hohenzollern must be gathered here, the scene one of panic and pandemonium. No one pays us any regard as Annis and I herd our small charges into the dark interior of the chapel. I slam the door shut and draw the bar across, then offer up a prayer that the commanders of the imperial army will show mercy to innocent children when the door is eventually breached.
“Where is Edmund?” One of the slightly older boys steps forward, his expression fearful.
Edmund? I gape at him.
“Edmund de Richy, son of the duke of Styria. He is fostered with us.” Annis explains, her tone matter of fact.
I applaud this servant’s calm in the face of such catastrophe. If we survive this ordeal I shall tell her so and do what I am able to seek her advancement.
“He was unwell and went to use the privy. My lady, if you would wait with the little ones, I will go and seek him.” She holds the baby in her arms out to me, clearly intending to return to the nursery.
“No. Annis—is it Annis?” At her quick nod I continue. “You remain with the children. I will go.”
Annis is young, no more than seventeen summers. She is pretty, and will offer a tempting sight to the imperial foot soldiers who are probably even now flooding our courtyard. I am but a couple of years older and I have no illusions about my own likely fate. I am a member of the royal household, however lowly my station within it, and I can see no cause for optimism regarding the outcome of this day. I will not survive it. There is no need though for Annis to take further risks with her life. She has proven herself to be a loyal and diligent servant and the children will be as safe with her as it is possible to be. If one of us must return to the castle, it should be me.
I bend to hug Sophia.
“I will return soon, sweetling. Be brave and do as Annis says while I am away. She will take care of you.” I kiss my adopted daughter’s beloved, tear-stained face, praying it will not be for the last time. But I whisper my sweet lies in the grim knowledge we will probably not see each other again in this life.
Back out in the bailey the scene remains one of sheer madness. Servants, guardsmen, peasants from the village who sought safety within the castle walls all now milling together, their desperation etched on their faces. I see many more children. These too could be, should be sheltered within the chapel. Alas, the task is beyond what I can accomplish alone. I grab the elbow of a woman, a capable-looking soul who is at least not beset by weeping. I urge her to collect as many youngsters as she is able and see them safe to the chapel. She seems to understand what I want her to do, and starts shepherding the children together.
I am but halfway across the bailey when the huge oak door to the keep opens. Princess Susanna emerges, flanked by Ulrich on her right and Father David, the castle chaplain on her left. Their faces are grave as they descend the short flight of steps and start to make their way through the milling hordes thronging the yard. They pass close to me, and I reach out to touch my cousin’s white gown.
“Your highness, is there anything I can do to help? Anything at all?”
The princess turns to me, her smile sad. She looks defeated.
“Tally, thank you, but no. There is nothing can help us now but the mercy of the imperial commander. I go to plead for it.”
My name is Natalia, but my cousin’s use of my less formal name, known only to my family, almost breaks my heart. Even now, in the face of certain death, she is kind to me. She was always sweet, gentle, and generous. She has been as much a victim of her incompetent, greedy uncle as the rest of us who are trapped here, and she will pay the greatest price.
“Would you like me to come with you? I could…”
She places her hand on mine and squeezes. “No, cousin. I must do this alone. Enough lives have been lost here, and now I will salvage what I can. Perhaps in the future, if you enter a convent as you have said is your intention, you will pray for me.”
I fight back my tears as I reply. “I will pray for you now, princess. For all of us.”
Susanna’s lips tremble as she gives me one last, sweet smile. I stand, motionless, my vision blurring as my cousin continues on to the outer gate, her escort beside her. The two men help her with the heavy bar, then stand back as she opens the portal and slips outside.
Ulrich and Father David close the gate behind her, and Susanna is gone. I hesitate for a few moments, then my sense of urgency returns. I scramble through the crowded space, rushing to regain the main keep. I retrace my path back to the nursery rooms, but find no sign of the missing heir to the duchy of Styria. Perhaps he has ventured out onto the battlements. It would not surprise me. I do not know this lad, but I am well aware that the misguided and gory enthusiasm of young boys can lead them into dangerous places. My own brothers were always getting into scrapes as we grew up, and their youthful fascination for warfare earned them both early graves.
I exit the castle from one of the upper doors leading directly onto the lofty walkway. Most of the bowmen have abandoned these positions and are occupied at Ulrich’s direction attempting to restore some semblance of order in the lower courtyard. From my vantage point up here I see no real evidence of success yet. Neither do I see young Edmund.
Cautious, I make my way along the ramparts, peering through the archers’ holes set at regular intervals. From here I can see the massed hordes of the enemy army, my first actual glimpse of them. The troops look rough and cruel, above all bloodthirsty. They may be battle-weary but these troops sense victory, and crave the spoils that go with it. My stomach clenches, my fear almost crippling me. But I have to go on. I have to do what I can, even now, in these final moments.
I reach a slightly more elevated position and stop to survey the scene below me, beyond the castle walls. Princess Susanna is clearly visible in her white gown, her slight form dwarfed by the imposing man towering over her. I recognise him. The mercenary who spoke so directly to the princess when the delegation came here all those months ago. They had been sent by the emperor to deliver his ultimatum. I was newly widowed then, only just arrived at court. I listened, as did we all, as this commander issued his threat. His promise. He has fulfilled it.
I cannot hear what is said between them now, but I watch as the commander steps aside and gestures the princess to pass him. Two of his knights flank her as she does so. She disappears from my sight as the ranks of soldiers close behind her.
The commander makes another gesture, and more knights appear at his side. They confer briefly, then their commander turns and marches after the princess, away from the castle. The knights approach the drawbridge. They are followed by scores of men, all massing at their rear. The procession passes almost beneath me as they advance on the gates.
I know by the sound of chains clanking and metal grating that the gate has been lowered, allowing them to enter unimpeded. I turn to view the scene within the castle walls now. I am mesmerised, frozen in place as I watch our people flee in terror from the advancing army.
A movement catches my eye, in the turret on the opposite corner of the bailey. As I watch, an arrow is loosed from the narrow window to score a direct hit in the breastplate of a burly knight in the melee below. Too little, too late I fear. The knight appears unharmed, but even so by his scowl and angry shout I judge him to be less than best pleased by this assault. He heads for the entrance to the turret and I fear that last, lone archer may not survive this day either.
It’s all over. I can do no more. I am sorely tempted to curl up and hide where I am, in the hope that I can remain unnoticed. Even as that forlorn thought flutters through my head, one of the imperial guardsmen looks up and catches sight of me. He grins, a toothless leer, and nudges the ruffian beside him. I back away from the edge as they laugh and point at me. One of them makes an obscene gesture with his hand, confirmation if it were needed of what they plan for me. My courage deserts me; I turn and flee along the battlements.
I reach the first flight of stairs and hesitate. Whether to run down into the mayhem that is unfolding and hope to lose myself there, or seek to scramble back inside the keep and perhaps find a place to hide. That second option evaporates as the door from the castle bursts open and men start to pour through. Cornered, I choose the stairs. Perhaps even now I can elude the worst of this.
The two guardsmen are waiting for me at the bottom. One of them grabs me by the arm and slams me face-first against the hard stone wall.
“I saw ‘er first. You can ‘ave what’s left when I’m done.” His companion seems intent upon staking his claim.
“Bollocks. I caught ‘er. She’s mine an’ ye can wait yer turn.” A meaty hand seizes the back of my neck, the grip vicious. The soldier squeezes and I go still, rigid with fear.
“Maybe we could fuck ‘er together, ye can have the front an’ I’ll take the back. I like a nice bit of arse.”
The two soldiers discuss their vile intentions as though I was unable to hear them, as though I was just a piece of insensible meat. I do not doubt that is all I am to them. My face is flattened against the cold stone but I scream, my throat burning with the effort. My cries for help are drowned in the din all around me. Who would come to my aid in any case? I struggle as best I can but, despite desperation lending me a strength I did not know I possess, I am unable to break free of the vise-like grip on my arm or neck. Fighting by pure instinct alone I use all weapons at my disposal, though they do not amount to much. My feet, my head, my elbows. With an angry growl the ruffian spins me around and I succeed only in earning myself a vicious backhand across my face. I slam into the wall behind me before crumpling to the earth at my feet. I curl into a foetal position, waiting for the inevitable.
“What the fuck is this? Did you not hear your orders regarding the treatment of women in the castle? Mayhap I should have you nailed by your dicks to yonder door. Would that improve your hearing, I wonder?”
The harsh, stern voice rings across the bailey. Maybe rescue is at hand after all, though I don’t dare raise my eyes to look. Heavy footfalls draw near, several men by the sound of it. There is shuffling as my assailants seek to back off, to slink away.
“Find some stocks for these vermin. I’ll deal with them later.” There are sounds of a scuffle, plaintive wailing as the men who would have raped me are dragged away. A few seconds pass, then, “Get up, my lady.” The same voice, perhaps a little gentler now but still a tone that resonates with authority.
Even so, I prefer not to obey. I remain where I am.
“Can you hear me? I said, get to your feet. Now.”
I shake my head and tighten the grip of my arms around my knees. My protector has done his Christian duty, now surely he’ll have other matters to attend to. Surely he’ll move on and leave me alone. I open my eyes a crack to behold two solid feet encased in iron-plated boots, topped by muscular legs clad in fine quality leather breeches. I do not raise my eyes any further than his knees.
“My lady, look at me.” It seems he is not in any undue hurry to be off. A hand in my hair draws my head back, tipping up my chin. He’s not rough exactly, but his touch is firm. I do not resist.
“Open your eyes.”
The tone has gentled still further. I begin to think this man may not mean me harm. If he simply intended to claim me for himself by right of rank he would have no need to talk to me, much less to reassure. I hold my breath as I lift my eyelids and look at him.
He is beautiful. Beautiful and terrible at the same time as he looms above me. He is bending at the waist, leaning over me, but his full height must be approaching six feet. Vivid blue eyes meet mine, hold mine. He wears armour, a tunic of chainmail glistening over a stout leather jerkin. His head is bare. His hair is blond, just a shade or two darker than mine, and falls to his shoulders. It is flattened as though he has only recently removed his helmet. His hands are ungloved, I note, and he retains his grip on my hair, whilst his other hand cups my chin. I wince, the bruise from the punch I received still throbbing. His eyes narrow, but I do not think his anger is directed at me. He turns to issue a command to a soldier at his right hand.
“Twenty lashes. Each. Then they will be discharged without pay. See to it.”
“At once, your grace.” The man scurries away.
Your grace. A duke then. I peer at him but do not recognise the handsome visage before me. I am sure I would have never forgotten if I had encountered him in the past. My first husband was the youngest son of a duke, and my second husband a count. I have moved in reasonably exalted circles but not met this man before.
“Are you able to stand?” That smooth timbre. My stomach clenches, and so does something else, something lower.
I nod, my eyes never leaving his, but when I attempt to get up my legs will not hold me. The duke’s arm is suddenly around my waist, lending me the support I need.
“My thanks, sir. I appreciate your assistance. All of it.”
“What is your name, madam?”
“I am Lady Natalia de Chapelle, my lord.”
He frowns, as though attempting to place me. “That name is familiar to me. You are a member of the royal household?”
“I am, my lord. My husband is—was—the count de Chapelle.”
“Yes. And a witless, cowardly buffoon if I recollect correctly. He was your husband, did you say?”
“I am a widow, my lord. These last six months.”
“My condolences, madam, both on your marriage and on your widowhood. Then you are one of Princess Susanna’s ladies, I assume.”
“Yes, sir.” I regard him, and hope to keep my gaze level. There will be no mercy for the royal household, but perhaps my end will be less cruel that I had feared a few moments ago. This duke is not to be trifled with as my assailants have discovered to their cost, but he has offered me no violence yet, nor even the threat of it, despite bearing little regard for my late husband. A swift and painless death might yet be mine.
“The royal ladies, at least those who are still here, are to assemble by the castle entrance.” He turns to another of his guards. “Erik, see to it that Lady de Chapelle reaches there safely if you will, please.”
The man nods and steps forward. Acting on instinct, I shrink back against the duke. His arm tightens around me. “You will be safe now, my lady. Go with him.”
I turn in my rescuer’s arms, and I’m oddly bereft when he releases me. “Sir, may I know your name?”
He executes a stiff, formal bow. “You may. I am Stefan, duke of Richtenholst.”
“I am indebted to you, your grace. Please, one last question if I you would permit it?”
He lifts one eyebrow, and waits. I interpret that as his consent to continue.
“Why are the women of the castle to be assembled as you describe?”
Is that a hint of pity I detect in his austere visage? My stomach clenches in apprehension.
“Any of our forces who wish to select a bride from among the unmarried women of Hohenzollern will be permitted to do so. You are there to be inspected. And chosen. I suspect you will not be a widow for much longer, my lady.”
I gasp, horror-struck. A humiliating, cruel death is to be avoided, it seems, but the alternative will be little better in my view.
“No! I will not marry again. I refuse to do this. I am to enter the church.”
He tilts his bead to one side, regards me with something akin to wry amusement. “I suspect not, my lady.”
“I have been married twice already. It is enough.”
“Twice? You are an experienced woman of the world then, and will be much in demand. Tell me, Lady de Chapelle, how old are you?”
“I am almost a score years, your grace.”
“And two weddings to your credit already. Your previous marriages must have been short-lived, my lady. What happened?”
I stiffen, defensive though I know not why I should be. “I was first married at fourteen. My husband was but fifteen. He died of a fever after just half a year. I was next wed at seventeen, but the count was much older than I. He was kind to me even so. He died of a heart seizure and I was very sorry to lose him.”
Again that wry smile. “Kind to you? I am glad to hear it, and more than a little surprised. The count must have mellowed in his old age, for he was without doubt a vicious bastard in his youth. And you were the death of him it would appear. An old man with a young and pretty wife—always a fatal combination. Let us hope your next husband is made of sterner stuff.” He makes a half turn, as though he does at last consider his business with me to be concluded and he has other weighty matters claiming his attention.
I am baffled by his remarks regarding my husband, but now is not the time to enquire into what past hurts this duke is still harbouring. In desperation I grab his leather-clad arm. “There will be no ‘next husband.’ I have told you, I will not marry again.”
His features harden at my outburst and he glares pointedly at my hand, still clutching his sleeve. “Matters are not yours to control. You will have no choice. Erik…?”
I realise my error immediately. The conqueror will not permit such resistance from the vanquished. But I will beg if I must. “Please, your grace. Please, you do not have to do this. You could let me go. Please.”
He regards me for a few moments, his lip quirking in a half-smile, his expression regretful. “I am sorry, Lady Natalia. Your fate is sealed.” I have no doubt now. That is pity I discern in his features, but it will be of no aid to me.
I watch the duke’s retreating back as he strides away across the bailey, stopping once or twice to issue instructions. The imperial soldiers rush to carry out his bidding; clearly he is a man who demands respect, and he gets it. The guard, Erik, takes my elbow and directs me toward the centre of the courtyard where a cluster of our women are already gathered.
I avert my eyes as we pass the stocks where my assailants are shackled, their rough shirts ripped to expose their naked backs. They would have done far worse to me, but still I pity them now.
“My lady, you have been injured.” Berthe, the young servant who normally takes care of the ladies of the household hustles over to me, ready to dab at my bruised face with her apron. “They are animals. Nothing but pigs, all of them.”
“I am fine, Berthe, really. I was attacked, but one of the imperial commanders intervened, and I am here, am I not?” But for how long?
A crowd is gathering around us now, all men, all of the opposing army. The menfolk of Hohenzollern are nowhere to be seen, probably imprisoned to keep them out of the way until the castle is sacked and perhaps burned. We are bombarded by a continuous chorus of ‘turn around,’ ‘let’s see the goods then,’ and, from the more direct, ‘show us yer tits, wench.’ Some of the women are even complying, posing for the entertainment of our audience. Maybe they hope to secure a more lenient spouse by their cooperation now.
I pull my dark cloak around my shoulders and fix my gaze on the ground before me. I am not unattractive, but no beauty either. Maybe my plain but even features will not be to the taste of these men.
“That one. That one there, in the cloak. She is the high and mighty little bitch who got our Kurt flayed.” The voice is whiny and the dialect low German, the speech of the north.
His meaning is clear enough. I shudder and take a step backwards.
“I am in need of a wife. I will have her.” The nasal tone is similar to that of my assailant. My heart is thumping as I edge back still further, until I come up against the exterior wall of the keep. It is to no avail. My arm is once more seized in a rough grip and I am dragged forward, out of the dwindling group of unclaimed females. I look up into the features of my latest captor, and can at once see the family resemblance. I last saw the face of his brother, if that is the kinship, as he backhanded me at the foot of the battlements staircase.
“Our Kurt’ll get ‘is turn on you after all. Ye’ll serve all of us, whore.”
I shake my head, desperate now. I am beyond pleading, in utter despair. Why did I so fear death if this nightmare is to be the alternative?
“Choose again. This one is not for you.” The sweet and blessedly welcome voice of the duke of Richtenholst interrupts my frantic struggles. Will he be able to save me a second time?
“I am not wed, my lord. We was told we could choose any, no matter the rank, as long as we marry ‘em.” My prospective husband is as eager as was his brother to stake his claim, it seems. I am unable to contain the sob that escapes me.
“Choose another.” The duke’s tone is low and even, and dripping with authority.
“Nay, my lord. I want this one, no other will do.”
“Then you will take no bride this day. Walk away, man. Now, else you will answer to me as your liege lord.”
The duke steps right up to my would-be husband and prises the man’s fingers from my arm, one by one. In truth, he meets with little resistance now. When I am free he shoves me behind him, a position I do not mind in the least at this moment. He crosses his arms in front of his chest and regards the waiting soldiers, as though daring any of them to defy him in this. I cannot see his face, but the duke seems calm, confident, though none of his personal guard are within easy reach of us. It seems that his grace’s personal authority will carry the day. Oh, God, I do so hope.
“Do I have to make it even plainer for you? You cannot have this lady. The widow is mine.”