Galien sat at the duke of Leuthold’s right, his unease rising as the midday meal progressed. He had intended to depart Leuthold two days past, but the duke had invited him and his men to stay longer. Galien thought it unwise to refuse his overlord’s invitation and had agreed to prolong his visit, even though the duke’s constant questioning grated his nerves.
“Tell me about your intended. She used to live here in this castle, did she not?” the duke asked.
“Aye, the Lady Rhianna. She died when an illness swept through and claimed her father, her mother, her brothers, and many others in the castle.” Galien brought his goblet to his lips and swallowed the last of his wine in an attempt to drown his growing irritation.
The emperor had granted Leuthold the dukedom last spring, after the young man’s army helped overthrow an attack upon an important trading port, and this was Galien’s first visit to Leuthold in many years, a visit made tense by Leuthold’s increasingly peculiar behavior. If Galien didn’t know better, he’d think the young duke suspected him of some crime or treason. The less-than-casual interrogation had gone on for almost a fortnight.
“Did you know her well? The Lady Rhianna?”
“No, I only met her once as a child.”
“Sir Galien, I know you are anxious to return home, but I assure you I have good reason for inviting you to Leuthold.” The duke sat back. “I also have good reason for badgering you with question after question.”
Galien stiffened and placed his goblet on the table. “What reason is that?”
“To determine your character, Sir Galien.”
“Yes.” The duke crossed his arms and a brief smile flitted across his youthful face. “I have found you suitable enough for my purposes.”
A sense of foreboding struck Galien, for he recognized the look in the duke’s eyes. His father had given him that look many a time, always before he issued a command Galien didn’t care for. “Suitable enough for what?”
“To marry my sister, Lady Claire.”
God’s head. Marriage! Galien swallowed hard and felt the blood drain from his face. He’d endured many a lecture from his father in recent months about his responsibility to marry and produce an heir, but he preferred to postpone matrimony until absolutely necessary. He cleared his throat and tried to compose himself. He glanced in his empty cup. Why hadn’t a servant refilled his wine yet? “Your grace, I’m afraid I do not understand.”
“You will travel to Diterich Castle and fetch my sister. I believe she is still there, though I cannot be entirely certain. I’ve sent her many letters since her husband’s death two winters ago, but she has offered no response. I do not trust her husband’s family, and I am taking it upon myself to see her wed again, this time to a man who isn’t old enough to be her sire’s sire. Are you familiar with Diterich?”
Galien had heard of the castle, and of the elderly Lord Diterich who had outlived his first five wives. “I did not know Diterich had taken a sixth wife, though I did hear of his passing.”
Leuthold leaned closer to Galien. “Aye, my sister became his sixth wife, but she did not bear him any children. However, she is still young and I am confident she will give you many sons.” He shrugged. “My mother gave my father six sons. I sense your reluctance, Sir Galien, but I am not giving you a choice. You will find Lady Claire and you will make her your wife.” The young duke smirked. “And to compensate you for having to spend the rest of your life with my spirited sister, I will extend your holdings into the valley. That means the trading village of North Wenzton is now yours.”
Servants passed by and collected their empty trenchers as the minstrels played a merry song that contrasted with Galien’s dark mood. From across the hall, the servant girl he’d tumbled on his first night here winked at him. He lowered his gaze, wishing the duke hadn’t found him suitable enough.
“You will leave on the morrow.” The duke of Leuthold patted his back as if they were longtime friends. “See that you find my sister and treat her with kindness. Do not disappoint me. I needn’t remind you that I have the emperor’s ear.”
Lady Claire blinked up at the white flag raised above the battered keep. All the hairs on the back of her neck stood up, and a knot formed low in her stomach. A tense silence blanketed the bailey, while outside the walls of Hohenzollern triumphant cries rang out.
It was over, or at least the fighting part of it. Claire wasn’t so naïve as to think the mercenaries and soldiers who fought on behalf of the emperor planned to march away empty-handed. She covered her mouth with an icy hand to stifle a gasp wrought from the sudden realization. The castle would be looted, or worse. Perhaps the knights would show some restraint, but over half of the army consisted of ruthless mercenaries, the type of men who knew no restraint.
She cast one last glance at the white flag flapping about in the frigid winter wind and made her decision. She had to escape Hohenzollern before the terms of surrender were finalized, before the conquering army streamed into the keep. Gathering up her skirts, she raced into the castle, almost knocking a young knight over in her haste to escape. Before she succeeded in moving by him, he gripped her shoulders and peered at her through the slit in his helmet.
“Sir Roland,” she said, recognizing the knight by his eyes, one blue and one green.
“You must depart the castle, Lady Claire. The princess is walking out to meet with the enemy as we speak, but I fear the mercenaries will storm the keep at any moment to claim their portion of the spoils of war, including the women within these walls.”
“Tell me how to leave this place and I will.” She clutched onto his armor-covered forearms to steady herself, praying he knew of a secret passage that led away from the castle and the carnage of the battle.
“Gather as many women and children as you can and make haste to the cellars. Lady Glenda is waiting there and she will guide you to safety. Go now and good luck!”
Claire nodded her thanks and gave him a sad smile. “God be with you, Sir Roland.”
“And with you, my lady.”
With a feeling of purpose that superseded her fear, she ran through the halls of the keep, gathered as many women and children as she could find, and bade them to follow her to the cellars. Glenda stood waiting as promised, and after lighting a few torches and handing them to the women who looked most able and alert, the dark-haired lady ushered them down a series of narrow passages, the light of their torches barely piercing the deep gloom of the underground escape route. Glenda paused when at last a faint light could be seen further on down a narrow tunnel. She bid the trembling lady at the front of the line to lead the group out of the tunnel and on to safety in the forest.
“There’s an old hunting cottage only a half-day’s journey, just keep moving north,” Glenda said. “We will find each other there.”
Claire’s conscience grew heavier and heavier with the knowledge that she hadn’t been able to find all her cousins, many of the servant girls, and other ladies who had been visiting the castle. She met Glenda’s stare through the dim light and reached for her hands.
“This isn’t half the ladies I meant to find, Glenda. They must be hiding in their chambers, or perhaps waiting to see what happens next.”
“I’ve sent two smaller groups out into the forest before yours, Claire.”
“Did you see Lady Hazel?”
Glenda shook her head. “No, I haven’t seen her since early this morning.”
“I must go back and find her.”
“Please hurry. I’ll wait for you here as long as I can.” Glenda squeezed her hands to encourage her, but Claire did not move right away. Something about the surrender troubled her. “What is it, child?” Glenda asked impatiently.
“I am surprised Lord Eberhard agreed to surrender so soon. I imagined that stubborn man would hold out for a few more days at least.”
Glenda scoffed. “Lord Eberhard is more a coward than he is stubborn. He joined the second group of women and children I took into the cellars. Pushed ahead of the group and ran off into the dark even as I hollered after him.”
Claire’s spirits plummeted to her feet. Poor Princess Susanna. No wonder a white flag had been raised. The princess had taken the most sensible course of action under the circumstances to save the lives of her people, and Claire respected her for it. “That bastard,” Claire hissed, thinking it especially cruel of Lord Eberhard to incur the anger of neighboring kingdoms only to run when they came seeking vengeance.
“Aye, he’s a bastard of the worst kind. We are running out of time. You must go now.”
Claire nodded and grabbed up her skirts, grateful that she’d worn her brother’s old boots today rather than a pair of dainty slippers. She’d taken to wearing them the moment the fighting began and had slipped a knife into a fold of leather against her ankle. She had no intention of letting some foul-breathed mercenary rut on her. It took her several minutes to find her way back down the passageway with only the light of her torch to guide her, but at last she emerged into the cellars once more, then quickly made her way upstairs.
Servants rushed to and fro through the halls, and Claire stepped in front of a footman. “Are the mercenaries inside yet?” She clutched his arm to prevent him from taking off again.
“Please, milady, I must go and find my daughters.” He tugged free of her grasp but paused long enough to divulge the reason for the new chaos that had broken out. “Gerhard of Bavaria announced that there would be no rapes or murders today, but women may be taken as wives.”
Her mind spun and for a moment she felt dizzy. “What do you mean?”
“I mean you’d best go and hide yerself, milady, lest you become the bride of some mercenary or a knight from the Free Cities. They’ve just summoned Father David to stand at the portcullis and perform quick marriage ceremonies. Hide now, milady! Before it’s too late!”
The footman dashed off and left Claire alone in the middle of the disorder.
She wasted no time in retrieving the knife from her boot. She clutched the bejeweled handle and set off in search of any remaining women and children. As she made her way to the stairs, she looked upon the great hall and her eyes went wide at the sight of rough-looking, brutish men spilling into the castle. The mercenaries she’d heard the servants whispering worriedly about. Knights too, some bearing crests she recognized from nearby houses, and some wearing crests she didn’t recognize at all.
Her heart sank at the sight of ladies and servant girls being forced to stand in a line against the far wall as the men looked them up and down, while others were forced outside. Many of ladies were crying, and Claire’s heart went out to them. She wished to save every last one of them, and she held her breath as she scanned the crowd for her young cousin, the very lady who’d kindly asked Princess Susanna to send her an invitation to the castle many weeks ago.
“Claire! My God, it’s you!”
Claire spun around and breathed a sigh of relief. “Cousin! Where have you been?” She grasped Hazel’s hand and pulled her toward the cellars. “Oh, never mind. Come on.”
“Where are we going?”
“Away from here.” Claire ran through the halls, desperate to reach the cellars before the soldiers made their way further into the castle. At last she came upon the stairs which lead to the cellars, and she pushed Hazel ahead of her. “Glenda is waiting for us. She’s already evacuated three groups of ladies through an underground passage. She will guide us out into the forest.”
Hazel rushed down the steps, holding her skirts high, the veil on her headdress flouncing through the air. Claire followed quickly. At the bottom of the stairs, Claire grabbed the torch she had left behind after coming back through the passage minutes ago. Moving quickly through the cellars, she guided Hazel through the door which lead to the underground passage, then handed her the torch. “Follow this passage until you find Glenda or reach the forest! I’m going to see if I can bar this door behind us.”
Hazel paused for a moment, then nodded and started down the passage. Claire turned back to the door which concealed the passage entrance from the rest of the cellars, forcing it shut and then searching for a locking mechanism. Unable to find anything after a few minutes, she cursed under her breath, then simply left it closed and hoped for the best.
Glancing down the passage, she didn’t see Hazel. Her cousin must be well on her way to safety. After taking just a moment to catch her breath, she would start down the passage herself. It would be hard going without light—she should have thought of that before sending Hazel on ahead with the only remaining torch—but she would have to find her way somehow.
Before she could take a step, however, the door at her back was suddenly thrown open. An arm snaked through the opening and grabbed her roughly, and a large man dragged her into the cellars again. It happened in a blur of movement, and no matter how hard she fought her captor, he didn’t falter as he carried her away from the promise of freedom. Almost before she knew it, she had been dragged through the cellars and back upstairs into the great hall. Throughout the ordeal, she managed to conceal the blade of her small knife against her wrist, and she grasped it beside her skirts, determined to hold onto the dagger until the opportunity to wound her captor arose.
“Ah, now let’s get a better look at you, milady.” The man, whom she suspected was a mercenary, pushed her to sit atop a table and held her upper arms in a bruising grip. She kicked and kicked, but her booted feet only connected with his armor. He wore no helmet, but he still wore full armor and chainmail. She assessed the situation and planned her method of attack, knowing she must aim for his face when the time came.
“I am Lady Claire of Diterich, widow of Lord Diterich. My brother is the duke of Leuthold. If you don’t unhand me, I assure you that you will regret it. My late husband’s family is powerful and would seek swift justice if you damage a single hair on my head, and my brother the duke would have your head for even looking at me.” Though she spoke a half-truth, she infused her tone with confidence and lifted her chin. If she spoke it like she believed it, mayhap this man would unhand her.
He tightened his grip on her arms and displayed a yellow-toothed grin that made her cringe. The heavy stench of ale on his breath turned her stomach. An unshaven savage with greasy dark hair plastered to his head, his eyes glistened with more cruelty than she’d ever witnessed from her late husband. At least Lord Diterich had been old and weak, and she’d had no trouble dodging his fists. Most of the time. This man, however, was young and strong, and sickness rose in her throat at the thought of becoming his wife. She turned the dagger around so the point faced him and clutched the handle with renewed determination.
“Ah, such a pretty girl,” the man said, his grin widening. His gaze lowered to her bosom. “I’ve always wanted a taste of a noblewoman, and now I shall have one as my wife. God has surely smiled upon me!”
He backed up to ogle her further and Claire wrenched from his grasp. She swung the knife at his face and slashed deep. His scream pierced the air and he covered his left cheek, staring at her with a look of surprise that quickly shifted to cold anger. She pointed the knife at him, holding it between both her hands. Though tremors besieged her body and her hands shook around the dagger, she put on a brave face and rose up from the table, but when she made to slip around the man, he blocked her path.
“You will let me pass,” she said, lifting the knife higher.
“No, I will not let you pass, you fucking bitch. I will make you my wife, and then, little lady, I will spend the rest of the day pounding into your noble cunt.” He struck out at her hands and knocked the knife from her grasp. The bloodied weapon clattered to the table, and she backed against the wall.
His fist flew through the air, but Claire ducked and his knuckles crunched into stone. A snarl erupted from his throat and he loomed over her with murderous intent reflecting in his dark eyes. Her blood ran cold.
He raised his fist again, but a large figure knocked him off his feet before he had the chance to swing.
Galien pushed the mercenary to the floor and stood over him with a hand hovering on the hilt of his sword.
“I saw her first,” the man spat. “She’s mine.”
“Aye, but it doesn’t look like you’re able to handle her,” Galien replied with a smirk. “Shall we fight over her?” He inched his sword halfway out of its scabbard, and the drunken mercenary’s eyes went wide with alarm. The man turned and scrambled away, leaving behind a bloody handprint on the floor.
“Thank you, sir,” the lady said, straightening her skirts. “That was chivalrous of you; however, I am quite certain I could have handled the miscreant myself.”
Galien released his hold on his sword and gave a slight bow to the lady. “You can put your knife away now, Lady Claire.”
She clutched it low at her side, eyeing him with suspicion. “I think I’ll keep it handy for now.” Her thin dark brows narrowed together. “How do you know my name?”
“I overheard you threatening the mercenary.” Galien studied the lady before him, taking in her full bosom, narrow waist, and ample hips her dress displayed in an inviting fashion. He still couldn’t believe his luck at finding Lady Claire at Hohenzollern of all places. He cleared his throat and stepped closer to her. “I am Lord Galien of Minrova.”
“Minrova? I thought Lord Galien was an old man. I did not know he had a son. Of course, there are so many lords and castles of late that it makes my head spin.”
“The late Lord Galien was an old man. I will inherit my father’s title upon my return to the family household. After my departure to find you, I received a missive that he passed away. You may call me Lord Galien if it pleases you.” He gave her a wicked smile. “However, I would much prefer you call me husband.”
“Husband?” A crazed laugh escaped her, but when he didn’t crack a smile she fell silent and stared at him with wide eyes. “You’re serious, aren’t you?” She pointed her knife at his face and gave him a hard look. The tip of her blade shone dark with the mercenary’s blood.
“Aye, my lady, I am serious. Your brother wishes for us to be married. He deployed me to Diterich to retrieve you from your late husband’s castle. My men and I joined with the army to defeat Hohenzollern on our way south to Diterich. Imagine my surprise to find you here in this castle, so far from home.”
“My brother?” she gasped. “Which brother? I have six of them.”
“The duke of Leuthold, and my overlord.”
Still, the lady did not lower her weapon. He watched as her expression transformed from suspicious to astounded, and then from fearful to suspicious again. “Even if you’re telling the truth, you are wasting your time with me. I have no need of a husband, and Leuthold is a fool for thinking I do.”
He crossed his arms and regarded her, amused by her stubbornness. Her beauty also mesmerized him. When the duke had none too gently commanded him to marry his sister, he had not been pleased. Being ordered about by an overlord a decade younger than him was riling at the very least, and he had no desire to marry a woman he’d never once laid eyes on. Refusing the duke’s orders was not an option, however, so he’d assembled his men and set off for Diterich, his mood dark until the opportunity to battle Hohenzollern arose. Two and a half days of fighting had proven a fair distraction from his father’s recent passing and his impending nuptials.
Ah, but the lady’s sparkling blue eyes drew him in, especially when anger flickered forth. She had lifted her chin and clenched her jaw, emphasizing high but delicate cheekbones he longed to reach out and stroke. Her full, pink lips called to him, and images of what she might do with that pretty mouth of hers left his cock straining against his armor.
She made a sudden jabbing motion with the knife in his direction, jarring him from his salacious thoughts. He glared at her, annoyed that she viewed him as no better than the mercenary who’d been pawing at her.
“My lady, I am losing my patience with you. I would like to leave Hohenzollern soon. Daylight is fading and I prefer to travel as far as possible before dusk. If we don’t dally, we will arrive at my keep before nightfall tomorrow.” He arched an eyebrow at her and looked pointedly at the knife, silently urging her to place the weapon down. It wouldn’t take him more than an instant to disarm her, but he wanted the lady surrender on her own free will. Trying to gain her trust after forcibly taking her dagger and hauling her out of the castle would be no small feat.
Lady Claire edged along the table, attempting to slip past him. He blocked her path at every turn and held out a hand, beseeching her to surrender.
“Give me the knife, my lady.”
“No. Perhaps you should take out your sword so it’s a fair fight, my lord,” she said tauntingly. The firm set of her jaw and her brave words were betrayed by her trembling hands.
His heart softened to her and he ached to gather her against his chest. He did not know much about the lady he had been commanded to wed, but he knew her late husband had been no saint. Lord Diterich’s first five wives had died in their sleep under mysterious circumstances. The elderly lord had been known for his violent temper, as well as his obsession with wealth and power. Galien hoped Lady Claire had not suffered too terribly at his hands. She was far too young to have been married to such an old man, and he wondered at the circumstances that had led to the marriage. Surely she had not been a willing bride.
Around them soldiers issued commands and ladies cried and gasped as they were escorted toward the great hall. Claire’s eyes filled with tears as she surveyed the scene, and her lower lip quivered. She met his gaze and anger flared in her brilliant blue depths.
“While you might have heard of my brother, I doubt you are the lord you claim to be. For all I know, you have concocted the story for some sinister purpose.”
“I am exactly who I claim to be. Even if I’m not, I am within my rights to claim you as mine. Enough of the knife play, my lady. Hand me the weapon now.”
She slashed the dagger through the air and he caught her wrist in a firm grasp. Stepping closer, he towered over her petite form and stared into her frightened eyes, cursing the circumstances of their first meeting. If the rumors about her late husband and his son who now ruled in his place were true, she would have welcomed his arrival at Diterich with open arms. But now instead of her savior, he was her enemy.
He squeezed her wrist just hard enough to force the knife out of her hands. It clattered to the floor and for a moment he simply stared down at her, wordlessly beckoning her to trust him. She struggled against his hold, kicking at his legs and flailing around like a woman possessed.
“Release me!” She landed a hard kick and then winced, her foot hitting his armor.
“If you don’t calm yourself, my lady, you will get hurt.” He pulled her arms down to her sides and backed her against the table. “Now listen to me and listen well. I am indeed Lord Galien of Minrova, and your brother the duke of Leuthold has commanded me to take you as a wife, even to use force against Diterich to remove you from their castle if necessary. We are leaving Hohenzollern now, and if you continue giving me trouble I will not hesitate to exercise my husbandly right to discipline you, Claire. You will behave, my lady, or you will feel the sting of my sword belt on your bare arse.”