Western Europe, 1435
“That’s enough, Kirsten. Come away from the window. You can’t break the siege by staring at Lord Gregor’s men.” Lady Helena pushed a strand of her curling hair back up into its confining scarf as she looked down on the scene at the castle gate.
“But I’m tired of it all, Mutti! I’m tired of the noise and the dust and the stench. I’m tired of seeing that rabble at the gate of our beautiful Reichhold. I almost wish they would just bring that battering ram down from the hill and use it. Then Vatti could vanquish our foes in heroic battle! That would be glorious. This is just boring.” To Kirsten’s young eyes, Lady Helena knew that nothing could look bleaker than another day in a long siege. She had never seen the broken bodies brought back on litters from the battlefield or the widows crying in the courtyard.
“It’s not your dear father’s fault. We must set an example and hold up under the privations bravely, my daughter.”
“I wasn’t talking about the scanty lunch we just had or the meager dinner which is all we can look forward to. I’m talking about being stuck in this castle, in the walls, never being able to ride in the forest or picnic on the hills, never mind visiting my cousins or attending a tournament.”
“With all this fighting all around us, you want to see a tournament?”
“There isn’t any fighting. Just a few skirmishes around the castle walls here and there. In battle, my father would prevail! What glory he would win! No one would ever dare attack him again.”
“And if he lost?” Lady Helena’s voice grew serious and low.
Kirsten seemed not to hear her change in tone. “But he wouldn’t lose. He hasn’t lost in all these years of fighting. He has always been the gracious victor, granting mercy and governing wisely. That’s why the people love him so. Everyone tells me how much they love Lord Ludolf. I’m proud to be his daughter.”
“As well you should be, my child. Look out on those streets, those houses, those shops within the walls of the city, all teeming with folk. Your father must care for all of them. Look out on those fields and cottages outside the gates. All of those souls living in them are in his charge as well. Think of how difficult life must be in war.” Lady Helena looked down at the wool she was spinning into thread at the wheel. “Everyone must make sacrifices.”
“Well, I think we’ve all made quite enough of those, thank you. It’s time to get on with things. Vatti has soldiers and knights. Let them earn their keep.”
Lady Helena looked up sharply. “It’s time for your music practice, young lady. I want to hear your new song this evening after supper.”
Kirsten sighed as she rose. “Maybe that will help us forget the boring old food at our boring old table with the same boring old people.”
Lady Helena watched her daughter as she left the sunny sitting room. How much the girl reminded her of herself at that age, uncaring, unheeding, so self-absorbed. She had no idea of the world around her, which was as it should be, wasn’t it? She had raised her daughter to be a dutiful wife and mother someday, supporting her husband and offering a gracious example of firm discipline tempered by mercy to the peasants and laborers whom it was their duty to rule. Had she done wisely, to shelter her so thoroughly from life’s harsher realities? It couldn’t last, so like it or not, circumstances were soon to take the choice out of her hands.
The wool was spun and Helena was looking out the window when she saw her husband approaching. The same thrill that she always felt when she saw him, lean and straight, riding his warhorse like a conquering hero, coursed through her again. She wished they had the time and energy to indulge their inclinations as they wished, but she had more pressing issues to discuss with him. She could tell from the listless way he dismounted and handed the reins off to his squire that he needed to confide in her as well.
Knowing she would most likely find him there, Helena made her way to the map-room. As she expected he would be, he was banging his fist on the map table, pointing his gauntleted finger at the offending spot. “If we could just get word out! If Hugo would send but three divisions, I could break Gregor’s hold. With four, I could route him completely!” The captain standing by him indicated another area of the map, but Ludolf only stabbed the harder.
Apparently, he heard her steps. Turning to her, he cried in frustration, “Where are your brother’s forces? Where is the king? He promised help!”
“Yes, my lord. It seems as if we must admit that they may not be in a position to help us. I’m sure you noticed the battering ram on the far hill at the southern edge of the valley?”
“You saw that, did you, my lady? I told you, Steffan, she’s no fool. She noticed.”
“As did our daughter. If she did, others have. There’s no more time, Ludolf. If you delay too long, it will no longer be an option. Stores are dangerously low. Time for the spring planting is on us. If the siege is not broken, there will be widespread famine by autumn.”
Steffan, the young captain, bowed to his lady. “I could not agree more. It is time, my lord! With the plan I have laid out and fifteen hand-picked men, I can break through the line at the eastern gate.”
Helena flinched. “Not that idea again, Sir Steffan, please! It would be suicide.”
“I would be proud to give my life—”
“Says he who has not seen enough of it to know what he is sacrificing!” Seeing the hurt pride on his face, Helena added quickly, “I will not have the best and brightest in my lord’s realm slaughtered out of a misplaced sense of duty!”
“And I would not have my lady starve!” came back his quick retort. Steffan’s face, suffused with a crimson hue in his passion, showed clearly the loyalty that lay in his heart.
Helena smiled in gracious acknowledgement of his sentiment. “It need not come to that.”
Ludolf clapped his hand onto Steffan’s shoulder. “I know you would lay down your life for any of us, but I would rather spend that prize in a more fitting way. You’re right, Helena. It is time. If you are sure. The sacrifice weighs heaviest on you. It’s your dowry, your family’s legacy we’re talking about here. I won’t force you. We could fight.”
“And fight again and again. How much more are we going to weaken your realm with endless war?” Helena responded earnestly.
“It doesn’t exactly strengthen my realm to bargain away most of the profitable holdings,” Ludolf pointed out.
Steffan took a step back from the table. “In such a discussion, my presence is unnecessary. Shall I ring for the steward? Or a scribe?”
Helena could tell the young man wanted to escape before his disgust at the proceedings showed through his efforts at self-control. “Oh, but you are needed. You and your hand-picked squad are vital to the success of the mission. How else can we get the offer where it needs to go?”
“Lord Gregor sends an embassy every day, offering terms of surrender.” Steffan said the last word as if it were not fit for polite conversation. “I’m sure you won’t need me to make the offer to buy him off. He expects it. That’s why he isn’t attacking. He doesn’t want to spoil his future merchandise.”
Helena looked at her husband and knew it would be better for the men’s morale if they heard that the plan came from the lord they respected rather than the lady they revered. She merely smiled again.
Ludolf’s voice was stern. “Where I send you, you will go. You are the only one I trust to get through enemy lines and find Jager.”
Steffan’s head snapped up. “Jager? What Jager? Not the mercenary! Not Gustav Jager!”
“The reinforcements we expected are not coming. We can wait no longer without significant hardship and as you well know, years of war have not left us with many options. Jager’s men are the most feared fighters in the land.”
“For good reason. They have a habit of winning, but…” Steffan wiped a hand over his face. “Do you want to be associated with such a man?”
“It’s a business arrangement. I’m not inviting him to move in. He’ll serve his purpose and then leave, a very wealthy man,” Ludolf said in a weary tone.
Steffan scowled as he considered this new information. “He’s not to be trusted, my lord. It would take a very great amount of wealth to interest him in our situation. As you have observed, your financial position is no longer what it once was.”
“I will not let my people die of starvation or be slaughtered needlessly in hopeless battle when I have the means to save them such a fate. If afterwards, I am lessened by such a decision, let him condemn who will. I know what is right. I know my duty. It is dangerous, especially for you. Getting through the siege lines, finding Jager, leading him back here, all just for the privilege of facing Gregor’s men in a battle where we will still be outnumbered. None of this will be easy. What’s to keep Jager from throwing his famous knife in your throat before he hears your offer? I only ask it of you because my presence would just—”
“Never, my lord! Not while I draw breath would I allow you to walk into such peril needlessly. As you say, all other considerations aside, I would have much more chance of success than you. I am the logical choice. And if we can convince him, his men will turn the tables on old Gregor. Of that I have no doubt. There is no finer fighting force in the land.” Steffan could not keep the admiration out of his voice.
“I just hope you’re right,” Ludolf sighed. “So bring him and his men back. The offer is outlined in these papers, but it’s simple enough. We are offering him the village of Hauer, or what’s left of it, with Schoenfeld and all the fields surrounding it. And the lake. That should make it rich enough for even his blood.”
“The lake? On the border? Now, I see.” There was a definite lightening of the young captain’s mood. “I wouldn’t imagine a brigand like Jager being interested in land and holdings, but a lake on the border? I’m sure he’ll see the attractions in that. I’ll leave at once.”
“Wait until after midnight. Safer. Cover of darkness, men at their least alert.”
Lady Helena left the men to discuss tactics and strategies, musing along the way to the private rooms she shared with her husband. I was hoping my brother or even the king would see fit to… but well, no use in that. No use at all. What’s done is done. We all have to make sacrifices. We’ve had more than our share of good times. Can’t complain when the lean times come. I am sorry for little Kirsten. Those lands would have made her a fine dowry. Well, as beautiful as she is, she’ll get a fine husband without that. Why, she’ll hardly notice that we’ve come down in the world. We’ll be together and this war will be over. This Jager will drive Gregor away for good and we’ll have peace. That’s the important thing.
* * *
“You called for me, my lord?” Kirsten yawned, sleepy eyed and muzzy-headed as she stumbled into the audience chamber off the great hall. She wondered why the fire was burning so brightly at such a late hour, when usually the ashes would have been banked and only a few red embers glowing. When she curtsied to her father, she nearly fell over and had to reach out a hand to steady herself on the edge of a table.
“Yes, Kirsten. There is someone here who wants to meet you,” her father answered. She could hear the tension in his voice.
“At this hour? Why ever in this world—”
Her mother interrupted her. “You must trust that it is important, my daughter, or we would not have called for you. Is that not so, my lord?”
Kirsten could tell her mother was inviting her father to talk in order to cover up some gaff she must be making, but she could not stop yawning or think clearly. It was cold and she started to shiver.
“Bring her closer to the fire. She’s cold. And I can see her better.” For the first time, Kirsten noticed a tall man, no, a huge man, dark bearded and sharp-eyed, standing near the hearth. “The voice is fine. No problem there.”
Lady Helena put an arm around Kirsten’s shoulders and drew her with her closer to the fire. When Kirsten hung back, Lady Helena whispered, “Wake up and shine, Kirsten. All our lives may depend on it.” This shocked Kirsten into awareness and she was suddenly as alert as she had ever been. Looking over she saw her mother smiling into her face but darting her eyes over to the dark giant who had spoken and knew beyond all doubt that this oversized person was somehow vital to their survival. She knew her duty and willed herself to action, as she had been trained to do since childhood. She cast her face down modestly, only barely daring to flick her gaze to his face for the briefest breath before forcing a smile of calm serenity onto her lips.
The man approached. Kirsten got the feeling he was going to come closer, but then he abruptly stepped back again as if he had made up his mind about something. His next words revealed to her that he had. “She’ll do. I only wanted to make sure she had all the usual number of limbs and a voice a man doesn’t wince to wake up to.”
“I’ll do?” It came out as a whisper because all the air had seemed to go out of the room. Kirsten couldn’t get her breath. Here, in the middle of the night, in this shadowy room with only her parents and a few soldiers near, this man was looking at her like a piece of furniture he was thinking of buying. She had always known it was likely, even prudent that her parents would make a match for her, but she had assumed it would be among the nobles of the area, all of whom were known to her, at least by reputation. Surely, this man, dressed in rough traveling clothes the commoners wore, had no business examining her as if he might dare to dream that she might be his. “Wake up to? Mother?”
“There’s no time to explain,” Lady Helena murmured. “You’ve done well. Hold your tongue and trust me. Only a little longer now.”
Father Paulus entered the room, bowing to her parents before noticing the stranger and stepping back. As if the words were shocked out of him, he said, “Gustav Jager!”
The stranger stepped forward and clasped the priest’s hand. “It’s been a long time. I heard you’d taken vows, Sepp.”
Lord Ludolf’s eyebrows furrowed. “You know him?”
“I’m- I’m Father Paulus now,” the priest stammered, ignoring Ludolf. “And you! You’ve—”
“Been around a bit, yes. Long way from Landesdau, eh? You look like you’ve done all right for yourself. Priest to a noble family! Good for you! Now, looks like it’s my turn. I’m moving up in the world myself. Surprised old Steffan, too, I can tell you. Good to know the man who’s going to do the honors. I’ve got more of the old crowd with me, out in the forest, you know. Too bad you can’t come out and see them. They gave Steffan quite a welcome. But it’s too far to drag you out in the middle of the night to talk about the old days, eh?” The man called Gustav suddenly squared off in front of the priest. “We start out standing, don’t we? Kneeling comes later. Come on, Steffan. You can stand with me as witness. Varin would have been more fitting, but he’s with the troops. We need two, don’t we? One of these other guards will do for the other.”
“Witness?” Kirsten’s voice was small as her knees buckled.
“You know him, too, Steffan?” Her father’s scowl deepened. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I didn’t want to get your hopes up, my lord. I might not have succeeded in finding him, but I knew if I could, all would be well. And I was right.” Steffan finished his low-voiced conversation with Ludolf and Helena while Gustav was busy conferring with the priest.
“You call this ‘well’?” Lady Helena hissed. “After what you said about him?”
“It could be that I exaggerated a little. I didn’t want you to think I was biased in his favor or felt divided loyalties. He was a childhood friend. Lord Ludolf is my liege. It is him and him only that I serve. Gustav will aid in that service.”
Lord Ludolf kept his voice low, but a hint of amusement was entering with just a shade of hope. “You said he could not be trusted.”
“He can’t. Not like one trusts a nobleman.” Steffan suppressed his grin. “But he knows how to get men to do what he wants. He’ll do what it takes to earn the reward you’ve promised. On that, we can rely.”
Kirsten saw Steffan take his place beside Gustav and heard what was going on around her, but none of it made sense. “Mother?”
Lady Helena ushered Kirsten over to stand in front of the priest. “We’ve no choice. This is your father’s command. It’s the only way.” Lady Helena glanced up at the tall man now grinning down at the priest. “The land and the title are more than what you need to join the ranks of the nobility. What are you going to do with a wife? Take her with you to the battlefield?”
Gustav answered in a carefully jovial tone. “No, of course not, my lady. I’ll leave her in your tender care until I can return for her and take her with me to my new manor, which you have so graciously given us for a wedding gift. It’s true, I will be busy saving my new father-in-law from a villain’s unjust assault, but at least I’ll have the inspiration of knowing I’m fighting for my bride and her family. My family! Otherwise why would I interfere in a battle not my own? A battle, may I add, that the king has not seen fit to end? A grave risk deserves a great reward.”
Even Kirsten, inexperienced as she was, could tell from his wooden courtesy and frozen smile that Gustav had given his terms and would accept no further negotiations. She forced herself to step forward, squeezing her mother’s hand one last time for luck, and turned to face the priest. “Father Paulus, I think we are in something of a hurry, so please don’t dally on my account. I am ready.”
Gustav looked down at her and smiled broadly. “Fine! Let’s get on with it, Sepp. I mean, Father Paulus!”
With the blood rushing in her ears, Kirsten could not hear the vows she spoke, much less the ones spoken by anyone else in the room, but she supposed it was Gustav she was married to when he leaned down and kissed her perfunctorily on the lips.
“Right, then,” declared her new husband. “That’s that. Steffan, lead me back to that most useful secret tunnel and I’ll try to squeeze through it the way I squeezed in here. I’ve got a siege to break and a war to win. Good night, all. And, you, wife! Get back to bed. No wife of mine is going to go wandering around a castle at this hour. Your hands were like ice when I held them just now.”
With that he was gone. Before Lady Helena was able to reach her, Kirsten had sunk to the floor.
* * *
Kirsten’s eyes fluttered open a few minutes later. “Mother? What just happened? I had the strangest dream. I dreamed there was a giant in the audience chamber and Father Paulus appeared and performed a wedding ceremony.
Lady Helena picked up her daughter’s hand to show her the ring that had been placed on her finger. “No dream, I’m afraid.”
“What happened? Why am I lying by the fire in the audience chamber, married to a common soldier?”
“He’s not a common soldier and believe me when I tell you, it was not our intent when we contacted him. That giant, as you call him, was Gustav Jager. He’s got a large and very rightly feared army of mercenaries at his command, though how in heaven’s name he keeps order with that easy-going grin of his, I’ll never know. The offer we sent him, by way of Sir Steffan, made no mention of you. We offered him lands in exchange for breaking the siege.”
“What lands did you offer? I thought Father’s holding were not very prosperous of late, what with all the fighting.”
“You knew about that? We had hoped to keep it from you. As it turns out, it wouldn’t have mattered if we had offered him the Garden of Eden. He wasn’t interested in just land. He wanted respectability, as he put it, which to him meant not only land, but a title to go with it and a noble wife to gain him access into society.”
Kirsten sat up, leaning on an elbow. Looking over to the table where once there might have been a plate of grapes or some sweet breads there was only a pitcher and a cup of water which she drank from gratefully. “I see. Well, it isn’t as if I didn’t know it was possible. What are we daughters for anyway, if not to be bartered off to the highest bidder? I hadn’t thought it would be done so quickly or so late at night.” The bitterness in her voice surprised even her.
“We had no choice, Kirsten. Surely you can see that. The siege. The war. It has to end. And there was no time to find another way. We never dreamed he would dare to enter the castle and negotiate, much less want you as a wife. But there he was, popped up out of nowhere like a stage devil in a pantomime.”
“Rather large for a demon. They’re usually short weedy little actors with raspy voices,” Kirsten commented with a smile. “This one is more like the Goliath.”
“Well, it’s a Goliath that’s on our side, for a change. We need a friend and this one… well, I don’t know. Your father flatly refused at first and I nearly fainted. I could just see Gustav storming off in a rage, but he didn’t. He merely smiled patiently and pressed his suit. Sir Steffan was strangely supportive, and I wondered at the time. Now we know that this Gustav seems to have made a lot of friends when he was a youth. He knew Sir Steffan’s family as well as Father Paulus when he was a lad. They seem to think well of him. And you can’t deny, he is handsome. You could have done worse with some of the choices your father had been contemplating.”
Kirsten looked at her mother and blushed hotly. “Now we’ll never know, will we? I might have fallen in love! It could have happened. Now it never will.”
Lady Helena gave her daughter a curious stare the younger woman did not understand. “I’m glad for your sake it didn’t. Then where would we have been? And only the young say ‘never’. Those of us who have seen a bit of life know that never is a very long time. Things change. I have a feeling young Sir Steffan may be right. Things may work out for the best. Gustav may turn out to be a good man.”
“And what makes you think such a thing? You’ve known him what, all of an hour or so?”
“When you fainted, he came back into the room to scoop you up and place you on this rug, then drag the whole thing closer to the fire. Not many men would have bothered or even heard. They should have been too far away to hear you fall.”
“Wonderful, a giant with better than average ears.”
Lady Helena stood and reached down to help her daughter up. “Come on then. There’s no use waiting here any longer. The men will be out all night, getting things ready for the dawn attack.”
“Dawn? He’s not wasting any time, is he? Well, I suppose we don’t have any time to waste.”
“If we did, you wouldn’t be a married woman now.”
Kirsten heard the sorrow in her mother’s voice and repented of her harsh tone earlier. “You didn’t know Vatti before you married him and look how that turned out! At least I know he’s a good fighter.” Then her spark of hope diminished again. “What if he isn’t as good as he’s supposed to be? What if he loses? I’ll be the wife of a vanquished foe.”
“You mean the widow, more likely. I don’t think he would surrender. I get the impression he wouldn’t notice the need for it even if it were upon him.”
Kirsten paled and her eyes grew wide. “And you and Vatti would… and all our people would… oh, Mutti, what can we do?”
“We can pray. Then we’ll get the bandages and herbs ready to care for the wounded. And make sure you remember how to open the trap door to the secret tunnel. It won’t come to that, but it doesn’t hurt to be ready for anything. Then make sure your knife is sharp and you’ve plenty of arrows for your bow.”
Kirsten found herself praying for the success of the man who had just forced her parents to give her away as a prize.