Ten Years Later
Villagers lined the tall walls of the Great Hall in small clusters. Some sat beneath the large stained glass window depicting an elegant knight in his golden battle armor; others stood near the white marble statue of a warhorse.
While the groups were indeed dwindling, Aurora of Acquitaine knew she would not be able to hear all of their concerns, complaints and petitions today. She had sat in the judgment chair for the entire morning, dispensing verdicts. The sun was almost directly overhead and time was running out. With the tolling of the bell for the noon meal, the hearing of petitions would come to an end. Her gaze swept over her villagers waiting anxiously for their turn, all of their faces filled with anticipation and hope for a ruling in their favor. She knew she could not please them all, but she would do her best to be fair.
She looked at the two men standing before her. One was a big, beefy man with dark hair and a boyish face known by all as Peter the Drunk, and the other was a ruffled old man named Theodore, the owner of the Wolf’s Blood Inn. Both stared at her with expectant eyes, waiting for her judgment.
Aurora glanced at Peter, the dark haired man, noticing the stains on his tunic, the rip in the knee of his breeches. “You will carve Theodore a walking stick,” she proclaimed. “After all, you did break it in half.”
Peter stared at the floor, shaking his head gently. “But I ain’t got –”
“I will supply the wood and the dagger. You will present yourself here each morn to Mary. If you don’t, I will have Captain Trane look for you. He won’t like doing that, so I strongly urge you to report to Mary in a timely fashion.”
Peter nodded, bowing his head humbly. “Aye. Thank ye, m’lady.”
“I want you to stay in the castle for now, Peter. You can sleep here in the Great Hall with the others. We will all help you resist your fondness for ale.”
Peter bobbed his head again, with a bit more enthusiasm and vigor this time, his floppy brown hair falling in his eyes. “I will, m’lady. Thank ye.”
Aurora turned to Theodore. “Theodore –” A loud commotion came from the back of the room, drawing Aurora’s attention. Four men walked down the aisle. She recognized the lead man as Lord Warin Roke. She scowled at the disturbance and looked back to the two men before her, continuing, “Peter will carve you a new walking stick.”
Theodore bowed, half turning toward the men moving up the middle of the room. “Thank ye, m’lady.”
“Take care of yourself, Theodore.”
Lord Warin Roke, dressed in dark silver from his leather boots, to his leggings, to the loose fitting tunic he wore over his slender figure, strolled up the aisle. He was a tall, gangly man with a long face.
Behind him, three men followed. One of the men was huge, easily six and a half feet tall. One of his eyes was completely white. Aurora didn’t like the cruel grin that seemed to be permanently etched on his lips. The second man was smaller, but stockier, with oily dark hair. His expression was blank as he pushed a thin man before him toward the dais. This third man appeared to be a captive of some sort as his hands were bound behind his back. The prisoner’s lip was cracked and swollen, and there was a large purple bruise on his cheek. Dried blood stained his chin.
Sir Rupert stepped up protectively beside Aurora, his chain mail clinking softly. Rupert was a handsome young man with a premature streak of gray running through his brown hair. He was one of her father’s most trusted knights.
Aurora stood. “Lord Roke, I am hearing petitions. There are others before you. You must wait –”
Roke stopped before the raised platform and bowed, sweeping his arm out across his body in a grossly exaggerated gesture. “Excuse the interruption, my lady.”
Her gaze swept the three men behind him before returning to Roke. She carefully schooled her face in a patient blankness, hiding the audacity she felt at Roke’s arrogance in believing his problem took precedence over the rest.
“I have a gift for you,” he said in a soft voice. “For your consideration of my betrothal offering.”
Anger spiked through Aurora. A gift when she was clearly busy attending other matters? When others waited upon her to hear their petitions? She pushed the anger down and regarded the quiver of happiness in Roke’s lips, the arrogance in his lifted chin. A betrothal to this wretched man would be a punishment worse than death. “How kind, Lord Roke. But as you can see, I am conducting –”
A self-satisfied smile beamed from his wrinkled face. His voice lowered as he announced, “I have brought you this assassin.”
Assassin. The word sent tremors of fear and misgiving shuddering through Aurora.
Around her, villagers whispered and a murmur swept through the hall like a rippling breeze. Sir Rupert stepped forward, his hand moving to the hilt of his weapon. “You dare bring an assassin before Lady Aurora?” He glowered hotly at Roke.
Aurora lifted her hand, stilling all around her. Her gaze came to rest on the bound and bloodied man. Rage charred through her and she forced her fists not to clench. Assassin. The most loathsome kind of human being. “Who did he kill?” she asked.
Roke’s grin quirked to the side. “Lord Delamore’s wife.”
A woman. A victim just like her mother. She carefully kept her face and her voice neutral, dispelling the warring emotions swirling within her. Anger, anxiety, trepidation. “Why bring him to me?”
“Why, my dear, I am ever vigilant for the assassin who killed your mother.”
Aurora didn’t move for a very long moment. Emotions from the past threatened to tidal wave over her, but she kept a strong reign on her feelings, burying them deep inside. She was Lady Aurora of Acquitaine, a figurehead to her people. Always level headed, always fair. She couldn’t just crumple into a heap of fear and dread even though her very limbs were threatening to give out on her. She looked past Roke at William the Baker who met her gaze with concern. His worry gave her strength. Aurora swallowed and took a step forward.
“My Lady,” Sir Rupert hissed from behind her. “Have a care.”
She snapped her gaze to the assassin as she moved toward him. His jaw was tight and his eyes darted from side to side. She moved by Lord Roke to stand before the assassin. She could feel her heart hammering hard in her chest and willed herself to remain calm.
“I was hoping you could identify him,” Roke whispered.
A quiver of repulsion shook her at the sound of Roke’s voice so close. She ignored it, concentrating on the assassin. He was short, maybe half a head taller than her. But that was not important. She remembered one thing about the assassin from seven years ago. One thing she would never forget. She leaned closer to look into his eyes.
He reared back and turned his head away from her.
She grabbed his jaw and jerked his face back toward her.
He stared at her with a mixture of defiance and apprehension.
She held his face still, glaring into his eyes, searching for the monstrous eyes that still haunted her nightmares. The most dead, cold and uncaring, unfeeling and distant eyes she had ever seen. But the eyes staring back at her were not those eyes. And their shape was more oval than the eyes she remembered. She released him, pushing his face away with a resolved sigh. She stepped back. “It’s not him. He is not the one.”
“Have no fear, my dear. I will not rest until your mother’s killer is brought to you,” Lord Roke reassured her. “It is my duty as your future husband.”
Aurora cringed at the certainty in Roke’s declaration of their future marriage. She looked away from him and then noticed a red smudge on her fingers. She lifted her hand, inspecting it. Blood. It was the assassin’s blood. Aurora swung her gaze back to Roke. He was still grinning as if this were some kind of amusing stage play he was performing in. She could see he was not surprised at all by her declaration that this man was not the murderer of her mother. Then she looked over her shoulder at the assassin. There was too much blood on his chin for a simple cut lip. Her eyes narrowed. “What happened to him?”
“He was properly punished.”
“He was spouting lies, so we cut out his tongue.” Roke’s tone was gleeful, proud.
Gasps sounded from the villagers within earshot of Roke’s gloat.
“It is not for you to dispense justice,” Aurora said calmly, forcing herself to show none of the disgust she felt. “Bring him to Lord Delamore. He can bestow the proper justice to his wife’s murderer.”
Aurora stared down at the smear of blood still staining her hand. The assassin’s blood. She had listened to one more petition after Roke’s interference. Then, the bell had tolled. Thankful, she dismissed the rest, promising to add an extra hearing for tomorrow. It had been difficult for her to concentrate after Roke’s interruption. She had used a rag to wipe the blood from her hands but no matter how much she scrubbed, the red stain had remained. She moved through the hallway to her room and closed the door.
She stood with her back against the door, staring down at her hand, at the smear of blood on it. The assassin’s blood. Fear swirled in the deepest recess of her soul as she lifted her eyes to search her room. The murky corners, the gloom, taunted her. She never felt safe near the darkness, always feeling as if someone were there in the shadows. Watching. Waiting.
Ridiculous, she told herself and pushed away from the door to a small basin on the table beside the wall. She dipped her hand into the water, scrubbing at the red stain.
It had been seven years almost to the day since her mother’s death. But the man who had killed her mother had never been caught. The assassin was still out there.
Aurora rubbed at the blood harder, finally able to remove the last of the red smears from her skin. This is my home, my castle, my lands, she thought. I will not be afraid here.
The door swung open and she jumped, knocking the basin over as she spun around. The water splashed across the floor.
Her father swept into the room, his gray brows angled over his eyes. “Aurora?”
Aurora’s shoulders sagged with relief. “Father,” she whispered as if reassuring herself.
He rushed up to her with hurried steps, his gaze moving over her in concern. “Are you alright?”
Aurora bent to pick up the basin. “Other than being scared to death…” When he didn’t answer, she looked up at him, noticing his unease. She stood slowly, her hands empty. “What is it? What’s happened?”
He shook his head and glanced back at the door where Sir Rupert stood looking down at his boots. When he looked back at her, he took her hand into his. “Rupert told me Roke was here.”
Disgust and annoyance at Roke’s name churned within her, but didn’t reach her face. “Yes. He was here.”
The concern never left his eyes. “He brought an assassin?”
Aurora nodded and then slowly shook her head. “But it wasn’t him. He wasn’t the one who killed mother.”
Her father’s hand tightened around her own. “What else did Roke say?”
Her gaze swept his face in confusion and she shrugged. “What else could he say? It wasn’t him.”
Her father turned away from her, letting her hand slide from his own. “He didn’t… say anything else?”
Aurora stepped toward her father, ducking her head to try to peer into his averted eyes. “He said he would do all he could to find the man who killed mother,” she paused and then distastefully added, “as was befitting for my future husband.”
Haunted blue eyes lifted to Aurora. “He wants to marry you very badly.” Her father’s tone was flat and unemotional.
A shiver of trepidation snaked up her spine at the thought of marrying Roke. “Yes. I’ve been meaning to speak to you… I mean ask you how the decision was going.”
He straightened. “There are many suitors vying for your hand, Aurora. Many.” He hesitated, his chest deflating slightly. “And any one of them would be most fortunate to have you as a wife.”
She grinned, but the slight smile quickly faded and she looked away, fingering the edge of the table beside the wall. “What of Lord Roke? Are you considering him?”
He walked to her window and looked out over the village. “I have to consider all requests.”
It was Aurora’s turn to worry. She nervously took a cloth from the table and knelt on the floor, soaking up the spilled water. She would do what her father asked. Misgivings churned within her. What if he asked her to marry Roke?
He turned to her. “Mostly, I want you to be happy.”
She sat back on her heels. “I would do anything to make you proud, father. Anything.”
He walked up to her and knelt before her, cupping her cheek tenderly. “You already make me proud.”
She closed her eyes, grateful for his compliment. “I don’t want to marry Roke.” She opened her eyes, expecting to see disappointment. Instead, she saw understanding. “He is manipulative and uncompassionate. Not a fitting father for your grandchildren.”
A sad smile touched the corners of his lips. He nodded. “So be it. You shall not marry Roke.”
Relief swelled within her and she threw her arms around her father’s neck.
“He will not be happy,” her father muttered. She couldn’t see the troubled look that filled his eyes as he squeezed her tightly. “No,” he whispered. “Roke will not be happy at all.”