Thirteen Years Later
The beautiful fall day was fresh and warm, summer refusing to relinquish its grip. Solace Farindale moved through the grassy field beside Gwen Erickson, their steps leisurely and relaxed. Behind them, Castle Fulton loomed large, its many towers reaching high into the sky. The drawbridge stretched across the deep moat, and dozens of villagers moved in and out of the castle as they saw to the business of the day. A monk passed Solace and her friend on the way to the castle’s chapel, his head bowed, his hands clasped in silent prayer. The pious men and their brown robes were a common enough sight at Castle Fulton. The monks stopped at the fortress on their way to the Abbey of St. Michael, sometimes alone, but Solace had seen groups as large as fifteen.
In a field to the left, knights were practicing their jousting skills, their enthusiastic shouts filling the air. Solace turned at the sound of hoof beats to see a man striking a quintain with his long lance. The counterweight whirled quickly around and hit the man in the shoulder. The man tumbled from his horse amidst laughter from his fellow knights.
Solace turned her attention back to Gwen. “Is it serious?”
“I… I don’t know,” Gwen replied solemnly, wringing her hands in front of her. “Father just seems so weak.”
“I’m sure he’ll be fine,” Solace said kindly. But she had seen the pale color of lord Erickson’s face, the sagging of his shoulders, and knew his strength was waning. “Have you sought physicians?”
“We’ve tried everything!” Gwen exclaimed. “They gave him all sorts of herbs. They studied his urine. Even the bloodletting didn’t work! More and more of our coin goes to trying to make Father well.” Gwen looked up at Solace, her blue eyes dull with worry. “Father doesn’t like me to concern myself with the finances, but I know that’s why we’re here.”
“What do you mean?”
“Father was hoping your father could loan him some gold,” Gwen said quietly, glancing around the field, not wanting the others to hear. “But since your father is off with the king…” Her voice trailed away.
Solace stopped to meet Gwen’s eyes. “Are you in danger?”
“No,” Gwen insisted. “It’s nothing like that. It’s just that our coin is almost depleted. Until the taxes are collected next year, there’s not enough to pay the knights who protect the castle.”
Solace nodded in understanding. “I’m sure Father would give you the gold without any questions.”
“Yes, but will your stepmother?”
Solace opened her mouth to reply when the loud cry of a bird drew her gaze to the sky. A magnificent falcon soared overhead, circling the field. For a moment, she wondered if it had escaped from its owner. But as her gaze dropped back to Gwen, she spotted the falconer in the distance over her friend’s shoulder.
A second bird, a peregrine falcon, was perched on his fist. The falconer was holding onto the jesses, leather strips attached to the falcon’s legs, while offering it a lure. The falcon ate the offered meat, devouring the entire piece. The bird was beautiful, its golden brown feathers shining like expensive silk in the warm sunlight. But it was not the falcon that caught Solace’s eye.
Every time she saw him, the falconer’s conspicuous good looks totally captured her attention. He towered over the rest of the men by at least a head, and he now stood absolutely still, as if somehow knowing he was being studied. He was marvelous to gaze at, a statue carved by the most skilled artisan. He had an arrogantly symmetrical face that was breathtakingly gorgeous. His aquiline nose was straight, his jaw strong, chiseled by a master sculptor. His lips were firm, strangely…foreignly…sensual. The sunlight suddenly seemed to be shining for him alone, glimmering over his black hair like a halo, making it gleam like onyx under the sun’s bright rays.
A small girl, Mary, ran to him from over the drawbridge. She stopped at his feet, and the falconer turned to her. Solace watched as the girl exchanged words with him. She saw his gaze shift to the falcon on his wrist. Then, he held out a piece of meat to the child. Mary took the meat with a grimace and held it out to the bird with two fingers.
The falcon captured the meat and quickly ate it.
The falconer patted Mary on the head, and the girl beamed at him.
A warm sensation flooded through Solace. There was something about this falconer that wasn’t what it seemed.
Gwen turned and glanced over her shoulder. A devious grin stretched her lips as she turned back to face Solace. “He is very handsome.”
Solace quickly looked away, blushing.
Suddenly, Old Ben limped by Solace and Gwen, cursing under his breath and muttering, “He’s no falconer.” Old Ben was the oldest man they knew, his skin darkened and weathered by the sun. Most of his hair was gone, and what few strands remained were as white as lamb’s wool.
Solace and Gwen exchanged a look and then smiled in unison. Old Ben was always complaining about something! Solace knew he took keen pride in his birds, always wanting everything done with perfection. That was one of the reasons her father had hired him as his first falconer.
Old Ben waved his arms at the falconer, flapping them as if he were a great bird himself. “Not like that!” he called out in exasperation. “If n ya feed ‘er too much she’ll never go after the game! Ya just give her a taste!” Old Ben took the peregrine from the falconer and walked away, mumbling curses under his breath.
Solace watched the falconer for a long moment. Tales had circulated about him in the castle, the gossip of frustrated wives and eager young women. Tales of how his eyes could undress you with one penetrating gaze. Tales of how his muscles rippled with explosive energy, muscles hidden beneath a layer of bronze skin. Tales of how his deep, confident voice could make your limbs tremble with the anticipation of hearing your name whispered by him.
The black falcon cried out again and swooped in for a landing, digging its claws into the leather patch sewn on the shoulder of the falconer’s tunic. The falconer barely acknowledged the bird’s arrival until Mary clapped with glee. He smiled down at the girl as the black falcon shifted its position on his shoulder. The falconer then set a hand on Mary’s shoulder and steered her back toward the drawbridge.
As he moved, Solace admired the ease, the natural grace with which the bird rode his shoulder, mildly intrigued that it was riding its master’s shoulder instead of on his forearm where it belonged.
Gwen gently cleared her throat.
Solace turned away from the falconer. She clasped Gwen’s hands. “Don’t worry,” Solace assured her. “Everything will be fine.”
The needle stabbed Solace’s finger for the hundredth time, and she silently cursed. She was sure this embroidery of a flower would turn out much better than her previous efforts. She had been concentrating on it all evening, trying to block out the mundane conversation Gwen was having with her half sister, Beth, and her stepmother. But as much as she tried to focus on her work, the image of the falconer kept haunting each stitch. The beauty of his face, the perfection of his features, aroused her imagination. She continued to try to push the distraction aside, but he kept materializing in her mind’s eye like a stubborn phantom refusing to be banished.
Solace glanced across the solar at Gwen to see her head bowed over her work, her fingers nimbly finishing up some fancy mending on her father’s leggings. She wondered if the falconer’s manly physique was playing havoc with Gwen’s mind, too. But as she watched her friend’s deft fingers move, she knew Gwen was not thinking of him.
She shifted her gaze to Beth. Her wedding gown cascaded over her lap like a white shimmering waterfall. Solace knew Beth’s thoughts would not be interrupted by some mysterious stranger; she was totally devoted to lord Graham Harper, her betrothed.
Her stepmother, Alissa, shifted in her chair, drawing Solace’s gaze. Alissa ran a hand over her immaculate brown hair before once again bending over her husband’s tunic. She was wearing a new purple houppelande, trimmed with white fur. Alissa was always in fashion. It would be a disgrace for her to be caught wearing one of Solace’s favorite dresses, a cotton gown. Alissa’s elegance made her beautiful, but her haughtiness made her unlikable. For a long moment, Solace watched her stepmother work. The stitches were perfect, each the exact length of the one before it.
Solace dropped her gaze to her own embroidery. No one in the entire castle would let her do their embroidering. They weren’t mean about it, but they always happened to come up with some excuse when she offered her services. This time it would be different, Solace had promised herself. This time she would get it right. Finally, she pulled the last thread through and tied it off. Then, she flipped the fabric over, triumphantly gazing down at the flower.
Her expectant smile disintegrated into a disgruntled frown. The flower looked more like a sick, fat snake than a beautiful rose. She didn’t understand. She had done everything right! Woefully, she glanced up at the others. Gwen was still bent over her work, her beautiful blond hair falling around the leggings she was stitching as if shielding them from Solace’s eyes.
Solace looked over at Beth. Her skillful fingers quickly drew the needle in and out of the silk material, effortlessly creating a detailed floral design of roses and climbing ivy.
Finally, she turned her gaze to her stepmother. Alissa was staring at her. A wicked grin curved her thin lips. “Finished, Solace?” She set aside her husband’s tunic and stood.
Solace panicked as all eyes turned to her. She felt Gwen’s excited, yet hopeful gaze; Beth’s disinterested eyes reluctantly turned to her. “I–I–” Solace stuttered.
Then, her stepmother was standing before her. She held out a hand to Solace. “May I see it?”
Solace shoved the fabric behind her. “It’s not finished,” she lied. “I need to…”
Alissa nodded patronizingly, her brown eyes shadowed with contempt. “Well, you just take all the time you need to complete… your flower.”
“If you need help, just ask me,” Alissa said and turned her back on Solace.
Solace cast a misery-filled glance at Gwen. Her friend stared back, her eyes filled with sympathy. They both knew she could never go to her stepmother for help. Solace’s pride wouldn’t allow it. Not when she heard her stepmother’s laughter behind closed doors, saw the disdain in her eyes. Alissa would never let her forget that she was not her real daughter.
Solace was sure Alissa would be happier if she were dead — or had never been born. Solace’s mother had died when she was two, and her father had married Alissa less than a year later. Beth had been born a year after that.
As Alissa retook her seat and picked up her father’s tunic to continue working on it, Solace sneaked the fabric out from behind her back. She gazed down at it dejectedly. It came so easy to the others, she thought sullenly.
Suddenly, the door swung open and a soldier clad in chain mail burst into the room, his breathing ragged and shallow. The candlelight glinted off his damp brown hair, its thin strands plastered to his head with sweat. As his gaze swept over the women, Solace noticed a frantic, if not desperate, look in his eyes and almost stood from her seat.
He approached Alissa, dropping to one knee before her.
“M’lady,” he said. “Forgive the intrusion.”
“What is it, Fletcher?” Alissa wondered, barely raising her eyes to him. “Aren’t you supposed to be off… guarding or something?”
Solace stood up, her ruined embroidery forgotten. Yes, she thought, he was supposed to be on guard duty. He was a border patrol guard, keeping watch over the boundaries of Fulton. Her stepmother would have known that if she got up for the weekly reports the guards gave on Saturday morning. But she preferred to sleep in, leaving that one duty to Solace.
“Yes, m’lady,” he said, lifting his gaze to her. He cast a sideways glance at Solace, and she read the uncertainty in his eyes.
Solace stepped forward. “What’s wrong, Fletcher?” she demanded. “What’s happened?”
Fletcher stood to address Solace. “It’s Baron Barclay, m’lady. He’s amassed an army. I estimate three thousand men.”
“Oh, pooh,” Beth said dismissively, waving her hand as if to fend off a fly. “Does this mean my wedding will have to be postponed?”
Fletcher’s back straightened as he answered with scorn. “He has building materials for siege machines and enough supplies to hold him for months.”
“He wouldn’t dare,” Alissa gasped, bolting to her feet in outrage, clutching her husband’s tunic tightly in a clenched fist. She tossed it to the floor, storming from the room, hissing, “Come!”
Fletcher marched after Alissa with Solace following closely.
“Where are you going?” Gwen called.
“We have to prepare!” Solace shouted. “Barclay is going to lay siege to Castle Fulton!”
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