Logan froze. Tingles of bated excitement shot through his entire body. He thought for a moment it was just his imagination. He thought for a moment his ears were playing tricks on him. He whirled to search for the person who had said his brother’s name.
She stood across the courtyard, her brown hair waving in the wind, her hands resting on a slim waist, a grin curving her full lips. Perhaps he was dreaming and this woman was an angel come to tell him that his brother was gone.
Then, she turned away and headed toward the gate to the outer ward. Anxiety filled him. Could Peter possibly be alive? he wondered, his breath suddenly tight in his chest. This woman might be my only link to him. Impulsively, he found himself racing after her, skirting carts and sheep to keep up with her, fighting to keep from losing sight of her.
Just as she left the inner ward and entered the outer ward, a man grabbed her arm, halting her movement. Logan came to an abrupt stop, his gaze sweeping over him. The man’s immaculate, bowl-cut, blond hair made Logan’s lip curl in distaste, as did the rich blue velvet jupon he wore, a sure sign that the pompous noble had not done a hard day’s work in his life. The nobleman’s eyes quickly scanned the courtyard, and Logan’s instincts told him to stay hidden. He melted into the shadows of the stone wall.
“You’re not at mass this morning,” the man said to the woman after surveying the ward.
Even though the wind was blowing toward Logan, pushing their words his way, he still had to strain to hear them.
“Neither are you,” she replied. “Perhaps it’s an appropriate place for you to be… at your betrothed’s side.”
“There is much work to be done.”
“You haven’t lifted a finger yet, Graham.”
“I didn’t say I would do the work,” the man she called Graham said with a smile.
The woman pulled her arm free. “No, you didn’t. But I intend to do as much as I can.”
“As always, m’lady, your heart is quite large where the peasants are concerned.”
Logan saw her body stiffen, and he was surprised to find he was suddenly clutching his staff so tightly that his knuckles hurt.
Another man, a peasant wearing soiled breeches and a patched tunic, burst through the open gates. The man scanned the area, breathing hard, before running up to Graham and the woman, calling, “Lady Solace! Lady Solace! It’s Dorothy!”
“Dorothy?” Solace echoed.
“She’s having her baby!”
“Now?” Solace asked in disbelief. “She isn’t due for a month.”
“Agnes is with her in the village now. But no one else will stay.”
As Solace turned to snatch the reins of a horse tethered to a wagon, a tidal wave of dread surged through Logan, so powerful that it left him momentarily incapacitated. Visions of his own impetuousness filled his mind. She was so young, as he had been. So naive.
Suddenly, he was bolting for her, seizing her arm.
The command was out of his mouth before he could stop it. “Don’t go!”
She tried to pull her arm free, but his grip tightened. “What are you doing?” she demanded in astonishment. “Let go.”
For a moment, Logan didn’t speak. She had the largest green eyes he had ever seen. “Think about what you’re doing,” he finally ordered, forcing himself to look away from her dazzling eyes.
“I have no other choice,” she responded.
“There are always choices.”
Solace glanced coolly at his hand. After a moment, he removed it from her arm. She turned away from him and hoisted herself onto the horse, settling her petite form on its back. She glanced down at him, her green eyes cool with disdain. “I don’t see you rushing to her aid,” she snapped and spurred the horse.
“Solace, wait!” Graham called.
Logan watched Solace urge the horse into a run, her brown hair flapping behind her as the animal picked up speed. He heard Graham mutter a curse, then the man raced toward the stables. A second later, the noble was riding out of the castle after her. Logan watched as she disappeared down the road to the village, his stomach churning with dread and frustration. He knew Peter must have felt these same dark emotions as he’d watched him ride out of the castle. Logan set his shoulders, steeling himself against the twisting of his stomach. His jaw clenched so tight that his teeth ached. He had no time to be worrying about some impetuous woman. He had to find his brother.
But how was he going to do that when his only link to Peter was riding out of the castle?
The nerve of that falconer, Solace thought for the hundredth time, trying to stop me from coming to Dorothy’s aid. She knelt beside the small pallet Dorothy was lying on and smoothed the woman’s dark hair away from her sweaty face. Poor Dorothy tossed her head from side to side, as if she were denying the fact that it hurt so badly, groaning as she moved. Solace cast a glance at the only other occupant in the room, the midwife Agnes. Her wrinkled face was puckered in concentration as she waited between Dorothy’s spread legs.
A pounding at the door jarred Solace. Is Barclay’s army here already? she wondered. But the voice that came from behind the door was not Barclay’s, nor that of any other man to be concerned with. “They’re coming!” Graham hollered from the other side of the wooden door.
Solace dipped a cloth into the basin of water beside the bed and dabbed the woman’s forehead, whispering, “Don’t worry, Dorothy. Everything will be fine.”
Another pounding sounded at the door. “Lady Solace!” Graham cried out again.
“Agnes?” Solace implored, trying to keep the nervousness out of her voice.
“Not long now,” the old woman answered in an excited voice. “I can see the head.”
“Solace!” Graham shouted again.
Solace cast an annoyed glance at the door before squeezing Dorothy’s hand and saying, “I’ll be right back.”
“Don’t take long, dear,” Agnes cautioned.
Solace rushed to the cottage door and threw it open. Graham stood before Solace with his fist raised as though he were going to pound on the wood again. His hazel eyes were filled with desperation and anger. Behind him, the street was vacant and grim, pale moonlight bathing thatch-roofed homes and wooden storefronts in a bleak light. Solace frowned at the sliver of moon. How had so much time slipped away? she wondered.
“They’re almost here,” Graham exclaimed. “I’m sick of standing here waiting for you. You’ve been inside all day.”
“The labor’s taking longer than it should,” Solace explained.
“One of the guards passed and told me Barclay was just outside the town. They’ll start burning the village any minute! We have to go!”
“I can’t leave Dorothy,” Solace insisted.
A flush of redness swelled into Graham’s cheeks. “Well, I’m not staying! I won’t give up my life just for some peasant and her whelp!”
Calm settled over Solace, and a fierce protectiveness filled her. “Then go. No one ever called you a brave man, Graham.”
Graham’s teeth clenched, and his hand tightened to a fist. “If you weren’t a woman, I’d drive my sword through you.”
“I don’t think you’d have the courage,” she whispered, her eyes narrowing.
Graham turned his back on her and headed for the horses.
“Hook the horse to the wagon!” Solace called after him. She cursed her free-speaking tongue as she closed the door. She could have gotten him to stay with sweet words and a stroking of that enormous ego. But she despised his weakness and cowardice. Couldn’t he see how frightened she truly was? Yet even though she was scared, she could not leave this helpless woman alone in the throes of childbirth. Not even with Barclay and his army descending on her castle.
Barclay had picked their most vulnerable time to attack — while her father was away at Parliament, planning to conquer the French with King Richard and leaving her stepmother in charge of Castle Fulton. It just didn’t make sense, Solace thought. Why was Barclay attacking Fulton? They had never done anything to him. He had never been an ally, but he had never been an enemy either. She wondered what he hoped to gain by laying siege to Castle Fulton. Did he need the lands? Were his crops failing?
A scream from the room behind her jolted her back to reality, and she rushed to Dorothy’s side. She grabbed the cloth from the bedside and dabbed the woman’s forehead, turning to look at Agnes. That woman’s wise old eyes were centered on the new life about to be born. Solace wanted Agnes to leave and seek the safety of the castle. As she opened her mouth to tell her so, Dorothy’s cry rent the air and Solace turned to whisper soothing words to her.
It wasn’t long afterward that the first cry of life resounded in the room.
“Get them ready to move,” Solace whispered hurriedly to Agnes. “I’m going to check on the wagon.”
As soon as Solace stepped from the building into the night, the strong scent of smoke stung her nose.
Barclay was in the village!
She spotted the wagon and horse tethered near the side of the house and gave a brief prayer of thanks to God that Graham had not left them stranded. She whirled toward the house to find Agnes helping Dorothy from the building. Dorothy clutched a small baby girl wrapped in blankets tightly to her bosom as she hurried from the cottage. Solace grabbed Dorothy’s arm, helping her into the back of the wagon. She turned to assist Agnes, but the woman was already easing herself into the cart.
Solace ran to the front of the wagon and climbed in, lashing the horse, driving him down the vacant street toward the castle. She gripped the reins tightly, wishing desperately that some of the soldiers or mercenaries had accompanied her, but she had left in such a hurry the only one who knew she had gone was Graham… and that falconer. If handsome looks were bravery, she would be as safe as a kitten curled up beside a roaring hearth.
The wagon hit a bump and Solace was almost knocked from her seat, but she held onto the reins with two hands and drove the horse on with a snap of her wrists. She quickly glanced over her shoulder into the back of the wagon to see Dorothy holding the baby to her breast, shielding the infant from the rough ride as best she could.
Smoke from the burning village swirled around Solace, blown by the fierce winds. The gusts whipped her hair wildly about her. She turned around to face the road, wishing she could make out the welcoming sight of an open drawbridge, but she was still too far away to see in the darkness. Her heart pounded in her chest. She had to make it. If not for her own sake, then at least for the sake of the mother and her newborn babe.
Logan paced the battlements, just as his father must have done all those years ago. He clenched and unclenched his hands. Graham had returned a few moments ago and announced that Solace was still in the village. Where the hell was she? Logan wondered. Around him, soldiers looked for Barclay’s troops, but his gaze swept the road before the castle for a glimpse of the girl. In the far distance, a line of fire preceded the attacking army, a line that grew hotter and brighter as the torch-wielding warriors moved closer. Even the falcon at his shoulder constantly shifted position, darting its head this way and that, its large brown eyes wide and alert.
Lady Alissa stood at the walls not far from him. He heard her mutter soft curses beneath her breath. Her hair was hidden by a red-horned headdress, which made her look like the devil himself. Her eyes were narrowed with anger, her hands balled.
Had father been that angry with me? The thought entered Logan’s mind unbidden. He tried to push aside his worry for the girl and concentrate on finding Peter. But he needed Solace to know where to begin. A muted curse slipped from his lips.
Alissa placed her fists on the stone wall, her narrowed eyes relaxing as determination filled them. Resolution squared her shoulders, and she raised her chin.
Logan felt doom settle like a lead ball in the pit of his stomach. He knew the words she was going to speak, had wished many a night that his own father would have made the same command — to save the castle, to save his family.
She opened her mouth just as Logan whirled away in despair to glance at the road. In the soft glow of the moonlight, he spotted a wagon racing toward the castle. He breathed a small sigh of relief and closed his eyes briefly in thanks. But lady Alissa’s words brought his eyes wide in shock.
“Close the gates,” she said.
“She’s there!” Logan shouted, pointing his finger at the wagon.
Alissa cast a dangerous glance at Logan, her brown eyes burning, and then whipped her head to face her guard. “Do as I say,” Alissa ordered. “Close the gates!”
Solace’s wagon came racing out of the village toward Castle Fulton. Her heart stopped and her breath caught in her throat as she saw the drawbridge being raised! It had to be a mistake! Solace watched with horrified eyes as the drawbridge continued to rise, the heavy wooden planks now starting to take the form of an impenetrable door instead of the entrance to safety. The horse snorted gruffly as its hooves churned the ground, kicking up clumps of mud in their wake.
“M’lady!” she heard Agnes gasp from behind her.
“Get down!” Solace yelled back over her shoulder, afraid to take her gaze from the moat for even a second.
The thought of trying to leap the widening gap flashed through her mind, but she quickly realized how dangerous that would be, especially considering the new life lying cradled in a woman’s arms a few feet behind her.
The horse raced forward, seemingly oblivious to the danger ahead, the fires burning behind it pushing it on.
Solace pulled back sharply on the reins, but the horse continued to charge forward, fear fueling its speed. “Whoa!” Solace cried out, her arms aching with the effort to keep a firm grip on the thick ropes clutched in her fingers.
The drawbridge continued to rise, revealing the dark waters of the moat hidden beneath it.
“Whoa!” Solace cried out again. She jerked hard on the reins, desperate strength empowering her effort, but the horse raced on.
The wide, deep gap in the earth loomed closer.
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