“Ready or not, here I come!” a young girl’s voice cried out in the distance.
Solace Farindale pressed a hand over her mouth and giggled, scrunching lower behind three bales of hay. She didn’t know where her friend Gwen was hiding because as soon as Helen had begun counting, she’d run into the barn and dove behind the hay. Lillian, her maidservant, would no doubt be angry that she had dirtied her new velvet dress, but Solace couldn’t resist such a perfect hiding place. The sweet smell of straw filled her nose, and several strands tickled her back as she settled into her spot. She loved coming to visit Helen on her farm. She and Gwen had begged their fathers to let them go, just for the afternoon, and after much pleading the men had reluctantly agreed. It was half a morning’s ride from Gwen’s home, but well worth it.
Finally, after a brief moment of expectant waiting, Solace peeked through a slit between the hay bales. The barn was empty. Several stalls that used to house horses now stood vacant. Solace knew Helen’s parents had to sell the beasts off because their crops had yielded a poor harvest last year. Solace scanned the narrow area of the barn that she could see through the opening, but there was still no sign of Helen. She shrugged and settled back to wait.
Then she heard the barn door creak open. Her eyes widened and again she placed a hand over her mouth as she slid lower behind the hay, afraid her giggles would give her away. But there was no scurry of searching feet, no calls of her name.
Solace shifted and peered through the slit between the hay bales. She glimpsed a woman grabbing a rusty bucket from the ground and carrying it to an empty stall across from her. It was only Helen’s mother, Anne. Solace’s gaze flew to the door. Where is Helen? she wondered.
Anne placed the bucket on the ground next to a small pile of seeds. She scooped up a handful with her cupped palm and dumped them into the bucket.
“Good afternoon, Anne,” a man called out. His deep, guttural voice gave the greeting a harshness that belied the innocence of his words.
Solace heard Anne gasp and she tilted her head, leaning closer to the narrow opening between the bales. She saw two men dressed in chain mail lurking near the door and one man standing inside the barn. She nervously twirled a strand of dark hair around her finger as a feeling of fear engulfed her. The tall man wasn’t a good man. She could sense the evil in him, as if a dark cloud belonged over his head. His hair was immaculate, styled in a fashionable bowl-cut, black as the night. The red velvet of his jupon was tailored to his chest and arms, padded somewhat at the chest and shoulders to accent their broadness. The collar reached all the way to his neck. He had the coldest blue stare she had ever seen.
“Lord Randol,” Anne greeted with a slight bow.
Randol sauntered closer to her. “Looks like you’ve kept the barn in good order.”
“It’s our living, m’lord. We take good care of our things.”
“Perhaps you should take as good care of your lord,” he grumbled. “Where’s your husband?”
“In the fields, of course, m’lord,” she replied.
Solace watched lord Randol nod as if he already knew what Anne would say. “I’m here for my taxes, Anne.”
“M’lord, my husband explained to you that the rains and the flooding have washed out most of the crops.”
“You’re three months behind in your payments, Anne,” Randol interjected.
Solace saw Anne wring her hands and she sensed something terrible was coming, but she didn’t know what to do.
“I realize that, m’lord,” Anne said. “But we have nothing to pay you with. You have all our animals. We have no coin, no –”
“Coin is not what I’m asking for.” He reached out and ran a finger along the bare skin at her throat.
Solace watched with a growing fear as Anne’s eyes widened in outrage and her slender fingers slapped lord Randol’s large hand aside.
“You go too far this time,” Anne retorted. “You’ve taxed us until we’ve become unable to pay. You’ve taken everything from us. I will not give you myself, too!”
“You have little choice, Anne,” Randol said, stepping closer. “With nothing else to give, it’s either that or your house.”
Anne stepped away from him. “Sleeping in a field is preferable to your touch,” she spat.
“You won’t think that come winter,” he murmured, but loud enough for Solace to hear. Again Randol reached out to Anne, this time grabbing hold of her dress and yanking it from her shoulder.
Solace wanted to flee, wanted to escape the horrible man, but she dared not move. The two men lurking in the doorway would surely see her.
Anne bolted for the door. Randol caught her in his arms, pulling her hard against his chest. “Such a willing wench,” he whispered, licking her ear.
Anne whirled, striking out at her attacker, raking her nails down his face.
Lord Randol howled his disbelief and rage, and pushed her to the ground. He raised his fingers to his gashed cheek. “Bitch,” he snarled, studying the blood on his hand. He undid his belt and let his breeches fall to the ground.
“No!” Anne screamed, struggling uselessly as Randol dropped to his knees.
The hay bales blocked Solace’s view of Anne. All she could see was lord Randol’s face, the ugly grimace that twisted his features. She had never seen anything more vicious in her life, the way his lips sneered like a snarling animal’s, the way his cold eyes stared like a venomous serpent’s at Anne. She heard Anne screaming and sobbing, saw her hands come up to push Randol away. He ignored her flailing fists and continued to violently thrust himself at her.
Tears came to Solace’s eyes. She didn’t know what was happening, but she knew that Anne was being hurt. She pressed her hands to her ears, trying to block out the sounds of Anne’s cries.
Finally, lord Randol rose to his feet and wiped an arm across his slashed cheek. Without a word, he turned away.
Hot tears ran down Solace’s cheeks. She was trembling all over. She fought to choke back her sobs, terrified of what the man would do to her if he found her.
Anne’s moans filled the air. Solace watched lord Randol take a menacing step toward the woman, and a bright flash of silver flared across her vision, arcing toward Anne.
Solace blinked. After that, she heard no more sobs. Shivering, she huddled behind the hay, praying the men would go away, praying they wouldn’t find her. She barely heard Randol’s last words. “Never strike a lord.”
Solace listened to the silence that followed for a long moment. Her muffled sobs sounded loud to her own ears. She was sure Randol would discover her. Please, she silently begged, don’t let him find me.
Then she heard footsteps, booted feet treading over the dried hay of the barn floor. They were getting louder, closer. She hugged her knees tightly to her chest, squeezing her eyes tight. Tears forced their way from the corners of her clenched lids, sliding down her small face, bringing their salty bitterness to the edges of her lips.
The footsteps drew closer. And then stopped. Something called to Solace, compelling her to open her eyes, urging her with an undeniable force to lift her head. Slowly, she opened her wet eyes to stare into the face of evil. Dark, malevolent eyes glared at her, eyes that trapped her in a hypnotic grip.
Something glinted in the morning’s sun, reflecting light into her eyes. Her gaze shifted to the sword Randol held in his hand. A smear of blood marred its smooth, flat surface.
Solace couldn’t take her eyes from it. She trembled with a ferocity that should have moved the earth. Suddenly, the blade lowered.
Her gaze remained locked on the empty air where the weapon had been.
Then, finally, Solace heard the footsteps recede and the barn door swing closed. Still, she couldn’t move. She was afraid of what she would find if she left her hiding spot. What if the men hadn’t really gone? What if they were waiting to hurt her?
Finally, after a long moment of silence, Solace pushed herself forward, peering around the hay, her body still shaking with fear. The barn was empty…
…except for Anne lying on the ground. Solace wanted to see if she was all right. But she was afraid. So afraid. You have to help her, a voice inside her urged. Solace dragged herself out from behind the hay and was surprised to find that her shaky legs held her up. She approached Anne very slowly. Was she dead? Her eyes were closed. Blood trickled from the corner of her mouth. Her chest wasn’t moving.
Solace wiped at her moist eyes, trying to push aside her tears so she could see. Suddenly Anne’s eyes opened and pinned Solace where she stood.
Solace jumped back, stifling a scream.
“Solace,” Anne whispered, a gurgle of blood issuing forth from her lips as she tried to speak.
Solace shook her head, refusing to move from her spot. The sight of Anne’s blood terrified her. She spun toward the door, wanting to run, wanting to flee and pretend this never happened. But then Helen came to her mind. Helen would want to know why she didn’t help her mother. Helen. Where was she? She turned back to Anne and moved stiffly to her side.
Anne reached out to seize hold of the hem of Solace’s velvet dress. “Tell your father,” Anne coughed. “Don’t let Randol get away with this. Don’t let me die for nothing.”
Solace shook her head again, frightened.
“Please,” Anne begged. “Tell Helen that I love her.”
Solace watched Anne’s head slump back to the earth, saw Anne’s hand release her dress and fall lifeless to the dirt. She was dead. Anne was dead. Solace ran from the barn, tears streaming from her eyes, her sobs now loud and heavy in her throat.
Lord Farindale ran his hands over the parchment, spreading it out on the table before him. He was a tall, imposing man with a thick tangle of brown hair, his full beard flecked with speckles of auburn. He studied the plans for a long moment, tugging at his lower lip in thought. Then, he raised green eyes to the man who stood on the opposite side of the table from him. “This castle will take years to construct,” he said.
The man nodded, his bright blue eyes alight with approval. “Yes,” he agreed. “It will be a mighty asset. A powerful home for you, my friend. And also one of the strongest fortresses in all of England.”
A smile crept across Farindale’s lips. “God’s blood, Erickson!” he exclaimed. “I believe you want me to build this for the protection it will offer you!”
Erickson chuckled. He was shorter and stockier than Farindale, with a receding hairline that was fast growing into complete baldness. “I won’t lie to you,” he answered. “A castle this strong will attract many fine knights.”
“Not to mention the knights my full coffers will attract.”
Erickson continued, nodding. “It would be a relief to know that my neighbor, and my good friend, has such a large disposal of men at his service.”
Farindale laughed out loud. He slapped the man on the back. “It’s good to see you, Erickson. But come, tell me truly what you think of the plans? Where can I improve them?”
The door squeaked open, and the padding of feet caused the men to turn. Solace raced across the wooden floor and Farindale opened his arms for her. In the flickering light of the room’s candles, Farindale made out his daughter’s red cheeks and teary eyes. “What’s wrong, darling?” he wondered, a tightness constricting his chest at her distress.
She buried her face in his shoulder, sobs wracking her tiny body.
“Where’s Gwen?” Erickson demanded. “Where’s my daughter?”
Solace turned wet eyes to Erickson. “She’s with Lillian. And Helen.”
Farindale cast Erickson a glance over the child’s dark head. “It’s all right, my love,” he whispered, turning his attention back to Solace. He sat in a chair to cradle the small girl in his arms. “What’s happened?”
“Oh, Father,” she wept, clinging to him tightly. “It was horrible.”
He pulled back to look into her eyes, scowling. “Tell me,” he ordered.
Her lower lip trembled, quivering with anguish. “They killed Anne, Father,” she sobbed.
“Anne?” Farindale echoed, casting a confused glance at Erickson.
“One of Randol’s tenants. They live on our border. The girls went there this morning to play with her daughter.”
Farindale nodded, remembering. “I knew we shouldn’t have let them go. There’s nothing but trouble to be had in Randol’s lands.”
Erickson knelt beside Farindale to stroke Solace’s soft curls. “Who killed her?”
Solace turned large, green eyes to Erickson. She was crying so hard she could hardly speak. “L—L-Lord Randol and his men.” She turned her eyes to her father. “He hurt Anne b-because she couldn’t pay her taxes. He d-did something horrible to her. And then he stabbed her with h-his sword.”
Farindale clenched his teeth and pulled her head to his chest, trying to calm her, but Solace continued to cry. “Did he hurt you?” he demanded, every muscle in his body tensing.
“No,” Solace wept.
Farindale crushed her in an embrace born of relief.
The door opened and a thin woman dressed in black bobbed a curtsey to lord Farindale.
Farindale reluctantly released his hold on his daughter. “Go to Lillian, my love,” he whispered, wiping the tears from her red cheeks. “She will get you some warm cider.”
Solace refused to let go of him, and Farindale held her tight for a moment longer. He kissed the top of her head, feeling her tiny body shudder. Then, he pulled her arms from around him, and urged encouragingly, “Go with Lillian.”
Solace looked up into his eyes. “You have to stop him,” she said sincerely. “You can’t let him get away with this.”
Farindale stared down at his young daughter in shock. Her face was wet from tears, her cheeks and nose red, her eyes swollen, her body trembling with fright. But she was as serious as any adult. He admired her in that instant.
“You won’t let Anne die for nothing, will you?” she wondered.
“Hush, child,” Farindale said, wiping the tears from her cheeks and stroking her rebellious head of curls. “I’ll speak with you later.”
Solace nodded softly, and inhaled a shaky breath as she slid from his lap.
Farindale watched her walk to the door and take Lillian’s hand. She was a lovely girl, charming and innocent. She was going to grow up to be a beauty. She glanced back at him over her shoulder, those green eyes imploring him. Then, she was gone, closing the door behind her.
Farindale’s hands clenched into fists. “That bastard has gone too far.”
Erickson placed a hand on his shoulder. “Easy, my friend. Randol is a powerful lord.”
“Powerful and evil from all you’ve told me.” Farindale turned to his friend to meet his blue eyes with resolve.
Erickson sighed in resignation. “It’s true. He treats his people cruelly. This is not the first time I’ve heard of his killing a peasant.”
“But it’s the first time my daughter has witnessed it.” Farindale’s fists clenched tighter. “I’ve tried so hard to shelter her from the cruelties of the world. I didn’t want her to see something like this.”
“She was on his land,” Erickson reminded him.
“Maybe it’s time we changed that,” Farindale said, moving to the table to stare down at the luxurious plans for his new castle.
Erickson joined him.
Farindale picked up the parchment. “We’re not building a castle, my friend.” He crumpled the parchment in his fist. “We’re taking one.”
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