Sir Osbert snorted in disbelief. Darius shared his man’s opinion. Simple would likely translate to a mission requiring much gold, men and risk. He motioned for the man to explain. “Define what this simple task entails.”
“Lord Thornson has died. He leaves behind a widow.”
Likely a widow requiring a new husband. Darius swallowed before asking, “And they wish me to do what?”
“You are to take and hold Thornson Keep until the king and queen can find a man suitable to be a husband for the lady and a master for the keep.”
Darius’s exhale of relief escaped in a rush at the knowledge that he was not this suitable man. Then he realized that Thornson Keep was near the border of Scotland. It would put him not only weeks away from Falcongate, but on the edge of the enemy’s territory. “A simple task to be sure.”
The man’s wicked chuckle preceded an ominous warning. “There is more.”
Of course there would be more. Darius closed his eyes briefly and shook his head. “I am not surprised.”
Thornson Keep, Northeast coast of England Early summer, 1142
He had never found much pleasure in killing another, but Darius of Faucon was certain that battle would provide more engaging action than tracking down smugglers for the king. If nothing else, at least he’d be on the back of a sturdy warhorse and not lying on his belly in the cold mud staring over the edge of a cliff.
To keep the hilt of his sword from digging any farther into his flesh, he shifted his position on the ground. After two nights of this, nothing he did helped much. With the coldness of the earth, the hardness of his chain mail and the cursed dampness of the night, he doubted he’d ever again find comfort, warmth or even a measure of dryness.
He peered over the edge of the cliff, down at the flickering torchlight below. The figures on the beach hustled to meet boats landing on the shore. They lifted trunks and bags out of the four small vessels, carried them across the beach and disappeared into the cliffs. Only six men guarded the operation on the beach. The guards appeared to stand close to each other, instead of spreading out to keep their cohorts safe. Judging by this lack of concern for safety, he doubted there were any others farther up the shoreline.
Darius glanced up at the position of the moon. Each night at the same time, men had lit torches on the beach to guide the boats to those standing at hand to unload the cargo. King Stephen’s fears were valid—a smuggling operation existed in Thornson.
And Darius had but a month to root them out.
No sense in waiting. They’d confront the smugglers this night. He scooted back from the edge of the cliff, rose and motioned to Sir Osbert. At least one of his “simple tasks” could be completed on schedule. First one mission and then the other.
Sir Osbert had the men ready for action when Darius met them a short distance from the cliff. Without a word, he led the men along the edge of the cliff as it sloped down to meet the beach.
Once on the pebbled shoreline, they kept their backs to the rocky wall as they moved closer to the smugglers. Just as Darius had surmised, the outlaws kept no guard on the outskirts of their operation, so certain were they of their safety. How long had they enjoyed free run of Thornson?
One of the many questions he’d have answered before his missions were completed…
When they neared the smugglers, Darius nodded to his men, drew his sword, stepped away from the rocks, then shouted, “For King Stephen!”
Men scattered. Those closest to the vessels jumped inside the boats and quickly rowed away, taking the remainder of their cargo along. Those on the beach who did not run into the mouth of the cave dropped their loads, grabbed their weapons and raced toward Darius and his men.
Three of the smugglers fell with the first clashing blows from Darius’s men; the criminals were no match for armed warriors. Those who’d been standing guard gave but a halfhearted effort to defend themselves. When it soon became obvious that Darius’s men had gained the upper hand, one of the outlaws shouted, “To the lady!”
At the man’s command, the remaining smugglers and their guards turned and raced into the cave. Certain the man who’d shouted must be in charge of the others, Darius pointed at him and ordered, “Take him alive.”
He wanted all the information he could gather to take back to King Stephen, along with the name of the person backing this operation.
Sir Osbert quickly nabbed the man and held him at sword point. “Milord, shall I make him talk?”
Darius took one look at the unholy gleam in Osbert’s eyes and shook his head. “Nay, it would be easier to discover what he knows while he can still breathe.”
At that moment, the captured smuggler yelled, “Never.” Then he threw himself at Osbert’s sword.
Caught off guard, the captain had no time to move his weapon before the man impaled himself on the blade. “Good Lord, man.” Osbert pulled his sword free and let the man fall to the ground.
Darius cursed, then knelt beside the dying man. “Give over. Tell me who you serve.”
The man’s laugh gurgled through his parted lips. He shook his head. “No.”
“Which lady do you seek to protect? The Empress Matilda? The Lady of Thornson?” Darius frowned. Determined to gain any scrap of information he could, he grasped the man’s shoulders and offered, “Go to your maker with a clean heart. Tell me and I will see you are buried with the blessing of the Church. Matilda or Thornson’s lady?”
“Aye.” The man’s whispered answer was barely audible.
“Who?” Darius leaned down to better hear the answer, but the only sound that met his ears was the lapping of water at the edge of the beach. The man heaved one last breath and died.
Darius released the body. What could have been the end of one task was now reduced to a gain of nothing.
“Milord, shall we follow the others into the cave?”
Darius glanced from Osbert to the approaching sea. The incoming tide would soon crash against the rocks. Any caught between the sea and the cliff would be crushed.
He glanced at the steep rock face. The darker waterline high above them was visible in the moon’s light. The height made following the smugglers into the cave dangerous: water would soon flood the unfamiliar escape route.
Since the possibility of a watery grave was not to his liking, he answered Osbert, “Nay. There is no more time this night.” Darius rose and waved toward the dead bodies of the smugglers. “Gather the dead.”
“Why not leave them here for the sea to bury?” Sir Osbert shrugged. “Let their death befit their deeds.”
“I will not have that on my soul.” Darius stared down at his captain. “Gather the dead. Take all but this one to the church in Thornson and let the villagers deal with them in whatever manner they desire.”
A solitary figure backed farther away from the mouth of the cave, into the safety provided by the network of tunnels. He clenched his jaw with helpless rage, then whispered, “Fools.”
These strangers knew not with whom they dealt. Swift and deadly justice would be their prize for interfering in things they did not understand.
He was sick unto death of serving another. It was time he answer only to the king. He deserved that privilege. Surely none would disagree. He would see to the strangers’ deaths himself. He had already risked much—even murder—to get this far. It would be only right that he be the one to hold the sword to their necks.
The sea pounded against the rock cliffs, echoing like thunder across the open grassy land between the forest and Thornson Keep. On such a clear, sunny morning the rumbling echoed ominously.
From the cover of the trees