The king had given him the men, arms and gold needed to complete this part of his task—to take and hold Thornson Keep. After studying the keep’s layout, he had assumed his force would be more than enough—he couldn’t have been more wrong.
They’d rushed the keep repeatedly yesterday to no avail. As far as he could tell, Thornson’s force had been decreased by four men. But Darius had lost one of Faucon’s men when the scaling ladder was pushed away from the wall and the man hit the hard earth, snapping his neck. Hopefully, his brother the Comte would take the situation into consideration when he learned the news.
Darius took another look at the parchment with the building plans before crumpling them and tossing the useless information to the ground. He stared back up at Thornson. It was more fortress than keep.
Continued battling would be a waste of time and lives. He and his pitiful band of men could batter at the gates until the world ended and it would make no difference to those inside.
The thought of laying siege crossed his mind—briefly. Darius’s instincts warned him that he and those with him would die of old age before Thornson’s stores dwindled.
How was he to hold the keep if he could not find a way to gain control?
And why did the king seem not to know of this situation? Perhaps he did know and simply did not care, or think it worth mentioning.
Sir Osbert joined him at the edge of the clearing. “Milord, have you done something to anger King Stephen or Queen Maud?” Osbert’s stare remained on Thornson.
“Besides the false accusations they lay at my feet, nothing I am aware of comes to mind.”
“How do they expect you to take and hold this keep?” Osbert swung around and looked at Darius. “We would need more than twice the manpower we have.”
“I know.” His captain was correct. Thirty men would not be able to breach Thornson’s thick, stone walls. “I thought we would try the direct approach next.”
“The direct approach?”
“Aye.” Darius stared at his captain, waiting for the objections sure to come.
Osbert widened his eyes. “You think to just ride up to the gate, accuse them of being traitors and demand they hand over the keep?”
“It is worth a try.” In truth, Darius held little hope that the tactic would work. While it would be an easy thing to lay the smuggling operation at Thornson’s feet, it might not prove as easy to place that burden on the traitor’s widow.
However, he had a gut feeling that someone at Thornson might want the dead body currently draped across the back of one of Darius’s horses.
“Even if we do not accuse them outright, Thornson died months ago.” Darius cut off his man’s further objections. “His widow holds the keep. Do you think she enjoys the work and responsibility something that size requires?” When Osbert said nothing, Darius continued. “If that isn’t enough incentive, surely someone wishes to lay claim to the body we possess.”
Osbert sat back in his saddle, contemplating Darius’s explanation. Finally, the man nodded. “Aye, it is worth a try.”
“I am glad you agree.” His sarcasm was clearly lost on the captain. Darius pulled a rolled parchment from a strap on his saddle. “And if either of those ideas fails, perhaps the king’s written orders will help convince Thornson’s lady to see reason.”
Sir Osbert nodded, then turned his horse around. “I will gather a few men to join us.”
“Four archers will be enough.” While Darius held little hope that this would work, he was not foolish enough to think it held no risk. The archers could provide the cover needed if they had to beat a hasty retreat. “And we’ll take the body with us to the gates.”
Osbert and the archers joined Darius in a few minutes. Darius led them out of the woods wondering if it would be a bad day to die. He squinted against the bright sunlight and hoped the Saints would be for him and not against him this day.
He, the four archers, Osbert and the horse with the body slung over its back crossed the expanse of open land toward Thornson.
The wind howled, buffeting them with a force that threatened to knock them from their mounts.
Darius kept his gaze trained on the wall. Though Thornson’s men peered between the crenellations, none had aimed arrows at Darius or his companions. Still, he did not relax his focus. They were only halfway to the keep and anything could happen. In less than a heartbeat circumstances could reverse. A single, well-placed arrow could change everything.
Not that any would mourn his death. His father had disowned him years ago when Darius had foolishly taken his future into his own hands.
He blinked. What had brought that thought to his waking mind? Until this moment, the memories of his young wife and the wrath of both fathers had plagued him only in his dreams.
Darius rolled his shoulders, seeking any action that would take his mind off the insanity of the past. There was plenty to concern him right now. Smugglers to rout, a keep to hold, and now, less than a full month to complete his missions.
And his mind wished to dwell on things long dead?
He never should have returned to Faucon. He should have stayed away and let the rumors of his demise flourish and grow unchallenged. That would have been the easier thing to do.
But when had he ever chosen the easier way?
Darius silently cursed his womanly concerns into nothingness.
They drew nearer the walls of Thornson. He motioned to Sir Osbert to lift his banner. It was time to see if his direct approach would succeed or fail.
The brilliant green silk unfurled and whipped in the strong winds. Would those on the wall recognize the black falcon? And would they realize the folded wings and closed talons were a position of peace, not war?
Lady Marguerite of Thornson leaned against the saw-toothed wall surrounding the keep, fighting to keep her wits about her. Whenever she thought it was not possible for life to get worse, it somehow did.
Two nights ago they’d lost Matthew on the beach, along with at least three of the villagers. Yesterday, four of Thornson’s guards had died while fighting off this force attacking her keep.
All knew the day would come when King Stephen’s men approached their gates. In truth, she was surprised it had taken this many months.
Thornson Keep was too strong, too rich and far too strategically located for King Stephen to ignore for long. The keep was a veritable fortress near the border of Scotland. He needed the men and the gold this property could supply. Little did he know that these men were loyal to Thornson alone. And Thornson’s loyalties had been bought by Empress Matilda.
If Stephen would investigate the rights he’d issued, he’d soon realize that Thornson far exceeded what had been granted. This adulterine holding was no tower keep constructed of timber, with useless wooden palisades to protect those inside.
By the good graces of Empress Matilda and her uncle, King David of Scotland, just a short two days’ ride to the north, Thornson had quickly grown and prospered.
And while they had not denounced King Stephen outright, they openly remained loyal to those who had helped them. It was a game Thornson played. A dangerous game to be sure, but one he’d seemed to enjoy. It had kept him out of Stephen’s useless battles until the end.
She wrapped her arms about her waist. She’d not thought of his death for many weeks now and had no wish to revive that nightmare. It was better to remember her husband alive.
The Lord of Thornson had been old, so nobody had deemed him worth notice. A foolish mistake. She shifted her gaze toward the pounding sea. It thundered with an intensity that had fired her elderly husband’s