She’d arrived at Thornson with naught but the naivete of a girl ten and five. The keep had seemed more of a guardhouse for the men and stables for the horses, than a keep. Now, a little over six years later, Thornson had become a fortress built to keep her safe.
She turned and surveyed the work Henry had seen completed. Two thick stone walls surrounded Thornson. An enemy could batter away at them for a lifetime and not gain entrance.
The inner courtyard housed the men, their horses and practice grounds. The grounds had seen much use since their completion.
The outer courtyard served as a gathering place and a market of sorts. Here, the villagers came to buy and sell wares, and to share the local gossip and news.
At the northeast corner rose the keep itself. Steep, jagged cliffs served as the back wall to the keep. With the constant surging of the sea, nature had created a safer, more secure wall than man. None could scale the slippery, sheer rock face.
Jerked out of her thoughts, she looked at Sir Everett, Thornson’s captain of the guard. “Yes?”
He nodded toward the field. “They approach.”
She gasped and turned. She’d expected them to once again charge full strength toward their certain death. Instead, only six men rode forward. Six men and one riderless horse.
She swallowed an unladylike curse. Matthew. There was little doubt in her mind that the body draped across the back of the horse was he. When the others had returned the night before last they’d recounted the battle on the beach and how Matthew had foolishly called out for them to return to her.
How many times had she begged them to cease their nighttime activities? She’d warned them that eventually this would happen. Now it had.
When she’d received word from the villagers about the bodies left at the church, Matthew hadn’t been among them. She’d hoped he’d somehow escaped.
Sir Everett asked, “What do you think they are about?”
Marguerite shrugged. “You would know the minds of men better than I.” After Thornson’s death, she’d received no word from King Stephen. She’d assumed that he’d send someone to become the new Lord of Thornson when he saw fit.
Which warmonger had the king sent?
Even though it was his right, she bristled at the thought of a king’s man taking possession of her husband’s keep.
She could not stop him from taking the keep any more than she could stop what the future would hold for her. Nor could she prevent this man from doling out his form of justice to those he found to be outlaws.
Still, she chafed at the ever-present certainty that King Stephen could and would control her destiny.
Oh, would that her husband had been an earl, or that she’d been rich or powerful in her own right. Then none would determine her future. She’d determine her own. She’d also be able to protect those in Thornson who thought they were doing the right thing.
Marguerite slapped the skirt of her billowing gown in frustration. What good was if only? Wishing for what could not be only served to pass the time, nothing more.
She focused on the men approaching. Would one of them become the new master of Thornson? Or would they only hold the keep in Stephen’s name until a more suitable man could be found?
She studied the men closely. It was not hard to determine who led whom. Obviously, the tall man riding in the center of the group would be the leader. His outward appearance of calm belied everything she’d learned about warriors.
Contrary to what her father and his men had taught her as a child, she’d found that the calmest was always the most alert, the most attentive to detail, the most dangerous.
It would be best for all if this was the king’s chosen man. It would be easier to learn the ways of one man and be done with it, than to learn his ways only to have yet another man to deal with later.
Marguerite narrowed her eyes. Dangerous or not, she’d soon learn his weaknesses. Everyone had at least one, and she’d discover his quickly enough.
A movement from one of the other approaching men caught her attention. Curious, she stared as he lifted and unfurled a brilliant green banner.
Her heart lodged in her throat. Curiosity quickly became horror. She had wondered if life could get worse? Here was her answer.
Yes. It could, and had.
Of all the men serving King Stephen, why did the king have to send him to Thornson?
The man seated in the center of the approaching group could be none other than Darius of Faucon. The green banner, bearing the black falcon at rest, whipped in the stiff breeze above his head. If it did not scream his identity to anyone else, it did to her.
Against all common courtesy, Rhys, the Comte of Faucon, would display a royal golden eagle on his banner. Gareth, the second brother, would fly his deceased father’s falcon with talons extended in a posture of war. But she knew Darius’s standard well—the falcon at rest had a double meaning to her, one she’d not forgotten.
She no longer had the option to defend her keep. Marguerite could not, would not be responsible for this man’s injury or death.
Marguerite raised her voice so the men gathered on her walls could hear her order. “Hold your weapons.”
“My lady?” Sir Everett made no effort to conceal his disappointment.
She pinned him with a stare, silently daring him to disobey. He motioned the others to hold.
Certain they would follow her orders, she gestured to the men at the gate tower. She lifted her fist in the air, with her thumb pointed down. All at Thornson knew the signal to surrender.
Whispers raced from man to man along the walls. The murmurs of disbelief and disgust reached her ears. She wanted to apologize to each and every man who’d pledged to protect her from harm. But she could not.
She held firm to her orders, but even she cringed as the plain white flag rose slowly above Thornson keep.
Marguerite wrapped her arms about her stomach, in an attempt to quell the sudden spasms. If any discovered the secret she and Thornson had so carefully hidden, her whole world would shatter. Her future would be lost before it began.
This could not be happening. Not Faucon. Not now.
“My lady?” Sir Everett stepped closer to her. “Shall we raise the gate?”
“No!” She nearly choked on her shout.
The men on the walls turned to stare at her sudden contradictory order. She wanted to slap herself for her sudden outburst. Instead, Marguerite slapped at the skirt of her gown again. She needed to be more careful. It could do much harm to let all know how nervous she felt.
“No, not yet.” She took her time and kept her voice steady. “Let us see what they want first.”
She already knew what they wanted; her men probably did, too. But she needed a way to gain time to think, and this was the only tactic she could devise at the moment.
Darius and his men stopped within shouting distance. The man next to Darius yelled up at the gate tower. “Darius of Faucon demands entrance.”
Marguerite bit her lower lip to stop the unbidden smile from crossing her mouth. Sir Osbert’s voice was a little deeper, a little older, but it still carried true and strong—an ability that had helped earn him a place at Darius’s side.
Sir Everett, the captain of Thornson’s guard asked, “On what authority?”
Faucon held up a rolled missive. “On the authority of King Stephen.”
“For what purpose?”
“To hold this keep for your future lord.”