Northern Gloucestershire, England
At least she now knew the truth.
It was little comfort though, as Isabel Dumont watched the messenger ride out of the bailey. She let out a breath, a feathery cloud on the cold air. The messenger had declined her offer of hospitality, and she did not ask him to reconsider. Instead, she had seen to it his horse was watered and had pressed a gold piece into his palm to ensure his silence.
Snow had threatened all morning. Now it fell around her in fat flakes, but she did not move. She did not think she could. Her limbs felt heavy, almost waterlogged. Like the time Julien had knocked her headfirst into the river in a moment’s foolishness. And then pulled her back to shore.
That had been ages ago. Her brother’s message now had the same effect, leaving her winded and frozen in place.
Captain Thomas, who handled the training of Father’s men-at-arms, stamped his feet beside her. “My lady, if you wish it, I will make the announcement—”
“No!” The word ripped through her chest and rang in her ears. “No. You will say nothing. To anyone.”
His eyes widened. “But this cannot be kept secret.”
His disapproving tone cut through the numbness that suddenly filled her. She twisted away from him and looked out past the gates. The graying countryside swallowed all sign of the messenger. If only his words were as easy to erase.
“Your father—” Captain Thomas began.
She balled her hands into fists. “Do not say it,” she whispered.
Captain Thomas shook his head. “I must. Your father is not coming home. I know it was not the news you hoped for, but Julien’s message…”
He lifted a hand toward her shoulder, and she gave him a sharp look. He stopped mid-motion, his fingers dangling awkwardly, before resting his hand on his belt. She turned on her heel.
Captain Thomas hastened after her. “Wait!”
She wrapped her woolen mantle more securely around herself. She would not discuss it further. She could not. Not when she could scarcely think.
“My lady, please—”
She slipped her hand to the hilt of her sword—one of her father’s cast-offs—and the brush of the leather-wrapped handle against her palm made it easier to rein in her breathing. “You said there were reports of the Welsh attacking tenant farms to the west?”
“Yes. I was going to have Kendrick and some of the other men scout the area, but—”
“Good. I will join them. Tell the men to make ready.”
Captain Thomas’s mouth tightened. For a moment she thought he would disobey her, but he slowly turned toward the castle to do as she bade. Lord Bernard Dumont, thane to the king, had fallen. Now it fell to her to ensure the safety of the Dumont lands. Captain Thomas, of all people, should know what that meant.
Isabel thrust a bow and quiver of arrows from the armory over her shoulder and ducked into the stables, waving off the groom before he assisted her. She led her mount outside and fastened the leather saddle straps. Hardwin flinched when she drew them too tight and kicked his hind leg out in protest.
“Shh. I am sorry, boy.” She ran her hands over his sleek flanks. “I was careless.”
Kendrick and four more trusted men-at-arms filed out of the stables. Strong, steadfast men who should have been fighting by her father’s side in York. Not ordered behind to protect her.
Isabel took a deep breath and pulled herself into the saddle. Captain Thomas’s gray head appeared next to Hardwin.
He tugged on her stirrup. “My lady, I must protest.” He threw a glance at the other men and kept his voice low, his lips barely moving as he glared up at her. “I am responsible for your welfare.”
She squeezed her eyes shut. Her welfare was the least of her concerns. She turned to the fair-haired Kendrick. “Ready?”
He nodded. If he observed her exchange with Captain Thomas, he gave no sign of it as he ordered the other riders ahead.
She pressed her heels into Hardwin’s sides. Captain Thomas trotted along with them, the stubborn man still clinging to the leather stirrup. She grimaced but kept her horse’s speed in check.
Before Captain Thomas had the chance to chastise her again, she leaned down as far as she could without losing her seat. “I need this,” she said through her teeth. “Can you not understand?”
His hand dropped away. She spurred her horse and did not look back.
Kendrick led the party west, past snow-covered fields and into the forest that served as their primary hunting grounds. The bare beech branches overhead hampered the falling snow, but the bitter wind still found her and her five companions. Isabel gave up trying to keep her hood in place, and her braids whipped out behind her as they rode.
Trees grew sparse as they neared the end of the hunting trail. After a few more strides, the horses emerged onto an open field.
Kendrick called for a halt. He kneed his mount around. “My lady, there has been no sign of the Welsh.”
She scanned the area. Only tumbling snow interrupted the stillness of the field. “Captain Thomas reported holdings to the west were raided less than a fortnight ago. The Welsh will not ignore an opportunity to strike now the Normans control England.” She met the gaze of each rider, ending with Kendrick. “We must be vigilant.”
Kendrick straightened, his golden curls dull in the leaden afternoon light. “We will, but I do not believe your father intended for you to lead a scouting party when he left you in our care.”
“Mayhap not.” She was certain her father had not intended for many things to come to pass. “But I will not compromise the safety of Ashdown. Not with so many of our men pledged to Harold’s army.” She yanked her hood over her head to escape the unrelenting snow and gave Kendrick a hard look. “And I would not be left behind, knowing I could be of use.”
“Your quarrel is with Captain Thomas, not me,” Kendrick said.
Looking between her and Kendrick, Godric snickered. “Indeed. We know well how persuasive you are when you want something,” the man-at-arms said to her. “I remember a certain young maiden who talked me out of my winnings at dice.” Godric quirked his bushy eyebrows, waiting for a response.
Isabel pressed her lips together as she cast about for an answer. “You should have known better than to gamble on a feast day.”
She could not muster a smile to soften her words, but Godric just laughed.
“So that is why you turned my coin over to Father Joseph? He’s been praying for my soul ever since.”
“What’s this? Not even a grin?” A touch of concern sharpened Kendrick’s voice. “What news did the messenger bring this morn to make you so foul tempered?”
Isabel’s head snapped up. The men stared at her.
They could not know. Not yet. Not when she could hardly believe it herself.
She breathed deep. Winter air lanced into her lungs. “I am fine, in truth. My father sent word of their victory at Stamford Bridge.” She spoke slowly, as if uttering the words could make it so.
“No new tidings then? We heard rumors of that battle and then Hastings weeks ago,” Kendrick said.
“The messenger’s mount went lame outside of Cirencester, delaying his travel here. At least my father sought to get word to me. He will return to Ashdown in a few days’ time.”
Her swift dismount silenced any more questions. Eagerly, the men followed her example. Isabel could not blame them. It had been a long, unfruitful ride and they would miss the midday meal, thanks to their outing. She straightened the padded tunic she wore over her kirtle, eager to stand after sitting in the saddle so long.
Kendrick ordered the two youngest, Edgar and Cuthbert, to scout ahead on foot while the horses rested. Blinking rapidly, Isabel looked to the cloud-choked sky and prayed they would be quick.
“I bet they did not have an easy time of it in Yorkshire,” she heard Martin say to the others, his hushed voice clear on the crisp air.
“They say one of Harald Hardrada’s Norse barbarians slew fifty housecarls before he fell defending the bridge,” Godric said with wonder. “For the army to march south to meet the Normans pressing from the coast so soon after the battle…”
“You heard the tales of the Normans at Hastings,” Martin said. “A lake of blood surrounded the hill where they made their stand.”
Isabel’s gaze fell to the ground, frozen mud and snow marred by hoof prints and booted feet. Better than blood.
“That is enough,” Kendrick said. “We still have miles of hard riding.”
Isabel looked her horse over, glad to find he had not gotten any scrapes from the trail. Kendrick broke away from the others and reached her side. “I am sure your father will return safely,” he told her quietly. “You need not worry.”
She patted Hardwin’s neck. Just as well he thought her merely worried. “Do not tell me that. You heard the reports of the Normans’ victory as well as I.”
“Yes, but once your father returns, he will set things aright.”
Isabel’s mouth twisted at his words and the earnest look on his fond face. Snowflakes clung to his beard and hair. She itched to brush the snow off him. “It may not be so simple,” she only said. Once, she would not have hesitated to tell Kendrick anything, but the time when he did not tower over her was long past.
Edgar and Cuthbert hastened across the field. Red-faced and out-of-breath, they slid to a stop in front of Isabel and Kendrick.
“What happened?” Kendrick asked.
“Tracks, heading toward Ashdown from the northwest,” Edgar said.
“Perhaps five or six riders passed this way,” Cuthbert added.
Kendrick had the men mounting their horses with just a look. “Mayhap this has not been a fool’s journey after all.” He nodded at Edgar. “Lead on.”
The tracks skirted the northernmost boundary of her father’s lands before heading south, deeper into the holding. Unease gathered in a tight knot in her stomach. The Welsh did not usually travel so far east. At least not since the Confessor bestowed these lands upon her father so he could train a force in Norman horsemanship to repel the Welsh. They must be feeling more daring since the Norman invasion left so many areas unprotected. That did not bode well.
After an hour of riding, Isabel and her men broke from the forest and onto a large field with a small rise to the north. The snow had lessened, but flakes still fell, partially covering the ground. The last man had just cleared the tree line, when an arrow glanced off the shoulder of Edgar’s horse. The animal reared in fright.
Isabel’s breath left her in a rush. Coming around the hillock toward them, five heavily armed Welshmen rode into view. Ambush.
Before she could react, the Welsh loosed more arrows. This time they aimed for Cuthbert. He hauled his circular shield in front of his body just in time to deflect them. Startled, she and her men wheeled their mounts away to avoid careening into the oncoming Welsh raiders. Their ability to fight from horseback would not help if their mounts were cut down before they formulated a strategy.
Returning to the tree line, Isabel reined her horse to a stop and slid to the ground. Their attackers must have heard them coming as they crashed through the forest. It was too late to wish they had been more prudent in their pursuit.
Men on both sides readied their blades. She swiftly nocked an arrow and let it fly at the Welshmen as Kendrick and the others prepared to charge.
Edgar regained his seat. He raised his shield and urged his horse forward, brandishing his sword to scatter their attackers. He caught a Welshman with his blade, and the wounded man fell to the ground.
Breathe, she told herself. She took aim again, careful to avoid her men. Steady now…
The Welshman’s shoulder jerked back as her arrow dug into his chest. She bit her lip. The exultation she normally felt after hitting targets set against haystacks or tree trunks was absent. They did not scream in pain.
Edgar’s mount reared again. Moments later a Welshman pulled him out of the saddle.
At her cry, Cuthbert and Martin dismounted and sprinted into the fray, swords flashing in the dim light.
Her hand trembled as she reached for another arrow. Kendrick and Godric brought their mounts to a halt next to her. “I want you to get back on your horse and fly from here,” Kendrick said. “It is too dangerous.”
She barely spared him a glance. “You know I will not leave.” Her father may have kept her away from past battles, but she was just as skilled in arms as the men. Her place was here. Now, more than ever.
Shooting again, she struck a Welshmen in the back before he landed a blow on Cuthbert. She wrenched her gaze from the man writhing on the ground. She could not hesitate to do what was necessary to defend her home.
Two Welshmen lay dead. In the next instant, an enemy’s sword brought Edgar down. An angry cut ran the length of his torso, his blood melting the snow around him.
Kendrick cursed. “Promise me you will get away from here.” His gaze found her before he spurred his horse forward. He and Godric urged their mounts toward their attackers, hacking at the three remaining Welshmen on the field.
Isabel stayed in position, firing arrows when she had a clear shot. She struggled to control her breathing as she banished Kendrick’s censure from her mind.
Her horse whickered and paced fitfully, drawing her attention away from the battlefield. One of the ruffians had managed to get to the trees and sneak behind her. The bowstring smacked against her wrist, but the momentary sting was the least of her worries. The Welshman was almost upon her. His leer and the sword in his hand told her she needed to do something. Quickly.
Her bow crashed to the ground. She slapped her horse on his rump to get him out of the way. The last thing she needed was the animal used as a ploy in the ensuing fight. She pulled her sword out of its sheath just in time to raise it against the Welshman’s steel as he bore down on her. He swung at her again.
She scrambled to block him. He was too strong.
The impact of the next clash of their swords rattled up her forearms painfully. Pivoting before he could land another blow, she slashed at her assailant and managed to cut through the crude armor protecting his chest.
Staying on the balls of her feet, she backed away from the man. Her chest heaved with each indrawn breath. Her arms shook from the effort of holding her sword in front of her as she waited for the man’s next move.
Over the roaring in her ears, she heard Kendrick shouting. She hazarded a glance behind her and caught a glimpse of the arrow an instant before it lodged itself into the upper part of her right arm. Crying out, she clawed at her shoulder. Her blade tumbled away and hit the ground with a dull clank.
Kendrick rushed toward her and made quick work of her opponent. The dark look on his face momentarily distracted her from the pain as he retrieved her mount. “Get on,” Kendrick demanded in a tone that brooked no argument. “Head back. We will follow.”
Isabel gathered her weapons. Kendrick gave her a hand up so she would not place pressure on her injured arm as she mounted. “Tell Captain Thomas to make ready for Edgar.” She followed Kendrick’s gaze to the fallen man and nodded.
She kicked her heels into her horse’s flanks. Hardwin responded with a burst of speed as she directed him south toward her father’s castle. Her wounded arm throbbed too much to do anything but let it fall to her side.
Clinging to her horse with her other arm, she wrapped the reins around her wrist. Before she reached the trees, she braved one last look over her shoulder. Kendrick and the others lifted Edgar onto his horse like a sack of flour.
It was not supposed to be like this. Isabel swallowed the ache at the back of her throat. Captain Thomas would know what to do.
She and her horse dashed through the forest. She didn’t realize she was crying until the frigid air lashed against her wet cheeks. At least no one would see her tears. Now, she could cry for Edgar, her father, her country, without fear of discovery.
Her gut churned as Hardwin lurched over a fallen log. Her stomach trembled with each stride, but soon enough she spied the palisade walls as her mount broke through the trees. Wiping her streaming eyes and nose on the sleeve of her mantle, she urged her horse on. She rushed into the bailey without bothering to check her speed and jumped out of the saddle. Her legs nearly gave out as her feet touched the frost-hardened ground.
Clutching her horse’s neck, she bellowed for the servants to fetch Captain Thomas. “Hurry! Edgar is hurt.”
She brought her hand to her shoulder and winced. Flames licked up her wounded arm. She looked down at her fingers and nearly fainted at the blood clinging to her like tree sap.
It was all too much.
She called again for Captain Thomas. Through a haze of pain, she sensed someone approaching. Instead of Captain Thomas, with his gray hair and strict bearing, an unfamiliar man stared down at her with ice in his eyes.
Siege of the Heart is available from most retailers including:
About Elise Cyr:
Elise has always loved adventure, romance, and happy endings. She writes primarily in the medieval period. Because there’s still so much we don’t know about that time in history, the writer’s imagination is essential for fleshing out the research and making it come to life on the page. Plus swords and castles are just plain fun.
Elise lives in New Mexico with her husband and the sweetest dog ever. When she’s not writing, she hikes, bikes, cooks, and (of course) reads.
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