Booted footsteps echoed down the stone passage. The long, firm stride of a warrior. ’Twas a familiar sound in this once-deserted castle.
Tristan gave it little heed, for yellowed maps—marked with dates of vixicat fights—engrossed him and the men beside him. Candles perched on iron stands, scenting the air with beeswax. Tristan’s signet ring flickered gold in their light as he pulled a map nearer.
The footsteps halted. A high-pitched voice uttered a faint protest, jerking Tristan’s gaze up. His men turned—as stunned as he—for no women dwelled here.
Captain Cotrell stood in the open doorway, a muddied woman in his arms. “We are discovered, my lord.”
Unwelcome words. Tristan met his troubled gaze across the room. Sweat and dust etched the lines of Cotrell’s face and his chestnut beard. Dried blood stained the sleeve of his homespun shirt.
The woman’s terrified eyes darted from face to face.
“Explain,” Tristan said.
“We came upon her when we were scouting Tower Woods. Three men had her tied by the hands to an overhead branch. They were shoving her back and forth between them, slashing her skirt, and telling her what they were about to do.”
Tristan’s fists clenched, hungry for sword and dagger. Nonetheless, he kept his face and voice steady. “What did you do with the brutes?”
“We killed them. I was first into the clearing, and they all three made for me with daggers. Never retreated, though we were mounted and wielded swords. They were the sort of bullies who fight beyond reason.”
Tristan nodded. He didn’t fault his men but…repercussions? “What injuries?”
“Few—none deep,” Cotrell said. “We couldn’t leave her like that, so I cut the rope and lifted her onto my horse. Just then, one of my men saw a child looking down from a rock outcropping. He ran straightway, but he must have seen at least some of it.”
“A child, captain? How old?”
“About ten, Williams guessed.”
“Were none of your men able to catch this child and gain even a word from him?”
“Nay, my lord. ’Tis all rugged old growth, and a fallen tower tree is impassable. Defensible woodland to one who knows the terrain, but no place to run a horse. We knew not how far the child had to go to fetch others—or what sort they would be—so we headed back to the plain and returned with all haste.
Tristan let out a breath, his eyes on the young woman. Her wrists were bandaged. A strip of cloth anchored her arms to her chest. Dried mud caked her shredded skirt, and the bodice lacing had been cut through. Her dark, tangled hair was matted on one side of her head—with both blood and dirt, by the look of it. “A long ride,” Tristan said. “And bound?”
“She fights, my lord.”
Tristan gestured toward a heavy wooden chair by the stone wall. “Put her down and free her.”
She held her head stiffly angled as Cotrell placed her in the chair. Perhaps both head and neck were injured. She clamped her lips as Cotrell’s hunting knife bit into the strip of blanket binding her arms.
“James,” Tristan said, “see that the blue and white chamber is prepared for her. Search among the chests for women’s clothing. Provide her with a bath and hot water. No one is to disturb her privacy.”
“Aye, my lord.” James hastened from the room.
The woman didn’t move from the chair as the strip of cloth fell away and Cotrell took a hurried step back from her.
“Captain Cotrell,” Tristan said, “get into uniform, and tell the men to, as well. There will be no more scouting in the guise of travelers. And send Chilton to me.” Turning to the other two captains who still waited near the table, he said, “We must now assume that our presence is known, or soon will be. You know the plans we’ve made. See to them.”
The men bowed and left. The room grew quiet as footsteps receded down the interior stone corridor.
The woman clenched her fists and straightened her back.
Tristan drew slowly nearer. Such pain and defiance in her eyes. “You will not be harmed here,” he said. “Do you understand?”
She made no answer.
“I am Tristan Petram. What is your name?”
She left a long pause before answering with unnecessary force. “Beth.”
Again, that look of defiance, nay, of challenge. Amusement nudged his compassion, but he answered mildly. “Only Beth? Nothing more?”
“I am but a peasant’s daughter. Why should there be more?”
He caught a foreign lilt in her speech. “Even peasant fathers have names,” Tristan said.
“His name matters not to you.”
James returned, bearing a tray with a glass and wine bottle. “Chilton is stitching a gash, I’m told. Apparently, one of the hunting parties discovered a bear. He will come soon.”
James turned a quelling glance upon him. “Chilton will, as you well know. As for the bear…” He shrugged. “Its skin may yet travel, though not with its first owner. Her chamber will be ready presently.”
“Oh, it was a she-bear?”
A stifled laugh caught in the woman’s throat.
“Ah, that is better,” Tristan said, pouring wine. He handed it to his unwilling guest and noted that she took it daintily. Her trembling hand nearly spilled the wine as she sipped. James must have seen that, too, for he moved a small table near her chair.
“Beth, this is James. He will bring you whatever you need. I regret I cannot offer you a maidservant. We brought no women with us.”
She murmured, “’Twill do.”
His amusement stirred again. This peasant girl considered a servant to be a normal part of her life? But she was so pale that compassion kept him from comment. The wine glass clattered against the table as she set it down.
“I’ll take you to your chamber.” Tristan took a step nearer.
“Nay! I’ll not—” She stood with unwise haste and swayed.
Tristan caught and lifted her. “All will be well. You may rest until the dizziness passes.” He carried her down the stone passage, across the echoing marble hall, up broad flights of cedar stairs, and along a corridor.
James followed and opened the chamber door for them. A servant was spreading sheets over the curtained bed. More sheets and towels were stacked nearby. A fledgling fire in the hearth attempted to dispel the spring coolness from the room, and a bath stood before it.
Tristan lowered the woman gently onto an aged lounge, as James readied a cushion to support her head.
Her breaths came fast and panting. She began to struggle before her full weight settled on the lounge.
Tristan disengaged and stepped back from her. “Be still. You are safe.”
A desperate battle between bravery and tears contorted her face. She moved her hands stiffly, as though pained. When she touched her matted hair, she cringed. A sob caught behind her clamped lips.
Kitchen help entered, bearing buckets of hot water.
Beth began to turn her head toward the newcomers, a movement quickly arrested though she made not a sound. Her lower lip trembled.
Tristan’s chest tightened. He didn’t want any woman in such distress—to see a woman of courage near her breaking point was harder yet. Chilton’s arrival gave him some relief, but it was short lived. As the physician began to examine her head, Beth cried out in pain.
“This must be cleaned,” Chilton said. “I won’t pretend that you’ll enjoy it, miss, but it will heal more quickly once it’s clean. I’ll give you something first to ease the pain.” He poured from a vial, and Tristan withdrew, sending all but James and Chilton from the room.
Tristan paused for a moment outside her door as footsteps faded. What would this development bring?
Perhaps it would not alter his plans, but best to think through possible ramifications. He strode past the carved arches of the corridor to the north tower, then climbed the spiral stairs to the mansion’s flat roof.
Certain, the time drew near to declare possession of this castle. That was not in doubt, but he wanted information first. Tristan paced along the decorative battlement, pondering, as a medley of sound drifted up from the bailey. Steady hammering from the distant smithy fell silent. Horse hooves clopped, and wooden cartwheels rattled over stone. Men called to one another, and the chains of the portcullises rang until both iron gates struck solid rock. Securing the castle—a daily occurrence, though earlier this evening.
Warmth spread through him as he halted by a broad gap in the parapet and surveyed the activity below. In truth, their routine—their diligent work—already declared that this was their home. The new home he had led them to, in exchange for the familiar. He understood their longing, for he felt it himself. To hold land by their own efforts, rather than squeeze onto estates overfilled by bountiful families.
This they had accomplished. True, they’d started with an abandoned castle, but they had cleared and rebuilt for months. No small effort. They deserved this home, earned with their sweat and their skill. Could anyone assert that it was not truly theirs?
Who lived in that distant forest? The woman—Beth—who was she really? How severe was her injury? What might come of her rescue and the killings?
His jaw clenched when he envisioned the scene Cotrell had described. Such beastly men would be hanged in Moorelin. Of course, this wasn’t Moorelin. It wasn’t any kingdom at all, but he was a son of that land and would have enforced the same law here.
Tower Woods, though. He knew nothing of that mysterious forest. Hadn’t even known until an hour ago whether anyone lived among those massive trees. ’Twas the reason he’d sent Cotrell to scout. Knowledge well worth having before declaring possession.
If this castle were anywhere else, their presence would already be known. Here, the rolling hills to the north and east hid even the highest towers. Not that any folk lived near enough to see them. The vixicats made sure of that. But to the south, the two central towers gave clear view of the empty plain. Could they be seen by those who lived on the edge of Tower Woods? Quite possible. Indeed, certain, if any local folk had vision as long as his.
He’d been tempted to raise his colors last autumn when he led his tradesmen-archers within these gates. Common men by birth, but not by valor. Like that stable hand below who hefted water into the trough—his eyebrow scarred. A year ago, he’d fought on while blood poured over one eye.
None could question their courage, but Tristan had yielded to his captains’ advice of maintaining a discreet arrival. No sense in rousing a potential battle until they had time to prepare. Better to first clear the encroaching forest from the perimeter and establish provisioning. Wise counsel, for it also gave him time to learn whether the castle’s dangerous reputation was warranted. It would be insanity to fight for a castle if the land could not be tamed enough to support them.
Now, they had cleared a swath of forest, opened an old road, replaced a bridge, and rebuilt damaged structures. The forest cloaked itself in fresh greenery, wild herbs sprouted, and woodland bushes produced a bounty of early berries. The married men within his entourage spoke of fetching their families.
Regardless of Beth’s unexpected arrival, it was time to raise his colors on the tower masts. Not just to declare that he held this castle. This simple act would give recognition to the accomplishments of every man here—even though the only audience was within the castle.
Tristan’s gaze traveled the wall. Five corner towers and two gate towers. He turned and bent his neck to look up at the peaked roofs of the mansion’s twin towers. The only two that could be seen across the plain. He wished more than ever to know who he might need to deal with in that distant woods. Had Cotrell just encountered outlaws living at the fringe of Lavaycia? Or was that country a lawless, violent land? Did they have anything to do with this castle standing empty for nigh seventy years?
Tristan turned back to the mansion’s parapet and looked across the bailey. Men in indigo uniforms emerged from towers and took up positions around the walls. Shafts of sunlight found gaps in the horizon clouds behind him and made the fair stone of the gatehouse towers glow. Since their arrival, this was the first time he had ordered his men to don uniforms. Those not on the walls gathered in the baily. Waiting. He must act before the sun set.
Tristan descended the mansion’s north tower. A pity he couldn’t summon James to join in this brief event, but Beth’s need took precedence. He stopped by his bedchamber, threw his jerkin aside, and pulled on a formal, black doublet. Two flights of stairs took him to the ornate entrance hall. He flung open the arched double doors and strode across the courtyard. A breeze stirred his hair.
Even more men gathered now. His three captains—Cotrell, Wellinstine, and D’Jorge—climbed the central terrace steps to the courtyard. They, too, knew what was necessary, for his indigo and silver pennants were draped over Wellinstine’s arm.
A thrill coursed through Tristan. He looked over the men in the bailey, his gaze coming to rest on his captains’ faces, Pride swelled—for what all of them had accomplished. He could no longer hold his smile back. “We have done it, my friends.”
They inclined their heads in silence. Cotrell’s firm smile, the glint in Wellinstine’s eyes, and D’Jorge’s audible exhalation, told that they shared his feelings.
“We’ll raise the colors all together. Cotrell, you and I in the gatehouse towers. You two in the south corners.” Tristan called three other men to join them and assigned each to a wall tower, as Wellinstine distributed banners among the group. Tristan discreetly took the two extra pennants and said, “All of you, watch the gate towers. As soon as you see color on the masts, raise yours. Let us make haste ere the sun sets.”
They parted, each to climb a different set of circular stone steps. Tristan reached the flat top of a gate tower and attached a pennant to a line hanging from the mast. He shielded his eyes to check each tower, then looked across at Cotrell, who nodded. The thrill returned, coursing across Tristan’s shoulders and arms. He reached high up the rope and pulled hard. His colors unfurled in the breeze, lit by the setting sun. A deep cheer of “Morrah!” thundered behind him. He laughed in exultation as he finished raising and tied off.
His gaze circled the towers, now crowned with indigo and silver. He and Cotrell exchanged a satisfied glance across the open air, then walked to the parapets to look down on the men gathered below.
When they saw him, his men shouted again. “Morrah!”
He tilted his head back and let loose from the depths of his lungs. “Morrah!”
The third cheer of Morrah echoed from every voice in the castle, as though the walls themselves joined the cheer.
Never had Tristan felt anything like this moment!
Captain Cotrell met Tristan at the base of the gate tower and clasped forearms with him. Turning his head so no one would hear, he asked, “Where are the twin peak pennants?”
“Within my doublet.”
“And they will stay there?”
Tristan nodded. “We’ll speak of them later.” Torches flickered to life all around the walls, and someone tuned a vielle. “I must go see how our guest fares.” Tristan tapped his doublet. “And lay aside this stuffing. Enjoy this moment among the men. I will rejoin you soon.”
Tristan strode around the crowd and ran up the side steps onto the courtyard. Lanterns glowed on either side of the archway. Inside, one of his few household servants lit the hall’s gilded sconces.
The elegance still amazed him. White marble floor and walls. Black marble fireplace and balustrade, which ran up twin curved staircases and around the gallery above. Artwork, furnishings, an exquisite crystal chandelier… He shook his head. The textiles were even indigo, as though the hall had been designed with his colors in mind. He couldn’t climb these stairs without marveling that such a gem had been abandoned.
Not that it was perfect. The woods were as wild as their name. Plenty of game, but the wolves and bears were just as plentiful—and huge. Still, they shrank in comparison to the vixicats. Never would Tristan forget the night before he’d found this castle. That black beast—so enormous it killed a horse with one bite and dragged it off through the woods.
When Tristan reached the third floor, Chilton was coming along the corridor from the blue bedchamber. Tristan met him and asked, “How badly is she hurt?”
The hint of a snarl infused his answer. “Someone must have used a cudgel on her head. ’Tis a wonder he didn’t break her skull.” Chilton paused, then continued with less heat. “There is considerable stiffness in her neck, I hope just strained muscles. Her wrists are raw from coarse rope. Elsewhere, she is bruised and aching, but that will pass soon. The head injury, though…” Chilton shook his head. “That is a worry. Time will tell. I’d like to get my hands on the cur who did that.”
“He’s already a corpse, I gather.”
“Good! She stays in bed until the dizziness and nausea pass. I left a soothing dose in case she becomes agitated. James knows what to do for her.”
Chilton strode off, and Tristan went to tap on her bedchamber door. James opened to him, then returned to shaking out old-fashioned gowns and hanging them to air. A cedar chest and several drawers stood open, with all manner of feminine clothing draped over their edges.
Tristan drew near the bed. The light of an oil lamp revealed the sheen of a robe that swaddled Beth. She lay with eyes closed and face still, looking more like a child than a woman. Dusky, wet hair curled around the cloth that held a pad against her head. Her wrists were freshly bandaged, her long fingers and manicured nails pale against the dark coverlet. Neither work nor time had marked them.
She turned her head in her sleep, then moaned and opened her eyes. Confusion passed over her features. “Where am I?” she asked, slurring her words.
“You are safe, child. Rest now. There is no need to talk.”
She stared at him for a long moment and then closed her eyes again.
When festivities in the bailey quieted, Tristan gathered his three captains and sent for James to join them in the library. ’Twas a common enough ritual, so five leather armchairs awaited them in a half circle around the hearth.
James arrived with one of the aged bottles of wine discovered in the cellar. Indeed, this evening warranted something special. He took glasses from the sideboard, poured into one, then served Tristan.
“Thank you.” Tristan waited while the others served themselves and returned to the crackling fire. He raised his glass and said, “To the castle we have awakened and now hold.”
Glasses clinked, then the men settled in the waiting chairs. Talk of the celebration fed the warmth Tristan savored within—success among friends in a shared endeavor.
Wellinstine lifted his head from the high back of the chair, his short, tight curls undisturbed as always. “’Tis well for now,” he said, “but there is still more to be done before we can bring our families.”
Cotrell looked to Tristan. “What think you of raising your colors on the highest towers?”
“What, indeed?” Tristan replied. “Tell me more of Tower Woods.”
“Those trees you’ve all seen through the distance glass…” Cotrell scanned their faces, his brows high. “They are even more astonishing up close. There are a few different types, but the biggest…” He huffed out a breath. “Their trunks are broader than our wall towers! Fallen trees pull up huge root clumps, which all the greens of the forest colonize. Plants even grow up from the rotting trunks. Stranger still, the trees don’t always reach the forest floor when they fall. At times, it seemed that we were riding under the forest, as well as through it.”
The call of adventure surged within Tristan. Yet a visit must wait, though he longed to see such a strange land. “Small wonder you wouldn’t run a horse there.”
“We could not, but…” Cotrell’s brow furrowed. “I suspect that those who know the woods could travel well enough. The tower trees are widely spaced, with cedars, maples, and such between. The place where we found the young woman had been cleared. It had a firepit and signs of frequent use.”
“Did you see hints of settlement elsewhere?” Tristan asked.
“Nay.” Cotrell sounded disappointed. “We camped the night before on the plain and rode into the forest soon after dawn. Very slow going, for I wanted to make sure we could get out quickly if need be. We weren’t more than a few miles into the woods when we found her.”
Not far, even on foot. “If anyone saw that you turned northward,” Tristan said, “they could soon reach the plain.”
“Aye. They could follow our tracks as well.”
“Unfortunate,” Wellinstine said. “Were you able to see the peaked towers from across the plain?”
“Aye, tiny, but I found them. Of course, I knew where to look. The plain dips between the two forests like a wide, shallow trough, and a stream runs down the middle toward the sea. When one looks toward The Wilde from the far side, ’tis the height of the ridge that commands the eye, not this castle.”
Tristan watched the flames licking over logs on the hearth. “Would the pennants even be visible from the edge of Tower Woods?”
“Probably not,” Cotrell said. “Though, if a strong wind set them to flapping and someone had long vision…maybe.”
“Don’t forget,” D’Jorge said, “that they could have a distance glass. That may not be likely, but it is possible.”
Cotrell flexed and rolled his shoulders as though they were stiffening. “Regardless, a traveler crossing the plain would see them at some point. When the sun is low, the peaked towers brighten on their sunward curve. Even at midday, a glint sometimes catches one angle or another.”
“I still don’t like it,” Wellinstine said. “The towers of this castle have been bare for a generation. If we raise colors on the peaks, we will inform…whom…a country of ruffians…that the castle is now occupied?”
“Don’t assume too much.” D’Jorge rose to throw another log on the fire, and the long tail of his hair swung. “’Tis not unusual for a few of the bad sort to hang on the fringes of ordinary folk.”
Tristan waited for the typical quip, but D’Jorge must have exhausted them all in the bailey. “True.” Tristan took another sip. “Our situation has not changed. We have confirmed only that folk live in Tower Woods, but nothing about them.”
Cotrell’s voice dipped low. “’Twill be difficult to learn anything more. Even if the terrain were passable, none of the folk will trust us, for we have killed three of them. I ask your pardon, my lord.”
“For what?” Tristan met his gaze. “You had no choice but to rescue and defend the young woman. I would have had you do nothing else.”
“I just wish I could have found a subtler method. And a gentler way to bring her to safety. I’m sure she thought us no different than the creatures we rescued her from, for all we tried to reassure her.”
“What did she say?” Tristan asked.
“Not a word. Wouldn’t even tell me her name. I got her to drink a little water, but she refused our trail food. How does she fare?”
“The head injury is the worst of it. Chilton has tended her, and she sleeps now. As for her name…” Tristan watched candlelight flicker through the pale rose wine in his glass. “She gave me the name of Beth, though I am not convinced it is accurate.”
“Why?” James asked.
“She also told me she is a peasant, then unconsciously revealed that she expected a servant.”
“We should remember that she was in pain,” James said.
“Indeed. Also confused and terrified, but not without courage. Her error need not be repeated beyond us.” Tristan sipped again. “Until we know more, address her as Miss. I will protect her reputation as well as her virtue. No one may enter her bedchamber, save James, Chilton, and me. Her door will remain locked. James will have one key, and I the other. When she has recovered enough to be about, every man in this castle will treat her with respect, as befits the men of Moorelin. When she knows she is safe, she may tell us of our neighbors.”
“That could take time.” Cotrell finished his wine. “What of your colors on the twin peaks?”
Tristan compressed his lips and exhaled. He didn’t care for the obvious answer. “I’m sure we’d all like to be done with secrecy, but that is only a feeling. Nothing has actually changed. I still wish to know with whom we deal—before we reveal our presence. Perhaps, in a week or two, we’ll know more.”
All four men concurred with silent nods, then Tristan turned to Wellinstine. “The plain must be watched from dawn to sunset. Arrange a rotation of the men to stand watch with the distance glass in the south tower. If anyone steps onto that plain, I want to know.”